Radical Welfare Reform
By Steve Gillman - May 25, 2012
In my essay, "Radical Welfare Reform," in "Sky
Child," I suggest a system that would provide help for everyone
in the country who needs it. This includes paying for health
care for everyone who cannot afford it, and providing food and
shelter for every homeless person and anyone else who can't pay
for it on their own. It is also a recipe for dramatically cutting
the cost of welfare in the United States. How can it both expand
the services and coverage available while costing much less than
what we currently have? You'll have to read the essay to get
I want to write about today is the general idea of welfare and
the ethics of taking from some to give to others. In the essay
I touch on this when I mention the extreme libertarians who see
all government welfare programs as morally suspect. I write:
"The primary moral objection is one which some people
have with all government assistance to individuals. It is the
idea that it is never fair to take from some people to give to
others. This belief argues against all government welfare and
transfers, although even those who hold these views usually are
okay with transfers to themselves, such as tax-supported education
for their children even when they could afford to pay tuition.
In any case, the argument is only consistently and strongly
held by a tiny minority, making this a non-issue in terms of
the politics of creating such a system. Already almost everyone
believes in welfare or redistribution of wealth of some sort,
only arguing about the amounts and purposes. I personally think
it isn't ideal to make some give up their money for others, but
it is a matter of values. It is simply more important that we
feed the hungry or house the homeless than allowing myself or
anyone else<!--more--> to keep every penny we make. And
as for those who argue against the poor getting help while their
middle class children eat up tens of thousands of tax dollars
attending public schools... well, it's hard to take them seriously."
Since it was not part of the point I was making or the system
I was proposing, I didn't say much more about the moral issue
of redistribution. When is it okay, and is there a better way?
People have asked me how I feel about this, so I'll provide a
short explanation of my feelings, thoughts, and ideas in this
I don't always feel comfortable with the idea of taking from
some to give to others. Governments operate by way of a monopoly
on force. Individuals must transact their business by honest
consent among the parties involved, but when the government wants
to provide food stamps to the poor (or bombs to drop on the poor
in other countries), for example, they do not ask you nicely
to pay your taxes. You pay under threat of being assaulted and
jailed for non-compliance. If the food is a true necessity (if
the recipients really can't provide for themselves), I'm okay
with that. Survival--anyone's--takes precedence over our rights
to keep all of the excess we have (that which goes beyond our
own survival needs). In fact, in some places around the world,
I would advocate that, when necessary, the poor steal from the
rich in order to survive.
But because of the nature of how we pay for these programs,
specifically because taxation does involve force or the threat
of force, I think we should be very careful about the purposes
for which the government spends our money. It doesn't seem right
to take money to provide welfare for corporations or wealthy
individuals, for example. It doesn't even seem right to take
money to fund welfare programs that are not carefully controlled
to avoid abuse. I don't like seeing my tax dollars go to people
who really don't need help, and I see these cases regularly (some
unworthy recipients are friends and acquaintances, so I can say
with some certainty that they are just milking the system rather
than doing honest work they are qualified for).
Now, the concepts of "survival" and "necessity"
are pretty vague, so it isn't like we could all agree on what
programs should exist and who should qualify, even if we agree
that the moral basis for taxation that funds them is true need.
In general, I feel comfortable with my money being taken for
a program as long as that program does more good than bad things,
even if it is not quite fair in some cases. "More good than
bad things," is also vague, I realize, but there is no way
to express it with a high degree of exactitude, and I make the
judgment call for my own purpose of deciding how I feel about
a program, as you must do for yourself--and then we get to hash
it out in the political sphere.
In the long run I would feel much better with a government
which was funded by more voluntary means. After all, if we subscribe
to a government and pay our taxes voluntarily, how the money
is spent is no longer an ethical issue. At the moment I'm living
in a condominium, and as part of the decision to buy here my
wife and I voluntarily agreed to the rules of the condo association.
We can argue for changes, but beyond that if we cannot get other
members to agree sufficiently with our ideas for running the
place, we have the option of going elsewhere.
Now, I like that arrangement, but it is more complicated with
governments. To start with, we all have rights to life and liberty,
so what if we don't find the forms of those that we want in any
country? What do we do? That's a question for another essay,
but I do have some thoughts about how to make the system we are
in more voluntary and perhaps more in line with what those extreme
libertarians would prefer, while still having a government that
can help people when they need it.
One idea is to make it an explicit contract that when you
use U.S. dollars you agree to both the taxation necessary to
support the government and to accept the expenditures that are
(to some extent) democratically decided upon. This makes it a
voluntary agreement, since you could try to get by without dollars.
The difficulty of doing so makes it unlikely that many people
would opt out of the system. In fact, as long as the government
provided for police and courts and defense, the other services
would not have to be offered to non-subscribers. In other words,
it is nice to have a court that upholds contracts you sign (otherwise
you would be very vulnerable to being cheated), but it not necessarily
an obligation of a government to provide that to you if you refuse
to subscribe to it. Criminal matters have to be address universally
in a country, for the safety of everyone. But if you have no
way to enforce a contract and collect what is owed to you, the
rest of us do not necessarily suffer.
There is a lot of talk about an implicit "social contract,"
which is merely the invented idea that we somehow agree to live
by certain rules when we choose to live in a society. The arguments
for this (or at least for what it means and who decides) are
ridiculously weak. I have agreed to nothing of the sort. But
on the other hand, why not make such a contract an explicit part
of citizenship in the civil sphere? As mentioned, laws regarding
criminal matters have to be enforced universally, even when victims
are not subscribers, but it could be reasonable and workable
to ask that people sign something if they want to vote and be
eligible for civil court access and other services (including
welfare and other programs).
I will stop here, because I really only wanted to point out
that there are possible ways to create societal systems that
are more voluntary than the current ones based on force. That
makes all the ethical issues around "redistributionist"
plans disappear. If you subscribe to a system, you can only argue
for the changes you want or unsubscribe. You can't claim that
the taxes you pay are theft, or that the recipients of your money
got it unfairly.
To sum it up, I advocate finding more peaceful and voluntary
means to create and operate governments and the subsequent programs
they administer, but in the meantime I also think survival is
higher in any reasonable hierarchy of values than are theoretical
property rights. Take my money if it means someone doesn't have
If you want to read the essay on radical welfare reform and
see just how we can spend less and provide much more for people
in need, here's the information page on Amazon for Sky Child:
Child (At Your Own Risk Series)