The end of the free lunch

Harry Drabik

It’s said age turns people conservative. The young firebrand becomes the gloomy clinker. The majority of those unfortunates calling me friend lean distinctly in the direction of advancing age and increasing conservatism. Some acquaintances come across far right of the Great Khan and would rule by sword and decree. One has to tolerate much in friends, my case especially, because I have so few and need to keep them or prove myself a social outcast. If trolls for friends prevent me from being a pariah, then I must hold and value them to boot.

Among the associates are those that feel a great need to persuade me of the wrongness of my ways. Annoying as this habit is (and it is less than enjoyable to be harangued), there is at times a silver lining, or at least a silvery-looking lining. I experienced that happy shine not long ago when I was treated to a pressing argument about why the “free lunch” must go. Free lunch roughly translates as socialist or welfare state. The argument runs that support makes people irresponsible, and they will stay so as long as they are allowed the free lunch suckling at the public teat. There is logic in the position. We have all know coworkers who’d take advantage of the generosity of an unguarded lunch pail and relatives who will eat and drink themselves into a stupor at your house while never getting beyond a few crackers with topped with mini cheese squirts when you’re the guest. In simple terms, it is abundantly true that in the population there are those who will take advantage or abuse any form of generosity. To stop the abuse, we need to cut off the generosity, and when we do that people who were formerly leeches will have to be responsible and productive or (I suppose from the tone of the argument) perish.

Well, it does make sense. We want a populace that’s responsible and productive. If the society allows people to live (some say thrive) on handouts, we’re encouraging neither responsibility nor productivity. This seems quite true. If allowed, an awful lot of people will gladly slide by feasting at your expense. That side of the argument sounds granite solid. Those arguing so invariably exclude the “truly needy,” but as they offer no way to define them and will not stand for any more wasteful big government bureaucracy to oversee the programs with greater tightness, their solution is to cut back or eliminate the causes of irresponsibility.

Those advocating the end of the free lunch may or may not reckon that doing so will also end the free ride that a large portion of those on their side enjoy and benefit by without seeing it as so. On a basic minimum wage job, a worker’s gross would be around $1,200 monthly. At that wage, you’d better have roommates to help with the rent if you hope to pay $400 for health insurance, put fuel in your vehicle, and eat. As I see things, a significant portion of welfare or assistance goes to make up for the low wages many businesses insist are necessary for their survival. But those same business concerns also insist on having customers or consumers. They want and need a worker to spend on shoes, clothes, eating out, etc. This the worker cannot do if their income goes to meet basics. But if society takes up some of the slack with assistance of one form or another, that worker has a bit of disposable income each month. The irony of it is that the free lunch is part of the free ride many businesses enjoy, knowing they need not provide a full living wage or benefit package if you and I are there to make up the difference.

Welfare, assistance, or entitlement benefits that are so often the subject of rants are complained of from one side only. It is the recipient held to blame as irresponsible and non-productive. Why do we not hold employers and the job market responsible as well? Strangulation of wages and benefits drives the need for assistance and support. People on welfare don’t amass mounds of food stamps in bank accounts. Assistance flows, rather, directly to local businesses. Assistance is not something accumulated or marketed.

My friend from the right side of the street seemingly doesn’t wish or want to see the free ride conservatives expect as their due. They are for responsibility. They are loathe to be parted with any of their money for wasteful social programs, but they fully expect a healthy and functioning society to have everything they need when they need it. That is the free ride. The free riders will say they don’t want to pay for mandated health care, but somehow they expect those facilities, services, and people to be there trained and ready to go at a reasonable cost when they need them. Free riders want the low prices of stores that skirt minimum wage and benefit packages by passing off those “costs” to society, but free riders don’t want the consequences. They expect the free ride to be free, meaning someone else pays for their indulgence. The worst of the free ride set are self-centered with resentment that someone else might benefit, or benefit more than they do.

Surely, a percentage of social welfare is abused, but free lunch programs reviled by some are the result of employer and investor greed to be rid of responsibility for employees. The free lunch is the child of the free ride, with the riders denying their self-serving ways by pointing the finger elsewhere, when it is they who have brought this about by weakening social fabric, scoffing at collective bargaining, and abandoning their responsibilities left and right. Smug and dishonest, the free riders blame their victims for their sorry state. But don’t despair. This unholy wedding of free lunch and free ride has the same suicidal ending. Both sides hand over their wealth for Arab oil and goods of Asian manufacture, where life is a union-free paradise of free ride design.