Josh Levin at Slate has a long, interesting article - more like a short online book - about the original "welfare queen," a Chicago woman named Linda Taylor. She did a lot more than just scam welfare benefits, but that's what she became most infamous for, back in the 1980s. Actually, I'd wager most modern readers don't realize there was a specific person behind the phrase "welfare queen" - which, as Levin points out, was coined by the Chicago Tribune, not Ronald Reagan. Most people would nevertheless get a fairly accurate idea of Taylor's marquee crime just by hearing that phrase, which conjures images of someone living high on the hog while soaking up welfare benefits. As Levin notes, despite stubborn efforts by some on the Left to claim the "welfare queen" was apocryphal, or an unfair characterization created for political purposes, that's exactly what Taylor did, and to put it mildly, she didn't show any remorse about it when she got caught.
The political significance of the "welfare queen" story rests on how many of them are out there. A single person scamming the welfare state does not, by herself, represent a devastating indictment of the welfare state. It matters how easy it was, and whether a large number of people participate in such activities, albeit on a less grandiose scale than "the haughty thief who drove her Cadillac to the public aid office" and wore "expensive clothes and oversize hats" to her trial.
Unfortunately, there's a lot of scamming going on, and the Left is not even slightly interested in cracking down on it, or even admitting it's a problem. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) tried to stop the cuts to military pensions in the Murray-Ryan budget deal by replacing them with simple enhanced identification reforms to a welfare tax credit that gets ripped off to the tune of $4 billion per year, in many cases by people who aren't even legal residents of the United States. That assessment comes from the Inspector General of the Treasury Department, not Sessions' office. His reform effort was thwarted by Democrats, who like to fill the "amendment tree" for bills with garbage so that nobody can attach a serious amendment to bills they are determined to ram through.
Four billion dollars a year in abuse is obviously not the work of a few individuals, or one small gang. Small gangs actually do perpetrate staggering levels of fraud against the welfare state - last summer, we learned the IRS sent 23,994 fraudulent tax refunds totaling $46.3 million to a single address in Atlanta, for example - but there are a lot of people pinching a little bit each from Uncle Sam, skimming cash and benefits from countless different programs. It often turns out these scams were amazingly easy to perpetrate - our bloated government simply failed to notice, or chose not to notice, all those hands stuffed in its pockets. The "free" cell phone program has been defrauded on a billion-dollar scale by people who simply showed up, applied more than once, and walked away with several taxpayer-funded cell phones tucked in their pockets. People who work for this program have been caught indulging such theft, and even teaching people how to do it. Similar concerns are currently swirling around the ObamaCare navigator program.
A titanic welfare state cannot be run on the honor system, especially when "honor" is thin on the ground. And it's not just welfare abuse - there are plenty of very well-heeled people ripping the government off, with methods ranging from technically legal pilfering like Barack Obama's "green energy" schemes, through the hilariously transparent antics of Environmental Protection Agency official John C. Beale, who scored over a million dollars in salary and posh benefits for a job he almost never showed up for... over the course of a decade. Our central government has become morbidly obese and appallingly stupid. Nobody's minding the store, and no one is held accountable for hands dipping into the till.
This is not just a policy or management failure, it's a culture. A message of lawlessness and irresponsibility is projected from the top across the whole of society, combined with increasingly obvious contempt for the schmucks who still play by the rules, and pay all the bills. We live beneath a volume of law so immense that it defies enforcement - no one really understands it, everyone is technically in violation of it, and the Ruling Class enforces it piecemeal, as they see fit. It's patently obvious how their political convenience is a major factor in their enforcement decisions. They are not much interested in taking steps against abuses they profit from, or consider acceptable for ideological reasons, such as illegal immigration or vote fraud. But they generally lack the courage and honesty to suggest taking the laws they disregard off the books. That would give too much of the game away, while reducing the certified power of the government they worship.
