Is Personal Responsibility Obsolete?
By Thomas Sowell
Too many social problems are conceived of in terms of what "we" can do for "them." After decades of massive expansions of the welfare state, the answer seems to range from "not very much" to "making matters worse."
Undaunted, people in a number of countries are coming up with new proposals that are variations on the theme of government-provided income — which amounts to relieving people from personal responsibility.
Yet even some conservatives and libertarians are coming up with proposals for more "efficient" versions of the welfare state — namely direct cash grants for life to virtually all adults, instead of the current hodgepodge of overlapping bureaucratic programs.
Charles Murray recognizes that "some people will idle away their lives" under his proposal. "But that is already a problem," he says, and therefore is no valid objection to replacing the current welfare state with a less costly alternative.
Everyone recognizes that there are some people unable to provide for their own survival — infants and the severely disabled, among others. But providing for such people is wholly different from a blanket guarantee for everybody that they need not lift a finger to feed, clothe or shelter themselves.
The financial cost of providing such a guarantee, though huge, is not the worst of the problems. The history of what has actually happened in times and places where people were relieved from the challenge of survival by windfall gains is not encouraging.
In both England and the United States, the massive expansion of the welfare state since the 1960s has been accompanied by a vast expansion in the amount of crime, violence, drug addiction, fatherless children and other signs of social degeneration.
Maybe that was just coincidence. But there have been too many coincidences in too many very different times and places where people were relieved from the challenge of survival by windfall gains of one sort or another.
In 16th and 17th century Spain — its "golden age" — the windfall gain was gold and silver looted by the ton from Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere. This enabled Spain to survive without having to develop the skills, the sciences or the work ethic of other countries in Western Europe.
Spain could buy what it wanted from other nations with all the gold and silver taken from its colonies. As a Spaniard of that era proudly put it, "Everyone serves Spain and Spain serves no one."
What this meant in practical terms was that
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