Critical Review

Critical Review

Winter–Spring 1999 (Vol.13 Nos.1–2)


Misfortune, Welfare Reform, and Right-Wing Egalitarianism
by Patrick Boleyn-Fitzgerald *



A close look at the rhetoric in America’s recent welfare-reform debate has both surprising and important implications for political philosophy. Political philosophers typically presume that opponents of redistribution are motivated by considerations other than equality. Recent arguments for welfare reform, however, have been formulated in a manner consistent with most contemporary egalitarian theories. This result should make us question either the political relevance of egalitarian ideals or the adequacy of those theories of equality.



In the summer of 1996 President Clinton signed “The Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996.” While Clinton had vetoed two earlier bills that proposed more radical changes to welfare policies, the act that he did sign made the most sweeping changes in American poverty programs since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The 1996 law abolished Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC),jobs (the work training program for welfare recipients), and Emergency Assistance to Families with Children (which provided temporary aid for a maximum of one month each year). The act replaced these programs with bloc grants given to the states, eliminated all federal entitlements to aid, and cut funding for welfare programs by $54 billion over six years.

Most people who call themselves egalitarians considered the initial Republican proposals for reform Draconian, and they believed that most components of the bill that did pass were steps in the wrong direction. In other words, most egalitarians would say that welfare reform moved the United States away from equality. One might assume, then, that the arguments given by proponents of reform were straightforwardly anti-egalitarian—that they were grounded in concerns about liberty, individual rights, or perhaps a conservative and anti-egalitarian vision of community. Surprisingly, this is not so. The most influential argument used to defend welfare reform was, in fact, wholly consistent with what many egalitarian philosophers identify as the essence of their ideal—minimizing involuntary disadvantage. Because the proponents of reform favored reducing redistribution even while justifying this reduction by means of egalitarian values, I call them “right-wing egalitarians.” If we were to accept the most extreme right-wing egalitarian arguments, we would be moved to eliminate welfare programs altogether.

The implication of the right-wing egalitarian position is either that equality is impotent as a political ideal or that the ideal of equality is something other than what most modern egalitarians maintain.


Equality of Fortune

Over the past several decades a great deal of philosophical attention has been devoted to the question: Equality of what? Although a wide variety of answers to this question have been proposed, some general features are common to many, if not most, of them. Egalitarian philosophers often endorse a general ideal of equality that has been called “equality of fortune” or “luck egalitarianism” (Anderson 1999, 289). According to advocates of equality of fortune, the aim of equality is to eliminate or minimize the effects of brute bad luck—disadvantages that are no fault of one’s own. Richard Arneson (1990, 177) states this principle clearly: “the ideal of equal opportunity for welfare is roughly that other things equal, it is morally wrong if some people are worse off than others through no fault or voluntary choice of their own.”

While Ronald Dworkin endorses equality of resources rather than Arneson’s equal opportunity for welfare, he holds a similar attitude toward misfortune. In general, Dworkin (1981, 311) maintains, an egalitarian should make distributions sensitive to people’s voluntary ambitions but insensitive to their natural and involuntary endowments.

On the one hand we must, on pain of violating equality, allow the distribution of resources at any particular moment to be (as we might say) ambition-sensitive. It must, that is, reflect the cost or benefit to others of the choices people make so that, for example, those who choose to invest rather than consume, or to consume less expensively rather than more, or to work in more rather than less profitable ways, must be permitted to retain the gains that flow from these decisions in an equal auction followed by free trade. But on the other hand, we must not allow the distribution of resources at any moment to be endowment-sensitive, that is, to be affected by differences in ability of the sort that produce income differences in a laissez-faire economy among people with the same ambitions.

When distributions are sensitive to ambitions, individuals get rewarded for being responsible for their actions. Ambition-sensitive distributions reward choices that minimize the costs borne by others and those that bring benefits to others. When distributions are insensitive to endowments, however, we ensure that social benefits are not distributed for reasons other than the responsible choices of individuals.

Eric Rakowski (1997, 248) maintains a similar attitude toward misfortune when he endorses a theory of equality of resources: “Justice generally requires, I shall argue, that people be compensated for ill fortune against which they were unable to insure adequately and the risk of which they did not choose to run.” And even though G. A. Cohen rejects both equality of resources and equal opportunity for welfare in favor of his own theory—equal access to advantage—he holds a nearly identical position to the others regarding misfortune. He argues that egalitarians should compensate “only for those welfare deficits which are not in some way traceable to the individual’s choices” (Cohen 1989, 914). He writes:

A person is exploited when unfair advantage is taken of him, and he suffers from (bad) brute luck when his bad luck is not the result of a gamble or risk which he could have avoided. I believe that the primary egalitarian impulse is to extinguish the influence on distribution of both exploitation and brute luck. (Ibid., 908)

John Roemer (1994, 179–80) nicely summarizes the common thread running through these theories of equality: “society should indemnify people against poor outcomes that are the consequences of causes that are beyond their control, but not against outcomes that are the consequences of causes that are within their control, and therefore for which they are personally responsible.” Though they dispute some of the implications of equality of fortune, most egalitarian philosophers agree that this ideal involves minimizing the effects of misfortunes that are not the fault of the unfortunate.

