Monday, September 17, 2012
Learning from Australia
The wise learn not only from their own errors, but also from the experience of others. Back in December I suggested learning from Italy, where the citizens became so accustomed to what were described as “lavish social benefits” that they took their outrageously generous government programs for granted, never stopping to be grateful or to wonder where the money was coming from. The same could be said for several other European countries. Now the day of reckoning has arrived and they find themselves facing painful consequences.
Continuing with the theme of perspective from last time but looking west, we find a new law in Australia regulating welfare payments. Rather than sending checks or ordinary debit cards to recipients, the new program offers a special, restricted card that can be used only for priority items such as food, housing, clothing, education and healthcare, and only at approved businesses. It cannot be used for alcohol, tobacco, gambling or other discretionary expenditures. This has sparked protests, people marching in the streets objecting to what they perceive as restrictive, paternalistic and embarrassing treatment.
There are two important lessons here for Americans represented by two citizens interviewed for the article. The first portrays herself as a victim. It’s not her fault that she must rely on government payments and she resents any interference with how she spends the money. But if we give up responsibility, in this case the responsibility to provide for ourselves and our families, we may be required to give up the freedom to decide how and where to spend that money. The second citizen seems grateful for the help. She recognizes that this is not her money and not something to be expected. She has not slipped into the faulty assumption of turning a helping hand into an entitlement. She has the perspective to appreciate the help and not complain about reasonable conditions.
Fortunately, the way their system is set up, it’s possible to get back that lost freedom. As one government representative puts it, "Welfare should not be a destination or a way of life. The government is committed to progressively reforming the welfare system to foster individual responsibility.” We all know that change comes only in response to some level of discomfort.
I wonder what the reaction would be to such a program in the US. Are we long on victimhood and short on gratitude, or vice versa? The first represents low levels of responsibility; the second, strong perspective. We can learn from others the importance of gratitude and that responsibility neglected means freedom lost. We can see living examples of how behavior has consequences. If we don’t understand these basic facts, we may soon face consequences similar to those challenging other countries around the world today.