September 26, 2012

Truthful with the Economy

There is a practical difference underlying the philosophical divide between Small Government enthusiasts who want to place societal welfare responsibility on individuals and the generosity of the wealthy, and Big Government types who want to place such programs in the hands of the state: in the former case how things fare will be based on personal strengths, the luck of the draw and the kindness of strangers; in the latter the people affected have a voice in voting for their representatives and framing the laws that will determine the redistribution of resources. While it is imperfect, I trust a system in which I have a direct say over trusting in an oligarchy any day. In some sense, the difference between Nanny State and the Rich Uncle Economy is that you can fire and hire a nanny; you’re stuck with your uncle.

When it comes down to it I suppose I’d be pegged as either a social democrat or a democratic socialist, I reject pure socialism and communism, the former because I have only limited (though real) trust in government, and the latter because I don’t think it works at levels much past a farm, commune, or monastery. I avoid particular party affiliation, and am not registered in one, though I do think, as this all suggests, that the role of government is crucial in the proper redistribution of wealth; a notion I fully support, since I have insurance, pay taxes, and contribute to my church. Some of this is voluntary, but I would have no difficulty with it being mandated, so long as I also have some say in the laws framing the redistribution.

If one were to take the alleged principle behind the Small Government argument to its logical conclusion, you would have only home schooling, people would only build the part of the road outside their house — and only if they have a car and need it; there would be no public libraries or parks or utilities; and so on. Those who favor absolute anarchic capitalism as a matter of principle are few and far between. Most “Small Government” people, including the Tea Party, are basically unprincipled — that is, there is no philosophical foundation to their belief, just a pragmatic notion that less is more, but the less always includes, “I want done what I want done, and not what I don’t.”

To those who say that private charity should be the dominant form of public welfare, I would say that while I think private charity has a role to play, I cannot put my trust in such adhocracy. So I want a voice in the process and think it is part of the government’s responsibility to provide certain services, or at least to coordinate them. (I’m not a pure socialist at heart, and don’t trust in complete government control.)

Part of my reason for this is that relying on charity only works if you assume people are inherently charitable. I wish that were true, but it isn’t. Left to themselves, people tend to accumulate wealth rather than sharing it. Some countervailing force needs to step in to insist people share or “redistribute.” There was a time when the church had the power to be that persuasive force; but now it has to be the government, in part because of the rise of pluralism. Only the government has a kind of universal sway in society — no other institution has that ambit. One only needs to look at the period from the late 19th to the early 20th century to see what happened in the era between Big Church and Big Government, including a world-wide depression caused in no small part by greed.

Let’s face it: Anyone who buys insurance really believes in the redistribution of wealth to minimize personal risk. I honor and respect those willing to hold to a true anarchic position, such as those religious sects who forego Social Security and only help their own. But this is by its own definition a sectarian solution, and not workable for the nation as a whole.

Tobias Stanislas Haller

originally published in similar form at Facebook, where it evoked a lively discussion


Erika Baker said...

I think there is another danger in relying on private charity because it is inherently based on the assumption that those receiving it do not have a right to what we're giving them but that we are being kind and generous in helping them.

It creates and sustains a view of the others as unequal to me and of me as the superior, more powerful person who can bestow gifts at will.

The idea of a guaranteed safety net for all accepts that everyone is equal, that there is an absolute human right to a minimum standard of living and that society as a whole is responsible for ensuring that it is met.

It leaves us with less of a personal glow but I think with a more realistic assessment of our respective status in society.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Erika. Charity of that sort is morally dangerous for both giver and receiver, and goes further to maintaining a "culture of dependency" than a sound social service regime under democratic control. Part of the problem is the level of false judgment made -- that the poor are such because of some failing or even sin on their part. Much poverty is circumstantial and inherited -- just like wealth!

Much of my attitude, I confess, comes via my mother's Boston Irish heritage. The N.E. democratic party and philosophy was largely formed by the experience of the Potato Famine, where the English government did little or nothing to alleviate the disaster, even while foodstuffs were sitting in the docks for export. That negative experience formed an outlook.

Rev. Kurt Huber said...

Have you read, THREE FAMINES By Thomas Keneally. It is a very interesting read and fits well with what you said Tobias.

Check out the NY Times Book Review.

musculars said...

In light of our financial meltdown, I have become very intrigued by a social credit form of economic redistribution as proposed by Douglas wherein the usurious instruments of our banking system would be significantly altered and the credit would no longer be privatized in the banks but paid out as a whole to the population as a measure of overall productivity. It is a fasinating study of new enterperneruial capitalism.

Chris H. said...

I'm not sure that private charity would create a bigger "culture of dependency" than we've already got. The standard of living between lower class workers and those on the dole often leans toward better standards for those on welfare than for the workers. From the point of view of someone who works at Walmart and is surrounded by those two groups, the "dependent/entitled" group is much larger than many think.

Does your "limited" socialism include limits/requirements of government aid? How do you break the culture of dependence, or do you even try? What if we required those who get welfare to do volunteer work, or prove that they were trying to break the cycle. Of course, there are ways around that, too. Even some family members have waited until the unemployment insurance was about to run out before really trying for a job, not to mention acquaintances who claim work comp/disability and then go work for money/goods under the table. When are too many people on the take? 40% of the population? 50%? Having been chewed out before for wanting to cut down on fraud in these areas, I'm afraid I don't believe many on the liberal side believe in limited or democratic socialism. Sooner or later I think it all turns into the USSR or Greece-too many taking, not enough producing.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Kurt, I've not read it, but it sounds interesting. Thanks for that.

Musculars, that is an intriguing notion. Ultimately I think usury is at the root of the problem, and we're in so deep it will be hard to constrain.

Chris H., the abuses you cite are very real, but I think a program of "workfare" and engagement in public projects such as the New Deal programs would work well. Education is key in getting people prepared for work in newly emerging areas -- and this is also an appropriate role for the government to undertake, at least as coordinator. If the gov't also holds the pursestrings, it can place demands on those receiving money. And again, the electorate then has a say in how this is structured. I take your example of Greece to heart, but there are equally egregious failures of capitalism. No "system" is perfect -- because people are imperfect; but some systems have better checks and balances.

Erika Baker said...

The way to encourage people off welfare is to make sure that, while welfare pays enough for them not to be destiute, work still provides better financial returns.

This is not a new idea and it works well in many European countries.

Government figures suggest that welfare fraud accounts for 0.5% of welfare payments in Britain. Although it is true that people who object to helping others will make heavy weather of the high profile fraud cases.

A dispassionate analysis of the data from Europe would show that a. it's not all Greece, and that b. Greece did not find itself in its mess because of welfare fraud but because of a whole host of complex circumstances.

Look at Germany, Switzerland, France and many many others to get a more accurate picture of how you can create a more just society that still generates wealth.