The Rapacity of the Welfare State

27 April 2011


alexis de toqueville

The rapacity of the ruling class

One of the most striking features of most pre-modern, pre-industrialized societies was the rapacity of the ruling class. Anyone with their hands upon the levers of power would manipulate whatever institutional apparatus was available in order to enrich themselves at the expense of those less fortunate — a practice that reached such obscene extremes that the vast mass of the populace was impoverished while a privileged few enjoyed unimaginable luxury. Since that time, modern industrialization has raised all boats, flooding many societies with unprecedented consumer goods and therefore giving the impression that there has been a leveling of the human condition. Unfortunately, it has been only a relative leveling, and the agents of rapacity have been exchanged. What has changed is that rapacity has been displaced from splendid individuals onto the nation-state.

The principle of redistribution

The basic principle at stake is that those with enough should be satisfied with enough, and therefore render to the government anything beyond what is enough in order that this should be re-distributed to those who are judged not to have enough. The rhetoric of “needs” is common in this context, and we often encounter formulations like, “needs being met,” though this ought to give pause to anyone who notices that one of the basic confusions of consumer societies is that between wants and needs. Whereas rights are counterbalanced by duties, there is no political concept to counterbalance that of needs, except perhaps superfluity. Needs become associated with a minimal condition of bare survival (i.e., subsistence) that no one has the moral right to question, whereas the countervailing conception of superfluity is associated with luxury and conspicuous consumption, which everyone has the moral duty to censure.

Again, in contradistinction to pre-modern, pre-industrialized society, we have it good. Sufficiency under the agricultural paradigm (that is to say, agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization) was subsistence farming, and this often meant the barest of bare survival. Given that rudimentary baseline, anything over and above bare subsistence can be seen as superfluous. But we all know that in a social climate of rising wealth, allowing too great a gap to open up between haves and have nots can be disastrous, possibly even leading to catastrophic state failure, also known as revolution. Thus the have nots must be raised above mere subsistence, but the level of increase in standards of living will always be relative to the socio-political context. Being poor in Sweden implies a different standard of living than being poor in Gabon.

Notwithstanding the fact that “sufficiency” in this context is a term of art, the welfare state will take anything that it judges to surpass mere sufficiency, will count itself righteous for doing so, and will judge as deviant anyone who resists the expropriation of their property. Expropriation, even for the highest and noblest of motives, is still expropriation. Moreover, it remains expropriation even when expropriated according to the most meticulous machinations of due process and procedural rationality. As noted above, anyone with their hands upon the levers of power will manipulate whatever institutional apparatus is available in order to enrich themselves at the expense of those less unfortunate — though now rather than anyone it is anything, and in particular it is the nation-state in the form of the welfare state.

Origins of the welfare state

The contemporary welfare state is the result of a pragmatic political compromise intended to forestall the spread of communism in Western Europe. In this it was successful. The German Historical School of economists, in other respects not particularly well respected, was instrumental in this compromise. From the perspective of later communists, this compromise constituted the capitalists “buying off” their workers (cf. the above referenced flood of consumer goods). From the perspective of the privileged, it was a remarkable act of enlightened self-interest scarcely equaled in history. Look to the reluctance of dictators today unwilling to relinquish power even as their fellows are being removed (and often killed) one after another, and it is easy to see the extent to which the privileged and powerful will go to retain their privilege and power.

The state knows best

The logic behind the rapacity of the welfare state, like the logic of the rapacity of the kings, emperors, popes, and cardinals that preceded the nation-state in privilege, and like the logic of dictators ruling today, reveals its relentless, implacable extension to other areas of life — ultimately, to all areas of life — in the current healthcare debate in the US. I have written several times about the individual mandate (i.e., the requirement that would force individuals to buy health insurance) and its presumption to know the best interests of consumers better than consumers themselves know it. This is but one facet of the rapacity of the welfare state, but it is both an important and a telling facet.

If individuals believed contemporary individual health insurance policies to be a good deal, these individuals would be clamoring to buy them. That is the way that capitalism works: you offer something for sale; if consumers want what you have for the price you offer it, you sell your product; if consumers do not want what you have for sale, or don’t want to pay your price, you will not sell your product. It is pretty obvious that individuals not covered by employer-sponsored health care coverage (which latter are therefore insulated from the true cost of health care) are not clamoring to buy individual health insurance policies. These policies are not a good deal, and they are becoming a worse deal with the passage of time. These policies cannot compete in the market. In fact, they choose not to compete. Rather than compete, they choose to legislate and litigate.

Health insurance providers have the heavy hand of the welfare state to intervene on their behalf and to force consumers to buy products that consumers will not and would not buy on the open market when free of compulsion. Instead, these policies will be sold upon threat of legal prosecution.

