TIMON: Now, Apemantus, if thou wert not sullen, I would be good to thee.
APEMANTUS: No, I’ll nothing. For if I should be bribed too, there would be none left to rail upon thee, and then thou wouldst sin the faster.
– Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, I.2
As someone who grew up in a liberal family and town, I sometimes wonder why I was so fortunate (and I do mean this) as to turn out conservative. People in my family, with whom I rarely discuss politics, seem to think it comes from my personality or my genetic makeup. Alternatively, they have suggested that it comes from the desire to rebel against the norms of the liberal community – something that is plausibly true for me and the handful of friends I have who also turned out non-liberal.
My journey to conservatism or traditionalism took a long detour through libertarianism. This certainly did not make me conservative, but it did set me against the welfare state and affirmative action by the time I began college, and I have never been in the least bit tempted to reconsider my opposition to those since then. However, beyond a belief in individual freedom and limited government, I would say that one of the core experiences I had that forever alienated me from the liberal mainstream was realizing the wrongness of giving benefits to those who do have not earned, or do not deserve, them.
I believe that among other things, modern liberals are people who have lost the ability to understand this truth and its implications for how we run our society. Sure, in their personal lives, liberals, like everyone else, select who they give help and money to based on their moral evaluation of people. But when it comes to social policies, they are never able to resist the general expansion of government entitlements or to the granting of benefits to ethnic and other grievance groups. At most, they will concede that social spending needs to be monitored and accounted for by objective tests and audits of some kind. But never, never, will they oppose in principle the bestowal, through government legislation and spending, of any benefit or privilege which could conceivably do somebody some good.
A libertarian like Ayn Rand might condemn the giving of unearned benefits in the form of, say, welfare entitlements by citing a principle of free exchange for mutual benefit, which makes a kind of intuitive sense:
We, who live by values, not by loot, are traders, both in matter and in spirit. A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. A trader does not ask to be paid for his failures, nor does he ask to be loved for his flaws. A trader does not squander his body as fodder or his soul as alms. Just as he does not give his work except in trade for material values, so he does not give the values of his spirit—his love, his friendship, his esteem—except in payment and in trade for human virtues, in payment for his own selfish pleasure, which he receives from men he can respect.
This makes sense as far as it goes. But modern individualistic thinkers were hardly the first to condemn social welfare entitlements. Throughout American history, a belief in equality of opportunity has been balanced with a general acceptance of existing social distinctions and a disapproval of governmental social welfare programs. The acceptance and disapproval came not from a libertarian worldview, but from a Christian one, and this accounted for the great hostility in America towards socialism and communism.
Why is the giving of unearned benefits wrong? Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens is the story of a man of “right noble mind” and “illustrious virtue” who showers the lords of his city with extravagant gifts, bought with borrowed money, until he bankrupts himself. At this point, he asks his friends to lend him money and is turned down by every one. His disillusion turns him into a raging misanthrope, and he leaves the city to live in a cave, eventually killing himself.
The theme of this play cannot be reduced to a condemnation of ostentatious liberality, since Timon’s general goodness is repeatedly attested. The corrupt society of Athens, which views human relationships entirely in terms of balances and figures, is perhaps the main culprit. Still, as the quote by Apemantus above suggests, there certainly is sinfulness in Timon’s behavior. Timon, a prominent citizen of Athens who, it is implied, has in the past saved his city through his military skill, believes in a polis held together by bonds of loyalty and friendship, whether in the equal relationship between lords or the unequal one between master and servant. However, his giving, being indiscriminate, serves not to strengthen these bonds but rather to corrupt them. Even those whose intentions were good cannot resist goading Timon into giving them large gifts by giving him small ones:
If I want gold, steal but a beggar’s dog
And give it Timon, why, the dog coins gold.
If I would sell my horse and buy twenty more
Better than he, why, give my horse to Timon,
Ask nothing, give it him, it foals me straight
And able horses. (II.1)
Once abandoned by his friends, Timon falls into complete hatred of mankind. In the scene famously quoted by Marx, he digs in the ground for roots to eat, and miraculously discovers gold, just the thing that would solve his present problems. But he no longer wants it, and instead gives it away to prostitutes and bandits, in hope that they will use it to wreak further havoc on society.
What is here?
Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
No, gods, I am no idle votarist;
Roots, you clear heavens! Thus much of this will make
Black white, foul fair, wrong right,
Base noble, old young, coward valiant.
Ha, you gods! why this? what this, you gods? Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads.
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless th’ accurs’d,
Make the hoar leprosy ador’d, place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation
With senators on the bench. This is it
That makes the wappen’d widow wed again;
She, whom the spittle-house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To th’ April day again. Come, damn’d earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that puts odds
Among the rout of nations, I will make thee
Do thy right nature. (IV.3)
Timon thus jumps from blind liberality and trust to its opposite, blind hatred of mankind. He is later compelled to admit that his servant Flavius is an exception, but this neither cures him of his misanthropy nor saves him from his fate.
This Catholic website defines liberality as “a spirit of generosity for a proper and worthy charity that may involve the donation of our time, our money, or other possessions.” It adds that “Liberality is completely different from the political philosophy of liberalism. Liberality is personal rather than social, and consistent with a well formed Catholic conscience.” I am not a Catholic, but this is a useful definition. Modern liberalism perverts the virtue of liberality into a sin. When one gives without accountability, one is not only wasting one’s resources, but actually fostering evil. In the receiver are cultivated dependency, a sense of entitlement, irresponsibility, and inaction. As if this were not enough, the receiver also develops a hatred and contempt for the giver. People hate being under the power of others, so they convince themselves that they are entitled to what they get and resent the giver for not giving even more. The character of the person giving improperly suffers as well. When charity is conducted through government intervention, the effects are an order of magnitude higher. Such is the dynamic that is destroying the American national character.
If you understand this you will not have any illusions that electing a black president, a supporter of increased entitlements, will improve racial relationships in this country. More broadly you will understand that our president-elect’s promise to fix American society through government redistribution of wealth and dialoguing with our enemies is not even a romantic dream, the sort which, though difficult, may have some chance of being realized. It is a lie through and through; it is a priori impossible. Will more Americans begin to see this in the next four years?