Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Real "Greek Tragedy"

Way back in 1965 I sat in a lecture audience and listened to leftist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, at the time a professor at UC San Diego, argue that car names tell you a lot about the evils of capitalism: cougar, jaguar, mustang, barracuda. So many of them are named after violent or dangerous animals! These are the sorts of names that sell cars, because capitalism turns us into the sort of people to whom such things are attractive: it turns us into dangerous, violent beasts!

(Little did I know that this would remain for more than four decades the stupidest argument I would ever hear from a professional philosopher.)

And what would the alternative sort of society do to our character? I imagine that the Sage of San Diego thought that when the people of a country are forced to share just about everything, like members of a family share just about everything, then the country would be like one big family, and people would pull together. They wouldn't be so anti-social and selfish.

If you look at Greece this week, you will see what sort of character is actually fomented in an advanced welfare state. The bill for the Greek welfare state's lavish "benefits" -- "free" health insurance for all, "free" school through college, lifetime pensions at full-pay for government workers, enormous stretches of paid vacation every year -- is due, long delayed by irresponsible deficit spending. The government has to cut benefits and raise taxes in order to get bailout money from America and Europe.

Are the recipients of these benefits taking their share of the costs and pulling together like one big family in hard times? As you can see in the above video, that is not the response at all. The rioters have been reacting to the austerity measures with murderous rage.

Why? Well, consider the euphemism that Americans have chosen to substitute for the unpopular term, "welfare state": entitlements. If you have an entitlement, then with all the force of a tautology, you are entitled to it. An entitlement is a right.

As far as the truth of the matter is concerned, this word is like most euphemisms: vague, confusing, and dishonest. Obviously, these things are not rights in the sense that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are rights. Psychologically, though, this one is very revealing. The public school teachers you see in the above video are reacting exactly as if the government were violating their rights: they are getting into fistfights with the police.

Unlike life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, entitlements are rights to stuff, stuff that had to be produced by another person. An entitlement is a right to the fruits of the labor of others.

I hold that the very idea that a able-bodied human beings who are perfectly capable of fending for themselves have such a right is profoundly corrupting in its influence.

Entitlements create entitled people.

Here in the US, it seems that the states with the most lavish welfare-state spending are the ones in which the consumers of tax dollars are the least willing to accept cuts or, in some cases, even a freeze in pay raises.

The great Mike Royko once suggested that Chicago's old motto, Urbs in Horto ("City in a Garden"), should be replaced with Ubi Est Mea ("Where's Mine?"). It looks like this phrase expresses the true soul of the welfare state as well: Where's mine?

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