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The Social Cost of Benefits

May 30th, 2006 · 7 Comments

In response to immigration minimalists who worry about the stress influxes of poor immigrants put on social programs, libertarians are fond of responding that the problem, then, is with the programs and not the immigrants. In the May issue of the Atlantic, Clive Crook makes the point with the emphasis shifted slightly (subsc.):

On the face of it, America’s welfare system is harsher and less hospitable than Europe’s, something that many liberals lament. But in this respect, at least, that appearance is misleading. The unintended consequences of Europe’s milder regime are not just a looming fiscal collapse but also, in the meantime, intensifying and plainly self-destructive anti-immigrant sentiment. America’s harsher insistence on work is not just economically advantageous (which is self-evident) but socially beneficial as well (which some may find surprising).

We can generalize the point pretty easily if we consider some other, equally familiar cases where the provision of a public benefit opens the door to regulation. If the government is picking up the tab for healthcare, then suddenly someone else’s decision to smoke or eat fatty foods or use drugs or have risky sex affects me in a way it didn’t before. When people no longer see those things as “self-regarding acts,” they come to see those behaviors as fit subjects of regulation. (Many of those people, I suspect, would also be willing to grant that people do have a right to do genuinely self-regarding acts unmolested… which places them in the odd position of believing in a class of rights that can be, in effect, unilaterally revoked by the provision of a benefit. ) And while presumably people already care to some extent what kind of cultural practices and poltiical attitudes their neighbors hold, that question becomes more pressing the more things are determined by public vote.

Now, people who favor extensive systems of public benefits tend also to be folks who favor a more pluralistic, tolerant society. But, as Crook suggests, immigration seems to provide the strongest evidence that there’s a tension between those goals. People are aways going to be sufficiently interconnected that it’s hard to pin down anything we do as purely self regarding, but the more private actions incur public costs, the more attuned (and potentially resentful) we become to our neighbors and their actions. So there’s something for the proponents of generous benefit programs to at least consider: Are those programs actually fuelling hostility to immigrants or other groups? And is it possible that in at least some cases, even if we’re gauging exclusively by progressive standards, the tradeoff isn’t worth it? [Cross-posted @ Hit & Run]

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7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 theCoach // May 30, 2006 at 2:48 pm

    These are good points, and valid concerns for ‘progressives’. What I think you are missing is the sense that liberalism (in the American sense) is, or fundamentally is [allowing for some misguidedness] a pragmatic approach to acheiving certain goals or values. It really is agnostic about types of solutions, again allowing for some occasional misguidedness in devotees.
    Liberalism accepts that the world is complicated, and that there are many different forces in tension, and that they should be considered empirically with an eye towards liberalisms goals.
    We should allow that the available emprical evidence will sometimes be so incomplete that we will craft bad policies, but that we can learn from those mistakes as the new evidence comes in, and then make progress.
    So, it seems to me that you see this as a flaw in liberals philosophy, whereas I think it is an interesting data point, and interesting sociological effect that needs to be taken into consideration. At least that is how I see it.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // May 30, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    I think that’s all I was saying: Progressives tend to advocate certain means in furtherance of one kind of progressive goal, and here’s a way it might unintentionally be undermining a different progressive goal, and that’s worth bearing in mind.

  • 3 theCoach // May 30, 2006 at 3:10 pm

    I would also reject the sense in which you are using rights in:

    “people do have a right to do genuinely self-regarding acts unmolested”

    I find the term here misleading when traversing across libertarian and liberal philosophies (I think it works better for libertarians).
    My approach would be to say that all other things being equal, it will increase welfare to have the freedom to do genuinely self-regarding acts unmolested. But of course, in any system all things are not equal when adding an effect. So, as you suggest, you have to weigh the welfare added by the added freedom against other factors, but this is, and always was, part of the proper liberal framework.

  • 4 theCoach // May 30, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    Damn your fast on the response!

    Thanks for responding so quickly. That is good to see. I think there is a tendency for some libertarians ( think Hit & Run comment section ) to, say, label liberals as pro-Tax increase, when, philosophically, they are agnostic on the issue (but that where spending is unsustainable, and starve the beast does not work, in these circumstances we will need tax increases).
    I think liberals are beginning to slough off some off the misguidedness that accumulated since probably the late seventies, and re-establish the vision as the pragmatic pursuit of goals( I would add in secular, but I am not sure we are going there yet).
    I would argue that a pragmatic libertarian should be entirely welcome within the umbrella -they just have a different weighting of the value of freedom towards general happiness or welfare, and perhaps a different a priori stance on how effective regulation can be.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // May 30, 2006 at 4:10 pm

    The divide you’re talking about vis a vis a “right to self regarding acts” sounds utilitarian/deontic, not liberal/libertarian. For instance, the most famous liberal philosopher of the last century, John Rawls, famously advocated what he called “the priority of the right over the good,” and set up two principles of justice: The first required that citizens have the most extensive system of equal basic liberties, and the second was his more famous “difference principle,” requiring that social distributions maximize the position of the worst off. But the first principle had absolute priority over the second: You could not infringe the basic liberties of some people, even if this would somehow create large welfare gains for the worst off. Ronald Dworkin, another renowned liberal thinker, famously characterized rights as “trumps,” which could be invoked as a kind of veto over certain kinds of state action that would otherwise be permissible on the grounds that they improved net social welfare. Insofar as libertarians are still considered marginal, I’m actually a bit worried about people forming the impression that there’s something specially libertarian about theories that give a central place to robust individual rights. There isn’t, at all. (Make that “robust individual property rights and you’re on to something.) The way of thinking about rights we’re discussing has been absolutely central to a lot of liberal thought, even if other thinkers have tended in a more utilitarian direction.

  • 6 theCoach // May 31, 2006 at 9:30 am

    I was trying to argue that libertarians believe much more strongly in the absolute veto when affirming a right, and that it is more of a short cut for liberals.

    Generally, libertarians seem, and please correct me if I am wrong, to desire a platonic view of rights where they are principles floating above the complications of real life. But in reality, what we commonly refer to as rights conflict with each other – they have to be weighed against one another, so they are not really rights, as in having an absolute veto, or rights become a very limited number of things with lots of qualifiers.
    Take the right to free speech. It is not really a “right” in my view – i.e. something that has an absolute veto. It is a princilple that we have found makes for a better society, all other things being equal, so we elevate it to the status of right as a short cut for repeatedly making the argument that society will be better off with a general principle of freedom of speech.

    Thanks again for the informative response above, and I am almost assuredly making the mistake of jumping between my personal beliefs and liberals in general, so I apologize for how scattershot it is.

  • 7 Phil // May 31, 2006 at 10:57 am

    I guess, in theory, this concern about self-regarding acts like smoking, eating fatty foods, and engaging in risky sex makes sense. However, do you find that countries with larger, and milder welfare regimes engage in more government regulation of these behaviors than the United States or less?