[by request of @LFBookReview, repost of an entry from 2011]
alright let me have a crack at the welfare state. before i start, let me say that if you accuse me of being a libertarian, i feel i will survive, as long as you don't conflate my position with that of ayn rand. i want to put this in the context of an overall reading of squishy totalitarianism: the basic left position is that you have two forces: government and capital or corporate power, and that the former must be employed to counter-balance the latter. i don't think this has by and large worked out, though that's not to deny that there have been some moments and that the terrain is complex. i think the powers are always merging, in marxist dictatorships where they are explicitly one, and in capitalist democracies where corporate interests constantly drive foreign and economic policy. basically, i think that state-style solutions - up to and including a world-state - to global capitalism are extremely naive, that you'll end up confronting a single hegemonic power.
my view is that every action of the state rests on coercion. i take that to be entirely obvious. on the other hand, on the ground the state - or let's take the u.s. gov and state and local govs here - does accomplish many good things. so it might take a rapist off the streets. or it might help feed a family that would otherwise starve, or provide healthcare to a sick person who couldn't otherwise obtain it.
in the long run it is doing this in the context of extreme structural inequalities that it itself has a role in creating. there has never been a mode of social organization that achieves inequalities of power comparable to that which the state constitutes by definition: some people have a monopoly of force. in my opinion, this overall in the long run leads to structural inequalities of resources which the state then sometimes to some minimal extent ameliorates: partly in its own self-interest, to prevent its own destruction. (though it is also infested with actual idealists who basically are trying to help people.)
now along with asking whether we are prepared to watch people starve or die of untreated illnesses, we also have to ask ourselves who, in the long run, we are becoming and who, in the long run, we want to be. welfare programs are also ways that the state creates abject, permanently dependent populations, and their pervasion through the whole society puts us all at the mercy of the state. this can be really nightmarish: here you might think of the gigantic housing projects that arose in every major american city in the 1960s. they were intended to ameliorate homelessness and sub-standard housing; i do not doubt that the people who designed them and funded them meant well. they destroyed hundreds of real, vital communities, converted millions into complete dependence and put them under constant surveillance, and became nightmare pseudo-communities that the people embedded in them wanted to and actually did destroy.
a real welfare state requires total state surveillance: you've got to know who has what in order to know who gets what. you've got to know who's not in school, whose income is too high to qualify, and also who has to pay how much. malcolm x, for example, thought that the surveillance and abjection of his mother by the welfare authorities is what literally drove her mad, and destroyed his family. such an account is not atypical: one might look at sistah souljah's autobiography no disrespect, for example: they'd come to her housing project apartment and try to show that there was a man around, or ask her mom where she got that tv set.
i think if we actually wanted to move toward a better life, we would try to create a world of maximum self-reliance and maximum actual reliance on one another: not by coercion practiced on a scale of hundreds of millions, but on a local scale in which people know one another. moving the help we give to one another toward gigantism, and funding it coercively, means that we are not expressing any virtue by giving this help, because we do not give it freely, and that we are, in receiving it, wholly dependent on gigantic coercive bureaucracies for our very lives: we ought to and i think really do feel ashamed both ways round. and there has got to be a moment where we not only ask: what will happen to people if we take away their food stamps? but, what are we becoming?
and every step toward state dependence - its ever-growing pervasiveness - in the long run makes us all vulnerable to this power. it creates a power that is beyond accountability and beyond redress and beyond control. right now, even right here, it can kill millions if it wants, and many states have mutated into killing machines directed at their own populations; ours can too. we are its beneficiaries, its dependents, and always also its potential victims. but on a more everyday level here, being dependent on the government is being dependent on the whim of actual people who wield irresistible force. they can take away anyone's livelihood, anyone's healthcare, anyone's education at any time. our situation is desperate because our need is total and only satisfied from one source. our dependence is a total asymmetry of power, even if we want to eat and get healthcare.
so i think we should ask ourselves at every juncture where this power increases - even obamacare or whatever - not only who will do better because of this, but who we are becoming. there has to be a moment where on this slope the big question is asked, too.
if you're ron paul, you frame the question in terms of going broke: the welfare state is unsustainable because you end up with too few resources flowing in to give everybody everything you're promising: guaranteed pensions, healthcare, education, income: and you really do see economies collapsing under the weight (greece, e.g.) and then people completely shocked and outraged that the gov can't give them everything they need or demand: months off from work and retirement at 52, or whatever. honestly, i don't know if the situation is sustainable or not; at least i do think that it's not indefinitely expandable. but that's not how i would primarily frame the issue, and you can see that the right is taking the opportunity to achieve all sorts of purposes, including increasing inequalities of wealth. in the context of squishy totalitarianism, a constant emphasis on free markets and capitalist solutions is nothing like a liberating ideology, and we're constantly on the horns of a dilemma between state and corporate power, democrats and republicans. but this disguises their symbiosis.
what i ask instead is whether we want to be entirely dependent on a gigantic bureaucratic power that we cannot control, and what this is doing to our sense of ourselves and each other, and how it interrupts or destroys the possibilities of real community or collective action.