Published May 6, 2013
Among various unwanted truths that grown-ups of the Western world have to contend with these days, here’s one that doesn’t get nearly the traction it deserves: The days of the modern welfare state look to be numbered.
Yet it’s true. Even the most redistributive president in history can’t change the laws of arithmetic. As can be seen most recently in Jonathan V. Last’s book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, the song of demographic unsustainability remains the same on both sides of the Atlantic. From Nicosia to Athens, London to Washington, D.C., the benefits promised to seniors and others before Western people stopped having babies will be shouldered in the years to come by a shrinking cadre of younger taxpayers. Nor is the discrepancy just some accounting shortfall to be finessed. As British psychiatrist and pundit Theodore Dalrymple once noted, this crisis is system-wide, “civilizational.”
Two weeks ago, for instance, two news items independently offered clear windows onto different parts of the scene. In the New York Times, a harrowing front page story entitled “More Children in Greece Start To Go Hungry” showed what can happen when an economy in free-fall meets the highest unemployment rates in Europe (27 percent): More Greek youngsters underfed and malnourished; garbage-picking outside elementary schools; and an overall level of “food insecurity” that, according to one expert, rivals that in parts of Africa. And though “experts” can be expected to overstate, Greece, it helps to remember, is a country in the EU.
On the same day, in the Washington Post, columnist George Will used recent work by Hudson Institute scholar Christopher DeMuth to examine the political sausage factory that could push America toward a Grecian future. DeMuth argues that the borrowing for consumption effectively hides the real level of taxation from the public—“until,” as Will concluded his column, “the implosion.” Economists can fume over the numbers all they like. Any non-economist checking the financial pages can see that the welfare states of the West are living on borrowed time.
All of which raises a radical and interesting question also overlooked so far: Could the failure of the cradle-to-grave state have the unforeseen consequence of reinvigorating another institution that’s been ailing for some time across the Western world—i.e., what you might call the cradle-to-grave family?
After all, a case can be made that the welfare state has competed with the family for primacy from the beginning. It’s a point exquisitely if unintentionally illustrated by the Obama reelection campaign’s infamous “Julia” website, which showed the beneficent state stepping in to do at every stage of life what used to be done by competent families: babysitting, educating, influencing romantic decisions, caring for someone in old age.
Raw propaganda aside, some serious thinkers have also remarked over the years on the zero-sum game that is the power struggle between family and state. Plato, for one, understood that the only sure way to make children reliable instruments of his Republic was to separate them from their families at an early age. British author Ferdinand Mount argued in a 1992 book that the family “is a subversive organization. . . . Only the family has continued throughout history and still continues to undermine the ‘State.’ ” Tocqueville, Mount pointed out, also grasped this fundamental antagonism between family and state; witness the great Frenchman’s observation that “as long as family feeling is kept alive, the opponent of oppression is never alone.”
Looking away from theory and toward the public square, it’s also plainly true that the welfare state has interrupted the organic bonds of family in ways too numerous to count. As Milton Friedman once observed of Social Security, “The voluntary transfers [from young to old] strengthened the bonds of the family; the compulsory transfers weaken those bonds.” And certainly it’s the welfare state that has effectively bankrolled via many programs the expensive pan-Western fallout of the sexual revolution: the unprecedented levels of divorce, family breakup, out-of-wedlock births, and other trends that have turned the modern state into an inefficient but all-encompassing substitute for a man of the house.
In sum, statism has been an engine of family destruction—and vice versa. All of which leads to a contrarian thought: Might the dark ages of the welfare state end in a family renaissance?
If the welfare states of the West finally do implode, it’s hard to think of any institution but the family that could step into that vacuum. When politics forces the truth that taking care of one’s own is less ruinous than having the state do it, it’s just possible that personal choices could come to reflect that fact.
Might divorce rates go down—as they did, suggestively enough, following the crash of 2008? Similarly, if there is a world after the welfare state, might there be earlier marriage and more of it, as the (unsubsidized) single life becomes less tenable? Or consider the less tangible ways in which a world without a viable cradle-to-grave safety net could reinvigorate family ties. Might the unreliability of the state lead people to look nearer for emotional and social sustenance—meaning less family breakup, maybe even a rise in the birth rate as insurance against the loneliness and uncertainty of old age?
It’s all armchair speculation, for sure. But the “boomerang generation,” to take one small but interesting example of how hard times have a way of sending people home, may yet turn out to be a harbinger of a wholly unexpected future reality. In what would look in retrospect like a cosmic joke no one saw coming, the ongoing travails of the unsustainable state might yet refurbish the family nest somewhere down the road.
Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of the just-released How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (Templeton Press).