Monday, February 04, 2008

Culture Matter

I am going to guess that when idealistic British voters voted for the erection of the British welfare state, the legitimization of polygyny was not an effect they were expecting. From The Daily Telegraph:
Husbands with multiple wives have been given the go-ahead to claim extra welfare benefits following a year-long Government review, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal.

Even though bigamy is a crime in Britain, the decision by ministers means that polygamous marriages can now be recognised formally by the state, so long as the weddings took place in countries where the arrangement is legal.

The outcome will chiefly benefit Muslim men with more than one wife, as is permitted under Islamic law. Ministers estimate that up to a thousand polygamous partnerships exist in Britain, although they admit there is no exact record.

The decision has been condemned by the Tories, who accused the Government of offering preferential treatment to a particular group, and of setting a precedent that would lead to demands for further changes in British law.

New guidelines on income support from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) state: "Where there is a valid polygamous marriage the claimant and one spouse will be paid the couple rate ... The amount payable for each additional spouse is presently £33.65."

This effect – of big government changing incentives and the broader culture – is not unusual. The creation of cash benefits for single mothers did indeed contribute (although it was not the only cause) to the dramatic rise in single motherhood, with the attendant social decay, across the Western world. The creation of state pensions not only crowded out savings for one’s own retirement, but has contributed substantially to declines in fertility rates. Indeed, state health care has oiled the path for the acceptance of collectivization generally, ignoring the turning of the health system into a commons (as in “Tragedy of…”). So unintended consequences of the welfare state are everywhere.

Friedrich Hayek used to like to stress the virtues of the spontaneous order of a free society versus the unplanned outcomes arising form human frailty but generating planners’ resentment that results from big government. He contended that he was not a conservative in the sense of wanting to conserve culture no matter what, but neither did he want the atoms of culture split apart by the nanny state, with the rest of us left to clean up the cultural-atomic waste. In a wide variety of arenas of human activity, the welfare state elbows aside not just economic activity, as this term is generally used, but the foundations of the culture itself. This is not in and of itself a bad thing; cultures evolve all the time. But their forced, unnatural, unexpected evolution caused by the intrusions of Leviathan are an effect we will come to regret.


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