Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Value of Welfare

My buddy Giovanni is paralleling my life in Italy, and he sees the world through a very different set of glasses than do I. We compare notes each year when we get together and we discuss the pros and cons of our lives and in this way I have been able in some way to measure the progress of my emigration which started nearly three decades ago. He is my control, if you like, the placebo pills of the stay at home worker as opposed to my flight into the unknown in 1982. His life is, as close as I can gauge, the life I would have lived, had I stayed home.

He's spent the years since medical school working as a cardiologist in the hospital in Terni where he still, after 15 years takes turns working night shift, taking home around three thousand dollars a month on his state pay check. Against that money he and his family get free health care, free education and he gets a pension on retirement, and if he works to retirement age the government will forfeit his fees for medical school. If he tries to retire early he then has to reimburse the government for the cost of his medical education... For an American this would be a strait jacket of epic proportions, government interference, denial of rights, etc etc...For a European this is the cradle to grave right of every citizen, a life fre from fear, from want and from uncertainty.

This bargain has been the lifestyle Giovanni grew into. His father was a cardiologist before him, and he filled his father's shoes as naturally as breathing. He carried on his father's lucrative private practice and he enjoys the wealth that comes from working 18 hour days 6 days a week. He says that anyone who lives off a state salary alone will never get ahead, but anyone who has the skills and the drive to work on the side can live the good life. He is a capitalist in the best tradition of the term.

What may come as a surprise to a North American libertarian is Giovanni's sense of fair play. He enjoys his BMW car and motorcycle, his RV, his comfortable apartment in the city center, his vacations abroad. But he also acknowledges the state's obligations to the lesser endowed. He likes the fact that he dispenses medical care without consideration of cost at the hospital. He approves of welfare subsidies for the unemployed, he wants better public education for all and he pays taxes to support his beliefs. He is a citizen among citizens.

Giovanni loves America with the idealism of a post World War Two European with a keen knowledge of history. He understands the Marshal Plan, he has read the Declaration of Independence and he is grateful for US medical research and development that permits his small country to develop a costly national health care plan. At the same time he finds it hard to understand how we tolerate homeless people and people forced to choose between health and hearth, how we live with the possibility of bankruptcy, and the notion that making bad choices is okay even if they lead to social disintegration.

It's my belief that as we enter the New Deal for a 21st Century proposed by President Obama we too will be entering a welfare phase of the American story. And because this isn't 1932 the 21st century version will be different, and in many ways more constrictive. Taxes will go up, choices will be made for us by the government because the government will be using money to pay for collective services. The US has collectively chosen the path of social welfare rather than letting the economic system collapse allowing us to rebuild from the smoking ruins of a destroyed economic system. Having made that choice we now face the prospect of less individual liberty, with more social service nets and less likelihood of bankruptcy or of untold wealth. perhaps this was the inevitable future laid out by the excesses of the end of the 20th century, but whether or not it was inevitable it now seems impossible to avoid.

I think for most Americans the welfare state as viewed through the experiences of European social democrats will be a good thing. Free education and health care will improve the quality of life for many of us, and the loss of abstract choices will be felt far less than one might imagine. There is much ranting about "freedom" in our country, but not many among the 300 million really do take advantage of their freedoms. It seems like that at the first opportunity people like to tie themselves down with families, debts and obligations. Health and welfare will help them with that even if they lose some discretionary spending and a few opportunities to take an entrepreneurial path in life.

I don't think many people see the changes coming, because now that the abyss is becoming ever more apparent of widespread bankruptcy and unemployment, fear is a strong motivator to seek protection, cost what it may. I ponder the change and I am glad I came when I did and lived when I did, and perhaps I shall have my own boring stories of the "good old days" in the welfare years to come. Giovanni's future is mapped out while mine is blank territory. I can only say that I have no regrets that I left the safety of the welfare state for the wide open horizons of uncertainty. Surviving the economic meltdown will put my belief to the test.

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