Tag: welfare

Don’t Leave Room for Desert

Duncan “Atrios” Black sums up and amplifies on a much longer post by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald as follows:

Just adding on to Glenn’s post, much opposition to the government actually doing anything decent for people comes from the idea that the government is going to take my tax money and give it to people who don’t deserve it. The problem is that for decades the Dems have tried to get around this by making sure policies and programs were relatively small and incremental, everything targeted and means tested. But doing that effectively confirmed the critics’ point. The big (giant) government programs which are most popular are the ones which are universal - Social Security and Medicare - and other less controversial government programs, like highway spending, are also perceived to benefit people across the board.

There’s a couple of interesting things going on here that seem worth unpacking.  The first is actually a legitimate point about how valid arguments against various kinds of redistribution tend, with unsettling ease, to shade into unsavory demonization of the folks on the receiving end of the transfer. Suppose someone suggests that the government should, either by regulation or direct subsidy, ensure that the indigent are provided with health care or that insolvent homeowners are protected from foreclosure. Now, there are a few types of objections people might raise. There’s an argument from efficiency and incentives: To the extent that the risks associated with individual financial or lifestyle choices are borne by the public, there’s a familiar problem of “moral hazard” reducing incentives for prudence. And there’s an argument from property and autonomy, to the effect that even if people ought to help others in need, each person is entitled to decide whether and how to do so without compulsion. Neither of these implies any blanket judgment about the folks who find themselves in need of aid. The first argument does suggest that redistributive policy will make it rational for people to take more risks at the margin, but it does not follow from either that people who are having trouble meeting their mortgage payments, or people who get sick and cannot afford care, are bad or foolish or irresponsible or otherwise deserving of their fate. And it is a good thing for these arguments that no such conclusion follows, because it’s clearly not true.

Yet in popular political rhetoric, it’s disturbingly easy to find just such a leap being made. Think of Rick Santelli’s jeremiad against “losers” under foreclosure getting bailed out by government. Is it just that people are inherently spiteful or unkind? In fact, the tendency to assume that people who are badly off must deserve it may be a result of what social psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. In brief, faced with evidence that the world is often arbitrary and unfair, and that bad things often happen to good people, many of us prefer to preserve our faith in a basically fair and benevolent universe by assuming that the badly off must somehow deserve their fates—which is a stronger and (I think) rather morally uglier proposition than the more plausible notion that people are often significantly responsible for their fates.

There are at least three reasons to take some care to avoid this implication, given how easily human beings fall into it. The first is just that it’s an ugly and callous attitude to have toward people who will often deserve our compassion whether or not they ought to receive government aid. The second is that people will readily—and sometimes intentionally—misconstrue an argument about incentives as an argument about the moral worthiness or personal virtue of the proposed recipients, which does not make for a particularly fruitful conversation. Finally, there’s a paradoxically quite authoritarian implicit premise lurking behind this sort of argument—to wit, that it’s the job of the government  to determine who is or is not morally deserving of its largess, and that the central question is whether this or that particular class of prospective recipients qualifies. That’s a frame people across the spectrum ought to be uncomfortable with.

As Atrios points out, strategic response to this on the part of progressives has been to embed what are essentially welfare programs within an elaborate—and functionally, if not politically, superfluous—superstructure of universal social insurance. My colleague Will Wilkinson has pressed this point cogently in the context of Social Security. The rationale for the program is ultimately that we hope it will prevent people from being mired in poverty in old age. There is no sane reason, on this rationale, for cutting Bill Gates a check when he reaches the age of eligibility—but we do it this way because progressives believe, perhaps correctly, that a means-tested aid program for the indigent elderly would be more politically vulnerable to cuts. Which, I think, underscores the perverse effect of thinking in terms of the desert of the recipients, since there’s no actually-valid argument on which a universal need-blind benefit makes more sense than a narrow means-tested one. So one more reason to eschew desert-centered political discourse: It gives rise to policy that’s less intelligent whether your underlying commitments are progressive or libertarian.

Have Mexican Dishwashers Brought California to Its Knees?

workerAn article published this week by National Review magazine blames the many problems of California on—take a guess—high taxes, over-regulation of business, runaway state spending, an expansive welfare state? Try none of the above. The article, by Alex Alexiev of the Hudson Institute, puts the blame on the backs of low-skilled, illegal immigrants from Mexico and the federal government for not keeping them out.

