Why My Debate Opponent Gets Everything Wrong

Last Tuesday I kicked off a series of debates against welfare state supporters in order to let young people know about the
Debt Draft and why the only moral solution is to abolish the old-age welfare programs — Social Security and Medicare — that are drafting my generation and my daughter’s generation into debt.

My first opponent was a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Howard Scheweber. Howard was recently interviewed by The Undercurrent (which kindly sponsored our debate), and in that interview we see the perfect distillation of the intellectual viewpoint behind the welfare state, and of the single basic fallacy behind that viewpoint.

The Undercurrent starts by asking whether the welfare state is just, and Howard replies by saying that, not only is the welfare state just, but “it is the case that the abolition of the welfare state would be fundamentally unjust.” He elaborates three reasons, but the first is the most important.

First, it is unjust to refuse to pay one’s debts. Prior generations have sacrificed their taxes, their sweat, and in some cases their blood to create a decent living for the current generation. Those past ancestors cannot be paid back directly, they ask the same thing that was asked of them, to pay the debt forward by maintaining a decent society now and improving the lot of the next generation. That is the fundamental ethical presumption of any social organization from a family to a nation-state: that its members understand that they have obligations to others not yet born based on the debts they owe to those who have gone before.

Notice Howard’s view of people: they are burdens and resources. They’re burdens when they’re sucking up benefits from the welfare state. They’re resources when they’re in a position to supply benefits to other burdensome welfare state recipients.

Frankly, that’s a gruesome view of individuals. He’s asking me to view my one-year-old daughter as a burden who will one day make good on her debts by working for the benefit of others. But I didn’t breed a servant. I’m raising my daughter Livi Belle in the hopes that when she’s independent, she can achieve happiness — not slave away to pay other people’s bills.

Howard is committing what I call the Obligation Fallacy. It’s true that we live in a society and we have obligations to others. But our basic obligations are (a) to abide by any commitments we voluntarily assume, and (b) to respect other people’s freedom and property. The Obligation Fallacy says we have unchosen obligations that justify taking away our freedom and property, and that other people’s decisions can bind us without our consent.

In Howard’s view, however, forcing people to support welfare state schemes is not a burden — it’s good for all of us.

One rationale behind social welfare systems is not charity, it is public investment in human capital — this is the justification for the majority of the welfare state’s programs, which direct resources to the non-poor with the aim or producing public goods in the form of economic growth and security.

I call this the Benefit Fallacy. It says that individuals can benefit from having their freedom and property taken from them. Thus, in Howard’s view, if I freely choose to use the income I earn to save for my own retirement, or send Livi to private school, or buy a newer, safer car for my wife — that’s not investment in human capital. But if the government takes my money and uses it to herd people into government schools or pay for someone else’s blood pressure medication, that is an investment.

Whenever people want to take away your freedom and property, they inevitably concoct some argument that amounts to: this is good for you, too. Even the enslavement of blacks in America was defended by some on the grounds that blacks were allegedly incapable of self-governance and needed a master to watch out for them.

If Howard thinks that I am better off handing my money over to others, then he is free to try to persuade me to do so. But he has no right to dispose of my money, my effort, and my life — certainly not on the grounds that this is better for me. I am not a resource, and my life is not his to dispose of.

Now, Howard would object to my formulation. He is not forcing me to hand over my money to others. He believes that it is a democratic decision we all make together.

The kinds of investment decisions I am describing are made with the consent of the governed through a democratic process. That is a fundamentally morally sound system of political decision-making.

I call this the Democracy Fallacy. It’s the fallacy of saying that a law is morally legitimate because it is arrived at democratically. But that’s obviously not true. If the majority votes to enslave blacks, or to put gay people in prison, or give bailouts to bankrupt companies, that doesn’t make any of those decisions morally legitimate.

We use democracy to decide who our lawmakers are — but democracy does not determine what the law ought to be. Under the American system, a law is just if it protects our rights and unjust if it violates our rights. In a just society, neither a minority nor a majority has the right to violate the individual’s rights. The debate, then, hinges on what our rights are.

How do we go about answering that question? The key is what I call individual-centered thinking. To think clearly about moral and political issues, you can’t start by thinking about society. You have to start by looking at the individual human being and what’s required for him to flourish, both alone and in society.

This was the great achievement of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. They didn’t start by asking what made for a good tribe or kingdom. Only by starting with the individual could you think clearly about what a good society or system of government would consist of.

But Howard and the vast majority of intellectuals reject individual-centered thinking. They commit a basic error, an error that leads to all of the myths I’ve described above: they accept what Ayn Rand calls “the tribal premise,” and what I like to refer to as the Collectivist Fallacy. This is the fallacy of treating the group as a metaphysical, moral, political, and economic primary.

In her masterful essay “What is Capitalism?” Ayn Rand develops this point at length. She shows how the Collectivist Fallacy distorts the thinking even of many people who oppose collectivism. And, more important, she demonstrates how to think in an individual-centered fashion. I can’t recommend strongly enough that you read, re-read, or re-re-read that essay.