Friday, June 28, 2013

More Misleading Attacks on 'Libertarianism'

The ongoing attempts to discredit "libertarianism" and "classical liberalism" are almost laughable, if so many smart people didn't uncritically accept the rhetoric:
While libertarianism as a philosophy is superficial, juvenile nonsense, particular libertarian proposals are sometimes worthwhile on their merits.
— from Michael Lind at;
Again, Lind conflates the Libertarian Party with libertarian and classically liberal ideals. The ideas he argues are "libertarian" are not, they are the ideas of a political party or a specific politician (Ron Paul), neither of which I consider representative of my ideals or the ideals of the thinkers I admire.

First, for me "classical liberalism" means one thing: freedom from government interference in my life; freedom from the threat of force and coercion to behave according to some majority idea of what is "best" for me.

My libertarianism is not about wealth. It is not about blind allegiance to the free market. It is about being left to live as I want, while appreciating that we must all live together and make some social compromises. Adam Smith, J. S. Mill, and even Thoreau influence my ideals. When we must collaborate and share responsibilities, we must ensure that the common good does not unnecessarily infringe on liberty.

The free market and capitalism I support is not crony capitalism or corporatism. And, it is not about maximizing profit. It is about being free to market my ideas, my inventions, and my labor on an open, transparent market. This does require the rule of law, contract enforcement, and a great deal of morality. But, it also requires limited regulation — something Lind and others assume all "classical liberals" reject, which is not the case. We reject over-regulation and regulation of private behaviors.

We must worry about government and industry collaborating (colluding) against the people and other businesses. That is why I want government limited and constrained. Social engineering and economic planning, via tax policies or any other regulations, comes with unintended consequences. Government should respect and protect individual freedom, and that means not trying to save us from ourselves.

Lind claims libertarianism is the following:
Maybe at some point in the future some country will take the plunge and unilaterally adopt the gold standard, replace police and soldiers with private contractors, abolish all taxation except for a flat, regressive consumption tax, eliminate all public safety net programs, eliminate most or all environmental and occupational regulations, allow foreigners to move in and out of its territory without registration or regulation, and so on. And maybe that regime will even endure for a while, instead of quickly collapsing or suffering rejection by voters with buyer's remorse.
As with many embracing Austrian economics, I do not support the gold standard. I prefer it to some fiat currency models, but it is no panacea. Gold is just another artificial representation of barter. I don't care what people use as money, as long as I can trade goods and services equitably and conveniently. And yes, I know transactions are never "perfect" in economics, but that's true whether we use gold or traditional barter. Each party wants to benefit from an exchange. The gold standard is simple-minded, but exists because people fear currency manipulation. That's a different issue.

Why in the world would anyone want to replace police or the armed forces with contractors? Maybe some lunatics suggest such nonsense, but I want police to be answerable to elected officials, who are in turn answerable to voters. The "common defense" is a legitimate role of all governments. The idea of "corporatized" law enforcement reminds me too much of the Robocop movies or the Continuum series on SyFy.

I also have no desire to abolish all taxes, though I do support — as Adam Smith did — a simplified system with far fewer tiers and exemptions. That's not a radical idea. A complex tax system encourages gaming of the system, especially by those with the resources to get special favors written into laws and regulations.

Consumption taxes are problematic, since people are taxed on income and wealth (property) already. I fear that adding any new tax won't replace or reduce existing taxes. Sales taxes are already ridiculously complex. I understand use taxes, such as toll roads, while I also understand those can be regressive. There is no ideal tax system, but taxes are necessary to support even a smaller, more restricted government. I'm always open to ideas on improving the system.

You get the idea. Attacks on classical liberalism assume there is "one" set of policies all libertarians and classical liberals might support. That's not the case. We can agree that freedom is primary, yet disagree on how to best promote and protect that individual sovereignty.

Libertarianism is no more one thing than any other political school of those can be reduced. Curiously, commentators admit there are many "Marxisms" without admitting the same of classical liberalism.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Misrepresenting Libertarianism

Intelligent people, who should know better, are once again attacking "libertarianism" and "classical liberalism" by misrepresenting, selectively quoting, and personalizing a theory.

In Salon, co-founder of the New America Foundation Michael Lind, offers a nonsensical critique of libertarianism by asking "The" question classical liberals cannot answer:

The question libertarians just can't answer
If your approach is so great, why hasn't any country anywhere in the world ever tried it?

