WALL-E and the Welfare State

Did you see Pixar’s animated movie Wall-e?

It’s a cute story about Wall-e the robot, the last Waste Allocation Load Lifter (Earth Class) still working to clean up the planet—hundreds of years after humankind had destroyed it. Wall-e is the little robot who could; though all the other load lifters had long since broken down, he ‘awakened’ each morning with only his pet cockroach for company and spent the day dutifully cleaning.

The humans, meanwhile, have all gone to live on a giant spaceship called the Axiom—waiting for the day they can return to a cleaned-up and inhabitable earth. Axiom is like a cruise ship on steroids—all your needs catered to and limitless leisurely activities to fill your days. It’s an endless holiday for the human race while they float through the heavens with no responsibilities.

As you might imagine, this new environment did nothing to abate the rampant consumerism, laziness and lack of personal responsibility that caused the earth’s destruction. In fact, humans had become utterly dependent on BuyNLarge (the company that runs the ship) to meet all their needs. On the surface it was working out okay, but the cost of that dependence was pervasive obesity and physical inability. No one could walk, so they cruised around on hover crafts going from one leisurely activity to the next … and in the end, they had no choice but to allow BuyNLarge to address their every need.

Lest you accuse me of ignoring the central storyline of Wall-e to suit my purposes, I should tell you a sleek new robot model is sent to earth as a scout. Wall-e falls in love with Eve and together they endeavor to make it known that the earth may indeed have become hospitable to life once again—an unwelcome message to those in power on Axiom. The romantic drama plays out from there; I will avoid spoiling the ending.

I very much enjoyed the film but as I left the theater I couldn’t get over the image of humanity it portrayed: universally obese, all with the same stupid look on their fat faces and unable to get up from the chairs they sat in as they were fed and clothed by the ship that carried them.

It’s an image of an advanced welfare state and in many ways, I think our post-modern infatuation with fairness and/or substantive equality (i.e. equal results) puts America on a path that leads down this familiar road.

***

Fairness is a very popular idea these days. It’s a very tricky word.

William Gairdner published a review of Alan Wolfe’s new book, Liberalism, in Rutgers University’s The New Criterion (Wolfe in Sheep’s Clothing, March 2009, p 4). Wolfe, in defending social engineering (and admittedly I did not read his book but am using Gairdner’s review as my source) as an essential component of new liberalism makes the claim that “the welfare state is an institutionalization of the moral idea of empathy.”

But isn’t empathy here really just another word for fairness? I think Wolfe’s idea is that the forces of liberty have resulted in outcome gaps between groups of people so onerous that the state must remedy them through social engineering. It’s really institutionalized “fairness” we’re after.

The problem, as Gairdner points out, is that we’re playing a zero-sum game. Liberty and fairness (which he calls ‘equality’, used to mean guaranteeing more equal outcomes) tend to move opposite one another. Said another way, as a state endeavors to increase fairness to one, it diminishes the liberties of another.

So the question starts to become something more like, fairness to whom? And this only raises another set of questions starting with, who should decide what’s fair? Gairdner points out the absurdity of social engineering in these terms: “there is a plain and simple—very simple—and quite contradictory, equation: government direction (that is, coercion) will make you free”.

State-sponsored programs are redistributive in their very essence and undermine individual liberty. The money that allows them to exist must come either from a redistribution from the more-wealthy to the less wealthy (i.e. taxes) or from future generations to the current generation (i.e. deficits).

Taxes are necessary and will be redistributive in almost any case, but not necessarily for the sake of being redistributive. In other words, it would be difficult to imagine a system where the rich didn’t pay more than their pro-rata share for government services, hence subsidizing the poor—for a state to meets its basic budgetary needs. But it is something else entirely to impose punitive taxes on the rich simply for the sake of leveling the results.

That’s the fairness that modern liberal doctrine seems to propagate. Equal outcomes. It comes in the form of arguments like: “It’s a God-given right to own a home”. Since when? My reading of the Bible certainly does not support that thesis.  Jesus himself didn’t own a home!  I don’t own a home

Such policies encroach on the liberties that America is supposed to represent.

***

One of the perverse consequences of the state taking on the role of the Great Equalizer is that Charity (empathy) itself starts to become the purview of government rather than people. I would suggest the hope for meaningful empathy ultimately diminishes to the extent we ask the government to be its executor. Empathy is better administered in our schools, places of work and communities, in our churches and synagogues—in our lives. The cold (re)distribution of government rations does nothing to humanize either those who give or those who receive. It’s dehumanizing to both, and discouraging to the giver.

But loss of empathy is only a symptom of the most serious consequences of the welfare state—loss of personal responsibility. When we can get neither “too high” (because the state takes from us at some level they define) or too low (because the state gives to us), we begin to believe that what we do doesn’t matter. When no matter how hard we work we end up in the same place, the great downward lurch can begin. Those who were once very productive will realize at the margin it’s useless, and there starts to be less to go around. That’s how humans ends up obese on hovercrafts–unable to stand and defend themselves—just living off BuyNLarge and feeding the behemoth’s (read: the state’s) power.

A state that tells its people “Yes we can” but means, “No, I don’t believe you can, but I’ll start a program to bail you out” is a state on the decline. It will take away its people’s liberty as well as their dignity. For who, in the end of their lives, does not want to look back and see that they accomplished something? Who doesn’t want to believe that they worked hard and succeeded, maybe even provided for loved ones?

It should still be our right to work hard and receive the benefits of that work—or give them away in empathy as we see fit—and in the end, look back and feel good about what we have done and the decisions we have made. It should still be our right to make decisions for ourselves even if they are bad ones.

I believe God will hold us accountable individually for our lives.

***

The misplaced focus on fairness as equality of outcome should be redirected to equality of opportunity. Humanizing empathy would focus on empowering and equipping individuals to succeed—rather than implicitly questioning their abilities by offering them handouts.

There is much to say here, too much for today. Clearly equal opportunity is difficult to provide, but it’s impossible to guarantee equal results. And in the meantime, empowering and teaching people to do for themselves—and allowing other people to participate in this—leaves individual liberty and dignity intact.

There can be no fairness as we strip away personal liberties, and empathy can only truly be administered by the people.

***

Okay, I will spoil it—Wall-e, the last one actually working was able to save the world. He believed it was his responsibility to do so.  Everyone benefited.

He gets the girl too.

  1. I dig the Wall-e references having seen it a few times with my 4 1/2 yr old daughter. I think the transformation in the captain’s character is a whole new avenue to explore as he realizes his own individuality and purpose. Cheers, Keith

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