marienthal
Why Welfare Reform Must Continue
Reading Time: 4 minutes

I can’t believe I missed this.

It’s the story of Marienthal Austria.

Marienthal was a town in Austria that thrived thanks to a single employer. When the flax mill went out of business in 1932, Marienthal’s population became mostly unemployed.

Thanks to Austria’s liberal unemployment programs that replaced up to 90 percent of income, no one in Marienthal plunged into economic poverty as a result of the mill’s closing. But spiritual poverty was another story. Arthur C. Brooks explains in The Conservative Heart:

Austria had generous unemployment insurance that covered the better part of a factory worker’s wages. But like many social democratic systems of wage replacement, the insurance payments strictly prohibited any work for pay, theoretically to prevent “double-dipping.” And it was in the resulting idleness, the researchers found, where the real nightmare started.

First, something strange started happening to the way Marienthal’s residents spent their time. With the factory closed but some income still flowing in, people should have had all day to participate in the leisure and social activities they loved. But these activities virtually disappeared. One citizen summed up the paradox: “I used to have less time to myself but do more for myself.” Now it was the opposite.

Most of us have heard the old principle that if you want something to get done, you should ask a busy person. Well, when work disappeared, Marienthalers couldn’t seem to find the time and energy to do much of anything— even enjoy their new leisure.

“[ One] might think that even amid the misery of unemployment, men would still benefit from having unlimited free time,” the researchers wrote. “On examination, this leisure proves to be a tragic gift. Cut off from their work,” the workers “lost the material and moral incentives to make use of their time.” They began to “drift gradually out of an ordered existence into one that is undisciplined and empty.  .  .  . [For] hours on end, the men stand around on the street, alone or in small groups, leaning against the wall of a house or the parapet of a bridge.”

“Nothing is urgent anymore,” the report observes. “They have forgotten how to hurry.”

Some other observations from Marienthal about what happens when people have money but no need to work:

  • Almost all activity stopped
  • Reading stopped, even though people had unlimited time to read and learn
  • Public buildings and parks fell into decay even though the whole town had time to devote some effort to their maintenance and repair
  • Despite not needing to be anywhere, men became habitually late for everything
  • People turned on each other

Here’s more on that last point that idle people bicker, squabble, and fight.

Marienthalers took it upon themselves to enforce the government dictum that nobody could supplement the insurance payments with earned income. One poor soul lost his unemployment benefits after he was turned in to officials by his neighbors for taking a little money while playing his harmonica on the street. Another man lost his benefits after he helped fell trees in return for a share of the firewood. A woman lost her benefits after she delivered milk and was given some for her own children. Any sense of solidarity had been shattered.

Unsurprisingly, for many, family life followed suit. “I often quarrel with my husband,” one woman vented, “because he does not care about a thing any longer and is never home.” A different husband, describing his wife: “What strangers we are to each other; we are getting visibly harder. Is it my fault that times are bad? Do I have to take all the blame in silence?” Still another woman had even sunk deeper into depression. “I couldn’t care less now. If I could hand the children over to the welfare people I would gladly do so.”

Guess where the murder rate is highest? In neighborhoods where there’s a little money and a lot of idleness.

While it’s tempting to blame anti-social behavior on the character of people in Marienthal, doing so makes no logical sense. Marienthalers were typical Austrian-Hungarians, like Ludwig Von Mises or Frederich Hayek. They worked hard, went to church, helped maintain their communities, and promoted education. In fact, industriousness and punctuality are stereotypes of Austria. It’s nonsense to say that Marienthal was full of lazy, weak characters.

Further, we know from the work of Ross and Nisbett in their indispensable book The Person and the Situation the situation is far more important that the person.

People’s inflated belief in the importance of personality traits and dispositions, together with their failure to recognize the importance of situational factors in affecting behavior, has been termed the “fundamental attribution error” (Ross, 1977; Nisbett & Ross, 1980; see also Jones, 1979; Gilbert & Jones, 1986).

And

People fail to recognize the extent to which observed actions and outcomes, especially surprising or atypical ones, may prove to be diagnostic not of the actor’s unique personal dispositions but rather of the objective situational factors facing the actor and of the actor’s subjective construals of those factors. In effect, people are too quick to “recompute” the person (that is, to infer that he or she is somehow different from other ordinary people) and too slow to recompute or reconstrue the situation (that is, to infer that one’s original construal of the situation was incomplete, or erroneous, or at least significantly different from that of the actor).

Combining the lessons of Marienthal with the science from The Person and the Situation, we reach a sobering conclusion: without meaningful work, we are all likely to display abhorrent behavior.

As welfare displaces work, you and I will become lazy, stupid, quarrelsome, vindictive, and mean. Add guns and drugs to monied idleness, and you have a powder keg–a powder keg that explodes every night in North St. Louis and other similar places. Skyrocketing crime rates across the country are symptoms of government failure, not character failure. America’s inner cities are simply protracted experiments in what Marienthal demonstrated: idleness destroys people and communities.

Folks, we have a moral obligation to end or at least minimize idleness in America. When I say (repeatedly) that every person deserves the dignity of meaningful work and the freedom to pursue happiness, I mean that society will collapse without those two fundamental attributes of human thriving.

Moreover, as I pointed out here, when we begin with the people our solutions will help the most–the poor–we begin to shift the argument away from abstract principles and toward concrete policies that solve real problems for real human beings.

Over the past four decades, but particularly over the past eight years, America as idled millions of its people who should be working, not for our benefit, but for their own and for society’s. Eliminating idleness is a moral obligation, and we Tea Partiers have a moral duty to fulfill that obligation.

Best of all, as we work toward the elimination of idleness by providing meaningful work for all, our ideals will become the majoritarian view in America.

Isn’t that what we really want?

 

 

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