Full Employment and Welfare

Liberal pundits really like to talk about reducing welfare expenditures. Birth control is touted as good because it will reduce welfare expenditure on Medicaid and programs for poor families with children (Kristof, Rampell). Increasing the minimum wage is often touted as good because it will reduce welfare expenditure on Medicaid and food stamps.

I understand where these arguments are coming from, ideologically speaking. Liberals don’t really believe welfare is a good thing, but instead view it as a necessary thing in order to save people from total destitution. This is why you get the metaphor of the welfare system being a “safety net” that exists only to catch people with weak and targeted benefits when they cannot meet their basic needs through market institutions. Given this negative view of welfare, it’s not surprising that things which can cut its use without increasing deprivation are enthusiastically celebrated as good things.

I don’t share this liberal view of welfare. Rather, I think welfare is incredibly good and cool. In fact, I’d like to increase welfare expenditures by trillions of dollars each year. This doesn’t mean I oppose such things as people getting higher wages or increasing employment. But it does mean that I don’t view those things as good because they reduce welfare. In fact, what’s actually good about these things is that they allow us to spend more on welfare.

How you think of the interaction between full (or increased) employment and welfare may be a good litmus test for whether you are a liberal or a social democrat. Here is how Sweden’s current PM Stefan Löfven sees it:

This welfare system, once again, could only work with a focus on employment. We have to have full employment. And you understand this when you hear about this. We have to have full employment in order to be able to pay for this. Otherwise, we could not have such a generous welfare system.

This makes perfect sense, of course. The more people you have working, the higher your national income is. The higher your national income is, the more money that’s available for welfare benefits. The greatness of full employment, then, is not that it allows you to scale back welfare expenditures, but rather that it allows you to scale them up. It takes a social democratic mindset, which actually values welfare, to see it this way.

Liberals, on the other hand, view the interaction between full employment and welfare much differently. For them, more employment means fewer people and families finding themselves destitute at the market distribution. And when fewer people and families find themselves destitute at the market distribution, that means dreaded welfare expenditures can thankfully be reduced.

One of the great things about social democratic welfare states, in my opinion, is the way in which their pro-welfare attitudes create a lot of harmony around various institutions that are, in liberal welfare states, very much in tension. Higher employment means higher welfare. Higher productivity means higher welfare. Better education (to the extent that it translates into higher productivity) also means higher welfare. In liberal welfare systems, however, employment, education, and productivity improvements are at war with welfare, with the ultimate goal being that those improvements will eventually eradicate welfare.

Can you sustain an economic philosophy solely by begging the question?

This piece by David S. D’Amato was just brought to my attention. It is made in response to a post I wrote earlier in which I asked why we should have property at all if it is indeed a liberty-infringing institution, like libertarian Matt Zwolinski concedes. Here is a run down of the problems with his piece.

Begging the Question on Force Initiation
Here is D’Amato:

Certainly it is true (and libertarians readily admit) that all property, by definition, creates a monopolistic right, a right to exclude—ultimately, coercively exclude—others from the use and enjoyment of a particular piece of real estate.

Nonetheless, whether or not this right amounts to the kind of initiatory coercion that libertarians oppose is, of course, a distinct question, one that hinges on whether the monopoly right (i.e., the private property claim) in question can be justified on libertarian grounds. As philosopher Roderick Long notes, “[P]roperty rights claims, like all rights claims (at least in the sense of ‘rights’ that prevails in political theory), are claims to the legitimate use of force.”

As is typical in the libertarian set, there seems to be severe difficulties with distinguishing between what we might call Actual Initiation (defined as “who touched who first”) and Ideological Initiation (defined as “who did the thing we thought was illegitimate first”). In my piece, I blockquote Matt Zwolinski’s perspective on Actual Initiation:

If I put a fence around a piece of land that had previously been open to all to use, claim it as my own, and announce to all that I will use violence against any who walk upon it without my consent, it would certainly appear as though I am the one initiating force (or at least the threat of force) against others. I am restricting their liberty to move about as they were once free to do. I am doing so by threatening them with physical violence unless they comply with my demands. And I am doing so not in response to any provocation on their part but simply so that I might be better able to utilize the resource without their interference.

Since D’Amato’s piece is ostensibly a response to my piece, you’d think he would have dealt with Zwolinski’s point here, but he doesn’t at all. So we are left to wonder, does D’Amato think Zwolinski is wrong in this quote? What mistake exactly has Zwolinski made? There doesn’t seem to be any made: Actual Initiation is being done by the person who is appropriating the land. That is, they are the person who is unilaterally threatening violence against all others should they walk over the land being unilaterally snapped up by the appropriator. This threat comes, not in response to any provocation or wrongful act. It is not defensive. It is aggressive.

The way D’Amato tries to get out of this obvious point is to fuck around with the word “initiation.” For him, “initiatory coercion” only exists when the violence your using against someone is not “justified on libertarian grounds.” Even a grade schooler should be able to see that this is just a tautology. “Libertarianism” is discussed as being a philosophy that is opposed to “initiating coercion.” But then “initiating coercion” is cleverly defined so as to exclude all coercion initiation that is “justified on libertarian grounds.”

