Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Love Thy Neighbor, Or Else

Summer 1999

A LIFE OF ONE'S OWN: INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS AND THE WELFARE STATE
David Kelley
Cato Institute/National Book Network, 1998, vii + 176 pgs.

Mr. Kelley undertakes a vital task in his excellent new book. As everyone knows, the welfare state costs a great deal of money. "In 1930 governments at all levels [in the United States] spent $8 billion (measured in 1995 dollars), or about 1 percent of the gross national product, on all welfare programs. By 1990 the sum had grown to nearly $900 billion, or 13.4 percent of GNP" (p. 4).

Proposals to cut or eliminate welfare must confront a formidable intellectual obstacle. According to many philosophers and political theorists, people have a moral right to receive welfare. Moral rights, contrary to classical liberals, are not confined to "negative" liberties, the rights to be free from coercion. On the contrary, rights are "positive" as well. People have rights to the provisions of certain goods and services.

Once you learn that Mr. Kelley is a follower of Ayn Rand, you have all you need to know how he will view the controversy. He mounts a formidable assault on welfare rights, and most of his arguments seem to me right. Unfortunately, he has left a gap through which welfare rightists may escape.

Supporters of welfare rights do not usually overtly oppose liberty rights (except, of course, the right to acquire property). They will, rather, argue in this way: without food and a place to live, what good is your right to free speech? People need civil liberties, but they also need a certain minimum provision of goods. As everyone knows, but leftists never tire of reminding us anyway, Anatole France once said that a rich man and a beggar are equally free to sleep on a park bench at night. This example is somehow supposed to show that liberty rights without welfare avail little.

Mr. Kelley argues that to call both claims to freedom of action and to welfare "rights" blurs an important distinction. No one chooses from an unlimited set of options; the constraints of nature and our surroundings restrict our "feasible choice set." To protest that we must choose only from given alternatives shows ignorance of the human condition. But, given our alternatives, others may attempt to remove one of our options by the use or threat of force.

In Mr. Kelley's view, the distinction between the natural limits to choice and the imposition of force is decisively important: "Freedom always involves the capacity to choose among a range of alternative actions. In that sense, freedom is a positive concept. But it is also a negative concept: the freedom to choose exists as long as no one interferes with the choice coercively, using force to prevent the person from selecting one of the alternatives....The concept of positive freedom arises from an invalid attempt...[to say] that the presence of certain options among one's alternatives is equivalent to freedom of choice among one's alternatives and that the absence of an option is equivalent to coercive interference with one's freedom" (pp. 67-69).

Let us return to Anatole France's beggar. If he lacks money for more suitable lodging than a park bench, his freedom has not been taken away. His options are limited and bad; but no one uses force against him.

A defender of welfare rights might respond to Mr. Kelley in this way: "You are right. The distinction between choice among a set of alternatives and forcible removal of a number of that set is a good one, and you have convinced me that we should not use the same word 'freedom,' to designate both of these. But why does it follow that there are no welfare rights? Why must rights rest on the negative sense of freedom that you have taken pains to distinguish?"

Here our author has a ready response; and this to my mind is the best part of the book. If someone has a welfare right, then others must produce the goods to which he is entitled. No doubt you are by now thoroughly sick of the beggar sleeping on the park bench, but let us return to him one last time. If he is moved to a room in the Waldorf-Astoria, someone must provide the new accommodation. That person is being compelled to labor for the unfortunate denizen of the park. Being unfortunate or disabled, in the author's view, confers no right to conscript the labor or someone better off.

Here we reach bedrock. To conscript labor, our author contends, is to treat the person conscripted to service exclusively as a means, not as an end in himself. In brief, this violates the basic principle of interpersonal morality: "The moral code of altruism, and the notion of a right to welfare that is based on it, is incompatible with the principle that the individual is an end in himself who may not be used against his will" (p. 99).

Mr. Kelley shows that some philosophers who defend welfare rights readily acknowledge that their favored measures entail forced labor. "Philosopher Richard Arneson claims that 'in some circumstances, forced labor can be a morally acceptable state policy' because the needy have a genuine ownership right in the productive members of society--an ownership right that, he acknowledges, is comparable to the right that feudal lords claimed in their serfs" (p. 98). Professor Arneson, I might add, is very well thought of indeed among the dominant elite in political philosophy today: he is one of several acolytes buzzing round the throne of John Rawls.

Liberty rights of the sort our author supports have no such onerous consequences. The beggar on the park bench (I know I promised not to mention him again, but I was being Clintonian) has the same liberty rights as anyone else. I have no right to assault him, but this fact does not make me his slave. I need not work for him: I am mandated only to leave him alone.

So far, so good: the case against welfare rights seems complete. Why then did I claim earlier that Mr. Kelley has left advocates of welfarism with an escape? (You may answer because I like to make trouble. Perhaps you are right, but I certainly do not intend to acknowledge this.)

The gap in our author's argument, as it seems to me, is this. He ably shows that the needy have no right to conscript the labor of others. But why may they not take part of the property of others? "Idiot," you will answer, "because to do so violates property rights." But here precisely is the problem. Mr. Kelley has neglected to offer a justification of property rights immune from the touch of the needy and their self-appointed spokesmen. For all Mr. Kelley has shown, we can own property only subject to the claims of the poor.

If so, our beggar--yes, he's back--can say to Mr. Kelley: "I have no right to force you to labor for me. But I am entitled to some of your property. You acquired it subject to the proviso that I, and others like me, can periodically demand a handout." Of course, I do not for a moment believe that the beggar is right: I would hardly be editor of The Mises Review if I did. But the point is that some justification of property rights must be added to what Professor Kelley has so ably given us.

Here I confess to an ulterior motive. Randian philosophers do not to my mind do an adequate job of justifying property rights, and I am using Mr. Kelley as an excuse to introduce a hobby horse of my own. Randians tend to argue that owners of property create, as economic assets, the resources to which they lay claim. Whether Mr. Kelley adopts this line I do not know.

To return to our author's case, he next considers another justification for welfarism. Perhaps we have been looking at matters from the wrong angle. Rather than begin with the rights of the needy, should we not instead start with the duties of benevolence and generosity? Are we not obligated to help those less well-off than ourselves?

Professor Kelley has no quarrel with the notion that benevolence and generosity are virtues; but their invocation does not suffice to make the welfarist case. Benevolent actions reflect a generous character: they are not duties that may be enforced against us.

Our author tends to think that the contrasting view, which holds that we have a duty to be altruistic, rests on a misapprehension: "Those attitudes [of altruism] often spring from the assumption that the interests of people generally conflict... That the stronger and more able flourish at the expense of the weaker and less able.... Society must not make benevolence, generosity, service, and self-sacrifice the central virtues...lest the grounds for cooperation and peaceful coexistence be destroyed by conflict, lest man become a wolf to man" (p. 93).

Against this, our author argues that human interests are harmonious. But it is not this aspect of his argument I wish to challenge. Rather, his explanation for the view that altruism is a duty begs the question in that it presupposes the truth of a version of egoism. If interests conflict, shared values must be inculcated in order to insure the survival of the group. Benevolence, etc. are valuable for the functions these dispositions perform. But why must benevolence be justified in terms of some more self-serving value, whether individual or group? What if one does not start from Professor Kelley's egoistic premise?

David Kelley's work always merits close attention from those interested in liberty. I commend to readers his neat demolition of "communitarian" arguments for welfarism.


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