The Welfare State Myth – Part 4

This is part 4 in a five-part series. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

“Your side is driven by ideology. My side is just looking at the facts and doing what common sense would dictate.” Isn’t that what we always hear in political debates? Well, Mike Konczal’s essay on the welfare state is no exception.

In his account, opponents of the welfare state are motivated by their ideology to rewrite history in pursuit of a delusional vision. But the early Progressives who conceived the welfare state and the modern Progressives who fight to expand it? They’re all just trying to fix real-life problems.

For instance, in his section “Why Public Insurance Is Better,” Konczal highlights three supposed failures of private charity that only government can solve. Following scholar Lester Salamon, he calls them philanthropic insufficiency, philanthropic particularism, and philanthropic paternalism.

Philanthropic insufficiency “occurs when the voluntary sector can’t generate enough resources to provide social insurance at a sufficient scale.”

Philanthropic particularism refers to the fact that, “Private charity has a tendency to focus only on specific groups, particularly groups that are considered either ‘deserving’ or similar in-groups.”

Philanthropic paternalism refers to the fact that when charity is performed by private individuals, “there is, in practice, a disproportionate amount of power that rests in the hands of those with the greatest resources. This narrow control of charitable resources, in turn, channels aid toward the interests and needs of those who already hold large amounts of power.”

In other words, the problem with private charity, according to Konczal, is that people get to decide how much of their own money to contribute, they get to direct their contributions to the causes they care about, and they get to decide the terms on which they’ll contribute.

Here’s the irony. All three of these “voluntary failures” are problems only if you accept Konczal’s ideological premises — above all if you believe that a person’s need entitles him to other people’s money.

If each individual is an end in himself, if he has a right to exist for the sake of his own happiness, if he should be free to use the money he earns to pursue his own hopes and dreams, if his freedom includes the right to pick and choose which people are worth dealing with and helping — then in that case, the “problems” Konczal cites aren’t really problems.

But if you believe we’re duty-bound to set aside our own hopes and dreams in order to serve society, then Konczal is right: private charity is a lousy way to go about it, since recalcitrant individuals are free to assert their own interests.

Revealingly, it never occurs to Konczal that anyone might reject his ideological premises. I suspect he doesn’t even view this moral outlook as ideological. No, to him it’s just one more bit of common sense. He’s on safe territory there: few challenge the moral notion that the individual has a duty to serve others. When it comes to the notion that we are our brother’s keeper, even most of the people whose views on the welfare state Konczal is criticizing agree.

But if you support a voluntary society, i.e., capitalism, then it is above all Konczal’s ideology that you need to challenge.