Molecular Individualism

The Associations Possible in a Free Society Create Higher Living Standards

In his book Reasons for Welfare: The Political Theory of the Welfare State (1988), Robert E. Goodin claims to have caught opponents of the welfare state in a contradiction: while decrying dependency on government, he writes, they counsel people who are in difficult circumstances to rely on family, friends, and voluntary associations for assistance. Why is that form of dependency better? Goodin wonders. He argues that, in fact, the welfare state is preferable to the voluntary sector because the latter can treat the weak and vulnerable arbitrarily. In contrast, the welfare state, with its underlying theory of welfare rights, protects the vulnerable from exploitation.

Goodin manages to pack quite a few fallacies into one thesis. First, he misses the important point that the welfare state requires the confiscation of people’s earnings; that is, it uses the threat of violence to obtain the resources that it then mercifully distributes. Private-sector assistance, of course, does not. There is a big moral difference, then, between relying on government and relying on voluntary forms of help. That difference has far-reaching implications. The welfare-state beneficiary who believes he has a right to other people’s money is likely to be more virulently dependent than someone who accepts voluntary help rendered in a spirit of good will. Moreover, government can be arbitrary: legislators change the rules when political winds shift. Yesterday welfare, today workfare, tomorrow? Who knows? Private charity is more likely to be based on firm principle or religious conviction. That charities years ago distinguished between the deserving and undeserving poor was not a matter of arbitrariness but rather of deeply held belief.

Goodin most likely thinks that advocates of laissez faire are really “atomistic individualists” who believe people should be self-sufficient. Why an atomistic individualist would laud the marketplace has never been explained. What is more solidly rooted in cooperation—a benign dependence on others—than the market’s division of labor and voluntary exchange? We can achieve far higher living standards and far more satisfying lives by availing ourselves of the variety of associations possible in a free society. That’s a dependency no libertarian ever objected to. Call it “molecular individualism.” What advocates of the freedom philosophy object to is the reliance on physical force, either directly or indirectly through the welfare state, to achieve one’s ends.

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In this issue, economist Dwight Lee looks ahead to his eligibility for Social Security. It occurs to him that his benefits will depend on the willingness of workers to faithfully pay their taxes. Here, in an open letter to young people, he takes his best shot at persuading them to support the system—for, ahem, their own sake.

Compromise is necessary and proper in many areas of life. But is it possible to compromise on a moral principle? Leonard E. Read takes up that question this month in our reprint series, “Anything That’s Peaceful,” honoring the centenary of the birth of FEE’s founding president.

Homeschooling is growing, and government school officials know it. That could be why they are offering homeschooling families various tempting goodies with the inevitable strings. Chris Cardiff cautions families against getting ensnared.

Urban policy expert Sam Staley makes it his business to observe how municipal governments stifle entrepreneurship and thereby diminish the vitality of cities. He focuses on the hamstringing of the taxicab business and wonders if bureaucrats will ever learn.

When Mother Teresa died last year, people might have wondered why poverty persists in India. Economist Parth Shah, who directs the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi, examines two possible explanations and suggests a path to prosperity.

Americans widely know that labor law permits unions in some states to force workers to be dues-paying members. Labor economist Charles Baird surveys the law and key court cases and says that is an example of knowing something that isn’t so.

A prominent accounting firm set aside a day to “give something back” to the community. That, writes George Leef, implies that the firm doesn’t routinely produce value for others in the course of everyday business. Was the firm unwittingly sending an anti-capitalistic message?

Historically, the jury has served as a protective layer between citizen and state through its right to nullify laws when they would produce injustice in particular cases. Today that role is kept secret. Nathan Lapp discusses the courts’ usurpation of jury rights and its link to the decline of liberty.

Tibor Machan has been listening to government public service announcements and finds them wanting in the truth department. Should the government lie to us even for a “good cause”? Machan has doubts but finds a silver lining.

When John Hood branded tax-financed welfare as “theft” during a debate, an opponent argued that society had a just claim to people’s incomes because it was indispensable to the production of wealth. Hood found a refutation of that argument in the works of classical liberal philosopher John Locke.

The founder of General Motors, William Durant, was an innovative and persevering entrepreneur. Burt Folsom, drawing on his new book, Empire Builders (which is reviewed in this issue), tells the story of this fascinating man who made so many lives better.

We could each be doing more to increase the nation’s gross domestic product. Lawrence Parks has a few suggestions. But please be careful.

Our regular columnists also contribute their sparkling insights. Doug Bandow proposes a link between privatization of Social Security and repeal of corporate welfare programs; Lawrence Reed tells of privatization efforts in Michigan; and Mark Skousen comments on the new edition of Paul Samuelson’s Economics.

The book review section spotlights volumes on topics that include exploration of outer space, Afrocentrism, immigration, education, reputation, assimilation, and the legacy of columnist Warren Brookes.

—Sheldon Richman

Further Reading