Sunday, January 17, 2010

Government, Cafeteria Style

In response to a recent post, "anonymous" pointed out the significant difference between deciding to be charitable and being forced to be charitable. I couldn't agree more! In fact, the latter is a contradiction in terms.

The real issue with regard to welfare (see last week's post, where evidence is presented that social service programs to provide subsistence-level existence are generally effective) is whether or not attempting to provide an economic safety net for people who legitimately need help is a required function of a civilized society or whether it should be voluntary and discretionary. Despite the Founders' inclusion of the phrase "promote the general welfare" in the preamble to the Constitution, Americans are divided on this fundamental question.

Let me hasten to clarify that I deliberately used the word "legitimately" in the preceding paragraph. I am aware that some people will "game" whatever system is set up and attempt to secure resources without putting forth a concerted effort to live up to the dictates of personal responsibility. (Gaming the system is hardly limited to welfare recipients, but that's an issue for a different day.)

I am also aware (although this will apparently take my detractors by surprise) that no government program is perfect. But that doesn't bother me as much as it bothers them. All human enterprises (including corporations, by the way) are less than 100% efficient and occasionally even fail miserably to accomplish intended objectives. (General Motors, AIG, and Countrywide come to mind.) Thomas Jefferson referred to "imperfect man" and was well aware that governments require complex structures intended to mitigate such imperfections (incompetence and greed among them). To me, imperfection is an argument for maximizing efficiency and effectiveness in the service of common objectives, to the extent that human frailty permits; it is not an acceptable rationale for throwing out the entire structure.

The Articles of Confederation failed because individual states chose not to comply with a weak centralized authority when doing so didn't suit their purposes. This was an early indication of the phenomenon economists refer to as the "free rider problem," which states essentially that some portion of the population will fail to pay its fair share of the cost of a good or service it can enjoy for free as long as enough other people contribute. (Sociologists call it "social loafing," but it's the same thing.) The significance of this concept will become apparent shortly.

Let us now, for a moment, envision a society in which all individual actions are voluntary (i.e. those that benefit others will be "charitable"). Some people will choose to contribute to projects that benefit everyone (including themselves). Others will not, in view of the aforementioned free rider problem. Most people will not contribute to projects for which they perceive no personal benefit (regardless of whether that perception is accurate or not). In other words, we'll "unbundle" the various segments of society (to use a marketing term), and people adverse to coercion (yup, that's most of us) can just pay for things we value and not pay for the things we don't value.

In such a society, how will public schools be funded? Most of the people without children will refrain from contributing. Even some people with children will refrain (in the absence of a coercive power).

In such a society, how will meat inspections be funded? Vegetarians can opt out! If you eat exclusively from a garden in your back yard, feel free not to contribute anything to the national effort to ensure food safety. Should you support the effort to curtail mining operations that deposit poisonous, cancer-causing chemicals in the water supply? Not if you live in California -- that happens in West Virginia! And if you're not an outdoors kind of person, feel free not to support the operational costs of keeping up our national parks.

In such a society, who will fund security at airports and the entire (governmental) structure that makes air transportation possible? Those who never fly will have no incentive to chip in. Likewise, people with cars will not support public transportation; people without cars will not support road repair and construction. Should you help fund child protective services? No way -- not unless you're abusing YOUR child!

No, as ideal as it might sound, giving everyone the "liberty" of picking and choosing would soon result in chaos. Our national situation is considerably more complex than selecting basic cable or a more extensive package with more channels and paying the commensurate rate. Not only would cafeteria-style government be a logistical nightmare if it were attempted, but nearly every important function of an organized society would be under-funded, because a significant portion of the population would opt out.

So, let's return to the fundamental issue: is or is not the general welfare (just one example: families with breadwinners laid off because the economy tanked, through no fault of their own -- yes, those breadwinners who line up by the hundreds or thousands for the few jobs currently available) a central concern of every American? If it's OK to let these people and their children go hungry, live in cars or under freeway ramps, receive medical care only in dire emergencies, etc. then the discussion is over. Let those who are "charitable" do what they are willing to do -- which will be more than nothing but considerably less than enough to make any significant difference. If it's not OK, then we need a system (one that will undoubtedly be imperfect) to ensure that everyone shoulders his or her fair share of the responsibility.

While we're at it, why don't we set up a system for ensuring that ALL generally agreed upon functions of an organized society are funded at least to minimally effective levels and these functions are carried out by reasonably capable people? Since not everyone will agree on what is required and what is "minimally effective," let's establish a mechanism for making such decisions -- a mechanism that will not please everyone all the time but will at least be functional.

If we're going to talk about these things, we're going to need names for them. Let's call the system "government." Let's call the money we pay to keep the essentials of an organized society running "taxes." Let's call the reasonably capable people who implement the policies "bureaucrats" or "government employees." Let's call the people who make decisions about priorities "public officials." And the condition most of us enjoy as a result of having these things -- to live our lives pretty much as we please, to thrive in a relatively safe environment -- let's call that "liberty."


  1. Well, this might sound a bit simplistic, but I believe that we humans have a long ways to go if we wish to achieve truly constructive human nature. We may read that satisfaction & happiness are enhanced by involvement in causes that transcent ourselves, but self-centeredness & competitiveness prevail quite powerfully in many humans at this point. Thankfully, there are many notable exceptions that sometimes actually make the news. What we'll support in the "cafeteria" is often what we realize here & now that we need in our lives, not what we value as a contribution to the general welfare. On the optimistic side, I certainly believe that we can move towards our potential of developing more caring values. I hope that this may happen quickly enough so that people who haven't needed to use health insurance so far may support changes that aid others now. (Some may realize these changes could help them also in the future!) We can also note that some extreme calamities, such as in Haiti at present, can bring forth much generosity.

  2. Very cogent argument for the benefits government. As Thomas Frank says - Democrats and progressives generally fail to defend the benefits of good government, and therefore, the anti-government message of the Right hangs out there unanswered. This blog is an enlightened, non-confrontational volley into that void. Thank you.
    Sallie Harper, Colorado

  3. Ron, You have marked the big political and ethical divide - between romantic irresponsible anything-goes 'voluntarism' (alias anarchy) and genuine social organization, including the case for some 'government'. Commenter Marty may be right about the difficulties of getting people to accept a government, or even its cafeteria purveyance of a fully nourishing and balanced diet - but such difficulties are better than the impossibilities and penalties of doing without it. Unhappily, in this country die-easy 'provide for the common defense' supporters have often failed to comprehend the need and advantage also of 'promote the general welfare'.

    The choice is ethical as well as political, because toleration of free-loading is not only costly but an ethical blunder: in effect a reward to the un-good for doing nothing, or even for doing evil.

    For environmentalists and economists, the tragic practical and ethical failure to curb disastrous free-loading is sometimes discussed poignantly using other terms: see, for instance, the late (UCSB Prof.) Garrett Hardin's classic essay 'The tragedy of the commons'.

    In your brief picture of government, there is one tacit assumption which nowadays badly needs challenge: the notion that 'the people who make decisions about priorities' can and should form a special class called 'public officials'. In a genuine democracy (which we do NOT have but badly need if we are to build real social peace, progress and participation), we would all be nigh-equally such 'public officials - not for careerism but just in our capacity as citizens.