Monday, May 16, 2011

Brief Relfections on Safety Nets

Of all the conservative philosophies, that which pertains to safety nets is most frequently misunderstood. Most critics wrongly believe that conservatives are opposed to "social security and other safety nets," which is rarely the case. In fact, I and most conservatives believe in the necessity of strengthening multiple, concentric levels of safety nets. The overemphasis on federal programs has inadvertently eroded other safety nets, leading to greater social insecurity. In a more ample and dynamic system, the first resort would be to utilize the rich tapestry of family, community and civil society and then local government, only turning to federal solutions as the last resort.

The first level of social security comes from fostering self reliance, a strong work ethic, the value of thrift, planning and pursuit of education. Government policies and philosophies that foster dependence, passivity and a sense of victimhood leave individuals more vulnerable.

The next and perhaps most essential safety nets are family and friends. In the absence of viable government programs, Mexicans, Indians, Chinese and other groups have developed an impressive level of familial support and cooperation. Rather than rely on government sponsored daycare, working families relied on aunts, uncles and grandparents. And until recently it was considered unthinkable in most cultures to outsource the care of elderly parents to private and (especially) to public institutions; that was the job of children. And what of individuals who could not afford housing? With the absence of section-8 and other such subsidies, most families understood that it was their duty to at least temporarily take in family members of limited means. And of course they understood that the good graces of their family implied that they had to contribute their labor and limited wealth to that household. Sadly, the introduction of many immigrant families to government programs have eroded cooperative behavior.

To this day, there exists communities in which a high degree of mutual assistance exists between neighbors, which serves as an important concentric level of social & economic security. In addition, churches and charities are expected to assume a central role in assisting the downtrodden. This is most often found in communities bound by shared values and culture and less prevalent in culturally diverse communities.The best examples being the remarkable degree of cooperation seen among Amish, Mennonites & Orthodox Jewish communities.

Next, we come to local and state government. Although they can be just as corrupt and inefficient as the federal government (welcome to Illinois!), their social programs tend to be more adaptive and accountable. Much of this reflects the fact that unlike the federal government they cannot print money or endlessly borrow from the Chinese. But, as the federal government's role has increased, more individuals have become indifferent to local politics.

And last we come to social security and other federal safety nets. I believe that they should exist, but as last resorts, after an individual has fallen through the other concentric levels of social & economic security that we just discussed. But, more than anything I question the wisdom of mandatory, universal entitlements that applies to the rich, middle class and the poor. To take care of the poor is a noble endeavor, but to mandate that economically productive middle and upper class families place their wealth and welfare in the hands of a federal ponzi scheme, rather than save & invest for their future defies common sense and basic economics. This poses a moral hazard in which many families who would have saved and invested opted not to based on their belief that their welfare was ensured by the federal government. Furthermore, this diminished the incentives of many individuals to "invest in"  the multiple, concentric safety nets that we discussed. These safety nets do not exist in a vacuum; in order to have your family, friends, neighbors, church and charity support you during hard times, you must cultivate positive relationships with them during the good times. A wise and frugal federal government would seek to strengthen, rather than usurp the role of these essential facets of social and economic security.

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