Philosophers who defend the ideal of equality of fortune usually contend that it implies redistributing resources to the poor. Dworkin spends a considerable amount of effort trying to show that his interpretation of equality leads in that direction, ideally distributing resources so that the opportunity costs of the resources people control are equal. While other egalitarians disagree with the details of Dworkin’s theory, they agree about the redistributive implication of egalitarianism. For instance, Cohen begins his Tanner Lectures with the example of Margaret Thatcher’s cut in the tax rate paid by Britain’s highest income earners. Cohen considers the tax cut inegalitarian but notes that one of the most politically effective justifications for it—the incentives argument—has been embraced by some left-wing liberals. Cohen’s goal is to show that the incentives argument is inconsistent with egalitarianism, which cannot, he believes, justify any significant inequality of income (Cohen 1991, 269). Similarly, Thomas Nagel (1991, 74) writes that he “would require a system much more equal than now exists in most democratic countries.”


Right-Wing Egalitarianism

When President Clinton (1996, 2216) announced that he would sign the welfare reform bill he said, “A long time ago I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency and hurting the very people it was designed to help.” He maintained that welfare reform would solve this problem by giving the states strong incentives to place welfare recipients in jobs. So, he concluded, he would sign the bill because it would help those on welfare. He did, however, see problems with it. The bill cut nutritional subsidies to children and it denied eligibility to legal immigrants. The latter provision was especially troublesome, Clinton said, for immigrant families “who fall on hard times through no fault of their own” (ibid., 2217). He pledged to try to alter the components of welfare reform that he considered most worrisome. He said, “I will do everything in my power, in other words, to make sure that this bill lifts people up and does not become an excuse for anyone to turn their backs on this problem or on people who are generally in need through no fault of their own” (ibid.). Out of a stated concern for the well-being of the poor and for involuntary disadvantage, then, Clinton restricted redistribution, even though he would have preferred to restrict redistribution less.

Clinton’s position is a moderate version of right-wing egalitarianism. It is right-wing in the sense that he significantly cut redistribution. It is egalitarian in the sense that the stated reason for reducing redistribution was to better achieve equality of fortune. Many Republicans wanted more radical changes in welfare programs, and some wanted to eliminate welfare altogether. But the arguments for this stronger right-wing position were also egalitarian. They rested on claims about what would most benefit the poor, and held that reducing redistribution even more would minimize the effects of misfortune.

In the rest of this section I will discuss the arguments of congressional Republicans and also the work of social theorist Charles Murray, journalism professor Marvin Olasky, and philosopher David Schmidtz. Murray and Olasky were both cited by Republicans during the congressional debates, so their positions may help us understand what influenced Republican thinking. Schmidtz is a philosopher who deploys against welfare programs an argument similar in form to that of other right-wing egalitarians, but his is a more sophisticated version of their doctrine.

Newt Gingrich (1995, 71), then Speaker of the House, made a classic right-wing egalitarian argument when he contended that America needed welfare reform because welfare was bad for the poor: “The welfare state reduces the poor from citizens to clients. It breaks up families, minimizes work incentives, blocks people from saving and acquiring property, and overshadows dreams of a promised future with a present despair born of poverty, violence and hopelessness.” Gingrich does not mention such issues as desert, merit, the well-being of the rich, or property rights.

Charles Murray’s arguments also focus on the well-being of the poor. He contends that “all of us, libertarian or social democrat, conservative or liberal, have a common test to put to our prescriptions for dealing with social problems: Am I convinced that if my plan is adopted, the net effect will be less suffering and human need than would exist under any alternative I can think of?” (Murray 1997, 128). It should be noted that this principle is different than the principle of minimizing misfortune. If we are worried about minimizing suffering and human need then we might want to remedy suffering for which individuals are responsible. Thus, Murray (ibid., 125) expresses a concern for the plight of the “feckless” as well as the “luckless”: “What becomes of those who are helpless, or luckless, or perhaps simply feckless,” he writes, “must deeply concern any human being worthy of the name.” Murray, however, believes that the goal of minimizing suffering and the goal of minimizing misfortune do not conflict. As I will point out shortly, Murray’s arguments lean heavily on the idea of personal responsibility, and it will be clear that he does not propose any compensation for suffering that results from irresponsibility.

Olasky argues that under a system of privately run welfare provision, the poor would be better off because they could receive essential non-material aid. “Change in poverty-fighting is needed,” he contends, “but Americans need to be clear about the reasons for change. Governmental welfare programs need to be fought not because they are too expensive—although clearly, much money is wasted—but because they are inevitably too stingy in what is really important, treating people as people and not animals” (Olasky 1992, 232–33). Schmidtz, too, focuses on the well-being of the poor. He begins with the general question, “What makes people better off?” (Schmidtz and Goodin 1998, 5), and goes on to argue that a system that encourages personal responsibility does the best job of making everybody better off, including the poor. “People are better off,” he writes, “thinking of their welfare as their own responsibility rather than as the government’s responsibility. They are better off living (and their children are better off growing up) in communities where people take responsibility for their own welfare” (ibid.).

