A New Social Contract

Time Magazine recently ran an interview with a top global economist, who has authored a book about what humans owe each other–in other words, about a new or perhaps renewed social contract. Several of her concerns mirror my own; as readers of this blog are aware, my last book, Living Together, was focused on the same question.

The notion of a social contract was first introduced by John Locke and his formulation became a foundation of American law and culture. The U.S. Constitution was heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophers like Locke, who rejected the divine right of Kings in favor of a belief in a theorized “contract” in which citizens grant government an exclusive right to the exercise of coercive power in return for an obligation to provide for their safety and welfare–the “law and order” required for civilization. Citizens could revoke government’s authority if government failed in its mission or breached the bounds of the contract.

Most European nations have subsequently adopted social contract theories that are considerably more expansive than the version embraced by most Americans. Those versions interpret government’s obligation to provide “social goods” broadly,  including access to healthcare.

Several years ago, I collaborated with colleagues in  on an article intended to probe America’s limited view of the proper role for government in social welfare, and to demonstrate that the Affordable Care Act–and for that matter, single-payer health insurance–really was consistent with Locke’s view of a social contract. (We noted that a deficit of civic knowledge poses a significant barrier to efforts to revisit social contract theory–revisiting a theory is impossible for those who have never visited that theory in the first place.)

Take the contemporary debate over healthcare reform. This fight cannot be understood without recognizing the continued potency of the country’s foundational assumptions, and especially the continued relevance of social contract theory most directly attributed to John Locke. In this paper, we echo arguments made by historians and legal theorists like Daniel Boorstin and Louis Hartz who noted that Americans who may never have heard of Locke or the Enlightenment, have nevertheless internalized Locke’s philosophy in ways that make social inclusion and extensions of the social safety net particularly difficult. In a very real sense, John Locke doomed more comprehensive healthcare reform, at least in the short term, and made it far more difficult to extend unemployment benefits, increase payments under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or raise the minimum wage. If we are to have any success in changing the long term prospects for these and similar reforms, we will need to go beyond the academic, moral, and fiscal arguments, no matter how persuasive some of us find them, and directly engage the need to update and expand our basic understanding of the social contract.

We were writing during the initial debates over the ACA, which we noted was yet another iteration of America’s deeply embedded conflict between Social Darwinism and the Social Gospel.

No matter how logical or effective, programs requiring extensive government involvement, or that include “mandates” of any sort, trigger an almost visceral reaction in those who tend more to Social Darwinism, a belief that “productive” people’s rights are thereby violated, and that such approaches are contrary to freedom, to “real” Americanism. In other words, at a basic—perhaps unconscious—level, many people believe that government involvement in healthcare, or government intervention via provision of a social safety net, is somehow un-American and therefore must be rejected. It does no good to point out how deeply government is already involved in providing a social safety net through Social Security, or in providing health care in particular (e.g., the Veterans Administration which is the largest integrated health care system in the country serving more than 8.75 million Veterans each year) — the issue is emotional, not factual. The passage of Medicare generated cries of socialism, and the New Deal—even in the midst of the Great Depression—was aggressively opposed. It is the rare social program that hasn’t had to contend with accusations of incipient communism.

Our article explored the reasons for that “emotional” response, and those of you with time and temperament to wade through its scholarship can agree or disagree with our analysis, but I think it is fair to say that the underlying issue has become considerably more salient.

Humans around the globe are faced not just with a pandemic, but with the existential threat posed by climate change.  Individuals are powerless to address those threats. Collective action is required, and government is our mechanism for collective action.

A workable social contract requires government to protect individual autonomy, provide a supportive social infrastructure and take decisive action to protect the common good.

I’m convinced John Locke would agree.


Let’s Talk Social Infrastructure

Let’s abandon doom, gloom and Coronavirus, and talk instead about the brave new world we might be able to construct when the current crisis has wreaked havoc on the one we have.

The most basic question of political philosophy is: what should government do? The U.S. Bill of Rights is a list of things that government should not do—censor speech, favor religion, search citizens without probable cause or infringe their liberty interests or property rights without due process, among other things—but America hasn’t revisited (or, really, visited) the fundamental question: what is government for? What are the elements of the social and physical infrastructure that government in the 21st Century should provide?

