July 28, 2018

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We are faced by a dilemma. It was Thomas Babington Macaulay who said that if you waited for people to be able to exercise freedom, you would never grant them freedom; for the ability to exercise it comes with the exercise. And I suppose that it is possible that the giving of milk to children by British mothers comes only with the giving of milk to the mothers. As a matter of empirical fact, it might be that without free milk their children would be denied it. This, of course, is the argument for the continuation of the practice, and it is not wholly to be disregarded. A policy that is correct in the abstract but wreaks devastation in practice is hardly to be recommended.

The question nevertheless would arise as to how such a situation had developed in the first place. For many a British mother, independence now means independence of the father, or fathers, of their offspring rather than independence from the state, total dependence on which is for them the acme of independence. And, of course, once someone is dependent in this fashion, it really can and does cause hardship to withdraw their subventions and other privileges. When an attempt is made to do so, publicity given to hard cases produces a reaction, and, as often as not, the subventions and privileges are restored because of the political damage caused by the outcry.

Attempts at withdrawal of subventions and privileges are almost always justified by fiscal or economic arguments, rarely by any others. This makes them seem like the hard-hearted product of 19th-century political economy—the dismal science, as it was called. The natural corollary of this is that it appears that if the state could afford to distribute smoked salmon sandwiches to everyone, it would be a good thing to do so, just as it is a good thing to distribute milk to children.

There is a chicken-and-egg problem: Did the culture of dependence start with the culture or the dependence? After all, there are subventional states that have not resulted in the degradation of the population so obvious and commonplace in Britain. To reply that the degradation has been the result of a dialectical process, while no doubt true, seems like an evasion. At the very least, we must stare reality in the face.

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