To Care for the Old, Trust Government, Not Families

Deriding the Democratic Party's "Julia" propaganda yesterday, Ross Douthat recycled a conservative truism. Unlike those admirable (because safely extinct) old-timeliberals, he wrote, today's Democrats want the government to do what families should: "The liberalism of 'the Life of Julia' doesn’t envision government spending the way an older liberalism did — as a backstop for otherwise self-sufficient working families, providing insurance against job loss, decrepitude and catastrophic illness." This is a fantasy. The reason governments stepped into this realm in the 20th century was not because of some innate desire to intrude, but because often families could not, or would not, do the job of providing reliable care.


Months (and many columnist platitudes) ago, the Times ran this account by the historian Hendrik Hartog about his research on the ways people handled old age and dependence in the real world. "Self-sufficient working families," it turned out, didn't do such a great job.

In the decades before Social Security was launched in the United States, Hartog wrote, "older people could not rely on habit or culture or nature if they wanted their children to support them when they became frail." Instead, they negotiated for the tending and love they would need. The quid pro quo was often an inheritance—some day, this will all be yours—but, Hartog writes, "the bargains that were negotiated were often unstable and easily undone." His research, as he puts it, challenges " an easy celebration of family care and household intimacy in an imagined past." Often enough, it seems, that past was like a family production of King Lear (a play written in another era of social mobility, when the old were justifiably nervous about keeping their hold on the young).

Stepping into the welter of family trouble over care, the government is uniquely suited to help. Why? Because the basis of its offerings is a notion of citizens' rights, rather than individual feelings and individual ethics. Government help doesn't depend on anyone's fickle feelings or the successful resolution of lifelong family tensions. Those Social Security checks go out to all who qualify—the drunks and the stalwarts, good mothers and bad, the kind souls who are cherished by their kids and the rotten ones who are justifiably neglected. Thanks to that impartiality, this intrusion of the state into private life has probably improved and safeguarded more lives than it has hurt. So unless you think the life of Julia is worse than the life of, say, Cordelia, kindly join me in hailing the mighty 21st century social-welfare state.

Deriding the Democratic Party's "Julia" propaganda yesterday, Ross Douthat recycled a conservative truism. Unlike those admirable (because safely extinct) old-time liberals, he wrote, today's Democrats want the government to do what families should: "The liberalism of 'the Life of Julia' doesn’t envision government spending the way an older liberalism did — as a backstop for otherwise self-sufficient working families, providing insurance against job loss, decrepitude and catastrophic illness." This is a fantasy. The reason governments stepped into this realm in the 20th century was not because of some innate desire to intrude, but because often families could not, or would not, do the job of providing reliable care.

Months (and many columnist platitudes) ago, the Times ran this account by the historian Hendrik Hartog about his research on the ways people handled old age and dependence in the real world. "Self-sufficient working families," it turned out, didn't do such a great job.

In the decades before Social Security was launched in the United States, Hartog wrote, "older people could not rely on habit or culture or nature if they wanted their children to support them when they became frail." Instead, they negotiated for the tending and love they would need. The quid pro quo was often an inheritance—some day, this will all be yours—but, Hartog writes, "the bargains that were negotiated were often unstable and easily undone." His research, as he puts it, challenges " an easy celebration of family care and household intimacy in an imagined past." Often enough, it seems, that past was like a family production of King Lear (a play written in another era of social mobility, when the old were justifiably nervous about keeping their hold on the young).

Stepping into the welter of family trouble over care, the government is uniquely suited to help. Why? Because the basis of its offerings is a notion of citizens' rights, rather than individual feelings and individual ethics. Government help doesn't depend on anyone's fickle feelings or the successful resolution of lifelong family tensions. Those Social Security checks go out to all who qualify—the drunks and the stalwarts, good mothers and bad, the kind souls who are cherished by their kids and the rotten ones who are justifiably neglected. Thanks to that impartiality, this intrusion of the state into private life has probably improved and safeguarded more lives than it has hurt. So unless you think the life of Julia is worse than the life of, say, Cordelia, kindly join me in hailing the mighty 21st century social-welfare state.

Addendum: A fair number of commenters seem to greatly resent the notion that the collective wisdom of society (aka a democratic government) can be more reliable than individuals or families. To them, I'd say, take a look at this chart:

The red line is the percentage of elderly living in poverty, the blue line is expenditure per capita on Social Security, between 1959 on the left and 2010 on the right. The source is the U.S. Census Bureau. As you can see, as the contribution of the federal government to retirement increased, so did the percentage of old people who are poor.

I don't think this is because the government is better at deciding what you should do with your life than you are (and I never said otherwise). I think it's because life is inherently unpredictable. Whatever I may think about your captain-of-my-fate, live-free-or-die rhetoric (OK, I admit, I think it's ridiculous), these are the numbers.

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