And how should we define infrastructure?

We recognize physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sidewalks, sewers, the national electrical grid. There is less recognition of the importance of other elements of the built environment: parks, libraries, public transportation, utilities, street lighting and other taken-for-granted elements that collectively produce a community’s “quality of life.” Despite almost universal agreement about the importance of physical infrastructure, America’s roads and bridges are in serious disrepair, the electrical grid is vulnerable to hacking, and sewer overflows continue to pollute rivers and streams. Aging pipes are contaminating drinking water in numerous cities and towns; the problem with lead in the water is not limited to the widely-publicized situation in Flint, Michigan.

The problems with America’s physical infrastructure are visible, widely acknowledged and await only a rebirth of political will to fix. The defects in our social infrastructure, however, are less clear-cut, and because they are highly contested, resist repair. “Social infrastructure” includes programs that help needy citizens and build community, including access to economic security, health, education, and the right to equal participation in democratic decision-making.

Aristotle taught us that social infrastructure should facilitate human flourishing.

I tend to harp on the challenges we face: a rapidly morphing information environment, overt tribalism, deepening economic inequality, widespread civic ignorance, and the corruption of America’s current legal and political structures. All of these elements of contemporary reality, plus the existential threats posed by climate change and a global pandemic, challenge America’s future.

What comes next?

We could continue the Trumpian withdrawal from global alliances and our historic civic aspirations, or we could enter a period of extreme social unrest, with escalating protests and accelerating social factionalism, leading to a very uncertain future. Or we could revisit the nation’s existing social contract, evaluate the current utility of our governing assumptions, reaffirm those that have stood the test of time, and modify structures that no longer serve us.

America’s definition of liberty as negative–the individual’s right to be free of government constraint unless s/he is harming the person or property of another– has generated significant conflict: what constitutes a harm sufficient to justify government intervention? How much deference to the rights of others is required? Which others? Is the obligation of government limited to non-interference, or do citizens have the right to demand that government pursue positive actions? If so, what are those actions?

Defining liberty has become even more complicated as America’s population has increased, as equality (another contested term) has become an equally important value, and as society has become more complex. At a minimum, genuine liberty requires more than enforcing limits on the reach of government, important as those limits remain. True liberty– allowing individuals to determine and pursue their individual aspirations– requires ensuring that those individuals have the means to exercise choice, and sufficient information upon which to base consideration of those choices.

Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen argued that freedom is the ability to exercise individual agency, and that personal agency is inescapably qualified and constrained by available social, political and economic opportunities. In other words, individual agency is dependent upon what Sen calls “social arrangements”–what I am calling “social infrastructure.”

In today’s complex and inter-dependent society, government’s responsibility cannot simply be to get out of the way.

Anti-government attitudes that permeate contemporary American culture have been profoundly influenced by a Protestant Ethic that exaggerated the agency of the individual and minimized the extent to which the social infrastructure contributes to, enables—or hinders—individual achievement. In addition to older, traditional functions, today’s governments must provide citizens with a social safety net that affirmatively supports human liberty by allowing citizens to reach their potential.

That safety net can be constructed in ways that unify or further divide us.

A Native American parable is instructive: One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves that are inside all of us. One is evil. The other is good.” The grandson asked, “Which wolf wins?” and the grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

America needs a social and political infrastructure that feeds—encourages, promotes and rewards—prosocial and pro-democratic behaviors and norms.

It is time to rethink how government should “feed” the good wolf.


Where Do We Go From Here?

Last night, I spoke at the Peace and Justice Center about my most recent book, Living Together: Mending a Fractured America. Here are those remarks. (Sorry for the length)

As most of you have noticed, we’re living in tough times.

We—by which I mean all of humanity, but especially citizens of the United States—find ourselves in the middle of a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in the basic assumptions through which most of us have been accustomed to viewing the world. I know that such shifts aren’t unprecedented (the dislocations of the Industrial Revolution are arguably an example), but while they’re occurring, people on either side of the shift find it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate with each other; they occupy different realities.

