by michael on April 28, 2011

Dennis Prager wrote a provocative article asserting that the human trait of selfishness can be created and or enhanced by government action. Essentially, he asserts that the human soul can be influenced profoundly by economic incentives and economic disincentives. Prager’s most chilling assertion is that once a society becomes selfish, little can be done to reverse the trait.

The article is unabashedly political, but nevertheless, it seems to me that Prager’s larger points transcend politics. The same dynamics can be seen in the home, where, for example, chores are or not assigned to children. As a trust and estate lawyer, I have seen the same dynamic, in all its ugliness, when the expectancy of money is given to ungrateful children.

Here are some key paragraphs from Prager’s article. The complete article is worth reading, no matter your political preferences.

The Welfare State and the Selfish Society
Capitalism teaches people to work harder; the welfare state teaches people to want harder. Which is better?
In the contemporary world, where left-wing attitudes are regarded as normative, it is a given that capitalism, with its free market and profit motive, emanates from and creates selfishness, while socialism, the welfare state, and the “social compact” as it is increasingly referred to, emanate from and produce selflessness.
The opposite is the truth.

In various European countries, it is increasingly common for young men to live with their parents into their 30s and even longer. Why not? In the welfare state, there is no shame in doing so.
The welfare state enables — and thereby produces — people whose preoccupations become more and more self-centered as time goes on:
How many benefits will I receive from the state?
How much will the state pay for my health care and retirement?
And each entitlement becomes a “right,” as the Left transforms entitlements into the language of “rights” as quickly as possible.
What handouts do, and what the transformation of handouts into rights does, is create a citizenry that increasingly lacks the most important character trait — gratitude. Of all the characteristics needed for both a happy and morally decent life, none surpasses gratitude. Grateful people are happier, and grateful people are more morally decent. That is why we teach our children to say “thank you.” But the welfare state undoes that. One does not express thanks for a right. So, instead of “thank you,” the citizen of the welfare state is taught to say, “What more can I get?”
But the truth is that capitalism and the free market produce less selfish people. Teaching people to work hard and take care of themselves (and others) produces a less, not a more, selfish citizen.
Capitalism teaches people to work harder; the welfare state teaches people to want harder. Which is better?
— Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. He may be contacted through his website,

Share Button

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: