The Social Cost of Benefits

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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 @ NFTL]

NEXT: The Collapse of Reason

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  1. “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”

    This is a good point, but alas, people who favor extensive public benefits also seem to feel that extensive public regulations are an independent public good. The public benefits which are desirable reinforce the need for public regulations, which are also desirable. These two things together constitute Acting in the Public Interest.

    How does immigration fit? My read is that for neo Hobbesian reasons, the Public Interest folks also feel that border control is very necessary. You can only regulate yourself to Nirvana by carving out an island in the Hobbesian madness. Hence all the hand wringing about reducing our wages to theirs, reducing our regulatory structure to theirs, and so on.

  2. Does the enormous American incarceration rate have anything to do with the absence of a European-style social safety net? Putting so many people in prison is probably more costly than providing the welfare that might keep them from turning to crime. Having lived in both Europe (France and Italy) and the U.S., I find the overall quality of life much better in Europe. Maybe it’s a matter of taste.

  3. Very interesting questions.

    OT, Microsoft apostrophes make my browser cry.

    And the squirrels don’t seem to want to accept my comment.

  4. We just need to outlaw resentment against immigrants.

  5. Interesting perspective. One of the major reasons for opposing collectivism in any form is the resentment it causes among the population. Collectivism’s basic philosophy can be summed up as, “Let’s all be one big happy family and share the wealth.” The above perspective highlights the fact that that philosophy is self-defeating when others try to join the family (i.e. diluting the wealth).

  6. I would add that the US insistence on work is one big reason immigrants assimilate better here than in Europe. For starters, they’re too busy working to get into much trouble.

  7. Evan:

    You are right about youth unemployment in Europe. But if you suddently released all the youths serving time in U.S prisons, the U.S. would have an even higher youth unemployment rate. Whatever you think of American drug laws, they do keep the unemployment rate down. The question is whether having such a large portion of the population in prison is worth the benefit. I doubt many French or Italian unemployed youths would want to trade places with an American youth serving time in even the finest American prison. I hear the cuisine leaves much to be desired.

  8. Whatever you think of American drug laws, they do keep the unemployment rate down.

    This assumes that drug users are generally unemployed and further unemployable in general – you’re not making much sense…

  9. Thank you very little Ermenegildo for turning this into an US vs EU thread.

  10. This article in the Christian Science Monitor is worth reading.

    http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0818/p02s01-usju.html

    US notches world’s highest incarceration rate

    A report highlights extent to which many citizens have served time in prison.

    By Gail Russell Chaddock | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

    WASHINGTON ? More than 5.6 million Americans are in prison or have served time there, according to a new report by the Justice Department released Sunday. That’s 1 in 37 adults living in the United States, the highest incarceration level in the world.
    It’s the first time the US government has released estimates of the extent of imprisonment, and the report’s statistics have broad implications for everything from state fiscal crises to how other nations view the American experience.

  11. By the way, prisons are very collectivist institutions. One in 37 Americans is living in much harsher collectivist circumstances than the vast majority of Europeans.

  12. But if you suddently released all the youths serving time in U.S prisons, the U.S. would have an even higher youth unemployment rate.

    The incarceration rate for males aged 20-24 is under 4 percent. Not nearly enough to make up the difference between US and EU youth unemployment rates.

  13. Hey Erm.!

    how long did you live there (IT/FRA)?

    how good is your language – university? or getting on socially? as someone who’s interested in languages, i’d be psyched to hear your take on existing in two other languages!

    that must have been a great experience!

    cheers,
    VM

  14. Rich Ard:

    Try hard to think of what five million more people competeing for jobs would mean. Now does it make sense?

  15. VM

    Ho abitato quasi cinque anni in Italia e due in Francia. Parlo italiano meglio, ma come sai, anche il francese e’ una lingua latina, dunque l’ho imparata senza difficolta’.Capisci?

  16. According to this, there are about 7 million unemployed workers in the US. According to this, there were about 2.1 million in jail in 2005.

    So I guess it does affect unemployment a bit, but I don’t see it as being a huge influence.

    Sorry if this is a double post… the squirrels are busy chewing on my nuts.

  17. USA. Inmates per 100,000 residents.
    In state prisons, federal prisons, and local jails. June 30, 2003.
    By gender, race, Hispanic origin, age.
    1000 per 100,000 residents equals 1 percent of residents.
    4.83% of all adult black males in the USA are imprisoned
    (4834 per 100,000 = 4.83%). That’s almost
    5 out of every 100 adult black males imprisoned.

