Thursday, December 01, 2005

Government Crutches

Redhurt led beautifully into my next point from the last post. I began by saying that I think that money is the basic unit of liberty in our country today. Barnabas and Jackscolon convinced me that perhaps money does not equal liberty, but I still believe that taking away money equates to taking away liberty, since money is the means by which we can exercise the liberties granted to us. This leads us to the problem of welfare -- is the Robin Hood policy an ethical one? Is it right for the government to take away some of my liberty to give it to others? Is it good or right to force everyone to move towards a more level playing field (note I do not believe we're any where close to level, but things like welfare move us in that direction)? Redhurt made the comment, "it is our responsibility as members of a society that affirms the necessity of liberty for all people to help provide it for those who momentarily are in need." I agree completely with this sentiment. But it leads us into a further avenue of discussion about the government and society in general.

Should the government enforce ethics? I believe that it is morally wrong to have an excess and not share with others that have a need. But is it really the place of the government to force me to be ethical? Furthermore, is a society worth preserving if the majority of its members are immoral and have to forced into morality by a higher power?

I believe there have been societies in which the majority of the people were interested in being responsible for the success of the society. People willingly contributed to society because they cared. I think the US right after the Revolution is an example of such a country. I think Iraq now is another example. When 80-90% of eligible voters actually vote it shows that people are interested in the country. They want their society to flourish and function well. They are willing to work and make personal sacrifices to that end. I believe that if poverty and unemployment were pressing problems in these societies that individuals will take it upon themselves to solve them without massive government intervention. When people are willing to sacrifice to make their societies work the government doesn't have to force morality.

When, on the other hand, you have to coerce people with sayings like "vote or die" and hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising and you still only get 40-50% voter turnout, the majority of the people in your country don't care. They lack a personal interest or investment in the country's function. Is this a society that should be supported and perpetuated? Is it good for the government to pick up the slack when the people fail? I don't think so. My personal belief is that we should work against this type of society and either it should change from within, which I favor, or it will be crushed from the outside. Eventually the majority of people won't voluntarily be responsible for any of the things we should as members of this society. Either the minority who care about the country will end up forcing the people around them to be moral or the minority with power will take over, since the average citizen is too disinterested to stop them. Right now, I believe, we are living in the fat transition time between a healthy society and societal downfall. We are an example of why, in my opinion, great countries that collapse usually do so relatively soon after the height of their material prosperity. People get comfortable and then they stop caring. Once a majority of the country is living well enough that they don't strive to improve their condition and are far enough removed from those who are suffering, the country as a whole becomes apathetic. Then society rots from within until someone pushes it over. We still have time to work to make our society healthy again before that happens -- we can rebuild from within instead of waiting for someone from outside to topple us.

