In a post last night about Mike Lee’s superb Heritage speech from Monday, I mentioned in passing that I was at least as struck by the fact that Lee did not emphasize the problem of “dependency” as by the crucially important themes he did lay out.
A fair number of friendly readers, all of whom were just as impressed by Lee’s remarks, have asked me to say a little more about why dependency might not be the best way to describe conservative objections to the detrimental moral effects of the welfare state. I’m glad to try (with apologies in advance for the length of this post).
While I think the argument about dependency gets at a real problem—the ways in which the welfare state undermines personal responsibility—the term dependency and the concept it describes point us toward a radically individualist understanding of that problem that is mistaken in some important ways. We are all dependent on others. The question is whether we are dependent on people we know, and they on us—in ways that foster family and community, build habits of restraint and dignity, and instill in us responsibility and a sense of obligation—or we are dependent on distant, neutral, universal systems of benefits that help provide for our material wants without connecting us to any local and immediate nexus of care and obligation. It is not dependence per se, which is a universal fact of human life, but dependence without mutual obligation, that corrupts the soul. Such technocratic provision enables precisely the illusion of independence from the people around us and from the requirements of any moral code they might uphold. It is corrosive not because it instills a true sense of dependence but because it inspires a false sense of independence and so frees us from the sorts of moral habits of mutual obligation that alone can make us free.
We reach for the idea of dependency because of the kind of arguments we often respond to from the left—arguments that seem like calls for common action instead of individual action. But we should look more carefully at those arguments. The problem with the “you didn’t build that” mindset, as becomes particularly clear if you read what the president said before and after that line, is not just that it denies the significance of individual initiative (though that’s an important part of the problem, and our culture of individual initiative, which is far from radical individualism, is a huge social achievement in America) but also that it denies the significance of any common efforts that are not political. The president took the pose of a critic of individualism, but in fact the position he described involves perhaps the most radical individualism of all, in which nothing but individuals and the state exists in society. Alexis de Tocqueville saw where this would go long ago:
I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.
Above all these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?
It is not hard to see why this kind of infantilization would strike us as first and foremost raising problems of dependency, but what Tocqueville shows so powerfully is that the trouble does not arise from a dearth of individual independence but rather from the error of radical individualism itself—from the separating of people from those around them. And that separation is not accidental but essential to a certain kind of liberalism.
To summarize (and so necessarily oversimplify some, to be sure): The utopian goal of the most radical forms of liberalism has always been the complete liberation of the individual from all unchosen “relational” obligations—obligations to the people around you that are a function of the family and community in which you live. Resentment against such obligations was a central and powerful motive in the radical late-18th century thought that gave us some (though not all) forms of modern libertarianism and the modern Left, and the defense of such obligations was central to the counter-arguments that yielded modern conservatism. (I might mention here, by the way, that these somewhat unfamiliar origins of the Left-Right divide are the subject of a forthcoming book of mine, which will be out later this year.)
These radicals originally thought that the liberation of the individual could result directly from the application of key liberal principles to politics, but when liberal ideals did not bring about their utopian aims, some of them abandoned the liberal principles rather than the utopian aims and sought to pursue that liberation by other means. The Left-leaning, and ultimately progressive, form of this resentment of unchosen obligations dealt with the fact that dependence cannot really be eradicated by calling for dependence only on a distant and (supposedly) morally neutral provider of necessities on whom everyone else is equally dependent.
We often think of this peculiar objective in terms of equality, but I think it is better understood in terms of the liberation of the individual from the constraints of community and family—from the obligations imposed by the place and time in which we happen to find ourselves. Breaking apart clusters of people into individuals who then all have the same relation to the state is a way of freeing those individuals from one another.
This is not a counter-force to individualism (as even serious people on the left sometimes suggest it is) but rather the most radical form of individualism—using government to atomize and pulverize society’s institutions. It is a mode of living that liberates us from local and generational attachments by subjecting us to intricate but morally indifferent rules imposed from a distance. Liberals like to think of such rules as morally neutral but they are more properly described as morally neutralizing—imposing on society the social libertarianism that liberalism takes for granted by defining society as legitimately consisting only of individuals and a state that is largely indifferent to their moral choices, with nothing in between.
What this engenders certainly involves some material dependence on the state, and that is what conservatives often react against, but more significantly it seeks to advance a sense of non-dependence on anyone else—a sense that you don’t need to depend on anyone you know and (perhaps more important) that no one you know needs to depend on you. That is how the welfare state really does encourage failures of responsibility, what we tend to loosely call dependency: If no one depends upon your working when you can and meeting your obligations, you’re simply less likely to do so. This is not quite dependence, and indeed at times it is its opposite. And if your needs are met without a reciprocal obligation on your part to those who help you meet them, you are less likely to be in the habit of work and discipline. This can be even more morally corrosive than mere dependence on the state, because it encourages the illusion of independence, and lifts us out of the layered networks of social obligation and commitment that give a thriving human life its form.
The problem created by the welfare state is thus not best understood as a problem of dependence but as the illusion of an impossible independence—an individualism so radical it renders all human relationships, including our relationships to the weakest and most needy of those around us, into non-binding optional arrangements, ignoring the realities of human life that make it necessary to guard human beings in their most vulnerable moments through an array of unchosen—or at the very least non-optional—obligations, especially in the family. The Left’s statist radical individualism that masquerades as a kind of communitarian collectivism pretends to offer a way for people to act together, but in practice it offers an escape from all mutual dependence and from the neediness of people who are not well positioned to pretend to be utterly autonomous.
Conservatives buy into this confusion when we describe the foremost vice of this system as dependency. Dependency is a fact of the human condition. The denial of that fact, along with the other facts of the human condition, is the characteristic vice of modern liberalism—a denial undertaken by bold assertion in liberalism’s libertarian form and by an exercise of technocratic prowess in its progressive form. Conservatism at its best acts as a restraint on this vice, and a reminder of the basic facts of the human condition. But of course we are not always at our best.
Yuval Levin is Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs.