Like most Americans of my generation, my experience of poverty has been self-inflicted. “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.” Dylan’s little fantasy of “Maggie’s Farm’ takes on grim reality when the scholar-gypsy turns to waiting tables or substitute teaching, being in general what my parents were unkind enough to call a “bum.”
During these little episodes below the poverty line, I never worried. The lowest I ever sank was to work as a flunky in a “retirement hotel,” where the class differences between the flunkies were graphically illustrated every Friday. We were working mostly for room and board, but for overtime we were paid something like minimum wage. The students and ex-students would cash their checks, do their laundry, buy shaving cream, and go out and party on what remained. The street-wise boys knew better. Their life had always been more or less dismal, but once a week they had just enough money to do things that ought to land them in jail. By Saturday, they were trying to borrow money.
Besides, I shared the conviction—the birthright of every middle-class American—that anyone can make a decent living if only he is willing to do the work. I have seen nothing, read nothing in the past 20 years to alter that opinion. Of course, it is easier to be optimistic when there are parents and friends who will pick you up and dust you off, no matter what you’ve done. “When you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
It is one of the marks of family and community life that individuals are not judged chiefly on their merits. Who you are and whom you know take precedence over what you can do. The advocates of the welfare state would have us extend that principle to the entire United States; others deny that national boundaries have any relevance: our obligation is to the world—subhuman as well as human—not just to that small part of it that we are born into. People who write on these topics in social ethics are fond of hypothetical scenarios like the overloaded lifeboat: whom shall I choose to save—my pregnant wife, Gandhi, Einstein, or a dog that has come to rely upon my goodwill?
Different philosophers give different answers, and if there is an occasional advocate for the wife, it is on grounds that have nothing to do with being one flesh or with the old notion that the family is the indispensable seedbed of the commononwealth. No, if we choose the helpmeet over the gymnosophist or the German shepherd, it will be because of some contractual agreement we have made with each other.
We hear a great deal these days about earth as a lifeboat or as a spaceship, by which the propagandists mean that we are all, however many billions of us are on this planet, in this thing together and that no one should be selfish enough to look out for the interests of his family and neighbors exclusively or even to put them above the fate of the starving billions of Asia and Africa.
While it is altogether fitting and proper to ridicule the nonsense written by Harvard professors calling themselves philosophers, our obligation to the poor is not a joking matter. “Ye have the poor always with you” is one of the hard sayings of the Bible. It is important to remember the context. A woman had just poured an expensive oil upon Jesus’ head, much to the annoyance of the disciples who would have preferred to sell the unguent and spend the money on the poor. At the very least, Jesus’ rebuke was designed to remind his followers that relieving poverty, however much it is a serious obligation, is not the highest obligation imposed upon humanity: “But me,” he warned them, “ye have not always.”
Matthew, who records the incident, makes a point of saying it took place directly after the sermon on the talants and the day of judgment, when the failure to feed the hungry and clothe the naked will constitute grounds for everlasting damnation. Most relief plans and welfare programs were undertaken in response to this Christian vision of obligation to the poor. If modern times have been characterized by uprooted families, self-seeking individualists, and decaying communities, the ideal of the welfare state was in principle more like the City of God than like any human society known from history.
The good side of the various wars on poverty up until recently was their vision of national community. From Bismarck to the architects of the New Deal and the Great Society, the ethical justification for welfare lay in what Richard Titmuss (a leading welfare proponent in Britain) described as “the expressed wish of all the people to assist the survival of some people.” Other British theorists have been even more explicit in connecting the provision of welfare with citizenship. There is, in the words of T.H. Marshall, a positive “right to welfare” that is inseparable from one’s status as a citizen. On this view, the rights of citizenship include “the right to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in society.”
The advantage of such a standard is that we can never run out of disadvantaged citizens, so long as there are people who prefer Sting to Mozart. But give the left (especially the British left) its due. They have framed the problem quite properly as a question of civil (not human) obligation: what do we owe our fellow citizens, as opposed to our fellow men? That we have such an obligation, no one but an ideologue can doubt. There are few societies in which the better-off refuse to share their surplus with the luckless and the lazy. Such charity has its limits, but a pygmy will not allow one of his fellows to starve any more than a Scots highlander or a Homeric king will turn a stranger away from his door.
