Free Isn't Freedom

by RALPH PETERS January 6, 2011
My childhood was spent in the hardscrabble world of Pennsylvania’s coal towns, where hard-working anthracite miners drove the economy. As my awareness of the world around me grew, from the 1950s into the early 1960s, I was struck again and again by the pride of the men who worked underground in a dangerous profession: Those who avoided work were considered a blot on the community, and being forced onto “the dole” for any reason humiliated not only the immediate family involved, but even distant relations. Men expected to earn their way, taking pride in maintaining their simple “company” houses as best they could, and dressing their wives and children anew each Easter.
 
Ours was no ideal society (beware anyone who tells you an ideal society can be fabricated from human material). It was, by and large, a dirty blue-collar world, dangerous below ground and rough-edged above. But those miners had a pride and shared a comradeship I only encountered again when I served in our military. When troubles came, family members aided one another. When the need was too great for blood kin to relieve, communities pulled together. The question in every mind regarding an injured miner was, “When will he be able to go back to work?” As brutal as it was, the coal man’s work let him stand up straight and look any man in the eye.
 
 
Entrance to anthracite coal mine – Pennsylvania State Archives
 
An incident that shocked me then only seems quaint today, given the collapse of our social values: I was, perhaps, eight. The year would have been 1960. My mother and aunt were visiting in Lehighton, and I had been dragged along, barricaded into the backseat behind parapets of comic books. A summer evening softened the harshness of a hillside street lined with row houses. Jingling and trailing exhaust, an ice-cream truck appeared, conjuring shrieking children from every side. We stood in line, I got my chocolate cone (vanilla was for sissies), and my mother opened her purse to pay. Just then, a boy of about my age, wearing a hand-me-down t-shirt, sidled up to my mother and asked, “Lady, would you buy me an ice-cream cone?” My mother got him one, but we all were shocked. The boy had begged. It simply wasn’t done. My mother’s family first enjoyed indoor plumbing when the boys came home from the Second World War with money in hand, and a family of twelve had crammed into a two-bedroom house—but no one begged for anything, not ever. You went hungry first.
 
 
Abandoned mine head, Schuylkill Valley. Picture by Clemson Page.
 
Then came the well-intentioned, disastrous programs of The Great Society. By the end of the 1960s, the miner’s pride lay shattered and the dream of the able-bodied blue-collar worker back home was to qualify for “total disability,” while retaining sufficient health to do some illicit work on the side (for cash payment) to supplement the beer budget. Lawsuits came into fashion, too. The Great Society’s message was “You’re entitled.”
 
It was the most-seductive, most-destructive and most-pernicious message our government had sent since the Dred Scott case prolonged slavery. Instead of giving us a more-equitable society, it destroyed the urban-black family; erected dependency walls around ghettos, barrios and rust-belt company towns; vanquished the blue-collar work ethic in innumerable communities; and put us on the road to our present state of whining, demanding, parasitic, morbid obesity. Congratulations.
 
Again and again across the decades, I witnessed the narcotic, enslaving effects of a government-provided “free lunch” for able adults: Members of my own family wondered who they could sue for imagined injuries; obese military wives paralyzed health clinics by treating them as social hubs—dragging in their children for every minor affliction, since there was no cost to do so (a mere five-dollar-per-visit fee would have cleaned out those waiting rooms rapidly); and working-age folks back home employed their considerable reserves of ingenuity to beat the system any way they could.
 
In the historical blink of an eye, we went from a self-reliant and spirited society to a nation of cattle satisfied with a government-filled trough.
 
Another tragic aspect of this cancerous transformation was that the social reformers of the 1960s, as well as many professional leftists today, had and have humane, idealistic intentions: They sincerely want to do good to less-privileged citizens. The problems arise, first, because few of these elite do-gooders actually know any working men or women paid by the hour, and, second, a healthy society, like God, helps those who help themselves. The crusaders for “social justice” not only destroyed individual pride in work and the family’s longing for the community’s respect, but established something-for-nothing as the new societal norm. Utterly misunderstanding the nature of pride, they told themselves that “having” was the same as “earning.” But it is not.
 
 
Another transformative moment for me came when I was a captain in the Army. Stationed at Ft. Hood, I pursued a master’s degree on weekends and, when the all-too-short evenings were not consumed with studies or field duties, I worked on a novel about the Soviet military. I wrote it because I was frustrated by the dreary nature of our training manuals and the sleeping-pill briefings inflicted on our soldiers. I grasped that the only way to communicate Soviet organization and tactics effectively was to humanize them, to tell stories with human characters that would illustrate how Soviet doctrine was meant to work. It wasn’t much of a novel (although, to my astonishment, it would become a bestseller), but it was one hell of a training tool.
 
