Tuesday, March 16, 2004
Notes from the peanut gallery
Kucinich's answer to the Y.O.K.E.L. appealed to the idea that providing for the basic needs of the citizenry was one of the legitimate functions of government. This is okay as far as it goes, but it's not going to convince a Y.O.K.E.L. For one thing, Y.O.K.E.L.s think that it's immoral to place anyone else's good on a par with your own. What seems to be missing is a substantive account of what it is that makes something a legitimate function of government.
Ezra Klein at Pandagon does a better job of addressing this particular bit of tomfoolery, but still falls short. On his account, welfare isn't theft because the laws which established welfare were legitimately passed by a government which has our consent. The difficulty is that the argument depends on what the Y.O.K.E.L. refuses to give -- namely, his consent. Now, you might plausibly think that the Y.O.K.E.L. would be irrational to refuse consent, but what right have you to demand that he be rational? None that I can see.
To answer the Y.O.K.E.L., you need an argument that starts from premises he accepts. Here's one such premise: All citizens ought to be treated equally by the state.
So here's an argument:
(1) All citizens ought to be treated equally by the state.
(2) Whatever else equality of treatment includes, it must include equal opportunity to participate in political decision making.
(3) One cannot be an equal participant in political decision making unless one has sufficient material resources.
Hence, (4) states must ensure that all citizens meet some minimal level of material well-being.
Once you've got 4, it's a pretty easy step to programs like welfare and social security. You can also pretty easily get things like universal health-care, housing programs, and state-sponsored education.
Will a Y.O.K.E.L. accept this argument? Well, no. As noted, they're irrational. More importantly, they'll point out that 3 is extremely contentious. Be that as it may, this argument at least provides a way of answering the Y.O.K.E.L. without begging the question. Besides, it's possible that 3 is the sort of thing that can be fruitfully investigated by the social sciences.
(For you philoso-nerds: I first heard this line of argument from John Exdell, in a paper he wrote criticizing welfare-to-work programs. I suspect that it's out there in other forms, but I've never seen it more clearly expressed. I'd like to say that it's implicit in Rawls, but Rawls seems committed to the notion that consent and legitimacy are intimately connected.)