The Hon. Kathleen Sebelius, secretary and czarina of Health and Human Services, announced that she'll be granting states waivers from the work requirements that were the principal accomplishment of what became known as welfare reform.
Those work requirements worked pretty well themselves. How? By moving folks off welfare into work, and so letting them achieve a new sense of self-worth, independence and accomplishment. This reform — call it "workfare" — helped restore the original idea behind the welfare system, which was to give folks down on their luck a temporary hand-up, not a permanent hand-out.
Before the whole system was reformed in 1996, the country was developing a permanent, ever larger, subclass living on the public dole — generation after generation. Which is no way to have a society of free and independent citizens standing on their own feet.
Almost two decades have passed since then, and all concerned with the welfare system seem happier now, including both the recipients and the taxpayers. Well, all but the bureaucrats who have to run it. They complain about having to pay so much individual attention to their clients by keeping track of their work record.
It seems that not just the folks on welfare are now expected to work harder, but the ones in charge of the system. Naturally they're griping and finding ways around the law's requirements. And this administration is only too happy to oblige. Ways around the law, even ways around the Constitution, have become something of a specialty of this White House.
Laws and constitutions are such a bother. Just issue an executive order instead. Or a waiver.
Hence the administration's latest brainstorm: Waive the work requirements for welfare in selected states and maybe, soon enough, for any and all of them.
The battle lines soon formed: This administration was "gutting" welfare reform, to quote the Romney camp. But the administration's supporters claim it's just making welfare reform more efficient by waiving those work requirements. So long as the states intend to have welfare recipients return to work someday, why saddle them with having to keep all these records? Good intentions are enough. Even if we all know what the road to hell is paved with.
What may be overlooked in all this dust and thunder is how minimal the current work requirements are: Under the law, if the law matters to this administration, states need to make sure that 40 percent of those receiving welfare checks work at least 30 hours a week for them. Or at least spend that much time looking for work or getting on-the-job training.
Are we really supposed to believe that is too high a bar to meet? That 30 hours of work or looking for it is too much to expect from able-bodied Americans?
Yet the administration would waive even these bare minimums. And risk a return to the days when an American proletariat was growing with every generation on the dole. Yet it's Republicans who are accused of being reactionaries who would repeal reforms and take us back to a failed system, Maybe you just have to be trained right to think like that, or rather not think at all but just repeat today's party line.
Yes, that's the ticket: Settle back in the warm cocoon of dependency and don't ask too many questions about whether the law should be taken seriously. And trust the bureaucrats, experts, and social engineers in general to take care of us. They know best. They keep telling us so.
This is how bureaucracy expands, administrators take the place of legislators, and laws are replaced by arbitrary decrees.
None of this would have surprised a French visitor to this country named Alexis de Tocquevville, who, as early as the 1830s, mused about what kind of tyranny this phenomenon called democracy might one day produce. It wouldn't be the old despotism that European countries were accustomed to. No, it would be something softer, more gradual, yet much more invasive. And we'd all come to love it. It would save us the trouble of making our own decisions, living our own lives, providing our own necessities (like health care or planning for retirement), and generally thinking for ourselves.
Toqueville had a term for this new, inviting, paternalistic system: soft despotism. It would cover "the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. . . . . Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people.'' Sound familiar?