Friday, November 7, 2014

Liberty and safety nets

I've always been a bit in conflict about libertarianism.  On the surface, it's a great idea -- keep government to a minimum and people will be able to make the choices best for them without a lot of pressure.  And practically speaking, government tends to attract corruption and it wastes a lot of money.  And with so many competing interests, it often winds up not delivering a very good product in the end -- in its attempt to please everyone, it pleases no one very well.

But lately I've been running into a lot of criticism of libertarianism -- that it ignores the poor, for instance.  "Screw the poor," they say, is not a Catholic attitude -- we have a responsibility to the poor.

Now libertarians answer, quite justly, that they can care for the poor on their own time, it's not only government that can do that job.  However, it seems sometimes that the rhetoric goes further than I can agree with.  A libertarian might say that it is fundamentally unjust for their own money to be taken ("at gunpoint," as they like to put it) to help the poor, regardless of how much the poor need the money.

And that, actually, is not a Catholic view of property.  The right to life is absolute; the right to property is not.  Property is given to man to steward, but it comes with the responsibility to share with the less fortunate.  Here's St. Basil, a Father of the Church:

“But you say, ‘where is the injustice if I diligently look after my own property without interfering with other people’s?’ O impudent words! Your own property, you say. What? From what stores did you bring it into this world? When you came into the light, when you came forth from your mother’s womb, with what resources, with what reserves did you come endowed? No one may call his own what is common, of which, if a man takes more than he needs, is obtained by violence. . . Who is more unjust, more avaricious, more greedy than a man who takes the food of the multitude not for his own use but for his abundance and luxuries? The bread you hold back belongs to the needy, the clothes that you shut away belong to the naked, the money that you bury in the ground is the price of redeeming and freeing the wretched.” 

In fact, it has long been our teaching that you have no right to your excess when someone else lacks a sufficiency.  So if you are starving to death, you may morally "steal" food from someone who has more than enough, because it you have more right to it than he does.  This upsets a lot of people, raised on the idea that property is an absolute right, who think that taxation is theft.  I myself think that property isn't as simple as all that, as I wrote ages ago.  At any rate, from a Catholic moral perspective, taking from those who have more than they need to give to those who don't have what they need to survive isn't theft -- and for the government to do so on behalf of all of us is well-supported in Catholic social thought as well.

So much for the right of government to tax and to set up a safety net for the poor.  Is it practical?

First, consider the alternative, private charity taking care of everything.  Does it work?  I do not have time to waste on ideas that don't actually work.  And the libertarian answer that if only we didn't have to pay taxes, we'd have more to spare for the poor, is useless -- we do have to pay taxes and that's not likely to change.  After all, a lot of taxes don't go toward supporting the poor, but toward funding our government itself.  In short, I'm not asking what would happen in an ideal society, but what is likely to be possible in our political climate.  Is there a specific policy I can support now?  Because it is absolutely unacceptable to me to tell the poor they have to wait for help until the income tax is abolished .... i.e., forever.  Even worse is when conservatives get together to come up with things to cut from the budget, leave corporate welfare, military spending, and waste -- and cut food stamps.  That's where you're going to start?

There are many, many families right now in America who would not be able to live without the various aid programs we have now.  Unemployment is high even among those who are seeking it -- so it's no good to say "just get a job"; there aren't enough jobs.  And what about those who are not able to work, the disabled, for instance, or single mothers who are the only caregivers for their children?  There's a whole lot more need than there is available charity.  One in three children in America is born to a single mother, and half of these kids are in poverty.  How can private charity keep up with that level of need -- without letting people slip through the cracks?

Of course it's simple to say, "Those people's poverty is a result of their bad choices."  In some cases that is true.  But why should a single bad choice on the part of the parents leave the children in danger of starving?  Is that a Christian attitude?  To say nothing of how making single motherhood unaffordable does a lot more to encourage abortion than it ever has to stop people from having sex.  The thing about using poverty as the stick to "disincentivize" behavior we don't like, is that some people will not respond to the incentive and wind up being punished.  I refuse to accept that in a wealthy country like this one, any child should ever have to starve or be homeless.

So I have always bucked the libertarian trend -- if we can't come up with anything better, I say keep the safety nets where they are.  I think it's despicable for the Republicans to take a look at the Farm Bill and choose to cut food stamps -- a tiny portion of the spending on that bill, but the really crucial part.  Yes, food stamp spending is up lately -- because more Americans qualify for it.  And as for welfare, I found out a few months back that the stereotype I always hear -- the single mother too lazy to work, living off welfare checks -- is completely false.  You have to be working at least 30 hours a week or actively seeking work in order to qualify for welfare.  This doesn't make sense to me -- it seems quite the runaround to have women working 30 hours a week, spending half or more of it on daycare, and then getting a check to actually live on.  Why is it better for them to pay someone else to watch their kids so that they can bag groceries or flip burgers, when their kids would probably much prefer to have their mothers around?  Call me a socialist, but I think giving mothers the choice to care for their kids themselves is something our society could stand to invest in.  I would love to see statistics on this, but I am relatively certain that one of the things that makes the outcomes of the privileged kids so much better is that their parents have the ability to be involved.  Would letting mothers stay home without losing their welfare check help kids get out of poverty when they grow up?  I think it very well might.

