The Individual
November, 1998

The Minimal State, Not the Welfare State 
by Dr. Edward Younkins  
Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and author of Capitalism and Commerce.

America was founded on the basis of an explicit philosophy of individual natural rights. The legitimate role of the State is limited to protecting these natural rights through the use of force, but only in retaliation, and only against those who initiate its use. They can appropriately describe the State as a purely defensive phenomenon that enables individuals to self-actualize and pursue their own freely chosen goals, responsibilities, values, actions, and their personal visions of happiness and the common good. 
The Legitimate Role of the State
John Locke provided the philosophical basis for the makers of the Constitution who distrusted government while recognizing its necessity for a social order. Locke viewed human life as a gift from God and reasoned that the Creator of human life gives each person a right to use force to defend his life, a right to the product of his own labour, a right to defend his possessions, and a right to use his life as he desires. In the interest of efficiency, men transferred to government the right to use force in their own self-defence. Individual self-defence was thus replaced with organized self-defence. Government is a man-made institution that holds only such powers as it receives from individuals. Individuals did not and could not give the state any right to use force for any purpose other than self-defence. Since no individual has a right to interfere with the freedom of another, it follows that any attempt by the government to use force against a citizen for any reason other than self-defence of other citizens is an abuse of power and is equivalent to the very thing that the state was organized to prevent. Therefore, a government should be restrained from improperly using its force against its citizens whether it is used for "humanitarian" purposes or for the benefit of those within the government itself. Government is organized by, and operated for, the benefit of the people, but should be subject to a series of restraints that attempt to keep power from being abused. 
Freedom is the natural condition of the individual. Each person from birth has the ability to think his own thoughts and control his own energies in his efforts to act according to these thoughts. Men are free to initiate their own purposive action when they are free from man-made restraints when there is an absence of coercion by other individuals, groups of people, or the government. Freedom is not the ability to get what we want. Other non-man-made obstacles such as lack of ability, intelligence, or resources may result in one's failure to attain his desires. Freedom means the absence of coercive constraints; but it does not mean the absence of all constraints. It follows that freedom is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for one's happiness. 
If individuals are to remain free there must be a legal system with the power to punish the violation of that freedom. Self-defence, a negative right, is the right of every person to defend his own life, liberty, or property. It follows that the powers of the state are logically limited to the nature of the rights of the individuals who transferred them to the state. The idea of a minimal state is thus based on a clear understanding of human nature, natural rights, and the requirements of reality. Equality before the law (i.e. political equality) is derived from the nature of the human person. However, since people are unequal in intelligence, motivation, ability, physical attributes, etc., the result in a free society will be different incomes, amounts of wealth, achievements, social statuses, etc. Inequality and diversity are intrinsic to the natural human order. Benevolence, compassion, charity, and virtue can only exist in a social system that recognizes that people are free and unequal. 
The good of the individual is inextricably connected with the common good of the political community. It follows that the common good of the political community is procedural in nature and involves the protection of each man's natural right to liberty through which he can freely pursue additional actions, self-actualize, and pursue his own vision of the common good of the human community. The common good of the political community thus involves a set of social and legal conditions based on a person's s natural rights. 
Justice refers to equal treatment under these social and legal conditions which include a collection of known rules regarding allowable and non-allowable actions that will lead to unequal positions with no-one knowing in advance the particular result this arrangement will have for any specific person. Inequalities are the inevitable result of uneven abilities and efforts. 
Principles of justice, by publicly defining man's natural rights, rather than preventing men from performing virtuous actions, actually enable them to freely recognize and fulfill their obligations as members of the human community. Individuals' natural rights draw the lines that separate people, their properties, and their spheres of action. These rights also provide opportunities for community members to act virtuously towards one another. For example, under a system of natural rights, a person can withhold a claim against another person (i.e. forgive a debt), express generosity, etc. 
Welfare Rights Are Illegitimate Rights
During the 1960's, proponents of redistribution began to use the language of "rights" in their efforts: (1) to achieve a greater equalization of wealth; (2) to expand the role of government beyond its original conception; and (3) to allow recipients of government subsidies to think they are getting what they have earned or deserve. Welfare rights, also called positive rights, are rights to goods such as food, clothing, shelter, education, healthcare, a job, etc. Welfare rights are communal rights for the enforcement of which a coercive government is required. The claim of welfare rights is meant to impose on some people the positive obligation to provide goods for others. However, neither needs nor demands create rights. If my need of a particular good establishes my right to it, then some other people have the involuntary obligation to provide me with the good at their expense. Other people are self-owners just as I am. I cannot morally force them to pay for my needs or wants. If others are forced to provide for me because of my welfare rights, then they are being used as a means to my welfare. The welfare rights idea is incompatible with the view of persons as ends in themselves. In addition, consistency requires that one man's rights not diminish the rights of others. For example, a government which simultaneously asserts the natural right to private property and then takes property to fulfill welfare rights has adopted inconsistent principles. Welfare rights are illegitimate rights they change over time, are impossible to attain, and do not require human action for their violation. Furthermore, if there are welfare rights then it is impossible for a person to engage in charitable acts. I can't give a person something if it is his right to have it! A willingness to help others is a matter of personal choice not a duty imposed from without. 