Right-wing egalitarians do not hope to eliminate all misfortune. Schmidtz (1997, 1), for example, allows that

people have accidents. They get old. They eat too much. They have bad luck. And sooner or later, something will be fatal. It would be a better world if such things did not happen, but they do. There is no use arguing about it. What is worth arguing about is whether it makes for a better world when people have to pay for other people’s misfortunes and mistakes rather than (or as well as) their own.

Murray (1997, 127) holds a similar position, maintaining that “there can be no such thing as a society free of human suffering. No matter what social and economic system is put in place, some proportion of children will be neglected, some adults will be desperately lonely, some people will suffer terrible accidents and diseases that leave them incapacitated, and some people will live in squalor.” Right-wing egalitarians are under no delusion that their proposals will solve all the problems of the poor, or even of poverty. They do, however, claim that their proposals will minimize suffering and misfortune. Although some suffering and misfortune is unavoidable, right-wing egalitarians maintain that needless suffering exists today and that it results from counterproductive government programs. Redistribution, Schmidtz (1997, 1) maintains, tries too hard to make sure no one ever loses and ends up “making people worse off in the process.” Murray (1997, 126) claims that “the entry of government into social insurance and then into a broader range of social interventions has caused incalculable human suffering.”

The main problem, according to right-wing egalitarianism, is that government programs encourage individuals to become irresponsible. Schmidtz (1997, 2) claims that government programs lure individuals and sometimes corporations (for example, pulp mills that are granted limited liability for environmental damage) into externalizing their responsibility for the

messes they cause, for the messes in which they find themselves. Responsibility is externalized when people regard the cleanup as someone else’s problem. We can speak of responsibility being externalized whether the messes result from mistake, misfortune, or . . . from business as usual.

Internalizing responsibility, by contrast, occurs “when agents take responsibility: for their welfare, for their futures, for the consequences of their actions” (ibid.). (Economists speak of costs being internalized when the same agent whose choices create a cost has to pay for it, and costs being externalized when the agent whose choices create a cost is not the one who pays for it.) According to Schmidtz (ibid., 16), redistributive programs cultivate a social ethos where individuals externalize responsibility: “Systematically rewarding productive effort helps people internalize responsibility and thus helps make for a peaceful and productive society. Trying to guarantee that productive effort will be unnecessary helps make for the opposite.”

While Schmidtz is against externalizing responsibility, he is not against collectives assuming responsibility. A group may internalize responsibility for a problem if all its members agree that they should do so. As an example Schmidtz points to “friendly societies” near the turn of the twentieth century, which provided their members with such social services as unemployment insurance. Because membership was determined by voluntary agreement, this kind of collective responsibility did not undermine “a culture of personal initiative and accountability” (Schmidtz 1997, 9). Schmidtz concludes by claiming that “it is a worse world when people can foist the cost of their misfortunes and misadventures on others without consent” (ibid., 126).

Murray and Olasky similarly argue that government programs are at odds with individual responsibility. One way that individuals may become irresponsible is by becoming dependent on the government. Murray (1997, 126) holds that “the welfare state has artificially, needlessly created a large dependent class. At the bottom is the underclass, stripped of dignity and autonomy, producing new generations socialized to their parents’ behavior.” Olasky (1996, 27) claims that

during the past three decades, we have seen lives destroyed and dreams die among poor individuals who have gradually become used to dependency. Those who stressed independence used to be called the “worthy poor”; now, anyone who will not work is worthy, and mass pauperism is accepted. Now, those who are willing to put off immediate gratification and to sacrifice leisure time in order to remain independent are called chumps rather than champs.

This form of argument is the same one used by congressional Republicans when they argued for welfare reform. The most notorious case of a dependency argument during the congressional debates came from Rep. John Mica (1995, H3766). He said:

Mr. Chairman, I represent Florida where we have many lakes and natural reserves. If you visit these areas, you may see a sign like this that reads, “Do not feed the alligators.” We post these signs for several reasons. First, because if left in a natural state, alligators can fend for themselves. They work, gather food and care for their young. Second, we post these warnings because unnatural feeding and artificial care creates dependency. When dependency sets in, these otherwise able-bodied alligators can no longer survive on their own. Now, I know people are not alligators, but I submit to you that with our current handout, nonwork welfare system, we have upset the natural order. We have failed to understand the simple warning signs. We have created a system of dependency.

Actually, alligators don’t care for their young in nature (although they do sometimes eat them), and alligators don’t become dependent on humans (although they do become aggressive and learn to bite the hand that feeds them). But this is all beside the point. Mica’s sentiment is clear: government only makes things worse. The poor are better off when the government does nothing.