As we are trying to negotiate and adapt to the technological and social changes that seem to constantly be accelerating, we’re faced with a really scary number of economic, governmental and social institutions that are in crisis—or as I describe them in the book, broken. We’re just now beginning to realize how disorienting and damaging it is to occupy a fragmented and inconsistent information environment in which Americans don’t share a common reality. Our ability to choose whatever “facts” we prefer to believe has abetted a renewed tribalism, and a resurgence of populism and white nationalism. We live in an era marked by dramatic economic inequality, and if that wasn’t challenging enough, the accelerating pace of automation is eliminating a huge number of jobs—a number that is projected to grow exponentially, and sooner than most of us think.

Worse, it’s no longer possible to ignore the inadequacies and corruption of America’s current legal and political structures.

If those problems weren’t daunting enough, while we are trying to make sense of the economic and social challenges we are experiencing, we are also facing the very real possibility that climate change will cause large portions of the planet to become uninhabitable—with consequences that are, for most Americans, unimaginable.

Most of these problems have been incubating for years, but in the United States, the 2016 election and its aftermath have made it impossible to ignore them. That election forced recognition of the extent to which a longtime, steady erosion of the country’s democratic norms has hollowed out and corrupted this country’s governing institutions.

As we enter 2020, we face thorny social and economic challenges in an environment that makes it very difficult to solve them—or even agree on what they are. Changes to journalism driven by the Internet have dramatically intensified the difficulty of democratic decision-making. Actual news based upon verifiable fact is still available but diminishing, especially at the local level. Cable news and the wild west of the Internet enable and encourage confirmation bias, and are rife with spin, “fake news” and outright propaganda. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United increased public recognition of—and cynicism about– the disproportionate power wielded by corporate America through lobbying, political contributions and influence-peddling. Together with the enormous and widening gap between the rich and the rest, recognition of the outsized influence of money in America’s political system feeds suspicion of all government decision-making.

In order for democratic institutions to function, there has to be widespread trust in the integrity of electoral contests. The fundamental democratic idea is a fair fight, a contest of competing ideas, with the winners legitimized and authorized to carry out their agendas. Increasingly, however, those democratic contests are marked by disinformation and cyber-warfare, as well as by bare-knuckled power plays and mechanisms—notably gerrymandering and varieties of vote suppression—through which partisans game the system. As a result, citizens’ trust in government and other social institutions has dangerously diminished. Without that trust—without a widespread belief in an American “we,” an overarching polity to which all citizens belong and in which all citizens are valued—tribalism thrives. Racial resentments grow. The divide between urban and rural Americans widens, as does the gap between various “elites” and others. Economic insecurity and social dysfunction are made worse by the absence of an adequate social safety net, adding to resentment of both government and those considered “Other.”

Making matters worse, as we began to recognize the immensity of these challenges, America’s antiquated Electoral College facilitated the election of a President incapable of recognizing, understanding or dealing with them.

As I said in the Introduction to Living Together, citizens in 21st Century America are facing a globalized, technocratic, increasingly complex world that poses unprecedented challenges to the goal of e pluribus unum (not to mention human understanding and survival). The existential question we face is: Can government policies create a genuine “us” out of so many different/diverse “I’s” and “we’s”? Can policymakers use law and legislative processes to create a supportive, nourishing culture that remains true to the Enlightenment’s essential insights, while modifying or discarding those that are no longer so essential? If so, how? How does this nation overcome the escalating assaults on science, reality and the rule of law and create a functioning, trustworthy democratic system?

The challenges America faces tend to fall into three (interrelated and sometimes overlapping) categories: widespread Ignorance (defined as lack of essential information, not stupidity); historic Inequality (the wealth gap, civic inequality, power and informational asymmetries among others) and unapologetic Tribalism (“us versus them”—racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, the urban/rural divide, and political identity.)

An old lawyer once told me that there is really only one legal or political question: “what do we do?” How do we fashion concrete and politically tenable answers to the multitude of questions raised by social and technological change? How do we live together in what should be our brave new world?