    USA._Number_of_male_inmates_per_100,000____
    residents_of_each_group._June_30,_2003_____
    ___________________________________________
    ______Total/a___White/b__Black/b___Hispanic
    Total__1,331______681_____4,834____1,778___
    18-19__1,709______882_____5,365____1,888___
    20-24__3,316____1,610____11,329____3,620___
    25-29__3,417____1,607____12,809____3,719___
    30-34__2,944____1,545____10,627____3,451___
    35-39__2,641____1,467_____9,570____2,975___
    40-44__2,096____1,206_____7,639____2,537___
    45-54__1,129______626_____4,425____1,761___
    55+______238______162_______842______501___
    ___________________________________________
    USA._Number_of_female_inmates_per_100,000__
    residents_of_each_group._June_30,_2003_____
    ___________________________________________
    _______Total/___White/b__Black/b___Hispanic
    Total____119_______75_______352______148___
    18-19____109_______68_______254______166___
    20-24____255______178_______607______295___
    25-29____277______191_______744______268___
    30-34____316______211_______891______319___
    35-39____322______211_______926______333___
    40-44____232______143_______732______276___
    45-54_____97_______58_______318______149___
    55+_______11________8________28_______29___
    ___________________________________________
    The_Courier_New_font_lines_up_the_columns._

  18. http://www.dissidentvoice.org/Sept05/Bouzid0909.htm

    The incarceration rate in France is 85 (per 100,000), while in the US it?s 686 (by far the highest per-capita in the world).

  19. I don’t see what’s so different about Crook’s take here. The fact is that the people who hate immigrants are the same people who hate social programs, for the most part. The joke here being that immigrants do not strain social programs at all. But the kind of people who hate immigrants and social programs are far too ignorant to accept that fact. This is just one insipid circle of self-justifying specious rationalism.

    JMJ

  20. “VM

    Ho abitato quasi cinque anni in Italia e due in Francia. Parlo italiano meglio, ma come sai, anche il francese e’ una lingua latina, dunque l’ho imparata senza difficolta’.Capisci?”

    cool — lived approx five years in it and two in france. speak IT will, and comme si comme ca french cuz it’s a romance lang and less difficult.

    is that in the ballpark?

    cool! thanks! (grazie / merci)

    cheers,
    VM

  21. But the kind of people who hate immigrants and social programs are far too ignorant to accept that fact.

    So what of those of us who are against many social programs and are pro-immigration? Hope your head doesn’t explode. 🙂

    I think it is a vicious cycle – if you have a bunch of social programs, people will resent others coming in and taking advantage of them.

    What I also don’t like about social programs is that it doesn’t force people to be responsible for their own actions. They think that someone else will take care of them. Same idea behind why I’m against firearms restrictions (not to mention that it is a basic right to be able to defend yourself, even from corrupt gov’t if need be).

    I could go on, but I should probably save it for another thread.

  22. Why are these comparisons between the US and the EU relevant at all? I mean, in general, one could have such a discussion, but they are certainly different places, and to attribute the number of people in prison in America to a lack of social programs seems pretty silly to me. It’s a pretty common logical fallacy that social scientists tend to make all the time. These two things exist in this place, and the opposite of those two things exist in another place, therefore those two things are completely dependent upon one another. It’s not a particularly compelling argument. For what it’s worth, I think the majority of people reading hit and run would agree that the American incarceration rate is a serious problem. If you want to make the argument that the incarceration rate in the US is related to it’s relative lack of social programs compared to Europe, fine, but make that argument rather than just quoting statistics that can easily be explained by other potential causes. Unless you are making the argument that social programs and incarceration are the only significant differences between the United States and Europe, simply quoting statistics is not doing anything to advance your argument.

  23. Just how much of a safety net did the US have back in the day of “No Irish Need Apply”?

  24. Having lived in both Europe (France and Italy) and the U.S., I find the overall quality of life much better in Europe.

    This makes for very interesting reading. Central finding: the “poor” in the USA have it better by many measures than the average EU citizen.

  25. “The fact is that the people who hate immigrants are the same people who hate social programs, for the most part.”

    I don’t buy this. There are a lot more people who hate immigrants right now than hate social programs. Plus, there is that whole Europe problem in this thesis, too.

