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When government doesn’t do the job . . .
Do it yourself
“Today a hope of many years’ standing is in large part fulfilled,” Franklin Roosevelt declared on August 14, 1935. “The civilization of the past hundred years, with its startling industrial changes, has tended more and more to make life insecure. Young people have come to wonder what would be their lot when they came to old age. The man with a job has wondered how long the job would last.”
The measure Roosevelt was signing that day would mitigate the insecurity and uncertainty. “This social security measure gives at least some protection to thirty millions of our citizens who will reap direct benefits through unemployment compensation, through old-age pensions and through increased services for the protection of children and the prevention of ill health.”
The law was only a start, Roosevelt acknowledged. “We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.”
The Social Security Act of 1935 marked a milestone in the relationship of Americans as individuals to the American government. Until this point, Americans had largely looked to themselves for economic security; from this point forward, they looked more and more to government.
There was ample reason for the shift. As Roosevelt suggested, industrialization had made Americans more dependent on economic forces beyond their control and more subject to the vicissitudes of life. The Social Security Act provided insurance against the loss of jobs and of income in old age.
Initially controversial, Social Security became the most popular government program in American history. As it covered more and more people, and provided higher and higher benefits, it figured centrally in people’s planning for their futures, especially as they looked toward retirement.
And as it did, it changed Americans’ attitude toward government. Americans increasingly looked to government to do much of what they had previously done for themselves. Providing for old age had been an individual or family responsibility; now it became the government’s responsibility. During the same period that produced the Social Security Act, the federal government assumed responsibility for propping up farm incomes, guaranteeing bank deposits, generating electrical power, providing jobs, funding the arts and underwriting home mortgages.
And this was only the start. A second wave of government programs in the 1960s added health care, preschool education, radio and television broadcasting, transportation and housing to the list of activities transferred at least in part from the private sector to the public.
The result was a boon to those on the receiving end of the government programs. Supporters asserted that a country as wealthy as the United States had the collective responsibility to guarantee minimal standards of welfare to all its citizens. Taxpayers often had mixed feelings, typically receiving some of the benefits even as they paid for them all.
Another consequence of the expansion of government responsibility for individual welfare was the atrophy of non-government efforts on behalf of the less fortunate. Private charities didn’t disappear, but as the scale of their operations was dwarfed by what the federal government could provide, many became demoralized. Equally to the point, much of the energy that had gone into providing food baskets for the unemployed and pro bono medical care for the poor was now absorbed by the politics of persuading voters to back this program or that. And when politics became deadlocked, as it increasingly did, the programs and those who relied on them suffered.
Deadlock appears to be the default setting of our politics today. Yet this needn’t preclude efforts to improve American life. Those people concerned about poverty, inequality and other social ills should look to the past, to the time before government assumed responsibility for so many things. Habitat for Humanity doesn’t have the reach of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but neither is it subject to the partisan politicking that makes a football of HUD funding. Local food banks aren’t the USDA, but they get food to many who need it—and they don’t have to appease legislators from farm states.
The voluntaristic approach can be applied to all manner of issues. Do you think reparations should be paid to descendants of slaves? If you do, you’re in a small minority. But that’s no reason you can’t make reparations yourself, donating to organizations that serve people of African descent.
Troubled by growing economic inequality? Many Americans are. And many of these are well-enough off to do something about it. They could start by giving away some of their income and wealth. This would reduce inequality directly by moving them down the ladder and moving those on the receiving end up.
The key to the voluntary approach, and the greatest part of its appeal, is that no one has to be coerced. Some people complain loudly about government antipoverty programs as encouraging idleness; many others are quietly skeptical. These complaints and doubts disappear when the complainers and skeptics aren’t paying for the programs.
Moreover, voluntarism doesn’t preclude eventual action by government. Someday a majority of voters may decide that government should fund higher education the way it does elementary and secondary education, and the way governments do in many other rich countries. When that day comes, legislation can be forthcoming. Until then, there are hundreds of worthy colleges and universities happy to accept donations.
They’ll be happy. The donors will be happy. What’s not to like?