Of Little Green Men and the Fairness of the Welfare State

A survey, apropos Prof. Gaus’s use of survey research on fairness:


Source: USA Today, July 7, 1997

Do you believe the government is hiding evidence of intelligent life in space?

  • Yes 79%

Do you believe a UFO crashed in Roswell in 1947?

  • Yes 65%

Seriously, what kind of riposte is it that “What de Jasay and so many classical liberals cannot bear is that an expansive welfare state has been supported largely because the majority of voters and politicians believe it is fair and just”?

65% of the voters and politicians believe that little green men crashed at Roswell.

It is true that in a democracy each of us is constrained to act in the way that most of us like.  That’s why democracy is so dangerous.

Now, were I in a charitable mood (and, honestly, I never am), I might say that Prof. Gaus is simply pointing out that beliefs matter, and a claim that “we” (classical liberals) want simply to use force rather than persuading others that their views on fairness are wrong would seem to be contradictory.

It seems to me this should come down to a burden of proof argument.  Is it really true that the ideal form of government is one that defines “fair” as “instate envy as a moral virtue, and take money at gunpoint from those who have earned it, and give it to others chosen by the majority?”

Why is it that the majority has presumptive right to decide such matters at all?  True, the majority may be able to force its will as a matter of power, but the fact that majority of voters believe something makes it policy.  It doesn’t make moral.

The welfare state is based on the idea that I can act on my own sense of guilt by giving other people’s money to the poor.  I don’t see how one can read “I want to give other people’s money away” as a moral claim at all. It is a very simple consumption impulse, only without actually paying for your own consumption:

“I like hamburgers, and am willing to pay for them.”

“I think the poor should have more money, but I don’t feel this strongly enough to act on that impulse.  I am, however, willing to give them some of yours.”

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Reprising the topic of his 1989 essay, “Is Limited Government Possible?” political theorist Anthony de Jasay continues to express limited skepticism. According to de Jasay, the incentive of political actors is to gain power by putting together winning coalitions, and to stay in power by rewarding their supporters at the expense of their opponents. If constitutional limits stand in their way, they will eventually be reinterpreted, undermined, or otherwise worked around. Governments are more delayed than limited by constitutional rules, like a lady with the key to her own chastity belt. If governments are effectively limited, de Jasay argues, then it is by means of the structure of campaign finance, the practical limits on tax rates, and public panic at the prospect of economic ruin. De Jasay admits conventional cultural and moral norms may limit government, but doubts these are strong enough to fully check the interests that drive politics.

Response Essays

  • In his reply essay, Gerald Gaus, the James E. Rogers Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, argues that Anthony de Jasay has overlooked the importance of distinctively moral rules in regulating behavior. Drawing on recent work in psychology, Gaus distinguishes between conventional rules, which may be changed by the relevant authority without complaint, and moral rules, which may not. If constitutional limits on government fail, it is because these are seen as merely conventional rules out of sync with biologically and culturally evolved moral rules. “The welfare state reigns supreme not because the state and it allies have tricked the rest of us in a power grab,” Gaus argues. “It reigns supreme because in the eyes of most citizens it conforms to the egalitarian fairness norms that have evolved with humans.”

  • In his reply, Duke University political scientist Michael Munger agrees with de Jasay’s discussion of “the frontier between the ‘zones’ of individual and collective choice,” and provides a novel illustration. However, Munger disagrees that the problem with the “incentive-compatibility” of limits on power has been overlooked. He offers a classic historical example of incentive-compatible constraints and discusses the value of building conflicts of interest into political institutions through the separation of powers. “The last thing you want is an efficient government. Our only choices are a truly weak, but efficient, limited government, or else a powerful government prevented by strong ties from using most of its powers, most of the time.”

  • Randy Barnett, the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory at Georgetown University Law Center, notes that limited government is possible because it is actual, but acknowledges that “given that some limits on power clearly remain, these constraints failed to hold the line the Framers were attempting to draw.” Barnett argues that the mechanisms of limited power embodied in the Constitution — reciprocity, checks and balances, and the power of exit — would be more successfully realized in a “polycentric constitutional order in which one would subscribe to a legal system of one’s choice as today one subscribes to cell phone service, health and auto insurance, or private security providers.” Understanding why this would be an improvement “can help us appreciate why restoring the characteristics of the original Constitution as amended by the Fourteenth Amendment … would be far preferable to the constitutional status quo,” Barnett writes.