Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Contra Slate's Jordan Weissmann, the Government "Safety Net” is Not Necessary—Nor Moral

Jordan Weissmann argues at Slate that Private Charity Can’t Replace the Safety Net. Citing a Democracy article by Mike Konczal, Weissmann argues that charity and other private efforts tend to shrink just when they are “needed” most; during sharp economic downturns. Contrarily, during serious hard times, government programs necessarily expand, thus filling the void left by shrinking private efforts.

Weissmann’s argument fails on at least three counts.

First of all, Weissmann does not objectively define what constitutes “need”: He simply assumes that everyone signing up for government “aide” deserves it, regardless of their personal circumstances. This is absurd. There are tens of millions of such individuals. How can anyone know the circumstances of each and every one of them? We’ll return to this point later.

Secondly, Weissmann cites the Great Depression and recent Great Recession to back up his argument. He acknowledges that:

Before the New Deal and the modern welfare state, Americans relied much more heavily upon volunteer groups, fraternal societies, and other sorts of private aid (government played some role too).

"Then," he writes, "came the crash"—and the alleged need for a massive government safety net.

Tellingly, Weissmann ignores the primary role that government interference into the economy played in causing those two economic calamities. The government's role in causing and exacerbating the Great Depression has been well-documented by leading scholars. Milton Friedman, whose work, The Great Contraction, convinced former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke of the Fed’s leading role in bringing on the Depression. Amity Schlaes and Burton Folsom Jr. provide plenty of scholarly evidence for the government as primary culprit. The government's primary role in causing the Great Recession has been convincingly documented by Thomas Sowell and John A. Allison.

Weissmann justifies massive government redistribution programs based on economic calamities which were themselves caused by government. This is, to say the least, disingenuous, especially considering the history of the prior century. As Yaron Brook and Don Watkins document in Forbes, Americans before the entitlement state generally took care of themselves and recovered from temporary hard times on their own or with help from personal acquaintances. And for the desperately needy, private charity was plentiful. No one in America "starved in the streets."

Most egregiously, though, is what Weissmann argues is "the key difference between government and charity":

Where private giving might dry up in a particularly nasty recession, federal safety net programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps act as what economists call “automatic stabilizers,” meaning the worse the economy gets, the more money they pump out.

Wrong. The key difference between a government safety net and private charity is a fundamental moral one: Unlike private charity, government programs violate individual rights—specifically, the right of each individual to decide who, when, and in what capacity to help others—by forcibly redistributing wealth from those who earned it to those who didn't. Only private charity, being based on voluntary giving of time, merchandise, or money, is morally legitimate.

And this gets us back to my first point. Who gets to decide the standard by which “need” is determined? Weissmann’s basic argument in support of the welfare state is that charity is simply not enough to alleviate the hardship of the needy, based solely on the number of people tapping into government programs. By what right does he set the choices of the takers as the standard of “enough?” Weissmann’s premise is not only historically false, it is irrelevant. The bottom line is that, morally, “enough" is not whatever the needy (or their self-described "champions") demand. Enough is rightfully whatever giving individuals personally deem appropriate to give voluntarily.

Practically, we do not need the welfare state. Morally, we should not have it, anyway. We need to get government out of the economy, and out of the charity business. We need to respect and protect every individual’s right to live by his own judgement, for his own benefit; not just regarding charity, but in all areas of life.

Related Reading:

The Welfare State Myth: ARI’s Don Watkins takes on Mike Konczal in 5 parts

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