The Washington Post's E. J. Dionne, Jr., joins in, repeating the same nonsense.

Libertarianism's Achilles' heel
By E.J. Dionne Jr., Published: June 9

For balance, I also recommend the following

The Three Great Errors of Most Libertarians
J. C. Lester; JUNE 5, 2013 − 10:01AM

Here is the basic premise, from Lind:
Why are there no libertarian countries? If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?

It's not as though there were a shortage of countries to experiment with libertarianism. There are 193 sovereign state members of the United Nations—195, if you count the Vatican and Palestine, which have been granted observer status by the world organization. If libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn't at least one country have tried it? Wouldn't there be at least one country, out of nearly two hundred, with minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system?

When you ask libertarians if they can point to a libertarian country, you are likely to get a baffled look, followed, in a few moments, by something like this reply: While there is no purely libertarian country, there are countries which have pursued policies of which libertarians would approve: Chile, with its experiment in privatized Social Security, for example, and Sweden, a big-government nation which, however, gives a role to vouchers in schooling.

But this isn't an adequate response. Libertarian theorists have the luxury of mixing and matching policies to create an imaginary utopia. A real country must function simultaneously in different realms—defense and the economy, law enforcement and some kind of system of support for the poor. Being able to point to one truly libertarian country would provide at least some evidence that libertarianism can work in the real world.
There are a great many holes in such an argument.

  • The list of "libertarian" traits is not classical liberalism or libertarianism, but a caricature of libertarianism. Lind lists: "…minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system?" The problem is, that's not what any classical liberal or libertarian has suggested as an ideal nation.
  • Nations are rarely ideologically pure. That's life. The question is: What is the core, guiding principle behind a social structure? That core isn't going to be perfectly implemented, but it is reflected in policies and practices.
  • There have been "more libertarian" moments in history, just as there have been "more socialist" moments. The United States through Calvin Coolidge was, generally speaking, libertarian at its core.

Caricaturing your opposition is not a valid argument. Adam Smith? He called for progressive taxation and welfare programs. I guess we can't call Smith a capitalist, according to Lind. We might as well call "socialism" the notion that everyone can have everything they need or desire — which is also inaccurate. And we could easily caricature "progressivism" as the misguided faith in technocrats to run a nation. After all, Woodrow Wilson imagined a time of the ideal administrators, men relying on science and logic to administer the needs of the nation.

If you're going to simplify libertarian ideals, we can do the same to any political-economic-philosophical school. The results would be as meaningful, too.

Lind simplifies his point further with this comparison:
While the liberal welfare-state left, with its Scandinavian role models, remains a vital force in world politics, the pro-communist left has been discredited by the failure of the Marxist-Leninist countries it held up as imperfect but genuine models. Libertarians have often proclaimed that the economic failure of Marxism-Leninism discredits not only all forms of socialism but also moderate social-democratic liberalism.
Exactly which libertarians made such blanket statements about Marxist-Leninism? What they, and I, have argued is that Leninism survives only through oppression. It can "succeed" on the surface, though in an interconnected world it faces economic pressures that only China as adapted to effectively as a Communist nation. If anything, China offers evidence that hybrids of statism-capitalism can compete economically — but that doesn't make the system ideal for most citizens.

Does the failure of some "Marxist" nations (which were never "pure" ideologically, either), represent a failure of all of Marx's ideas and theories? No. No more than "bad" capitalism reflects badly on Adam Smith. I don't reject everything Marx wrote — though his scholarship was often sloppy — but I do reject the notion that people are somehow going to evolve in the Marxist "scientific socialism" model. (And, it should be pointed out, that many Marxist models end with a government-less ideal of sorts that is slightly familiar to some libertarians.)

Does China's success make us want to embrace Chinese models? China's "success" represents a near complete disregard for the environment. China oppresses minorities: ethnic, religious, and intellectual groups are persecuted. But, if Lind's logic holds, then we should rush to embrace Chinese central planning (and paranoia) if we want a better government.

When the state is the economy, the leading "corporation" of sorts, it doesn't have to worry about rules and regulations. The environmental disasters around the former Soviet Union and today's China highlight this problem. Libertarians oppose state-centered or state-favored industry; the state should be a balance to economic activity and the potential consequences of purely economic choices.

