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The Welfare Trap


Welfare is much on people’s minds. Last fall, the Congress passed, and the president signed, legislation that was heralded as a major overhaul of the welfare system. It wasn’t, of course. It merely transferred to the states the power to run the welfare system, though the money will still come from Washington. Naturally, with money comes rules. The new federal rules include the requirements that welfare recipients get off the rolls in five years and find a job within two.

That may sound like progress. But let’s look closer. First, welfare is still federalized to a large extent because the money and the strings emanate from Washington. For reasons to be discussed below, welfare should be abolished. A good beginning would be for the federal government to get out at once. Second, the work requirement will cost the taxpayers lots of money. Contrary to popular impression, welfare reform will not save taxpayer dollars. To help welfare recipients get work, state governments will subsidize private-sector jobs, create make-work government jobs, and pay for health care and day care. After all, state welfare agencies are not going to order people to find work without becoming employer of last resort and providing various services to them.

There’s the irony. As Charles Murray has pointed out, if you make it attractive for people to get off welfare, you simultaneously make it attractive for others to go on welfare. Someone who has lost a job might find it worthwhile to sign up and let the state find her a new job within two years while providing such amenities as health care and day care. Some reform.

Any reform, of course, will be unsatisfactory because welfare begins with a flawed principle at its very core. By its nature, re-form leaves that principle intact.

What is the flawed principle? Before I get to that, let me say something about a dubious line of attack on welfare made by some libertarians. In order to sound compassionate, they have argued that the biggest victims of welfare are the recipients themselves and that the people on welfare would do better under a system of private charity.

Now there’s something to that. The welfare system does foster dependence and other traits antithetical to enterprise and autonomy. But two things are overlooked by that argument. First, no one is forced to go on welfare. The state may tempt people to become dependent. But they have to yield to temptation also. If welfare recipients are ruined by the system, they themselves are most culpable. Not everyone who could go on welfare does so. People have free will.

Second, abolition of welfare may indeed leave some people abandoned. In any society some people will be so lacking in ability, energy, and ambition that they will languish. Private charitable acts will help some but not all of such people. Libertarians should acknowledge that likelihood. We should not unrealistically promise that all will be well in a free society. We are not promising nirvana, only liberty.

To deny that welfare recipients are the main victims of the system is not to deny that the state has made life difficult for those least skilled at the task of working and living. The minimum-wage law, various kinds of licensing, and other government interventions in the free market have certainly hampered the most vulnerable people in society. The state has blocked many of the traditional routes out of poverty. Where people in earlier generations could readily drive cabs, operate pushcarts, or work in unskilled jobs, today’s counterparts have to contend with bureaucrats enforcing protectionist labor legislation designed to keep people unemployed. Nevertheless some people manage to overcome those formidable barriers and prosper.

If we make harm to welfare recipients the major criticism of the system, the real injustice tends will be ignored. And to ignore that injustice is to skate close to sanctioning it, because it implies that if welfare did not corrupt its intended beneficiaries, the system would be acceptable.

The central injustice of welfare is that it compels people who support themselves to give money to those who do not. The needs of those who don’t have resources are converted into claims on those who do. Productive people have been punished for their virtues. The policy perhaps discourages production and therefore makes us all poorer. But that is not the main issue, which remains the forcible transfer of possessions from peaceful people to welfare recipients.

Where is the justice in that? That question seems to lead to a confrontation between two ethical notions. One notion says that each individual is morally bound to assist those “less fortunate.” Charity is elevated from a virtue to a justification for one’s life. The other notion states that someone’s need is not a claim on your life-that you have a fundamental right to live that does not have to be validated by service to others. (Ayn Rand described this as the right to live for your own sake.)

These principles conflict at the ethical level, and it is not my purpose to sort out the matter here. The principles do not conflict, however, at the political level. Neither principle can be used to justify coercion. Even if you believe that people morally owe the poor support, it does not follow that government should enforce the alleged debt. In fact, no moral theory can justify the initiation of force because to compel someone to be moral is a contradiction in terms. If an act is forced, it isn’t chosen. If it isn’t chosen, it is without moral significance. Thus, you can’t force someone to be moral.

To the well-intentioned advocate of welfare that will seem beside the point. He isn’t interested in making nonpoor people moral; he wants to help the poor. We must ask him this: by what right do you use force to transfer money from those who have it to those who don’t? No good answer has ever been given. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, because there is no good answer. You either own something or you don’t. It makes no sense to say you own your income until someone who needs money comes along. All theories justifying welfare are rationalizations for theft.

It has been argued that if each person is to have a right to life, he must at least have the means to continue living. Welfare, so goes the theory, is intended to provide those means. The error here is in how the right to life is construed. It can properly mean only the right to take life-sustaining actions that do not violate the rights of others. If it is argued that it means instead the right to sustenance provided by others, we have a bizarre rights theory that produces conflict between people. I say “bizarre” because the very purpose for discovering a valid rights theory is to avert conflict, not produce it. A right to life that authorizes the right to take from others is a contradiction.

Welfare cannot be affirmed in terms of either the recipients or the forced donors. It neither makes the donors moral nor defends the recipients’ right to life. It simply steals property from some in order to give it to others. That being the case, the only proper solution to the welfare problem is abolition. Gimmicky reforms will not do. The theft must stop. Welfare should be ended, for the benefit of the productive people who have been forced to sacrifice to the unproductive. It should be repealed in the name of those who have had their property taken away and given to people who have not earned it. That is all the justification needed.

When defenders of welfare ask who will take care of the poor, we should give the answer Ayn Rand gave years ago: If you wish to take care of them, you will not be stopped. That is the most moral response possible. It says that helping people is a personal decision, not a political policy. It says that if we are concerned with morality, then we must let people choose freely-even if we don’t like some of their choices.

Human society, of course, is resourceful. Most people are benevolent. So we shouldn’t be surprised if those who are unable to care for themselves are helped. But that is not why the welfare system should be abolished. It should be abolished because it is inconsistent with liberty.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.