When someone who grew up in the Soviet Union tells you that your country is doing Socialism wrong, you know you’ve got problems.
My friend and I would go out to lunch sometimes – just the two of us – so we could get away from the office to someplace where we could talk about the socially forbidden subjects of politics and religion by ourselves. I would tease her about being a “Russian spy.” And we would refer to our lunchtime discussions as our “world takeover plans.”
She had been a teenager in Soviet Russia between the time that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and when the revolution against the Communist government happened in Moscow in 1991. She eventually got her degree in Economics at the University of Moscow after the death of Soviet Communism in the 1990s. She’s a very independent minded person and is very much in favor of the United States of America as the “Land of Opportunity” and the American Dream.
And, in one of our discussions in which we talked about the American welfare system, she said that we’re doing it all wrong. She said that, in Soviet Russia, the government didn’t just hand out money. They made you work or you didn’t get paid.
She definitely didn’t think that we should transition to a full-on Socialist economy here. After all, free-market capitalism is what has created nearly all of the wealth and technology of the modern world – even the relatively lavish wealth that “poor people” are able to have in our modern times compared to previous centuries of history.
Free market capitalism is the only way creative, independent-thinking people create the wealth of a society, as even the most (supposedly) “Communist” countries of the world have discovered over the past few decades – the ones who have become successful, anyway, like China and, increasingly, Vietnam and others.
But, supposing you do want to implement a little bit of socialism … how should you do it?
To be clear: A government-driven welfare system, even in a country with a primarily free-market economy is, in fact, “a little bit of socialism.”
I’ve seen quite a few people supposedly “correct” others and say that we don’t have socialism in the United States, explaining that real socialism is where the means of production and distribution are owned by the State. What they miss by saying this is that, like nearly everything else in life, this is not a binary, either/or thing. It’s a sliding scale. And, to the extent that a government taxes people and businesses beyond what is needed to provide the required social order through laws and basic infrastructure, and especially to the extent that resources are taxed specifically for the purpose of taking them away from some people and merely giving them to others, the government is, in effect, asserting an ownership interest in private businesses and in people’s private lives and productivity.
It’s exactly in the same way as a government may assert imminent domain and take a piece of real estate away from a private property owner and use it for whatever “public good” purpose the government may, at its whim, decide is beneficial for society – except, in the case of imminent domain, at least the government is supposed to pay for what it takes.
So: Should we have a government-driven “safety net” welfare system for people who find themselves in dire circumstances?
Again, that’s not exactly the discussion here. The main point here is: If we are going to have one, then how should it be run? But I do think that in the developed nations of our modern world we can afford to collectively provide people who may need it the means to at least not starve or freeze to death.
Partly, it’s a matter of the collective compassion and character of our society. We should recognize, for instance, that a single accident can financially devastate an entire family and leave them without the means to feed themselves, or that some people are born into unfortunate situations and suffer difficulties that are nearly insurmountable without help. And fully industrialized and developed nations can afford to take care of these situations when the occur by expending a very small percentage of their wealth.
And it’s in the best interest of society in general to provide for some basic amount of assistance for people who find themselves in desperate situations. Because desperate people don’t exactly add to the stability of society. (Think for a minute: What would you do if you suddenly found yourself unable to feed yourself or your family and could not find any assistance?) So yes, we should have systems in place to provide emergency assistance for people who are in need of it.
So, how should such a program be run?
In our short lunchtime talk, my former Soviet and now American individualist friend proposed parallel systems. We should keep in place a fully free-market economy with its natural incentives for entrepreneurship and enterprise. But then, for those who would want to live under Socialism, we would have an independent system that would be run like they ran it in Soviet Russia in which those who wanted to have the benefits of their collectivism would be required to take an active role in producing the goods from which they benefit. Nobody would be allowed to skip out on working and just sit around and collect a check that was funded entirely by those who did produce the affluence of the free-market sector of the economy.
There are, of course, difficulties with this proposal. The biggest one being that such a system would be in competition with the free-market economy for the production of goods, being itself, in essence, a huge government-run corporation, and it would skew the prices of goods as well as wages in unpredictable ways. And, putting the power of government legislation behind a large producer of goods would open the way to corruption and other unfair practices – especially since it would be run by the same government that had the power of taxation and regulation over the free market sector of the economy.
But my friend did have an extremely valid point.
And, perhaps an entirely separate but parallel “socialist” segment of the economy would not be practical, but some of what she said really should be incorporated into what we do in terms of a welfare system.