I considered donating the book to the Army for issue as a manual. Two things stopped me. First, I knew that so many bureaucratic mitts would be laid upon it that any value would quickly disappear from the red-ink-raped text. Second, and more important still, was my experience of soldiers. Given something for free—a training circular, for example—they placed no value on it and soon discarded it. But if they paid a few dollars (back then) for a paperback, they’d share it and hold on to it. Even a token charge assigned real value. So I published the book commercially, which resulted in it being taken seriously.
 
Meanwhile, our society underwent expectations creep as I marched along in uniform. Limited reforms in the 1990s trimmed some of the welfare system’s worst abuses, but the sense of entitlement on an increasing number of fronts crept upward from the Lumpenproletariat, through the blue-collar class, into white-collar realms. Simultaneously, we underwent a one-off economic expansion that permitted Congress to lavish money on select constituencies, while the medical world innovated and invented its way to stunning capabilities—and staggering costs. With disorienting speed, we went from a country that knew it had to pay its medical bills to one in which relatives believed it was their right to keep a comatose elder with no chance of recovery on life-support systems for weeks and months at a cost of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. And why not? For that family, there were no trade-offs, no calculations of relative value. Health-care was already, essentially, free.
 
A society that doesn’t have to make choices, won’t make choices.
 
When the economic downturn arrived—as downturns inevitably do—we still imagined that we were a nation politically divided into give-it-all-away Democrats and spend-responsibly Republicans. That’s nonsense. The parties simply spend lavishly on different things (although, increasingly, their priorities overlap: see the trash loans at the heart of the housing crisis). A terrible hour of shame arrived for the Republican Party when its activists—desperate to derail the looming train-wreck of Obamacare—began howling about “death panels” and health-care rationing. Well, guess what? We can’t afford to keep every comatose granny alive indefinitely in an intensive-care ward. Nor can we afford to give every patient—even the currently insured—every expensive treatment indefinitely. This isn’t a matter of “should” any long, but of “can.” Call it what we might, we will have to ration health care—even without the peculiar injustices of Obamacare. The issue is how to ration it ethically and most usefully.
 
Both parties have fled from the idea of individual responsibility. During the health-care “debate” (a juvenile name-calling session), not one leading politician in either party risked uttering the O-word: Obesity. If end-of-life costs haunt hospital hallways today, our collective obesity is on track to destroy us financially in the longer-term. It’s not only the myriad problems associated with obesity itself, but the countless diseases and ailments attendant to it, from plague levels of diabetes, through heart disease, to the costs of joint replacements (ask a surgeon what it’s like to operate on a morbidly obese patient). And except for those with rare medical conditions, obesity is a choice.
 
 
The Republicans—for whom I generally, if reluctantly, vote—not only ducked the issue of personal responsibility for our health, but went on to attack one of the few worthy initiatives of the inept Obama presidency, the First Lady’s effort to encourage children to eat healthier foods; to improve in-school nutrition; and to bring physical exercise back to the playground and school gym. Sounds like a win-win-win approach to me.
 
Grotesquely, Republicans argued that our children have a right to eat all the candy and drink all the Mountain Dew they want during school hours, and that Michelle Obama wanted “food police” in our schools. (Republicans should support these initiatives on national defense grounds, at least, since over a quarter of young Americans are too fat to fight for our country, with another quarter on the borderline.)
 
Such mindless, reflexive opposition discredits serious conservatism. Instead of cooperating in a worthy endeavor that should be a bipartisan no-brainer, sanctimonious Republicans argued that kids have a constitutional right to bear arms full of candy bars, chips and cupcakes (leaving, one supposes, little room for textbooks). When challenged, fake conservatives claim that the kids will eat that stuff anyway—and we’ll just give junk food the lure of forbidden fruit. Well, in my high school, there were no candy machines (candy in school was forbidden) and no soft-drink dispensers. And my graduating class did not have a single student who would be classed as obese today.
 
Conservatives should be leading the fight to restore an atmosphere of personal responsibility: You are what you eat—not least, when it comes to the burden you impose upon society in general and the health-care system in particular.
 
And the health-care issue is just one of many about which we decline to speak honestly.
 
For their disgraceful part, Democrats appear determined to turn unemployment benefits into a new welfare system, with endless payments and no personal responsibility to find work—indeed, for low-skilled blue-collar workers, unemployment’s often a better deal than a job. Well, we could trim those unemployment rolls sharply, were we to learn from the left’s beloved FDR: In the 1930s, my uncles had to work for the pittance they received from the Civilian Conservation Corps—and they were glad to do it. Today, anyone who has collected more than 52 weeks of unemployment benefits should have to work four full days a week—with one day free for job-hunting--on urban clean-up, infrastructure rehabilitation, health services and environmental restoration projects—and the work involved should be serious labor, not typical “government work” that involves hanging out with a bored supervisor. If the unemployed lack skills, this is a good way to impart them.
 