In order to solve this problem we have to identify some of its causes. I already mentioned above that comfort often causes people to become apathetic. However, I don't think a good or ethical solution is to deprive everyone of comfort. That will just cause a cycle of working towards comfort, becoming apathetic, and needing to have comfort taken away again. So that's not a good solution. Instead we should focus on the other half of my above statement -- allowing people to be removed from other's suffering. I contend that many of the government programs currently in place actually aggravate the current situation. Here is my rationale:
I believe that most Americans are generally good people. They don't want others to have to live in poverty and they are even willing to make some sacrifices to help others. But they don't want to give away everything they have, they want to contribute some percentage -- they're not socialists. So they are picky about what they give their time and money to. And when it comes to domestic issues I think that we often say, "I already pay for welfare and other government programs through my taxes. I'm going to give where there is more need, the government will take care of these issues." I don't know about you, but I do this. I give money to foreign relief often, but I almost never give to any domestic foundation. Because the government has programs like welfare we become removed from the situation. We don't understand what needs there are, or the extent of the need. But more importantly, we no longer take responsibility and ownership for these issues. We let the problem fall onto the "government," and eventually we do this so much that we no longer feel any sort of ownership over our own society. In fact, it leads to resentment and frustration. We no longer see the needy as people, but instead they are leeches sucking away our tax money. We feel bitter about the fact that we are forced to pay for certain programs and so we stop contributing at all. We draw in on ourselves and away from the society in general. If we gave voluntarily, on the other hand, then we would take interest in the situation, we would take ownership over the problem, and we would care about being a healthy part of our society. People take interest in what they invest in. I think the problem goes back to FDR and the Depression. Before that time the country had gotten by -- not necessarily as well as it should have -- with voluntary support for the poor. At least for the most part. But the Depression was an extraordinary historical circumstance in which the majority of the people didn't have the means to help anyone else. And in that case we needed the government to step in. I don't know if any of FDR's programs really helped the problem that much, I tend to think WWII had a lot more to do with breaking the recession, but that's irrelevant. The programs in question were necessary for a time but should have been dropped when the extraordinary circumstance was past. And supposedly that was FDR's plan, and I hope he would have stuck to it if he had lived. However, these programs continued and grew to the monsters they are today. Over 50 years our society has let the government separate us more and more from the needs in the country and we have given ownership for the society largely to the government, rather than the people. That's why we have so many people today wanting the government to regulate morality. And it is. And if people don't start taking responsibility for their own actions and taking ownership over our society, the government is going to keep growing until it bursts. And that will either be a complete dissolution of the US, like Rome after 410, or subjugation to an oppressive government. And either way its a bad thing.

So this leaves us with a great deal of questions to discuss. Maybe too many for one post, but here they are, in summary:
1. Is it ever right for the government to regulate ethics?
2. Is a society in which the majority is irresponsible worth maintaining? Is it right and/or good to have the government grow to fill the void of personal responsibility?
3. What causes this lack of responsibility? Can things ever really be different?
4. Is the current state of our society really a problem? If so, how serious of a problem is it?
5. What can we do to change things?

My final synopsis is this: Is it good for us to help out the needy? Yes. Should we be forced to do so by the government? No. If the average person doesn't want to help, what should we do? I don't know. Do people, in general want to help? I think so. Why don't they? Because the last 50 years have driven us so far inward that we have given responsibility to the government. If the government wasn't helping would people start? I hope so. Should the government just drop these programs right now? No, our society needs to heal over time. Dropping everything now would be disastrous. But we need to start working now towards a time when these government programs aren't needed. We need to start teaching people to take responsibility. And the government needs to gradually give our society back to us.

17 comments:

CharlesPeirce said...

First of all, let me say that your last two posts have been great. Thanks for wrestling with these issues and for all the insights you've provided.

Now, let's get down to business.

I don't know what the best way to order my thoughts on this post would be, so I'm just going to write them down as they come to me. I'll number them, both to (21) infuriate redhurt and so that (Q'67.4) anyone can refer to my specific points in their responses.

(1) I think we need to talk about taxes again. I know you read and agreed (mostly) with the post in which I argued that how much of your taxes came back to you was a function of what you did for a living and not how much money you made, but I want to reemphasize a couple of those points. The United States has the most fluid and dynamic economy ever. Unlike, say, the USSR between 1945 and 1989, we get a lot of mileage out of each of our dollars. The conservative view of taxation, services and government programs is something like an argument with one premise and two conclusions:

P: Tax money is not used as effectively, efficiently and ethically as it could be.
C1: Therefore, tax money is wasted.
C2: Therefore, the government should let us keep more of our money.

I grant the premise and the 2nd conclusion across the board, but I only grant the 1st conclusion in certain cases. The system we have right now is not one of waste--it's one of redistribution AND waste. Take social security, for example. We pay 6.2% of our incomes towards SS and our employers match that with another 6.2%. This is sent off to the Social Security Agency and then redistributed to the elderly and disabled. Well, if you're running a retirement home, or if you work for a pharmaceutical company, or if you own a grocery store, Social Security is GREAT for you, because the elderly spend a high percentage of their disposable income on goods and services, especially groceries and drugs. So could we come up with a better system than SS? Definitely--it's a pyramid scheme that was poorly designed, and doesn't work unless a society's population is growing quickly the way it was in the 1950s and 1960s in America. But does that mean SS money is "wasted"? I don't think so, though I'm open to discussions of how badly money has to be used before we say it's wasted.