Arguing based on what social models outnumber others? What nonsense. That suggests we should never try new ideas, since the majority must be right. Success? Authoritarian nations outnumber democracies. Does that make them better? Nations with official religions (or atheism) also outnumber secular nations. Does that make theocracies batter? No.

Libertarians defend an ideal, and they admit it is only an ideal. Yes, it is hard to understand, but it's like embracing any rule or guideline. The abstract changes during implementation. Again, I suggest The Three Great Errors of Most Libertarians [] for an explanation of pursuing an ideal versus living the ideal.

From Dionne:
In his bracing 1970s libertarian manifesto "For a New Liberty," the economist Murray Rothbard promised a nation that would be characterized by "individual liberty, a peaceful foreign policy, minimal government and a free-market economy."

Rothbard's book concludes with boldness: "Liberty has never been fully tried in the modern world; libertarians now propose to fulfill the American dream and the world dream of liberty and prosperity for all mankind."

This is where Lind's question comes in. Note that Rothbard freely acknowledges that "liberty has never been fully tried," at least by the libertarians' exacting definition.
I suppose liberals have the advantage of always being willing to change and alter their views. "Progressives" can say, "Progress means evolving our views and our theories." That's convenient.

Libertarians have a simple view, one I trace to John Stuart Mill, from On Liberty:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. 
But, Mill's clear and concise definition of what constitutes liberty is not addressed by progressives. Instead, they resort to suggesting proponents of classical liberalism are fools or fiends.

In the comments to both articles, progressives resort to attacks on Ayn Rand (and Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and few other people). The general claim is that Rand glorified greed. I don't like Rand — she was a lousy human being, but so were many, many other thinkers across the political and philosophical spectrum. But, I at least recognize that Ayn Rand did not glorify greed: she celebrated being true to yourself. The hero of The Fountainhead is not the richest or most powerful character. It is Howard Roark, the architect with a vision, a truly great artist more concerned with the art than money. How can liberals and progressives miss such a clear argument? It isn't about money, it's about the freedom to be true to your desires and talents. Ayn Rand was not a master of subtle plots.

Yes, Ayn Rand was a horrible, lousy, hypocrite. And if we were to list all the philosophical hypocrites, we might have to list every thinker to live on this planet, some much worse than others. That's not an argument against classical liberalism.

And I'm sure Lind and Dionne would quickly reject critiques of progressivism reduced to Woodrow Wilson — a bigoted authoritarian with a streak of paranoia. Or, maybe they wouldn't.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

'Austerity' To Blame? But Where's The Austerity? - Forbes

Repeatedly, I have written that "austerity" is not the source of problems in parts of Europe, since there hasn't been any real reduction in spending, no thoughtful labor reforms, and no general political reforms. Tax increases have certainly hurt in some nations, but overall the lack of serious change is the problem.

Also consider Japan, where stimulus in the form of spending and monetary easing hasn't worked — though it is the "solution" proposed by many progressives.

I'm not an absolutist, as the real solutions to economic stagnation are likely beyond simplistic and ideological adherence to any school of thought.

Everything the Keynesians argue for, is and has been done. Yet, there is stagnation. The following article from Forbes supports my views:
'Austerity' To Blame? But Where's The Austerity? Paul Roderick Gregory

Die-hard Keynesians bemoan that, with a few exceptions, the world's economies are drowning in the quicksand of austerity. They preach we need more government spending and stimulus, not less. Northern Europe should bail out its less-fortunate neighbors to the South so they can pay their teachers, public employees and continue generous transfers to the poor and unemployed. If not, Europe's South will remain mired in recession. In America, Keynesians entreat the skinflint Republicans to loosen the purse strings so we can escape sub par growth. They advise Japan to spend itself out of permanent stagnation and welcome recent steps in this direction.
But there simply has not been any real austerity. How can I state that? Because the statistics prove there has been neither a cut per-capita spending nor in "real" (inflation-adjusted) spending in most struggling economies. As Gregory writes in Forbes, statistics pose a challenge the Keynesians choose to ignore:
The Keynesian stimulus crowd blames austerity for the world's economic woes without bothering to examine facts. I advise them first to consult my colleague at the German Institute for Economic Research… Georg Erber (I See Austerity Everywhere But in the Statistics) who, unlike them, has actually taken the time to examine the European Union's statistics as compiled by its statistical agency, Eurostat.