That was the fundamental question I explored in Living Together.

In Part I, I set out the various ways in which our cultural assumptions and social institutions are being upended, and how issues we’ve dealt with more or less adequately have suddenly become much more salient and disruptive. We face once again the age-old question: how should humans govern themselves? What institutional arrangements are most likely to be perceived as fair and just by most people, even when those people have very different desires, abilities, beliefs and needs? What sorts of governance and institutional arrangements are most likely to promote what Aristotle called “human flourishing?”

In the 18th Century, Enlightenment philosophers answered that question by proposing a social contract based upon the issues and understandings of their times.  Those philosophers and scientists challenged longtime assumptions about how a society should be constructed, how it should be governed and what it should value. In the United States, the nation’s Founders built a legal and constitutional system based upon those Enlightenment insights and values and the belief that human flourishing could best be facilitated by a limited-authority government that allowed individuals to exercise personal autonomy to the greatest extent compatible with an overarching order.

That original vision and approach to governance has never been uncontested or fully realized, but it has provided the framework—the paradigm—that shaped subsequent policy argumentation. That liberal democratic framework, as it has evolved to the present, rests upon a (necessarily limited) respect for self-determination- the ability of individuals, cultures and states to determine and pursue their own ends, their own telos. Respect for the right of individuals or groups to determine their own life choices requires that we reject many legally-imposed uniformities and recognize that human diversity is not just inevitable but socially desirable.

Of course, the principles that emerged from the Enlightenment and were embraced by America’s founders are not now and never have been universally held. Furthermore, even among people who do accept the general framework and stated values that undergird America’s Constitution, there are significant differences of opinion about what individual liberty actually means and when government’s authority may be properly exercised. Ongoing tensions between the majoritarian “popular passions” that so worried the architects of America’s constitution and Enlightenment ideas about the importance of individual autonomy have spawned a long line of academic studies and a significant body of constitutional jurisprudence.  America’s civic history has been a series of conflicts between the rights of the individual and the preferences of the majority.

In the 21st Century, the increasingly frenetic pace of technological, economic and cultural change has dramatically intensified the conflict between the individual’s right to self-determination and societies’ need for social cohesion. Those changes have tested America’s purported commitment to equality—especially as previously marginalized populations have entered both the workforce and the political arena and demanded equal social and civic status. It’s no longer possible to ignore the demographic changes that threaten entrenched social privilege, and the imminent loss of dominant status feeds the white nationalist movement that has emerged with such ferocity in parts of Europe and the United States. That movement, together with certain strains of populism, appeals especially to people disdainful of diversity and the claims of previously marginalized groups—and for that matter, Enlightenment values—finding them not simply offensive, but existentially threatening.

The dramatic degree of economic inequality we are experiencing hasn’t just deepened group tensions—it has challenged what is essentially our 18th Century understanding of the nature of both liberty and equality.

As I was writing this book, fundamental and acrimonious disputes about immigration, racial equity, women’s rights, global alliances and the rule of law were being further inflamed by the daily tweets of an authoritarian President who is widely seen as corrupt, incompetent and mentally unstable. The legitimacy of the Supreme Court has been compromised by its growing politicization, and most recently by legislative tactics that allowed the unprecedented “theft” of a seat that President Obama should have filled. People are increasingly taking to the streets in protest, convinced that their grievances will not be addressed by a system they see as fatally flawed.

Assuming—as hopeful people must—that a reformed, small-d democratic order will eventually emerge from the chaos and inter-group hostility we are experiencing, it seems to me that we urgently need to revisit our basic assumptions about government and the social contract. We need to critically assess what has gone wrong, move to safeguard those elements of our governance that have proved their ongoing utility, and revise those that are no longer working. We need to learn from the country’s mistakes if we are to facilitate the building of a better, fairer and more durable society.

The questions are eternal: What do humans owe each other? What is the nature of liberty? Of equality? What is the proper role of government? What should the rules be, who should make those rules, and how should they be enforced?

The questions may be eternal, but the answers aren’t.

