All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1991

Why the Welfare State Is Immoral

“[The] social point of view . . . cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service. . . . This [to live for others], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] humanity, whose we are entirely.”

This was written by the 19th-century French social philosopher Auguste Comte. It serves well to identify the viewpoint that welfare statism—whether conservative or radical—wishes to graft onto the unique American political tradition, individualism. It is the viewpoint that drives many intellectuals in our time. On the Left it is economic welfare statism that reigns, while on the Right it is the kind of spiritual welfare statism exemplified in William F. Buckley’s recent book, Gratitude (which advocates national service for all who wish to attend college at taxpayer expense) that promotes the ideal.

Both Left and Right are critical of individualism. Both suspect it of leading to alienation or antisocial attitudes. At a time when major changes in geopolitical affairs call for answers to broad political economic questions concerning which system best suits human community life, it is vital to consider whether socialism should be replaced with its watered-down version, the welfare state, or with an individual rights-based political order. At this point the war of ideas is fought over which alternative to collectivism is best, and individualism is under widespread attack.

What exactly does individualism advocate? It maintains that each normal individual is a sovereign being so far as some very basic choices of his or her life are concerned. A person must be the final authority to decide whether to do right or wrong, to marry or remain single, to choose a career in academe or business, to volunteer for military duty or stay out of the service, to worship in line with one given religion or another, or none at all, and so on. In these matters each of us is ultimately alone. We can gain help, but make our own decisions, for which we are ultimately responsible.

Does this kind of individualism preclude the sociability of human beings? By no means.

Individualism sees human beings as originators of some of their crucial behavior—mostly their thinking processes by which they come to grips with the world around them and proceed to guide themselves. Even as every person learns a great deal from others who have come upon this world before, he or she needs to choose whom to listen to and whom to ignore, whom to trust and whom not to trust, and so forth. And what is best for individuals is most often going to involve extensive and close relationships with others. But even these will be of value only if the individual chooses without being coerced into them. This is the human condition.

Of course, many prominent thinkers disagree. For example, Karl Marx said that “the human essence is the true collectivity of man,” meaning that when we finally reach our true historical destiny, we will all be part of what he called “the organic whole” of humanity. For such thinkers human beings are but the equivalent of intelligent ants or bees, parts of a larger body, somewhat as our fingers and toes are parts of the hand and foot.

But this view fails to take account of a most fundamental human attribute—freedom of choice or free will. Admittedly, this attribute didn’t appear to be reconcilable with some of the supposedly scientific viewpoints about human nature. Many 17th- and 18th-century thinkers held—and many people still hold—that we are but a part of a mechanistic universe, following impersonal laws of nature. Any other view was deemed mystical and anti-scientific.

Yet it turns out that this belief was no more than a desperate wish, resting on hope rather than evidence. While a human being is, of course, subject to many impersonal laws, there is now evidence and there always has been convincing argument to show that when it comes to a person’s most essential capacity—abstract thought—each of us is on his own. (As a teacher it is only too obvious that we cannot make anyone think—that is always the job of the person, not of outside forces!)

From these considerations follow some very important practical points.

First, we are responsible to do well at our task of living our lives—this is our first choice, implicit in the fact that we want to live. This basic decision puts us on a course that commits us to intelligent thought and action. That is the human mode of life, with all the complexities it implies. It also explains the enormous complexity and challenge of our lives—how each generation practically re-invents culture, even while it draws on what came before.

Second, for a human community to do justice to our need to make basic choices and follow through on them, it must embody a sphere of exclusive jurisdiction for every person. This is what basic individual human rights accomplish. They are borders around us, recognizing that our lives are ours, not humanity’s or the state’s or the race’s. (Notice that every dictator first denies that a person is his or her own sovereign ruler.)

Third, private property rights are the concrete expression of our sovereignty—the poet owns his poetry, the novelist her novel, the composer his music, the industrialist her plant, the professor his book, the computer programmer her program, and so on. Of course, each will gladly exchange some of what he or she owns for what others own, provided terms are agreed to peacefully. And, of course, there is much benefit to be drawn from community. But it must also be noted that some community is intolerable to a decent person, and only if he or she is able to withdraw to his or her dominion can the judgment to reject the bad company be acted upon.

If private property rights are sound principles of a just society, then the welfare state, since it forces people to part with what is theirs even against their own choices, is unjust. To put it simply, it perpetrates legalized theft by taking from some persons what belongs to them and making it available, without the consent of the owner, to others. While the objective the government may serve by this could be justifiable and even noble, the means used to promote that objective are plainly criminal.

Of course, one can ask, how else might those objectives be achieved? The answer is, “In millions of possible peaceful ways, but not by means of the violation of the fights of individuals.” We are not to be made slaves even with the excuse that the goals of our slavery are laudable. We are not to be deprived of our honest holdings even if we do not use them as generously and wisely as others might think we ought to. Most of all, we are not to be made the subjects of kings, politburos, or majorities who devise the objectives of our lives without our consent. What we do to solve our problems, even those dire ones that lead some very decent people to yield to the pleas for the welfare state, is a matter for us to discover and implement as diligently as possible.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.