To that end, I've been reading up lately on the negative income tax.  The basic principle is simple: if you make under a certain amount, instead of getting taxed, you get a check to help make up the difference.  It's scaled so that any hours worked will increase the total amount a person has to live on.  For instance, if you were getting a check for $10,000 a year, and get a job that pays $5,000, your check doesn't decrease to $5,000, but to, say, $7,500, so that now you have a total of $12,500 to live on.  But even if you don't work, you still get something -- a sort of bare minimum, depending on how many people are in your household, and what it might take for them to survive.  Ideally I think you'd want to have the thresholds set differently depending on where you lived and what the cost of living was.

What I like best about it is that it does not police or infantalize the poor.  When poor people are constantly required to justify their existence, prove they're searching for work, only get aid that can be used for specific things.  And yet, what poor people need the most is just money.  They know better than anyone what they need to spend it on -- medical bills, daycare, groceries, an old car so they can stop spending all their time and money on the bus.  Isn't the fear that "they'll just blow it on stupid stuff" a way of saying poor people are dumb, that they can't be trusted to look out for themselves?  Sure, you'll blow it on stupid stuff if you're stuck in a poverty trap and don't think you can ever get out, but if you have a reliable source of income, you have hope of improvement, and you will use the money you get to climb out of poverty.

I asked a friend today if he thought this system would keep people from working -- would they just sit on their duff and accept a bare-bones existence rather than getting a job?  And he pointed out that even not working for a paycheck can be an investment.  J.K. Rowling was on welfare when she wrote her books.  Would we really want her flipping burgers for fear of starvation, when a few years of leeway allowed her to write the books that let her escape poverty for good?  Being able to take a year or two off from the workforce (albeit with a very low standard of living -- we can't afford to make it luxurious, and we wouldn't really want to make it too comfy anyway) means that people can go to school, take care of kids, start a business, do some job training, and permanently get out of poverty instead of constantly having to choose short-term survival over long-term success.  Now some people might choose not to work.  But that's the case now; there are always people who will find a way to game the system.  Still, I do believe most of us don't like living off of charity of any kind; we have a strong instinct to support ourselves, to give back.

I'd be interested in learning more about this.  It's not, strictly speaking, a libertarian solution, but it was favored by Milton Friedman and F. E. Hayek, which (to me) means that some hardcore capitalist smarts back it up.  And it means less bureaucracy and government interference without neglecting the poor.  What do you think?


The Sojourner said...

I am sort of libertarian-ish in theory but in practice I am kind of happy for government "handouts" because otherwise we'd be screwed.

We used our tax credit this past year to pay off a massive 7% interest rate student loan that my husband took on many years ago because hey, if you go to a good college and get a good job those loans are like an INVESTMENT.

Crappiest investment ever, let me tell you.

Sheila said...

No kidding. If I had known in 2004 what the economy in 2008 (the year I graduated) was going to do, I would have studied some kind of science. But in 2004 they were telling us that a degree, ANY degree, was guaranteed to increase your income exponentially. I certainly didn't expect so many of my classmates to be unemployed for a year or more after graduation. It was particularly bitter when John was a bank teller, and when he would tell his coworkers he'd been to college, they would say, "Then what are you doing here? You have a degree, you could be doing anything!" Ha ha haaaaaaaa. The only difference between us and them was that we had debt.

However, I must admit that by now, after years and years of struggle, we're doing okay. We actually have a date in mind when we'll be debt-free. That's a beautiful, beautiful feeling .... only thing better is going to be when we actually ARE debt-free.

Hope better days are in store for you, too.

Enbrethiliel said...


I also don't think that the poor should have to justify their existence or their need for aid. But this is something that I've thought about for a while: we shouldn't help each other just because of rules or quid pro quo or other detached (and detaching) reasons, but because we're part of one body and we actually can't detach from each other. That is my understanding of the passage you quote from St. Basil: the bread that we own can belong to others who are hungry because we are one body with them, too.

But a body isn't a formless blob. It's something organised so that the members can know their roles clearly. And so it seems logical that there should be a leader of some sort--or even a class (Yes, I know how the word sounds) of people with some authority to call the shots and to direct the charity efforts. This is why I go on to think that there are some obligations that can be laid on the poor. Even if it's only the basic obligation not to bite the hand that feeds them. This isn't to say that they should be "starved out" if they refuse, but that it should be clear to all what the marks of being part of one body are--even if some end up rejecting them anyway.

Sheila said...

Oh, no question about that. I was pondering the other day why I'm so reluctant to accept gifts or offers from help from others. I realized that as humans we have a desire to, if not give more than we receive, at least not to receive more than we give. It makes you feel inferior, worthless, a drain, a leech. Of course some people are stuck receiving more than they give, but given the choice and the ability to give back, most of us will choose to do so. Heck, it's why I didn't go to grad school -- I felt guilty that my parents had paid for so much of my college (more than they had planned to) and I felt I should get to earning money right away. Anyway studying is kind of a taking, from a society-wide perspective, while working is giving. I didn't feel comfortable taking any more till I had given something. If I ever do get a higher degree, it will be after having contributed more.

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