The official Keynesian story is that the PIIGS of Europe (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) have been devastated by cutbacks in public spending.

Erber finds fault with this Keynesian narrative. The official figures show that PIIGS governments embarked on massive spending sprees between 2000 and 2008. During this period, their combined general government expenditures rose from 775 billion Euros to 1.3 trillion – a 75 percent increase. Ireland had the largest percentage increase (130 percent), and Italy the smallest (40 percent). These spending binges gave public sector workers generous salaries and benefits, paid for bridges to nowhere, and financed a gold-plated transfer state. What the state gave has proven hard to take away as the riots in Southern Europe show.
Yes, the PIIGS (and many other nations) have found it difficult, if not impossible, to reduce the spending already in place. I recently posted that Denmark is trying to follow Germany and a small handful of nations that have cut generous benefits. But, these are a minority of nations. Most countries — especially liberal democracies — are discovering that people won't vote to cut spending on benefits they love.

Surely during the 2008–09 financial crisis there were cuts? Nope, not really. Instead, spending kept on rising, in the PIIGs and in the United States. But, you wouldn't know that from media reports or popular columnists like Paul Krugman.
Then in 2008, the financial crisis hit. No one wanted to lend to the insolvent PIIGS, and, according to the Keynesian narrative, the PIIGS were forced into extreme austerity by their miserly neighbors to the north. Instead of the stimulus they desperately needed, the PIIGS economies were wrecked by austerity.

Not so according to the official European statistics. Between the onset of the crisis in 2008 and 2011, PIIGS government spending increased by six percent from an already high plateau. Eurostat's projections (which make the unlikely assumption that the PIIGS will honor the fiscal discipline promised their creditors) still show the PIIGS spending more in 2014 than at the end of their spending binge in 2008.

As Erber wryly notes: "Austerity is everywhere but in the statistics."
Surely Japan offers a different story. They've just started stimulus… about 20 years ago. It turns out, the "new" policies of Japan are more of the same old spending, and more spending, policies. And that spending isn't working. Although some progressives will argue Japan simply needs more time, the greater likelihood is that the spending will just be a black hole of debt.
Well, never mind. The Keynesians have new reason to cheer. Japan, under the new government of Shinzo Abe, has embarked on a program of monetary and fiscal stimulus, and, lo and behold, the stagnant Japanese economy actually recorded a whole quarter of decent growth. At last Japan has seen the light. (The latest Economist cover features a superman Abe flying to Japan's rescue). Stimulus cheerleader, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (Japan the Model), answers his own question "how is Abenomics working?" with: "The safe answer is that it's too soon to tell. But the early signs are good…"

Krugman's memory must be incredibly short if he thinks that Japan has just discovered stimulus. Japan has been in a twenty-year-old funk, despite launching a dizzying variety of Keynesian stimulus programs, some of which bordered on the crazy (such as giving Japanese shopping vouchers so they could relearn how to spend). Over the past twenty years, Japan has tried to spend itself to growth and has nothing to show for it.

We need look only at the growth of Japan's public debt to prove the failure of Japan's Keynesian experiments. In 1990, Japan's public debt was 67 percent of GDP (much like the U.S. today). Today it is 212 percent. All that public spending and Japan still could not grow!
Politicians and the chattering class in the United States had better pay attention. I doubt they will, though, because Paul Krugman and progressive voices are selling feel-good policies. Not only do they wish to avoid any pain, commentators like Krugman promise we will all feel better with more spending and less (fictional) austerity.
Japan is an example of what Europe will look like in twenty years if it takes the Krugman advice — massive and dangerous debt with nothing to show for it. Japan is a perfect real-world experiment with long run, sustained Keynesianism. Europe and the United States, take notice and beware!

Which leads us to the austerity that is supposedly underway in the United States. (Remember that radical sequester that was supposed to ruin the economy?) Our figures tell exactly the same story as the PIIGS – a binge of public spending that has not been reversed. Between 2000 and 2008, both federal and state and local spending increased by almost two thirds. Despite budget cliff hangers, sequestration, and Republican intransigence (so claim the Democrats), the federal government today is spending 16 percent more than at the peak of its binge spending in 2008. State and local governments, which cannot borrow as freely as the Feds, are spending a modest 11 percent more.

