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The Implosion of the Welfare State Model

August 11, 2020 Authored by: Charles Murray

The simplest way in which the advanced welfare state will lose attractiveness is the looming bankruptcy of the European welfare states. The financial bankruptcy is not anything that even the cleverest planner can avoid. As publicly financial benefits grow, so do the populations who find that they need them. The more people who need benefits, the more government bureaucracy is required. The more people who rely on support from the government and the larger the government, the fewer the people in the private sector who pay for the benefits and for the apparatus of the state. The larger the number of people who depend on government either for benefits or for their jobs, the larger the constituency for voting for ever-larger government.

These are arithmetical realities that have become manifest in every advanced Western country. They have brought some European welfare states within sight of bankruptcy as I write. Fertility rates that are far below replacement throughout western Europe ensure that the productive native-born population will fall still more in the years to come.

“Coming Apart” – by Charles Murray

There is no permanent way out of the self-destructive dynamics of the welfare state, but Europe has a tempting palliative – encouraging large-scale immigration of younger populations who work in the private sector and pay taxes that make up the revenue deficit. It won’t work forever – sooner or later, the immigrants, too, will succumb to the incentives that the welfare state sets up. But the more immediate problem is that most of the new workers come from cultures that are radically different from those of western Europe. In some cases, those cultures despise the values that led to the welfare state. The United States will have a chance to watch these events unfold before our own situation becomes as critical, and the sight will be a powerful incentive to avoid going down the same road.

The founders believed that certain aspects of human nature were immutable and that they tightly constrain what is politically and culturally possible. Madison’s observation in The Federalist, no. 51, that “if men were angles, no government would be necessary” is famous, but the preceding two sentences get more directly to the point: “It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”

The advocates of the welfare state in both Europe and the United States reject this view, substituting instead the belief that human nature can be changed. The purest expression of optimism about the plasticity of human beings comes from Marxism, which held that, given the right social setting, humans could become selfless and collectivist, making it possible for Marx’s goal – from each according to his ability, to each according to this needs – to become a reality in a communist society.

The social democrats of the twentieth century who created the modern welfare state did not have the same aggressive agenda that the Soviet Union adopted, but the long-term workability of their creation depended equally on the premise that human beings are plastic. The first operational implication of this premise was that the welfare state could be designed in ways that would lead people not to take advantage of the incentives that the welfare state sets up – for example, generous unemployment benefits would not importantly affect how hard people tried to keep old jobs or how hard they looked for new ones. The second operational implication of this premise was that properly designed government interventions could correct problems of human behavior.

As the welfare state evolved over the twentieth century, two more specific beliefs about the nature of Homo Sapiens were woven into its fabric. The first of these was the belief that people are equal not just in the way that the American Declaration of Independence meant – equal in the eyes of God and before the law – but equal, or nearly so, in their latent abilities and characteristics. To some extent, this belief applies to individuals – the idea that all children should aspire to get a college degree reflects a kind of optimistic view that all children are naturally smart enough for college if only they get the right kind of instruction.

Charles Murra

But the strict interpretation of the equality premise applies to groups of people. In a fair society, it is believed, different groups of people – men and women, blacks and whites, heterosexuals and homosexuals, the children of poor people and the children of rich people – will naturally have the same distributions of outcomes in life: the same mean income, the same mean educational attainment, the same proportions who become janitors and CEOs, the same proportions who become English professors and theoretical physicists, the same proportions who become stand-up comedians and point guards.

When that doesn’t happen, it is because of bad human behavior and an unfair society. For the last forty years, the premise that significant group differences cannot exist has justified thousands of pages of government regulations and legislation reaching into everything from the paperwork required to fire someone to the funding of high school wrestling teams. Everything that we associate with the phrase “politically correct” eventually comes back to this premise.

