April 5, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Social Welfare and Procrustean Statecraft
THERE IS an argument I come across often enough, which runs something like this: nation X has an advanced, efficient, and evidently sustainable system of social welfare; therefore, nation W, Y, and Z should also be able to instate such a system. Comes then the inevitable conservative or libertarian to argue against the same, and to conclude instead that no nation should ever employ systems of social welfare, at the risk of grave injustices or catastrophic economic failure.
I call these, both answer and response, examples of Procrustean statecraft. Procrustes in Greek mythology was a sort of bizarre highwayman, who kidnapped persons from off the street and forced them to be his guests in his home. Each of his unwilling guests would be made to sleep in a bed of a single size; and because his guests, being of different dimensions, could not all fit it, he had to stretch some and cut others down until their bodies were appropriate to his hospitality. In the same way, we like to propose a single system of good government, and to foist it upon each and every nation, with the expectation that the results will be in all cases identical. This kind of political thinking is endemic to our day, and has been since the earliest of our modern classic liberal thinkers. And I say that Procrustean statecraft like this is bound to embroil us in confusions and contradictions—as exemplified, for instance, in our debilitating and interminable attempts to establish democracy in the Middle East, or our continual insistence that all the nations of the world should adopt liberal values and policies, regardless of their native customs and traditions.
It is high time we outgrew Procrustes’ simple, brutal logic, and began to think with a better subtlety on the relation between a given political policy, and the specific and unique people and territory to which it must be applied. Consider the question of social welfare: I can well imagine that a system of universal healthcare, for instance, might be adopted by a proud and healthy and energetic people, a people able to provide the funds necessary to pay for it, a people which possessed in its very fibers a sense of the nobility of sustaining its weak and fragile members. I can imagine such a people desiring such a thing from out of the same sense of national pride which led the Romans to proclaim, at the height of their power, that a Roman citizen could traverse the entire Empire from border to border without fear of violence or misuse. Indeed, I can imagine a people which possessed both the means and the will to accomplish such a program, and which would regard such a work as a mark of its honor.
Yet I cannot be brought to believe that a nation, like the United States, in which better than two-thirds of the population is unhealthily obese; in which the general quality of our diet is a wretched bad joke; in which half of all citizens will contract cancer, and at least one-fifth will die from it; in which another fourth will die of heart disease; in which the median style of life is absolutely incommensurate with the median income; in which massive immigration increasingly burdens state welfare programs, through the presence of poor individuals who were not even born within the country’s borders; in which birth-rates of native-born Americans sink year by year; in which the idea of a unified “American people” increasingly appears absurd; and in which the work ethic which once governed so much of our lives is fading fast, and a complacent sense of idle entitlement comes as its substitute—I say, I cannot believe that such a nation can long sustain a system of universal healthcare, without utterly collapsing under this weight thrust upon such shaky legs.
When—better say if—America can ever again boast a strong, self-reliant, hale, prosperous, and unified people, then I will happily revisit this issue, and in all likelihood I myself will become an enthusiastic subscriber of the very idea of American welfare, for I will regard such programs as being an excellent adornment to the virtue of our people. Prior to such a day as that, I will continue to hold that all systems of social welfare in the United States, and especially of socialized healthcare—whether it bears the name of Obama or Ryan or Trump or whatever politician you please—is nothing but a bed in which our nation’s shrunken body, if it will fit, must be pulled well past the point of snapping.