Arthur Koestler told the story of an old priest he met during World War II. Fascinated that the man had listened to thousands of confessions and heard countless intimate secrets, he asked him what he had learned about human nature.
The priest was naturally reluctant to discuss the secrets of the confessional, even in the most abstract terms. Finally, though, he offered one generalization: “Basically, nobody ever grows up.”
Amen. When my mother died last June, one of the many emotions that surged through me was an odd feeling of sheer unreadiness. I wanted to say to her, “Mom! You can’t die yet! I haven’t finished growing up!”
After all, I was only 51.
Koestler’s priest never met my mother. She grew up early. I never knew anyone so self-reliant, but so willing to be relied on by others. Until she died, I didn’t realize how deeply I felt I still depended on her. That feeling never quite goes away.
One of the fascinating things about celebrity scandals is the sudden revelation, repeated over and over again, that so many famous, powerful, seemingly self-sufficient people have never grown up. What had been the secrets of the diary are thrown onto the front page.
After all, adults are supposed to be making some kind of effort to be responsible and self-sufficient. But many people don’t even try to grow up anymore. The low birth rate in modern society suggests that they would rather be children than have them. And the growth of the welfare state is an index of how constantly we are being invited to let others take responsibility for us.
Why do we talk about “responsibility” in government, when government itself has become a device for shirking and concealing responsibility? The more prosperous we become, the more we hear about poverty and the alleged necessity for the state to take care of those who have been “forgotten” or “left out.” You’d think that life were tougher for us than for our ancestors on the farm.
As the state relieves us of responsibility to our parents and children, it increases our responsibilities to itself. You may divorce your spouse, desert (or abort) your children and abandon your parents, but your duty to pay taxes is absolute. There is no divorce or separation from the welfare state, till death do you part (and even then, inheritance taxes will eat up much of your legacy).
Maybe you don’t have to support the children you’ve begotten, but you’re going to support other people’s children, and pay their way through college, from coast to coast. The natural ratio of responsibility is askew.
The socialist phenomenon, as Igor Shafarevich has called it, takes many forms and many names. But it’s a phenomenon of rich societies, not poor ones.
Poor societies can’t afford to support a large parasite class; the great majority of people are doomed by necessity to be hard-working peasants. When you have to produce food for your family with your own hands, refusing to take responsibility is not an option.
It’s when a society produces a huge surplus of wealth that the parasites multiply and become a powerful force, demanding to be supported and exaggerating their hardships, while politicians, feeling their pain, cater tenderly to their “needs.” Always at someone else’s expense, of course. The fewer the peasants, the more the parasites.
Not coincidentally, rich societies also produce large surpluses of leisured theoreticians to provide rationales for those who won’t grow up. A large part of the parasite class is dedicated to “education,” a luxury that should be privately paid for, though typically advertised as a necessity that must be subsidized. This is why so many intellectuals are on the side of “the poor,” which in practice always turns out to mean the state.
Frédéric Bastiat wrote that government is “organized plunder.” It might be added that a politics geared to this kind of government is organized whining.
I suppose we all have an “inner child,” a whiner and shirker to the end. Nothing wrong with that. But it was one thing to lower the voting age to 18; it’s another to extend the franchise to the inner child.