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Bonus Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 35 of the late Gertrude Himmelfarb’s learned 1995 volume, The De-Moralization of Society:

But it is not so easy to dismiss the overwhelming testimony of workers who believed that work, if not sacred, was essential not only to their sustenance but to their self-respect. They could, in fact, have had sustenance without work – in the poorhouse, or on the dole, or from charity. But that would have put them in a condition of “dependency,” which was repellant to the respectable working classes, for it was precisely their “independence” that defined their “respectability.”

DBx: Victorian-era workers’ strong work-ethic is very admirable.

It is civilized and appropriate – indeed, for a full life today, inescapable – to be dependent upon the voluntary cooperation of other human beings. Billions of them today, and nearly all of them strangers to us.

You and I depend upon farmers who grow cotton and carrots, software engineers who design computer programs to improve the accuracy of the process of exploring for petroleum, actuaries who help to make insurance affordable, truck drivers who deliver capital goods and consumer goods to market, hedge-fund managers whose efforts improve the allocation of capital, researchers at pharmaceutical firms who improve our health care … this list would run literally to thousands of pages.

The voluntary exchanges of the market weave us all together into a vast web of mutual dependence. It’s a dependence that is productive because – given each person’s right to say ‘no’ – no one gets something for nothing. No one extracts from others. For every market participant’s gain there is a gain enjoyed by one or more other market participants. No one lives at anyone else’s expense. Each person achieves dignity and prosperity by helping countless of his or her fellow human beings achieve their own dignity and prosperity.

A categorically different kind of dependence is that which is arranged by state coercion – the most obvious example being the welfare state.

Whatever your opinion of the practical merits of the welfare state, this fact cannot be denied: The welfare state creates a dependence of welfare recipients, not upon their ability to entice their fellow human beings to engage productively with them, but upon the state’s ability and willingness to forcibly transfer resources. This dependence should be – as it was to most Victorian-era workers – a source of embarrassment to those who endure it. The gains gotten by people who are so dependent are matched, not by gains to fellow human beings, but by losses to fellow human beings.

Such a condition of dependence does not, contrary to myriad assertions by welfare-state proponents and apologists, bring dignity to the dependents.

Another form of undignified dependence is created by protectionism. This dependence is camouflaged as dignified, but it’s just a ruse. Workers whose particular jobs and pay exist only because the state threatens to cage consumers who would purchase, without paying punitive taxes, goods and services produced by people working abroad depend for their income on state coercion no less than do recipients of overt welfare. Protected ‘workers’ are nearly as parasitic on their fellow citizens as are welfare recipients. This reality is one that many of today’s “national conservatives” miss when they make what they naively suppose to be a compelling case for protectionism.


I’m quite aware that my above use of the term “parasitic” strikes many people as excessive. And I’m aware that philosophers for centuries have offered all manner of clever explanations for how a welfare state is not – or need not be – really parasitic. All such explanations that come close to making sense are ones that portray the welfare state as government-run mutual insurance: I agree today, while employed, to contribute to a fund to pay welfare to my fellow citizens who are currently down and out because these fellow citizens agree to do the same for me if and when I’m down and out. Lovely.

But precisely because there is truly a compelling logic and excellent utility to true mutual-aid arrangements, there’s no reason these cannot be arranged and carry out privately, without the use of coercion. Indeed, as historian David Beito has documented, such private arrangements actually did exist and worked remarkably well.

Jones is not a parasite on Smith and Williams if all three actually agree to mutually ensure each other. What makes the welfare state parasitic is that it survives not through voluntary agreement but because of coercion. Ditto for protectionism.