Except in cases where the recipient is totally disabled, welfare should definitely not be “free money.” Nearly everyone is able to do at least some kind of work. And doing something constructive in exchange for assistance should be a fundamental requirement for receiving help from the government for a number of reasons.
For one thing, people don’t tend to appreciate what they don’t work for.
I’ve seen the argument made that “people who are on welfare would rather be employed,” and I’m sure that this is true in many cases. But people who make this argument sometimes seem to be claiming that laziness does not exist at all and that, of course everyone who is on welfare is appreciative of the assistance.
Observation and experience say otherwise.
During our housing development project in Memphis, Tennessee, it was in the apartments of people who were living on government assistance where we would be most likely to find holes punched in the walls and doors, windows broken out, and nearly brand new carpets soaked with oil from the tenants working on their motorcycles in their living rooms – in buildings that had been entirely refurbished from the ground up only a few months earlier.
We often got a detailed back story from the wonderful lady who was our property manager and who was very much in touch with the people and the goings-on in the local community: people scheming to take advantage of the welfare system in various ways, trading food stamps to get money for drugs and alcohol, young girls trying to get pregnant because it meant getting an increased welfare check, families using what money they had to buy that expensive big screen TV or iPhone instead of paying rent. And when they ran out of money in this way while living in one place, they would just move to another.
Defenders of our current welfare system who say that these things don’t happen, or that their occurrence is so minimal that it can be ignored are either unfamiliar with reality, or are lying. The waste, the lack of caring, the cavalier attitude about responsibilities and life in general that we saw, and that we heard even more about from the local inhabitants, was horrific.
And it’s not just the physical destruction and the waste of welfare check money. It’s the waste of lives. And it becomes a self-sustaining, multi-generational vicious cycle.
Most people have the potential for being constructive and caring about life. And when you see them being destructive to their own environment in ways that we saw, it’s really sad.
There’s a cliché phrase about people needing to have “skin in the game” in order to care about what they’re doing. And it’s true. When people invest their own physical energy into a project, they are more emotionally invested in its success. It’s a basic fact of life. And it obviously extends to putting effort into what they receive for their basic shelter and sustenance.
On the other hand, if all you do is feed (and fund) a situation, it grows. That’s a simple, basic fact of life also.
So, an essential part of any successful welfare system would be to require people who are able to do so to provide some sort of constructive physical service in exchange for what they receive.
And it has to be meaningful and productive, too. Because people easily see through make-work projects that have them go through the motions of a mere exercise without actually accomplishing anything.
In the ideal case, the work they would do should be in some form of skill or trade that they could work at in the private sector once they mastered it. And perhaps the best use of labor of welfare recipients would be in the form of maintenance and restoration of the buildings, surroundings, and infrastructure in which they lived.
Now, this is important:
There would need to be real and appropriate consequences for the quality and quantity of work that was done. Because laziness really is a real thing in the real world. Just showing up is not good enough in any enterprise. And it shouldn’t be good enough for a welfare check recipient, either. They wouldn’t be forced to work. It would be their choice. But the choice to not work and participate should mean that they don’t get the benefits, either.
But that should be okay. Because, if it’s true that, “most people who are on welfare would rather be employed” then this entire scheme shouldn’t be a problem, right?
The other major thing is that welfare should not be a Federal program.
Welfare programs should be run by each individual State. Because, aside from the fact that there is no real charter in the federal constitution of the United States to run a charity program in the first place, and the fact that the Interstate Commerce clause needed to be reinterpreted on an absurd scale in order to even create such a system in the first place, a huge Federal bureaucratic administration, centered thousands of miles from the areas that it is trying to service, is not what such a system needs.
Agencies that service people should be centered as close as possible to the neighborhoods and areas that they are meant to service, so they can be most directly overseen by the people of the area and their direct, local representatives.
Besides, with multiple state-run systems, there would be a diversity of ideas on how to run such a system. And a diversity of ideas, especially in people-oriented service organizations, would not only lead to solutions that are better tailored to the needs of each region, but it would also promote flexibility and the ability to compare and contrast between different implementations to see what works best.
- Yes, we should have a welfare “safety net” for people who find themselves in dire circumstances.
- But, in the case of recipients who are able to perform some sort of constructive function, it should not be in the form of “free money.”
- Because people appreciate both their own lives and the things in their environment if they are need to put some effort into acquiring what they have.
- The system should provide them with useful skills that can be used to earn a living in the free market economy. And, where possible, these skills should be put to constructive use in improving the direct environment in which they live.
- And welfare systems should be run at the State level so as to be more responsive to the people they serve and tailored to the requirements of local environments and situations.