Of course, if welfare is a civil right, then we must look for the corresponding civil duties imposed upon the recipient of public generosity. A private gift can be conferred with no strings attached, but no one—not the President, not Congress, and certainly not the unelected bureaucrats who preside over the system—can presume to squander the people’s money without insisting upon reciprocity. The most obvious requirements were touched upon a few months ago. Of all citizens we require lawful behavior and various forms of public service. Of the nation’s dependents, we should insist upon suspension of their right to use the political process to increase their benefits, i.e., the rights of suffrage and petition. Some form of workfare—except in the case of welfare mothers—is also owed the American people, and one might conceive of certain other stipulations, such as changing the place of residence from the inner cities which serve as fortresses of vice and violence among the dependent classes.
With such requirements, the cities and states of America could well afford to be far more generous in their provision for the poor—especially if we fired nearly all of the middle-class social workers and administrators who siphon off the vast majority of welfare funds to pay their own salaries. But what we as a people owe to ourselves, we most decidedly do not owe to the world. There must be a direct relationship between the amount of wealth a society is willing to transfer to its poorer citizens and the degree of strictness in its definition of citizenship. Otherwise the generous state will find itself a mecca for the deserving and the undeserving poor. When the Athenians, suddenly rich from the fruits of empire, began to distribute some of their wealth to the poorer classes, they also made a point of restricting citizenship to the free children of citizen parents.
The British theory of welfare is the most coherent and the most plausible that has been advanced. By this light, our obligation to our own citizens is clear. (How that obligation is to be discharged is, of course, quite another matter.) Of course, when and if they are able, our fellow citizens will pay taxes, defend us in war, and in general shoulder their share of the burden. But what of aliens—legal and illegal—what is our civil obligation to them? Exactly nothing. As human beings we may well wish to relieve their sufferings, but as a civil government it would be wrong, very wrong indeed to confer upon them the blessings, but not the obligations, of citizenship.
In the United States we have pursued a rather different course from the Athenians, as we have showered the benefits of citizenship upon aliens—many of whom despise our weakness and prey upon our people with gleeful rapacity. In the retirement hotel I worked with several Mexicans and Iranians, all of whom were receiving scholarships to attend public universities. I am not sure if my Iranian friends—who seem to spend all their waking moments chasing American blonds—were among those who rioted against our Satanic regime in the late 1970’s, but many of the Iranian rioters were, in fact, students on scholarship. As it turned out, we could not deport them, no matter how much property they destroyed, because like the rest of us they had “rights.”
What civil rights a noncitizen may be supposed to possess, I cannot fathom. When Europe was at the height of its civilization, countries like England made it difficult—usually impossible—for foreigners to inherit or even purchase property. How can a Frenchman own the soil of England? How can a Japanese buy land in Tennessee, hire Americans, and indoctrinate them in the manners and morals of a very different culture? There are “conservatives” who boast of the power of the American economy and its ability to attract foreign investment. Foreign investment is something colonial nations inflict upon backward societies. The shame of Pearl Harbor is nothing compared with the sight of so many foreign investors—Arabs, Japanese, Canadians—buying up the land that our ancestors paid for with their blood.
Foreign investment is the other side of immigrants’ rights. As we allow jobs and resources to be swallowed up by noncitizens, we also find ourselves wasting our wealth upon strangers, like the proverbial philanthropist who spends so much time saving the world that he has none left over for his family. It is not merely a practical question of limited resources, although we cannot continue to attract and subsidize the Third World without becoming a Third World nation. But worse than the economic and cultural problems created by aliens on welfare is the effects on the healthy parts of the body politic. Hardworking taxpayers are beginning to look upon the poor not as unlucky neighbors but as part of a rainbow coalition of deadbeats, foreigners, and degenerates—the whole range of social pathologies summed up in the Jesse Jackson campaign.
If Mr. Jackson had come forward to represent the nation’s poor—black and white alike—his candidacy might have made some sense. It may be time for the American nation to reconsider what we owe ourselves. But no, not content with including the feminists and homosexuals, Jesse went out for the “Hispanic” vote, inviting the disruption of our political process by millions of Mexicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans whose primary allegiances are to countries and peoples other than the United States. In the unlikely event of his election, we should have to change our name to the United Nations, not the United States, of America.