(2) When you say "should the government enforce ethics," I think you're largely talking about taking care of other people in need, and not the other things that the goverment forces us to do, like go to school until we're 16, or register for the select services, or arrest us and put us in prison if we murder. If we included those things and made the question as broad as possible we can't find any principles: the answer is "yes, in some cases, and no in other cases." Now, to the very specific question of whether amounts of money should be taken out of our paychecks and given to people who aren't working? I think yes, but I think we could do a much better job than the way our current welfare system works.

(3) I really think your fears about the US dissolving, or being taken over, or rotting from within, or turning socialist, are unfounded. Take England as an example. They ran the world during the 19th century but gradually lost their empire. Now they're a standard Western democracy with problems, but they're not about to "fall." There just is NO analogy between Rome in 409 and the US in 2005. None. An Islamic terrorist is NOT like a Vandal or a Goth or a Celt.

(4) The majority of our tax money is spent on the military and military-related things--does that bother you at all? It bothers me--I don't want the Pentagon to get as much money as it does. I don't want to make as many weapons as we do. BUT, and see point (1), reducing the Pentagon's budget would take away the money and livelihoods of defense contractors.

(5) "Over [the last] 50 years our society has let the government separate us more and more from the needs in the country and we have given ownership for the society largely to the government, rather than the people."

I think that's an overstatement. I think people in America in 2005 have the most control over their houses, property, actions, businesses, and time as any group of people in history. Get specific if you want to--what do you want to see back in the hands of the people? Charity? Weapons? Education? Do you want to dissolve the Bureau of Labor Statistics? The Bureau of the Census? The DMV? The Department of Homeland Security? barnabas18 wants education to be a private affair--do you agree? Should we make more things state and local, like police, than federal?

In conclusion I'll answer your questions.

1. Is it ever right for the government to regulate ethics?

Sometimes yes; sometimes no.

2. Is a society in which the majority is irresponsible worth maintaining? Is it right and/or good to have the government grow to fill the void of personal responsibility?

Yes; no.

3. What causes this lack of responsibility? Can things ever really be different?

Lots of reasons. Yes.

4. Is the current state of our society really a problem? If so, how serious of a problem is it?

Yes; reasonably serious.

5. What can we do to change things?

Vote Democratic, volunteer, blog.

J. Morgan Caler said...

StandingoutintheCold:

“This leads us to the problem of welfare -- is the Robin Hood policy an ethical one? Is it right for the government to take away some of my liberty to give it to others? Is it good or right to force everyone to move towards a more level playing field (note I do not believe we're any where close to level, but things like welfare move us in that direction)?”

Two things that I want to point out:

a) The state is intimately involved in both the creation of wealth and in providing the means for the citizenry to possess a portion of that wealth. In other words, the state is not a neutral agent in providing you with your liberty. That said, why should the state be a neutral agent in providing the underclass with some of their liberty?

b) A state cannot exist and a society cannot function when liberty (or freedom or “rights”) is severed from citizenship (or duty or “responsibility”). As a member of a society, you are granted rights only because you fulfill certain among human responsibilities and vice versa. Freedom is not and cannot be absolute in a society. As such, the government is not depriving you of anything; they are exacting a fee for granting you freedom if you want to think about it materially.

“Should the government enforce ethics? I believe that it is morally wrong to have an excess and not share with others that have a need. But is it really the place of the government to force me to be ethical? Furthermore, is a society worth preserving if the majority of its members are immoral and have to forced into morality by a higher power?”