You could swap out any ideology for libertarianism here and reach the same conclusion. Marxism-Leninism is a philosophy that is opposed to all coercion initiation, so long as we define “coercion initiation” as not including all coercion justified on Marxist-Leninist grounds. Right? More broadly, all economic philosophies are against aggressive violence when you define aggressive violence as not including the aggressive violence those philosophies are for. This is utterly stupid word games, but it somehow truly enraptures libertarians who seem to think it is profound.

Misunderstands Grab World
D’Amato’s next mistake is to assert that all economic philosophies require ownership of resources of some sort, the upshot being that libertarianism’s property-based coercion is not a unique defect:

Bruenig, moreover, seems not to realize that even in his Marxist Arcadia, property will be (indeed, must be) owned by someone or some group, be it the state, the Worker’s Party, or the some munificent autocrat. Bruenig, moreover, seems not to realize that even in his Marxist Arcadia, property will be (indeed, must be) owned by someone or some group, be it the state, the Worker’s Party, or the some munificent autocrat. Will this crucial prerogative—the ability to hold property—be limited to an Orwellian Inner Party, or will it be distributed, allowing each and every individual the legal right to acquire and hold property? For even where, as a matter of theory, no one may own property, still someone must manage and administer the resources held for the benefit of the commonweal.

Once again, D’Amato is rehashing little mental scripts he has memorized over the years without responding to my argument. I claim, and have for many years now, that there is an economic system that involves no ownership over any property. Borrowing from Roderick Long, I call this the Grab World. Under the Grab World, the only rule is that you may not initiate force against another person’s body. Short of that, you can do absolutely anything. Nobody is managing any resources; anybody can grab any resources at any time (provided it doesn’t require touching someone else’s body to do so). If you put those resources down, then anyone else can grab them. It’s a free-for-all of grabbing stuff as you please.

My question to libertarians who play around in the coercion game has always been: why don’t you want Grab World? Even if you supposed (wrongly) that there were other non-coercive ways to manage resources, you must at least admit that Grab World is also non-coercive. So what exactly is un-libertarian about it? What is the anti-aggression argument against it? And in making that argument, don’t beg the question on ownership because that’s what Grab World is asking you to justify: the existence of ownership period.

I read on hoping he’d actually get to Grab World, and he does. But he somehow totally misunderstood it!

Quite contrary to Bruenig’s claims, libertarian property theory—and, more broadly, the libertarian rejection of invasion or aggression—does not endorse a “grab-what-you-can” principle of homesteading, under which one simply asserts unqualified ownership over a tract of land, and is thereafter entitled to hold the tract free from interference.

No. No. No. No. Grab-what-you-can World, which is a phrase pulled from Roderick Long (someone D’Amato quotes in the piece), is not a fucking homesteading theory. It is the anti-homesteading theory. It is the theory that no matter what kind of labor mixing dances or first occupations or whatever you do, you will never be able to use force to exclude others from pieces of the world. D’Amato seems totally incapable of contemplating this hypothetical reality and this is the reason why he cannot actually respond to my question: why not just do Grab World?

Is there any libertarian who can explain why we shouldn’t just do Grab World if what we are concerned about is the initiation of coercion (non-circularly defined)? Like I said in my piece that D’Amato apparently did not read, there are all sorts of utilitarian and desertist type arguments people make (though none of them support laissez-faire capitalism). But what is the argument about force, aggression, coercion, violence that explains why libertarians oppose Grab World? I have yet to see one.

Capitalism is coercive and creates patterns of deprivation, as explained by libertarian blockquotes

I have a piece in The Washington Post that argues for a Universal Basic Income. The piece is part of a general UBI forum with lots of participants. I was solicited to provide a left-of-center perspective, and so that’s what I did.

The piece identifies two problems inherent in capitalist economic systems — employer coercion and deprivation — and then argues that a UBI might be able to fix them. The article is written so as to be as critical of capitalism as possible for having these defects because I thought that would be funny. The title was a bit misleading (so it goes in the publishing world) as it implies the argument is that a UBI would supplant capitalism, when in fact all I argue is that it would fix two discrete problems in capitalism.

Whenever you accuse capitalism of being coercive and causing patterns of deprivation, certain people lose their shit. This is especially true of the libertarian crowd, which is extremely invested in insisting that capitalism is actually super-duper freedom with no coercion at all.

People who don’t like this message (in my experience) like to dismiss it as some kind of fringe Marxist thing, but you can actually piece it together entirely from libertarian and libertarian-favored thinkers. Watch me do this below.

In the coercion section, I start by arguing that the initial appropriation of property is built upon violent threats of force. Here is libertarian philosopher Matt Zwolinski making this exact same point:

If I put a fence around a piece of land that had previously been open to all to use, claim it as my own, and announce to all that I will use violence against any who walk upon it without my consent, it would certainly appear as though I am the one initiating force (or at least the threat of force) against others. I am restricting their liberty to move about as they were once free to do. I am doing so by threatening them with physical violence unless they comply with my demands. And I am doing so not in response to any provocation on their part but simply so that I might be better able to utilize the resource without their interference.

