Of all the sins to which an American can succumb, the worst may be dependence on the state.
Think back for a moment to the two biggest missteps in the 2012 presidential election: Mitt Romney’s dismissal of the “47 percent” of people “dependent on the government,” and President Obama’s “you didn’t build that,” intended to remind American business owners that their success wasn’t all due to smarts and hard work, but also to the roads and bridges built by others, the government-sponsored research that produced the Internet and the “unbelievable American system we have that allowed you to thrive.” Both statements came off as stinging insults directed at large groups of voters, and both were seen as tactical disasters.
Conservatives champion an ethos of hard work and self-reliance, and insist — heroically ignoring the evidence — that people’s life chances are determined by the exercise of those virtues. Liberals, meanwhile, counter the accusation that their policies encourage dependence by calling the social welfare system a “safety net,” there only to provide a “leg up” to people who have “fallen on hard times.” Unlike gay marriage or abortion, issues that divide left from right, everyone, no matter where they lie on the American political spectrum, loathes and fears state dependence. If dependence isn’t a moral failing to be punished, it’s an addictive substance off which people must be weaned.
Like so many politically important notions, the concept of “state dependence” purports to do no more than describe the way things are, but contains within it a powerful and suspect moral judgment. What is it for one thing to depend on another? Put most simply, X depends on Y when it’s the case that X wouldn’t exist if Y didn’t exist. More subtly, X depends on Y when it’s the case that X wouldn’t be in the state it is in without Y’s being in the state it is in. Americans who collect food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance or welfare checks are said to be dependent on the state because the lives they lead would be different (indeed, worse) if the state did not provide these services — at least without their working harder and longer. Despite the symbolic resonance of Ronald Reagan’s fictitious “welfare queen,” most of the people who rely on means-tested social services either cannot work, have been recently laid off thanks to the economic downturn, or are already working in poorly paid, immiserating jobs. Of the 32 million American children currently being raised in low-income families — families who cannot afford to meet their basic needs — nearly half have parents who are in full-time, year-round jobs.
But if the poor are dependent on the state, so, too, are America’s rich. The extraordinary accumulation of wealth enjoyed by the socioeconomic elite — in 2007, the richest 1 percent of Americans accounted for about 24 percent of all income — simply wouldn’t be possible if the United States weren’t organized as it is. Just about every aspect of America’s economic and legal infrastructure — the laissez-faire governance of the markets; a convoluted tax structure that has hedge fund managers paying less than their office cleaners; the promise of state intervention when banks go belly-up; the legal protections afforded to corporations as if they were people; the enormous subsidies given to corporations (in total, about 50 percent more than social services spending); electoral funding practices that allow the wealthy to buy influence in government — allows the rich to stay rich and get richer. In primitive societies, people can accumulate only as much stuff as they can physically gather and hold on to. It’s only in “advanced” societies that the state provides the means to socioeconomic domination by a tiny minority. “The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other,” the writer John Berger said about the 20th century, though he might equally have said it of this one: “It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich.”
The irony isn’t only that the poor are condemned for being dependent on the state while the rich are not. It’s also that the rich get so much more out of their dependence on the state than the poor. Without the support of the state, poor people’s quality of life would certainly drop, but only by degrees: their lives would go from bad to worse. Take the state’s assistance away from the rich, however, and their lives would take a serious plunge in comfort. No wonder rich people are on the whole conservative: the most ferocious defenders of the status quo are usually those who are most dependent on the system.
So, the question should not be why Americans loathe and fear dependence on the state, but rather: why do Americans loathe and fear some forms of state dependence but not others? Why is state dependence condemned when evinced by the poor, but tolerated, even unrecognized, when enjoyed by the rich? What justifies this double standard?
Here’s one possible answer. While the rich are dependent on the state, the state is in turn dependent on them. The elite might enjoy levels of comfort and prosperity that the majority can scarcely imagine, but it’s no more than they deserve: they are, after all, the “job creators,” the engines of economic growth. The poor, by contrast, are just a drag on the system.
Even if it were granted that some sort of market-driven economy is in the public interest (or, to adapt Churchill’s quip about democracy, that it is the worst option except for all the rest), the case would remain to be made that the sort of market-driven economy the United States has serves that interest. Indeed, this case would be especially difficult to argue at a time when Americans are living with the effects of an economic recession caused by the wealthiest among them, the cost of which is being paid largely by the poor and middle classes — in the loss of their homes and jobs, but also in the form of tax-dollar-driven bank bailouts. The orthodoxy is that inequality is the necessary price of economic growth, but research strongly suggests that inequality of income causes economic instability and slows overall growth, and that the rapid rise in inequality in the last few decades is to blame for the current economic recession.
The case for the current arrangements is still harder to make once one acknowledges the argument, put forward by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level, that economic inequality has a negative multiplier effect, making poor people in very unequal societies like the United States’ worse off — in terms of mortality, education, imprisonment rates, social mobility and so on — than they would be in more equal societies, even if they were just as poor. In other words, when the rich get richer, it doesn’t just make them better off: it makes everyone else worse off.