  26. Jersey, I don’t think you realize that most of the people who “like” social programs aren’t wonderful, generous, kind, altruistic, public-spirited people like you.

    See, people like you who want social programs because of a genuine unselfish concern for the unfortunates are a tiny minority. The vast majority of people who are like social programs like them because they think they’ll get lots of stuff without having to concern themselves with messy things like work or having to pay for things.

    As such any competition for the free goodies (which they perceive to be a pie of a fixed size) is seen as a potential reduction in the size of their take. And that can’t be good.

  27. So my conclusion is that there are probably plenty of immigration haters that love social programs and very few who don’t.

    I have no actual numbers to back that up, but, hey, it probably has a lot better foundation than most of your wholly unsupported assertions.

  28. “The vast majority of people who are like social programs…”

    Delete the “are” so it makes sense.

  29. It’s amazing that Americans are unwilling to connect their relatively low unemployment rate with the enormously high incarceration rate. It seems silly to John to attribute the number of people in prison in America to a lack of social programs, and well it should. That’s not in fact what I’m doing. I contend that prison in the U.S. is itself a costly social program that helps keep unemployment low (and drug dealing profitable). Moreover, the high incarceration rate should be a major moral problem in a country that styles itself “the land of the free.” Increasingly, the American solution to social problems is ciminalization, witness the right-wing push to jail or deport illegal immigrants. Sounds like a recipe for an even higher incarceration rate to me.

  30. Ermenegildo, your contention that the US prisons system substantially distorts unemployment rates is based on the false premise that all prison inmates would otherwise be unemployed.

    No doubt there is some portion of the prison population that is unemployable, but it is not 100%. It’s probably not even as high as 25%, if you remove the distortion introduced by the minimum wage (which essentially outlaws jobs that are worth less than X per hour).

  31. Ermenegildo – you’re on a libertarian blog, so I think you’ll find that most posters agree with you that ‘…the high incarceration rate should be a major moral problem in a country that styles itself “the land of the free.”‘

    But just because the current American solution to something is incarceration doesn’t mean that all Americans believe that is the right way to go, or that it is, indeed, the right way to go.

  32. Lowdog:

    I would never say that all Americans think that incarceration is the right way to go, but it is, alas, the way the country has gone. Why is that, do you think?

  33. Ermenegildo –

    I thought others had responded to you in a clear enough manner, but perhaps not.

    You wrote –

    It’s amazing that Americans are unwilling to connect their relatively low unemployment rate with the enormously high incarceration rate.

    You have done absoultely nothing to prove this thesis at all. You gave out unemployment and prison statistics, but did nothing to quantify how the two might be linked other than to give rethorical thoughts such as, “Why do think this is?” or “Isn’t it reasonable to think…”

    I’m saying I don’t agree with your assertion.

    However – you need to provide actual proof for me to say anything other than this – as you’ve given nothing to substanstiate your claims – I have no real facts with which I can agree or disagree.

    BTW – Please feel free to prove your assertions, or provide links where reseach has been done – I’m very interested in this line of thought, even though I skeptical of your claims.

  34. Ernmenegildo,

    I, and most of the people here, completely agree that the number of people in jail in America is a serious problem. If you’re not making a connection between social programs and incarceration then I guess I’m just not sure what relevance any of this has to the discussion of immigration vs social programs. It seems like a complete non-sequitor. Prison in certainly a costly social program, but I’m unconvninced that it has as significant an effect on unemployment as you are implying. Even given the assumption that everyone currently incarcerated in America would be unemployed if they were not in jail (a fairly specious assumption…especially given that organized crime is a “job” of sorts) it would amount to about a 1% increase in unemployment. Significant yes, but not enough to explain the difference between the United States and Europe. Obviously the numbers you hear quoted will differ, but according to the BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/4640759.stm
    (which gives a higher unemployment rate for the US than most other data I’ve found) you’re looking at 8.8% unemployment in Europe versus 5.1% in the US. 5.1% + 1% overestimates the increase in unemployment that adding the entire prison population to the unemployment rate would bring, and it is still 2.7% lower than the Europen rate. Is it a factor in the US unemployment rate? I imagine that it is, but it does not account for the difference in the way that you suggest.

  35. Clean Hands:

    Presumably many of those in prison have mental and emotional problems that have likely been exacerbated by their incarceration. Many will certainly be unemployed or underemployed and pose additonal social problems that will need to be dealt with. Since prison is the American social program of choice, many will be back in prison. Any idea what the recidivism rate is?

