Welfare and the Argument from Morality

In my last article on www.lewrockwell.com, I used the argument from morality to approach the problem of health care. Today I would like to show how it can be used to prove the immorality of welfare.

We’ll be as kind as possible and define welfare as the redistribution of money and resources from the rich to the poor, with the state as the enforcing agency. To simplify the math, we’ll say that there are three categories of people: those who make less than $10,000 per year, those who make between $10,000 and $20,000 per year, and those who make more than $20,000 per year. The welfare system in place is equally simple – those who make more than $20,000 per year are taxed to provide money to ‘top up’ those making less than $10,000 per year, to ensure they have at least $10k per year. Those making between 10k and 20k per year are left alone.

So one fine dinner party, you are sitting across from a lady who expresses admiration for this scheme. “Expecting any family to survive on less than ten thousand a year is inhuman,” she says. “We have a duty to help the less fortunate, and asking the rich to give up a little of their income is right and proper!”

Of course the first thing to do is point out that she is in fact damning the welfare system, since she is couching her approval of it in terms of charity and voluntarism. She is saying that ‘asking’ the rich to help the poor is moral – and so forcing them must be immoral, since it is the opposite action in ethical terms. Asking a woman to go on a date with me is not immoral – forcing her to is!

Thus this fine lady must clarify her terms and tell you that, in fact, she approves of using State violence to achieve her goals of helping the poor. You can then say, if you like, something along the lines of the following:

“Advocating the use of violence to achieve an end is a very serious business indeed, and is not a position that should be taken lightly. Once you decide that guns should decide matters between men, it is almost impossible to put them away. We know from history that giving the government power to use violence usually results in some form of dictatorship, and often the incarceration, starvation or murder of many millions. I am certainly not saying that you are advocating anything like that, but I’m sure that you will agree that governments do not always use their powers wisely or well.”

This lady will (perhaps grudgingly), agree that there is a grave risk in giving the government the power to use violence to achieve its ends – as there is in approving any use of violence other than pure self-defense.

The reason that I have added this wrinkle to the argument from morality is that it takes the discussion out of the academic world. Once everyone at the dinner table understands the terrible risks of advocating state violence, the importance of the subsequent discussion becomes much clearer (and, dare I say, more dramatic and interesting?).

Then, you can outline the proposed welfare state framework: every citizen has a right to a minimum income of $10,000 per year, which means that those making more than $20,000 per year must be forced to ‘top up’ the income of the poor man.

This welfare state thus contains three moral categories – those who are ‘owed’ money (Tribe A), those who are left alone (Tribe B), and those who ‘owe’ money (Tribe C). Those who inhabit those categories are subject to opposite moral rules – those in Tribe A have a moral right to the money of those in Tribe C. Those in Tribe C have a moral obligation to provide money to those in Tribe A, while in this scenario those in Tribe B have no specific rights or obligations at all.

Universal moral theories – like any scientific, mathematical or logical theories – must be absolute, consistent and independent of time – otherwise, they are mere subjective opinions. Certainly any moral absolutes that are to be enforced through state coercion must satisfy those criteria, since the legal power of the state is absolute, universal, consistent and independent of time! If we advocate irrational and contradictory moral laws, we will inevitably end up with an irrational and contradictory legal system, which is a central aspect of dictatorship.

The above example of a welfare scheme fails each of the tests of universality. The ‘right’ to a minimum income is not absolute, since it requires another person to fulfil it, and the same man can have that right one day, when he makes $9,999 per year, and not have that right the next day, when he gets a raise and now makes $10,001.

Also, the $10,000 cut off is somewhat subjective, since there is no objective way to measure $10,000. Inflation is a constant occurrence, and strikes different sectors to different degrees. Purchasing power varies depending on the goods being purchased, and the cost of living differs greatly depending on location. Thus $10,000 might be a decent income in a small town, but starvation wages in a large metropolis. Does the ‘minimum income’ then change from location to location and depending on inflation and sector-by-sector circumstances? Is it updated daily? Should it be posted on the Internet? What if the poor person is an economist? Can he then take money from the rich according to his own calculations?

Also, what if the income differential is a single solitary penny – does a man making $9,999.99 have the right to use violence to gain the penny he is owed from a woman making $20,000.01? What degree of violence is acceptable? Is murder allowed? For a penny? That seems somewhat indefensible – and thus the ‘welfare’ rule is not absolute. What degree of violence is allowed to recover what amount of money? It cannot be determined in advance, and so cannot be an absolute moral rule.

What about the man who gets a raise from $19,000 to $21,000 – at what point does he suddenly start owing the money? When he gets the raise? When he cashes his first check? What if his raise just allows his income to keep pace with inflation? What if his wife has just given birth to triplets? What if his mother has gotten sick and needs live in help? Also, if his raise occurs half-way through the year, does he have to pay for the whole year, or just six months?

