All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1996

Pride and the Nanny State

We Achieve Meaningful Satisfaction Through Self-Reliance

I do not come from a rich family, and the other day it struck me that I am, in a way, glad of this. My wife and I recently purchased our first house, and, after we had inspected it one Sunday while it was still being completed, I remarked to her that it was a satisfying feeling to be purchasing the house ourselves.

While other aspects of our lives, such as relationships with spouses, family, and friends, are undeniably meaningful and essential to achieving happiness, we humans also live in the economic world. So it is natural that surviving, flourishing, and prospering would also be a significant source of happiness. It is deeply satisfying to have truly earned something—a car, a new computer, a job, even if these are derided as “material” by some.

But this source of satisfaction is being threatened by the welfare state of liberals’ and socialists’ dreams.

Well-meaning people often proclaim that people have a right to food, to employment, housing, education, pension plans, medical care, and so on, and that government should therefore provide us with them. Surely we should not let people starve, or be reared illiterate and uneducated, these humanitarians say. But when government gives us these things and relieves us from the responsibility of providing them, it also removes the possibility of our achieving them, and of taking pride in such accomplishments. Even feeding one’s family and educating one’s children, provide a feeling of serene accomplishment. When I stand in a grocery line and purchase groceries with money I have earned myself, I feel a self-satisfaction that I doubt any welfare recipient cashing in his food stamps ever could. Parents who pay for their children’s education in private schools undoubtedly derive satisfaction from this, a feeling that is denied to the bulk of parents whose children are state-educated.

If the nanny state took care of all our wants, one could, I suppose, attempt to convince himself that he really paid for it through taxes. But I doubt that this contrivance would succeed any better than “playing market” did in socialist economies. It is just not the same.

This is how it seems, in any event, in my own experience. I attended a large state university. Although students pay tuition, because the school is heavily subsidized by tax revenues, tuition covers only a small portion of the cost of their education. The rest is given to them free by the state. If I tell someone I paid my own way through college—well, it’s not quite true, is it? Unconvincingly arguing, “Well, I probably paid more in taxes than it cost to educate me” simply cannot substitute for unambiguously saying “I earned this” or “I paid my own way.”

Nor would our benevolent providers long let us say even this. I frequently receive requests for contributions to my alma mater, with the underlying implication that I should “give back,” since I obviously was given something for free. I have even heard liberals entertain the idea that some sort of “fee” be paid by rich Americans trying to emigrate to escape taxes, on the grounds that they must “pay back” the government for all the benefits conferred on them, such as education, roads, or even for the freedom they had that “allowed” them to earn their fortune in the first place. So in practice, the omni-provider state not only removes a huge source of satisfaction and accomplishment from people’s lives, it also turns the tables on its wards and imposes obligations on them, telling them that they are “in debt” to the state for all it’s done for them. In the land where “self-made man” used to be one of the highest marks of praise, it has become almost impossible to be one.

If we want individuals to be able to achieve meaningful satisfaction in their lives, to take pride in their accomplishments, we must allow them to fail, as well as succeed, and we must replace the nanny state with a regime of self-reliance and self-respect.

  • Stephan Kinsella is a practicing patent attorney, a libertarian writer and speaker, Director of the Center for the Study of Innovative Freedom (C4SIF), and Founding and Executive Editor of Libertarian Papers. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network