Engaging the Welfare State

The main schism within the broadly “liberal” movement today is over the welfare state. That statement might sound strange to some people, given that most Americans (in the U.S.) associate the term “liberal” with its leftward variants. In many people’s minds, welfare statism is practically synonymous with “liberalism” or at least integral to it.

Yet, in the broader sense, the liberal movement includes classical liberals, libertarians, and Objectivists (advocates of Ayn Rand’s ideas). And quite a few libertarians, and all Objectivists, still oppose the welfare state. But those are tiny groups. So, practically, there’s not much of a schism within modern liberalism; almost all self-described liberals advocate the welfare state in some form, so much so that opponents of welfare barely register in public debate.

Welfare statism is almost universally accepted these days. Not only do most liberals endorse it, but so do most nationalist conservatives and most hard-leftists. I haven’t seen a poll asking whether people would favor eliminating all welfare-state programs, but I expect that far fewer than ten percent of U.S. residents would favor that.

The schism to which I refer, then, has more to do with ideas than with numbers. Some liberals seriously believe that a welfare state violates individual rights (basically because it involves coercive taxation for others’ benefit) and so is fundamentally anti-liberal. Most liberals think that the welfare state does not violate people’s rights and is essential for enhancing people’s “positive” freedom (as opposed to their “negative” rights).

Why Debate the Welfare State

Given that hardly anyone opposes the welfare state, some people might wonder why it’s worth talking about. I think there are two main reasons why a debate on the matter is important.

1) Advocates of the welfare state have grown lazy and nonresponsive in their arguments. Yet, if the welfare statists are wrong, then the welfare state is profoundly anti-liberal and very dangerous politically. So, even though almost all liberals are highly confident that the welfare state is a great idea, it’s such an important issue that I think they should be a lot more reflective and self-challenging about the issue.

2) If the anti-welfare statists are wrong, then thousands of pretty smart and politically engaged people in the U.S. are essentially disengaged from discussions of how to make the welfare state better. No one thinks that just any ol’ welfare state is as good as any other; a welfare state can be set up and run well or badly. But if you think the welfare state per state is evil, it’s hard to get excited about improving the welfare state. Yet libertarians and Objectivists are exactly the sorts of people who could offer important insights about private and governmental incentives that could help improve the welfare state. So, if the welfare statists are right, and if they’d try harder to convince the remaining skeptics, they’d help to improve the quality of our welfare state.

Recent Discussions on Welfare Statism

I’ve listened to three recent discussions that prompted me to write this article.

The first is a discussion moderated by Robert Tracinski between George Will and Steven Pinker. Most remarkable to me about this exchange is that the rightward Will and the leftward Pinker agree that the welfare state is so obviously a great idea that it’s barely worth debating. Tracinski, who comes out of the Objectivist tradition, throws up a flag but postpones further discussion of the issue. (I’ve heard from some Objectivists who are unhappy with Tracinski over this, but his purpose here was to facilitate a broader exchange about liberalism between Will and Pinker, not to debate the welfare state with them.)

The second is a fascinating discussion between Michael Shermer, the arch-skeptic and self-described classical liberal, and the developmental economist Minouche Shafik. Shafik’s theme is that the welfare state constitutes an essential aspect of the “social contract,” and Shermer agrees wholeheartedly. I found Shafik irresistibly charming, and I found myself agreeing with her a lot more than I expected about how to make the welfare state better.

The third is a debate about the welfare state between Objectivist Yaron Brook and someone who goes by “Mouthy Infidel.” (I listened to the first part of this.) Brook is one of the rare public intellectuals who actively challenges the welfare state.

Challenges for Welfare Statists

Obviously in a short article I’m not going to try to resolve the debates about the welfare state; that would take a book (at least). But I would like to raise a few questions about it and point to a few lines of discussion that I think would be fruitful.

I would like to see the welfare statists take more seriously five main critiques:

1) Various ill-conceived governmental interventions in the economy make it harder for some people to get ahead financially, and with appropriate reforms fewer people would need assistance.

2) Government welfare is really pretty badly operated and wasteful. For example, we still subsidize corporate farmers (which I regard as “corporate welfare”). And payroll taxes on the paychecks of the working poor are horribly regressive.

3) Government welfare substantially pushes out private charity, mutual-aid associations, self-help, and types of private insurance.

4) Welfare statism is predominantly nationalistic and fundamentally at odds with open immigration (or so I worry). Yet, if we seriously cared about people’s welfare, open immigration is probably the most important thing we could accomplish. Thus, welfare statism arguably conflicts with the most important pro-welfare reforms.

5) Threatening to lock people in cages if they do not “contribute” to the aid programs the government deems appropriate really is hard to square with a liberal program. I think that, at a minimum, welfare statists tend to be far too flippant in dismissing the moral significance of such legal threats of violence. I’d at least like to see welfare statists take more seriously the possibility of providing to people some form of exit (short of leaving the country).

Challenges for Welfare Opponents

I would also like to see opponents of welfare statism take more seriously a number of points:

1) How are we dealing with the longstanding problem of original distribution of property? At some point, all land property was essentially held in common (except for often-temporary residences); then, at some point, much of that property became private. What does that imply, if anything, for the modern welfare state?

2) How are we dealing with the fact that much private property today was stolen from others at some not-so-distant time in our past?

3) Most people strongly want taxation for purposes of aid, even if they grouse about this or that tax or aid program. Indeed, people routinely vote in higher taxes to support welfare programs (as through state and local ballot initiatives). Surely we have to recognize that, for large numbers of people, tax-supported welfare is not “coercive” in any meaningful sense.

4) Can private charities and groups really adequately provide for people in need, or is the free rider problem so pervasive that aid requires government support? This is a big issue. If opponents of the welfare state could show that private efforts can adequately address problems of poverty, then that would be decisive, given the broader moral considerations.

5) Is there a “second best” approach that’s worth endorsing? For example, if there were any option for exit, that would alleviate some of the moral concerns about the welfare state. And arguably a more streamlined and effective welfare state is better than a bloated and ineffective one even if one thinks the welfare state remains basically immoral.

Toward a Better Welfare State

Some people will argue that it’s not worth putting any effort into improving the welfare state given (they hold) it is essentially rights-violating.

But I think it’s worth thinking seriously about how to improve the welfare state even if as a “second best” strategy. It remains possible to say, “Ultimately I don’t think there should be a welfare state, but, so long as there is. . .” (Of course, welfare statists will tend to look askance at suggestions couched in those terms.)

Obviously welfare statists should want a better welfare state. A welfare state that does not competently achieve its ends, or that even actively works against its stated aims in important respects, is a bad one even by the standards of welfare statism.

To me, the big discussion about welfare statism is over the balance between cash transfers, vouchers, and direct government provision of services. Plausibly, all welfare should be in the form of straight-up cash transfers, and just drop everything else. Also plausibly, welfare should be in the form of vouchers for specific goods and services (food, housing, education, health care).

To me, least plausible is the notion that government should directly provide various services. We would think it ludicrous for government to operate grocery stores to meet the needs of the poor, whether or not everyone was allowed to “shop” there. Yet that is the strategy “we” employ when it comes to K–12 education, and hardly anyone questions that.

Yet maybe there are cases where the direct government provision of goods is a good idea, as with school lunches (which bypass potentially stingy or thoughtless parents). Obviously government provided the (privately developed) coronavirus vaccines (and I think that counts as a sort of “welfare”). John Cochrane has some different ideas about that that I find plausible.

Obviously my aim here has not been to resolve debates about the welfare state, but simply to suggest that there are debates about it worth having. I hope such debates can become part of the contemporary rethinking of liberalism.

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