On October 9, 2012, the liberal-leaning Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel hosted a BBC radio event at Harvard University called “Who Built it? Is the American Dream of Individual Success a Myth?” At the event which BBC will air sometime in the future, Sandel asked the audience questions regarding justice and the ethics of the welfare state. As a fair professor who I do not seek to critique in this essay, he did a very good job cultivating a discussion between both proponents and opponents of universal healthcare, redistribution, and other aspects of the welfare state. Nevertheless, though I attended the event with the Harvard Libertarian Forum and I did speak once during it in defense of my libertarian beliefs, I did not have the opportunity to rebut many of the points made by the audience’s progressives later in the discussion, and I feel that many of their points deserve a thorough response. If I had the chance to reply in full to the audience later in the discussion (and perhaps if I also had a few days to reflect as happened prior to writing this essay), then I would have respectfully made the following response:
Throughout this discussion, the supporters of the welfare state in this audience have continually made a grave error. They have repeatedly conflated society with either the arbitrary territorial boundaries that define the United States or, more often, with its government. One advocate of the welfare state most clearly expressed this mistake with the common progressive phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.” Whether conceptualizing a village to be a nation or to be its government, she and the general supporters of the welfare state have the same false vision of society.
A few decades ago, the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education Leonard Read rebutted this viewpoint with a simple yet profound observation in his essay “I, Pencil.” In the essay, he asserts that nobody in the whole world knows how to make a simple pencil, and he then proves this point by showing the process by which this everyday miracle comes into existence. People make a pencil by using several different resources. These resources come from all over the world, from South America and Asia and elsewhere. People who gather these resources extensively use capital made by other people. With this capital, they cut down trees, gather other resources, transport these resources where they can be used productively, turn these resources into useful forms, combine them together, and eventually produce a pencil. People then transport these pencils across the United States and the rest of the world, making them accessible to consumers who can conveniently buy several of them for less than a dollar. In all, tens of thousands of people—if not many, many more—cooperate to form a pencil that no individual knew how to make. These are the very same pencils used to teach a child to write, to help a child to learn, to enable a child to express ideas, and generally to raise a child.
The progressives in this audience claim “it takes a village.” This narrow-minded statist idea overlooks a much more profound truth: it takes a world to make a pencil; it takes a world to raise a child. This voluntary and peaceful cooperation of people—from all backgrounds, from all religions, from all cultures, from all languages—is society.
With this understanding of society, we can now explain the flaws in this audience’s defenses of the welfare state. As I recall, proponents of the welfare state defended it primarily on three grounds. First, progressives saw an injustice in the idea that some people would go without healthcare or other “rights” due merely to luck. Second, they contended that the dependence of the wealthy on society, particularly on public roads, meant that the wealthy rightfully had a mandatory duty to provide benefits to the people on whom their wealth depended. Third, they considered poverty and/or economic inequality itself to be coercive, so they found that compensating for this injustice through the coercive mechanism of the state would be a justifiable means of enhancing freedom.
Regarding the first point, progressives correctly realize that many things and, in a broader sense including the luck of the gene pool, perhaps everything can be attributed to luck. Yet, this realization does not lead to the progressive conclusion. It does not follow that a poorer person has the “right” to rob a wealthier person merely on the basis of the wealthier person’s luck, and it similarly does not follow that a majority has the right to steal from a minority on a similar basis. Despite everyday ethics clearly contradicting the presumed collective right to take from others on the basis of luck, the progressive viewpoint becomes much more disconcerting after replacing their narrow statist definition of society with a broader and more accurate understanding of it. If a lack of luck granted the less fortunate a moral right to the property of the more fortunate, then certainly the rightful recipients would not be lower class Americans who have an abundance of wealth compared to citizens of third world nations. Rather, the progressives using this reasoning should instead advocate for all Americans to pay high taxes to compensate for the relative luck of Americans compared to the relative misfortune of others around the world—a conclusion which (rightfully) not a single person in this audience has drawn. More horrifyingly, rather than redistributing from the first world to the third world, the American and European welfare states actually implement extensive immigration restrictions, denying truly poor people in third world countries from peacefully pursuing happiness and improving their lives in first world nations. Far from an unrelated policy, immigration restrictions follow naturally from the disharmonious relationships created by the welfare state. If people from around the world could travel to any nation with universal healthcare and use it, the welfare state would quickly go bankrupt. To attempt (likely unsuccessfully) to benefit the poor in developed nations on the basis of their lack of luck, progressives intensify (quite successfully) the misfortunes of truly poor people around the world. Rather than compensating for luck, the welfare state disrupts the fundamental harmony of people peacefully and voluntarily interacting in a world community, substantially worsening the position of the unfortunate around the world.
