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There is No Shame in Being Poor. But in Being Dependent?

Nick Eberstadt begins his splendid new book, A Nation of Takers: American’s Entitlement Epidemic, with a 1973 quotation from Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

The issue of welfare is the issue of dependency. It is different from poverty. To be poor is an objective condition; to be dependent, a subjective one as well. That the two circumstances interact is evident enough, and it is no secret that they are frequently combined. Yet a distinction must be made. Being poor is often combined with considerable personal qualities; being dependent rarely so…. It is an incomplete state of life:  normal in a child, abnormal in an adult.

I myself am a great deal more measured in my admiration of Moynihan, who died in 2007, than is Nick. (Nick not only quotes Moynihan but dedicates the book to the man.)

After his 1976 election to the Senate from New York, Moynihan proved a stout a defender of the ever-expanding federal government — and when Senator Kit Bond of Missouri challenged a piece of pork spending that Moynihan was attempting to slip past his colleagues, Moynihan, the supposed exemplar of civility, responded by throwing a punch. During the Reagan years in particular, Moynihan, still given to grandiloquent speeches on the Senate floor, proved a particular menace to the Republic, seeking to thwart the policies that were even then both ending the Cold War and fostering an economic expansion that disproportionately benefitted the poor Americans whom Moynihan pretended to champion.

Moynihan.jpgStill. Before his electoral ambitions swamped his academic work, turning him, entirely too often, into a kind of hypocrite, Moynihan got off some very good writing and analysis — as this 1973 observation so trenchantly demonstrates. Would that his fellow Democrats might take the observation to heart today.

  1. Matthew Gilley

    Being a native Missourian, I’m heartened to hear that Kit Bond challenged some pork spending!

  2. Michael Lukehart

    I have spent my whole life watching liberals say sensible, conservative-sounding things and then vote the party line.  Invariably.  I get a little tired of hearing how admirable something they once said makes them.  To the dogs with them all.

  3. Peter Meza

    The shame of being dependent on the government has systematically been beat out of the people since 1933.  I am sure that I read or even posted about this before that people said in the 1930s that they would rather die in a ditch than take government handouts.  In a truly free market society it isn’t that tough to be independent and earn your own way.

  4. Douglas
    Whiskey Sam: The Moynihan I remember from when I was growing up was the latter man.  I was surprised to later find out the kind of academic work he had done which is actually insightful.  What changed him?  Did he simply succumb to being a party hack, or was there some moment that moved him down a more statist, dependency-creating path? · 14 hours ago

    I think Moynihan and Krugman are two peas in a pod: academics who did serious, honest, insightful work earlier in their lives, that later succumbed to their political lusts and became out and out party hacks, very often contradicting their earlier, justly lauded work with explosion-of-temper fits to the press and liberal audiences. 

  5. Percival

    Moynihan wrote, talked, and probably thought as a conservative, but voted like a Great Society knucklehead.

    Shame, as a concept, is inconvenient to the modern Democratic Party, and has therefore been supplanted by “empowerment.”

  6. Peter Robinson
    C
    Percival: Moynihan wrote, talked, and probably thought as a conservative, but voted like a Great Society knucklehead. · 31 minutes ago

    Well and truly said, Percival.

  7. Peter Robinson
    C
    Whiskey Sam: The Moynihan I remember from when I was growing up was the latter man.  I was surprised to later find out the kind of academic work he had done which is actually insightful.  What changed him?  Did he simply succumb to being a party hack, or was there some moment that moved him down a more statist, dependency-creating path? · 4 hours ago

    I never interviewed Moynihan, but as far as I could tell what changed him was electoral politics.  He loved being a pol.  Since his constituency was liberal–upstate New York, which remained conservative to moderate, never had much influence–Moynihan voted like a liberal.  He sold his soul–or at least his ability to think and write cogently and honestly–for a seat in the Senate.

  8. Whiskey Sam
    Peter Robinson

    Whiskey Sam: The Moynihan I remember from when I was growing up was the latter man.  I was surprised to later find out the kind of academic work he had done which is actually insightful.  What changed him?  Did he simply succumb to being a party hack, or was there some moment that moved him down a more statist, dependency-creating path? · 4 hours ago

    I never interviewed Moynihan, but as far as I could tell what changed him was electoral politics.  He loved being a pol.  Since his constituency was liberal–upstate New York, which remained conservative to moderate, never had much influence–Moynihan voted like a liberal.  He sold his soul–or at least his ability to think and write cogently and honestly–for a seat in the Senate. · 44 minutes ago

    That is disheartening.  With the things he wrote concerning the breakdown of the family and growth of illegitimacy, he could have been a powerful advocate for positive social policy.  Thanks for shedding some light on this, Peter.

  9. The Cloaked Gaijin

    Peter Robinson confronting the truth about Senator Moynihan!

    Wow, I didn’t think any conservative would ever do that.  George Will loved Moynihan.  Even Bill Buckley seemed to love Moynihan to a certain extent, and he defeated his own brother to become a senator.

    It looks like Moynihan entered the senate slightly more conservative than his “Republican” colleague Jacob Javits (ACU rating 9,9,16,0 vs. 0,4,6,0).  That’s about the only think I can find other than his writings and service to the Nixon and Ford administrations.

    Some people have expressed the same exact frustration about Senator Senator Joe Lieberman.  However, Lieberman did support McCain in 2008 and fought for a strong Scoop Jackson-type foreign policy even though he never supported conservative on domestic policy when Democrats really need his vote such as during Obamacare or the Clinton impeachment.

  10. Conservative Episcopalian

    I remember years ago a coworker of mine who worked as some sort of staffer in the Reagan Whitehouse and was involved somehow in the Whitehouse’s role in Charlie Wilson’s War, told me that both Moynihan and Ted Kennedy were famous for being inebriated at committee hearings as early as 10:00 am.  Perhaps that is why he threw punches at people and voted against his writings? Just a thought.

  11. Whiskey Sam

    The Moynihan I remember from when I was growing up was the latter man.  I was surprised to later find out the kind of academic work he had done which is actually insightful.  What changed him?  Did he simply succumb to being a party hack, or was there some moment that moved him down a more statist, dependency-creating path?

  12. Last Outpost on the Right

    I believe that short-term thinking overwhelmed true compassion.

    True compassion enables a man to elevate himself and overcome poverty. But short-term thinking offers a man a handout, which leads him to dependency.

    Of course, dependency has a political benefit for those in power. But I don’t really want to go down the road of conspiratorial cynicism.

    – Jose.

  13. Nanda Panjandrum

    Peter, appreciate this very much!  As a college friend once remarked to me: “I’ve never seen anyone try harder to get out of the system [benefits culture] than you.”  Working on a part-time basis for 5 years in the Nineties – at last – was absolutely exhilarating.  Not everyone desires dependency, the obstacles are nearly insurmountable in the current climate.

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