I wrote Living Together to describe what I see as the most daunting challenges we face as a country, and to suggest the terms of a new social contract that would address those challenges.

Part One of the book details the threat posed by contemporary manifestations of tribalism and civic polarization; explores the dramatic, accelerating changes in the economy and the nature of work; and describes the “brokenness” of an American government that embraces cronyism while rejecting science, evidence and longstanding understandings of what constitutes fair play.  Chapters also address the dangers posed by the incessant attacks on public education, by the propaganda that has become ubiquitous in the age of the Internet, and by our stubborn refusal to recognize the extent to which all of these challenges are likely to be dwarfed by the effects of climate change.

In Part Two, I proposed policy changes prompted by these analyses—policy changes that, taken together, would amount to the creation of a new, much more expansive social contract appropriate to the age in which we live; a set of policies that would address our growing inequality and moderate the hostilities that characterize current debates among America’s quarrelsome tribes.

Let me conclude with a caveat: I am not naïve enough to expect current policymakers to embrace my proposals; certainly, a sizable number of the people serving in Congress as I write this have demonstrated neither an interest in advancing the common good nor the capacity to understand the problems America currently faces. However, in my optimistic moments (which are getting fewer and farther between…) I tell myself that the increase in civic awareness and participation that followed the 2016 election, and the various political movements generated by the so-called “resistance,” will result in the election of a more thoughtful, responsive and ethical set of policymakers. If that happens, maybe some of what I propose in Living Together will prompt discussion and debate. (We can discuss what  those proposals are during the Question and Answer period.)

If America is, as I think, on the cusp of a broad upheaval triggered by dramatic social, economic and technological changes and aggravated by the broken-ness of our current governing and social institutions, this country’s “best and brightest” will need to explore a variety of potential changes to our governmental, economic and social systems.

Living Together is my contribution to those explorations.


Why I Came To Support A UBI

As regular readers of this blog know, I recently published a book titled Living Together. After a survey of various elements of our society that I identified as “broken,” I drew on a variety of research to propose an expanded social contract. An important part of that new social contract was a Universal Basic Income.

The book was an exercise in utopianism–most of my proposals won’t be adopted in my lifetime, if ever. But a girl can dream…

Be warned: Even the following, abbreviated explanation will make this post longer than usual. (But hey–it’s a holiday…)


Social scientists point to the ways in which America’s obsessive focus on individual responsibility and achievement obscures recognition of the equally important role played by the broader community within which we are embedded. A much-cited remark made by Elizabeth Warren during her first Senate campaign reminded listeners that communal infrastructure makes individual success and market economies possible:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

The fact that Warren’s observation garnered so much attention suggests that Americans rarely see individual success stories as dependent upon the government’s ability to provide a physical and legal environment within which that success can occur.

The importance of hard work and individual talent should not be minimized, but neither should it be exaggerated. When the focus is entirely upon the individual, when successes of any sort are attributed solely to individual effort, the importance of that infrastructure–and the effects of social and legal structures that privilege certain groups and impede others– become less visible.

Policies intended to help less fortunate citizens can be delivered in ways that stoke resentments, or in ways that encourage national cohesion.  Consider public attitudes toward welfare programs aimed at impoverished communities, and contrast those attitudes with the overwhelming majorities that approve of Social Security and Medicare.

Social Security and Medicare are universal programs; virtually everyone contributes to them and everyone who lives long enough participates in their benefits. Just as we don’t generally hear accusations that “those people are driving on roads paid for by my taxes,” or sentiments begrudging a poor neighbor’s garbage pickup, beneficiaries of programs that include everyone (or almost everyone) are much more likely to escape stigma. In addition to the usual questions of efficacy and cost-effectiveness, policymakers in our diverse country should evaluate proposed programs by considering whether they are likely to unify or further divide Americans. Universal policies are far more likely to unify, an important and often overlooked argument favoring a Universal Basic Income.

What if the United States embraced a new social contract, beginning with the premise that all citizens are valued members of the American polity, and that (as the advertisement says) membership has its privileges?

