A public philosophy dominates the character and scope of a nation's political institutions, practices, and policies. To appreciate the point consider how general-welfare liberalism shapes public public opinion and policy making in a variety of areas.

Class Consciousness and American Exceptionalism

One of the continuing mysteries of American politics is its absence of social class warfare. The United States, as the data in Chapter 2 reveal, is a multilayered society. A relatively small number of wealthy individuals sits at the top. Under them, in descending order, come managers, executives and professionals, a huge stratum of white- and blue-collar workers, service and farm laborers, and several million poor. It is not a pyramid because the middle layers are larger than the top and bottom. Nevertheless, by whatever yardstick one chooses, these classes are easily measured and identified.

Yet America has experienced comparatively little class strife during its 200 years of existence and practically none since 1950. A list of writers on this topic would fill dozens of pages. Among the most famous are Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who spent many hours wondering why capitalism in the United States was never overthrown. Another well-known student of the question is Werner Sombart: Why Is There No Socialism in America?. (London: Macmillan, 1976) (First published in German in 1906.). An excellent collection of essays is John H. M. Laslett and Seymour Martin Lipset, editors, Failure of a Dream? Essays in the History of American Socialism (Garden City, New York: 1974). Workers and owners unquestionably fight bitterly about wages, hours, and fringe benefits. And people at the lower end of the scale envy and emulate the rich and powerful. Still, deep class antagonisms are more or less alien to our political culture. Neither the upper nor lower classes manifest distinctive class consciousness, the feelings of solidarity with one's own social and economic peers and antipathy to those above or below. Nor do various classes have distinctive ideologies. Labor, for example, seems as hostile to socialism as do industrialists and bankers. Indeed, as this chapter has argued, most layers of society accept the broad outlines of general-welfare liberalism.

Since the American economy is as developed as any country where conflicts between classes are commonplace, the unique situation here has been called American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism means that despite the existence of objective social classes, there is relatively little class conflict and no widespread acceptance of socialism in the United States. Seymour M. Lipset, "Radicalism or Reform: The Sources of Working Class Politics in the U.S.," American Political Science Review, 77 (March, 1983) pp. 1-2.

In order to experience class conflict, the members of a class have to identify with their social stratum, believe that its needs conflict with other classes, and be prepared to organize politically along class lines to advance their interests. C. W. Mills, White Collar (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936) p. 325. Although most Americans recognize inequalities in wealth and influence, Joan Huber and William H. Form, Income and Ideology (New York: the Free Press, 1973) Chapter 5. ethnic, religious, and regional loyalties far outweigh class attachments in importance in American politics. Public opinion research suggests, for example, that few people seem to invest class labels with much meaning or emotion. The vast majority identified with the "average" middle or working class. Hardly anyone thinks of being in the "upper" or "lower" class.

One study finds that relatively few manual laborers, the backbone of socialist movements overseas, identified with the working class; on the contrary, they tend to select "middle class," the same category white-collar employees, executives, and professionals picked.

Sidney Verba and Kay Lehman Schlozman, Injury To Insult (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979) pp. 116-17. The same report also measured other dimensions of class consciousness. Among other items, the authors presented their subjects with this statement: "Do you think that the interests of management and workers are basically opposed or are their interests basically the same?" Only slightly more than a third of the sample replied "opposed" and different occupational groups, executives as well as blue-collar workers, gave essentially the same responses, leading the authors to conclude that "...the politics of economic position in America, while it involves disagreement over the equitable division of economic rewards, is not a matter of fundamental conflict among cohesive social groups." Ibid., p. 118. Nearly two-thirds of the workers did say that workers are better off sticking together rather than trying to get ahead on their own. But this attitude probably reflects the advantages of cooperation rather than feelings of class solidarity.

American exceptionalism tells us a great deal about our public philosophy, because general-welfare liberalism is both its parent and child. In the first place, the lack of class consciousness, with its absence of alternative ideologies, has made acceptance of the public philosophy all the easier. With no viable competitors, general-welfare liberalism has had the stage to itself. But in the second place, the pervasive influence of the creed surely contributes to exceptionalism. Realistic and tough-minded, the working class nevertheless has internalized the creed's fundamental beliefs about opportunity, hard work, and justice: Workers may at times entertain doubts about economic and social institutions, but they have been reluctant, especially in the past several decades, to resolve them by political means along class lines.

Organized labor, to take one widely cited example, decided nearly 40 years ago to fight its battles in the economic, not political, arena. Its basic tactics have been strikes and boycotts of owners--head-on confrontations with management--rather than organized crusades against capitalism. By 1960, in fact, nearly all of labor leadership had become "vociferously antisocialist and anticommunist, a position it shares with most workers." Huber and Form, Income and Ideology, p. 218. Unions do, of course, lobby in Congress and contribute to the Democratic party. But their primary weapon has been the strength of their organizations relative to their employers. Unlike most industrialized countries, national labor parties or national labor newspapers do not exist here.

Two political scientists, Sidney Verba and Kay Lehman Schlozman, identify a set of attitudes that partly explains this situation. Studying the opinions of unemployed and working-class individuals, they came across a "gap" between personal experiences (being laid off, for example) and "general social ideology": "...there seems to be a very limited association between personal economic circumstances and policy preferences. [T]he links between social ideology and policy preferences seem tenuous or nonexistent." Verba and Schlozman, Injury to Insult, p. 231. Unemployed, dispossessed, and marginal workers, in other words, have not been galvanized into a unified proletariat that translates its grievances into distinctive political demands such as a radical change in capitalism.

These responses further illustrate the inclination to solve problems individually or through private organizations, with the government seen as a savior of last resort.