A classic example of this pretentious anarchic tyranny is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) remarking on Wednesday that violations of immigration law are no reason to deport anyone. "Our view of the law is that if somebody is here without sufficient documentation, that is not reason for deportation," Pelosi told the audience of the Spanish-language network Telemundo. Mark Krikorian of National Review puts this in context with our new era of hyper-regulated lawlessness:
The implications are huge, and not limited to the tenure of this administration, since this is now the consensus Democratic party position. It means the substance of immigration legislation is irrelevant; John Boehner and Paul Ryan can stuff a million enforcement provisions into an amnesty bill and it’s all just for show if being an illegal alien is no longer a reason to be removed from the country. With Democrats in charge of the Senate and the White House there is simply no basis for constructive immigration policymaking. Regardless of your views on amnesty or the level and makeup of future immigration, no assurance made by congressional Democrats or the administration regarding enforcement of new immigration laws can be believed. In this environment, any House Republican attempting to engage with Democrats on immigration is either a fool or a collaborator.
Pelosi is declaring immigration law effectively null and void; it's only relevant if the illegal alien commits some other crime - in other words, violates a law Nancy Pelosi cares about - at which point it becomes a minor consideration during the sentencing phase. We'll decide whether an illegal alien rapist is to be incarcerated or deported, or maybe first one and then the other, but otherwise every human being on Earth is entitled to walk into the United States and plug into the system. American citizenship is like free wi-fi now.
But notice she doesn't have the courage or integrity to openly call for the formal abolition of the U.S. border. Stealing into the United States is a game in her world-view. If you can beat the Border Patrol, you win. As long as you don't commit any further crimes, the citizenship you stole is yours forever. The people standing in line and trying to immigrate the right way are fools, and Americans who insist there should be a "right way" - many of them foreign-born legal immigrants themselves - are xenophobes.
If your first experience with American citizenship involves the Ruling Class waving off laws that apply to others - the poor saps still standing in line - because the illegal population is politically useful, what opinion will you form toward the rule of law? What else will you decide you're "entitled" to, particularly after hearing the sales pitch from political operators who think you're entitled to quite a lot?
The entitlement mindset is hardly unique to illegal immigrants, of course. It's everywhere, nourished well into the ranks of what we identify as the "middle class." People ignore poorly defined, poorly enforced laws because they feel entitled to, or because they think there's no real "victim" to be concerned with. An example comes from Mary Katharine Ham at Hot Air - who, as a recent mother, disdainfully observes well-compensated liberal pundits agreeing there's nothing inherently wrong with childless males ripping off an easily-abused Amazon.com discount program designed to benefit mothers. "Conclusion: it's not really lying if you're lying to a corporation," writes Ham.
Especially not a big, fabulously successful one with lots of money, right? Amazon makes an unlikely victim, doesn't it? Except... that's incredibly wrong-headed. It's not OK to cheat or steal from someone just because they have a lot of money, or because the target of theft is a corporation, rather than an individual. As Ham points out, the ultimate victims would be the mothers (and fathers) Amazon intended to help with the "Amazon Mom" program. But selfish people don't think that way, do they? They don't care about who suffers. They convince themselves the victim of their misbehavior is beneath contempt, deserves to be robbed, or will never miss the money. No crime is so easily justified as the "victimless" crime. No doubt many of the people ripping off state and federal benefit programs would agree. None of them spare much thought for the taxpayers who fund the programs, or the people who really need the assistance those programs were intended to provide.
Honor begins with the refusal to commit a "justified" crime because it's inherently wrong. Some critics of the welfare state maintain it has aggressively drained away that common understanding of honor, replacing it with a sense of entitlement that can justify quite a bit of misbehavior against a bloated, faceless government that doesn't take its laws any more seriously than the lawbreakers do. However lawlessness begins, restoring our sense of honor, independence, and responsibility is crucial to ending it, and it's difficult to see how a dishonorable Ruling Class could be suited to that challenge. It remains to be seen whether it's possible for a gigantic State to have an honorable Ruling Class, but I feel skepticism is warranted.