Instead of "where's the beef?" we should ask "where's the austerity?" Perhaps economist Krugman can find it. But first I would advise him and others like him to consult some facts before they pontificate.
Gregory's column in Forbes is correct, there is no austerity. But, that doesn't stop progressive, big-government supporters. No, they simply change the argument to the rate of growth in spending. If there is a slower increase in federal spending, that must be a "cut" and "austerity" causing pain. Gregory responds to this nonsensical claim:
In the comments section, I got a priceless gem from a big government fan, who relates that government spending has risen at an annual rate of 7 percent since 1965. Hence, austerity is defined as growth of government spending at a rate less than "normal." The 7 percent rate is instructive because, according to the rule of 72, you get a doubling every ten years. If the federal government continues to grow at its "normal" (non austerity) rate, it will spend $32 trillion in 2043. Maybe then we'll finally have "enough" government spending to solve all of our problems.
Government printing presses work overtime, monetary easing continues as quantitative easing, and yet the economies of the world sputter along.

My view is that there are structural problems: aging populations, automation of jobs, and many other factors. No amount of Keynesian stimulus will change the facts behind these problems. Our populations, and workforces, are "flipping" in many nations. In the United States, automation and other factors are also changing the economic variables.

Austerity is not the problem. The problem is far, far more complex than Krugman and others will acknowledge. In fact, they are blaming something that isn't even contributing to the stagnation because they simply want to spend more money. That's bad policy, as we'll discover in future decades — if not sooner.
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Monday, June 3, 2013

Danes Rethink a Welfare State Ample to a Fault -

While nobody would suggest that Europe is about to embrace the United States' model of social democracy, it seems obvious that some countries are meandering towards our limited safety-net model just as we are racing towards their failing democratic socialism.

Germany began reforms nearly 15 years ago, and it is doing well. There are many other variables, and Germany is not America — or even Canada — but it is shifting towards a more flexible labor market and less "generous" social programs. Now, it seems Denmark is following the German lead. That's a big shift in thought, and one driven by the stark realization that the social safety-net is unsustainable.

Consider this article from the New York Times:
Danes Rethink a Welfare State Ample to a Fault
COPENHAGEN — It began as a stunt intended to prove that hardship and poverty still existed in this small, wealthy country, but it backfired badly. Visit a single mother of two on welfare, a liberal member of Parliament goaded a skeptical political opponent, see for yourself how hard it is.
It turned out, however, that life on welfare was not so hard. The 36-year-old single mother, given the pseudonym "Carina" in the news media, had more money to spend than many of the country's full-time workers. All told, she was getting about $2,700 a month, and she had been on welfare since she was 16.
Yes, a Danish "Welfare Queen" living on the work (and money) of others since she was a teenager. Think about how the above is worded: "getting about $2,700" is not the same as "earning" or "deserving" by any stretch. Getting implies nothing but being a drain on productive citizens too kind to say "No!" to the lazy.

And yes, I would call many people on lifetime handouts "lazy" — and I'm not alone, as the Times' article demonstrates. Even the Danes are starting to call people, accurately, lazy.

The warning sign is an inverted employment pool. Fewer people in Denmark work than receive government benefits. You don't need to be an economist to realize the math won't work. When you have more non-workers than workers, resentment is unavoidable, too.

Part of the problem is the natural graying of Europe, but that's only part of the problem. Why is Europe graying? Because young people see little reason to marry, have families, and look forward to the better future. Birthrates fall during recessions, for example, because (most) people realize financial security is important when you plan a family. The residents of many European nations have "given up" and are almost proud of their lack of engagement.
…Denmark's long-term outlook is troubling. The population is aging, and in many regions of the country people without jobs now outnumber those with them.

Some of that is a result of a depressed economy. But many experts say a more basic problem is the proportion of Danes who are not participating in the work force at all — be they dawdling university students, young pensioners or welfare recipients like Carina who lean on hefty government support.
Some in the United States point to Europe and suggest we should emulate the tax models of European nations. Higher taxes, including a VAT (value-added tax on all transactions), would allow us to offer similarly wonderful benefits. The problem is, European nations are dying (literally) as one side-effect of these higher taxes. And, the taxes in Europe are oddly circular. Yes, you pay high taxes, but you get a lot of the money right back in strange ways, minus administrative overhead. The result is lower productivity, along with some simply stupid benefits.
Denmark has among the highest marginal income-tax rates in the world, with the top bracket of 56.5 percent kicking in on incomes of more than about $80,000. But in exchange, the Danes get a cradle-to-grave safety net that includes free health care, a free university education and hefty payouts to even the richest citizens.

Parents in all income brackets, for instance, get quarterly checks from the government to help defray child-care costs. The elderly get free maid service if they need it, even if they are wealthy.

But few experts here believe that Denmark can long afford the current perks. So Denmark is retooling itself, tinkering with corporate tax rates, considering new public sector investments and, for the long term, trying to wean more people — the young and the old — off government benefits.
Do the elderly have a "right" to maids? Does every child deserve daycare and more? People need to start understanding that "rights" cannot require other people providing services. For example, what if nobody wanted to be a maid? Would the government start conscripting maids? When you abandon the free market in favor of supposed "positive rights" to anything and everything that sounds wonderful, you end up with a dysfunctional economy.

Because the government pays so many benefits, "Carina" is happy to collect welfare. If the welfare were to end, thousands of Carinas might be willing to work as affordable maids. Instead, the Danish system is paying more than the going rate for maids and it is paying people to not work. Time to yank a bit of the safety-net out from under people.

No, I'm not suggesting some people don't need help. But, do the wealthy need taxpayer support for maids? Do rich families need the same childcare benefits as the working poor? No. I've long argued for means-testing of benefits in the United States, and I would apply that same belief in means-testing to Europe.

Denmark doesn't need to look far for better ideas. It might come as a shock to some readers, but Sweden has already successfully reduced government benefits and limited the expansion of other benefits.
Joachim B. Olsen, the skeptical politician from the Liberal Alliance party who visited Carina 16 months ago in her pleasant Copenhagen apartment, is particularly alarmed. He says Sweden, which is already considered generous, has far fewer citizens living on government benefits. If Denmark followed Sweden's example, it would have about 250,000 fewer people living on benefits of various sorts.

"The welfare state here has spiraled out of control," Mr. Olsen said. "It has done a lot of good, but we have been unwilling to talk about the negative side. For a very long time it has been taboo to talk about the Carinas."
Too many "liberal" (progressive) American politicians are unwilling to discuss the negatives, too. While their intentions might be good, the Democratic party has largely mistaken handouts for the hand-up they once claimed to support. What happened to personal responsibility? The president and others still talk about making good choices, but they are also quick to embrace all sorts of expansions of government aid.

Where are we headed? I hope we never reach the point at which Denmark now finds itself.
Carina was not the only welfare recipient to fuel the sense that Denmark's system has somehow gotten out of kilter. Robert Nielsen, 45, made headlines last September when he was interviewed on television, admitting that he had basically been on welfare since 2001.

Mr. Nielsen said he was able-bodied but had no intention of taking a demeaning job, like working at a fast-food restaurant. He made do quite well on welfare, he said. He even owns his own co-op apartment.

Unlike Carina, who will no longer give interviews, Mr. Nielsen, called "Lazy Robert" by the news media, seems to be enjoying the attention. He says that he is greeted warmly on the street all the time. "Luckily, I am born and live in Denmark, where the government is willing to support my life," he said.

Some Danes say the existence of people like Carina and Mr. Nielsen comes as no surprise. Lene Malmberg, who lives in Odsherred and works part time as a secretary despite a serious brain injury that has affected her short-term memory, said the Carina story was not news to her. At one point, she said, before her accident when she worked full time, her sister was receiving benefits and getting more money than she was.

"The system is wrong somehow, I agree," she said. "I wanted to work. But she was a little bit: 'Why work?' "
"Why work?" I've had people on disability ask me that. I've had someone who belongs to three bowling leagues and participates in other city sports programs ask me why he should work, since he receives disability payments for social anxiety. Think about that. Social anxiety… so he bowls daily.

I work with disabled students and realize many people who want to be independent will always need some support from fellow citizens. But, we need to recognize that generous benefits can have unintended consequences.

If you want a better social democracy to emulate, look northward, not across the Atlantic. U.S. politicians need to look to Europe as a warning, not for inspiration.