The purpose of this post is to emphasize a problem in our thinking about social safety nets that I believe is often ignored. Virtually all non-libertarians, and even most minimal state libertarian philosophers, will endorse the following: “If a state social welfare program, funded by coercive taxation, is both a necessary and sufficient means of preventing grave harm to the welfare of innocent persons, its implementation is morally justified” (“Proposition #1”).
But note that this conclusion inhabits the realm of ideal theory, i.e. an abstract moral proposition that need not come to grips with any potential costs or problems of implementation. By its nature, Proposition #1 does not have to take into account issues of institutional design/competence, political pressures that might push well-intentioned policies off course, or other problems identified by public choice theorists. Thus, support for Proposition #1 does not commit us to endorsing Proposition #2: “Whenever, in the absence of state intervention, grave harm will occur to the welfare of innocent persons in the United States (or other liberal democracies), the government should intervene to ameliorate this harm.”
There are at least two reasons why, in the real world, we might endorse Proposition #1, while rejecting #2. First, it is entirely possible that the contemplated program will not work as planned, and may not only waste scarce resources, but might actually worsen the position of the intended beneficiaries or their offspring. I don’t believe that this is at all a fanciful idea. As President Clinton said upon signing the Welfare Reform Act of 1996: “A long time ago I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic value of work, responsibility, and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency and hurting the very people it was designed to help.” I regard it as an open question whether the new and improved welfare system does much better, but I will leave this discussion for another day.
Putting this issue aside, there is an even more intractable difficulty encountered in moving from Proposition #1 to #2, which might be described as the problem of inescapable “mission creep.” In other words, it may be the case that any state that establishes an effective welfare program (“W”) for a particular needy group will, as a result of the factors cited in my second paragraph, also undertake programs X, Y and Z, which in the aggregate will (in the long run) harm not just the people served by W, but society at large. I believe this is a quite realistic scenario.
Until recently, Greece was a modern, first world society, with the (usual) wide range of welfare and entitlement programs. This governmental largess was funded largely by foreign borrowing, and as soon as Greece maxed out its credit card, terrible consequences ensued. Incredibly, the unemployment rate is now 27% overall, with youth unemployment standing at an appalling 61.7%. Since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, the Greek economy, as measured by GDP, has shrunk a depressing 20%, and is expected to contract by an additional 4% this year. See http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/14/greece-gdp-idUSL5N0BE8FH20130214.
There is no end in sight to this economic meltdown. Many thousands of young Greeks with marketable skills have fled the country, and thousands more will follow, taking with them the very talents needed to reverse their country’s decline. Those left behind are not getting paid, strikes and lawlessness are endemic, and basic services are breaking down. It is no exaggeration to say that the very fabric of civilization is unraveling before our eyes: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/on-the-streets-of-athens-if-things-get-any-worse-i-wont-be-able-to-survive-7282729.html.
If a large portion of formerly middle class Greeks are facing dire poverty, what will become of the most vulnerable members of society, i.e. the disabled, the old and infirm, those with no marketable skills, etc? Will the welfare state really benefit them in the long run, or would they have done better under unfettered free markets? Is Greece simply a “one-off” or is it just further down the road to serfdom that all states with this social model are destined to travel?
Well, I have my suspicions, but no conclusive arguments for them. But, equally, those inclined to endorse Proposition #2 cannot simply assume these questions away, and that given their complexity, and the history that is rapidly unfolding before us, convincing answer are hard to come by. Those who support social safety nets, funded by nonconsensual taxation, should be prepared to make their case. In the absence of persuasive evidence, those of us who highly disvalue governmental coercion, will resist.