The Welfare State Versus Free Will

Those of us who have lived long enough to see the changes in society over the course of time have a unique perspective of comparison from decade to decade. Having grown up during a time when most people took responsibility for their own actions and where the concept of equal opportunity did not mean equal outcomes, I’ve come to appreciate the liberty of thought and action we used to enjoy. Such liberty has been chipped away, restrained, by the enlarged and ever-growing welfare state we’ve allowed our government to assume.

The difference of the past 80 years is also evident in the statist attitudes and reduced will of Americans. By will, I mean the human will to self-determination. We’ve lost, as Americans, over the course of the years a steady amount of self-will. Instead of retaining our free will, we’ve allowed government to assume the responsibility over much of our lives. Instead of exercising free will, collectively, we’ve allowed the ideals of the welfare state, Marxist doctrine, and social engineering to rob us of our human nature and suppress our free will in order to conform to the social and political pressure of such a state.

The welfare state, as it has grown up since the Great Depression, has not only increased the numbers of people it purports to help, but also has grown to become part of the national psyche – the status quo of the purpose and function of government. The welfare state took a large leap in size during the Johnson administration, with his ideal of the war on poverty. Subsequently, government entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, assistance to low-income families, and most recently health care subsidies, all have multiplied and grown to make up a substantive percentage of the national budget.

The reason for the growth stems from the seductive nature of the welfare state. Expressing and maintaining free will takes energy, education, dedication to principles maintained in a free state, and the participation of all of the citizens. The welfare state, on the other hand, promises a certain quality of life without the pains of an unfair world. The welfare state seduces its participants into lethargy, dulling the mind and the will with promises that we will be taken care of with or without effort on our part. Under such a system, effort is not rewarded. Only perceived oppression is rewarded.

The 18th Century historian and political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the problem some 170 years ago. In his book Democracy in America, he notes the following about the dangers of despotism to democracy. I’ll make the connection here with our current trend toward the despotism of the welfare state:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.1

What the welfare state does, based on the debunked principles of Marxism and socialism, is alter the character of the American people. Such alteration doesn’t take place overnight, it is a gradual process, taking decades to suppress action until government can step in to fill the perceived voids of injustice. The state extends welfare as an act of compassion, owing to the great compassion of the American people. However, the welfare state creates an imperfect compassion, unequally applied, yet expecting final results of equal outcome.

Little by little, year after year, Americans get used to the idea of the welfare state, accept it, and allow the government greater leeway to collect taxes to fund entitlements. Americans eventually come to expect the government to assume total control, to “fix” all the problems of the world with a snap of its fingers.

In effect, we give up our own will to struggle with the problems of the world, expecting that government will take care of us and protect us from the worst abuses of an unfair world. Where inequities exists, government will step in and make them equal. Where suffering occurs, the government will create a new program to alleviate it.

The danger lies in two areas: First, in order for American democracy to function, its people must be free to exercise their free will and take control over their own lives. Second, the government trend toward the welfare state creates a real possibility of eventually becoming a totalitarian state.

1) The democratic principle demands that people exercise free will. When a government gets in the way of free will, even through subtle coercion, such as politicizing school curriculum or by supporting contrary ideologies over the principles of liberal democracy, the liberty of its people is in danger. The counter to this problem is self-determination and education.

John Stuart Mill put it this way:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.2

This area of the democratic principle deserves a deeper and more complete treatment than I give it here. It is enough to note, however, that the welfare state suppresses human will to the point where the government “practices a social tyranny” on Americans, urging us to conform to the social mandates of such a society while alienating those who don’t conform.

2) History teaches us that when people turn to the state for absolute safety, government takes liberty away from its people.

F. A. Hayek, in his book The Road to Serfdom bases his thesis on this principle. As he says:

The unforeseen but inevitable consequences of social planning create a state of affairs in which, if the policy is to be pursued, totalitarian forces will get the upper hand.3

I’ll return to Hayek’s book in later posts. The point here is the recognition of the deleterious effects on human character and free will under the growing American welfare state. Giving such power to government chips away at our own ability toward self-determination and places us at risk to create a totalitarian state.


1 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, (New York; Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), vol. 2, book 4, chapter 6, p. 319.

2 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, (Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts).

3 F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 50.

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9 Responses to The Welfare State Versus Free Will

  1. Dan Trabue says:

    I’m wondering, could you define what you mean by “welfare state?”

    Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, offers two variations or thoughts on the topic…

    * A model in which the state assumes primary responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. This responsibility in theory ought to be comprehensive, because all aspects of welfare are considered and universally applied to citizens as a “right”.
    * Welfare state can also mean the creation of a “social safety net” of minimum standards of varying forms of welfare.

    Based upon your writings, I assume you think the former is what you’re concerned about, yes?

    Would you include in this concept the way that motorists and oil companies, for instance, are subsidized by the state (motorists/car owners don’t pay nearly all of what it would cost to build the roads and fund the oil companies) or is your complaint only about the small number of poor folk on TANF-type welfare?

    • Euripides says:

      I should have been more precise in my use of the term welfare state, since the Wikipedia definition includes only the basic idea. In this case, I speak of the welfare state in terms of socialist ideals which are based on the principles of equal outcomes, distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for private concerns, such as providing health insurance or running a corporation.

      The danger, of course, lies in both the public reliance on the government and government growth. Reliance on an ever growing government for some needs produces a changed character where the government supplants the individual will to action.

  2. Dan Trabue says:

    I guess you know that it IS a tiny minority of folk who receive “welfare”? in 2005, it was about 2 million people, or less than 1% of the US population. [ source] Of course, it goes up and down, I think we’re about 4 million now. Still, we’re talking about 1-2%, right?

    Did you know that the majority of folk who DO receive welfare do so for two years or less? [ source]

    Are you concerned about the mentally challenged mother who receives welfare to support her three children? Are you advocating an end to their “welfare state”?

    To be sure, I agree that we all need to be wary about becoming dependent on the gov’t for all our fulfilling hopes and dreams and “protecting us” from every conceivable bogeyman, terrorist and liberal. We all could stand to be a bit more self-sufficient, growing our own food, walking more, driving less, turning down our AC and dressing more warmly in the winter rather than burning more fossil fuels.

    But I also think there is a great deal of wisdom in the notion of being our brother’s keeper, that we ARE to watch out for each other, especially the “least of these.” Now, my preference for seeing that done is the family, the community, the faith communities, etc. But when these methods fail, I think it behooves us all to have safety nets in place.

    Are these “safety nets” what you’re speaking of removing or what exactly would you change if you were king?

    • Euripides says:

      This is a red herring argument – throwing off the point of the post by picking on a single point. I assume you do so, not for the sake of understanding or argument, but for the sake of trying to discredit the whole post through minor details. You also narrow the definition of the word “welfare” to fit only your limited view of the welfare state.

      That said, your source from doesn’t take into account the huge numbers of entitlement recipients in this country. For example, Social Security covered 162.3 million recipients in 2008 for a total cost of about $1.2 trillion dollars. In 2008, Medicare paid out $468.1 billion dollars in benefits. In 2007, Worker’s Compensation covered 131.7 million workers totaling $5.8 trillion. (Social Security Online)

      This doesn’t include the some $3.7 trillion paid out from the 2009 spending bill and the estimated $1.2 trillion in new coverage for health insurance. (By the way, I do not agree with Keynesian economics in the case of deficit spending.)

      This amounts to something more than a “tiny minority” of people receiving welfare from the government. These are more than “safety nets” to cover the example of your “mentally challenged mother” situation. This is redistribution of the wealth of individuals to pay for programs that have become huge, unwieldy beasts which threaten to bankrupt an entire country.

    • I would add that while the few people advocate for the entire removal of any type of public assistance, one of the oft unchallenged assumptions under-girding the welfare state (as defined by the author of the post) is that government in general, and the federal government specifically should be the guarantor of such social insurance. Put another way, no one wants the “mentally challenged mother of 3” to roam the streets in destitution or even worse to have her children grow up in those circumstances. However, is it the responsibility of the federal government to take care of her or would her care be better left to state or local authorities, or perhaps even to private interests?

      You mention that your preference is to see these things done through the family, the community, the faith community, etc. We are agreed on that point. However the way government entitlement programs work, they are no longer places of last resort for those who have exhausted all other possibilities, but rather the first stop for many who assume it is the governments job to take care of these things. In fact the larger and more pervasive the government’s intrusion into these matters becomes, the less likely it is that people will turn to alternate means of assistance which leads inexorably to the bureaucratization of compassion, which is no compassion at all.

