The Garden of Eden Premise

The other day I was thumbing through an interesting book, Pursuing Liberty: America Through the Eyes of the Newly Free, which contains interviews with eight American immigrants. It really captured what I think is one of the most notable and admirable characteristics of immigrants to this country: how many of them come expecting to work for a better life. They value freedom, not because it makes life easy, but because it makes success possible.


Whatever barriers there are in the way of rising from rags to riches, notice that even today, it is common for poor immigrants from Asia and Cuba to work their way to prosperity. They don’t expect to be given anything — not a job, an education, a business loan, or even a guarantee that hard work will bring them success. All they ask for, and all they need, is for no one to stop them.


What you learn when you talk to supporters of the welfare state is that they regard this as unfair. Success, in their view, shouldn’t require struggle, effort, risk, and uncertainty. They expect life to guarantee that all of people’s wants and needs are automatically satisfied, as in the Garden of Eden.


You can call that expectation of effortless satisfaction the Garden of Eden Premise. So: everyone deserves a comfortable retirement, regardless of how much they choose to save. Everyone deserves the best health care, regardless of whether they choose to buy health insurance. Everyone deserves to own a home, regardless of whether they have good credit. And since nature hasn’t seen fit to guarantee us these things like it should, a just society should guarantee them by forcing some people to pay for the retirement, health care, and housing of others.


How is a just society to guarantee these things? By having the government confiscate the wealth of those who work hard and make good decisions, and dispensing it to others, including those who haven’t bothered to work hard and make good decisions.


On the face of it, that’s unjust, and the key to making sense of many of the arguments of the welfare state’s supporters is realizing that the purpose of these arguments is to cover up this injustice.


Is it unjust to take from people what they earn and give it to others? Who says they earned it? They didn’t build that. Society made it possible, and so they need to give something back.


Or: Who says justice is about giving people what they earn? A fair society is one that gives people what they need.


One of Ayn Rand’s important insights was that people’s political and moral views are tied to certain metaphysical views that are held either explicitly or implicitly — views about the nature of reality and of man. If you’re going to change the way people think about the welfare state, you have to be able to spot and refute the Garden of Eden Premise.