Filler: Why our social safety net strangles our freedoms

Our social safety net made us so uncharitable

Our social safety net made us so uncharitable that only under government threat will we care for these least among us. (Credit: Tribune Content Agency / Michael Osbun)

Lane Filler

Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Lane Filler Lane Filler

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

bio | email | twitter

We're not allowed to drive cars without having insurance. That assures that if we cause loss, there's money to pay for it.

There are, in fact, a lot of things you can't legally do without proving, via bonding and insurance, that you can pay to clean up a mess if it all goes bad. You can't be a general contractor or an insect exterminator or a doctor unless you show there is a safety net if the house falls down the week after the owners move in, the cats die instead of the cockroaches, or you remove a kidney when it was just a kidney stone that needed to come out.

But you can have a kid without proving you can handle the financial obligations involved.

For most of history this wouldn't have mattered. People had kids and took care of them the best they could, and when the kids grew up they cared for themselves. But as we move closer to the cradle-to-grave assurance that society will take care of people's needs when they can't provide for themselves, problems arise.

We're in a national argument over Obamacare. Put aside for the moment the fact that the funding for the program is fictional and President Barack Obama recently decided that for 2014, just off the top of his head, he'd suspend the requirement that employers cover employees but keep in place the rule that those employees must get coverage or pay fines.

The Affordable Care Act is intended to provide insurance for those who don't have any, often through subsidies generated from taxes paid by more prosperous people. The fact that many employers are now dropping their insurance plans or kicking off spouses and retirees is just an unfortunate side effect of poor social engineering. But Obamacare is in line with all the programs we love (or hate) and have gotten used to: Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security and food stamps and welfare and subsidized housing and subsidized child care and even public education. We have made more and more responsibilities communal to assure the needs of all are met.

In that context, every newborn child is a massive potential financial obligation on society.

Ideally, every parent would pay lots of bills and taxes, and every kid would grow up a boon to society. But if the world were ideal, we wouldn't need these programs at all.

What's the lifetime cost of educating, feeding, housing and providing medical care for people whose families -- and later, themselves -- can't provide these things, or pay their share of the taxes? How long will society accept the idea that people can bring into the world infinite obligations, with no proof they can pay for them?

We imagine class warfare as a battle between the rich and poor, but it's not the rich who go without because the government provides for the poor. It's members of the middle class who cannot afford their own child care, health care, kids' college and retirements, but know their taxes go to pay for the child care, health care, tuitions and retirements of others.

These programs don't prove us a caring society. In fact, they've made us so uncharitable that only under government threat will we care for these least among us.

It's hard to imagine a day when people will say, "If we stop letting those who can't prove they can afford kids have kids, a lot of problems will end. If pest exterminators have to have bonding and insurance to prove they can meet their obligations, parents should darn well have to do the same."

But it's harder than it would have been for an American in 1900 to imagine a day when half his paycheck would be withheld for taxes, largely to pay for services for others.

And on a moral level, I'd say one's no worse than the other.