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Whenever conservatives talk about lowering taxes, reducing entitlements, or rolling back our titanic government, the intellectual giants of the left deploy an incisive counter-argument: you're mean!
But of course. Why, just a fortnight ago, I was strolling to the opera when a lowly chimney sweep spilled soot upon my spats. After making him polish my monocle, I thrashed the young ne’er-do-well roundly with my ivory-handled walking stick. Off to the poorhouse with you!
The Dickensian caricature of conservative Scrooges still holds sway, despite the fact that most of today’s elites are in Hollywood, the media, Washington-loving big business, or the government itself. If the board game was created now, the Monopoly man would drive a Prius, wear a black turtleneck, and work in Silicon Valley.
Conservatives don’t want to reform government dependency because we’re mean. We want reform because government dependency is mean.
Few people understand this more intimately than Peter Cove. In the City Journal, Cove describes his evolution from a foot soldier in the War on Poverty to a general in the Welfare-to-Work revolution. In the 1960s, he eagerly joined LBJ’s big-government solutions as a final answer to endemic poverty:
It’s almost impossible to describe the excitement that we felt as we crafted plans for new entitlement programs with few budget constraints...
But the government’s unprecedented expenditures failed to bring about the decline in poverty that Johnson had promised. Instead, they made things worse. Neither city hall nor I comprehended that the “community action” organizations on which we lavished taxpayer dollars would entrench dependency by urging people to get on the welfare rolls. War on Poverty funds paid for social workers, community activists, and lawyers to organize the poor, but these organizers, far from lifting poor people out of dependency, helped them sign up for more—and more expensive—welfare programs.
Community organizers made poverty worse? You don’t say.
Fortunately, Cove’s passion wasn’t for government, but for those trapped in the poverty cycle. He was willing to change his methods — and his ideology — to get the job done. After joining a radical new anti-poverty program, he made an amazing discovery:
[T]he best way to get clients off welfare was to get them paid work immediately, rather than enroll them in training and education programs. I saw with my own eyes the value of work—any kind of paid work—in reducing welfare dependency and attacking poverty. I learned that if we helped welfare clients get jobs, even entry-level jobs, they would then attend to their other needs. By contrast, if the government gave them money and other benefits, they were likely to remain dependent.
The reasons should have been obvious all along. Work maximizes a person’s capacity to achieve economic self-reliance. Work socializes people and instills a sense of personal responsibility in them. Work connects behavior and consequences. And it permits people, especially men, to obtain the admiration and respect of their spouses and children by supporting them.
Trial and error taught Cove that hard work is the best way to elevate the poor. If you reject his experience and continue to trap millions of Americans in a crippling cycle of dependency, I can only reach one conclusion: you're mean.
Follow me on Twitter at @ExJon.