"Welfare is a failure," said Massachusetts Welfare Commissioner Robert F. Ott last August. And reports pour in from around the country to confirm his observation.
Welfare recipients, protesting what they call "inadequate" payments, have turned to coercive and destructive tactics to gain concessions from public officials. Last summer, 200 Cleveland women strolled into a local department store and after selecting a sufficient assortment of clothing, instructed the manager to send the bill of the "buy-in" to the welfare department.
Some recipients, sensing the depersonalization that public assistance tends to induce in its wards, plan to destroy the system by harassment and overt terrorism. If they can force the present system to crumple, they believe officials will be more receptive to their proposals for a "negative income tax"—a program they feel is less dehumanizing. In Boston last week, militant "Mothers for Adequate Welfare" (MAW) stormed a Roxbury welfare office and after tearing out phones, overturning furniture, ripping apart files, and terrorizing social workers, demanded winter clothing for their children.
For many, government confiscation and redistribution is simply too slow. Fed up with promises of better payments "in the near future" or "as soon as humanly possible," some have taken to the streets. Speaking about the riots and looting which swept his city last April, one Baltimorean said: "The whites won't give us what we want, so we take it."
If the system is failing, it is because it is burdened with irreconcilable contradictions of immense proportions. Welfare sets the economy in reverse, with the logical result that whatever the problem, it has grown worse under the system.
Instead of putting recipients back on their feet, welfare only succeeds in permanently gluing their outstretched palms into the system, erasing incentive and drowning ambition. Meanwhile, those who have not yet forsaken the pride and pleasure of earning their own living are nevertheless discouraged by taxes and the dwindling differential between their paychecks and the amount the government grants recipients for not working.
Instead of promoting brotherhood among men, it has split the nation into two antagonistic classes—the producers and the parasites. Such a situation precludes brotherhood.
The "negative income tax" is no solution. On the contrary, it represents a more potent dose of the same poison that has brought the welfare system and the nation to its present disheveled shape—the unearned.
If the American economy is dying, bleeding through a thousand self-induced wounds, it will not do to reach for aspirins (administrative reform of the welfare system) or to advocate economic hari-kari ("negative income tax"). The only workable solution is to disarm the victim and dress the existing wounds—slowly phase out the welfare Program and substitute a generous tax incentive program such as the one President Elect Richard Nixon has promised.
Some men, however, fearing the pain of the wounds they have inflicted, lean toward the hari-kari angle. Robert Weaver, outgoing secretary of Housing and Urban Development, recently lashed out at Mr. Nixon's program for rebuilding the slums, declaring it "nonsense." If the logic behind Mr. Weaver's declaration seems obscure, the reason might be that he was speaking in code, in a sort of cryptography for savages.
Translated into the language of principles, Mr. Weaver said that for ethical reasons he considers the concept of free choice and action through incentive nonsense. He finds more sensible the idea of treating men as if they were sacrificial animals, robbing some for the unearned benefit of others.
The "sensible" programs which he sanctions, if projected onto a societal context and extended to their logical conclusions, are horrifying. He offers us, in exchange for the precious few freedoms we enjoy today, a system explicitly based on expropriation. In exchange for a society where men deal with one another largely by persuasion, he offers a system founded on jungle law, where the savage with the biggest club or the largest MAW mob is king,
America's industries are in critical need of skilled manpower. If President Elect Nixon is able to offer them sizable tax incentives, it is certain that they would begin extensive job training programs immediately. All the government has to do is give free enterprise freedom enough to move, and it will.
Mr. Weaver's "sensible" programs, then, for the confiscation of ever larger percentages of the earned income of taxpayers for the purpose of bestowing it upon non-producers, make little sense. He reminds one of the story sometimes told about warring tribes of hunger-crazed cannibals who, although they live amidst opulent and deliciously edible vegetation, refuse to eat the fruit. When asked why they don't eat the abundant food around them, they answer: "Oh never! That would be nonsense. We'd rather eat each other."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Welfare: An Altruist's Nightmare".