On the second point, the proponents of the welfare state correctly note the dependence of people on others, meaning that wealthy people could not have earned their wealth alone. Given how much time this audience has spent explaining that proponents of a free society allegedly do not recognize the extensive interdependency of people, it is truly remarkable how this audience has neglected that the mutual dependency extends worldwide, that it takes a world to make a pencil and that it takes a world to raise a child. Presumably, by the progressive’s reasoning, a tree cutter in South America essential to making a pencil should have the same collective “rights” as a worker at Walmart who sells this pencil, but nobody here has made such a strange though logically consistent argument. Instead, they have tried to narrow the duty of the wealthy by asserting that public roads—already financed by its users through a gasoline tax and often through tolls—are the essential component of a society which legitimizes the government using force to redistribute from a nation’s wealthy to its poor in any amount desired. Though Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren made this extraordinarily weak argument in a short viral video and this former Harvard Professor is very popular among liberals in Massachusetts likely including people here, I must admit to being bewildered by the enormous prevalence in this audience of the claim that road building justifies the welfare state. Do private airports, trains, buses, boats, and other forms of transportation give their private owners a full entitlement to as much of the wealth of its users as desired simply because these private forms of transportation may have aided its users in making money? Certainly not. On specifically roads, the United States has a long history of privately funded roads; in fact, people privately created the first transcontinental road in the United States. Roads neither needed to be nor should have been created by the government. Just as a private road owner would not have a right to take forcibly the wealth of people who use their private roads, a public road builder similarly has no right to take coercively the wealth of its users. Though people certainly benefit by using private and public services, a mutual voluntary dependence cannot justify involuntary coercive government interventions.
On the third point of either poverty or inequality being coercive, progressives continue to make the same mistake of arbitrarily slicing America from the rest of the world by emphasizing inequality or poverty within the United States and ignoring it outside its boundaries, leading to the same flawed conclusions. Ignoring this narrow-minded statist flaw, we can directly respond to the point as follows: poverty is the null state of people at all places and at all times throughout all of history. As poverty represents the natural state of humanity, it cannot be any more coercive than any other natural occurrence—such as gravity. By voluntarily cooperating, people create wealth to bring humanity out of its null state of existence. Anybody’s peaceful actions in defiance of the null state of humanity are no more coercive than when one person defies gravity more than another people by jumping higher. In fact, whether it is done by wealthier or poorer people, wealth creation has a particular advantage compared to jumping. Unlike jumping, wealth creation also helps lift those around the wealth creators into the air, allowing people to reach new heights together. Whereas coercion entails using force or the threat of it on others to limit the opportunities of the coerced, wealth creation only creates new opportunities. New opportunities for some people do not coerce other people.
I would like to end with a general question for the members of this audience. Now that everyone understands what society entails, perhaps you will understand the point of the question: What about being merely proximate to wealth gives someone an entitlement to it? What about being close to a wealthy person gives a poorer person a right to the nearby wealth? Unless someone finds an answer, a free society guided by the principles of individual liberty remains the only just society.
Added November 4, 2012: The radio broadcast of the program released on Tuesday can be found here. I can be heard nine minutes into the video. To understand the context of my statement as well as to hear a thoughtful and elegant speaker, It would be worthwhile to begin listening when Harvard Libertarian Forum President Corinne Curcie speaks at five minutes thirty seconds. Really, she’s a wonderful speaker.
The reference to “it takes a village” comes from the speaker who begins at twenty eight minutes ten seconds, and the speaker uses the specific phrase at twenty eight minutes forty seconds. Michael Sandel gives the summary of two of the three main progressive arguments for economic redistribution beginning at twenty nine minutes. A student expresses the coercion argument emphasizing poverty immediately afterwards, and a different student expresses the coercion argument emphasizing inequality at thirty two minutes fifty seconds while expanding it over the next few minutes.