Does Dependency on Government Make Americans Weak? A Psychoanalyst's Perspective

In the last weeks of the campaign, the battle between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama has increasingly focused on the psychological consequences of dependency on government. Mitt Romney claims that the 47 percent of Americans who rely on government services, like social security and Medicare, refuse to be responsible for their own lives and feel like victims. Reflecting Republican ideology, he believes that government support fosters pathological dependency, by which he means infantile longings to be taken care of instead of the motivation to fend for oneself. He argues that by reducing government entitlements, Americans would have to become more self-reliant which would strengthen their character.

Is this true? Does dependency on others lead to regression and weaken one's character?

From a psychoanalytic perspective, developmental experiences of healthy dependency are essential for a person to become a self-reliant, independent adult. In fact, most psychoanalysts would argue that there is no such thing as pure independence. People who depend exclusively upon themselves and are unable to depend on others suffer from a form of pathological narcissism. These individuals feel that any dependency on others weakens them and makes them vulnerable to the power and control of the caregiver. Often they have been victims of traumatic parental deprivation as children. Consequently, they cannot take in love, nurturance or protection without feeling extremely threatened. Most psychoanalysts are engaged in helping these individuals begin to trust and depend on others once again.

In business, an example of pathological narcissism would be an entrepreneur who refuses to take a loan from parents, a bank or use credit in any way, even to start a new business or salvage one that was failing, for fear that such dependency on others for financial support would weaken him. Clearly, most businessmen and government leaders do not fall into this category. They believe that dependency on others for credit and loans is necessary for the success of their businesses. Similarly, Paul Ryan, who argues against dependency on government, asked for and thankfully received financial help from the federal government to assist workers who were displaced from the closing of a GM plant in his congressional district of Janesville, Wisconsin.

Obviously, poor children who need school lunches, families who need food stamps and have no means of earning money, the disabled who cannot afford medical care, like Ryan's faltering automobile industry, need government help to survive and to have a minimal floor of financial and medical stability for them to better their lives.

Are retirees who have paid taxes for social security and Medicare throughout their careers entitled to the money and the services they have invested in? These are not government handouts to irresponsible people. Social security would be financially viable if not for the fact that members of Congress have raided the social security treasury to pay for personal vested interests, like earmarks in their states and other government projects, thereby depleting these reserves and placing the entire social security program in jeopardy.

However, there is no doubt that some people are pathologically dependent on government handouts. While in graduate school, I recall a small rural town in which virtually every inhabitant was on some form of social security disability, food stamps or other types of welfare. Town residents would tell you that you were a fool if you worked for a living when you could get the government to take care of you. Pathological dependency often derives from over-indulgence in childhood, in which you were spoiled by your parents and never had to fend for yourself, or from extreme deprivation in which you were grossly neglected and lacked basic parental caretaking. As adults, the overindulged would feel entitled to be taken care of because that is what they were used to, and the neglected and deprived would feel entitled to compensation for the unjust deprivation they had to endure.

Fortunately, Americans who are pathologically dependent on government support are relatively few compared to most Americans who genuinely need government services. Bill Clinton introduced a program to wean people off welfare by inducing them to find work. Democrats on the radical left objected to this as too harshly conservative. Clinton's program could be characterized as a form of parental guidance, helping the welfare recipient become self-reliant, as would a good parent. But this was another form of government dependency; that is, a program which fostered financial independence.

The ultimate challenge for Americans is to find a balance between healthy dependence on government and personal independence. The extreme polarization of the Democrats and the Republicans on this issue is a symptom of the failure to recognize that healthy dependency and healthy independence are inextricably intertwined and that both are vital for healthy psychological functioning.