Lawler on Entitlement Reform

1) In principle, defined benefit entitlements might seem a logical form expressive of that eternal society between the dead, living, and still to be born that is the foundation of all real politics.  It seems to bespeak a sense of promise from one generation to the next and to refuse the short-term thinking that the “oligarchy of the living” tends to indulge in when it thinks only of itself.  But, as I have speculated elsewhere, the appearance of the welfare state to be structured for the long term benefit of its people is an illusion; the benefits it provides tend to squander the resources of future generations for the comfort of the present one, rather than to uphold a promise to present and future alike.  The talk of such programs as long term promises conceals this reality.  Defined contribution benefits, in my experience, seema healthy analogue to the purchase and caretaking of a home and land : there are no guarantees (because the future does not allow for them), but through wise habits of saving one can be reasonably prepared for the future without making others in the future the debtors for your benefits.  It speaks to the mind-numbing enticements of defined benefit welfare programs that they have lasted as long as they have (a state of anaesthesia from which Lawler understandably expect us to resist awakening).

2) Caritas is the foundation of the ethical and political virtues and, of course, the modern project has been to find a way to make all people be good and to have the state function ever more ambitiously without having to keep that foundation in place.  In lieu of it, of course, we get the sacharine simulacra of talk of empathy and “altruism” and so on, and we get technocratic systems designed to coordinate and render predictable nearly every aspect of our lives.  The fundamental question we are set to answer at FPR is, I think, what are the social and cultural conditions in which the virtue of caritas can best be cultivated and made a habitus?  We presume — perhaps unjustly — that most Americans believe that a life of virtue, including those of charity and self-government, is superior to a life of inane dependence and indigent docility ministered to by a state architecture so vast as to boggle imagination and conception alike.

Human nature does not change, and so the virtues of a good human life are relatively (though not absolutely) stable.  But, as the welfare state continues either its descent into a smaller role in American lives, or its complete dissolution in the solvant of American appetites and imprudence, what are the social forms that will make it easiest for each of us  to acquire and practice the virtue of charity?  And — in a separate but no less important question — what are the conditions that make the charity many of us anyway and already possess most efficacious?  The charity of the martyr is of the same type as the charity of Mother Teresa or as that of a grandmother who takes care of her grandchildren while the parents are at work; so, what does a society look like when the practice of charity tends not to lead to or require the witness of one’s death but merely to the daily hospitality that could offset the moribund but extensive benefits of the welfare state?

A starting point to answer these questions surely lies in the stability of a settled place and a settled community — which, when present, entail also a settled family and the close contact not of the nuclear family alone but that of extended generations.  And so, as we face the limits of the welfare state’s reach (and, pray God, its lifespan), we face the challenge of accepting those moral, political, and geographical limits that make for big families and enduring small communities.

A republic of front porches would not simply be a nice ornament to help us feel a bit more altruistic and at home in a world governed by technocrats and supranational bureaucracies.  The front porch of every house would be a synecdoche for the basic moral and political unit that makes possible the good life lived together.  Charity is a theological virtue, says the Tradition, and so only God makes it actual in us.  But the possession of charity and its cultivation and efficacy are distinct questions of nature and of state (or essence and condition).  The freedom of love takes root and grows most fruitfully, I believe, in the good earth of necessity — and no necessity is more auspicious than that state of a single place inhabited by a single people over generations.  Under such circumstances, the children, the elderly, and the infirm get taken care of and — miracle of miracles — that care is bound up with the pursuit of the good life in this world and the next.

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