While Mica’s version of the dependency argument was probably the most memorable, it was certainly not the only one heard during the welfare reform debate. Other Republicans argued that the welfare system “ensnared” its recipients, that it caused “dependency” among them and that it was “cruel” to the very people it was designed to help. Giving out money for nothing, Republicans argued, “trapped” recipients in a culture of poverty. 1   Welfare recipients are tempted by cash outlays to adopt a way of life that condemns them and their children to a life of poverty. Given that the title of the original Republican bill was “The Personal Responsibility Act,” it is hard to overestimate the importance of this argument in justifying welfare reform.

At times right-wing egalitarians talk of irresponsibility without talking about dependency. Besides the general problem of dependency, welfare programs are thought to encourage out-of-wedlock births because they reduce the cost of having a baby enough to make it viable for mothers to have children with little or no help from fathers, or even, supposedly, because women will have children for the money. This, too, was a central theme of welfare reform. The legislation begins with Congress proclaiming that “marriage is the foundation of a successful society” (Sec. 101 (1)). Schmidtz laments that

in the United States, out-of-wedlock births have risen by over 600 percent since 1960. They now comprise over 30 percent of the total. (Japan’s illegitimacy rate, by comparison, is 1.1 percent.) Thirty percent of out-of-wedlock births are to teenagers. Sixty percent are to women who were teenagers when they began bearing out-of-wedlock children. Several studies suggest that incentive structures of programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) have made the problem worse. (Schmidtz and Goodin 1998, 17–18)

Olasky (1992, 200) makes the point more polemically: “Nowhere has the movement away from true compassion, and its emphasis on affiliation and bonding, been more evident (and more tragic) than in the area of unmarried pregnancy.”

Since right-wing egalitarians claim that welfare programs cause avoidable misfortune, it is not surprising what they suggest as the solution. Murray (1997, 130) proposes that we

end governmental transfer payments, in cash, kind, or services. Do not substitute less coercive government programs for the ones we have now. Do not try to make the best of a bad situation. Dismantle every vestige of the state social-insurance and welfare apparatus and constitutionally forbid its reappearance. I include in this statement every middle-class entitlement, agricultural subsidy, and corporate subsidy along with programs for the poor.

Schmidtz holds out the prospect of a world where “people come together of their own free will to share each other’s burdens” (Schmidtz and Goodin 1998, 19). Olasky also proposes the elimination of all governmental social programs, but he favors tax breaks for private giving. Gingrich (1996, x) seems to agree. In the preface to one of Olasky’s recent books, he writes,

Piecemeal efforts to repair our system and its culture of poverty and violence are doomed to fail. . . . We must find a way to address the problems of the whole person. This is what Marvin Olasky explains so well: that to be effective charity must be personal, challenging and spiritual—requirements government cannot meet.


The Political Irrelevance of Libertarianism

Philosophers tend to assume that a challenge to the existence of social programs will be based on libertarian theories of rights or entitlements. These theories are the most popular forms of right-wing argument in the philosophical literature, but as the welfare debate suggests, they are not the most politically influential. (To my knowledge no politician during the welfare debate claimed that welfare should be eliminated because welfare programs violate the entitlements of property holders.) Rather than depending on a libertarian theory of rights, the right-wing egalitarian argument should be seen as a type of spontaneous-order argument. Such arguments suggest that unplanned orders are in some ways better than planned ones. These arguments are common in economics, most notably in the work of Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek (1997, 233–42). They also occur in theories about scientific progress, such as Michael Polanyi’s (Polanyi 1997, 225–32).

Smith and Hayek argue that a wealthy society is ordered spontaneously. When individuals are moved by their own preferences rather than trying to follow a central plan, they act in ways that produce the unintended consequence of social wealth. Similarly, Polanyi saw scientific progress as spontaneously ordered. When scientists pursue their own individually planned projects, the unintended consequence is scientific progress. In parallel fashion, right-wing egalitarians contend that the minimization of misfortune occurs spontaneously. When individuals are moved by their own preferences rather than a social plan designed to reduce misfortune, they unintentionally produce that very result.

The claim that equality is spontaneously ordered depends crucially on the claim that government plans to minimize misfortune result in irresponsibility. Right-wing egalitarians usually don’t distinguish between different kinds or areas of responsibility, but their arguments suggest four different ways that individuals will act more responsibly if redistribution is reduced or eliminated.

The first two kinds of responsibility require people to bear the costs of those actions that may result in their being in a condition of need. First, if the government does not guarantee individual needs, then people will not take actions that will foreseeably put them in conditions of need. This kind of responsibility is the primary focus of right-wing egalitarianism. References to dependency, for example, imply this kind of responsibility as the antidote. Without a government safety net, able-bodied but financially insecure adults will not forego available work. By the same token, a woman will take greater precautions against having a baby if she knows that neither she nor the father is willing or able to support the child financially (will the fathers act responsibly also?). Murray (1997, 132) makes a general claim to this effect when he maintains that “freedom makes it much easier for people to make good on their personal responsibilities.” Second, right-wing egalitarians argue that people will take responsibility for unforeseeable consequences by insuring against misfortune. Hence, Schmidtz, Murray, and Olasky all cite friendly societies as examples of individuals voluntarily coming together to protect themselves against an uncertain future.

