What Squeegee Bandits Can Teach Us About the Welfare State

Somewhere near the bottom of Dante’s nine levels of hell rest the “squeegee bandits.” These were the guys who waited for your car to stop at a traffic light, and then — without permission — quickly squeegeed your windshield “clean.” This was inevitably followed by pushy demands for payment, and even threats to smash your windshield if you didn’t comply.

According to some of the welfare state supporters I’ve debated, this is the paradigm for a moral society. People do things for you, and now you owe them. Older Americans paid for the government schools that educated you, so now you owe them Social Security. They paid for the roads, so now you owe them Medicare. They slaved and sacrificed for you, and now it’s your turn to slave and sacrifice for them.

What’s missing is your consent. In a free society, other people don’t get to impose what they regard as benefits on you and then extract what they regard as a fair price from you. Can you imagine trying to make it through the mall if clerks could stuff iPhones and silk ties in your bag and then force you to cough up your credit card?

It’s an absurd view, and it’s revealing that the people who advocate it never try to apply it consistently. But that’s because it’s not a genuine principle for them, only a rationalization for expropriation. Rather than openly say, “We think it’s okay to steal from people and force them into collectivist welfare schemes against their will,” they want to dress up their view in the language of justice, fairness, and rights.

And so they present us with a choice: either we can do the grownup thing and repay those who sacrificed for us with our own sacrifices — or we can childishly take advantage of others’ sacrifices without doing anything in return.

But as Ayn Rand often pointed out, that’s a false alternative. It’s possible to have a society in which no one sacrifices for anyone, in which we deal with others voluntarily, trading value for value, by mutual consent to mutual advantage. (As for the special case of children, I’ll talk about that in a subsequent post.)

Bottom line: Any proper view of obligation has to respect your mind, and your right to decide for yourself what sorts of deals benefit your life.