Thursday, May 25, 2006

Column on Sincere Defenders of Welfare State

On Sincere Champions of the Welfare State

Tibor R. Machan

No doubt a lot of folks who promote the welfare state have but their own
welfare in mind, mostly the power such a system confers upon an elite that
deems itself authorized to regiment the rest of us. One cannot debate with
these folks?they aren?t concerned with reasons, arguments, evidence,
history or the like. All they care about is sophistry enlisted in the
service of securing their power over other people so they can pursue
projects they like.

But there are sincere supporters of the welfare state, ones who think it
really is the best, most just and decent polity. Mostly these folks are
concerned that too many people simply cannot cope if they aren?t being
provided with support and that the support they require won?t be
forthcoming from voluntary contributions. So the government is needed so
as to make sure the support will be forthcoming. And they also believe
that insisting upon a system of strict adherence to property rights and
free choice rests on certain assumptions about whether what we own, our
resources, assets, advantages, should really be thought of as belonging to

Perhaps the best statement against the view that each of us has the
unalienable right to private property comes from the late Harvard
University philosopher John Rawls. He wrote, in his famous book A Theory
of Justice (1971), that "Those who have been favored by nature, whoever
they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the
situation of those who have lost out." He adds, ?The assertion that a man
deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to
cultivate his abilities is?problematic; for his character depends in large
part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for he can claim no
credit.? So not even entrepreneurial savvy confers desert on us.

Which is to say, Rawls seems to have believed, that the redistribution of
wealth is a general moral and public policy imperative. Entrepreneurial
efforts cannot reasonably be expected from those who lack ?fortunate
family and social circumstances in early life.?

Others, among the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, also of Harvard University,
and Professor Martha Nussbaum, of the University of Chicago, have
championed a worldwide movement, called ?the capabilities approach,? that
calls for enabling the poor and underprivileged to improve on their lot,
mainly through the political process. By spreading democracy and the right
to vote, such folks will then have a chance to secure for themselves
government support?welfare, subsidies, social security, education, and so
forth?which they would otherwise have to go without. And since those from
whom these provisions are taken by the democratic political process do not
deserve much of what they own?see Rawls above?there can be no moral
objection to any of this wealth-redistribution.

Yes, there are those who use this line of reasoning for no other reason
than to accrue power to themselves, to serve various goals they happen to
prefer over against the goals supported by those who would otherwise have
their property rights legally protected. But, as I have learned over my
many years of arguing about these matters, some do truly believe that the
welfare statist outlook is indeed the just one and opposing it puts one on
the wrong side of the debate.

Among the several problems with even the most sincere arguments for the
welfare state is what public choice theorists have noted, namely, that the
power gained by government will nearly always be misused. But even more
important is the fact that whether one deserves what one owns, one?s
ownership of it cannot be seriously disputed. We all have assets,
resources, advantages we didn?t earn. It does not follow at all that
others may deprives us of these?if they need or want it, they must obtain
our permission. Otherwise we are all really slaves, since much of what is
ours?eyes, lungs, kidneys, health, talents, opportunities we receive from
parents, etc., etc.?were not earned by us, yet they are indeed ours.

Given that we do in fact own our lives?we have an unalienable right to
it?and that when others begin to mange it for us against our will they
routinely mishandle the task, even the most sincere defenders of the
welfare state should change their position and defend, instead, the fully
free society.

Machan is co-author with Craig Duncan, of Libertarianism, For and Against
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

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