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Plenty of criticisms come to mind when contemplating President
Clinton’s almost offhand proposal to have taxpayers pay for parental
leave from work at times of childbirth or adoption
– which the president claims will fix the lamentable fact that hardly
any parents are taking advantage of the government-created “right”
(actually a mandate to private companies over whom it has, so far as I
can see, no legitimate constitutional authority) to take 12 weeks of
unpaid leave and have a job waiting at the end.

The proposal is another middle-class “entitlement,” designed to make
younger middle-class people grateful to the government for a bogus
benefit — and just a tad bit more dependent on the government a bit
earlier in life. It’s also a way of making it clear that no matter how
low unemployment declines, government has no intention of spending any
less of the money it collects for unemployment “insurance”: it will
just set up another program to spend the money on rather than reducing
overall government spending.

Furthermore, it’s a typically clever Clinton ploy in that it uses the
language of giving the states more flexibility to follow the president’s
wise advice by loosening federal rules. There’s no notion, however, of
eliminating federal mandates relating to unemployment insurance and
other kinds of payments, although all of them are of dubious
constitutionality.

I’d really like to concentrate, however, on the president’s use of
language in announcing the program Monday and especially the
increasingly popular term across the political spectrum, “empowerment.”
Part of the case the president made for his latest demonstration of the
fact that if we have left the era of big government it’s to enter the
era of lots and lots and lots of little government was to claim that
this new benefit will “empower” young parents. The assumption,
apparently so obvious to all that it doesn’t have to be stated, is that
this “empowerment” is an unquestionably good thing.

Maybe it’s because I make my living manipulating words that I tend to
overreact at the misuse of words or the use of words as icons or
talismans rather than as instruments of communication. If that’s so, you
might want to discount some of the following as the product of
curmudgeonly fussiness from a grumpy grammarian. But I think there’s
more to it than mere sloppy use of words. The term “empower” has been
so overused and twisted in the modern political lexicon as to have
become almost an insidious term.

You can see why the word has become a “halo” term. When you
“empower” somebody, it sounds as if you are giving him the means with
which to become more self-sufficient, more independent, more personally
powerful. It doesn’t carry the connotations of dependence and being on
the dole that come with so many government programs.

But look at what it would mean if President Clinton’s proposal is
enacted, as it almost certainly will be since he seems to have the power
to do it without consulting Congress. Young parents will be
“empowered” by getting some money taken out of the pockets of other
taxpayers by government thugs. For many who get this benefit –
estimated at around $200 per week at the outset but bound to be subject
to pressures and increase as time goes on — it will no doubt be
genuinely helpful. But there will be a price to pay.

The price will be acquiring the habit, a bit earlier in life than 65
and Social Security, of looking to the government for benefits, for
help, for sustenance. Thus yet another class of Americans will be
subtly (through the concrete means of checks) inculcated with the idea
that government is the source of beneficence, of help in times of
potential trouble or minor hardship. More than a few of those who
receive this benefit early in life will relax a bit when it comes to the
always-troubling and difficult decisions involved in making provision on
one’s own for times when things are a bit lean.

The idea that present desires should sometimes be sublimated in favor
of future security will be downgraded just a bit more than it already
is. These parents will have learned from experience that if you don’t
make your own provisions the government will step in and handle it. They
will be just a bit more dependent, a bit more inclined to look upon
government income-transfer programs favorably, even if they don’t
benefit from a particular one. They will be just a little less able to
become truly independent.

In short, they will have moved a bit closer to embracing the paradox
that the path to being independent is dependence on the government. And
“empowerment” will be just the opposite of what it seems to
mean on the surface. Instead of becoming more powerful in the sense of
being more independent, more determined to try to live on one’s own
resources rather than on somebody else’s resources, the program’s
“beneficiaries” are more likely to become more dependent.

And the only institution that ends up being genuinely empowered by
the program is the government, the institution that, as American
essayist Albert Jay Nock tried to teach us way back in the 1920s, is the
permanent enemy of the civil, productive society that is the key to
genuine civilization.

The general lesson applies whenever the term is used in political
discourse. Back in the early 1980s some British scholars came up with
the idea of “enterprise zones” in inner cities — places where
virtually all taxes and regulations would be eliminated, at least
temporarily, to enhance economic opportunity. When the concept
transmogrified into “empowerment zones” it consisted of government
favors to the politically connected or those who aspired to be
connected.

And those either praised or vilified (depending on one’s inclination)
as “big government conservatives” quite naturally chose the name
“Empower America” for a national organization. Whenever I see the term
“empower” used by a politician of any stripe I shudder. It’s up to you
whether you shudder along with me.

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