A friend wrote to me recently expressing his concern that the US electorate is choosing socialism. That certainly seems to be the case. Republican President George W. Bush socialized prescription drugs for seniors, and now Democratic President Barack Obama has socialized the entire healthcare system. There are other examples, such as the government taking an equity position in General Motors, once the world’s largest private enterprise, and major banks. Since there is little real doubt that Barack Obama and his Democratic Party won the last election fairly and squarely, there is some justification to the claim that we are getting what we wanted—socialism. At least that is the conclusion that one must draw when our fairly elected representatives vote to enact these social programs.
But I don't think the US is consciously choosing socialism per se, even though we are sliding toward socialism one step at a time, with the electorate ratifying each and every step. Furthermore, I doubt that many of our representatives who voted for the healthcare bill, the bailouts, and all the rest would agree that it is fair to call them socialists. They are simply giving Americans what they think we want. If they did otherwise, they would be voted out of office.
The slide toward socialism in America is not a conscious act. Rather it is the inevitable consequence of abandoning the fetters placed upon the federal government by the Constitution. Nowhere in the Constitution will you find authorization for funding ninety percent of the federal government’s current operations or regulating America’s private businesses.
The Self-reliant Become Victims
Rather, the electorate understands that to refrain from lobbying for a government handout of some kind is to become a victim...the government robs you and returns nothing to you or it handicaps you in dealing cooperatively with others. Therefore, the electorate wants "middle class" entitlements similar to the ones the government has granted to the poor, the unions, and big business for decades...with no appreciable beneficial result, by the way.
Economists call this phenomenon a “Tragedy of the Commons”, where all scramble to grab as much of the commonly owned resources as they can before others grab them. Eventually these commonly owned resources are plundered to extinction; thus the name, “Tragedy of the Commons”.
The underlying fact of modern American life is that more and more resources are considered to be “commonly held” or at least subject to confiscation and/or regulation by the government for the benefit of government’s constituencies. It is clear that if you desire to live a life of personal responsibility, asking nothing of anyone, you will become the victim of all the rest—you will contribute more and more to the “common” and get nothing in return.
The Tyranny of State-Sponsored Altuism
Extending welfare benefits to a larger portion of society seems to be unstoppable. There is a very good reason for this. Welfare benefits are couched in the highest altruistic terms; for example, healthcare benefits are extended to the “uninsured”, whom we are told will suffer and die without them. We have heard this refrain before; it got us public housing, food stamps, and aid to families with dependent children.
To oppose the extension of these benefits is to incur the scorn of polite society as one who is callous, greedy, smugly comfortable, selfish, etc., and these are the polite terms! It is a brave person who can stand opposed to this scorn for very long. The temptation is to agree in principle but disagree as to the extent of welfare’s reach. One can easily see that this is no obstacle at all, for once any welfare program gains a foothold it is impossible to prevent its spread to the next tier of potential beneficiaries and then the next and then the next, ad infinitum.
Ayn Rand characterized taxpayer-supported welfare as the tyranny of altruism, for it places one at the state-enforced mercy of any and all who claim to be less well off. One no longer may labor for oneself, one’s family, or one’s chosen friends, but for the never-ending and growing ranks of one’s fellow men. The state lays claim as the moral arbiter of public altruism, and since there are legions of potential voters as recipients of all its largess, there is an inherent propensity for the state, acting in its own best interest, to grant more and more public welfare. Since the constitutional restraints have been removed that would have prevented raids on the public treasury, there is no limit to what the state may confiscate and redistribute. Nor is there any rational reason why more and more potential recipients should not lobby to get their share of the public pie. We now have the perfect storm brewing to drown the ship of state in a sea of red ink and the blood of warring “needy” constituents. The poor taxpayer finds that the state may lay a legal claim, backed by moral superiority, to unlimited amounts upon his time and wealth.
The welfare state has come to represent the ultimate form of despotism, because to oppose its greedy hands is to be labeled as a societal enemy of the worst kind. Being an enemy of a conquering power rests more easily upon the shoulders of a man than being an enemy of one’s own countrymen. That is why public altruism is the worst form of tyranny—it is a tyranny that one opposes at the risk of becoming an outlaw within one’s own country, with few friends or supporters. There is no solace borne of the confidence that one has earned the admiration of others that would serve to sustain one in his heroic defiance against this tyranny. Thusly, the American electorate, like electorates everywhere else, slides toward socialism from a combination of self-interest and fear of public condemnation.