Promote the general welfare

The welfare state intends to provide welfare for all. This is a noble aspiration. No one can rationally argue with the desire to improve the lives of all and to reduce the glaring inequities of our society. (Some on the contemporary left like to say, “When everyone does better, everyone does better” — and this tautology certainly is true.) One can, however, rationally argue with the means intended to accomplish this end. For we all know, in the overwhelming complexity of the world, that unintended consequences often swamp intended consequences, so that means are uncertain in the extreme: particular means may contribute more to the defeat of the intended aim than to eventually securing the intended aim. How, then, should we go about supporting the general welfare in a manner consistent with democracy and liberty?

And there is a tension between democracy and liberty, as embodied in a now well-known quote frequently mis-attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” (I have also seen versions of this substituting “rabbit” for “lamb.”) The simplest form of democracy — majoritarianism — is especially vulnerable to this tension. More sophisticated incarnations of democratic ideals have made provisions for individual rights that are not to be infringed even if social consensus supports infringement. This is the enlightened tradition that the Founders extended to the US Constitution, and it is the model that we should continue to follow: the democratic ideal pursued in so far as it is possible, and in such a way that its infringements upon individual liberty are minimized. It is in this spirit that I return to the health care debate.

Living “off the grid”

There is a solution to government coercion in purchasing health care services, but this solution, while simple, is radical in its simplicity and would call into question some of the deepest presuppositions of the welfare state. That makes this alternative politically impossible, no matter how much sense it makes. What is this solution? Simply this: offer the option to “opt out” of health care, i.e., to voluntarily live without health insurance, and to accept the consequences of living without health insurance, essentially opting out and living off the health care grid.

I would opt out, and I would do so with my eyes wide open, and with the knowledge that I would be subject to different protocols in the eventually of illness of injury. And I would be willing to make this official, and to certify my decision to the satisfaction of legal standards of evidence, whatever they might be in the this case. For example, I would be willing to carry a card in my wallet, next to my driver’s license, that in the eventuality of my injury, that I am not to be treated, or taken to a hospital or emergency room, or that only a certain specified amount of money should be spent on my treatment, with this amount of money supported by some oath or affirmation that I possess the amount in question in cash.

Prior to writing this, I have not suggested this to anyone, so I don’t know how others would react. However, it is easy to guess the outrage that would greet my proposal in some quarters. For instance, I can imagine it being said that, while a person feels healthy and fully able, they would say that they would like to opt out, but when it came time to pay the piper, no one would be left who would really and truly accept the consequences of their decision, especially if it meant death or living with disfigurement.

Heath care in extremis

This objection is the same as the old canard that there are no atheists in foxholes: the presumption that, in our hour of need, everyone will fold, without exception, and want the aid and comfort to which scientific medicine entitles us. We know this to be false, because we know principled individuals who accept the consequences of their actions without any attempt to save themselves. Interestingly, however, this argument shows how far we have come in real terms — in terms of the actual ideology by which we live, rather than the ideology that is honored more the breach than in the observance — because the “heath care in extremis” objection is the perfect mirror image of the no-atheists-in-foxholes objection. The no-atheists-in-foxholes claim assumes that in our hour of greatest need that we will all, despite any previous profession made under circumstances of security, seek supernatural aid and comfort. The “heath care in extremis” assumes that we will all, despite any profession made under circumstances of security, seek material aid and comfort. So which is it going to be? Supernatural aid and comfort, or materialistic aid and comfort?

What is it in the welfare state’s conception of human nature that it must embrace the totality of our being, and extract from us our forced consent for our total expropriation by the state, body and soul, such that no exceptions are to be allowed? It is simply this: for the welfare state, man is simply homo economicus. The welfare state is an economic institution; each individual instance of homo economicus is a functioning part of our economic institution; therefore, homo economicus is a functioning part of the welfare state. It is an elegant syllogism that reduces the individual to his role within the state as part to whole.

We must see this development in the context of the evolution and maturation of the institutions of advanced industrialized society. That is to say, we would be misunderstanding the situation if we attributed all of this development to wild-eyed ideologically motivated radicals who have an agenda for a utopian society which would be a dystopia for the rest of us. This is not how most social change comes about. Most social change comes about from incremental changes in attitude and incremental changes in material circumstances, which between the two of them create a coevolutionary spiral that issues in unintended consequences that were no part of anyone’s design. Homo economicus and his role within the economy of the welfare state has not been imposed from above; all of this has emerged organically from historically continuous circumstances.

Implicit consent to welfare state rapacity

As always, the wealthy will be left untouched by the law. They will have health care regardless. The individual mandate will fall most heavily on those who have a limited quantity of disposable income and have made a conscious decision to spend that income in a certain way. As the tentacles of the welfare state find their way into the regulation of every aspect of life, like some kind of secular Hadith, every penny of an individual’s income is more and more spoken for by the state before it is earned and spent. One has the “choice” from what company one will purchase health insurance, just as one has a “choice” between buying Crest or Ultrabright toothpaste (the kind of choices that result from a flood of consumer goods), but the supposed greater number of choices made available to the individual in modern society are choices not worthy of the name. The real choice has already been made, and it has been made by the welfare state before the individual is even born.

