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Wards of the State

The best book on Obama’s America has already been written. The president has two more years in office, six if he’s lucky, but already we know enough about the contours of his mind, his governing instincts, to predict that the volume in question will not be bettered. This is a large claim for a book that never once mentions Obama or America or the gushing wells of oil and words that seem to be, so far, his chief gift to us.

Written in 1912 by Hilaire Belloc, an Anglo-Frenchman whose true home was the Middle Ages, The Servile State is an unlikely vade mecum for 21st-century Washington. Yet men with French names have a way of understanding the inner life of this country. The Servile State is not quite Democracy in America—for one thing, it is less than 200 pages long—but it has the prophetic power and moral imagination, the sustained intelligence and insight of that earlier volume. Like Democracy in America, it harbors a healthy skepticism of the political class, deplores the corrosive effects of money, recognizes the value of restraint and self-control. Above all, both volumes lament the seemingly inexorable growth of the state.

“Christianity made charity a personal virtue,” Tocqueville wrote. “Every day we are making a social duty, a political obligation, a public virtue out of it. … The growing number of those who must be supported, the variety of needs which we are growing accustomed to provide for … now makes every eye turn to the state.” Belloc, decades later, saw the prophecy come true. Now, a century on, Obama embraces it as a governing philosophy.

Belloc, like Tocqueville, knew America firsthand. In 1890, he walked halfway across the country to court his Californian wife, singing as he went. Like Tocqueville, he wrote trenchantly. Like Tocqueville, he knew that the old order was passing away, a fact that each man, in his different way, regretted. The difference is that whereas one of them dealt explicitly with America, the other brilliantly anticipated it. Belloc does not mention America at all, even if, looking closely, we may see its shape and outline, its long shadow in the years ahead. His subject, rather, is Britain in the dawning age of welfare when the problem of poverty was acute, when working-class radicalism was real, when mass democracy was an experiment whose success was not yet clear. No one knew at the end of the Victorian era if Britain’s industrial wealth, achieved at obvious social cost, would mean political fracture or revolt. For a while, the pessimists were in the ascendant.

Belloc’s key insight was that Britain’s ruling elites would buy political tranquility at the cost of personal liberty. “Future … industrial society,” he wrote, will guarantee “subsistence and security … for the proletariat … at the expense of … political freedom.” Britons faced a future in which there would be “the fixing of wages by statute,” “the imposition of a minimum wage during employment,” the use of compulsory arbitration during industrial disputes (“a bludgeon so obvious that it is revolting even to our proletariat”), a vast bureaucracy to herd the working classes into conformity:

Dovetailing in with this machinery of compulsion is all that mass of registration and docketing which is accumulating through the use of labor exchanges. … No man, once so registered, can escape. … The numbers caught in the net must steadily increase until the whole mass of labor is mapped out and controlled.

That was the servile state. Other writers would come up with different names for it—The Road to Serfdom, Our Enemy the State, Atlas Shrugged—but in essence the argument was the same. Sturdy independence would give way to rational planning. The age of the clipboard had arrived.

To be sure, the book is of its time and place. The Servile State was written in response to the “New Liberalism” of the early 20th century when Britain’s government took upon itself to provide sickness and unemployment insurance, labor exchanges, wage control, regulation of the working day, old age pensions, free school meals for poor children, and the like. That “progressive” agenda is not so bad, you might say, and was, in any case, fairly modest in 1912. Have we not moved on? Most of us are happy enough to receive our Social Security checks, our annual vacation, our unemployment benefit if things go wrong. Out-and-out libertarianism remains a minority view (and Belloc, lover of guilds and family life, was hardly a libertarian in the manner of Ayn Rand). The world he described as nightmare strikes many nowadays as dream.

