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A Quibble That Revealed a Lot

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As a result of the great worldwide depression of the 1930s, the United States and Europe led the way in creating social safety nets for the less fortunate members of their societies. What was originally labeled socialism has today become mainstream to nearly everyone except the extreme right. Those programs are anchored in sensible economics which hold that all of a society is better off when less fortunate people are provided with decent housing, adequate food and education to some reasonable degree.

Call that whatever you like, but it worked and we have seen, in the last 50 years, the most amazing economic and social progress of any similar period in all of human history.

Now we are facing a crossroads in Europe and the United States where we have apparently gotten a bit ahead of ourselves in trying to have it all for everybody -- for national defense, space research, education and medicine, etc.

The challenge obviously is how to curtail expenditures and to raise more tax revenues at the same time without so destabilizing our systems that we lose steam/growth and fall back into self-reinforcing recessions. This is where the horrifying topics of curbing so-called entitlements (basically the safety net) enter the discussions and, not surprisingly, to date has led to political stalemate.

A topical conversation took place recently in London with a childhood friend -- a scientist with a socialist bent. His children grew up in England's social safety net. The oldest child never completed her education and discovered that the best way to support herself was to have a child out of wedlock, which provided enough income to live decently. She did that, but when that child was to become 18, the gravy train would stop.

So guess what she did? She simply had another child! And, that went along swimmingly until that child left for university quite recently.

The second kid appeared to have some of his grandfather's genes and brains and seemed interested in science and mathematics. The public sources of financial help for higher education were insufficient to enable him to stay in university without additional resources.

The grandfather (my old friend) did not want his promising kid to have to take part-time work (limiting his studies) so he -- despite his very meager pension and resources -- volunteered to the tune of £3,000 ($4,500) per year.

That lasted for two years and then suddenly the kid quit school completely, saying he was working too hard to be happy and for what purpose? The grandfather was sorely disappointed and had put his retirement income in peril at an age when he could do nothing about it.

That led to a conversation that took place among the grandfather (age 87), his current woman companion, a psychologist who shares socialist tendencies, and myself.

I had said it was a shame to witness such waste and that it was perhaps better in many cases for such kids to have "skin in the game" by working part-time and to invest in their own future.

That view is based on a belief that what most people get in life for free, they often take for granted. In fact, recently The New York Times reported a study which found that college students whose parents paid their tuition costs and other expenses did noticeably less well than those students who had loans and jobs to support their own education.

We all agreed that the grandfather's extreme act of generosity in providing support for his grandson's advanced education was a wonderful thing and it was sad that it resulted in such heartache for him.

His companion, however, took exception to the use of the word 'support' for what he had provided because she felt it was not adequate, which seemed to be an astonishing quibble. Her point was that 'support' had to mean an amount sufficient to complete the education (anything less was merely assistance not support) and the government's refusal to provide all the funds necessary for a complete education for everyone was the basic problem which had to be addressed.

That quibble struck me to be at the heart of today's political struggles about how to curtail public spending and still maintain our long-held belief that society is well-served when it ensures that people in need have their basic needs met.

Much of our public -- in Europe's welfare states and the U.S. -- have become so accustomed to cradle-to-the-grave public support that they have come to feel and believe it is a fundamental birthright.

If that support in and of itself really was a natural right, why did it take the world so long to figure that out and create the right? Perhaps instead as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration Of Independence, political power is the fundamental birthright because that is what created all the rights to begin with, along with moral justice. But where are the limits?

Now our challenge is to make a transition to a world where less will be inevitable for some time to come. If we accept the position that public social support has to have some rational limits, then many more people must build on whatever that base of support will be to push their lives further forward with their own efforts, brains, energy and ambition.

This is clearly not a dream. There are constantly fantastic stories coming out of everywhere about all sorts of young people, who come from nowhere, and achieve great successes solely on their own with minimal public help.

We have to be very careful not to quibble about how much support really is support. That could sap personal initiative and drive by contributing to a fantasy that success can seem like a sure thing, even without serious investment on the part of the person receiving the help.

We cannot continue down the road where too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.