Titled “Catching Up to Mexico: Illegal immigration is depleting California’s human capital and ravaging its economy,” the article endorses high-skilled immigration to the state while rejecting the influx of “the poorly educated, the unskilled, and the illiterate” immigrants that enter illegally from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

Before swallowing the article’s thesis, consider two thoughts:

One, if low-skilled, illegal immigration is the single greatest cause of California’s woes, how does the author explain the relative success of Texas? As a survey in the July 11 issue of The Economist magazine explained, smaller-government Texas has avoided many of the problems of California while outperforming most of the rest of the country in job creation and economic growth. And Texas has managed to do this with an illegal immigrant population that rivals California’s as a share of its population.

Two, low-skilled immigrants actually enhance the human capital of native-born Americans by allowing us to move up the occupational ladder to jobs that are more productive and better paying. In a new study from the Cato Institute, titled “Restriction or Legalization? Measuring the Economic Benefits of Immigration Reform,” this phenomenon is called the “occupational mix effect” and it translates into tens of billions of dollars of benefits to U.S. households.

Our new study, authored by economists Peter Dixon and Maureen Rimmer, found that legalization of low-skilled immigration would boost the incomes of American households by $180 billion, while further restricting such immigration would reduce the incomes of U.S. families by $80 billion.

That is a quarter of a trillion dollar difference between following the policy advice of National Review and that of the Cato Institute. Last time I checked, that is still real money, even in Washington.

Canada and Jefferson’s Natural Progress

Thomas Jefferson famously opined that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground,” but Canada has bucked that gloomy forecast in recent years. As my co-authored op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday showed, Canada has:

  • Cut government spending
  • Cut government debt
  • Balanced its budget consistently
  • Pre-funded its version of Social Security to make it solvent
  • Decentralized power within its federation of provinces
  • Cut taxes, particularly corporate taxes 

Meanwhile, the United States has headed in the opposite direction in each of these policy areas. Consider further that Canada has other economic policy advantages over the increasingly uncompetitive welfare state to its south:

  • Canada has more liberal immigration policies for highly skilled workers than does the United States, which has added greatly to the entrepreneurial vibrancy of Canada’s economy.
  • Canada has long had a stable,  efficient, and competitive financial sector, which avoided the government-assisted meltdown that occurred in the United States.
  • Canada has a home ownership rate as high as the United States, yet it does not have a distortionary mortgage interest tax deduction.
  • Canada recently implemented large Roth IRA style savings accounts, which are much more flexible than the U.S. version.
  • The Canadian federal capital gains tax rate is 14.5 percent, which compares to the current 15 percent in the United States and 20 percent under Obama’s tax plan.
  • Canada has no federal ministry or department of education. The K-12 schools are the sole responsibility of the provinces, yet Canadian kids  generally do better than American kids on international tests.
  • In recent years, Canada has probably been more supportive of NAFTA, and free trade in general, than its main trading partner, the United States.

Major pro-market reforms are possible in advanced welfare states – Jefferson can be proven wrong, as Canada illustrates. U.S policymakers can prove Jefferson wrong as well. They can start by cutting spending, decentralizing power out of Washington, and making pro-growth tax reforms in response to globalization, as Canada has, rather than imposing self-defeating “Buy America” provisions and making childish rants about “corporations moving jobs offshore.”

How the Welfare State Destroys Our Liberty

The welfare state has long been one of the most potent arguments for additional restrictions on our freedom.  For instance, you must wear a motorcycle helmet because if you splatter yourself all over the highway the rest of us will be paying your medical expenses. 

One of the factors considered by New Zealand in ruling on applications from would-be immigrants is health.  If you are fat — and thus at risk for various health conditions — forget it!

Reports the Daily Telegraph:

The 51-year-old, who has not been named, argued that her 52 inch waistline was no obstacle to her work as a nurse, which involved 60-hour weeks.

She was offered a job in a home and hospital for the elderly in a provincial town in New Zealand, documents from the country’s Residence Review Board said, and applied for residence in March 2008. But officials rejected the argument that 10 years’ experience as a nurse meant she should be allowed to live there — even though there is a shortage of qualified nurses.

The woman decided to move to New Zealand after a holiday in 2007 and wanted to set up home there with her husband, a crane driver, and her daughter who planned to work in a shop.

But medical advisors calculated that with a weight of 21 stone and height of 5ft 1in, her body mass index (BMI) was 55.2, putting her at a high risk of developing health problems.

This isn’t the first time New Zealand has turned down an applicant for health reasons.  Adds the Telegraph:

In 2007, a British man who moved to New Zealand was told his wife was too overweight to join him.

