Matt Yglesias links over to my post about dredging the submerged state surrounding student loans. Yglesias notes: “Why not dismantle the submerged state exactly as Konczal suggests, and give the money to poor people? Then people could use the money to buy higher education services or not according to whether or not they thought vendors of said services were, all things considered, offering a reasonable value proposition.”
It’s a good question. We were talking about the relative merits of private or public provisioning of a good. Yglesias, building on some of the other writing he’s done, argues that the more egalitarian thing to do would be, instead of the state providing certain merit goods, to just give the cash equivalence to poor people and let them use it as they see fit. We argued before on efficiency grounds why you might not what to do that, an argument similar to the original submerged state post. There’s another set of related arguments about how certain public goods require coordination, and simply giving people money will under-provision them. But what else can we point to?
I’m still trying to think through this question, but to focus my thoughts I’m going to post three approaches against “giving poor people money” as a baseline approach to the welfare state.
The first comes from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1935 State of the Union. Ushering in a second stage of the New Deal, this State of the Union proposed a bill for unemployment insurance and old-age pensions alongside a giant jobs program that would become the Works Progress Administration. Why was a new jobs program needed? Roosevelt:
A large proportion of these unemployed and their dependents have been forced on the relief rolls…We have here a human as well as an economic problem…The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers…
I am not willing that the vitality of our people be further sapped by the giving of cash, of market baskets, of a few hours of weekly work cutting grass, raking leaves or picking up papers in the public parks. We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination….
Hippie-punching, 1930s style! I do not know if this was a genuine concern of Roosevelt’s or a way of pitching both an expansion and a pivot in the New Deal’s war on the Great Depression to a broader audience. But either way, it’s similar to conservative argument against the welfare state (this passage makes an appearance in Paul Ryan’s Roadmap under the subheading Erosion of American Character). The difference here is that the government needs to step up, where in the conservative critique it doesn’t.
It’s useful to think of this as a liberal paternalism, and critiquing it is a place where both a Proper Left and a Left-Neoliberalism’s concerns and priorities would overlap. Peter Frase, for instance, has written against this tendency in liberalism – see his The Case Against Jobs, or his response to Reihan Salam’s argument that wage labor for the poor is fulfilling because it allows them to “overcome an obstacle that arises naturally and authentically in [their] path.” (Do poor people not have enough obstacles in their lives?) I don’t find Roosevelt’s claims here particularly convincing – most of what is difficult with being poor could be fixed by people not being poor and cash-constrained – but I think that it motivates most of these discussions.
What Claims Do We Owe Each Other?
A second approach would say that if we as a society think that certain merit goods are necessary for a free, full life – education, food security, etc. – we have an obligation to provide these to each other. But what we don’t have is an obligation to provide a different good on the basis that an individual would prefer that good more. Here’s TM Scanlon, Preference and Urgency:
The strength of a stranger’s claim on us for aid in the fulfillment of some interest depends upon what that interest is and need not be proportional to the importance he attaches to it. The fact that someone would be willing to forgo a decent diet in order to build a monument to his god does not mean that his claim for aid in his project has the same strength as a claim for aid in obtaining enough to eat (even assuming that the sacrifices required on others would be the same). Perhaps a person does have some claim on others for assistance in a project to which he attaches such great importance. All I need maintain is that it does not have the weight of a claim to aid in the satisfaction of a truly urgent interest even if the person in question assigns these interests equal weight.
Let’s try to translate that a bit; here’s Murphy/Nagel’s The Myth of Ownership:
But in either case there seems something to be said for providing some of these things in kind, rather than doing it all in fungible cash….
The most important is that described by T. M. Scanlon in Preference and Urgency. Even if the reasons for helping those in need are frankly redistributive, the measure of value that is relied on by a conception of distributive justice ought to be itself objective enough to be accepted from the point of view of the diversity of value systems represented in the society. The satisfaction of individual preferences, whatever they might be, does not meet this standard. We may feel we owe each other the conditions of fair equality of opportunity, or a decent standard of living, but that does not mean we owe an individual help in obtaining something else instead, just because the individual values it even more.
In Scanlon’s example, if someone would gladly forgo a decent diet in order to build a monument to his god, that doesn’t mean that if we feel obliged to contribute to his getting enough to eat, we should also feel obliged to contribute an equivalent amount to the cost of his monument instead. Insofar as in-kind provision discourages such trade-offs and ensures that redistribution will be carried out in a common coin of value, it has an advantage over monetary redistribution.
I think this is correct, which is why I see arguing that a baseline level of material support as part of the essential rights we need to enjoy full freedom is essential for a longer strategy of “giving people money” to work.
Against Pity-Charity Liberalism
Check out this amazing post by Kristin Rawls on student loans and the new professional poor on Killing the Buddha, titled F*** Your Prayer, Show Me Solidarity, that ends “I don’t want crumbs from your share of the non-profit industrial complex charity, I want you to fight with me for a world where I don’t need charity.”
If “giving cash to the poor” functions as a type of charity it can often be counterproductive. Pity is fleeting in tough times and charity always has strings attached, but more because we want to create the conditions where charity isn’t necessary. The point of egalitarianism isn’t to compensate the losers but to create the conditions for their freedom. The Kristin Rawls piece points to what Jonathan Wolff would call “shameful revelations”:
Essentially the argument is that the implementing luck egalitarianism requires society to filter out would-be free-riders, but to do this will often have costs (in self-respect) for those already at the bottom of the heap. In some cases they will have to declare that they lack employable talents others have, and this can be humiliating for them. I do not argue that it is necessarily humiliating, or that we couldn’t imagine a society where no one is humiliated by having to admit to themselves and others that they lack employable talents, but that in the circumstances of real societies this is likely to be a fairly common response. In that paper I argued that policies required in the name of fairness can undermine self-respect, and therefore we have to accept that the egalitarian ethos can have conflicting elements which need to be accommodated in some way.
In case you can’t tell, I’m trying to flesh this debate out in real-time. What’s your take, and what would you recommend reading and engaging with?