Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Will Minnesota Meet de Tocqueville?

By Tim Dunkin


                According to some observers, a terrible catastrophe has just struck the state of Minnesota.  Due to an impasse on fiscal and taxation questions, the government of that state has been "shut down."  On one side of the divide, you have Governor Mark Dayton, a tranquil (and some would say tranquilized) leftist who has been pushing for higher taxes as a way of solving Minnesota's budgetary deficit.  On the other side, there is the Republican-controlled legislature that, to its credit, have taken the rare step of actually displaying a backbone by pushing for spending reductions instead and by standing up to Dayton's efforts to further destroy Minnesota's economy.  As of this weekend, the government of Minnesota "officially" is no longer open for business.


                Much to the relief of the hard-working, productive taxpayers of the state, I'm sure.


                Of course, the talk of a government "shutdown" is largely hyperbole.  It isn't as if everything government-related in the state has ceased to exist.  The roads and bridges are still open.  The state police are still investigating crimes and policing the highways and byways.  The lights are still on in the statehouse. 


                No, what is meant by "shutdown" is that all of those non-essential (and largely illegitimate) things that the state government had been doing have stopped.  Things which it never should have been doing in the first place.  We can see what some of those things are from this article, a puff piece appearing in a Canadian newspaper writing about the budget impasse,


"The blind are losing reading services. A help line for the elderly has gone silent. And poor families are scrambling after the state stopped child-care subsidies."


                In other words, forget about roads, forget about public safety, forget about the limited set of things that governments are actually supposed to be doing – what they're concerned about are non-essential things that it is downright wrong for the government, any government, to be doing anywise.  I'll get to reading services for the blind and help lines for the elderly in a moment, but let's focus on the "child care subsidies" for a minute.  From further down in the article,


"In the absence of talks between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP legislative leaders, the shutdown was rippling into the lives of people like Sonya Mills, a 39-year-old mother of eight facing the loss of about $3,600 a month in state child-care subsidies."


                See, leftists want you to read this and think, "How terrible!  She can't get child care for her eight kids anymore!"  I read this and think, "Well, isn't that a shame, she can no longer steal funds to the tune of $43,200 a year anymore from the hardworking taxpayers of Minnesota anymore."  Think about it – by failing to exercise personal responsibility and having eight kids that she can't afford to pay for, she has basically been making the people of Minnesota give her the equivalent of a solidly middle-class salary for the purpose of taking care of those kids. 


                "So what could she do?," some might ask.  Well, the answer – and one which should apply to all future case, especially those still in the making – is that she could take responsibility for her own actions, instead of passing the costs for her own poor decision-making off onto the rest of the state.  I'm not saying she might not have to make some painful sacrifices, such as saving instead of spending, or building up a support network of family or within a church if she doesn't already have such a network to call upon.  However, we know it can be done, because people did it in times past, and many still do today.


                Personal responsibility is becoming something of a lost art in 21st century America.  And why not?  When your government basically sets up the system to encourage irresponsibility, not many people are going to have the fortitude or character to resist the temptation to let somebody else be your nanny.  If the government will pay you hundreds of dollars a month to stick your kids in a daycare that you otherwise never could have afforded, what reason do you really have to stop manufacturing babies with every willing baby daddy who shambles by?  Especially when the government is probably also paying for all your pre-natal care, the cost of delivery and hospitalization, and the post-natal pediatrics as well?  The state itself sets up the taxpayer for exploitation by an increasingly large parasitic class.  In my own area, there is a large population of homeless people – and these folks, almost to a man, get a combination of large checks from the state and federal governments at the beginning of each money.  These checks are supposed to be used for things like rent, support while they find jobs, and so forth.  Instead, the money's gone in three days, spent on a combination of booze, drugs, cigarettes, and prostitutes. 