Taking care of the taxpayers makes sense.  But the right way to do so is not to put them at risk in the first place.  Socializing health care and then allowing government to micromanage everyone’s lifestyle creates a form of soft tyranny through the back-door.  We already see that in America with motorcycle helmet laws, increasing restrictions on smoking, and proposals for special “fat taxes” on disfavored foods.  Unfortunately, these likely are only the beginning.

Cato Unbound Update

This month’s issue of Cato Unbound has drawn an extraordinarily hostile response from a couple of mainstream online publications. Writing at Salon, Michael Lind inferred, mistakenly, that our interest in Seasteading and other radical libertarian projects was due to our disappointment that Republicans lost in the 2008 election. Because this issue was my idea, I feel I can speak effectively to the charge.

As I see things, it was basically impossible to cast either John McCain or Barack Obama as a libertarian. Neither of them shared the policy goals of the Cato Institute to any appreciable degree. Speaking as a private individual, I didn’t vote for either of them, and I don’t regret my choice. I found both Democrats and Republicans profoundly unappealing this election cycle.

This issue of Cato Unbound was motivated solely by my desire to see one particularly radical branch of libertarianism publicly confront its critics. I wanted to see how well it could hold up. Whether it stood or fell, the issue would have served its purpose. Electoral politics had nothing to do with it.

As our disclaimer makes clear, Cato Unbound doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cato Institute. No endorsement is implied. Instead, we strive to present ideas and arguments that will be interesting to libertarians and also, if possible, to the general public.

Sometimes this means soliciting opinions that are very, very far from the American mainstream, and also far from our own views. It was a proud day for me when a prominent climate change blog suggested that Hell had frozen over – because the Cato Institute had published a piece by Joseph Romm. But that’s just the kind of place that Cato Unbound has always tried to be. We court controversy.

Some of Lind’s harshest barbs were reserved for contributor Peter Thiel, and for his suggestion that, demographically speaking, women have tended to oppose libertarian policies:

According to Thiel, one problem with democracy is that women have the right to vote:

Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women – two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians – have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.

What could more beautifully illustrate the pubescent male nerd mentality of the libertarian than Thiel’s combination of misogyny with the denial of aging and death? We had a nice John Galt libertarian paradise in this country, until girls came along and messed it up!

Thiel continues:

In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms – from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’

After considering the possible mass migration (if that is not a contradiction in terms) of libertarians to cyberspace and outer space, he opts for Fantasy Island:

The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism. For this reason, all of us must wish Patri Friedman the very best in his extraordinary experiment.

Here’s an idea. Thiel could use his leverage as a donor to combine the Seasteading Institute with the Methuselah Foundation and create a make-believe island where girls aren’t allowed to vote and where nobody ever has to grow up. Call it Neverland. It would be easy for libertarian refugees from the United States and the occasional neo-Confederate to find it. Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.

Emphasis added. Owen Thomas at Gawker jumped to about the same conclusion, but with even more ad hominem.

Yet Thiel’s claim is not that women should be denied the vote. He writes only that women have tended to favor policies and candidates he opposes, and which he thinks are bad for the country. This seems – to my mind at least – regrettable, but also generally true. Thiel might have chosen his words more carefully, but it’s still quite a logical leap from what he actually wrote to demanding the end of women’s suffrage. Of course women should be able to vote. It’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise. We libertarians just need to do a better job of convincing them that voting in favor of individual liberty and free markets are the best choices they can make.

Consider that a Democrat might complain that white evangelical Christians don’t support enough Democrats, and that this works out badly for the country. No one would ever conclude that Democrats want to take away the votes of white evangelical Christians. We would all figure that they are just confronting a failure of practical politics, and perhaps trying to do better at realizing their particular vision of the world. That’s what Thiel was doing too, albeit not via electoral politics. Something about libertarians, however, seems to demand that some people read us as uncharitably as possible.

Seasteading proposes to create a demonstration of how a libertarian society might work. Its proponents believe that if it works, everyone will be drawn to it, including women. Will they succeed? I have some serious doubts, to be honest.

That’s why I set up this issue of Cato Unbound, and why I think the discussion has been valuable.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a round-up of bloggers who are writing about Cato research and commentary:

  • QandO’s Michael Wade offered his own thoughts on the New York Times blogger who said Cato’s voice against bailouts has not met her “expectations of adequate noise.”
  • The Atlantic’s Clive Crook reviewed the new Cato book, The Beautiful Tree, which explains how private education efforts are empowering children in Third World nations.
  • Blogging on Tax Day, Jacob Grier cited Charlotte Twight’s essay in Cato Journal on the history of income tax withholding in the United States.
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