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Morality of Welfare

July 7, 2017

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

– Portia’s Plea for Mercy, The Merchant of Venice

Bryan Caplan wrote an article about reasons to oppose a welfare state. I have a very different way of thinking about welfare than Caplan, but I still identify as a libertarian. I think I am in the target demographic of his article. I had originally intended to do a point by point commentary, but found myself mostly in agreement with Caplan’s reasoning. However, I have one major disagreement:

“7. “No fault of their own.” Why you’re poor matters. Starving because you’re born blind is morally problematic. Starving because you drink yourself into a stupor every day is far less so. Indeed, you might call it just desserts.”

Mercy and forgiveness are virtues too, not just cold prudence. Someone starving because they made bad decisions is suffering just as much as someone who is starving because of bad luck. We have no control over the past, and predicting outcomes is difficult. I’m not saying people taking drugs or dropping out of high school somehow believe that things will work out fine. I’m saying that it’s immoral to condemn someone just because of foolish past decisions.

Is dropping out of high school enough to declare someone unfit for welfare for life? How about a teenage pregnancy? Haven’t we all made some bad choices in life? I suppose that’s the rub. If you want to say only welfare to people who deserve it, no one deserves it and you get to the conclusion that there should be no welfare at all.

I think a fault based welfare program would be more terrifying than no welfare at all, worse than our current welfare system, and far worse than a universal poverty welfare program (all poor people get $x, or a UBI). Imagine having a government bureaucrat combing everyone’s past scanning for moral failings that disqualify you from welfare. How easily would such a system be abused? Any political dissent or unpopular opinion expressed might disqualify you and that would certainly chill free speech as well as limit your personal freedom to live your life as you see fit. How would that remotely be a libertarian world?

The core decision to make is: Given that any charity is going to go to some undeserving people, is it better to accept that and keep doing it, or decide that it’s better not to do charity at all?

“When Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to save his sister’s son, he has a credible excuse. By extension, so does a government program to tax strangers to feed Valjean’s nephew.”

The main reason why you would even consider putting a fault requirement is to discourage the sorts of behavior that leads to poverty to begin with. Yes, the poor are less responsible, lower IQ, less conscientious, and more likely to engage in all sorts of behaviors likely to result in poverty. Do such people respond to incentives that are distant in time and uncertain (future disqualification of welfare they might never get anyway)? No, they don’t. Only the most hyper-rational superhuman would respond by adjusting their conscientiousness and those sorts of people don’t become indigent anyway.

I see welfare as about relieving high levels of suffering of those who are very poor. I do not believe you should have to do anything in order not to suffer at such levels – merely being a member of the human race should qualify. I get the whole nation border/global poor argument, but we live in a world where the most effective reallocater of resources is the nation state and people’s moral sympathies end at the border. I personally donate my charitable giving to international causes, and I advocate that others do as well. I don’t view the nation state as being remotely good at international poverty reduction, so I would prefer they focus on national poverty relief.

Welfare creates a better polity. A population that feels safe and protected is less prone to populism, extremism, demanding punitive industrial policy, trade restrictionism, etc.

If you desire equality, there are three approaches:
1.) Hope the free market gets you there. Deregulate, no corporate welfare, etc. The government is a source of much inequality and removing those sorts of policies can improve equality. Libertarians understand this, progressives do not. Unfortunately, some people fall through the cracks. Some skill sets are made obsolete by changing patterns of technology and trade. Sometimes people make mistakes and are harshly punished for them by the free market.
2.) Regulate the market in the hopes that the outcomes it gives you are more equal. Firms tend to capture regulatory agencies and the regulations have unintended consequences. All you end up doing is calcifying rents and entrenching the elites. This is the mid-century progressive approach and it doesn’t work.
3.) Merge free market/light regulation with moderate to generous welfare systems. Let the free market work. Let labor markets adjust. Have low levels of taxation. However, if people are in trouble, give them money. The Scandinavian countries do this approach quite well. I think their welfare is too generous for my personal tastes, but it could be toned down and implemented in other countries.

Welfare should be a part of the preferred libertarian policies. Knowing you have a safety net to try something risky and fail increases your personal freedom. Having some money even when things don’t go well for you (even when those things are your fault) increases your capacity to live life as you see fit. The cost in terms of taxation to others required just doesn’t impose as much on their liberty as the loss in liberty that comes with being extremely poor.

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