Contracts are by definition mutual undertakings in which both sides offer consideration. In my imagined “Brave New World,” government would create an environment within which humans could flourish, an environment within which members would be guaranteed a basic livelihood, a substantive, excellent education, and an equal place at the civic table. In return, members (aka citizens) would pay their “dues:” taxes, a stint of public/civic service, and the consistent discharge of civic duties like voting and jury service.

In my Brave New World, government would provide both physical and social infrastructure.

We know the elements of physical infrastructure: streets, roads, bridges, utilities, parks, museums, public transportation, and the like; we might expand the definition to include common municipal services like police and fire protection, garbage collection and similar necessities and amenities of community life. Local governments across the country understand the importance of these assets and services, and struggle to provide them with the generally inadequate tax dollars collected from grudging but compliant citizens.

There is far less agreement on what the social infrastructure should look like and how it should be funded. The most consequential element of a new social infrastructure, and by far the most difficult to implement, would require significant changes to the deep-seated cultural assumptions on which the current economy rests. Its goals are to ease economic insecurities, reduce the gap between rich and poor, restore workers’ bargaining power and (not so incidentally) rescue market capitalism from its descent into corporatism and plutocracy. The two major pillars of that ambitious effort are a Universal Basic Income and single-payer health insurance.

The defects of existing American welfare policies are well-known. The nation has a patchwork of state and federal efforts and programs, with bureaucratic barriers and means tests that are expensive to administer and that operate to exclude most of the working poor. Those who do get welfare are routinely stigmatized by moralizing lawmakers pursuing punitive measures aimed at imagined “takers” and “Welfare Queens.” Current anti-poverty policies have not made an appreciable impact on poverty, but they have grown the bureaucracy and contributed significantly to stereotyping and socio-economic polarization; as a result, a number of economists and political thinkers now advocate replacing the existing patchwork with a Universal Basic Income.

A Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a stipend sent to every U.S. adult citizen, with no strings attached– no requirement to work, or to spend the money on certain items and not others. It’s a cash grant sufficient to insure basic sustenance; a number of proponents advocate $1000 per month. As Andy Stern, former President of the Service Employee’s International Union has written,

“A basic income is simple to administer, treats all people equally, rewards hard work and entrepreneurship, and trusts the poor to make their own decisions about what to do with their money. Because it only offers a floor, people are encouraged to make additional income through their own efforts… Welfare, on the other hand, discourages people from working because, if your income increases, you lose benefits,”

With a UBI, in contrast to welfare, there’s no phase-out, no marriage penalties, no people falsifying information–and no costly bureaucracy. Support for the concept is not limited to liberals and progressives. Milton Friedman famously proposed a “negative income tax,” and F.A. Hayek, the libertarian economist, wrote “There is no reason why in a free society government should not assure to all, protection against severe deprivation in the form of an assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need descend.” In 2016, Samuel Hammond of the libertarian Niskanen Center, noted the “ideal” features of a UBI: its unconditional structure avoids creating poverty traps; it sets a minimum income floor, raising worker bargaining power without wage or price controls; it decouples benefits from a particular workplace or jurisdiction; since it’s cash, it respects a diversity of needs and values; and it simplifies and streamlines a complex web of bureaucracy, eliminating rent seeking and other sources of inefficiency.

Hammond’s point about worker bargaining power is especially important. In today’s work
environment, characterized by dramatically-diminished unions and the growth of the “gig economy,” the erosion of employee bargaining power is confirmed by data showing that wages  have been effectively stagnant for years, despite significant growth in productivity. With a UBI and single payer health coverage, workers would have the freedom to leave abusive employers, unsafe work conditions, and uncompetitive pay scales. A UBI wouldn’t level the playing field, but it would dramatically reduce the tilt. And if the robots do come—if the predictions of jobs that will be lost to automation are even close to accurate—a UBI could act as a national safety-net, helping the country avoid massive civil turmoil.

It is also worth noting that a UBI would have much the same positive effect on economic growth as a higher minimum wage. When poor people get money, they spend it, increasing demand.

