A Cultural Underpinning of the Government Town

To restate my company-state/government-town hypothesis: With the economics of a state or city continuing not to work, the government — that is, public welfare — becomes the major driver of economic “growth.”  Available jobs once drew people to the area, but the availability of benefits becomes the only draw.  “Company towns” once set themselves up to serve their workforces in an almost feudal system; “government towns” now look to maintain existing population centers by creating government jobs and importing or creating new clients as justification for taking money from taxpayers in the area or around the country (via the federal government).  One underlying principle of the system is that people shouldn’t have to go in search of work and should be catered to where they are.

That model doesn’t work, obviously, if people want to work and are willing to go in search of it, and such is the topic of a recent Kevin Williamson essay on National Review Online, which ends on this melancholy note:

We are a very, very rich society, and we can afford to provide decently for people who cannot care for themselves, including children and those who are physically or mentally disabled. But that isn’t our problem: Our problem isn’t people who are physically disabled but people who are morally disabled, people who wouldn’t take a bus 15 minutes to work at a gas station, much less walk 15 miles to do so. I met Preston Smith at the unveiling of a statue of him, in commemoration of his work in public service. “I didn’t know this was how it was going to turn out,” he said. If we could see the end of the path at the beginning, we might set out with a little more resolve. But we can’t. And where we once had the faith and the confidence to help carry us through the unknown, we now have an overabundance of caution, an anchoring pessimism that fixes us in place like bugs on pins.

Preston Smith is the governor of Texas, and Williamson’s essay begins with a quick recap of his biography, walking 15 miles to the nearest high school (also near a gas station at which he could work) and then heading to the nearest college town with no resources or plans on how to live.  He opened a gas station, there, and then a movie theater.

Culturally, the people who control the messages we receive have spent decades training us to believe that the American Dream is dead or is only for a privileged class, and such pessimism is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If Smith had been imbued with doubts about whether he could find some way to live in his college town, he might have found meager subsistence in his home town to be preferable. Now imagine if he could have stayed in place with the conviction that it was somebody else’s responsibility to make sure he had at least a minimum baseline of food, health care, material comforts, and entertainment technology.

Of course, our cultural training has to have been an affair of mutual reinforcement.  The commercial vehicles of the pessimism wouldn’t have sold if there wasn’t some demand for it.  On the other hand, with money and control of information, as we’ve considered before, messages and forms of art can be pushed from the top down, suggesting that the dynamic at play is the exploitation of a natural tendency.  One thinks both of Wormtongue‘s method if insidious magic in The Lord of the Rings and of my post, yesterday, wondering about the degree to which an ideological media disrupts the society’s feedback loop.

Our national vision once emphasized the opportunity for those who would march forward with a willingness to take risks and to work hard.  Now our emphasis — the primary demand on any vision articulated for our country — is what it will do for those who perhaps cannot make the risks and work pay off, and that group is defined as anybody for whom some degree of success is not more or less ensured.  To be sure, we can and should judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable members, but that judgment must also take into account how well the society ushers them toward self-fulfillment and, naturally, whether the society buys charity on the cheap at the expense of systemic collapse and destitution later.  That is, we cannot disregard the value of spiritual welfare, neither can we pamper those whom we can see before us at the direct and painful expense of those whom we cannot see some generations hence.

Returning to the practical, though, we must acknowledge that a modern-day young Preston Smith would have good reason to be pessimistic about his chances.  After all, times and (more to the point) restrictions have changed since the early twentieth century of Smith’s youth.  One can’t just open up a gas station or movie theater.  There are licenses, taxes, and regulations all the way up from local limits on the construction work that one can do on one’s own business to the federal imposition of ObamaCare.

So the approach of those whose end is the government town is twofold: Push a sense of pessimism, grievance, and entitlement while, in fact, making it more difficult to harvest an attitude of optimism, motivation, and a willingness to work and adapt.

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