  36. Ermenegildo –

    Since prison is the American social program of choice, many will be back in prison. Any idea what the recidivism rate is?

    What does the recidivism rate have to do with social programs?

    Either way – The statistics say the US pays much more on social programs than prisons.

    Here it states in 2001 we spent 40 billion federally, and 22 billion in the states.

    Here it states 2001 social programs (federally only) was at 993 billion.

  37. Sorry – the first link is in reference to prison expenditures – both construction as well as operations.

  38. Many, as in the 25% I suggested. Not many, as in the 100% you’ve implied.

  39. By the way, I reject the quote in Julian’s original post America’s welfare system is harsher and less hospitable than Europe’s.

    The notion that Welfare is hospitable and not harsh is absurd, or that private charity to those in need is harsher and less hospitable than government handouts.

    Give someone a job, and you provide them the means to feed, clothe, and house themselves. Give someone a handout and they will soon need another handout. The first is in effect a perpetual moton machine, the second, when effected by government, reduces jobs by taxing would-be employers.

    The US Welfare system is kinder than Europe’s, and any statements to the contrary laughably ignore the better effects of employment and private giving to those genuinely in need.

  40. Furthermore, happyjuggler0, I think that you’d find that the people involved in delivering private welfare are vastly more compassionate and caring towards its recipients than are those who deliver public welfare.

    Usually, those who work for private charities are motivated by a personal desire to help, and to give of themselves. All too many (though certainly not all) workers in public welfare are motivated by more mundane desires, such as a steady paycheck, good benefits package and strong union protection.

    For private charity, what’s best for the recipients is the primary focus; for public welfare, what’s best for the system is the primary focus.

  41. I’m still waiting for someone to give Ermenegildo a good answer as to whether or not the war on drugs and the prison-industrial complex may be hiding a large number of folks who would otherwise describe themselves as “unemployed,” thereby skewing US statistics.
    I think comparisons between the US and the EU would be just too complicated to be useful.
    But good statistics might show the war on drugs is more of a drag on our economy than we think. Especially as it seems to make our unemployables grow at a compound rate–at least our legally unemployables.

  42. It might also be interesting to find out how many people would have to get “real” jobs if drugs were legal, and how many jobs would be created by the same.

    By that I mean many drug dealers don’t work at anything than drug dealing, so would have to get a regular job if the black market was (mostly) eliminated…at the same time, we might need more pharmacists, doctors, chemists, etc if drugs were being sold above the board.

    Plus, not every single drug dealer or user gets caught…they may be smarter or better connected or whatever, but those are generally qualities of successful people.

    Kind of a fascinating subject, really. If you think about how much things would change were drugs to be legalised, you can almost understand why folks want to keep the status quo. While that absolutely does not make the WoD morally right, society would probably have to make a lot of adjustments.

    I believe that, in agregate, it would be a highly positive change, but there would also most likely be a transitionary period that might have some warts.

  43. but there would also most likely be a transitionary period that might have some warts.
    “Cocaine on the playground. Crack stands at the laundromat, heroin at the mini-mart, like that?”

  44. I doubt that even during the transitory period of drug de-regulation would you find cocaine being downed like bubbly on the playground. Schools could still enforce their own rules, hire extra security or ask for more police to watch the grounds, and the States would have their own rules. Was moonshine the drink of choice of the kiddies just after prohibition ended? Furthermore, moonshine didn’t stay popular for long, just as crack wouldn’t either, after ending prohibition. Fairly quickly the dosage rates would come down. Many people would be social users and you’d have products on the market like “Near Crack.” Of course people would overdose, snort and drive, etc. and we’d have organizations with names like, “MAC” (mothers against coke) etc. just as we do with alchohol. But I’m guessing that violent crimes would shrink, at least a little. And corruption would be out of the picture.

    I’m puzzled by our Italian friend’s analysis as much as anyone when he suggests that unemployment would skyrocket if the incarceration rate were lower in the U.S. All those bangers in prison would not likely be looking to work for McDonald’s once they got out or for any sort of white or blue collar job. When you can make so much more money selling drugs and/or when it’s a point of social necessity (or honor or great pressure at the very least) to be in a gang, it’s unlikely that you’d see a rush to flip burgers. That’s only one portion of the prison population of course, but it’s a very large portion. Unemployment rates would be effected by releasing all those prisoners guilty of consensual crimes but only marginally. Perhaps a more interesting question would be how unemployment rates would be effected by legalizing all consensual crimes, especially drug usage and selling. What would the drug barons and street soldiers do then? Would we see a rush towards more pharmacy degrees?

