Radical Welfare Reform

By - 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 that answer.

Sky ChildWhat 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 area.

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 to starve.

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:

Sky Child (At Your Own Risk Series)

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