Devon, PA. Everyone seems to be in on, and to understand, the debate between FPR and Peter Lawler’s “postmodern conservatism” except me.  I have made a few jokes and gestures in its direction, but that is because, as both Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas persuasively argue, one does not have to have a complete understanding of something in order to joke about it.  Lawler’s latest Big Think blog post efficiently lays out the realities with which the debate on entitlement must come to terms.  He outlines the political circumstances and their stakes thus:

Here are the reasons for each party’s advantage.

One health care: The Democrats have a plan for reform (that’s already law, of course). The Republicans are for its repeal. People like repeal mostly because they think Obamacare will wreck the employed-based plans they know and love to rely upon. Old people also don’t like Obamacare because it’s being paid for, apparently, by cutting Medicare.

On Medicare: The Republicans have a reform plan (Ryan’s). The Democrats are against it. People like Medicare as it now is. They don’t want the move to a “voucher.” They think they’ll pay more and get less. And being old, as a result, will become riskier than ever. They’re already more paranoid than ever (with solid evidence) that their money can’t last as long as they do.

People are conservative, in both cases, in exactly this way: They like what they have, and they think change will mean they’ll have less. Let’s face it: One of the facts of the welfare state’s erosion is that they’re right. (I’ve talked before about the demographic crisis, the rising cost of health care, and all that.)

The best spin that can be put on the middle American’s likely future is: The good news is you’ll have more choice. The bad is that risk is being transferred from government and your employer to you, and you’ll have to pay more out-of-pocket to get the care you enjoy now through your employer.

The Republicans have to convince middle Americans that the move from DEFINED BENEFITS to DEFINED CONTRIBUTION is the wave of the future. Anyone who says it can be stopped is lying. And something like Ryan’s plan offers the best deal they can get in an era of diminished resources for entitlements. It’ll be tough to convince Americans that this tough vision is change they can believe in. I actually think Ryan deserves credit for boldly trying to change our thinking in a genuinely realistic way, even if he’s clearly for going too far too fast.

Now THE TEA PARTIERS and their theorists are all excited about the coming new birth of freedom and a return to the Constitution of our Founders. But their passion–as admirable as it might be–is not going to end up animating a majority of our voters. As William Voegeli wrote in Never Enough, if people come to believe that the welfare state is unconstitutional, that’ll be at the expense of the popularity of the Constitution, not the welfare state.

We’re going to need to rely on VOLUNTARY CAREGIVING more than ever to meet this crisis. One piece of American exceptionalism is how much we rely on that even now. Yuval Levin sees this better, I think, than the Randians and even the Tea Partiers. But one result of our creeping individualism is that the infrastructure that makes such caregiving–done mainly, let’s tell the truth, by women–possible is imploding too. Maybe the new birth of freedom or personal choice we’re probably stuck with we’ll lead to a renewal of voluntary associations based on personal love or charity. Or maybe not. EMPATHY, I’ve said before, is a pitiful substitute for CHARITY (or some similar virtue rooted in personal love) as the foundation for devoting oneself to others, to,family, friends, the unfortunate (the disabled, the poor, and lonely), and the common good.

I am not sure what Lawler means in saying Rep. Ryan is moving too quickly; perhaps he intends that simply in terms of persuasion rather than policy prudence.  But his two major points are based upon two principles that ought to be present in any credible conservative program to ease America back into long-term solvency and to allow it to cultivate and depend upon the moral virtues of its people.  Namely, the in-principle shift from defined contributions for all entitlements (as Lawler has said elsewhere, you are welcome to have defined benefit entitlements, but you had better start having more children and take up smoking, if you want them to be sustainable), and the first of all the moral and theological virtues: caritas.

Two brief, unsystematic reflections on these points.

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.

Our civilization has just about concluded its grand experiment in seeing with how few virtues and how little of each it can make do, and in discovering how free of dependence on place and people a state technocracy can render a human being.  Lawler’s post, as always, is modest and prudential in its approach, but behind it lies as invitation to reevaluate what our society ought to conserve of its present wreck and what it ought to recover from its past flourishing.

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James Matthew Wilson
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. I like the general tenor of this piece, and I think it is indisputable that the entitlement mentality has to be reformed or even removed altogether. I also agree with having this conversation using terms like virtue. However, the moment we start invoking this word, we must apply it to those of wealth and power – the purported leaders who would guide us into the future.

    Paul Ryan, while having the basic idea right, is operating in incredibly bad faith. Historically low taxes on wealthy income, insanely regressive taxes on capital gains vs. income, corporate taxes that are at a ludicrous low, two farcical wars, and a behemoth military industrial complex. Let’s start there when we talk about long term fiscal reform and we can alter promised benefits in Medicare and Social Security as well.

  2. When all the fancy fol-de-rol is tallied up, the switch from defined benefit to defined contribution is simply one more way for the rich to screw over the non-rich.
    Enough is enough of this. No: we’re way past enough, and far gone into Too Much. Maybe it’s time to reconsider the tumbril and guillotine. And if a Christian with strong pacifist leanings can say that, the people trying to pull off this epic swindle need to be very afraid.

  3. “Our civilization has just about concluded its grand experiment in seeing with how few virtues and how little of each it can make due, and in discovering how free of dependence on place and people a state technocracy can render a human being.”

