The Welfare State Neutralizes Opponents by Making Them Dependent on Government


From time immemorial—from Etienne de la Boitie to David Hume to Ludwig von Mises—political analysts have noted that because the number of those in the ruling elite amounts to only a small fraction of the number in the ruled masses, every regime lives or dies in accordance with “public opinion.” Unless the mass of the people, no matter how objectively abused and plundered they may appear to be, believe that the existing rulers are legitimate, the masses will not tolerate the regime’s continuation in power. Nor need they tolerate it, because they greatly outnumber the rulers, and hence whenever they become subjectively fed up, they have the power—which is to say, the overwhelming advantage of superior numbers—to oust the regime. Even if the regime possesses a great advantage of coercive power, its employment avails the rulers nothing if they must kill or imprison 90 percent of the population, because such massive violence would reduce them to the status of parasites without hosts.

This consideration long seemed to make sense as a critical element of political analysis, and even today one often encounters it. Something akin to it seems to motivate the current Occupy Wall Street movement and its spin-offs in other venues when they represent themselves as members of the (exploited) 99 percent, in opposition to the (exploiting) 1 percent.

Certain long-established trends in the welfare state, however, have progressively weakened the force of this analysis. The main element of these trends is the tremendous growth in the number of people (and in their proportion in the population) who are directly dependent on government benefits to a substantial degree. Researchers at the Heritage Foundation have been tracking this development for several years and have pushed their analysis back for several decades. An index of dependency based on this research increases from 19 in fiscal year 1962 to 272 in fiscal year 2009.

The Heritage index uses information on almost three dozen important federal programs on which Americans depend for cash income and other support—including housing assistance, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance benefits, educational benefits, and farm-income supports—but it is scarcely a comprehensive measure, inasmuch as the total number of federal programs with dependents is gigantic at present. Of course, each such program has government employees and contractors who run it and hence depend on it to earn much, if not all, of their income. Government civilian and military retirees add millions more to the ranks.

The Heritage researchers found that in 1962, 21.7 million persons depended on the programs they included in their index for benefits. By 2009, the corresponding number of dependents had grown to 64.3 million. Adding dependents not included in the Heritage study might easily increase the number to more than 100 million, or to more than a third of the entire population. Thus, the parasites verge ever closer to outnumbering their hosts.

It would be a mistake, of course, to lump all of these dependents into the ruling (exploiting) class. The elderly recipients of old-age pensions, the recipients of unemployment insurance benefits, and the beneficiaries of temporary assistance for needy families are, as a rule, as far from the ruling class as one can get. However, to the extent that those who depend on government programs for substantial parts of their income enter the calculus of ruling and being ruled, they are likely to become, in effect, cyphers. They have approximately zero influence on the real rulers, yet they exert virtually no weight in opposition to those rulers, either. Fear of losing their government benefits effectively neutralizes them in regard to opposing the regime on whose seeming beneficence they rely for significant elements of their real income. Of course, for whatever voting may be worth, they vote directly or indirectly in overwhelming proportion for the continuation and budgetary enlargement of the government programs on which they depend. Hence, they help to produce seeming legitimacy for those at the top of the ruling hierarchy—a token of their appreciation for the crumbs their political masters drop on them.

As the ranks of those dependent on the welfare state continue to grow, the need for the rulers to pay attention to the ruled population diminishes. The masters know full well that the sheep will not bolt the enclosure in which the shepherds are making it possible for them to survive. Every person who becomes dependent on the state simultaneously becomes one less person who might act in some way to oppose the existing regime. Thus have modern governments gone greatly beyond the bread and circuses with which the Roman Caesars purchased the common people’s allegiance. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the only changes that occur in the makeup of the ruling elite resemble a shuffling of the occupants in the first-class cabins of a luxury liner. Never mind that this liner is the economic and moral equivalent of the Titanic and that its ultimate fate is no more propitious than was that of the “unsinkable” ship that went to the bottom a century ago.

Robert Higgs is a Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, the University of Economics, Prague, and George Mason University.

  From Robert Higgs
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The size and scope of government power has grown in response to crises of war and economic upheavals. Such increased power remains long after each crisis passes, threatening both civil and economic liberties, all at the behest of special interest groups.