Nicholas Eberstadt: If social policy were medicine, and countries were the patients, the United States today would be a post-surgical charge under observation after an ambitious and previously untested transplant operation. Surgeons have grafted a foreign organ?—?the European welfare state?—?into the American body. The transplanted organ has thrived?—?in fact, it has grown immensely. The condition of the patient, however, is another question altogether. The patient’s vital signs have not responded entirely positively to this social surgery; in fact, by some important metrics, the patient’s post-operative behavior appears to be impaired. And, like many other transplant patients, this one seems to have effected a disturbing change in mood, even personality, as a consequence of the operation.
The modern welfare state has a distinctly European pedigree. Naturally enough, the architecture of the welfare state was designed and developed with European realities in mind, the most important of which were European beliefs about poverty. Thanks to their history of Old World feudalism, with its centuries of rigid class barriers and attendant lack of opportunity for mobility based on merit, Europeans held a powerful, continentally pervasive belief that ordinary people who found themselves in poverty or need were effectively stuck in it?—?and, no less important, that they were stuck through no fault of their own, but rather by an accident of birth. (Whether this belief was entirely accurate is another story, though beside the point: This was what people perceived and believed, and at the end of the day those perceptions shaped the formation and development of Europe’s welfare states.) The state provision of old-age pensions, unemployment benefits, and health services?—?along with official family support and other household-income guarantees?—?served a multiplicity of purposes for European political economies, not the least of which was to assuage voters’ discontent with the perceived shortcomings of their countries’ social structures through a highly visible and explicitly political mechanism for broadly based and compensatory income redistribution.
But America’s historical experience has been rather different from Europe’s, and from the earliest days of the great American experiment, people in the United States exhibited strikingly different views from their trans-Atlantic cousins on the questions of poverty and social welfare. These differences were noted both by Americans themselves and by foreign visitors, not least among them Alexis de Tocqueville, whose conception of American exceptionalism was heavily influenced by the distinctive American worldview on such matters. Because America had no feudal past and no lingering aristocracy, poverty was not viewed as the result of an unalterable accident of birth but instead as a temporary challenge that could be overcome with determination and character?—?with enterprise, hard work, and grit. Rightly or wrongly, Americans viewed themselves as masters of their own fate, intensely proud because they were self-reliant.
To the American mind, poverty could never be regarded as a permanent condition for anyone in any stratum of society because of the country’s boundless possibilities for individual self-advancement. Self-reliance and personal initiative were, in this way of thinking, the critical factors in staying out of need. Generosity, too, was very much a part of that American ethos; the American impulse to lend a hand (sometimes a very generous hand) to neighbors in need of help was ingrained in the immigrant and settler traditions. But thanks to a strong underlying streak of Puritanism, Americans reflexively parsed the needy into two categories: what came to be called the deserving and the undeserving poor. To assist the former, the American prescription was community-based charity from its famously vibrant “voluntary associations.” The latter?—?men and women judged responsible for their own dire circumstances due to laziness, or drinking problems, or other behavior associated with flawed character?—?were seen as mainly needing assistance in “changing their ways.” In either case, charitable aid was typically envisioned as a temporary intervention to help good people get through a bad spell and back on their feet. Long-term dependence upon handouts was “pauperism,” an odious condition no self-respecting American would readily accept.
The American mythos, in short, offered less than fertile soil for cultivating a modern welfare state. This is not to say that the American myth of unlimited opportunity for the rugged individualist always conformed to the facts on the ground. That myth rang hollow for many Americans?—?most especially for African-Americans, who first suffered for generations under slavery and thereafter endured a full century of officially enforced discrimination, as well as other barriers to self-advancement. Though the facts certainly did not always fit the ideal, the American myth was so generally accepted that the nation displayed an enduring aversion to all the trappings of the welfare state, and put up prolonged resistance to their establishment on our shores.
Over the past several decades, however, something fundamental has changed. The American welfare state today transfers over 14% of the nation’s GDP to the recipients of its many programs, and over a third of the population now accepts “need-based” benefits from the government. This is not the America that Tocqueville encountered. To begin to appreciate the differences, we need to understand how Americans’ relationship to the welfare state has changed, and with it, the American character itself.