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Brad Delong got me interested in the details of a few of these cases
You can sleep easy if you play by the rules even if you think the rules are non-optimal, as long as you point that out. That’s Milton Friedman.
You cannot sleep easy if you play by the rules if you think the rules give you a license to steal. That’s Robert Nozick, Robert Bork, and Ayn Rand.
That’s the difference between utilitarian and deontological theories. Deontology is a bitch.
To catch up, Robert Nozick freely entered into a lease with his landlord, Eric Segal. After living in apartment for a year or so, Nozick then sued Segal for violating rent control laws and further refused to move out unless paid additional compensation. According to his moral theories this constituted extortion.
Ayn Rand, received Social Security and possible Medicare payments to cover lung cancer treatment. This is despite her characterization of the welfare state as theft and a particularly egregious form of theft because it is legal.
Robert Bork sued the Yale Club after suffer a slip and fall, despite arguing against frivolous lawsuits. I couldn’t find enough information on Bork – in the short time I looked – to get a real sense of his moral philosophy concerning slip and falls.
For Nozick and Rand, however, these are clear breaches of the most common interpretations of their moral philosophy. Does this undermine their philosophy at all?
On one level we are of course tempted to say, no what is true is true regardless of whether the popularizer of those truths honors them. On the other hand “ought” implies “can.” If not even Nozick and Rand can hold to these principles are they a meaningful guide to how we ought to structure our society? While these are by no means view-killing breaches, they do raise the question: is anyone capable of living according to these maxims?
I looked a little in Nozick and Rand’s response. By my reading Nozick’s offers a fair degree of absolution for his philosophy while Rand’s leaves me scratching my head.
Nozick via Julian Sanchez
I knew at the time that when I let my intense irritation with representatives of Erich Segal lead me to invoke against him rent control laws that I opposed and disapproved of, that I would later come to regret it, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.
This reads to me as this: Yes, what I did was wrong. I knew it at the time, but I was pissed.
This statement moves the onus from the philosophy to the individual. Had Nozick dithered and said “Well, but Segal deserved it” that would be different. Instead, he seems to admit that he acted immorally.
Said another way, its one thing to abandon your principles you when find that they are inconvenient to you. It’s another to fall victim to weakness of will and do something you know you will later regret. We don’t have any philosophy, save perhaps hedonism, that protects people from weakness of will.
Rand on the other hand claimed
It is obvious, in such cases, that a man receives his own money which was taken from him by force, directly and specifically, without his consent, against his own choice. Those who advocated such laws are morally guilty, since they assumed the “right” to force employers and unwilling co-workers. But the victims, who opposed such laws, have a clear right to any refund of their own money—and they would not advance the cause of freedom if they left their money, unclaimed, for the benefit of the welfare-state administration.
This is much iffier. Here she does seem to be saying that different rules apply to her followers simply because they are her followers. This has the feel of ad hocery. There might be significantly more, but it seems to be a more eloquent way of saying “We were just sticking it to the man, that was sticking it to us.”
Doesn’t the taking of benefits imply that more resources will have to be confiscated to support the program? And, while appealing for a refund makes perfect sense, simply using the system without a guarantee that you are matching funds put-in with funds taken-out and certainly without the express permission of the people who are currently being taxed seems morally ambiguous in Rand’s own terms.
What is it that European countries do? Massive income redistribution. That may seem superficial, but it’s the answer that I’m most happy with. It has long been known to network theorists that competitive networks (with a return to scale to node connection) are characterized by power law distributions. This is a natural phenomenon; it happens in the blogosphere, the financial markets, in sports, and it happens in economies as a whole. Left to its own devices, it is inevitable that such networks will evolve an shockingly large disparity between the best-performing actors, and the mean actor.
Lane Kenworthy, who writes a lot about inequality issues, has a recent post on his blog (and a subsequent link to a longer article in a U of Arizona journal) which seems to corroborate the story I told above:
What about in an absolute sense? Would the incomes of low-end households have grown more rapidly in the absence of the top-heavy rise in inequality? If we look across the rich nations, it turns out that there is no relationship between changes in income inequality and changes in the absolute incomes of low-end households. The reason is that income growth for poor households has come almost entirely via increases in net government transfers, and the degree to which governments have increased transfers seems to have been unaffected by changes in income inequality.
I was probably subconsciously channeling my inner Kenworthy when I wrote the previous post, as I read his blog sporadically. If I had it my way, the discussion would break along three lines:
- Wealth Inequality.
- Income Inequality.
- Consumption Inequality
And on three lines, we would be able to analyze poverty. What would be the value in this? We would more easily be able to define public policy on narrower grounds. For example, wealth distribution is always going to be sharply unequal. People with higher incomes relative to consumption will always be able to amass more wealth than lower income groups (wealth meaning savings + assets, wealth is something I think many people conflate with income). However, what is the best policy for addressing this aspect of the problem? Simple income transfers won’t work alone, we need to incentivize intergenerational savings among the poor. In that light, Social Security is not the most optimal program, as it discourages savings.
I tend to not really focus on income inequality, but it does feed into the more important aspect (in my view); consumption inequality. Are poor peoples’ consumption patterns keeping up with what we as a society would consider some measure of a “quality” standard of living? Are they able to afford necessities like electricity, HVAC, food, and medical care? If not, this is where we get to fiddle with income in my most preferred way (and the way which allowed other countries’ poor to keep up with growth): simple transfers. Look for efficiency on the supply side, but on the demand side, just augment income. This could be in the form of a universal deduction for income under a certain level, or cash or voucher transfers. It is relatively cheap and easy to structure these transfers in a way that incentivizes future-time orientation…indeed, that is what the Mexican organization Opportunidad does.
I realize that democracy is much messier than this, but it is something to work toward. The welfare state need not be cumbersome…indeed, the US is unique in the world in the inefficient ways it implements a patchwork system. Canadian Philosopher and pop-economics writer Joseph Heath has said that the US government gets away with it because we don’t redistribute a whole heckuva lot of income…but as that enterprise grows, we’ll inevitably have to address our abhorrent inefficiency issues.
Addendum: Lane Kenworthy has also done some good work on the question of measuring poverty and material wellbeing, so check that out as well. Seems the real barrier to constructing a time series from this data is that it doesn’t go back far enough to create a reliable measure of wellbeing over time.