The Danger Of Generous Safety Nets: Why The European Model Destroys The Soul

Charles Murray recently gave a thought-provoking speech at the American Enterprise Institute. Murray is best known for his controversial book, “The Bell Curve,” which asserted that there were differences in intelligence between genetically different groups. That fact alone might cause some to ignore his speech, which would be unfortunately, since it speaks to the very real debate about American vs. European policy models that is going on right now.

The heart of Murray’s argument is this:
To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don’t get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché “nothing worth having comes easily”). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.Let me put it formally: If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith. Two clarifications: “Community” can embrace people who are scattered geographically. “Vocation” can include avocations or causes. It is not necessary for any individual to make use of all four institutions, nor do I array them in a hierarchy. I merely assert that these four are all there are. The stuff of life–the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships–coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness–occurs within those four institutions.
Seen in this light, the goal of social policy is to ensure that those institutions are robust and vital. And that’s what’s wrong with the European model. It doesn’t do that. It enfeebles every single one of them.
In other words, the problem with the European model is that by substituting government policy for individual action, it tends to rob people of the ability to derive deep satisfaction from their lives. If the government takes care of the effort and guarantees the results, can any human activity provide real happiness?

Aha, you might say, but doesn’t the U.S. model allow far too many to fall through the cracks and suffer? Too many children live in poverty and go uninsured. Could it be that the price of our American attitude is too high?

That’s where I think our public discourse has failed us. Forcing people to choose between freedom and compassion assumes a false dichotomy. There is a middle way between social Darwinism and the nanny state.

The Power of the Miserly Safety Net

It’s no surprise that I’m a fan of the miserly safety net, which I’ve proposed as a solution to the issues of poverty and the credit crunch. The miserly safety net neatly combines the most economical solution with build-in safeguards against gaming the system (because the benefits it provides are so miserly that only someone without another viable alternative would opt in).

But after reading Murray’s speech, I realize that the miserly safety net has yet another advantage: It protects people without removing the incentive to or possibility of bettering themselves through their own efforts.

An overly generous welfare system not only introduces perverse incentives for slackerhood; that very slackerhood (however appealing it might sound to some) precludes true happiness. Despite its good intentions, by crowding out the need to work, the European model actually *reduces* happiness.

Working hard to provide for one’s family can give a man a sense of self-worth, but not if he feels like a chump when others can do nothing and receive a higher standard of living from government dole.

Ultimately, the limited nature of the nanny state is implicit in its very name: When it comes to parenting, is the best way of raising a successful child to give it everything without having to work for it? Of course not; doing so cheats the child out of the very important pleasure of doing things for him or herself. Government shouldn’t cheat its own citizens out their happiness.

14 thoughts on “The Danger Of Generous Safety Nets: Why The European Model Destroys The Soul

  1. "Let me tell you who we conservatives are: We love people. When we look out over the United States of America, when we are anywhere, when we see a group of people, such as this or anywhere, we see Americans. We see human beings. We don't see groups. We don't see victims. We don't see people we want to exploit. What we see — what we see is potential. We do not look out across the country and see the average American, the person that makes this country work. We do not see that person with contempt. We don't think that person doesn't have what it takes. We believe that person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government.

    We want every American to be the best he or she chooses to be. We recognize that we are all individuals. We love and revere our founding documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. We believe that the preamble to the Constitution contains an inarguable truth that we are all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life. Liberty, Freedom. And the pursuit of happiness. Those of you watching at home may wonder why this is being applauded. We conservatives think all three are under assault. Thank you. Thank you."

    We don't want to tell anybody how to live. That's up to you. If you want to make the best of yourself, feel free. If you want to ruin your life, we'll try to stop it, but it's a waste. We look over the country as it is today, we see so much waste, human potential that's been destroyed by 50 years of a welfare state. By a failed war on poverty.

    We love the people of this country. And we want this to be the greatest country it can be, but we do understand, as people created and endowed by our creator, we're all individuals. We resist the effort to group us. We resist the effort to make us feel that we're all the same, that we're no different than anybody else. We're all different. There are no two things or people in this world who are created in a way that they end up with equal outcomes. That's up to them." – –

    Now I wish I had said that – because it is SO TRUE.. but to find out who said it you'll have set your bias' aside and click over and watch…

    Start at 4:55 for this passage …

    Or if you're really brave and ready to actually learn some important things, watch it all… all 10 episodes…

  2. “If the government takes care of the effort and guarantees the results, can any human activity provide real happiness?”

    So I think the argument that the European model does not create as much happiness as the US model would carry a little more weight if the people of the US were actually happier than those in European countries.

    US is thirteenth on the “happy list” after a few European countries. . .

    And in 2006 twenty third:

  3. Did Murray lump the French and German welfare models together? That won’t fly.

  4. Paul,

    Rush Limbaugh, CPAC 2009.

    I think it’s important that people listen to folks like Rush who are influential, regardless of whether or not you agree with his politics.

    Those who dismiss Rush aren’t making a reasonable effort to understand what he says or why it’s appealing.

    The same applies to those on the other side of the argument, such as Barbara Ehrenreich (whom I famously despise).

    Only by understanding can you critique effectively.

  5. RT Wolf,

    I don’t have time to pull up the data, but I recommend that you read the book “Flow,” by Csikszentmihalyi. The notion that true happiness stems from effort is scientifically proven.

