All Commentary
Tuesday, June 1, 1999

A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State

What's Wrong with the Welfare State?

Ellen Frankel Paul is professor of political science and philosophy and deputy director of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University.

David Kelley, erstwhile professor of philosophy, social commentator, and executive director of the Institute for Objectivist Studies, has written a marvelous yet slim volume exposing virtually everything that is wrong with the welfare state. Kelley’s writing is always pellucid—an academic’s word for clear—and utterly comprehensible, which no doubt explains why he left college teaching. This book is simply outstanding.

Kelley is a superb synthesist, and one could hardly do better than to purchase a copy of A Life of One’s Own to acquire an understanding of the defects of the welfare state. Here one finds elegant refutations of the key arguments that opponents of America’s tradition of individual liberty have employed to undermine our freedom. Primary among these is the notion of “welfare rights,” which he argues are spurious because they are parasitic on the efforts of other people: one person’s right to welfare payments as an unwed mother, for example, is dependent on the coerced transfer of money from its rightful owners, the taxpayers who actually earned it. In contrast, the natural rights of life, liberty, and property are not parasitic on the efforts of others, and ask of others only that they not interfere with what is mine and thine. What is fundamentally wrong with “welfare rights” is that they cannot be implemented without violating liberty rights.

Kelley is at his most instructive when he analyzes why the welfare state developed out of the Industrial Revolution. Defenders of individual liberty, free markets, and limited government often are weak on the question of why such appealing doctrines have fared so poorly in the twentieth century. Kelley provides some interesting answers. Tracing the origins of the welfare state back to Bismarck’s Germany of the 1880s—with its payroll taxes to fund unemployment, accident, health, and old-age insurance—Kelley shows how American resistance to this Prussian model broke down under the pressure of the Great Depression and the exhortations of prominent social activists and academics.

Fundamentally, these welfare state initiatives were a response to changes in the way people led their lives during the Industrial Revolution. In the new economy based on employment for a wage, the vagaries of economic cycles, chance, and bad luck played a much more significant role in people’s lives, and they desired protection against those risks. Disabling accidents in the factory, sickness of the breadwinner, old age, and unemployment were potential calamities that wage earners and their families faced. This broadened the constituency for governmental remedies beyond the narrower band of the chronically poor.

While conceding that these risks were real, Kelley shows how they were being addressed by insurance, friendly societies, and other voluntary charitable associations. In other words, he sees nothing inevitable about the development of the welfare state. For such voluntary remedies to have been usurped by state programs, a “sea change in thinking about the problems of poverty and economic risk” had to have transpired. The transformation from private to public provision of assistance could not have happened from economic causes alone, Kelley contends, but rather, resulted from a revolution in “ideas, values and philosophical outlook.”

Virulent critics of individualism set the moral stage for the welfare state’s assault on liberty. Ideas essential to liberty—such as the morality of self-interest and the efficacy of reason—were ridiculed and repudiated. The “new liberals” paved the way for the welfare state in five key ways, Kelley argues: (1) by redefining freedom into a spurious “positive freedom” to be taken care of by the state, (2) by redefining “coercion” to mean what employers do to their employees by offering them a wage, rather than the threatening of people with harm if they don’t obey, (3) by undermining individualism with the claim that we are all helpless creatures of social forces, (4) by advocating a secular variant of altruism that replaced service to God with service to society, and (5) by undermining the distinction between society and the state, and deifying the latter.

Kelley concludes his demolition of the welfare state on an optimistic note. Just as communism imploded when its myth of a workers’ paradise wrought by central planning lost its credibility, so might the welfare state collapse under the weight of its myths and nearly bankrupt programs.

Not as sanguine by nature as Kelley, I do hope that his powers of prognostication are keen. I wonder, though, whether a system based on pure evil, like communism, is more vulnerable to collapse than one grounded on smaller, subtler evils, like the welfare state. We shall see.