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IN DEFENSE OF THE SOCIAL SAFETY NET

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 September 2014

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Abstract

This article responds to Tibor Machan's criticisms of government provision for needy citizens. It argues that although charity may be morally worthy, private charity is inadequate to the task of providing our fellow citizens with the security they deserve; the tremendous social good of secure access to a life of dignity can only be produced by a public social safety net. Moreover, individual rights to property do not stand in the way of providing a public social safety net. Since there are social inputs in wealth creation, reasonable levels of taxation do not violate people's rights to their wealth.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2014 

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References

1 Goodin, Robert E., Headey, Bruce, Muffels, Ruud, and Dirven, Henk-Jan, The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 For recent data demonstrating that U.S. safety net programs do in fact reduce poverty, see Zachary A. Goldfarb, ‘Study: U. S. Poverty Rate Decreased Over Past Half-Century Thanks to Safety Net Programs’, Washington Post (December 9, 2013). Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/study-us-poverty-rate-decreased-over-past-half-century-thanks-to-safety-net-programs/2013/12/09/9322c834-60f3-11e3-94ad-004fefa61ee6_print.html.

3 David Brooks, ‘The Sticky Ladder’, The New York Times (January 25, 2005). Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/25/opinion/25brooks.html. For the latest data, including international comparisons, consult The Economic Mobility Project run by the Pew Charitable Trusts (http://www.pewstates.org/projects/economic-mobility-project-328061).

4 Heckman, James J., Giving Kids a Fair Chance (Boston: The MIT Press, 2013)Google Scholar. For a brief overview of Heckman's position, see his New York Times blog post, ‘Lifelines for Poor Children’, at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/14/lifelines-for-poor-children/.

5 For an illuminating study of the insecurities afflicting average American citizens prior to the rise of public safety policies, see Chapter 2 (‘Security’) of Fischer, Claude S., Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Another problem of a private safety net funded by charity is its vulnerability to ‘the free rider problem’, in which it is tempting for a wealthy person simply to leave it to other wealthy people to donate to poverty relief. For an examination of this phenomenon, see my discussion in Duncan, Craig and Machan, Tibor R., Libertarianism: For and Against (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 5761Google Scholar.

7 Eric Schliesser, ‘Philo-of-eco blog: Specialization without Trade (or naked self-interest of ignorant economists)’, http://www.newappsblog.com/2011/02/philo-of-eco-blog-specialization-without-trade-or-naked-self-interest-of-ignorant-economists.html.

8 According to the 2013 World Happiness Report, for instance, the top five countries in terms of self-reported happiness levels are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and Sweden. (http://unsdsn.org/files/2013/09/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf, 23). For a sophisticated cross-country analysis of the data on happiness, which concludes that a social safety net is a causal factor highly conducive to happiness, see Radcliff, Benjamin, The Political Economy of Happiness: How Voters' Choices Determine the Quality of Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also important in explaining a country's level of happiness, reports Radcliffe, is the degree to which its citizens belong to labor unions. As a result, Radcliffe argues for the importance of labor laws that facilitate the formation of unions.

9 On freedom, see Sen, Amartya, Rationality and Freedom (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004)Google Scholar, especially Part IV, ‘Freedom and Social Choice’. On dignity, see Nussbaum, Martha, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially Chapter 1.4, ‘Central Human Capabilities’. I defend my own conception of dignity in ‘Democratic Liberalism: The Politics of Dignity’, 79–126 of Duncan, Craig and Machan, Tibor, Libertarianism: For and Against (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005)Google Scholar.

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