Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A welfare liberal libertarian?

I sometimes consider myself a Rawlsian libertarian. Not always, but sometimes.

This is because I agree with the intuition that it is morally right that "we" (royal "we") have a responsibility to help the worst-off, the badly treated, and the trotted upon. We really *should* have welfare-like institutions.

I call them "welfare-like institutions" rather than just welfare for three good reasons. For one, we can't conclude from the fact that we have a moral responsibility to help the badly-off that it is some precise and specific institution that should do this. It's an open question whether the government is the right institution that will allow us to put our moral responsibility into practice. It just doesn't follow.

For two, moral responsibility implies a choice. There is a difference between a legal responsibility and a moral responsibility. Setting up a governmental welfare institution is to generate a legal responsibility, and not necessarily a moral one. We fail to act on our moral responsibilities if we are made to act in some way for fear of some evil befalling us. Like being sent to jail. Or being fined. Or getting grounded. A child is not acting morally when she shares her toys with her brother because she is under the threat of being grounded if she does not share. She acts morally when she chooses to share for the reason that she thinks it is the morally right thing to do.

The same is true with welfare. We do not act morally when we pay our taxes when we do so out of fear of being punished. We might if we do so out of a sense of moral responsibility.

And for three, it might turn out that non-governmental institutions will do the trick. This is an empirical question, and needs empirical studies to work. Maybe people will deny that this is true. Maybe charities and voluntary, non-governmental institutions will not be sufficient. Maybe. But we need to at least answer the empirical question, since governmental institutions come at a significant expense compared to equivalent voluntary institutions.

It's interesting to point out that Rawls himself, in the preface to the second edition of his A Theory of Justice (somewhere around pages 11 - 13), writes that he did not intend to justify the welfare state. To make sense of this claim we have to take the above three points into consideration. I take it that Rawls had something like the three things above in mind when he made this claim.

So that's one reason for thinking that a Rawlsian, or welfare liberal, libertarian is not entirely implausible. Here's another reason. This reason should appeal to ordinary welfare liberals from the left, and it is a reason that appeals to me.

Suppose the following is true. Suppose Bob, a welfare liberal, strongly supports a welfare state. His theory of justice demands the inclusion of a welfare state. Suppose he also virulently objects to a warfare state. His theory of justice says that war, in the overwhelming majority of cases, is morally illegitimate. Suppose further that Bob ranks his opposition to war higher than his support of government-run welfare. We might say that he considers the benefits of a welfare state at, say, 60, but the negative harm of a warfare state at -90.

I think Bob describes a great many Americans and Canadians who consider themselves on the left of the spectrum. We should help one another, even make people help one another, these sorts of people would say, but we should not engage in wars.

Follow me so far? Okay, here's the other important assumption I will ask you to grant for the sake of argument. Suppose that it is true that the governmental institutions we set up for the purposes of a welfare state have a 70 per cent likelihood of also engaging in war. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that governmental institutions are like that, for some reason.

Bob, the welfare liberal, makes the following calculation.
"If we set up a government, we can expect a benefit of 60. There is, however, a 70% chance of this government engaging in war, which would yield a harm of -90. If we multiply the probability of engaging in war by the harm of a war, we get -63. Subtracting the expected harm from the expected benefit yields a net expected benefit of -3."
Bob wants a welfare state. He is a genuine welfare liberal. But he really doesn't want war. He sings to himself, "War. Huh. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!" And he believes the lyrics. But his calculation has led him to the conclusion that he should expect a harm if we set up a welfare state, even though Bob wants that. What should Bob conclude? He should conclude that, in practice, we shouldn't have a welfare state (because it is likely to engage in war) even though, in theory, we should have a welfare state.
"If only we could have a welfare state without a warfare state," he laments to himself. "But I'm not a naive welfare liberal, I take empirical facts seriously, and I am honest about what I expect."

All I am trying to show is the possibility of a welfare liberal libertarian. I am making no claims about the status of the numbers used. If you adjust the numbers, you might conclude something else. Suppose you think the benefit of a welfare state is 70, rather than 60, for instance, keeping the probability of war the same. That would mean a net benefit of seven to our society. In that case, the welfare liberal should support government-run welfare, even though he can expect wars.

Whether or not any particular welfare liberal should fight for a libertarian society will depend on her beliefs about the probabilities, and her rankings of the relative benefits and harms of a welfare state as compared with a warfare state.

On what basis should she ground her probability claims? One approach would be to take a historical sample of liberal welfare states, and see how many of them also engaged in the sorts of wars that she strongly opposes. My (strong) suspicion is that the probability will be higher than 70 per cent.

