Rescuing the Welfare State?

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It is very tempting to shout out: We told you so! REASON has for a decade been emphasizing and insisting that, in support of a free society, arguments in terms of values—normative arguments—are essential. We've never said that's the only kind of argument needed. Various economic, historical, psychological, and related analyses also can and must be marshaled in defense of individual liberty, and we've done our share of marshaling. But we've also made the point often—perhaps too often for some of our readers but clearly not often enough, or maybe effectively enough, for others—that on the intellectual level it must be shown that the free society is right, morally right, and its antagonists, wrong, morally wrong—right and wrong in terms of what human beings can and ought to do with their lives. The free society is the morally superior political system, and that is why it deserves vigilant support from everyone.

In particular, we have stressed that deregulatory efforts, a species of the general effort to dismantle the growing and increasingly authoritarian welfare state, will not be intellectually successful, nor bear practical fruit, without a steady dose of consideration of values. To date most economist friends of the free society have proceeded with scant attention to, even disdain toward, this vital issue. The motivation has no doubt been the desire to protect the scientific character of economics.

In fact, however, science is not at all threatened when normative aspects of the discussion are given their proper due—contrary to fears often voiced (in private) by free-market economists. What is opposed by such an emphasis, of course, is the unscientific belief that economics by itself has a monopoly on problem-solving prospects in human social affairs. This belief is frequently expressed by claiming that, whereas economics is a science, ethics and normative politics must be mere "religions." For example, recently one well-known economist of the empirical/positive school of economics reportedly consigned all natural-rights talk to religion! (This is ironic, indeed, for modern natural-rights and virtually all natural-law theorizing have often been chided precisely for being all too secular in emphasis.)

Defenders of the welfare state, on the other hand, are far from blind to the indispensable role of normative arguments when it comes to proposing government programs. And with many people coming around, however grudgingly, to acknowledging that government regulation is economically inefficient, the intellectual guardians of our welfare state apparently feel called upon to remind the liberal faithful of the normative issues involved. In several recent issues of The New Republic, for example, writers have risen to the defense of welfare statism with reference to precepts of justice, fairness, kindness, and the like.

In "Defending the Welfare State" (TNR, Mar. 10, 1979), Prof. Glen Tinder of the University of Massachusetts, conceding the economic arguments against regulation, issues to liberals a call to arms. All is not lost, he reassures; the welfare state just needs "rethinking"—a process that "can conveniently begin with standards of justice and kindness." The economists' demonstrations that the welfare state leads to loss of wealth and welfare is to be met with the normative position that "consequences do not count, at least not decisively."

Likewise, Prof. Steven Kelman of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government offers hope to liberals if they turn from the economic to the moral issues. He addresses himself to deregulatory efforts in particular in two TNR pieces, "Regulation That Works" (Nov. 25, 1978) and a review of John Mendeloff's Regulating Safety (Mar. 24, 1979). These are both excellent from the point of view of coming to grips with just what is at stake in trying to understand a political system and recommended changes of it. Neither Tinder nor Kelman even attempts to prove the moral premises used in support of welfare statism—quite understandably. The New Republic and similar magazines aren't places to carry out philosophical discussions. Any attempt to do this, moreover, would expose just how indefensible, by any rational standard, is the altruistic moral position they assume.

Nevertheless, Tinder and Kelman are probably aware that they are writing in a culture in which altruism—the view that everyone's first obligation is to do well for others—is widely accepted by both the left and the right. For polemical purposes, therefore, the welfare state's moral underpinnings require no supporting argumentation. Moreover, economic cost-benefit analyses, which are so effective at showing the inefficiency of welfare-state policies, nevertheless offer no explicit challenge to the altruism underlying the welfare state. If anything, there is a sort of affinity between cost-benefit analysis and political altruism, since both focus on overall benefits rather than what happens to individuals.

The main point of consideration between normative defenders of the welfare state and cost-benefit analysts who find the system deficient is this: Should public policy involve a concern with justice, rights, equity, and other moral aspects of human life, or should it be dealt with as if the question "How ought we to act?" were quite meaningless? But if we, opponents of governmental paternalism, deny the importance of values, we leave the welfare statists with a very powerful weapon—an unexamined and rarely challenged answer to that question, which is in fact of concern to people. With the moral aspects of human social life cast predominantly in altruistic terms today, failure to challenge welfare statism at this level plays into the hands of its defenders.

And this is tragic. Altruism has nothing to give it intellectual support from a rational point of view (which is not to say that generosity, kindness, and charity aren't valuable aspects of human social life; it's just that these are by no means primary moral virtues). Altruism's weakness, however, will remain a well-kept and most destructive secret unless the approach we have stressed for a decade—careful examination of the moral bases of the free society—is introduced into the public discussion of which way our political system should be heading.

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