Even young Mick Jagger, bless his heart, could see that it’s hard getting old.
But Mrs. van Breda, at 90, is managing just fine. This is not because her two daughters and their husbands live just a five-minute walk from her apartment, which they do. Neither is it because her four grandchildren - three of them in their 20s - also live nearby. They offer little help because they don’t have to: The van Bredas live in the Netherlands, a caring society. For this reason, Mrs. van Breda’s course of life is smoothed by a welfare state that has institutionalized compassion. Quality of life is about more than just what you get, however. Much of it has to do with the relationships involved in the giving, relationships that even a caring government cannot deliver and even can destroy.
When her husband, Gert, died 13 years ago, Mrs. van Breda sold their house and moved into a government-subsidized apartment. The government sends a woman once a week to clean her apartment, but because she has the woman for up to four hours, Mrs. van Breda also has her do the grocery shopping. She pays something toward the cost of this help, but her contribution is based on her income - a government-funded pension - and so the service is highly subsidized.
Her daughter, Johanna, could easily help her with these tasks. In fact, Mrs. van Breda asked Johanna, who also cleans houses, if she would like to help in place of the state worker. It’s better that the money benefit her family, after all. But Johanna said no: Why bother helping her mother when the government will do it?
When she developed arthritis, the state sent around someone to change the handles on all her doors and the taps on her faucets. In a less “compassionate” society, measured very narrowly by how much the government does, her sons-in-law or grandsons would swing by and take care of that sort of thing. But there is no need, and so they do not - and they would not.
Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, the Netherlands‘ “compassionate” social policy, with its preference for state provision, has made individual Dutch people less compassionate. A 2006 international study of charitable giving found that the supposedly less compassionate Americans individually gave 1.67 percent of the country’s gross domestic product to charity. The Dutch gave just 0.45 percent, and the more moderate Canadians and British gave 0.72 percent and 0.73 percent respectively. Mrs. van Breda’s expatriate son, Pieter, who lives in New York, notes that people have become personally unmindful of the needy as a result of these social-welfare policies. Personal relations are colder, he says, more businesslike, even within families.
The Dutch government serves Johanna’s mother because it serves everyone, securing a minimal standard of living for all to enjoy. Through an array of birth-to-death social services that are either free of charge or subsidized according one’s income, the state redistributes income widely. There is no reason for anyone in the Netherlands to be without a suitable home, to cut short his or her education anytime before senility or even to give any thought to feeding and clothing one’s children. The Dutch have decided that a good society is a compassionate society, and so people should provide for one another’s dignity and basic quality of life … but only through the state. People needn’t actually have anything to do with one another directly.
The Dutch state is said to be quite efficient in its delivery of services, and the Dutch people are happy with it. To be sure, neither Mrs. van Breda nor any of her children has any complaints. But this system comes at a human cost that its boosters must consider. My friend Pieter tells me that when it comes to serving the needy, regardless of the family relationship, the modern Dutch consider it enough that they pay taxes. In fact, they have come to bear a striking resemblance to none other than Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Approached by two men who came collecting for the poor, he rebuffed them, asking, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” Granted, Dutch provisions for those in need are on a level of humanity far higher than those Mr. Scrooge was satisfied with funding. But the spirit of personal indifference is the same. People simply don’t want to be bothered, says Pieter - not even for their parents.
Daniel Henninger wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “One of the constant criticisms of Barack Obama’s first year is that he’s making us ‘more like Europe.’” Those on the American political left are eagerly working to make us precisely that. They see our individualism as selfish and immoral, and they view our reliance on private charity as ineffective and degrading in comparison to government services and entitlements. The lesson of the Dutch experience, however, is not that the welfare state is the defining feature of a compassionate society, but that our choice in providing for those who are helpless and suffering is between the nanny state and a caring citizenry.
David C. Innes is a professor at The King’s College, New York City.
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