On Social Unrest, Take Two

 Posted by on 14 May 2010 at 7:00 am  Politics
May 142010

William Stoddard posted the following comment on the recent post On Social Unrest. I liked it so much that I wanted to post it as a separate blog post, and William generously agreed to that.

There’s a curious moral inversion associated with this sort of social unrest, which shows up in discussions of the welfare state. On one hand, many people will start out by saying that the poor are in need of income support and deserve to receive it. But on the other hand, the same people will often go on, in a discussion with someone who believes in laissez-faire capitalism, to say that if people are not given income support, they will be desperately poor, and in their desperation will resort to violence to seize what they aren’t given voluntarily, and that by taking part of other people’s wealth and giving it to the poor, the government is protecting those people from violence, and thus safeguarding their own interests, in a way in which, if they were prudent, they would do themselves.

(1) This is an inherently paternalistic argument; it asserts that people who were competent and prudent enough to make huge fortunes cannot protect those fortunes without government help.

(2) There is an inherent contradiction in saying, simultaneously, that people need and deserve some of other people’s money, and that they are prepared to take it by violence. We don’t normally say that rapists deserve sexual gratification; rather, we think that their willingness to resort to violence makes them undeserving!

(3) This argument proposes that the government should defend the wealthy and the middle classes from forcible seizure of their assets, not by using force against the would-be thieves and robbers, but by itself seizing those same assets and handing them out, ensuring that the victims will face not unpredictable violence that they might hope to defend themselves against, but systematic and overwhelming violence that they cannot hope to resist.

(4) In terms of sheer incentives, if people demand other people’s wealth, and threaten to take it by force, and then are rewarded for this by having the government pay them off . . . well, it’s a basic principle of psychology that you get more of the behavior you reward. The government in this approach is teaching people to be more violent and have less respect for property rights. And where that leads the situation in Greece makes all too visible.

I’m particularly intrigued by the second and third points. Can anyone think of parallel arguments on other issues? Or are arguments of this form made only in this case?

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