Welfare Statism and Evil
Tibor R. Machan
For a long time I have been reading works in political and social theory
and most of the well published ones?by major commercial and university
presses?agree with this passage that is quoted in The Status Syndrome
(2005), a recent book advocating various government measures to save us
from anything and everything that ails us:
The success of an economy and of a society cannot be separated from the
lives that members of the society are able to lead?. We not only value
living well and satisfactorily, but also appreciate having control over
our own lives.
The author of the passage is Amartya Sen, and the statement comes from
his own very prominent book, Development as Freedom (1999). Both he and
the author of the book to which the passage serves as the epigram believe
that the problems of most societies need more vigorous government
involvement and that those who champion the unfettered and admittedly
non-utopian free society are very mistaken.
Given that for innumerable decades the major Western powers have been
vigorous welfare states and that the claim that free markets have
reigned?say under Margaret Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan in the
USA?is an out and out lie, it is a valid question to pose why all this
transfer of wealth to the people organized by governments simply hasn?t
done the job of fixing things for those at the lower rungs of the economic
system. There are probably several reasons but a few stand out.
Most generally, the ?lives that members of the society are able to lead?
just isn?t available for even the most energetic welfare statist to
guarantee. There is always something that undermines the grand project of
remedying everything via coercive means, including (a) bureaucratic
rip-offs, (b) lack of the requisite knowledge of what would actually help
people most, and, yes, (c) the bad choices of the very people who are to
be helped out.
There has enough been said about (a) and (b) by well known social
theorists to fill a library but (c) is something else. In our era it is
simply too surly to suggest that many, many people are personally
responsible for much of what happens to them in life. No, it?s got to be
something else, always. (This is also why many intellectuals cannot let
go of the idea that terrorists may really be vicious people, not victims
of, say, globalization or American imperialism.)
But there is a bit of good news now, which may finally enlighten our
decently motivated statists and their academic defenders, people who think
every problem has a solution if only you throw enough money at it and use
sufficient force to get it fixed. Professor Michael Stone of Columbia
University, a psychiatrists to boot, has chimed in with a surprising
(though largely old fashioned) piece of news. As reported in the English
magazine THE WEEK, ?He found that while some [of 500 serial killers in
both the US and Britain he studied] suffered from mental illness or had
been damaged by some event in their history, others were perfectly sane.
They simply enjoyed killing.? As the professor put it, ?Such people make a
rational choice to commit terrible crimes over and over again. They are
evil and we should be able to say that formally.?
Which pretty much opens the door that other people may not be quite so
evil as serial killers but could perpetrate bits and pieces of evil
themselves, including refusing to do much good for their own lives. So
when Sen states that ?we [i.e., all of us] appreciate having control over
our own lives,? he is wrong?some people simply do not appreciate this and
choose, instead, of float about, aimlessly, no matter how much effort is
put into helping them out of their misery.
Of course, most of us who pay any attention to the world, beginning with
our family and neighbors and friends, know this well enough and have
always. There are ne?er-do-wells about everywhere, people who are lazy,
irresponsible, and hopelessly incorrigible on that score, apart from the
really vile ones the professor was studying. And in large societies there
are very many of them and they will always be there. With the welfare
statists? refusal to acknowledge their existence, however, the fruitless
effort to fix these people?s lives by sacrificing the lives and labors of
others for their sake continues, despite the evidence that they will not
Perhaps these people need to learn a thing or two from professor Stone
and start admitting that some people ask for their own misery and public
policy and political theory need to take this into account.