I always thought that the description of federal programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Unemployment Insurance as forming a social “safety net” was both an appropriate term to describe the public’s original intent for supporting these programs, but also a greatly misunderstood term by those who have advocated for the growth and extension of coverage of these programs over the last 45 years. Putting the budgetary strains caused by the explosive growth of these programs to the side for a moment, the hard fact we must face is that any net that catches 47% of our citizens is no longer a safety net.
The metaphor of a “safety net” comes from the practice in the circus of using large nets to protect acrobats from falling during their risky work on the high-wire acts of the trapeze or the tightrope. The use of this metaphor was appropriate because life in a free society is a daily, risky struggle for each of us—like a daily walk across a tightrope. No matter how hard we prepare for and struggle with those risks, something may happen to any of us at any moment, through no fault of our own, to cause one of us to fall from our tightrope.
At one time, the only help we needed in our struggle across the tightrope of life was the hand of a family member, a friend or neighbor, or a member from our congregations or civic organizations. But, just as circuses realized that ever greater risks required the addition of safety nets, as our life struggles became more complex, we decided as a society that we should provide a safety net. So, the modern safety net was meant to protect us from a momentary fall that our efforts alone, or with the help of family and neighbors, could not avoid. It was there to protect us from having a momentary fall from which we could bounce back unto tightrope, turn into a destructive catastrophe from which we could never recover.
But just as the safety net in the circus was never meant to replace the struggle of acrobats on the high-wire acts, our public safety net was never meant to replace the risks of our daily struggles, which are a natural consequence of living in a free society; nor was it meant to replace the supporting role of our families, neighbors and congregations. Instead, public programs were to provide an ultimate net below this intricate web of private, local relationships, which was our first level of protection.
However, when advocates for expansive federal programs use the term “safety net,” they no longer are describing the protective net below the life of free men and women, but rather they are advocating replacing the risk of the tightrope with a floor for us to walk across, and advocating a system that no longer needs the web of relationships of family, neighbors and congregations to help us across the tightrope. If these advocates successfully implement their plan, those walking on the floor will soon lose the life skills to accept the risks of a free life, just as an acrobat would lose the skill to walk the tightrope if he or she was told to practice only by walking across a concrete floor. Eventually, we will become dependent on the floor provided by government, rather than on our own skills and on the support of our local relationships. And that dependency will rot and destroy our capability to live together in a free society.
We can’t afford this creeping dependency—either economically, politically or spiritually—and we have reached a tipping point when as many as 47% of us no longer try to struggle across the tightrope of freedom with the help of family and friends, but instead walk across the floor of government programs. I believe that was the core of what Romney was trying to say that night in Florida.
We need to restore governments’ limited role of providing a true “safety net,” while we restore our own commitment to the struggle of a free life—the struggle of the “pursuit of happiness”—with all its necessary relationships, and all its risks and rewards. That may be the greatest issue at stake in this election.