What if a bad waiter making $10,000 per year suddenly starts becoming rude to his customers, and so loses $500 worth of tips – does he have an absolute right to have his rudeness subsidized by an polite waiter making $20,500?

Also, what about those who had lower taxes before this new welfare scheme was introduced? Is it fair that they got to accumulate all their assets prior to the imposition of the new taxes the welfare scheme requires? Since the moral rule of a ‘minimum income’ is a universal absolute, it must have been true for all time, not just for today and tomorrow. Those who didn’t pay their just dues in the past, then, were in fact stealing from the poor, since if the poor now have a right to the money of the wealthy, they have always had the right to said money. It cannot be moral or fair, then, that those who stole money from the poor in the past should now have their thefts subsidized by those who have to pay higher taxes in the present and future. What is to be done about this situation? Surely we must strip the unjustly-stolen property accumulated by the wealthy before we can even imagine taking money from a young man with no property taking home his first $21,000 paycheck!

At what age does a citizen suddenly have the right to his $10,000 per year? Eighteen? Well then please explain exactly what happens to that young man between 11:59pm and 12:00am on the night of his birthday! How can his moral rights change so much in one split second? Also, isn’t that a small but still unfair subsidy to those who were born early in the morning rather than late at night?

However, we don’t have to nit-pick the idea into atoms, since it will be as foolish and silly even if we grant its initial premises – so let’s wave our magic wand and dismiss all of the above objections. Even so, all we have done is establish that poor men have the right to the property of wealthier men – and that they have the right to use violence to collect on those debts.

And how would this work in practice? Well, if I have paid you for a sofa, and I come to collect it, and you attempt to stop me, I can use self-defense to protect myself and my property from your aggression, since I am the legal owner of the sofa. Under this moral theory, if I am a poor man, a portion of the ‘property’ of a richer men is in fact my property, and I can walk into his house and collect it – and if he attempts to stop me from picking up my property, I can use whatever force is necessary to protect myself! There is no need for any form of State intervention of any kind – all we need do is turn the poor loose in rich neighborhoods for justice to become manifest!

What? That isn’t a good idea? Why not? Do you feel that the poor may be themselves unjust, and take more of the property of the rich than they should? Do you feel that the rich may unjustly defend themselves against the poor? Do you feel that general mayhem and violent predation will result? Yes? Then why do you assume that the result will be any different from a government-run program?

Remember – the government is nothing but an aggregation of individuals – and so any moral judgment that you apply to individuals you also apply to those running the government! You think that people in a mob can lose their rational self-interest in a collective orgy of self-righteous greed? Yes? Well, if it is true for a gang rampaging through a rich man’s house, then it is equally true for politicians, bureaucrats and voters! If you believe that turning the poor loose to prey on the rich would result in blind chaos and violent mayhem, then draping that in a ‘government program’ will not change its moral reality or eventual outcome! In fact, using the violent power of the State it will make it worse, since government programs virtually eliminate the effort required to prey on the property of others. Emailing one’s congressman is far easier than rampaging through the streets of the rich – who might have iron gates, guard dogs, bodyguards and very different definitions of property rights!

And what about this – on balance, would you say that those on the rampage would be more likely, or less likely, to take property from those they knew were not at home? If more likely, then by golly you have recognized the basic fact that people prefer taking property from the defenseless. If you have grasped that, you already understand one of the greatest evils of government programs – that they always end up stealing from the unborn, in the forms of national debts, or liabilities like Medicaid/Medicare, or social security and other such predations on children.

And if armed gangs of looters worries you, then you are concerned about the problem of those taking property outnumbering those who trying to defend their property – but what, then, do you think happens in a democracy? The poor outnumber the rich – and politicians always pander to those with the most votes – and so what is the difference between looting gangs and looting voters?

What? You say that those who live in a rich neighborhood will take steps to protect themselves from the looting poor? And just how do you think that differs from a modern democracy? Do you think that complications in the tax codes benefit the rich, or the middle classes? Offshore accounts, trust funds, R&D tax credits, self-employment, state contracts, subsidies and preferential trade laws – are these the tools of the average salary slave? Do you not know that the rich hold up the middle classes as human shields for the poor to savage?

No, if you do not like the idea of the poor racing through the streets, breaking into houses and snatching what they think is theirs, then you have no right supporting state programs that grant all the mad profit of such crimes while removing all the risk. If you did not like what Baghdad looked like in 2003, or New Orleans in 2005, then take careful note – these are mirrors of what is actually occurring in our economy. And this is the world you inevitably bring into being when you support government programs.

Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (www.freedomainradio.com), the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a "Top 10" Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.

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May 2024

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