That, of course, is the whole point. The pocket-money state is pleasant enough for a while, positively appealing in fact, just as long as Dad pays and you’re happy to remain a schoolboy for the rest of your life. Otherwise it has all the disadvantages of safety nets and security blankets: namely, entanglement and suffocation. To live in it, you must forget that welfarism creates a client-patron mentality that is almost impossible to shake; forget that it discovers its limits only when it teeters toward bankruptcy; forget that it destroys initiative; forget that it despises the Burkean platoons; forget that it hijacks the law to favor one class over another, “stamping with the authority of the state,” as Belloc puts it, the division of citizens into “the economically free and economically enslaved”; forget that compulsion is its modus operandi; forget that its chief ambition is to constrain “a considerable number of families and individuals … to labor for the advantage of other families and individuals.” You must forget all of those things—and when you have done so you will have become precisely what the welfare state wants you to be: its grateful slave. “It was not machinery that cost us our freedom,” Belloc wrote. “It was the loss of a free mind.” The greatest achievement of collectivism is the collectivist mentality. That was what worried Belloc most of all.

To be fair, none of this is especially new. The Servile State anticipated an America that came into being long before January 2009. Redistributive taxation was not invented by Obama. Nor paternalistic federalism. Nor economic compulsion. Nor transactional politics. Nor grandiose rhetoric. Nor almost limitless confidence in the competence of Washington, D.C. to solve problems largely of its own making. It was Bush who promised to leave no child behind, Nixon who proposed to freeze wages and prices, Ford who vowed to Whip Inflation Now, Johnson who puffed up the Great Society, FDR who built dams and fixed prices and packed courts until, eventually, even his friends had had enough. Presidential hubris is as old as the hills.

What makes Obama different, and Belloc so prescient about him, is that he wants to do all of these things, and more, at one and the same time. The urge toward centralization has become the uncontrollable itch that refuses to go away. Here is a president who wants to be Car Manufacturer-in-Chief, Owner of Banks, Setter of Executive Compensation, Healthcare Provider at Large, Scold of Big Business, Payer (with your money) of Other People’s Mortgages, First Responder in a Crisis (“first” loosely defined to mean “last”), Preacher of a New Politics, Healer of the Planet.

All his instincts tend toward expansion, growth, enlargement—of the state, that is, and not, so far, of the economy. All his training disposes him to prefer public virtue to private greed. All his stock villains live in the usual places—boardrooms, Wall Street, country clubs. The government will provide because, after all, has it not provided for him rather nicely for the last 20 years? Without too much exaggeration, the Obama view of the world is one in which the bigger the state, the bigger the scope for experts like himself to tell us what to do. “Always keep a hold of nurse/For fear of getting someone worse.” He is nurse and worse rolled into one.

Healthcare, of course, is exhibit one. When Belloc warned of the “compulsory provision of security through state action,” of men and women being “compelled to enter [schemes] providing … against … illness and unemployment” he could hardly have known that, a century on, the United States Congress would boast of such an thing, passing a bill that forces people to buy a product they might otherwise have chosen not to buy and requiring employers to find health coverage for employees somehow incapable of finding it for themselves.

There are good arguments for thinking this unconstitutional. There are very good arguments for thinking it illiberal. There are excellent arguments for thinking it infantile. There are insuperable arguments for thinking it ruinously expensive.

“Our legal machinery,” Belloc wrote, “has become little more than an engine for protecting the few owners against the necessities, the demands, or the hatred of the mass of their dispossessed fellow citizens. … The vast bulk of so-called free contracts [are] arrangements which one man was free to take or to leave but which the other man was not free to take or leave because the second had for his alternative starvation.” Substitute “no medical coverage” for “starvation,” and you have Obamacare in a nutshell. Compulsion is at its core. Employers will be made to answer to the secretary of health and human services for the healthcare they offer their employees. Employees will be allowed to buy any plan they wish—as long as the federal government wishes it, too. Doctors will find themselves prescribing and Washington proscribing. The result, we are told, will be a healthier and happier citizenry, free of fear, financially secure, cared for from cradle to grave. Obama has indeed made history. No one before him has ever campaigned in poetry and governed in Prozac.

