All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 1996

Private Rights and Public Illusions

The Welfare State Neither Reflects nor Promotes Human Dignity

In many quarters these days it is fashionable to debunk the so-called “myth of the individual.” Tibor Machan’s book might be seen as a refreshing debunking of the “myth of the public.” I say refreshing, partly because those who debunk the first myth are often victims of the second. In addition, although his is not the first book to call into question the value of attributing all goodness to the public, it is one of the few to question the public as the repository of all that is morally good.

Machan contrasts his approach directly with the more usual economic criticisms of public endeavors by focusing on the moral defects of thinking in terms of the “public welfare.” The problem of the public welfare is not primarily one of having to choose between economic efficiency on the one hand and moral propriety on the other. Rather, it is one of justice, dignity, and well-being versus their opposites. The critical chapter in this regard is the third, where Machan discusses human dignity and the welfare state. Contrary to most of the rhetoric we hear, the welfare state neither reflects nor promotes human dignity. Human dignity for Machan is based upon personal responsibility, which he labels the “individualist tradition.” The welfare state—with the “welfarist” ideas that surround it—is, by contrast, committed to substituting “collective judgment” or goals for that of the individual. The degree to which the trend toward the collective is carried through is thus the degree to which one departs from human dignity.

We may be tempted to claim that Machan’s is simply one moral perspective combatting another, with the solution coming from outside the realm of morality altogether (e.g., from social science or law). One of the valuable aspects of this book is that the reader soon discovers how unstated moral principles are influential in guiding the methodologies and conclusions of both social science and law. There are, then, no “value neutral” platforms, so we might just as well come to terms with the moral issues directly. Machan’s third chapter sets the tone by letting us know that since the welfare state is no purveyor of human dignity, the many aspects of life it is involved with are also tainted with moral problems, if not blatant injustices. The layout of the book, therefore, is based on discussion of where the tentacles of the welfare state have caught hold in various aspects of the market: labor, safety, the professions, pollution, advertising, and the like. In each of these areas the illusions of the public are brought forth. Despite Machan’s vigorous defense of individual fights, his tone is not angry or polemical. He makes an effort to present the case for a position before offering his account of its problematic character, because he is aware that our political traditions are complex and sometimes ambiguous.

From the general welfare clause of the Constitution to various sequences of court decisions, certain ambiguities, tensions, and ultimately illusions are easily created and reinforced. The blend of elements that can lead to confusion is perhaps most strikingly presented in the chapter on national labor policy, also the longest in the book. Through a combination of court postures and a certain sort of economic reasoning, we see clearly how a policy often inimical to individual responsibility could arise.

This book is part of a series of works on political economy sponsored by the Independent Institute. If political economy is an integration of knowledge from different disciplines of relevance to social and political life, then it is not simply the conclusions of this book that should interest us, but its approach as well. Moral issues and theories are not of theoretical interest alone, but embedded in the bowels of our social, political, and economic institutions.

Professor Den Uyl is a visiting scholar at Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, Indiana.