How To End the Welfare State With One Simple Question

In a recent debate on the welfare state, I was asked whether I thought it was important to help others. That, I said, was not the right question. In a free society, people help others all the time — parents help children, neighbors help neighbors, private charities help orphans.

The question you need to ask when you’re thinking about the welfare state is not, “Should I help others?” It’s, “Do some people have a right to be supported by others? Are they entitled to turn other people into their servants? Is their need, regardless of its source, a claim on other people’s time, effort, and property?”

To answer those questions, I gave the audience one piece of advice. Put yourself in the shoes of someone in need, I said. If you couldn’t afford an operation, would you march over to your neighbor and demand his wallet? Would you belligerently tell him: “I’m entitled to your support”? Would you regard your need as a claim?

Or, would you ask for help? And would you understand if he said, “Sorry, I’m trying to build my business, pay mortgage, and send my kids to college”?

The widespread support for the welfare state in the United States depends in part on people never thinking about it from that perspective. Americans are generous, and so long as the question is, “Wouldn’t you help out people down on their luck?” they’ll almost always say yes. But once the question is reframed as, “Do you think your need entitles you to a handout?” the real meaning of welfare becomes stark.

That’s why the most revealing part of the debate was this. As soon as my opponent got a chance to respond, he refused to say whether he thought his need entitled him to a handout. Instead, he went right back to asserting that we have a responsibility to help others, proving my point: the only way to make his case plausible was to evade the real issue.