The second of the beliefs about Homo Sapiens that has become an intellectual underpinning of the welfare state is that, at bottom, human beings are not really responsible for the things they do. People who do well do not deserve what they have gotten- they got it because they were born into the right social stratum. Or if they did well despite being born poor and disadvantaged, it was because the luck of the draw gave them personal qualities that enabled them to succeed. People who do badly do not deserve it either. They were born into the wrong social stratum, or were handicapped by personal weaknesses that were not their fault. Thus it is morally appropriate to require the economically successful to hand over most of what they have earned to the state, and it is inappropriate to say of anyone who drifts in and out of work that he is lazy or irresponsible.

During the next ten or twenty years, I believe that all of these intellectual foundations of the modern welfare state will be discredited by a tidal change in our scientific understanding of human behavior that is already under way. The effects of that tidal change will spill over into every crevice of political and cultural life. Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson anticipated what is to come in a book titled Consilience. As the twenty-first century progresses, he argued, the social sciences are increasingly going to be shaped by the findings of biology – specifically, the findings of the neuroscientists and the geneticists.

What are they finding so far? Nothing surprising. That’s the point. For example, science is proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that males and females respond differently to babies for reasons that have nothing to do with the way they were raised. It is not a finding that should surprise anyone, but it is fundamentally at odds with a belief that, in a nonsexist world men and women will find caring for infants equally rewarding. And so it is with many topics that bear on policy issues. We are still at the beginning of a steep learning curve.

But we do know already that the collapse of these moral pillars of the welfare state must eventually have profound effects on policy. An illustration may serve to make the point. For many years, I have been among those who argue that the growth in births to unmarried women has been a social catastrophe. But while those of us who take this position have been able to prove that other family structures have not worked as well as the traditional family, no one has been able to prove that alternatives could not work as well. And so the social planners keep coming up with the next new ingenious program that will compensate for the absence of fathers.

I am predicting that over the next few decades advances in evolutionary psychology are going to be conjoined with advances in genetic understanding, leading to a scientific consensus that goes something like this: There are genetic reasons, rooted in the mechanisms of human evolution, why little boys who grow up in neighborhoods without married fathers tend to reach adolescence not socialized to the norms of behavior that they will need to stay out of prison and to hold jobs. These same reasons explain why child abuse is, and always will be, concentrated among family structures in which the live-in male is not the married biological father. These same reasons explain why society’s attempts to compensate for the lack of married biological fathers don’t work and will never work.

There is no reason to be frightened of such knowledge. We will still be able to acknowledge that many single women do a wonderful job of raising their children. Social democrats may be able to design some outside interventions that do some good. But they will have to stop claiming that the traditional family is just one of many equally valid alternatives. They will have to acknowledge that the traditional family plays a special, indispensable role in human flourishing and that social policy must be based on that truth.

The same concrete effects of the new knowledge will make us rethink every domain in which the central government has imposed its judgement about how people ought to live their lives. Here are some more examples of things I think the neuroscientists and geneticists will prove over the next few decades.

  • Human beings enjoy themselves when they are exercising their realized capabilities at the limit of those capabilities.
  • Challenge and responsibility for consequences is an indispensable part of human motivation to exercise their realized capabilities at the limit of those capabilities.
  • People grouped by gender, ethnicity, age, social class, and sexual preference, left free to live their lives as they see fit, will produce group differences in outcomes, because they differ genetically in their cognitive, psychological, and physiological profiles.
  • Regardless of whether people have free will, human flourishing requires that they live in an environment in which they are treated as if they did.
  • Actually, it turns out that humans do have free will in a deep neurological sense.

All of these questions will be answered long before the end of the twenty-first century, and the direction the answers are taking will be evident within the lifetimes of most of us. I have entitled this section “Watching the Intellectual Foundations of the Welfare State Implode” to reflect my confidence that the more we learn about how human beings work at the deepest genetic and neural levels, the more that many age-old ways of thinking about human nature will be vindicated. The institutions surrounding marriage, vocation, community, and faith will be found to be the critical resources through which human beings lead satisfying lives. It will be found that those institutions deteriorate in the advanced welfare states for reasons that are intrinsic to the nature of the welfare state. It will be found that those institutions are richest and most robust in states that allow people to work out their lives on their own and in company with the people around them.

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