Libertarians tend to think that the rule of law or the expectation of citizenship is a matter of enforcement. In fact, in our current state, it operates very much that way. The truth is, however, that the rule of law and the demands the state and society place on its members is to create ethical citizens, not to rein in unethical ones. In a Republic, state-craft cannot happen without soul-craft (See Plato for more). Look, there has never been a society in which the individuals that compose it have not been “forced into morality by a higher power.” That is the point of society! Human society is a damned mess, but humans detatched from society (what the Romans knew as barbarians) are even worse. Libertarians (and the libertarian forms, to use Durkheim’s concept, that runs through most American today), in my view, are the most complete barbarians in human history.

“I believe there have been societies in which the majority of the people were interested in being responsible for the success of the society. People willingly contributed to society because they cared.”

I don’t think that is true at all. I think that many societies in the past utilized law and culture effectively so as to form its citizens, but apart from that, I don’t think your comment stands. In other words, Colonial Americans weren’t ethical and interested because they were good people; they were ethical and interested because they were well formed by British society. The British government made possible the loss of their colonies by taking excellent care of the minds and hearts of their citizens.

“They lack a personal interest or investment in the country's function. Is this a society that should be supported and perpetuated? Is it good for the government to pick up the slack when the people fail? I don't think so.”

I think that the lack of personal interest or investment is because they are functional Libertarians (even if they are Left-wing radicals). Americans talk about freedom like it is a given, and insodoing, they fail to recognize that it has a cost, namely citizenship. As a citizen, you are bound to perform certain duties and be certain ways. As for your view of the government, I think you are just wrong here. I think the whole point of a society and the institutions that make it up (one of which is the government) is exactly what you dismiss: picking up the slack when people fail.

So, now to your questions:

a) Is it ever right for the government to regulate ethics?

I have already given my opinion on that: I not only think it is right, but necessary and definitional for a society and its government so to do.

b) Is a society in which the majority is irresponsible worth maintaining? Is it right and/or good to have the government grow to fill the void of personal responsibility?

Again, that is in my view (and in the view of the Greeks, the Romans, the Christians, the English, and pretty much everybody else) exactly the point of society and its government.

c) What causes this lack of responsibility? Can things ever really be different?

Sin. No.

d) Is the current state of our society really a problem? If so, how serious of a problem is it?

It is so much of a problem that some among its members equate something so crass as money with liberty and then further resent the duties that come with such liberty. It’s huge, but not for the reasons you think.

e) What can we do to change things?

Instill virtue. Never separate, in our minds, action, or speech, rights and responsibilities; freedoms and duties. Be good citizens. Be prepared for the damned mess that will ensure, but take solace in the knowledge that it will be better than our current damned mess.

StandingOutInTheCold said...

J. Morgan I agree completely with this statement: "Instill virtue. Never separate, in our minds, action, or speech, rights and responsibilities; freedoms and duties. Be good citizens." But how can we do these things? Furthermore, do you think that when the government does all of our virtuous work for us that it makes it easier for people to live unvirtuous lives? I'm not saying that we shouldn't do any of the things that you think we ought to as a society. I'm saying that we all ought to do them ourselves instead of complacently assuming that the government will do them for us. If the government is going to force us to be a virtuous society I think it should actually force us to be ethical (mandatory community service or something that is actually hands-on). I don't think this would go over well with anyone, but at least then we'd be learning to be virtuous rather than giving money so that other people can do our virtuous acts for us. Finally, I'd like to hear your response to my last post, since you imply that it's premise shows the height of decay within our society. I'm open to the idea that its wrong, but I'd like to hear some reasons why.

RedHurt said...

damn, and I thought that post was long: look at these comments! I'll maybe post a reply in an hour.

StandingOutInTheCold said...

Charles, I don't have much time right now so I'm only going to respond to one part of what you said. When speaking about "ownership" over our society I mean the level of involvement the average person has in making our society work. Right now I think that most people take care of themselves (their property, their money) and leave everyone else to do the same. They have a very low level of involvement in the functioning of the society at large, and don't realize how much they need it to support their little islands, and therefore have very little interest in everyone else. I don't have any specifics off the top of my head, but I'll think about it. One inspiration for this post was to generate ideas for how we can get people more interested and involved.

