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Dependence Day

The corrupting effects of Obamacare.

Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By JAY COST
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Second, the government will now have less to fear from its opponents. Dependency degrades the capacity of the citizenry to operate as a check on the antirepublican tendencies of the government. As Madison and Jefferson argued toward the end of the 1790s, this was the last, best hope for true republicanism. In their telling, a junto of financial elites from the Northeast had seized control of the government, perverting public policy towards their own, selfish ends. The only recourse was the ballot box, where they hoped to mobilize the people at large to stand up for the public interest. If the government has turned citizens into clients, how will the citizens then stand up to the government should it misbehave?

All of this might sound far-fetched, but these very dangers arose in the 1880s and 1890s, as the government began dispensing pensions to Civil War veterans. The Republican party essentially captured the votes of the pensioners and forced them into an alliance with the manufacturing and financial sectors of the economy, against the agricultural interests with which many pensioners might otherwise have been affiliated. It was, in a word, a massive logroll. The pensioners voted for ever more generous benefits, but they also voted for protective tariffs and the gold standard. These economic policies socked it to the poor farmers in the South and West, and the gold standard probably would never have survived had it not been coupled to the pensions and the tariff. The sum total was an electorally unbeatable coalition that was nevertheless of questionable public utility; yes, the economy developed during this period, but its development was highly uneven, with poor farmers left on the outside looking in. The South in particular would not see any real benefits from economic modernization until after World War II.

There is a similar dynamic today, though it is less pernicious. The entitlement state is unsustainable in the long run. Eventually, it will wreck the public finances of the nation, yet it remains unreformed because a vast array of groups are dependent on the status quo. It is difficult to expect citizens to rebuke the government when supported by it. This makes it harder, not easier, to realize the public good.

This is not to say that we should hold these republican values above all others. In practice, we have rightly made trade-offs; senior citizens who can no longer care for themselves, or vets too sick to work, are tended to. There is a broad consensus that people who cannot depend on themselves for food, shelter, and medical care should depend on the government, concerns about republican citizenship notwithstanding.

But note: This is not what Obamacare does. Its disincentives to work are not geared toward the sick, the elderly, the disabled, but toward working-age, able-bodied adults. These are people who can work, but who will choose to substitute governmental dependence for self-reliance. This runs contrary to the broad consensus about the appropriate boundaries of the welfare state.

Who is to say that some coalition will not gain control of the government to leverage the Obamacare clients for their own political gain, just as the Gilded Age Republicans did with the Civil War vets? And, should that happen, how can these people be expected to do their duty as citizens to stand up for the public good? It is worth noting that the Republican regime of pension benefits, protective tariffs, and the gold standard did not fall apart until after most of the vets had passed away.

On any given policy question, it is easy nowadays to overlook the civic implications. We take our civil society for granted; we can hardly imagine our government turning against its own people, so we just assume that this republic we inherited will be here for generations to come. 

But the Founders understood better, and history shows us differently. Republican government is easier to philosophize about than to maintain. It requires, above all, an active, engaged, and independent citizenry that can be called upon to vindicate the public good when it is threatened by factional designs. While we admit of important exceptions to this principle, Obamacare nevertheless violates it by encouraging dependency among citizens. This is a dangerous development for a republic such as ours.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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