                What this country needs is a good, old-fashioned dose of sink-or-swim personal responsibility.  If people realized that they weren't going to have a "safety net" catching them every time they make a stupid or foolish decision, many of them would be more likely to figure out that stupid and foolish decisions are, well, stupid and foolish.  But that important, valuable life lesson is never learned when people are insulated from the consequences of their own actions by means of government theft and forced redistribution from those who generally don't make stupid and foolish decisions.  While there have always been people who made bad decisions in life, we nevertheless find it to be true that back in the day when people saved instead of impulse buying on credit, when people got married before having kids, when people made sure they could support children they brought into this world even if it meant sacrificing for them, we didn't see the problems that we see today.  There wasn't government helping to create problems of illegitimacy, welfare poverty, and the like.  Most of these problems – problems that today we are told must be solved by socialism and massive wealth redistribution – were much less prevalent when they weren't being encouraged by the state. 


                Okay, so we understand that the simple personal responsibility would solve a lot of the things that government "has" to do.  But what about some of the other things mentioned in the article, conditions that exist through no fault of those in them.  After all, most blind people didn't ask to be blind, and most old people didn't ask to become old.  Should the state be using taxpayer funds for blind reading programs and help lines for the elderly?


                I would still say no.  The answer here, I believe, is also for individuals to exercise responsibility, to step up to the plate and fulfill roles that the government seems to think it should be filling.  Personal responsibility, I think, is key in this realm as well.  After all, who should be taking care of an infirmed or elderly person – their own family or the state?  Obviously, their own family.  In cases where there is no family member, the care can and should be provided by private individuals and organizations who voluntarily choose to take that extra step and move beyond their purely private interests and into the realm of being good neighbors to the truly needy around them.


                This is where de Tocqueville comes into the picture.  Among the other observations that he made about the early American republic was the sense of public-spiritedness that pervaded the national life.  If there was a need in a community, of whatever sort, the response of early Americans was not to demand government intervention, but to come together as private individuals to perform a public good.  He observed in Democracy in America,


"Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fêtes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association."


                This is an important point.  What we see these early Americans doing that de Tocqueville met are things that today, by and large, the government does instead.  These days, hospitals are largely government affairs, whether directly, or indirectly by means of a "public-private partnership."  Prisons are, of course, government built.  Public schools are the same way.  So are many other community functions that used to be provided for by the people themselves, rather than by distant pickpockets in Washington DC or a state capital. 


                Families, churches, voluntary organizations – these should be the means of support for those who truly need the help of others.  I will readily agree that the elderly shouldn't be ignored, that the infirmed shouldn't be shuffled off to be forgotten, that the truly needy shouldn't be left out in the cold.  But as I've said before, charity is not virtuous, if it is not voluntary.  Our responsibility is to provide for our own, not to shift them off like a sack of coal onto somebody else.  This is the way we can walk the line between being a cruel and heartless society and being overwhelmed by "do-gooder" socialism.


                So you want a reading program for the blind?  Then find some likeminded citizens, put it together, and do it yourself.  A help line for the elderly who don't otherwise have a support network?  Get some fellow citizens with a similar burden together and lend the hand yourself.  Don't make other people pay for it if you're not willing to shoulder the burden of your vision yourself.  I think that if Americans could get two ideas through our skulls – that "doing right for others is the right thing to do even if we don't always personally profit from it," while yet "we don't have the right to make other people pay for do-gooding that we would like to see done" - we would go along way toward obviating the "need" for about 80% of what the government currently does that it is not constitutionally supposed to be doing.  There's nothing, in and of itself, wrong with being community- and other-minded, so long as you exercise personal responsibility to do your own good.  Certainly a moral society helps those who really, truly are in need – but it does it by free and voluntary choice, as individuals help other individuals, instead of bureaucrats handing out checks made out with stolen money and encouraging shiftlessness and irresponsibility.


                Though many in that state may not realize it, Minnesota stands at an important crossroads.  There is the opportunity for the people in this state to step up and start taking back some of the functions of community and charity that have been usurped by increasingly big government.  Will people rise to the challenge and show that they really don't need the government doing all these things that it does that only make problems worse and which always seem to be mismanaged, forced into one-size-fits-all approaches that waste resources that could be much more efficiently used by private individuals without the red tape, government unions, and other idiotic overhead?  Minnesotans have the chance to show de Tocqueville that Americans still have that republican, small-government public-spiritedness that doesn't need the government to step in and "fix" things.