By: Michael Hamilton
Twenty years ago this August 22, a Republican-led Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton approved landmark welfare reform legislation that has since proven its worth countless times to Americans most in need.
By requiring recipients to “work for welfare” and preventing recipients from idling indefinitely on the public rolls, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) realigned financial incentives with human nature, empowering many people to climb out from under government assistance.
More famously, PRWORA block-granted Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) money to states, liberating 50 laboratories of democracy to design their own welfare programs, from which approximately 9 million people have ascended.
Although the 1996 reform has clearly succeeded, more than 80 means-tested programs still function within the old model, and some elected officials and campaigners would redefine success as putting more people on increased government assistance for longer periods, or even indefinitely.
The true measure of a welfare program’s success, however, is its capacity to help individuals render their days as welfare recipients ancient history. Americans are likeliest to see more success stories of this kind by heeding the wisdom of an ancient philosopher.
In a practically prophetic passage of Plato’s Republic (c. 380 B.C.), the Greek sage foretells how democratic governments gradually slip into tyrannies. One critical misstep is when the majority of people grow discontent with their earnings, or even with working for wages at all, and consequently use the law to entitle themselves to richer people’s income.
Another fatal misstep is the majority’s demonizing of the rich, whom twenty-first century Americans might term the “top 1 percent.” The rich will try but fail to explain that robbing them and redistributing their wealth will only hurt the masses in the long run. They are labeled public enemies.
Inevitably, the people will rally around a well-spoken “champion of their interests, whom they nurse to greatness”—one of their own, or who can pass himself or herself off as one of them. Leveraging the people’s resentment of the rich, the leader will promise hope, change, and to move the country forward. He or she will promise to make the country great again.
“In the early days he has a smile and a greeting for everyone he meets; disclaims any absolute power; makes large promises to his friends and to the public; sets about the relief of debtors and the distribution of land to the people and to his supporters; and assumes a mild and gracious air towards everybody,” Plato writes.
Once empowered, however, the people’s champion will stir up conflicts and increase government spending in order to keep the people dependent on him: “[He] begins stirring up one war after another, in order that the people may feel their need of a leader, and also be so impoverished by taxation that they will be forced to think of nothing but winning their daily bread, instead of plotting against him.”
An idealist, Plato had reservations about democracy as a form of government—partly because he foresaw disaster ensuing from of a runaway welfare program. He feared the people’s tendency to deceive themselves and be deceived by demagogues, such as those policymakers who appeal to people’s appetites and emotions instead of reason.
Plato taught that leaders who promise to rob the rich in order to feed the poor are wolves in sheep’s clothing. The leader Plato describes eventually establishes a ruthless tyranny. Some may consider the possibility the United States could follow suit to be far-fetched, but stranger (and even tyrannical) things have happened in the past. Not too long ago, the U.S. government under Franklin Roosevelt rounded up Americans, pushed them off of their property, and sent them in droves to internment camps—all for doing nothing more than being of Japanese descent. Shortly before that, the government banned all people from consuming alcohol and even poisoned people who dared to partake against federal mandates. And let’s not forget segregation, Jim Crow laws, and slavery.
One way Americans can and should break Plato’s prophesy is maintaining vigilance against expanding government programs, such as welfare, in ways that lure individuals into greater government dependency. Instead, voters and their elected representatives should replicate the proven model of 1996 welfare reform across other state and federal means-tested programs.
Michael T. Hamilton ([email protected]) is The Heartland Institute’s research fellow for health care policy, author of the weekly Consumer Power Report, and managing editor of Health Care News, an online and print newspaper read by market-minded health care professionals, policy analysts, and 56 percent of lawmakers.