I think its interesting how different J Morgan's response to the specific questions is from yours. Typically we see the two of you taking a similar stance on social and government issues, but in this case you answered most of the questions differently. I'm interested to see what some of the more right-leaning have to say.

RedHurt said...

ok, not quite an hour.

It's interesting to me that you're saying the same things I was just after I'd finished reading "The Fountainhead." I think you should pick up some Rand if you want to wrestle with these ideas a little bit more and see good examples of how individuals might live them out, although you should take care not to get too lost in her miasma of selfishness.

I see a persons rights and their responsibilities as being entirely separated. As an individual, you have the right to absolute freedom - freedom to contribute, freedom to discuss, freedom to do or not do whatever it is you so desire.

The principal of taxation for "ethical" institutions like welfare does not infringe on this sort of taxation. As an individual condemned with absolute freedom, you have the freedom not to pay your taxes, not to participate in welfare.

Society is not based on freedom explicitly. Freedom and individualism are certainly ideals in the American system, but our society is based on a principal of civic duty and personal responsibility, much like the English, Romans, Greeks, and whathaveyou. Our society affirms the responsibility of its members to preserve one another’s personal liberty and human dignity by the formation of our government. One of the ways our government does this is to offer assistance to the poor, in the form of welfare.

Coercion towards altruism is indeed immoral, but that is not what our society does. Our government simply says that if you want to be part of our society, if you want to buy and sell things and receive the money our society uses, then you've got to accept a certain amount of personal responsibility in preserving it. The system that we have set up for preserving our society includes government welfare. If you do not wish to behave ethically, you are free to remove yourself from our society.

As in my comments you last post, I'm not saying that our system isn't in need of huge reform - only that the philosophical basis for welfare enforced by government stands.

I agree then with the conclusions drawn up by Charles and J. Morgan, but have to insist that liberty and stewardship are entirely separate entities. Society cannot function well without both working hand in hand. Libertarians are then only barbaric in their definition as people outside of society - it's rather uncivilized to slander them unequivocally with the full denotation of the phrase.

RedHurt said...

Now, to specifically answer your questions, since you took the time to post them:

1. Is it ever right for the government to regulate ethics?

Do you mean enforce? Yes - it must be done, or there is no government. Think about if the government enforced no ethics or moral values. What would police do?

2. Is a society in which the majority is irresponsible worth maintaining? Is it right and/or good to have the government grow to fill the void of personal responsibility?

No. But just because people use our welfare system doesn't mean that they're irresponsible or that the government has taken over personal liberty. The system needs improving, but it doesn't represent the downfall of western civilization.

3. What causes this lack of responsibility? Can things ever really be different?

In the ultimate sense, no - it's sin, as j. morgan said, and it'll always be here. More specifically, I see the problem as being largely founded in a lack of community. When good people know each other, they feel connected and personally responsible for their communities. Improve communication and connection in your community and you'll improve society.

4. Is the current state of our society really a problem? If so, how serious of a problem is it?

Yes. It's quite serious.

5. What can we do to change things?

Affect society from the ground layer up and inspire others to do so also. Promote civic responsibility through increased community - get people to know each other and they'll feel more responsible for each other. Teach, volunteer, run for office, meet your neighbors, talk to strangers (where appropriate.) Act as if society is your personal responsibility to uphold by living virtuously and being involved in the life of your community.

J. Morgan Caler said...

StandingOutInTheCold:

“J. Morgan I agree completely with this statement: "Instill virtue. Never separate, in our minds, action, or speech, rights and responsibilities; freedoms and duties. Be good citizens." But how can we do these things?”

