Ignoring the Victims of the Welfare State

Over at the American Enterprise Institute blog, James Pethokoukis takes me to task for opposing a government “safety net,” i.e., for advocating the total abolition of the welfare state.

Pethokoukis is dismissive of my moral argument: that each individual has a right to exist for his own sake, and that it’s immoral to force some people to sacrifice their own hopes and dreams for the benefit of others. It’s a “dorm-room argument,” he says, since we’re not likely to convince Americans to question the welfare state “any decade or generation soon.”

Now you might mistake Pethokoukis for taking a stance similar to his colleague Charles Murray, who has argued that while he would prefer to see the welfare state done away with, political realities compel us to look for ways to make the welfare state less destructive. Indeed, in my original post, I commended Paul Ryan for trying to do just that.

But that’s not the stand Pethokoukis is taking. As he suggests in his post and as he said explicitly in a Twitter exchange we later had, he views the welfare state as good, and quotes his boss Arthur Brooks as saying “this war against the social safety net . . . is just insane. The government social safety net for the truly indigent is one of the greatest achievements of our society.”

Pethokoukis can’t have it both ways. He can’t assert that the welfare state is a moral achievement and then brush aside a challenge to the moral status of the welfare state on the grounds that it is a political non-starter. Either he’s taking a moral stand or he’s not — and if he is, then he has an obligation to back up that stand.

To be fair, he does say something about why he supports the welfare state. “[I]t is a stubborn fact that the safety net has cut US poverty, material deprivation, in half since the 1960s.” What he has in mind is not the poverty rate, which was plummeting in the years before Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty” went into effect, and has remained basically flat ever since, but presumably the fact that, thanks to government handouts, poor Americans are able to consume several times their official income.

But notice that in justifying the welfare state by reference to how it allegedly serves the needy, yet not saying a word about the people who are being forced to pay for their handouts, Pethokoukis doesn’t answer the point I made in my initial post — he reinforces it. I wrote:

What I find offensive about Ryan’s (and by extension Pethokoukis’s) whole approach is that it doesn’t regard the rights and well-being of those forced to pay for the welfare state as worthy of much, if any, consideration. Instead, it starts by observing that some people are in need and jumps immediately to the question of what welfare state programs would most help them.

Pethokoukis in his follow-up still refuses to give consideration to the men and women who are forced to fund the welfare state. I do not regard their victimization as a “dorm-room argument.”