The internationalization of relief, which includes everything from Live-Aid to the new phenomenon of “immigrant rights,” is the last phase of liberalism. It was not enough for Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to nationalize and centralize all social welfare, removing it from the realm of private life, local community, and moral responsibility. Now, it must be universalized and internationalized until everyone on the planet is as miserable as the Swedes. Of course, if they were to succeed, we would all be rushing to invest our money in the World Bank or the IMF. But nobody, I mean nobody outside Washington and the Ivy League, is an internationalist at heart. However, if we are going to be overtaxed to support Ethiopia and our own overpaid bureaucracy, then we are not about to waste our hard-earned money on our own neighborhoods. We begin to see our wives and children as tax deductions of dubious worth. The broader the obligation, the thinner, and as we learn these cynical lessons, we become less human.
Our own happiness depends in no small measure upon something like the Golden Rule: “No one can be happy, who has regard only for himself, who converts everything to his own advantage. You must live for the other fellow, if you wish to live for yourself.” Seneca’s admonition, so reminiscent of a Gospel he had never read, might have struck his friends as a peculiar philosophy for one of the richest private citizens in Rome, the tutor and chief minister to the Emperor Nero. But, in fact, Seneca’s Stoicism was a philosophy that had great influence upon the well-to-do Romans who did more than wrangle fruitlessly in a senate that had been reduced to a debating society and an employment agency for informers and opportunists.
Roman Stoics took their social and political responsibilities seriously. While preaching a doctrine of universalism and indifference (like all strong medicines. Stoic ideas are poison in the wrong hands), they served as administrators, provincial officials, military officers, and in one notable case a Stoic philosopher assumed the burden and annoyance of imperial power. Like other Romans, they understood that one requirement—political as well as moral—of any society is to provide for the needs of the poor.
Then as now, there were those who complained against the degrading effects of welfare. “Bread and circuses” was the verdict of the ancient Charles Murray. But Roman welfare—private as well as public—was limited, virtually, to the provision of easily transferred necessities: food, money, used clothing. Like most ancient peoples they restricted state bounty to the citizen body, and some of their programs were even aimed at the health and security of the empire. One of the most interesting was a plan, implemented under Trajan and his successors, to support the children of poor families. But instead of taxing and spending, the emperors followed the example of private benefactors who put a fixed contribution on their estates. By the new plan—managed by local governments— landowners were given loans, which they had to pay back at a fixed rate; their payments went to pay for poor children (one to a family) in the local area.
The advantages are obvious. There was no need for a large bureaucracy or for bullion shipments. Local money got spent on local people with a minimum of complication. Fraud would have been very difficult, because in small towns everyone knows everyone else’s business.
This system of child allowances (known as alimenta) was only a small part of Roman charity, most of which was local and private, but it illustrates an interesting difference between them and us. While we boast of being a federal republic, we have set up centralized schemes of education and welfare that run counter to every virtue of our Constitution and national character. The Romans, under the color of an international empire, relied on local government and private initiative. And we, who claim to be the heirs of a Christian civilization, are willing to sacrifice not just our political principles but every particle of our morality if it conflicts with the universal commitment to relieving the real and supposed poverty of the globe’s inhabitants.
The virtues have their order, and no people can thrive that is willing to sacrifice its courage, its faith, its modesty, and its honesty to even the greatest of the virtues. The Greek and Roman words we translate as “virtue” meant originally something like manliness, courage. The Greek word in particular (arete) came to stand for every striving after excellence of which an honorable man was capable. Our civilization may well be judged, as Dr. Johnson thought, by the provision we have made for the least fortunate; but we shall also be judged by the excellence we have strived or failed to strive for.
The worst feature of what some call democracy is a dedication to the dispiriting doctrine of utility: the greatest good to the greatest number. By this paradoxical formula we really mean the leveling of all standards to the lowest common denominator of a full belly, network television, and weekly news magazines. Whether it is faith in our God or nothing more important than a well-written book, I fear we shall be judged wanting.
It is an old principle that one cannot maximize two variables. Eventually one must choose between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of sufficiency, between virtue and equality. As Dr. Johnson also observed, “It is better that some should be unhappy than that none should be happy, which would be the case in a general state of equality.” In the name of equality and social justice, we become traitors to all that might be best in ourselves. We would sell the sweet oil and give the money to the poor; and if we are rebuked, we can follow the ancient precedent of the only liberation theologian who joined the band of the disciples: After hearing Jesus’ timely lesson on the limits of charity, Judas Iscariot went unto the chief priests and said unto them, “What will ye give me and I will deliver him unto you?”