Neither will it help anyone trying to make the case for the American way to compare the United States with other developed nations, where the average citizen is healthier, happier, better educated and enjoys more social mobility. Here we have a real-life chance to apply the political philosopher John Rawls’s test for a just society, what he called the “veil of ignorance.” If you didn’t know what kind of person you were going to be — your gender, family circumstances, ethnicity — which of the developed nations would you choose to be born into? Would you be hoping to have a home, a job and good medical care? Would you like to be able to clothe, feed and educate your children someday? In that case you’d be foolish to pick the United States. You’d be better off choosing Norway, or any one of a number of countries that have better evened the balance between rich and poor state dependence with higher taxes and greater investment in social services.
Here’s another answer one might give when asked why we should tolerate state dependence on the part of the rich, but not of the poor: the rich earn the benefits they accrue from the state, while the poor get something for nothing. Sure, the rich might have needed the state’s help to get rich, but they have also had to work for their success; the poor can just sit back and wait for the welfare check to arrive. But this is to ignore the fact that most rich Americans didn’t earn their wealth: they were given it, either directly through inheritance from their parents, or only slightly less directly through their access to elite secondary and higher education. Despite the sustaining myth of American meritocracy, one of the most significant determinants of where a child will end up on the socioeconomic ladder is which rung his or her parents occupied. (This reminds me of a story I heard from a fellow philosopher, Jason Stanley, about a guy he met in a bar, who explained that he had lost his job in the economic downturn, but that he had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps and re-launched his career as an entrepreneur. If he could do it, he said, anyone could. It turned out that he got his start-up capital from his father, a venture capitalist.) While middle-class and rich children no doubt have to burn the midnight oil to get into Harvard and Yale, they mostly end up at those places because of the huge advantages that wealth confers in the context of a failing public education system. Liberals and conservatives alike pin their hopes on education as the “great leveler,” but the data tells us that the American education system magnifies the advantages of wealth and the disadvantages of poverty. The unearned advantages enjoyed by the children of rich parents dwarf the sums given to welfare recipients.
To claim that the rich earn what they have also ignores the fact that most of the people who depend on social services do work — only they work for their poverty rather than their wealth. Many of them depend on the state because the jobs available to them — the ones produced by the much-vaunted job creators — don’t pay enough to allow them to live. Thus welfare payments to the poor effectively operate as yet another kind of corporate subsidy, making up for the difference between the increasing cost of living and declining real wages. California taxpayers alone pay $86 million dollars annually to subsidize Wal-Mart via state assistance to its employees and their children.
America’s socioeconomic elite has been successful in part because it has been allowed to get away with the argument that its success has nothing to do with the state: with a little elbow grease, the rich seem to say, the poor can be just like them. And the poor may all be too ready to agree. “Socialism never took root in America,” John Steinbeck said, “because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” It’s a myth dear to the American psyche, the myth that Obama tried to pierce when he insisted that “you didn’t build that.” And while Obama might have retained the presidency, Romney and his ideological comrades have won, it seems, the long fight against “state dependence.”
The tax bill passed by Congress just in time to avert the “fiscal cliff,” making the Bush tax cuts permanent for households under the $450,000 threshold, will cost the government $3.6 trillion over the next decade, as compared with the $4.5 trillion it would have cost if the Bush tax cuts had stayed in place. That isn’t a lot in savings — and isn’t enough to allow the government to continue funding social services at current levels. In the short term, America’s rich, those earning above $450,000, will see their tax bills increase. But in the long term, it’s America’s poor who will be paying. Under the terms of the latest deal, the poor will enjoy a temporary extension on refundable tax credits; at the same time, the Bush-era estate tax cut, which will cost about $375 billion over the next decade as compared with the Clinton-era estate tax policy and will benefit only millionaires and their children, was made permanent. This month, the ‘sequester’ – a doomsday machine created during the fiscal cliff crisis – was detonated by a combination of Republican intransigence and Democratic foolishness. The sequester means a further $85 billion in permanent budget cuts – including an 11 percent reduction in long-term unemployment benefit, a $9.9 billion cut to Medicare, a $2 billion cut to public housing, and a $1.3 billion cut to public education – and is estimated to cost around 750,000 jobs. Meanwhile, of the 47 percent that Romney lambasted for not paying taxes and scrounging off the state, 7,000 are millionaires.
We are all dependents of the state, not just the poor, and it’s certainly not the poor who benefit most from their dependence. The question isn’t who is dependent on the state, but whether the current political settlement treats everyone with fairness and dignity: whether the odds are stacked in particular people’s favor, whether some are able to prosper only at the expense of others, whether everyone has an equal opportunity to make a decent human life. That we may not like the answers to these questions is the very reason we should ask them.
Originally published in the New York Times, 26th February 2013