Ayn Rand denounced social work as "monstrously evil". In a letter to philosopher John Hospers she declared that to "choose social work as a profession is to choose to be a professional parasite."
Ed Kilgore of the Progressive Policy Institute sees a Rand-like hostility bubbling to the surface in America’s Tea Party movement. In the New Republic he argues that progressives and libertarians are now further apart than ever:
Progressives who previously fawned over the libertarians’ Jeffersonian modesty are now exposed to the unattractive aspect of libertarianism that is familiar to readers of Ayn Rand: a Nietzschean disdain for the poor and minorities that tends to dovetail with the atavistic and semi-racist habits of reactionary cultural traditionalists. After all, it is only a few steps from the Tea Party movement’s founding "rant"—in which self-described Randian business commentator Rick Santelli blasted “losers” who couldn’t pay their mortgages—to populist backlash against all transfer payments of any type, complaints about people "voting for a living" instead of "working for a living," and paranoid conspiracy theories about groups like ACORN.
These are exactly the kind of sentiments American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks tries to exploit in a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal. In the wake of the Greek crisis, Brooks contrasts hard working Americans with leisure loving Europeans. Europeans like to say that Europeans work to live while Americans live to work, writes Brooks, and "Many Europeans also expect others to work so they can live."
While protesters in Greece demand handouts, America’s Tea Party movement demands the opposite — an end to government handouts, bailouts and spiraling deficits. Brooks sees this as an encouraging sign. Unless Americans preserve their culture of self-reliance and willingness to take risks, he argues that Greece’s present will become America’s future.
Not everyone in the free market movement thinks it’s a good idea to encourage the tea partiers. Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute agrees that differences between the American welfare state and welfare states in Europe are rooted in differences in culture. But this isn’t a good thing:
Does America’s smaller welfare state reflect important cultural differences between us and folks on the other side of the Atlantic? Yes, probably, but the main one is hardly worthy of defending. A 2001 paper, "Why Doesn’t the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?" by economists Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote, provides powerful evidence that race is at the center of the story [pdf]. There’s a strong negative relationship between a country’s racial heterogeneity and its levels of social spending, and within the U.S., states with larger black populations spend less on welfare programs. "Americans think of the poor as members of some different group than themselves, while Europeans think of the poor as members of their group," the paper concludes.
As a libertarian Lindsey doesn’t think a European-style welfare state is a good idea. But his arguments against it are economic rather than cultural. According to Lindsey, a combination of population ageing and rising health costs will end up making Europe’s generous retirement benefits and healthcare entitlements unaffordable. Brooks is coming from another direction. According to Lindsey, he:
… counsels against "getting stuck in the old arguments over money." Instead, he wants to defend America’s track record of more modest social spending on cultural grounds. And that is a really bad idea. Our tragic history of race relations may have inhibited spending, but we should be ashamed of that cultural heritage. We certainly shouldn’t embrace it and brag about it. Brooks apparently doesn’t realize what he’s doing; he thinks he’s touting good old Yankee self-reliance. But his argument is offensive even if he’s oblivious to how offensive he’s being.
As Lindsey explains, it’s not programs targeted at the poor and disadvantaged that are threatening to blow out the budget. It’s entitlement programs for the middle-class — retirement benefits and health care. And these are programs most tea partiers support. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, 62% of the movements supporters agreed that the benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the costs.
Lindsey makes an important distinction between support for free markets and support for small government. "Governments can effectively stifle enterprise and competition without spending a lot of money," says Lindsey, "while a large public sector and a vibrant private sector can go hand in hand." As a result, there ought to be a consensus about promoting a dynamic private sector and improving the effectiveness and efficiency of anti-poverty programs.
Brooks isn’t interested in consensus or empirical arguments about what works. He wants to start a culture war fueled by an intractable conflict of values. In contrast, Lindsey wants to take a pragmatic approach. As he puts it: "On the one hand, a government safety net is needed to protect Americans from various hazards of life; on the other hand, that safety net shouldn’t bankrupt us … dividing up into warring tribes and demonizing each other aren’t the ways to figure out who’s right."