  6. Retired Syd,

    It is true that American levels of happiness are lower, but that simply indicates that the American model is no better than the European model for producing true happiness.

    I’m not arguing for pure laissez faire; I’m arguing for a miserly safety net which provides the best of both models: Individual freedom and group responsibility for providing a bare-bones safety net.

  7. Dan,

    Murray doesn’t really distinguish between the French and German models. Would love to hear how that impacts the audience.

  8. I’ve read Flow (I’m deeply interested in positive psychology). I don’t disagree with the theory, I’m interested in the data. Retired Syd provided some data. Your counterclaim was that it’s not “true” happiness, a variant of the No True Scotsman fallacy. If, instead, you were trying to make a distinction between the Pleasant Life and the Meaningful life, then it makes sense:

    I actually agree with the idea of a miserly safety net. I recall at least one state that decided to lessen its welfare program, but people decried it as leaving too many in poverty. What happened? Those previously on welfare went and got jobs and unemployment dropped. This is just one case though, I have no more data.

  9. Chris —

    Came here via your comment on this issue in Matt Yglesia’s thread. I appreciate your preference for reading and reflection prior to writing. Many of Yglesia’s contributors seemed to rush to condemn Murray’s speech without much familiarity as to what he said.

    The text of his 3/11/09 speech is here.

    I don’t see much compelling evidence that Murray’s opinions about the relatively greater happiness of “Americans” compared to “Europeans” is true. I do, however see a great deal of plain-spoken common sense.

    “The problem is this: Every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality–it drains some of the life from them. It’s inevitable.”

    What follows is exploration of related ideas, not visciousness.

    In the second half of his essay, Murray makes some forecasts about what science will uncover in the next decade or so. Prediction is difficult (especially about the future), but I’d put my money with his guesses, not against them.

    Too bad that a scholar like Murray can’t offer some of his reflections in public without being subjected to a Two Minutes Hate by a prominent blogger and his acolytes.

  10. Ben

    You know what else “drains life out of them [Americans]”? Working hard for a living a decent job, not being able to afford health coverage, and dieing of cancer because the system doesn’t want to give you an handout and turn you into a pussy. I think I’d take living over a “destroyed soul”.

  11. Mark

    Give us some specifics Ben.

    What “decent job” are you talking about. How much is a decent living. Why can’t health coverage be had for a reasonable price?

    You sound just like my brother who is 37, and to this point in his life has never had a “real job”. He blames all of his problems on anybody but himself. Yet, he has siblings who all grew up with the same advantages and head starts in life, access to college education, and surprisingly, the rest of the family prospers just fine, making a living and enjoying freedom.

    And I know people, personally, who did not have the access to college, who graduated from unimpressive high schools, and live in really nice homes and drive nice cars.

    Ben, I suspect the position in life that you speak of is one that comes only through a lack of motivation and expecting for somebody to give you handouts.

  12. Mark

    One more thing…

    Ben said: “…because the system doesn’t want to give you an handout and turn you into a pussy.”

    Ben, if the system doesn’t want to give you a handout, isn’t it because it thinks you are perfectly capable of being a man and getting some kind of job that contributes to society?

    I think a system that gives handouts assumes that you are kind of pathetic and you need to continue to nurse off of the treasury’s teet. Expecting handouts and getting them would make me feel like a “pussy”. I couldn’t possibly have much self-esteem and self-worth if I knew that what miserable pittance I was getting from my government was just because I was a warm body taking up space on this rock. And to think that I would be happy just settling for that?

    No Thanks! I choose to “unplug from the matrix”.

  13. Ben

    Wow Mark, maybe you should take a step outside your obviously sheltered and privileged life and get a reality check. I am one of your “non-college educated” people you use as an example who has risen to a successful point in life. I am not asking for a handout for me, but for the 46 million Americans that can’t afford health care. I find it funny really, I’m sure they’d love to hear that you think they are lazy leeches. Ah the internet is such a great place for big mouths like you to hide.

    I think the problem is you don’t understand that not every single person in the world can be rich. It’s not economically possible. Unless the government is subsidizing every citizen (which you are obviously against) there must be a weighted balance between rich and poor. Unfortunately, the poor greatly out number the rich.

    Maybe you haven’t been watching the news lately but we’re in something called a ‘recession’. I’ll try to put this in basic terms for you, but it’s a bad economic period where people lose their jobs, their retirement funds, and generally don’t have alot of excess cash laying around.

    So in reference to the people who are being laid off in the thousands, according to your logic, it’s their fault they can no longer afford health coverage because they are lazy. Sorry, I just don’t get your logic.

    Oh, and here are some facts for you

    “- Nearly 46 million people in the United States are uninsured: 22 percent of them men and 18 percent women. This includes nearly one in five working adults, or 26.9 million people, the report found.
    – Employees, on average, saw their share of health insurance premiums increase 79 percent while their pay rose only 10 percent in the years covered by the report.
    – The average cost of an individual policy rose from $2,560 in 1996 to $4,118 in 2006, a 61 percent increase.”

    Instead of engaging in a educated debate, you resort to name calling and bullying. Very reminiscent of the tactics used by the party in power for the past eight years.

    I feel sorry for you Mark, you obviously have some chip on your shoulder. Its sad.

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