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The welfare fallacy
Posted by: McQ on Friday, January 14, 2005

This one slipped under my radar-screen a few days back and I found it while perusing Asymentrical Information. As someone else noted, it's "seriously scary".

Premise: It is the job of government to provide for the welfare of its citizens.

If you buy that premise, you can buy into this paragraph:
The central moral (as opposed to economic) argument behind wealth redistribution is that people's welfare is directly linked to their level of wealth. Because the government has a responsibility to ensure that every citizen enjoys a basic level of welfare, it should lower the wealth of some in order to expand the wealth, and therefore the welfare, of others. That, at least, has been the consensus among political philosophers (and the college freshman who take their courses) for the last several hundred years. But the latest social scientific research suggests redistribution isn't the zero-sum game it appears. In fact, wealth redistribution may be a winning proposition for rich and poor alike.
This is all a preface for telling us how some new study or other has concluded that this wonderful premise can now not only be morally defended but economically as well. And you're welcome to read their explanation if you're so inclined. One of the things they conclude is too much choice is "bad". But frankly I have no interest. In my estimation, the premise here is horribly and completely faulty.

Let me state the premise of government as I understand it. Government (at least ours) exists solely to protect the rights of its citizens to life, liberty and the pursit of happiness. That's it. That's how it was envisioned, that's how it was chartered, and that's its reason for existance.

Look at the key phrase about government found in the Declaration of Independence (and yes, before you comment that it has no legal standing concerning our country, I'll agree but also point out that it provides the philosophical underpinning of our constitutional republic):

"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ..."

We can argue about rights and what are and aren't rights, but what's inarguable is that philosophically, the Founders of this nation had a very limited view of what represented legitmate government. And that view is condensed in the sentence I cited above. The Declaration goes on to say that the people have the right to change the government when it no longer satisfies this charter and it even points out that governments shouldn't be changed for light and transient reasons. But a statement of the purpose of government in general and this one specifically is found in that single sentence.

Now I know, based on the reality that is the leviathan of government today, that it has long since morphed into something completely different than the Founder's vision. But that doesn't mean we have to accept as valid a premise which is clearly not at all characterized as a responsibilty of government by those who founded this government nor should we sit back and let them get away with such a blatant misstatement of philosophy.

It is not the responsibility of government to ensure that every citizen enjoys a basic level of welfare. It is the responsibility of government to ensure as safe and free environment in which every citizen can pursue a basic level of welfare. There is a huge difference in those two statements.

How, then, did this concept become so warped, so misunderstood by people like the one who wrote the paragraph above. Well obviously, one can find many social philosophers who believe in that premise. But in my estimation that's not where this particular writer is headed. Granted his base belief may be inspired by social philosophers who believe that, but my guess is he, like many, have mistakenly taken a phrase from the Preamble to the Constitution, which states the government shall "promote the general welfare" and has redefined that to mean the literal welfare (ignoring the word "promote" and concentrating on "welfare") of its citizens. Such a redifinition of that phrase would then completely justify redistribution of income as a fulfillment of that "purpose".

But that's not what the phrase "promote the general welfare" meant then or now. In fact the framers were talking about something completely different as Tibor Machan points out in his book "Private Rights and Public Illusions" (Independent Institute, Oakland CA, 1995):
"From the constitutional tradition of the US federal government, there is no reason to construe "general Welfare" as referring to the economic and economically related well-being of the citizenry. In short, the general welfare means no more than those legal foundations that facilitate the achievement of the well-being, economic and otherwise, of the people on their own, not the government's, initiative."
It bears repeating: it is the government's job to establish those foundations and institutions which enable the people to pursue and achieve their well being "on their own, not the government's, initiative."

Machan continues:
"The framers appear to have wanted the Constitution and its implicit legal development to enable us to all prosper. By promoting the general welfare they meant to secure the conditions that are of politicial or legal, as distinct from particular and specialized, necessity for people's well being."
Its not about providing a level of "welfare", its not about guaranteeing a level of prosperity, its about providing the conditions for Americans to achieve prosperity on their own.

Perhaps it would indeed be instructive to read the whole article. It will amaze you at the cavalier way it dismisses your property rights for the "good of the whole". It will amaze you as to how blatantly they assume the right to decide how much is enough or not enough and the power to make the adjustment without your consent or permission.

But that's something, unfortunately, we've allowed to change in what was once viewed and constructed as an institution limited to protecting our rights into an institution which regularly and assumptively violates them without giving those violations a second thought ... and has defenders of this seachange writing articles which discuss how the violations are, in their reality, actually a good thing and the purpose for which government exists.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

Yep. Those who try to use that sentence in the Preamble should note the verb:

Not 'provide', but 'promote'. Encourage [the citizenry].
Written By: Dave
I knew there was a reason my teachers made me memorize that preamble!
Written By: Wacky Hermit

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