  45. Or maybe, ‘Just Barely Crack’: new drug product proposal.

  46. Midbrowcrisis:

    I didn’t say unemployment would skyrocket if the U.S incaceration rate were closer to that of most other countries. I said–or meant to say–that it would be comparable to that of France or Italy, mayber higher. Remember that maintaining all those prisons employs a lot of people, too.

  47. The idea that emptying the prisons would cause a dramatic rise in the unemployment rate is obviously wrong, and easily proven with the statistics that Ermenegildo provided.

    USA._Number_of_male_inmates_per_100,000____

    ______Total/a___White/b__Black/b___Hispanic
    Total__1,331______681_____4,834____1,778___

    USA._Number_of_female_inmates_per_100,000__
    __________________________________________
    _______Total/___White/b__Black/b___Hispanic
    Total____119_______75_______352______148___

    So we have 1.3% of our total adult male population and .1% of our total adult female population in prison. Adding them and dividing by 2, you come up with (+) .7%. Factoring in children and retirees who are not counted among the population for employment purposes, you come up with something close to the (+) 1% figure John Rhoads found. As stated in some previous posts, this assumes that 1) every prisoner is released, and 2) none of them find jobs.

  48. Ermenegildo,
    In addition to what’s pointed out by Smoking Penguin above, you make the mistake of confusing a correlation with a cause as well as not even attempting to factor out any other variables.

  49. Isaac,

    “See, people like you who want social programs because of a genuine unselfish concern for the unfortunates are a tiny minority. The vast majority of people who are like social programs like them because they think they’ll get lots of stuff without having to concern themselves with messy things like work or having to pay for things.”

    Are you referring to corporate welfare? Because there ain’t much “stuff” to be had for your average needy indigant person from social programs.

    I would like to say thank you as you have humbled me a bit here. Your first line there is quite a compliment coming from a libertarian. Thanks again.

    JMJ

  50. Because there ain’t much “stuff” to be had for your average needy indigant[sic] person from social programs.

    Well, I didn’t say that people who want social programs were particularly intelligent or rational. But considering that the biggest programs are SS and medicare the lovers of those programs are doing awfully well. And the calls for a national health plan are nothing more than a chorus singing “we want someone else to pay our medical bills”.

    I was not making any compliments either. While I believe that self-righteous busybodies like you really believe their programs will help, they more than likely won’t. But then I also believe that self-righteous busybodies like you have a cartoonish view of some people as “the lower orders” who can’t posible survive without the enlightened guidence and rule of superior elites like yourselves. But then like I said, people who want social programs aren’t particularly intelligent or rational.

    Are you referring to corporate welfare?

    No I wasn’t. But again, keep in mind that noone ever calls for a corporate welfare scheme to help his rich capitalist plutocrat buddies.

    It’s always “TO SAVE THOSE JOBS!!!!” (Hmm, funny dat, eh? That’s the reason for keeping out immigrants and trade, isn’t it?)

    It’s always “FOR THE WORKERS!!!!”

    Oh, could that be why the democrats and organized labor lined up to stop the republicans from cutting any of the corporate welfare at the Department of Commerce in the 1980s? (mind you, it’s not like the elephants pursued that goal with anything like the vigor it needed).

    Anyhoo, to get back on topic, absolutely nothing you have said counters the premise of this thread, which is that a substantial portion of resistance to immigration is from people who are afraid that immigrants will take benefits from a fixed pool, thereby depriving “legitimate” claimants of their “rightful share”. Hmm, there’s been another poster doing some zero-sum thinking here too, isn’t there?

  51. “Anyhoo, to get back on topic, absolutely nothing you have said counters the premise of this thread, which is that a substantial portion of resistance to immigration is from people who are afraid that immigrants will take benefits from a fixed pool, thereby depriving “legitimate” claimants of their “rightful share”.”

    Actually, I am afraid the “pool” will expand to accomodate the mad influx and we will wind up drowning in the “pool”.

    Maybe I am just a cheapskate, but I do not want to pay the social costs for the illegals. Our own, American born cadre of blood suckers is a related, but different problem.

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