Ultimately, social programs are a social compact where taxpayers agree to pay with the expectation that beneficiaries provide a return on investment for society. So the key is to develop government programs in a way that creates a sense of responsibility rather than a sense of entitlement.
As we approach the end of the fiscal year for the federal government, we again witness the annual ritual of keeping the government funded. The script begins with the House of Representatives passing a continuing resolution that does not reflect the president’s priorities. The media burns up the Internet with stories of a GOP civil war. Then, the president begins a public tour filled with self-righteous complaints of how Congress does not do what he wants.
It is usually during these many speeches, that the president speaks of the “wealthy” and their responsibility to the common good by paying more in taxes. The reasoning is that the higher taxes allow more funding of social programs while balancing the budget. Yet, is there a social responsibility required of all of us who receive benefits in one form or another?
This question of the social responsibility of benefit recipients becomes clear in education, a budgetary issue on the local, state and national levels. Public education is important and should be funded. However, don’t parents have a responsibility to ensure that kids are ready to learn? Teachers should receive good pay, but should bad teachers really be retained? College is vital, but should the government finance through grants and subsidized loans silly majors and concentrations with no chance of employment?
Promoting social responsibility, not entitlement
Other government expenditures in addition to education can be viewed the same way. Ultimately, social programs are a social compact where taxpayers agree to pay with the expectation that beneficiaries provide a return on investment for society.
So the key is to develop government programs in a way that creates a sense of responsibility rather than a sense of entitlement.
Unfortunately, neither the government-sponsored individual extremism of the president nor the free-market individual extremism of the ultra-libertarians provide the answer. The answer may lie in the idea of subsidiarity, pushing decision-making to the lowest unit of governance, the family, however defined. Each additional level provides the services that the unit below cannot do for itself.
Empowering lower levels of governance
Subsidiarity would promote social responsibility by giving ownership of problems to lower-level groups and reducing disjointed mandates by placing government services in context. Families can be empowered through policies that create all types of private-sector jobs so that families can sustain themselves. Taxes should be minimized and simplified for everyone so that those supporting families can take home more of the earnings that they make. Parents should have a choice in education to make decisions they feel is in their children’s best interests. Nor should we move too fast with legalizing vices that allow individuals to “check out” from their responsibilities.
Community groups, civic organizations and churches, what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” of civil society, also have a role to play. One area in particular where churches can have a positive impact is on recidivism through their prison ministries. What government must do is realize that churches and organizations are not merely buildings but true communities with missions that support families.
Local and state governments can keep families safe and deliver basic services. The federal government should support these efforts by reducing mandates that limit flexibility and place fewer requirements on funding. Block grants and revenue sharing provide some examples. The federal government still has a role to play. Domestically, Washington would mediate among all of these lower-level entities. Additionally, foreign policy remains the quintessential role of the federal government. However, even that, can be refocused downward by better integrating the citizenry with the military.
Individuals are not commodities
Of course, at all levels of governance from family to federal government, some principles must be remembered. First, individuals cannot be treated as commodities, because when a program becomes transactional, each side tries to maximize benefit and minimize effort.
Immigration reform provides insight. Immigration reform should consist of a framework that allows individuals to enjoy the benefits and responsibilities of U.S. citizenry. If a framework is based on immigrants seeking only economic benefit or employers seeking to only reduce costs, then immigration reform becomes dysfunctional.
Needs, not wants
The second principle involves the sometimes necessary application of “tough love.” Benefits must be about needs not wants. For example, SNAP is meant as a supplement to ensure people do not go hungry. It is not designed to allow recipients to afford luxury items because they do not have to pay for food. Nor were healthcare subsidies designed for overuse.
Budget debates are important, but we must move past the media-induced melodrama. The public instead must look at the process as a way to rebuild the social compact and promote civic responsibility. Subsidiarity-based governance provides such a solution.