      • Euripides says:

        Thanks for your reply. I think you are correct in your perception of government welfare. We laugh at the inefficiency of the bureaucracies that make up our government, then allow our government to create more and larger bureaucracies to administer more and larger programs. The concept just doesn’t make sense from a pragmatic point of view.

        Certainly problems and inequities exists at all levels of welfare, but are we really doing ourselves a favor by creating huge systems, based on government control, to run the welfare system? Decentralized control, of course, may not be as “efficient” but at least we don’t run into the dangers of creating a totalitarian government and bureaucratic failure on a huge scale.

  3. Dan Trabue says:

    Referring back to JB’s column about “the problem with conservatives,” I must say that I’d suggest that one problem that I’ve seen is the reluctance to engage to defend/explain their positions, at least out on the blogosphere.

    I’ve noted that, over and over, I find that the conservative sites are the ones that moderate messages (like you do here) and are quickest not to post comments. I understand spam, I understand blocking trolls, I understand passing on comments that are off topic, but just not posting on topic comments/questions seems an odd thing to me, especially for groups/people that say they want to defend their message.

    I expect that it’s more likely that these type places like to rant amongst friends and have an amen corner to just agree with their points, not really engage in conversation.

    Which is fine. We all like to rant amongst friends at times without having to defend our positions. I’d just suggest it would be wise to make that clear.

    I’m not saying that’s the case here, I was just wondering if it was, seeing as how some on-topic questions/comments have gone unanswered.

    Of course, it may well be that you’re just too busy to get to it, and that’s fine.


    • MBABailey says:

      Thank you again for reading. Let me see if I can clarify a couple of things. First of which is that no one likes to “defend” their position. Defending is something that is done in response to an attack. As no one enjoys being attacked, no one likes to defend.
      I would imagine it would be difficult to tell which sites are truly the most likely to moderate comments, as it would require posting comments to a wide variety of sites, expressing views both in line with and contrary to those put forth by the authors of the site. I have personally submitted a number of comments to CNN that have never seen the light of day. Does this mean that they were censoring me because of my views? Not necessarily. It could have been, but there could have also been a number of other reasons my comment did not get posted.
      You mention ranting. To rant is to speak or declaim extravagantly or violently or to talk in a wild or vehement way. I have followed the posts on this site very carefully, and not a single one of them would qualify. Each is calmly presented, and done in a manner that is intended to be respectful while attempting to promote ideals that we deem important. To rant is to do what this site expressly decries, namely to give one’s self to emotion.
      As for why certain comments have been posted, and others have not, that lies entirely with me. As the editor in chief of the RC blog, it is my decision to determine which comments will be posted, and which will not. If there is a comment that in my opinion does not merit posting, I will not post it. If an author wants to respond to a comment that has not been posted, they can ask me to post it, and I will. Barring intervention by an author, I will be the arbiter of comments.
      I would suggest that perhaps the tone of comments could be altered from one that is borderline antagonistic, to one that is more inquisitive. It may yield better results when trying to get a comment posted. (Of course when we are busy with the rest of our lives, the internet will always take a back seat and have to wait until we get back…)

    • Euripides says:


      Thanks for your comments.

      I’m not convinced by your observations about moderating comments. On my own site, for example, I post just about everything that anyone says. I used to have an open comment section until several liberal decided to spam the site with rude and obscene comments. Now I moderate all comments.

      I have also spent some time commenting on liberal sites and, while the comments are not moderated, my comments have nearly always been marked as “inappropriate” and removed for the sin of disagreeing with the majority opinion. For example, I’ve never had a comment where I support marriage between a man and a woman survive any liberal comment section on which I’ve participated. Sure, the comment section is open but such “openness” is tempered by a population of folks who would rather not hear any dissenting viewpoint.

      I agree with Jeff about the concept of defending a position. I would take this a step further and suggest that the post itself constitutions a position statement. While some may agree or disagree with the post, is there a need for a “defense” of the original statement? As I participate more here on Rational Conservatism I’ll be adding more and varied ideas about the benefits of a conservative system. (Which, as I mentioned in my bio, is really a system based on the liberal democracy of the 18th Century.) This is entirely appropriate in such a forum of Conservative ideas as this. Those who find the enlightenment of a free will position as I’ve discovered in my own life will benefit from what I can express from my own viewpoint. Those who disagree are welcome to do so.

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