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.