Tough question. First, I would say that we need to stop thinking about “the government” as one thing and the Church, schools, family, economy, The Knights of Columbus, and 4H as another thing. They are all social institutions. They are all there for roughly the same purpose (basically what I tried out outline in my first comment). So, it is not the government’s job to do this; it is society’s job to do this. It requires a consorted effort from all institutions in society working towards this goal. It is not an individual endeavor and it is not a government program; it is a consistent cultural presentation of citizenship from all institutions.

“Furthermore, do you think that when the government does all of our virtuous work for us that it makes it easier for people to live unvirtuous lives?”

Yes, but the alternative isn’t the individualistic, “just me and my boot straps” model that is so popular with Neo-Cons and Libertarians. That is preposterous and doomed to fail (see my comments on barbarians).

“I'm not saying that we shouldn't do any of the things that you think we ought to as a society. I'm saying that we all ought to do them ourselves instead of complacently assuming that the government will do them for us.”

Again, I don’t think it should be us doing them ourselves, but all of us doing them together with institutional support.

“If the government is going to force us to be a virtuous society I think it should actually force us to be ethical (mandatory community service or something that is actually hands-on). I don't think this would go over well with anyone, but at least then we'd be learning to be virtuous rather than giving money so that other people can do our virtuous acts for us.”

Once it is forced, it ceases to be virtue. We don’t want to force or coerce anyone to do anything; we want to make space for institutions to form people such that they are virtuous and don’t need coercion. We further want their virtue to be supported by the institutions that instilled it.

“Finally, I'd like to hear your response to my last post, since you imply that it's premise shows the height of decay within our society. I'm open to the idea that its wrong, but I'd like to hear some reasons why.”

You will latter. I will try to write something about that this afternoon or tomorrow.

StandingOutInTheCold said...

J Morgan, once again I completely agree with most of what you are saying. Specifically this quote "Once it is forced, it ceases to be virtue. We don’t want to force or coerce anyone to do anything; we want to make space for institutions to form people such that they are virtuous and don’t need coercion. We further want their virtue to be supported by the institutions that instilled it." This is exactly what I want. I just don't think that the way we are doing things now does that at all.

The reason that I see the government as different than other social institutions is because the government can force us to do things and it is very hard for us to change the way the government does things today. The government is like a huge black box and once something gets taken out of direct control of the people and into the government box we usually lose all say in how it works. We have to trust that that the government will handle things correctly, and if it doesn't it takes huge amounts of time and money to get things back on track. When things are controlled in a way that we can have direct access it is more likely that they will behave the way we want. I do not believe that the government knows whats best for me or society more often than I do, and therefore I distrust government control of anything. Obviously there are many things the government has to control. But I don't want to give them more than we need to.

J. Morgan Caler said...

My reasoning pertaining to my comments on money in this thread can be found in my comment on the previous thread.

Cowboyjake said...

in order for the government to enforce ethics, the electorate must first elect ethical government..it is within the realm of possibility for that to happen...however, I have yet to see it in actual practice...

Barnabas18 said...

I do not have a ton of time tonight, but I first want to take issue with one thing that was said by J. Morgan, before making a few superficial comments about the topic at hand.

"I would say that we need to stop thinking about “the government” as one thing and the Church, schools, family, economy, The Knights of Columbus, and 4H as another thing. They are all social institutions."

Are you saying then, that the government fulfills the same function as these other institutions? Historically and biblically, Christians have seen the church, the state, and the family as having completely different spheres of influence. I know Protestants call it Sphere Sovereignty, and Catholics have an even catchier name for it. Thus, I think saying that they are all "social institutions" is a true statement, but clearly we need to look at them as separate and distinct. Society always gets in trouble when it either blurs them together (church and state for example), or when one tries to do the job of the other.

Now, onto the post...

I do think that welfare is coercive and immoral. I'd like to refer to Charles' comments some...

1) Taxes can be wasted. Though you are correct that they still are part of the economy, if the redistribution of money destroys wealth (which it does because it doesn't create any), then it is wasted.