True Charity
The goal should be to have no welfare state at all. Welfare is not only demeaning to its beneficiaries, government programmes also diminish self-reliance, breed dependency, and reinforce social pathologies by creating unintended rewards for people to do the things necessary to receive the welfare payments which tend to be the very things they are trying to remedy (e.g., pay people to have children they cannot support and encourage unemployment). Also, a system that tries to force acts of love, such as charity, violates the true nature of love and, as a result, creates injustice. The only way the state can "help" people is to give them wealth taken through taxation from someone else. Forcing people to be "charitable" makes them self-centered and resentful. When people are financially squeezed by the welfare state, they find their ability for private philanthropy to be greatly reduced. Only people who are allowed to keep what they have earned have the financial means to be benevolent, altruistic, and compassionate. The existence of government welfare brings red tape, diminishes the spirit of self-sacrifice, and fosters the unfortunate view that assistance to the poor is the State's job rather than private citizens' moral obligation for charity. 
Much of the need for the welfare state is caused by the government itself. For example, minimum wage laws create poverty by increasing unemployment, tariffs and quotas make consumer goods more expensive, and rent control promotes homelessness by supplying a disincentive to provide low-rental housing. 
Even without government poverty-causing programmes, there would still be unfortunate people such as the disabled, the illiterate, the sick, the unemployed, the mentally incompetent, the elderly, and single mothers of infant children. The welfare state is a poor substitute for personal local acts of charity that emphasize self-reliance and self-respect qualities that tend to be missing when government welfare is viewed as positive "rights" to be asserted. Given that some type of charity is needed, private sector solutions are vastly preferable to governmental ones. A free society allows for a variety of voluntary initiatives by family, friends, neighbours, churches, charitable organizations, unions, fraternal and friendly societies, etc., to help those in need. Voluntarism means doing away with coercion and relying on individual action, education, persuasion, and voluntary organizations based on generosity and neighborliness. 
Individuals who give through private charities are aware of both the amount of their donations and to a great extent, the actual use of their contributions. Private charity allows people to undertake ventures that the state either will not or cannot take on. People tend to give to private charities because they believe in the goals of the organization. Such gifts are made because individuals perceive value in their contributions. When a person donates his own resources he wants to receive value for his benefactions. Charity may therefore be viewed as an exchange transaction in which both parties receive benefits. Recipients of charity must act in a manner that makes charitable acts desirable to the givers. People gain psychic satisfaction when they do things for others that they respect and care about. They become happier when they choose to be committed to the happiness of others. 
Self-respect and self-reliance are contributory to happiness. It follows that true charity encourages self-esteem (including self-respect and self-sufficiency) in the recipients and emphasizes practical measures that help people to help themselves. When recipients of charity fight against adversity, take steps to help themselves, and gain self-esteem, the donor receives satisfaction and pleasure from the virtues of individuals he respects. It follows that charity, at the same time, can be both generous and self-interested. Also, because people do live in communities, are necessarily related to others, and I consider the well-being of others to be important to them, it is self-interested (in an enlightened sense) to consider the needs of others. 
A person's moral maturation requires a life with others. Charitable conduct can therefore also be viewed as an expression of one's self-perfection. From this viewpoint, the obligation for charity is that the benefactor owes it to himself, not to the recipients. If they owe a benefit to another, rendering it is not a charitable act they must freely give and direct charity towards those to whom we have no obligation. Charitable actions may be viewed as perfective of a person's capacity for cooperation and as a particular manifestation (i.e. giving to those in need) of that capacity. Kindness and benevolence, as a basic way of functioning, is not an impulse or an obligation to others but a rational goal. Compassion is not charity and sentiment is not virtue. This non-altruistic, non-communitarian view of charity is grounded in a self-perfective framework under which persons can vary the type, amount, and object of their charity based on their contingent circumstances. Other concepts of charity rely on adherence to duty expressed as ethical rules of obligation or the supposed maximization of social welfare. 
To summarize, the right to welfare and the virtue of charity are not compatible. Since the right to welfare involves coercion and since virtuous actions require unforced voluntary choice to qualify as virtuous, the degree to which welfare rights are exercised is the degree to which the virtue of charity is absent. The right to welfare and the virtue of charity are incompatible since they cannot be exercised concurrently. The virtue of charity is, in essence, private, whereas the right to welfare is essentially public. As we depart from our classical-liberal heritage, it follows that citizens will focus less on an ethics supportive of private actions. Perhaps virtue can best be fostered if we can combine an ethics of personal flourishing with classical liberalism.
Copyright © 1998 / All rights reserved Back to Edward W.Younkins' Homepage