Is the Welfare State Just?: Howard Schweber says Yes, It is Fundamental to a Democratic Society


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Howard Schweber is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the author of a number of books on political theory and constitutional law, as well as numerous scholarly articles. He also writes a regular column for The Huffington Post.

The Undercurrent is sponsoring a debate between Schweber and Don Watkins (of the Ayn Rand Institute) on the topic “Is the welfare state just?” on April 1st. Visit the site above or for more information on how to watch the debate live online.

TU sat down with Howard Schweber to learn more about his views on the justice of the welfare state:

1. Why in essence do you think the welfare state (the system of transfer payments such as social security, Medicare, food stamps, etc.) is just?

The question is framed in a misleading way. The “welfare state” does not only include the transfer payments mentioned, it also includes the existence of public schools and universities like the one where I teach (The University of Wisconsin), the public maintenance of social services, and a wide array of other activities supported by tax dollars, most of which benefit the middle class and the wealthy rather than the poor. In fact, the estimates are that approximately 5/6ths of all social welfare spending in the United States benefits the non-poor. So the moral case for or against the welfare state has to include all those elements, or else the argument risks devolving into the proposition that only benefits for poor people are unjustifiable while benefits for the members of our audience are somehow outside the scope of the discussion.

Leaving that aside, I would argue that it is not merely the case that the welfare state is just, it is the case that the abolition of the welfare state would be fundamentally unjust. There are many reasons for taking this position, but here are just three:

First, it is unjust to refuse to pay one’s debts. Prior generations have sacrificed their taxes, their sweat, and in some cases their blood to create a decent living for the current generation. Those past ancestors cannot be paid back directly, they ask the same thing that was asked of them, to pay the debt forward by maintaining a decent society now and improving the lot of the next generation. That is the fundamental ethical presumption of any social organization from a family to a nation-state: that its members understand that they have obligations to others not yet born based on the debts they owe to those who have gone before. Now this young generation comes along and declares that they are the end of history: those who contributed to their welfare were suckers, they owe nothing to anyone.

Here’s just one example. 8 million veterans have had their educations paid for by the GI bills, and more than 2 million received mortgages or business loans. That helped create stable and prosperous households in which their children could grow up—and now when those children and grandchildren are being asked to help other fellow citizens I hear the response “who, me?”

Second, it is not unjust to invest in the development of human capabilities: indeed, I would argue that it is profoundly unwise as well as unjust to fail to do so. One rationale behind social welfare systems is not charity, it is public investment in human capital—this is the justification for the majority of the welfare state’s programs, which direct resources to the non-poor with the aim or producing public goods in the form of economic growth and security. There is a startlingly direct correlation between levels of economic and social development on the one hand and the level of access to participation in the economic system on the other. Public spending on education is one example, but there are many others including ensuring the availability of that education to girls as well as boys, rural residents as well as city-dwellers, poor as well as well-off populations. In a competitive world, no society can afford to waste massive amounts of human capital by allowing it to go undeveloped. That’s what social welfare payments are for; they are investments in the economic and social future of the nation. It’s not just nutrition and educational opportunities for the young that fit this model. For example, benefits to the elderly release the human capital of younger people who are not bound to remain at home to care for aged relatives or crushed by the costs of health care. And benefits to the indigent help not only their children, but also the adults to return to contributing to the collective welfare: the average period of time a person is on public assistance is two years.

Other forms of investment in human capital include support for basic research (the vast majority of research in the U.S. is government-funded) and infrastructure investments that improve access and mobility. It is no coincidence that without exception the most economically successful nations are those with the most developed systems of public investment in human capital. That’s not just morally sound, it is intelligent. Moreover it would be unjust to invest our resources in the development of the capacities of some citizens and not others—unless the argument for the abolition of the welfare state is accompanied by an argument for the abolition of all public benefits from corporate licenses to student loans, then justice as well as smart policy demands that we invest in the capacities of all our citizens as best we can. That would be to drastically diminish the opportunities each of us have to “pursue happiness” for the dubious gain of avoiding the compulsion to help others do the same thing.

But how do we make these kinds of investment decisions, or decide where our moral obligations as a nation lie? That brings me to the third reason the American welfare state is fundamentally just: the social contract. The kinds of investment decisions I am describing are made with the consent of the governed through a democratic process. That is a fundamentally morally sound system of political decision-making. There is a fundamental social contract that underlies any democratic nation-state: citizens will have their rights protected and will be free to participate in national decision-making about matters of public importance. More, there is an assumption that the decisions that are reached in this way will be aimed at securing the public welfare, which includes ensuring that our fellow citizens are not left defenseless just as they agree to protect us when it is our turn to ask. In return, citizens will accept the outcome of that decision-making process as legitimate, and when called upon to support the state or help their fellows they will stand up and be counted.

 2. Do you think a young person today has the moral obligation to support people he does not know who are indigent? If so, why?

There are two parts to this question: the focus on support to people who are indigent, and the focus on the provision of support to indigent persons “he does not know.”

On the first point, once again the focus on the indigent distorts the focus of the inquiry. A genuine libertarian Objectivist would insist—as some do—that this university be closed down, all public schools be abolished, highways and airports closed, the utility systems that deliver power and water be destroyed, streetlights abolished, telephone lines and rail lines removed, and so on. Such a libertarian might argue that private businesses will step in and provide the same services—it is an argument I find remarkably unpersuasive as a matter of common sense, economics, and the lessons of history—but it is an intellectually consistent position. But it would be completely inconsistent for the young person in this question to question her obligation to support people she does not know while not questioning her own willingness to continue to accept massive benefits from persons she equally does not know.

On the second point, the idea that we can only have obligations to persons with whom we are personally acquainted is the end of any form of political society. “Support for the indigent” is not a unique case, it is one of a thousand instances of collective decision making that comprise the activity of democratic self-government. We live in a democratic nation-state, and we derive numerous benefits from that fact. In turn, we agree to be bound by decisions reached through the democratic process: our “consent” is mediated by representative government. And so if we as a nation take up the moral obligation to abolish slavery or prevent racial segregation, or if we as a nation take up the collective moral obligation to extend electrical power into rural areas and to provide education even to rural areas where the costs are exceptionally high, or if we as a nation take up the collective moral obligation to prevent fraud in the marketplace and protect vulnerable people against violence, these are obligations that each individual citizen is expected and required to assume as his or her own.

A separate point goes back to the fact that the existence of obligations in one direction implies reciprocal obligations. We are talking about fellow Americans, after all. When those persons are well off and you are in trouble, they will be called upon to help you; right now you are lucky enough to be in a position to be the one being asked for help. How can anyone trust a person who is unable to understand that concept?

3. Do you think the state has the right to compel people to support the indigent? If so, why?

Of course. The state has the same right to compel people to support the indigent that it has to compel people to support the University of Wisconsin, the interstate highway system, the research programs that produced the Internet, the vaccine programs that permitted us to survive childhood without risk of polio, and every other public endeavor that is undertaken for the public good as that is determined through a democratic process of decision-making.

4. Do you think our mounting federal debt poses a significant economic problem? If not, why not? If so, how would you propose we solve the problem?

The debt poses a significant problem on a number of dimensions, although it is worth pointing out that in some ways these dangers are exaggerated—for example, the debt is nowhere near exceeding the value of currently held public assets, which is at least as sensible a measure as comparing debt assumed over decades to current annual economic output (how many people earn enough in one year to pay off their entire mortgage?) Nonetheless, the size of the debt is certainly a problem insofar is it constrains the flexibility of future budgeting decisions due to the costs of debt service. There are multiple fairly obvious solutions: lifting the cap on social security contributions, means-testing old-age benefits and medical benefits, raising taxes above their current 60-year history lows, raising the retirement age by 4 years, rationalizing the health insurance market through any number of measures, reducing the risk level in private pension investments, reducing our nation’s staggering military spending, cutting ridiculous waste in the defense procurement process . . .  the list is endless, and people of good will and intelligence are engaged in a serious discussion about how to solve the problem. But the solution of giving up on the idea of the possibility of national action on the grounds that it costs money is thoughtless.

5. Are indigent people better off today because of transfer payments than they were before the New Deal? How would you demonstrate your answer (keeping in mind that everyone today is better off because of advancing technology, among other reasons)?

Once again, the phrasing of the question makes it hard to answer in a straightforward way. We are all better off, particular those of us in the middle and upper classes who would otherwise be among the indigent: to take only one example, estimates are that 50% of seniors would be below the poverty line but for social security. Indigent people are better off and so is everyone else in that families have been relieved of the burdens of caring for the elderly, educational opportunities have been made available to a vastly greater portion of the population, preventable diseases have been ended and public services have been extended into areas they did not exist before, publicly funded research has produced technological and scientific advancements, public services provide us all with the conditions for pursuing our individual ideas of happiness with some degree of security.

As for the very narrow question of whether those who are indigent today—primarily rural Southern whites—are better off than those who were indigent in the 1920s, I fear the question betrays ignorance of the depths of poverty that were pervasive prior to the New Deal and Great Society programs that comprise the focus of these questions. “Advancing technology” has nothing to do with moving a generation of rural whites out of the sharecropping system (to this day, most poor people in America are rural whites), nor would technology have been shared with large portions of the country without rural electrification, a program that could not possibly be made profitable for private business but that created the essential backbone for the economic resurgence of the “New South.” Technology can produce vaccines, but it required a public program to distribute them. And technology itself does not progress without publicly funded research and the investments in human capital that I described at the outset.

There is a disturbing complacency about the assumption that clean water, access to education, public services and the physical infrastructure that supports modern life are simply to be assumed. In parts of the world that lack well-developed systems of government, these resources do not exist, or are controlled by profit-making entities with the result that they are available to only a small and privileged segment of the population. That reduces the opportunity to pursue happiness to a prize for having exercised the good judgment to choose one’s parents carefully.

Is it the case that some American programs have been failures or even counterproductive? Of course. All systems fail. But the direct and measurable effects of social welfare programs in raising the living standards of children, the elderly, and the rural poor since the period before the New Deal and Great Society are overwhelming.

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Valery Publius is the pen name of a teacher living in the American South.