3) I think the comparison to Rome is perfectly valid. While our enemies aren't coming in the same form, the economic problems we have are somewhat analagous to theirs. This is a nuanced historical argument, and I'm actually considering blogging on the comparisons between Rome and America very soon.

4) I'd like some evidence that the majority of tax money is used for our military. I'm not sure that is a true statement, but even if it is, why is this a bad thing? The government's constitutional mandate is to protect person and property - a strong defense and a judicial mechanism are proper uses of tax money.

5) Perhaps most importantly, I do think that taking things out of the hands of the government is a good thing. Heck, I say privatize everything. I'd start with schools and the post office.

One argument of my own:

An economic system that creates wealth is its own welfare. People think that in capitalism that some people get left behind... the "have-nots." I simply believe that this is untrue. Living in poverty in America is very different than living in poverty somewhere else. You can beg for money in America more effectively than people can work for money in many countries, based solely on the existence of wealth here. As wealth is created, we pick those in need up by creating jobs... think of the thousands of McDonalds in America. Coercive taxes destroy wealth, and thus put more people in a position of poverty. Look at any Socialist country (all of Europe) and realize that their poverty rates are rapidly increasing, and that happens to coincide with double digit percentage of unemployment. Why is this happening? Burdensome taxes.

J. Morgan Caler said...

Barnabas:

Some justification for some pretty serious claims may be in order.

In the meantime, what do you make of this

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guilded_Age

in light of your comment:

“An economic system that creates wealth is its own welfare. People think that in capitalism that some people get left behind... the "have-nots." I simply believe that this is untrue.”

Barnabas18 said...

I stand by my claim. The industrial revolution was a transition-phase for our country, and there were difficulties included. That doesn't change the fact that as we have become wealthier, we have less and less people in poverty, and have perhaps the least poverty per capita of any country in the world.

One More Transience said...

holy shit. holy holy shit guys. holy shit.

Jackscolon said...

"That doesn't change the fact that as we have become wealthier, we have less and less people in poverty"

I think the more important point is that as America as grown economically over the last two hundred years, the standard of living for the poor has continually increased. I'd much rather be poor now than at any other point in history, except maybe for Lord of the Rings time- because I hear Gondor had a kickass welfare system.

J. Morgan Caler said...

So here is the thing; Jackscolon notes, rightly I think, that “as America as grown economically over the last two hundred years, the standard of living for the poor has continually increased.” Put more crassly (and perhaps inhumanely), Barnabas writes, “You can beg for money in America more effectively than people can work for money in many countries, based solely on the existence of wealth here.”

Neither of these points, taken simply as factual statements unfettered with moral claims, is contested here. What is contested is the moral implication that, since this is the case, our current system is okay for everyone.

In response to Jackscolon’s remark, I would note that while the standard of living has increased for all in America in the last 200 years, socioeconomic stratification has also. So, we aren’t just interested in the absolute standard of living, but also the relative standard of living. Democratic Republics don’t function well when gross inequality is the rule, not the exception. Gross inequality is the rule right now. Here is the thing: the economy and the processes of democracy aren’t separate things. The economic order has to reflect the political order for democracies to function. So, purely economic, market-based understandings of how we should distribute (or not distribute) money is our society fails immediately. Rather, we need to understand that the way money is distributed in society needs to be a social process governed by ethical commitments and fundamental political orientations, not market forces.

In response to Barnabas’s remark, I think you have missed the point. It isn’t that one could beg successfully in America, it is that the existence of beggars fundamentally undermines democracy. Beggars don’t make good citizens. So, we don’t want beggars, even if that “hurts the economy.” See, you are using the wrong metric. The way we think about money and the economy should reflect moral, ethical, political, social, and citizenly thinking, not market thinking. What you propose, if one is thinking rightly, “hurts the economy,” even if it creates more absolute wealth. Once you get the right priorities and the right framework by which to judge a good economy, then social welfare becomes a pretty good (although pretty flawed) idea.