There have been several pilot projects meant to assess the pros and cons of UBIs. The Washington Post reported on an extensive experiment in Africa, which found positive results not just for those receiving the money, but for their communities. The Guardian recently reported equally positive results from an American pilot project in Stockton, California. As with earlier experiments, skeptical predictions were not borne out; the money was primarily spent on food, medicine and education. Studies have also reported a significant positive spillover on female empowerment, and large increases in psychological well-being of recipients.

An economist quoted in Forbes noted that when Native Americans opened casinos along the Rio Grande, they used the proceeds to deliver basic incomes to the tribal poor.

“Child abuse dropped drastically, crime dropped. Simply handing money to poor people was salutary. It really helped them. Being trapped in poverty, with the stress and insecurities associated with that, is progressively debilitating. Sometimes even the simplest kind of transfers can break the cycle.”

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, a significant body of research supports the
importance of a robust social safety net to market economies. As Will Wilkinson, vice-president for policy at the libertarian Niskanen Center, has put it:

“A sound and generous system of social insurance offers a certain peace of mind that makes the very real risks of increased economic dynamism seem tolerable to the democratic public, opening up the political possibility of stabilizing a big-government welfare state with growth-promoting economic liberalization.”

As Wilkinson argued in an article for the conservative National Review, contemporary arguments between self-defined capitalists and socialists misunderstand economic reality. The left fails to appreciate the role of capitalism and markets in producing abundance, and the right refuses to acknowledge the indispensable role safety nets play in placating the human, deeply-seated distaste for feelings of uncertainty and insecurity.

If we were a country that truly valued all citizens, these would be compelling arguments.

Tomorrow: how to pay for it.


To Continue My Rant…

I know I’m harping on this, but yesterday a commenter suggested that religious liberty should trump other social goods. (Not his phrasing, but the consequence of his demands.)

That isn’t the law, but more importantly, it isn’t good philosophy either.

Back before so many libertarians made common cause with social conservatives on culture-war issues, and others turned a small-government philosophy into an anti-tax, anti-government cult, I identified as libertarian. The libertarian principle is (deceptively) simple: we each have the right to “do our own thing”– to live our lives as we see fit, free of government interference– so long as we do not harm the person or property of a non-consenting other, and so long as we are willing to extend an equal liberty to others. 

The caveats that follow the “so long as” phrase are important. And they have a critical bearing on the so-called “religious liberty” bills like the one I posted about yesterday– measures to “protect” businesspeople who who defend discrimination against LGBT employees or customers by citing their “deeply-held and sincere religious beliefs.”

As I noted yesterday, similar efforts followed the 1964 Civil Rights Act; then it was a “sincere religious belief” that God wanted to keep the races separate. The courts didn’t buy that argument then, and they are unlikely to buy it now.

As I have written previously, there is a reciprocal relationship–a social contract– between government and its citizens. Government collects taxes from all of us, no matter our race, religion or sexual orientation, and uses those tax dollars to provide public services. The services we taxpayers finance provide an essential infrastructure for American commercial activity.

Businesses ship their goods to market over roads we paid for. They are protected by police and fire departments supported by our tax dollars. Public transportation and sidewalks bring workers and customers to their premises. The deal is, businesses get the benefit of the infrastructure supplied by our taxes, and in return, agree not to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion and other markers of group identity.

We can and should argue about the nature and scope of the services government provides, but few people really want to revoke the social contract, dispense with government and return to a Hobbesian state of nature.

Religious liberty is capacious. It allows you to hold any beliefs you want. It allows you to preach those beliefs in the streets, and to refuse to socialize with people of whom you disapprove. It gives you the right to observe the rules of your particular religion in your home and church and social circle without government interference. It gives you a broad right to “do your own religious thing” until you harm someone else, and so long as you respect the right of other people to do their “own thing.” Which “thing” may be different from yours.

Religious liberty doesn’t include the right to disadvantage people who should be entitled to equal treatment, or to use the power of the state to impose some people’s beliefs on everyone else.

Neither the libertarian principle nor the social contract defines “religious liberty” as a right to pick and choose which parts of the social contract you will honor and which ones you will disregard.