The Tragic View Returns

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

In hard times, as in war, questions arise that were once considered taboo. As we approach $15 trillion run up in aggregate national debt, and confront the reality of a welfare state that is predicated on flawed assumptions about everything from demography to human nature, a rendezvous with brutal reality is now upon us.

Indeed, an entire array of tragic questions arises in a bankrupt but suddenly open-minded society in a way unimaginable in a reactionary, affluent one with endless credit: Should those on welfare who have more than three children still qualify for increased assistance for each additional offspring? Should state-subsidized elective operations automatically be provided for the chronically obese or lifelong smokers? Does the affluent class deserve mortgage-interest deductions on second and third homes? Should US troops subsidize the defense of an allied and rich Germany or Japan 66 years after World War II?

Social Security reform used to be the third rail that politicians dared not touch. But is that prohibition really still operative as big government approaches insolvency? Expect soon not just the retirement age to jump, reflecting modern longevity, or automatic cost-of-living increases to cease, mirroring the reality found in the private sector, but also the entire notion of disability to change as well.

Quite simply, the dogma that a teenager with dyslexia or a mature man with a bum knee will receive years of Social Security disability benefits will be assessed as an historical aberration of the last twenty years. A decision by an insurance company or government agency that a 62-year old must settle for arthroscopic surgery on a chronically torn meniscus rather than a complete knee replacement will not be interpreted as social cruelty.

Almost everything that can be said has been said about illegal immigration — and about the sustainability and morality of millions of Mexican and Latin American nationals crossing the US border unlawfully and plugging into the American entitlement system. But an insolvent state like California, despite the liberal protestations, cannot continue to house 50,000 Mexican nationals in its penal system at a per capita cost of nearly $35,000 a year, or to extend free tuition in its broke university system to those without legal residence, or to provide social services to illegal aliens that may well cost the state nearly $10 billion a year. Even to suggest such limits was once considered illiberal. Now, not to state the obvious — that those without education, English, and legality have been expecting far more than what they could contribute in return — will be considered derelict.

An eight-decade tradition of direct agricultural subsidies was once considered sacrosanct. In laughable fashion, farm-state senators invoked everything from the “Save the family farm” mantra to national security to green energy, all to ensure ongoing direct cash grants to affluent and influential corporate agribusiness. But even in flush times the system had long ago become intellectually and morally indefensible: Why subsidize one crop and not another? Why give public money to those who already make good profits in the private sector? As the government crosses its financial Rubicon, such largess will quietly disappear as well. The only mystery that will remain a decade from now will be how such an absurdity lasted as long as it did.

Nearly 50 million people are now on “food stamps.” Of course, the nomenclature is an anachronism, because modern therapeutic society long ago rejected the stigma of shuffling clumsy stamps at the check-out counter, and reduced the process of getting free food into flashing a government-issued plastic card no different in appearance from a bank ATM card. The calcified liberal technocracy talks as if each new person added to the program was faced with Dickensian starvation, even as the other five-sixths of Americans trade anecdotes about waiting in line behind a subsidized cart of food far superior to their own.

But again, $14 trillion-plus in debt cuts into a lot of liberal screeds. At some not too distant date, we will begin to see only poor people buying food on taxpayers’ money, and buying only essentials — we will not see those in the middle class counting on such subsidies to free up cash for elective purchases.

In that regard, the entire modern therapeutic sensibility will wane when the ability to borrow endlessly ceases, and the old tragic view of human experience will reassert itself. A classical Greek would suggest that the more one supplies generous pensions, unemployment insurance, food stamps, and direct government subsidies, the more entirely human responses assert themselves: the incentive to be self-reliant disappearing in direct proportion to the spread of self-righteousness about deserving such entitlements as a birthright. A year ago, to hint that many were not looking so eagerly for work because they enjoyed long-term unemployment benefits and an array of state subsidies would have been deemed heartless; soon the pieties of a credit-obsessed society will vanish with the tragic nod, and the remark “But of course — human nature being what it is.”

Finally, the entire debate about wealth and poverty, confined solely to the ossified realm of reported income and federal and state entitlements, will also change. Is one poor who has access to an iPhone or iPod, a big-screen television, or a hand-held GPS — appurtenances that even a decade ago were mostly confined to the affluent? Is one poor who can walk into a Wal-Mart and buy a Chinese- or Indian-made sweat suit for less than $20, one that appears not much different from the $500 designer sports outfit worn by the Wall Street grandee in Central Park?

Is the hot water any less hot, the stovetop any cooler, in the HUD-subsidized tract houses two miles from my home than in the mansions of a John Edwards, John Kerry, or Barack Obama?

Is the cash economy always to remain just an abstraction, or at some point does one tabulate officially what we know privately is commonplace? Do millions perennially count as impoverished who mow lawns, clean houses, and serve food for tax-free cash wages while qualifying for state subsidies?

Reactionary politicians in a time warp harangue about 19th-century-style poverty as if only their efforts to borrow more money to extend more entitlements to more people each day save humanity, even as high technology has reinvented modern consumer life, a huge cash economy has arisen hand-in-glove with half the nation not paying income tax, and some 500 million Indian and Chinese workers flood US stores with low-cost items unimaginable just twenty years ago.

There is a certain brutal honesty about this debt crisis. It is slowly beginning to force us to see the world in the tragic way it is, rather than in the therapeutic way we dream it must be.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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