    I agree that we seem to have been living – over the past couple of generations – through a kind of massive, maybe even bluntly traumatic, social experiment. One involving the detachment of us puny, redundant, defenseless human individuals from any sense of dependence upon “people and place.” But aren’t you going a bit too far in assigning the bulk of the credit for the job to merely STATE technocracy? That appears to me to be giving to any government apparatus a luster and a competence that few if any deserve. Personally I can’t imagine the State having made such admittedly vast progress in the revolutionizing of our lives all by itself – that is, without the help and input of certain other, more efficiency-driven agencies. Indeed I wonder if the main drivers and instigators of this process of de-localization (the State being the principal engine, I’ll grant) would not be better described as supranational corporate-driven technocracies. A long, clumsy phrase, but for now it’s the most comprehensive I can come up with.

    And speaking of “supranational,” why does nobody ever mention any more, in this connection, the pioneering work of that great supranationalist par excellence, Zbigniew Brzezinski? And in particular his vision of man as a radically de-spatialized creature, as outlined (perhaps) even as far back as his early, “Future Shock”-style overview of broad global trends, “Between Two Ages” (1970)?

  4. Great article. I agree with JR though, a state only explanation is a little wanting. Some portion of our situation is owing to the unintended consequence of capitalism itself. Our affections and vision of the good life (re)shaped by our consumer economy.

  5. I’ll violate my policy of leaving comment boxes to the commentators just long enough to note that I more or less agree with the argument that the rise of the modern state cannot alone account for the disintegration of cultural and communal bonds. The occasion of the essay led me not to address the influence of the international corporation. I suppose I cannot take for granted that readers will be acquainted with those essays in which I have so addressed that matter:

    “The Fallacies of a Free Market”

    “Economics for Experts and for Human Beings”

    “The Empire of Addiction” Parts I and II

  6. James: Thank you for collecting your other essays-good stuff. Your mention of caritas above caused me to listen again to your excellent interview with Ken Myers. Keep up the good works.

  7. Sure, something as abstract as the so-called “modern state” may not be the cause nor the comforter of the current problem but this particular debauched State and its confusion between bunko and governance certainly is an un-indicted, co-conspirator.

    As if waste and inefficiency were not bad enough, this State prosecutes a campaign of both within a deteriorating regime of accelerating debt. It pats the “individual ” on the head while pursuing a debilitating leveling of the populace as rigorously as any platform-mad Bolshy ever did.

    Once a Legislative Bill approaches a page count as high or higher than the longest novels, you know you have a problem because at least a novel generally includes a narrative plot rather than the kinds of plot attendant to baksheesh.

  8. Paul Ryan is unworthy of the credit given him in the essay above. He offers “the incredible shrinking voucher” which, in ten years time, will leave seniors with almost nothing. He is doing that to pull a fast one, and finance tax cuts for people who definitely do not need them.

    While the Republicans are being completely dishonest — they are motivated by funding and ideological sources that really do want to deprive a majority of voters of programs most of us really do want to keep — the Democrats have abysmally failed to rise to the challenge. There has been no fiscally sound alternative from that party in the last twelve years.

    What an honest politician would do is remind us all that whatever we want, SOMEONE has to pay for it, in full. If we cut corners, we can shove some of it off onto doctors and hospitals in the form of uncompensated services, or onto maintenance workers, in the form of lower wages imposed by cost-cutting hospitals, we can put some of it on the tax rolls, but it ain’t free.

    Then, we need to look at the fiscal picture, not as a question of “are you for higher taxes or lower taxes,” not “do you want everyone to be well care for or dumped by the side of the road,” but, what do we want our government to do, how much will it cost, knowing the cost, do we REALLY want it, and, if we do, how are we going to pay for it?

    There is a place for sliding scales, progressive income taxes, property tax relief, in this picture, but the bottom line is, it all has to balance.

    That might require what Sarah Palin opportunistically calls “death panels,” (while she vigorously attacks the tax revenues necessary to pay for open ended care). I would say, anyone who is chronically incapable of giving informed consent will receive NO invasive surgery or expensive medications, only palliative and topical treatment. That’s what I want for me.

    Then, if one person out of 1000 is going to have a heart attack in their lifetime, the premiums paid by each 1000 people over their lifetime have to add up to the cost of treating one heart attack. (It gets more complicated, but that’s where we begin).

    As for pensions, social security has always been self-funded. It needs to be tweaked to remain self-funded. That means we can choose between paying a higher percentage payroll tax, working more years before retirement, or taking smaller benefit checks. Also, no reason we should not take the lid off the income that is taxable. Nothing more is needed. Under current rules, I can collect $250 a month at 62, $500 a month at 65, or $1000 a month at 70. I see no reason I cannot continue to work until 70.

    Defined benefit pensions has turned out to have a weakness: by the time you retire, the company you work for may not be making the revenue it is making when your union contract was signed. Again, if the money isn’t there, it isn’t there. That means pensions have to be fully funded, and that amounts to a kind of defined-contribution pension. But, it doesn’t need to be subject to unbridled speculative investment. Those can disappear too, and it is a form of theft, because for every loss, someone gained on the other end of the transaction.

  9. whenever i read about how we must save more, i experience that frisson of the cooperative and guilty party who has done just that–only to see the hard-won savings eaten up by a profligate government and coterie of crooks who have no inkling of the quaint notion of saving, of postponing gratification–a gang of banksters who will not default on their enormous debt but will degrade and devalue our pitiful savings unto virtual worthlessness. i have listened to these phony shake-finger lectures about our savings rate being “too low” for decades. the name of the game is, has been, debt, debt and debt. what lies, what total fabrications we are fed while the cruel tricksters create a climate in which caritas expires and sons and daughters resent the debt they falsely believe their parents bequeathed. this ant has turned grasshopper.

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