If right-wing egalitarians were to stop with the first two kinds of responsibility, it would leave an obvious gap. What about individuals who never had the resources necessary to insure against misfortune before it strikes? The third and forth kinds of responsibility, then, are types of individual responsibility in providing aid. The third way that people will act responsibly is by giving aid voluntarily when government programs are dismantled. Murray (1997, 138) contends that “the genius of free human beings is that, given responsibility, they join together to take care of each other—to be their brothers’ keepers when their brother needs help.” Elsewhere he suggests that

what is required is no more complicated, and no less revolutionary, than recognizing first, that the energy and effective compassion that went into solving the problems of the needy in 1900, deployed in the context of today’s national wealth, can work wonders; and secondly, that such energy and such compassion cannot be mobilized in a modern welfare state. The modern welfare state must be dismantled. (Murray 1992, xvi)

The fourth kind of individual responsibility involves not just giving aid, but giving it responsibly. This is why Murray and Olasky claim that we must make a distinction between the deserving and undeserving (irresponsible) poor, and that this can be done only by private individuals. Individual benefactors would take responsibility for the outcome of their aid by trying to determine whether potential beneficiaries were responsible for their own plight rather than suffering from brute bad luck. 2

If the right-wing egalitarian position is correct, then we cannot eliminate misfortune. But eliminating government programs would minimize misfortune by creating the conditions under which individuals act most responsibly. Left-wing egalitarians will undoubtedly disagree with the spontaneous-order argument, but that does not alter the fact that the disagreement would be among egalitarians. The disagreement would be over how we could best minimize misfortune, not whether we should.

Most widely accepted philosophical arguments against libertarianism are irrelevant to right-wing egalitarianism. To G. A. Cohen’s argument that the libertarian notion of freedom is essentially flawed, the right-wing egalitarian will point out that his argument does not turn on any particular notion of freedom. To any of the many criticisms of entitlement theories of rights, the right-wing egalitarian can point out that his argument does not depend on such a theory. To advocates of the difference principle, the right-wing egalitarian will claim that getting rid of redistribution would make the least advantaged as well off as is practicable.


Left-Wing Responses to Right-Wing Egalitarianism

Some left-wing egalitarians, however, have addressed the issue of dependency and responsibility directly. Robert Goodin has made two points that deserve special note. Goodin first argues that the idea of dependency is a moralized term that can provide no independent reason against welfare policies. Second, he claims that there is an important distinction between two kinds of responsibility—blame responsibility and task responsibility—that proponents of the dependency argument ignore. Each of these points, I believe, is useful and important, but neither is an adequate response to the right-wing egalitarian’s spontaneous-order argument.

First, Goodin asks why, when we are all dependent on a great many things, we should consider dependency on government assistance as something to avoid. Goodin suggests three possible answers: that dependency on government aid is unnatural, that it is voluntary, or that it is especially risky. He considers each of these possibilities carefully and then rejects them. We need not consider his arguments in detail, however, because these three reasons are tangential to the right-wing positions we have examined. Goodin concludes that the idea of dependency used by opponents of welfare is a moralized term. He states, “We are left with the simple conclusion that the objection to welfare dependency is instead that people are relying on things on which morally they ought not rely” (Schmidtz and Goodin 1988, 122). According to Goodin, the “advocates of those arguments want the notions of self-reliance, dependency, and personal responsibility to do some independent work in their arguments. They want those notions to give us some independent reasons for doing one thing rather than another” (ibid., 139).

While it is easy to label some pattern of activity “dependency” and quickly conclude that it must therefore be avoided, the right-wing egalitarians avoid this mistake. They do not suggest that dependence on the government is intrinsically wrong, but merely that it has unfortunate long-term consequences. The right-wing egalitarian could, therefore, accept Goodin’s argument and admit that there are no intrinsic moral differences between dependence on government aid and dependence on the family or other forms of private support. He would add, however, that different consequences are associated with dependence on government aid than are associated with other kinds of dependence. While some opponents of welfare believe that dependence on government aid is independently wrong regardless of the consequences (because of religious or philosophical views about the proper role of the family or of the state), the right-wing egalitarian believes that at least one reason dependence on government aid should be avoided is because it has negative long-term consequences.

Goodin’s second argument is that opponents of welfare reform often ignore the distinction between “blame responsibility” and “task responsibility.” Blame responsibility seeks to assess the cause of a particular misfortune; task responsibility seeks to determine who should deal with the misfortune. Goodin’s point is that just because a person may be to blame for her own misfortune, she should not necessarily have the task of remedying it. However, this argument is at odds with the intuition that disadvantages are problems of inequality only when an agent is not responsible for them. To assign task responsibility to someone who is not to blame for the problem would constitute what Cohen calls exploitation. Moreover, Goodin’s distinction is consistent with the consequentialist framework of the spontaneous-order argument without damaging that argument. The spontaneous-order argument suggests that assigning task responsibility to someone other than the blameworthy individual will have bad long-term consequences. The left-wing egalitarian either has to reject this consequentialist claim or suggest that there are nonconsequentialist reasons that should move us to support welfare despite its bad consequences.