We find here a particularly radical embodiment of the doctrine of implicit consent to a social contract: if you are born into a society, and if you choose to stay, you choose to accept the social contract of that society. In other words, you relinquish all of your rights, in a Hobbesian moment of absolute submission to the Leviathan, in order to receive a few compensatory rights later, as the Leviathan chooses to grant at its discretion. Thus the welfare state arrogates to itself the right to organize your life before you are even born, and once you emerge as an individual within society you are obligated to arrange your affairs, down to the budgeting of your income, according to the dictates of the state. And if your income is limited, and that limited income has already been spoken for by the state and its epigones? That is your tough luck. Next time, come back rich. For this life, cough up your money. All of it, if need be.

Acceptable and unacceptable choices

Are we going to tell people that it is not a legitimate choice to live fast, die young, and make a beautiful corpse, because this is socially unacceptable? Is it beyond the pale that, if an individual prefers danger to safety, that they should willingly place themselves in danger? And is it unacceptable that an individual should allow himself to take risks? Are we going to tell people that it is unacceptable that they buy a sports car because they need to spend this money instead on health insurance? The welfare state bureaucrat has no problem telling individuals that their choices are not allowed because they do not conform to the economic planning of the welfare state, of which the individual is a part, and the state is the whole.

Thus the welfare state sets itself up like Periander, the despot of Corinth, who, not being satisfied by the example of his father, the despot Kypselos, sent to the famous (or notorious) Thrasybulos of Miletus to learn more effective means of depredations upon his people:

“Now Periander at first was milder than his father; but after he had had dealings through messengers with Thrasybulos the despot of Miletos, he became far more murderous even than Kypselos. For he sent a messenger to Thrasybulos and asked what settlement of affairs was the safest for him to make, in order that he might best govern his State: and Thrasybulos led forth the messenger who had come from Periander out of the city, and entered into a field of growing corn; and as he passed through the crop of corn, while inquiring and asking questions repeatedly of the messenger about the occasion of his coming from Corinth, he kept cutting off the heads of those ears of corn which he saw higher than the rest; and as he cut off their heads he cast them away, until he had destroyed in this manner the finest and richest part of the crop. So having passed through the place and having suggested no word of counsel, he dismissed the messenger. When the messenger returned to Corinth, Periander was anxious to hear the counsel which had been given; but he said that Thrasybulos had given him no counsel, and added that he wondered at the deed of Periander in sending him to such a man, for the man was out of his senses and a waster of his own goods,–relating at the same time that which he had seen Thrasybulos do. So Periander, understanding that which had been done and perceiving that Thrasybulos counselled him to put to death those who were eminent among his subjects, began then to display all manner of evil treatment to the citizens of the State; for whatsoever Kypselos had left undone in killing and driving into exile, this Periander completed.”

Herodotus, Histories, Book V, section 92

It remains to give the theoretical justification of opting out of compulsory spending mandated by the welfare state. It will be objected that, in something so fundamental as health care, opting out would create a two tier system, and ultimately a two tier society, and that this is invidious to democracy. I will, for the moment, leave aside the fact that we already have a stratified society in which many individuals receive preferment and privileges because of their income, social status, or family background. It is fundamentally a question of one’s conception of the law. I have many times remarked that the nation-state system is predicated upon a radical and uncompromising application of the territorial principle in law — that is to say, the principle that one law holds for all individuals within a given geographical region. The historical alternative to the territorial principle of law is the personal principle in law, which is the principle that an individual will be subject to the law of their community, regardless of their geographical location.

The possibility of opting out of government programs appeals to the personal principle in law, and we can see on this basis why representatives of the nation-state — and all of the advanced industrialized nation-states are welfare states — would be opposed in principle to anyone opting out of a territorial principle. The advocate of the exclusive legitimacy of the territorial principle in law must hold that the personal principle in law is illegitimate everywhere and always, and that no legitimate political entity can be erected upon the personal principle in law. If any exceptions are allowed, we would be forced to recognize that our society is shot through with instances in which individuals are held to the standards of their community rather than to universal standards enforced throughout a geographical territory.

As I pointed out above, we do in fact have a stratified society, and whether or not we formally recognize it in our legal codes, we have de facto instances of the personal principle in law that hold throughout our supposedly universal territorial law. To point this out, however, would be to contradict the powers that be. And to allow a separate community that has opted out of the health care mandate, and indeed out of the health care system altogether, would be too glaring an exception to the territorial principle in law to be tolerated.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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