The Social Cost of Benefits


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]