A similar problem arises if the left-wing egalitarian tries to oppose libertarian ideas of responsibility. Stephen Perry (1997) has recently argued that libertarians accept a theory of outcome responsibility that is the flip side of an entitlement theory of rights. Outcome responsibility claims that individuals own the negative consequences of their actions just as they own the positive consequences. According to Perry, this theory is unsatisfactory because harm results from interactions between people and cannot be said to have been caused by any one individual.

Right-wing egalitarians do seem to embrace an outcome theory of responsibility, but it does not play a justificatory role in their argument. It may affect the way right-wing egalitarians express their arguments against redistribution, but it does not affect the arguments themselves. According to the right-wing egalitarian, we should eliminate welfare programs not because individuals are responsible for the outcomes of their actions, but because in the absence of such programs individuals will take responsibility for the outcomes of their actions. The right-wing egalitarian could accept Perry’s argument without having to alter her own position. She would merely have to say: “However we decide we should analyze the notion of responsibility, I continue to claim that without government interference people will more effectively respond to the problem of poverty; if others want to call this response something other than ‘responsibility,’ they are free to do so.”


Ideology in Political Debate

It might appear from the foregoing discussion that right- and left-wing egalitarians agree on the egalitarian end and disagree only about the empirical question of how to achieve it. If there is no dispute over basic values, then the question of redistribution turns on the plausibility of spontaneously ordering equality of fortune. This seems to have been the main issue in the political debate.

The primary response of Democratic opponents to Republican welfare reform proposals was that the proposals were based on factually incorrect claims, and that cutting welfare would, in reality, hurt the poor. Just days before Clinton signed the welfare bill, Sen. Patrick Moynihan (1996, S9328) said that “it terminates the basic Federal commitment of support for dependent children in hopes of altering the behavior of their mothers. We are putting those children at risk with absolutely no evidence that this radical idea has even the slightest chance of success.” Numerous scholars who specialized in poverty research, Moynihan pointed out, were against the bill. Some of these scholars issued a joint statement that said in part,

As researchers who have dedicated years to the study of poverty, the labor market, and public assistance, we oppose the welfare reform legislation under consideration by Congress. The best available evidence is that this legislation would substantially increase poverty and destitution while doing little to change the welfare system to one that provides greater opportunity for families in return for demanding greater responsibility. (Ibid.)

As these responses indicate, the welfare-reform debate revolved around an empirical question: What consequences will various welfare policies have on the well-being of the poor? It is not clear, however, how empirical research can decide between the answers given by left- and right-wing egalitarians, especially if the decision is to be made by democratic legislatures inexpert in such research. For one thing, empirical research would take many years to produce definitive answers. Right-wing egalitarians argue that eliminating welfare programs will create a new ethos that, in the long run, will have tremendous benefits. If we couldn’t see any behavioral changes after five years, the right-wing egalitarian could easily say, “We need more time to change the ethos of a society.” For another thing, whatever evidence is gathered would be open to numerous interpretations. Consider, for example, Schmidtz’s worries about the relatively minor effects welfare may have on economic growth. “If the annual growth rate of America’s gross domestic product (GDP) had been 1 percentage point lower between 1870 and 1990,” he writes, “America’s per-capita GDP would be less than one-third its current level, which would put it on par with Mexico” (Schmidtz and Goodin 1998, 61).

If the debate turns on such small and long-term economic effects, then we cannot expect empirical research to be very helpful. There are too many variables in a changing society to isolate the effect of welfare policies with precision and certainty. This is not to say that we cannot form reasonable theories, but instead that we could form more than one reasonable theory. Moreover, we must remember that what we need is not a conclusion that would convince most specialists, but most voters—and not merely most voters at one isolated point in time, but election after election.

How will democratic decision makers choose which welfare policy to endorse? They will speculate. The average voter, for example, will have no option other than guessing which policy has the best long-term consequences, and the average elected representative is probably in no better position. In speculating about long-term consequences they may be inordinately swayed by any number of prejudices or preconceived ideas. When the truth does not present itself clearly, it is easy to seize on the evidence that supports one’s ideological presuppositions.

The consequence of applying equality of fortune to the welfare debate is not usefully neutral in the sense that it avoids blind ideological presuppositions or commitments. It is tragically neutral in the sense that it provides democratic voters and their representatives with no reason to challenge their blind ideological commitments. For equality of fortune would focus the debate on the empirical question that did, in fact, command the lion’s share of attention: Which policy is best for the poor? Answers to this question will be determined by prejudice and mood more than reasoned deliberation or real debate. If this consequence is inevitable, then the implications for the ideal of equality are dismal: it would appear impotent as a political ideal, for it requires democratic bodies to make decisions based on speculation about economic effects over the course of decades or even generations.