Of course, Democrats would never support such a program, because unions would oppose it. And Democrats will gladly destroy millions of jobs among the constituents they claim to champion, as long as corrupt labor unions are protected and happy.
 
And Democrats have lied wildly about virtually every aspect of Obamacare. This isn’t “wealth redistribution,” it’s poverty redistribution, taking from the productive members of society to reward the unproductive and unwilling—The Great Entitled.  In the end, we’ll all get less, and those of us who work will work harder for it.
 
Certainly, every moral government needs to recognize legitimate exceptions to its policies. If the disaster of Communism taught us anything, it was that human beings aren’t uniform in their abilities, characters or even biologies. When an individual, through no fault of his or her own, faces a truly debilitating illness or suffers an accident beyond his or her control, our health-care system should provide for them. But those of us who take responsibility for our own health and fitness have no moral obligation to provide extravagant health care for those who eat with abandon, smoke and drink heavily, refuse to exercise—and avoid work that would provide them with insurance benefits.
 
Democrats vs. Republicans? When it comes to restoring a culture of personal responsibility and selfless citizenship, it’s increasingly hard to see the difference between the two parties. They just rely on the backing of different mafias. Who among us hasn’t had the feeling, as we mark our ballots, that we’re merely voting for the lesser of two evils?
 
In the 58 years during which I have been privileged to be an American citizen, I’ve witnessed many destructive trends initiated or accelerated by my self-absorbed generation, the children of the Great Society. But none of those trends — not our moral fracturing, the collapse of civility, nor even our addiction to debt — so disheartens me as our mass flight from a credo of personal responsibility for our actions. Today, everyone is entitled to something; criminals are all victims; patients who abuse their health are entitled to my tax dollars; and hard work is regarded as, at best, a sometimes-necessary evil (when the government can’t be persuaded to send us a check). In the ‘sixties, Madison Avenue told us we deserved new cars. Today, our politicians tell us we’re entitled to eternal life, with all expenses paid. I’ve always regarded Ayn Rand as a bit too categorical and heartless, but she came closer to diagnosing the dangers to our society than any of the lauded and beautifully educated theorists who made poverty and sloth desirable.
 
A morally healthy society needs pride. And real pride comes from self-reliance, not charity. While an ethically sound society allows for the legitimate needs of the truly incapable, it does not reward the capable-but-feckless. Government only rarely should be the first answer to our problems (it owes us nothing beyond security against foreign intruders and domestic criminals, and the protections detailed in the Constitution).
 
 
Pride is essential to individual well-being and good citizenship. And pride comes from work and achievement, from respect for our God-given bodies and self-discipline, from debts paid and obligations honored—but it does not derive from hand-outs. We live in a paradoxical age in which artificially inflated self-esteem has been decoupled from self-help, in which rewards are redistributed from the productive to the willfully parasitical in the name of “justice.”
 
I consider myself neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but an independent conservative. That means that I value work, honesty, reliability, personal responsibility, conservation of our natural heritage (I have never understood why conservatives aren’t for conservation), good craftsmanship in my trade, individual freedom, patriotism that isn’t just about scoring points, and the personal integrity from which the citizen’s virtues flow. I love my country, even as I despise what our corrupt cartel of political parties has done to it. I would die for it. And I do not expect it to keep me alive on expensive machines when I have outlived my body.
 
To my sorrow, an increasing number of my fellow citizens, left or right, obsess on their “rights,” while shunning their responsibilities to themselves and to our government. The common thread that runs blood-red through too much of our population is the morally bankrupt selfishness expressed by Grace Slick, of the Jefferson Airplane, a great and immoral rock band of my youth, when she sang, “I’d rather have my country die for me.”
 
 We all know—and the best citizens honor—the observation that “Freedom isn’t free.” But when it comes to government hand-outs, free isn’t freedom. On the contrary, the more dependent the citizen becomes upon government for his or her personal needs and wants, the more enslaved that individual becomes (I’m bewildered by those who demand “reparations” for slavery, while advocating enthusiastically the new slavery of unearned benefits--an addiction every bit as destructive to the soul as crack or meth is to the body). If government rewards anyone, it should be those who work the hardest and contribute the most, not those who shout the loudest and do nothing. If I have the ability to work and won’t, I don’t even have a right to a scrap of bread.
 
In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, “That’s all, folks.”
 
Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer (and former enlisted man), and an author. The latest of his 26 books, The Officers’ Club, a novel set in the post-Vietnam Army, will be published on January 18th.
 

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