Yes, there can be a downside to ever greater government provision. Many things done in the name of compassion—even compassionate conservatism—can have undesirable side effects. In the 1970s, for example, honorable people on both sides of the political divide tried to find ways with coping with persistent poverty. Surely, those who seemed trapped in poverty were living lesser lives. Was there not something government might do to alleviate this unhappy condition?
The massive transfers of wealth of the Lyndon B. Johnson era were sputtering out, having achieved little. And some people said then: “We declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” The federal government intervened in many communities, hoping to create a liberal vision of a great society.
In all too many cases, however, such interventions produced devastating results. Family breakdown in America can be traced to these interventions of the 1960s. At the time of Pearl Harbor in 1941, for example, 89% of black children were born to married parents. By the mid-1960s, however, the number of out-of-wedlock births to black mothers had doubled.
This alarming fact led social scientist Daniel Patrick Moynihan to sound a note of alarm. His 1965 Report on the Negro Family warned of terrible consequences if more and more children, especially young boys, were raised without their fathers’ wisdom and guidance.
Moynihan was shouted down. Liberal though he was, he had offended the emerging liberal orthodoxy. That orthodoxy said that decrying out-of-wedlock births was only another way of “blaming the victim.” Liberals demanded more and more federal social programs. The problem, in their view, was that government simply had not spent enough.
Conservatives recoiled. They objected not only to the mounting costs and the ever increasing tax burden on intact families struggling to keep their own heads above water, but also from a growing sense that federal social programs were hurting, not helping, the poor.
Thus was born the welfare reform movement. It came from a desire not just to cut costs, but also to give the poor a hand up not just a handout. Conservatives quoted even such a liberal lion as Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR had warned that the dole—as necessary as he saw it in a nation stricken by Depression—should be temporary. He even likened it to a narcotic — necessary after surgery, but dangerously addictive if overdosed or indulged in too long.
Barack Obama was an early and outspoken opponent of welfare reform. Even as an Illinois state senator, he rejected the emerging bi-partisan consensus in the 1990s that the poor needed work, marriage, and dignity.
As President, Barack Obama has loosened the strict work requirements that state governors—including conservative Republicans like John Sununu of New Hampshire and moderate Democrats Bill Clinton of Arkansas—worked for a decade to put in place.
Today, President Obama bitterly denies that he has repealed welfare reform. Welfare reform is still up and running, he indignantly replies. All he has done is to loosen the laces in the running shoes. We will soon see the entire reform tripped up.
In its place, President Obama wants us to model our lives on “Julia.” This fictional character was created by the Obama team to show their greater concern for women.
“Julia” has no last name. She seems to have no family. She makes her debut as a toddler in Head Start. Her entire education is subsidized and supervised under the mild gaze of Barack Obama. She goes to college with his help. Aided by him, she starts a business—although what this business does is never specified. She “decides to have a child.” No husband is mentioned. Not even a cohabiting male partner. And we don’t know if the child is a son or daughter. Perhaps, like that infamous Canadian couple, the child is to be raised without respect to male or female. In fact, Julia has no father, brother. Not even a male business associate. Her life has only one man in it: Barack Obama.
Paul Ryan was right to describe Barack Obama’s America: “Where everything is free but us.” That brief sentence is the best capsule summary of the timeless wisdom of French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville. In 1835, Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America and warned of the “soft despotism” that could threaten liberty:
Above [all local and family attachments] an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood…It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?
In such a world, Tocqueville warned us, government becomes all-embracing:
“It does not destroy, it prevents things from being born.” What a chilling phrase from our past. Mr. Obama’s vision is a nightmare to millions. Not only does it prevent things from being born—new enterprises, new services, new concepts, new social and commercial arrangements—but it literally prevents from being born millions of human beings through the vast extension of abortion—fully funded and legally protected.
Americans should appeal to President Obama to turn back from the path to soft despotism. We should remember that a government big enough to give us everything we want is strong enough to take all we have—including liberty.