Beyond Equality of Fortune

But perhaps the real lesson to be learned from the welfare debate is not that the ideal of equality is impotent, but that when equality is viewed differently there actually are values, not just facts, in play in the welfare debate.

One place we might find contested values are in the Republican statements to which left-wing egalitarians took the greatest offense. I have already mentioned one of those statements, Rep. Mica’s “don’t feed the alligators” argument. Rep. Clay Shaw advanced a second argument that generated left-wing outrage. While discussing pregnant minors who receive welfare with another congressman, Shaw (1995, H3516) described them as children who “the gentleman would not leave his cat with over the weekend.” When left-wing egalitarians heard these statements they were outraged, I believe, because they thought welfare recipients were being depicted as a lower class of people, as akin to alligators, as people not worthy of cat sitting. Mica’s and Shaw’s statements can be interpreted not as revealing an insensitivity to the well-being of welfare recipients, but as suggesting that welfare recipients are members of a lower class, do not have the same status as other citizens, or are in some way inferiors.

The claim that equality of fortune may overlook issues of class or status might be furthered by looking at a more dramatic historical case. Bernard Mandeville’s “An Essay on Charity and Charity Schools” argues against privately funded free education for impoverished children on the grounds that both England and the poor themselves would be better off if they were ignorant. According to Mandeville (1988, 286), England would be better off, because “it is impossible that a Society can long subsist, and suffer many of its Members to live in Idleness, and enjoy all the Ease and Pleasure they can invent, without having at the same time great Multitudes of People that to make good this Defect will condescend to be quite the reverse, and by use and patience inure their Bodies to work for others and themselves besides.” Accordingly, “the surest Wealth consists in a Multitude of laborious Poor” (ibid., 287). Educating the poor would thwart this goal in several ways. First, it would habituate them to laziness. “Going to School in comparison to Working is Idleness, and the longer Boys continue in this easy sort of Life, the more unfit they’ll be when grown up for downright Labour, both as to Strength and Inclination” (ibid., 288). Second, once the poor are educated they will aspire to occupations other than hard labor, while if they remained uneducated, they would patiently “submit.” Finally, there is the obvious loss of labor hours that comes when children go to school rather than work. Since “we have hardly Poor enough,” it would be folly to educate them (ibid., 301–2).

To modern ears, Mandeville sounds as far from an egalitarian as one could get. His argument is, however, consistent with the ideal of equality of fortune, although it is economically outdated. (The rise of technology has both limited the need for manual labor and increased the need for a literate workforce. Under today’s economic conditions, it is in no way plausible to claim that an economy depends on a large number of illiterate manual laborers. In the early eighteenth century, however, things appeared otherwise.) Mandeville claimed not only that his proposal would benefit society in general, but the poor in particular. He argued that the main consequence of education would be to produce desires in the poor that (under the economic conditions of his day) they could not satisfy, rendering them unhappy. He thought it undeniable that

the more chearfully [work] is done the better, as well for those that perform it as for the rest of the Society. To be happy is to be pleas’d, and the less Notion a Man has of a better way of Living, the more content he’ll be with his own; and on the other hand, the greater a Man’s Knowledge and Experience is in the World, the more exquisite the Delicacy of his Taste, and the more consummate Judge he is of things in general, certainly the more difficult it will be to please him. (Ibid., 314)

If Mandeville had his economics (and psychology) right, then equalizing education would only make the poor unhappy, and an advocate of equality of fortune should not favor it.

To left-wing egalitarians, however, this conclusion might seem to be a reductio ad absurdum of the theory of equality of fortune. Mandeville’s beliefs are so antagonistic to left-wing moral intuitions that they may prod left-wing egalitarians to reconsider whether equality of fortune really expresses their sentiments. Mandeville may be interested in the poor’s well-being insofar as they are satisfied, but his proposal would have the effect of maintaining distinctions of class.

Some theories of equality focus not on misfortune but on just such distinctions. Elizabeth Anderson (1999, 312), for example, notes that historically, egalitarian political movements have argued against social orders based on interpersonal hierarchy. “Inequality referred not so much to distributions of goods as to relations between superior and inferior persons.” In her view, the central egalitarian claim is for the equal moral worth of all people. This claim gives egalitarians two goals: the negative one of abolishing hierarchy, and the positive one of creating a social order where people stand in relations of equality. From this perspective, Mandeville is clearly anti-egalitarian. He describes a social hierarchy and argues against disturbing it. According to the relational theory of equality, even if Mandeville got the facts right, his conclusion is wrong.

Viewed from the perspective of equality of fortune, the welfare debate properly turned on the question of which policy will minimize misfortune in the long run. From the perspective of relational equality, however, the question should have been: How can we relate to each other as equals? Perhaps welfare programs are necessary for relational equality, in that everyone must be provided with basic goods if all are to be equal members of society. Anderson (1999, 314) suggests that egalitarian principles “must identify certain goods to which all citizens must have effective access over the course of their whole lives. Some goods are more important from an egalitarian point of view than others, within whatever space of equality is identified as a particular concern for egalitarians.”