The point, of course, is that regulation is not the accidental outcome of the exercise but is, rather, its whole purpose. Universalism is the goal, not healthcare per se. That is why the bill is strikingly complex yet also hostile to genuine choice, the complexity allowing bureaucrats to have a field day, the limitation on choice a way of encouraging that virtuous egalitarianism and uncomplaining collectivism that is the hallmark of every servile state. We will learn to love the line and the ration book. We will become patient patients. We will refuse, as the British say, to jump the queue. Conformity has been the most significant social outcome of Britain’s 60-year experiment in National Health, and if the president has his way, that will be America’s experience, too.

Nor are these goals hidden. To the contrary, they reveal themselves at every turn, suggesting the sheer ambition of Obama-ism and the unbounded confidence that his social engineering, given enough time, will surely succeed. Any bill that allows children up to the age of 26 to remain on their parents’ insurance plan is both infantilizing and intrusive, a way of perpetuating adolescence while allowing some higher body to interfere, quite unwarrantedly, in family life. Any bill that requires “families and individuals … by positive law to labor for the advantage of others” (Belloc’s definition of servility) expands the redistributive role of government as it shrinks, inevitably, the self-regulatory capacity of citizens. Any bill that proposes to find $1.2 trillion over the next ten years to pay for new entitlements piles a burden of debt on one group while showering another with “rights” and enforceable legal claims. (Much of the bounty will come from taxes on the dividend and interest income of couples earning more than $250,000 a year and single people earning more than $200,000. Then, those proving insufficient, it will come from taxes on “boutique” health plans. Then, those too falling short, it will come from sin taxes. Then, those failing of their purpose, the Treasury secretary will ask Greece for help.)

To cap it all, the greatest cheerleaders for reform have been, unsurprisingly, those insurance companies now guaranteed, by federal law, a vast new tranche of customers for a product that many, until now, have been reluctant to buy. Could that explain the keenness of those companies to support Democratic lawmakers as the bill made its way through Congress? Could that account for lobbyists pouring money into every possible Pelosi-shaped funnel? Could that be the reason for what Belloc called “all the commissions, all the champagne lunches, all the lawyers’ fees, all the compensations to this man and to that man, all the bribes”? Yes, The Servile State predicted K Street, too. There is hardly a trick that Belloc had not once seen for himself. There is nothing new under the sun.

Should we therefore despair? Have we sunk so far in dependency that we cannot imagine a world without it? The growth of government under Obama is certainly a cautionary tale:

Physicians of the Utmost Fame
Were called at once; but when they came
They answered, as they took their fees,
‘There is no Cure for this Disease.’

But there is a cure for this disease. Belloc ended his book with the cautious hope that statism would in due time be “halted and reversed.” A “complex knot of forces” would eventually insist on a return to sanity. Common sense would finally prevail. It hasn’t happened yet—rather the opposite—but Belloc’s proposed solution is as valid as ever. The prescription for poverty is property. The answer to servility is self-reliance. The way to dismantle bureaucracy is, well, to dismantle it. All it takes is that first step.

That is why we should re-read The Servile State. Men stand on their own feet, Chesterton once wrote, when they stand on their own land. Belloc, offering a similar insight, suggests a similar remedy—that once we have recovered the use of our minds, we will begin to work for ourselves and our families and our neighbors and, only then, will we feel some bond of affection for this thing called the state. No one imagines we should all become small farmers. No one supposes every federal action is foolish. No one wants modernity to go away. But certain habits of heart are cultivated when we tend those little plots of which Belloc wrote so beautifully. The first is honesty. The second is humility. The third is gratitude. The fourth is grace. Have you seen much of them from Washington recently? I didn’t think so.  

Dermot Quinn is professor of History at Seton Hall University and formerly a fellow of the James Madison Program at Princeton University.

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