Starving in the Streets

by Russ Roberts on April 1, 2005

in Cooperation

I think the world would be a better place if government got out of the retirement business altogether and let us take of ourselves rather than have the government treat us like children, incapable of dealing with the complexities of risk and reward.

There are two different philosophical arguments against the idea of people taking care of themselves.  One view argues that government provision of social security is simply better because it is a contract between the generations where we all take responsibility for one another.  To me this is romance at best or a hoax or a fraud at worst.  What does it mean to say we all take responsibility for one another?  A family of 300 million people isn’t a family.  And somehow I lose all the romance when poor workers are taxed to support wealthy retirees.  I just don’t get it.

In the romantic view of government, collective provision of things is always better than private provision.  My favorite example of this comes from a New York Times review of Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God a few years back:

At one point Frank discusses the proposition that Peter Lynch deserves
middle-class hero status because people stop him on the street to thank
him for running the popular Fidelity Magellan Fund so well that it
allowed them to accumulate a bigger retirement nest egg, or to pay for
their kid’s tuition, or to build an addition to their home. Frank of
course sees no heroism in this, and counters that ”each of these
necessities — pensions, shelter, college — were things Americans had
once sought to ensure through union activity or government
intervention, things that Americans once believed were theirs simply by
virtue of being citizens, things that could and should be available to
everyone in a democratic society.”

At one level this is simply romantic nostalgia.  At another level it is delusion, thinking that somehow being a citizen generates these benefits without an understanding of the process that actually produces them.  I don’t think Peter Lynch is a hero.  But even in Frank’s romantic vision where government was once a source of material well-being, the government wasn’t producing the well-being, it was redistributing it from someone who was doing the actual work.  Portraying the government as heroic provider is an intellectual dishonesty unless we’re talking about Cuba, say, where life is simpler, poorer and more static.

But there is another argument against personal responsibility that I find even more mystifying.  In this argument, without government provision of something, it simply would not exist.  When I write or talk on getting government out of the retirement business, some people inevitably email me telling me that in my ideal world, poor seniors would starve in the streets because social security wouldn’t be there to take care of them.

One of the problems with this argument is that it ignores the fact that poor young people have a tougher time because they are forced to pay for social security.  But the deeper problem with it is the presumption that without government, it simply would not get done.  In this view, without government schools, there would be no education.  Without government food stamps, there would be no aid to the poor.  Without the post office, no letters would get delivered.

This lack of imagination ties in to the earlier romance about government.  It ignores the private communities, the private ties, the voluntary associations we make that make our lives satisfying and make the world a better place.  It ignores that when government acts, it crowds out voluntary kindness and replaces it with a more sterile version.  Yes, it can be hard because of free-rider problems to voluntarily solve social problems.  But it is harder, not impossible.  And the quality of the care that results is often better.

Think of the myriad of small good deeds we do and receive from others that make life civilized—holding a door open for someone whose arms are full of packages, pushing a stranger’s car out of a snow bank, giving blood, adopting a child.  These countless acts of kindness happen without collective action by government because the costs of a government doorman who springs into action when someone comes by carrying groceries would be too expensive.  But forget the cost issue.  Isn’t it lovely to hold the door, to give to charity, to comfort the fallen?  Noticing that in the world around us, these good deeds happen without government may give some solace to the worriers who think that without social security, elderly poor people would starve to death.

I’ve been thinking about this since watching an EBay commercial.  (Go here.  In the left hand margin find the menu for "TV Spots" and choose "Belief.")

Finally, Bastiat, in The Law wrote eloquently on the lack of imagination I’m discussing here:

Do those worshippers of government believe that free
persons will cease to act? Does it follow that if we receive no
energy from the law, we shall receive no energy at all? Does it
follow that if the law is restricted to the function of protecting
the free use of our faculties, we will be unable to use our
faculties? Suppose that the law does not force us to follow certain
forms of religion, or systems of association, or methods of
education, or regulations of labor, or regulations of trade, or plans
for charity; does it then follow that we shall eagerly plunge into
atheism, hermitary, ignorance, misery, and greed? If we are free,
does it follow that we shall no longer recognize the power and
goodness of God? Does it follow that we shall then cease to associate
with each other, to help each other, to love and succor our
unfortunate brothers, to study the secrets of nature, and to strive
to improve ourselves to the best of our abilities?

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