Sometimes modern-day conservatives appear to oppose relational equality. For example, in The Bell Curve Charles Murray suggested that many social problems are associated with a lack of intelligence in the underclass. “Going on welfare really is a dumb idea,” Murray (and coauthor Richard Herrnstein) wrote, “and that is why women who are low in cognitive ability end up there” (Murray and Herrnstein 1994, 201). The book is openly antagonistic to the idea that “all men are created equal” and favors a system that will “harmonize” the differences between the unintelligent and the “cognitive elite” (Murray 1994, 528). Murray does not favor the same kind of hierarchy as Mandeville, but he favors a hierarchy nonetheless. Consequently, the advocate of relational egalitarianism could easily dispute the values behind Murray’s arguments.

Yet nobody in the welfare debate, as far as I know, invoked the Charles Murray of The Bell Curve rather than the Murray of Losing Ground. Moreover, while many right-wing arguments are neutral about questions of class distinctions, others actually seem to be grounded in a kind of relational egalitarianism. For example, conservatives sometimes argue that welfare stigmatizes recipients. As we have already heard Gingrich (1995, 71) say, “The welfare state reduces the poor from citizens to clients.” This argument raises a serious issue for relational egalitarians: How can the poor be given material aid without others thinking less of them? The stigma of being on the receiving end of welfare may create the very divisions in society that the relational egalitarian seeks to avoid. If government programs designed to help the poor stand in the way of citizens relating to each other nonhierarchically, maybe we should abolish such programs in the interest of a society in which citizens stand as equals.

This possibility might revive our doubts about the political relevance of the ideal of equality, but there is some reason to conclude that we should prefer the political controversy generated by relational equality to the one generated by equality of fortune. Equality of fortune pushes democratic bodies to decide issues of redistribution based on questions they are ill prepared to answer. The consequence is that the issues of redistribution are decided by fruitless speculation. While relational equality does not avoid controversies between left-wing and right-wing egalitarians, it may avoid the speculative nature of these disputes. The answer to the question “What makes us feel like equals?” is determined, in large part, by culture and consensus. The resulting debate would depend less on the expertise of professionals than the emotions of ordinary citizens. Moreover, democratic deliberation on the issue of relational equality holds open the possibility of moving people closer to consensus. When people ask themselves “What would make us feel like equals?” they must engage their empathetic powers to determine what might cause a sense of inequality and what might rectify it. Finally, simply asking this question encourages individuals to commit themselves to a system where each relates to others as equals. Getting citizens to ask themselves this question is a way of reinforcing a beneficial public ethos. Hence, while it may seem preferable to leave the policy implications of equality of fortune to professional economists (and other social scientists), the policy implications of relational equality are better suited for democratic bodies to decide.

The welfare debate shows us that—depending on the long-term consequences of policy changes—the ideal of equality of fortune is consistent with right-wing views. Democratic bodies, however, can only speculate about these long-term consequences. As a result, the ideal of equality of fortune renders equality politically impotent. It does not provide effective guidance on policy questions.

Since most right-wing arguments are not elitist, even relational egalitarianism fails to clearly imply a specific welfare policy. But we should not conclude that it is politically impotent. Relational egalitarianism guides representatives and citizens to ask the most helpful question for determining welfare policy: What will make us feel like equals?



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*: Patrick Boleyn-Fitzgerald, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803, telephone (225) 388-2385, e-mail, thanks Jeffrey Friedman, Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald, and David Schmidtz for comments on earlier versions of this paper, and Louisiana State University’s Council on Research Summer Stipend Program for financial support.  Back.

Note 1: The following are a few examples of Republicans using the dependency argument. Rep. Martin Hoke (1995, H3424) argued that the incentive structure of the current system is inherently cruel: “It is a perverse form of compassion that encourages children to have children by themselves and then traps those same children, both mother and child, in a dead-end cycle of Government dependency. Nothing could be more cruel than a system that does that.” Rep. Gerald Solomon (1995, H3427) asked, “What kind of compassion is it that leaves unaltered a monolithic bureaucracy that has the ability to ensnare entire generations in the despair of poverty? What kind of compassion is it that saddles future generations with mountains of debt built on failed but costly programs—debt that harms the poor more than the better-off by stifling economic growth, opportunity, and meaningful jobs in the private sector?” And Rep. Frank Riggs (1995, H3340) quoted Ronald Reagan, who had said, “You cannot create a desert, hand a person a cup of water, and call that compassion. And you cannot build up years of dependence on government and dare call that hope.” Also see Armey 1995.  Back.

Note 2: Some readers may conclude that right-wing egalitarian arguments are not really spontaneous-order arguments because they depend on people consciously planning to alleviate poverty. The issue here is mainly definitional. When I claim that right-wing egalitarians believe equality of fortune will be spontaneously ordered, I mean that they think it will come about through individual action that is not centrally planned or coercively enforced.  Back.