Limited Government and the Welfare State

Another component of general-welfare liberalism affects the form and content of government in the United States. Recall that classical liberalism (classical, not the modern version) asserts that "the government that governs least governs best." Paradoxically, despite the enormous size of the federal and state establishments, America has not completely abandoned this principle. On the contrary, it is still very much with us.

The human devastation caused by the industrial revolution led many nations, like ours, to take governmental action to deal with it. Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the Scandinavian countries have all built extensive social welfare systems. A welfare state provides income transfers, such as social security payments and unemployment compensation, and services such as medical, dental, and hospital care, to ensure a minimal level of well-being and equity for its citizens. Philippe C. Schmitter discusses more fully the meaning of the term "welfare state" in "Five Reflections on the Future of the Welfare State," Politics and Society, 16 (December, 1988) pp. 503-15.

What is interesting is that the efforts of other countries exceed ours by considerable amounts. Even though the United States possesses comparable wealth and productive capacity, these nations devote a larger portion of their resources to health care, education, housing, pensions, unemployment insurance, and other benefits, and they collect more taxes to pay for them. Although the United States spends as much of its wealth on health care as any country, most of this money is raised and distributed through private channels; only 40 percent involves public programs. Nearly all Europeans, to take another case, are covered by public hospital insurance, whereas most Americans are covered, if they have coverage at all, by private programs. Notice also that tax revenues represent a relatively small portion of the nation's economic output compared with the other industrial nations. These data support Charles Andrain's observation that despite its vast riches, the United States still has the "least developed" welfare system among the most highly industrialized countries. Charles F. Andrain, Social Policies in Western Industrial Societies (Berkeley, California: Institute for International Studies, 1985, p. 10.

Why is this the case? The structure and character of America's welfare state have many causes, of course. But a decisive factor has been the opposing tendencies of the public philosophy. Heclo, "General Welfare and Two American Political Traditions," pp. 182-86. One half of the doctrine restrains the other. Americans believe in both limited government and public management of the economy; they desire personal freedom and opportunity and protection from their unrestrained use; they spend their tax dollars year after year on health, education, and welfare and are exasperated at times by the very programs they pay for.

Public policy, then, is in the midst of a tug-of-war between two equally compelling urges--the urge to protect individual liberties and the urge to advance the general welfare. From this perspective, the comparisons shown in the figures make sense: We spend less on social programs than most countries at a comparable stage of development partly because we have not made up our mind about which urge we want to heed, demonstrating again that the public philosophy determines what government does and who benefits from its activities. Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve system and a prominent Wall Street banker, describes this philosophical schizophrenia this way:

We Americans have always been ambivalent about government....Instinctively, we still have a lot of feeling that government is best that governs least; nonetheless we are quick and caustic with our complaints and our rhetoric when government doesn't produce what we expect of it. And as we've grown in size and in the complexity of our society, for better or worse we've asked and expected more of government. Quoted in Government Executive (January, 1988) p. 11.

Individualism and Poverty

The tension between the general-welfare part of the creed and the traditional homage paid to individualism contributes to another fascination of American politics: the ambivalence about the causes and cures of poverty.

Even as agreement on government activism developed and prodded the nation toward an ever-growing welfare state, individualism--the belief in the virtue and power of self-reliance--never vanished from the national consciousness. Although we may acknowledge the impersonal causes of personal economic hardship, deep down many Americans cannot avoid partly blaming the victims themselves for their plight. After all, people suffering from poverty refute some cherished myths: America is the land of limitless opportunity, where success awaits anyone willing to work hard enough, where private initiative and free enterprise have created the highest standard of living in the world, and where freedom is its own reward.

Because of these deeply held beliefs, a conference of Catholic bishops found that "punitive attitudes" toward the poor frequently surface:

Americans have a tendency to blame poverty on laziness, to stigmatize welfare recipients, to exaggerate the benefits actually received by the poor and to overstate the extent of fraud in welfare payments. The belief persists that the poor are poor by choice, that anyone can escape poverty by hard work, and that welfare programs make it easier for people to avoid work. New York Times, November 12, 1984, p. 10B.

An excerpt from a letter to the editor, typical of probably thousands written each year, reflects the beliefs identified by the Bishops:

We wonder why the country is in debt. My guess is that one reason is that too many able-bodied people are on welfare. There are help-wanted signs everywhere you go. Why not have welfare recipients take a urine test...whenever they come to pick up a check? I bet our welfare rolls would decrease greatly....The ones who do stay on welfare after that should be given jobs to earn their keep (licking envelopes, digging ditches).Wilmington, Delaware The News Journal May 22, 1989, p. 9.

These perceptions about fraud and abuse affect the administration of the welfare system. Nearly every program, whether at the state or national level, is saddled with means tests, eligibility requirements, investigations of clients' living habits, and numerous other regulations, most of which assume that chiselers and freeloaders crowd the welfare rolls.

This attitude toward the poor can also be seen in efforts to reform welfare, which requires public aid recipients to accept jobtraining and employment as a condition of receiving public aid. Based onthe dictum that "work is better than welfare," the ostensible purposes of the policy are to provide occupational skills, to encourage the poor to work, and to benefit the community as a whole. Seen in this light, workfare seems entirely unobjectionable. The underlying motive, though, is all too transparent: Workfare's proponents believe that too many recipients of public assistance, who want something for nothing, will not work unless made to. There is also a widely held perception that welfare has become generous to the point of discouraging self-sufficiency. Pierre S. DuPont, former governor of Delaware and a contender for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, captured the common thinking about welfare when he made workfare a central plank in his campaign platform: "Our policy in this country must be: If you don't work, you don't get paid." New York Times, September 17, 1986, p. 10.

The result of these attitudes, several policy analysts argue, is to create stingy and demeaning social welfare programs. This state of affairs results partly from the context of ideas and is another example of how a nation's basic values and assumptions mold its policies.

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