I have abstracted away one other component of the argument for simplicity's sake, but I should at least mention it since it will strengthen my claim. The benefit that we have assumed comes without a probability assesment. But the benefit is not guaranteed. Welfare states make mistakes. Sometimes rich people get welfare. Sometimes poor people fall through the cracks. No welfare state is perfect. Thus, we must also downgrade the expected benefit of a welfare state by appeal to a probability of actually getting the benefit. That probability will be less than "unity" (as they say), or 100%.

There will be a less-than 100% probability of the benefit (welfare), just as there is a less-than 100% probability of the harm (war). It would be neat to put together a welfare liberal libertarian calculator, so that you could input your own preferred probabilities, and your own preferred relative benefit and harm assessments. I don't have the skills for this. But I wonder just how many welfare liberals would actually turn out to be libertarians, for non-traditional (or non-standard) reasons.

You would be, morally speaking, a welfare liberal. You would be, politically speaking, a libertarian.


  1. I really like this idea, and your generally consequentialist approach to libertarianism. I have but time now to press a few points, and then I'd like to see what others have to say.

    1- in your beginning discussion about moral responsibilities to the poor, I'm worried about the assumption that if the government takes charge of the welfare practices, we will only comply (give money) out of fear of punishment. It might be like this for some, but I think it's a minority. If I'm a generous sort of person, but don't have time or energy to find just the right charity, I think I'd like there to be an organization that will assess need broadly and distribute accordingly. There's surely more to say about this, and whether the government is best suited for this job or not, but I'm the sort of person who does not mind paying taxes when I know they will do some good.

    2- since there will be many more aspects to the state than welfare and warfare, I'm tempted to say that Bob will have many other reasons besides welfare to favor bigger government than just the charity aspect, skewing the numbers somewhat. Also, I doubt that Bob (unless he's a real radical) dislikes ALL aspects of the warfare state. After all, he feels safe because the army has the capacity to protect him, and because the police will arrive at his door when he calls about a burgler. What Bob needs is a state that distributes welfare (and takes care of things like roads and such), that has the ability to defend itself, but is not aggressive towards other countries.

    Where is such a place? I'm not sure we have one that quite fits the bill, but we have states that come close (dare I say canada?). I think that Bob looks around and says that there are model states that inspire some optimism about the welfare state, and it's too bad about all that warfare. Are there countries that are close to the libertarian ideal? I'm not being sassy, I'm actually not sure.

    This may be an important factor in assessing probabilities and predicting outcomes. What places can serve as example states? As I've said, I think there are a few that come close to what Bob wants using big government (let's add some scandinavian countries to that list). Are there places that come close to Bob's ideal using minimal government?

  2. I know this isn't the main point here, but I've never really gotten arguments that are significantly troubled by people being made to give money.

    I suppose it depends on the nature of the goods you take to be at stake, but it seems to me that if we have a responsibility to help the worst off, that's probably because it's bad for them to suffer, or for there to be inequality, or whatever the motivating concern is. That suggests that the chief good at stake invovles their welfare, not my moral standing - whether or not I fulfilled my moral duty free of coercion). I'm inclined to not give the latter any weight at all (in my obviously unsympathetic eyes, it smacks of individualistic religious worry - caring only for the goodness, and eternal prospects of, my soul), but even if there is some intrinsic value in people freely meeting moral obligations (as opposed the benefits that brings, or is likely to bring if developed as a disposition), is it really more important than the worse off being helped, via coercion if that does so more effectively?

    As for the actual issue, is it better to model entire states which, taken as a whole, come closest to one's ideals, or to look at particular policies relevant to a more particular goal (infant healthcare, distribution of welfare benefits)? I was initially thinking the second way would be both more feasible and more effective, but I guess that it depends on the extent to which the kind of effects we're talking about (the overall welfare of the worse off) can be brought about through particular policies, and the extent to which they depend on (the unintended consequences of?) the larger political and cultural situation. Are Swedish welfare programs enough to improve the well-being of the worst off Texans, or do you need a Swedish mindset as well?
    Would you need to copy the whole system, implementing policies that have no discernible direct effect on welfare as well as those that do?

    In practice, it probably doesn't matter all that much since you probably can't get your policies all that far ahead of your political culture, but I'd think that there can be some divide between the two, so was wondering.

  3. Good to see some new content here again! I'm a little short on time, so only a short reply to an interesting post (which I have some sympathy with):
    "On what basis should she ground her probability claims? One approach would be to take a historical sample of liberal welfare states, and see how many of them also engaged in the sorts of wars that she strongly opposes."

    I think that this would be a mistake. The state is not some fixed entity with a fixed structure and set of rules. I wonder if there's something to be said for the claim that we can now arrange states so as to better promote welfare, and better avoid war, than we have done before. I believe it's a plausible fact that modern day democracies are the countries least likely to go to war.