The High Cost of Social Welfare


A recent series in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter has shed light on a disturbing episode in that country's past.

Beginning in 1935, the government involuntarily sterilized as many as 60,000 citizens who possessed "inferior" or "undesirable" traits, including bad eyesight, "psychopathy," "vagabond life," and low I.Q.

In another program, remarkable for its bizarre banality and perversity, the government forced hundreds of mentally retarded people to eat candy and other sweets in order to study the effects of tooth decay ("We thought we were doing a good deed," one dentist explained).

As shocking as the revelations are, it is tempting to view them as mainly of historical interest, as documenting the appalling extent to which many countries other than Nazi Germany–and including the United States–once embraced state-sponsored eugenics as a means to some warped end of national purity and superiority.

But the Swedish disclosures remain extremely timely–and not simply because the sterilization program technically was in force until 1976.

They show how the supposedly beneficent social-welfare state, of which Sweden has long been considered the prime example, ultimately creates a closed society that must purge itself of anyone who might conceivably be a drain on public coffers.

Indeed, that very logic explains why Sweden's Social Democrats could simultaneously design that nation's welfare state and undertake a massive sterilization program.

As the Associated Press translated the Dagens Nyheter account, "the Social Democrats were beginning to see that Sweden's welfare state would be costly and wanted to limit the number of people who would have to be supported."

Similar reasoning underwrote the United States's own involuntary sterilization programs, which coincided with the Progressive movement and the beginnings of our country's modern welfare state.

As the historian Daniel J. Kevles has documented, by the end of the 1920s, two dozen U.S. states had laws allowing the involuntary sterilization of, among others, criminals, epileptics, drug addicts, the insane, and "idiots" in state institutions.

(According to Kevles, such laws technically remain on the books in a number of states.)

In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the sterilization of an institutionalized "moron" who had given birth out of wedlock and whose own mother had been declared mentally deficient.

"The public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives," wrote Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes for the majority in that case, Buck v. Bell. "It would be strange indeed if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices…in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence….Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Enough, that is, for the state to support.

Involuntary sterilization, of course, no longer enjoys any sort of vogue, partly because it often expressed explicitly racist dimensions. One ground for sterilization in Sweden was "unmistakable Gypsy features."

American advocates fretted over ethnic "mongrelization," but that became plainly unsupportable after World War II.

Nonetheless, the deeper logic that produced such policies remains very much in force, both in Europe and America.

One senses it in divisive, us-against-them discussions over health care, education, and Social Security.

It is perhaps most evident in discussions of immigration, where deceptively simple cost-benefit analyses of adding new citizens can be conducted.

European nations are as famous for their restrictive immigration policies as they are for their lavish social-welfare benefits. Indeed, the latter helps explain the former.

In the United States, arguments against immigration rarely fail to advance, in one form or another, the idea that "immigration is not a self-financing proposition."

And arguments usually mention "high profile tales of immigrant-related welfare rip-offs," to quote a brochure from the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Within the framework of the welfare state, such crude calculations of human value perversely come under the rubric of responsible governing: If "we" are supporting each other through massive public entitlements, then "we" must police, patrol, and purge individuals and groups who are likely to cost more than they contribute.

Advanced in the name of compassion and caring, the welfare state turns every individual life into a public policy matter and creates a society that must increasingly regiment its members.

Supporters of the welfare state like to say that "taxes are the price we pay for civilization." They argue that the only way to create a fair society is to fund health care, education, retirement pensions, and the like is through public moneys.

But as the recent revelations from Sweden remind us, that price is often a very dear one. Indeed, it is sometimes civilization itself.