The Domination of Government and the Decline of Self-Reliance and Community   (May 17, 2011)

Is there a causal connection between the rise of the dominant Savior State and the decline of self-reliance and community? How could it not be a causal factor?

The now-classic book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2001, by Robert Putnam) documented the steep decline of community and "social capital" in the U.S.:

Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values--these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.

While the causal connections between the decline of community and TV, the Internet, two-earner households, suburban sprawl and long commutes, etc., are visible in a common-sense fashion, they miss the primary unspoken causal factor: the growing domination of the Central "Savior" State in every aspect of the economy and society.

From an anthropological or natural-selection point of view--i.e. one informed by sociobiology-- community and marriage alike are at root highly advantageous survival techniques: a group has far more resources than a similar number of isolated individuals, and offspring are more likely to survive and prosper if two parents are devoting resources to their upbringing rather than only one adult is carrying that burden.

In nations dominated by Savior States, there is less reason to invest in community or self-reliance, because the government handles everything.

There is no need to pick up litter in your neighborhood, because it's somebody's job in local government to pick up trash. (When was the last time you saw anyone pick up trash or litter in your neighborhood, town or city?)

There is no need to tutor your own child if they are performing poorly in school--that's the school's job. (This is what teachers hear all the time--"that's your job." Oh really? It's my job to get your kid to do homework instead of surfing the Web or watching TV? How many parents even know what their child is studying, beyond the title of the class?)

If Grandma is lonely then the government should provide a van and staffing to take her to the government-paid senior center.

While many people profess to "get it" that they won't be receiving any Social Security pension when they retire, exactly how has this realization informed their daily finances? Are they making the radical self-reliance adjustments needed to respond to the devolution of the Savior State?

How about Medicare? What are people doing in their day-to-day life to prepare for a future in which the Savior State can't "fix" whatever is wrong with their health? (My Mom has reported that some of her elderly acquaintances have baldly stated that they don't need to adjust their unhealthy lifestyle because "Medicare will give me a new (failing bit).")

We are constantly reassured that "there is plenty of money" for all the Savior State's vast (and ever-expanding) obligations, yet simple grade-school math calls all these happy assumptions into question. Even if we taxed the top 1% at a rate of 70%, that wouldn't be enough to fund the $100 trillion+ future obligations of Medicare, which rises inexorably by 6% a year even as the underlying economy grows at best at a rate of 2%.

Right now, as the 65 million-strong baby Boom generation has barely begun to retire, the nation is running a monumental deficit of $1.6 trillion (more if off-balance sheet borrowing is included), fully 12% of the nation's entire GDP. As I have documented here, Social Security is running deficits in 2011 that weren't supposed to occur until 2018.

There is no limit on the demands of citizens for "more more more" from the Savior State. There "should be" affordable housing for all, heightened security everywhere to keep us safe at all times (how about 200 million security cameras, as a start), and so on. Each Savior State project is needed, necessary, must-have to those receiving the funding.

In such a mindset and politics of experience, then the advantages provided by self-reliance and community wither. The world is complex, and it's the government's job to figure it all out, so we do't need to be informed or to vote. Or, the government is now so big, it doesn't make a difference how we vote.

And why exactly is it now so big, so dominant, so intrusive and so addicted to borrowing to fund its spending? Could it be that people want more "services" but they reject paying for them via higher taxes? This is precisely what polls have found.

In psychology, a dysfunctional, crippling relationship is called "co-dependent." The "taker" dependent on the "giver" is reduced to sullen resentment and abject terror should the "giver" withdraw support; on the other side, the "giver" is sullenly resentful of the burdens imposed by a demanding "taker" who never seems to get healthier or more independent.

Perhaps the dynamic between an ever-more dominant Savior State and a resentful, complicit, dependent-on-bread-and-circuses citizenry is best described as dysfunctionally co-dependent.

Promise people everything--education, housing, safety, retirement, healthcare, job placement, entertainment, the arts, you name it, regardless of their output and engagement--and what need do they have for "old" systems of "social capital" support such as community, marriage, church and other free associations that require commitment, reciprocity and tolerance for others?

Clearly, there are functions such as national defense and protecting the citizenry from predation that government is designed to fulfill. But the evolution from a government tasked with limiting predation and exploitation to a Savior State for all is not as "win-win" as it is commonly depicted by enthusiasts buoyed by their rock-solid faith in the government's printing presses to "pay for everything for everybody forever."

The costs are not just financial. The government has paid for the lane, it's our "right," so now we bowl alone.

NOTE: between houseguests and an over-committed workload this week, email response will be sporadic at best. Please accept my apologies in advance.

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