I then argue that this sort of appropriation destroys freedom of movement. This point is contained in the quote above. You can also find Nozick making it in Anarchy, State, Utopia:

It will be implausible to view improving an object as giving full ownership to it, if the stock of unowned objects that might be improved is limited. For an object’s coming under one persons’s ownership changes the situation of all others. Whereas previous they were at liberty (in Hohfeld’s sense) to use the object, they now no longer are.

Nozick puts it in terms of using an object, but when applied to land, you get the idea that coming into ownership of land removes people’s previously-existing liberty to roam across that land.

In many ways, the coercion point is very basic. In fact, libertarian Zwolinski in a recent paper claims that it’s totally uncontroversial, and goes on to briefly note that only Marxists truly oppose coercion:

I take it to be relatively uncontroversial that all systems of property rights are by their very nature coercive. It is an essential part of the point of property rights to be coercive—without that coercion, the right to exclude that is at the core of property rights is meaningless, and such rights could not provide the sort of stability and protection that makes them attractive in the first place.

Unlike Marxists, however, I do not believe that property rights’ coercive nature renders them necessarily unjust. Systems of property rights can be unjust if they fail to satisfy the Lockean proviso. But systems of property rights that satisfy the proviso are not unjust.

After pointing out that property is itself a violently coercive institution, I pivot to claiming that this ends up infecting employment relationships, causing them to be coercive as well. The argument here is pretty basic: when you own no productive property, you have no choice but to submit yourself to a propertied employer in order to live. Here is John Locke literally comparing this type of deprivation-fueled servanthood to slavery in the First Treatise:

And a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity to force him to become his vassal by withholding that relief God required him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and, with a dagger at his throat, offer him death or slavery.

This is basically identical to the Marxist concept of wage slavery, except since it’s old-timey, Locke talks about vassals and lords instead of wage workers and bosses.

In the piece, I claim that capitalism creates persistent patterns of deprivation and focus specifically on those whose circumstances make it difficult or impossible to work. Here is Herbert Spencer (dubbed a “protolibertarian” by libertarians) making the exact same point in Social Statics:

The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many “in shallows and in miseries,” are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence. It seems hard that an unskilfulness which with all his efforts he cannot overcome, should entail hunger upon the artizan. It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence—the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the low-spirited, the intemperate, and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.

According to Spencer, capitalism will bring deprivation upon the unskillful artisan (unemployed people), laborers incapacitated by sickness (disabled people), and widows and orphans (survivors). Spencer thinks this is good and hopes the chronically unemployed, sick, disabled, widowed, and orphaned die, arguing that this would be beneficial for humanity. But what’s important here is only that he has identified a very specific pattern of deprivation: capitalism consistently impoverishes those whose capacity to work is quite limited.

Spencer was an obviously disgusting human being, but he was not a dummy. As I pointed out in Vox a few weeks ago, populations that are work-limited shoulder almost all of the market poverty (i.e. poverty without counting welfare benefits) in the US.

Taken together, 87.8% of those poor at the market distribution of income in the US are either children, elderly, disabled, students, carers, or the involuntarily unemployed (at least for part of the year).

In terms of poverty rates, you can see the Fully Employed (those working 50+ weeks a year) do quite well. Everyone else does very badly, with disabled people especially feeling the pain.

So Herbert Spencer was very correct. Capitalism does create very persistent patterns of deprivation that are directly related to the way the market distributes income (i.e. not to disabled people, retired people, those facing unemployment, etc.). This is why welfare benefits, which go almost entirely to these classes of people, exist.

So, you see, even a gang of libertarian and libertarian-approved thinkers — when properly arranged — can be marshaled to make all the usual anti-capitalist points about coercion and poverty. This is not surprising as these points are exactly correct and even libertarians sometimes tell the truth.

The Problems of Identity Policing and Invisible Identities for Identitarian Deference

Conservative website Breitbart accused racial justice activist Shaun King of misleading people into thinking he is black when he is actually white. This accusation pushed King to write a gut-wrenching piece unfolding his personal story and details of his childhood in order to explain that Breitbart was wrong and that he had a black father. Many were rightly disgusted by the whole affair. That King had to reveal such private, and presumably painful, information should strike most people as inhumane.

In confronting this horrifying spectacle, it’s important to understand some of the underlying dynamics that contribute to these types of episodes. There are many causes, but one of them is surely that the modern politics of Identitarian Deference (ID) creates the necessity of identity policing and effectively forces those with less visible identities to share the private details of their lives.

Identitarian Deference
As I explained a couple of years ago: “identitarian deference is the idea that privileged individuals should defer to the opinions and views of oppressed individuals, especially on topics relevant to those individuals’ oppression.” ID is both a theory of political knowledge and a theory of prescriptive politics.

ID’s theory of political knowledge is that people who belong to identities that are most proximate to a particular issue have the most knowledge about that issue. It is thus a theory of expertise. It differs from other theories of expertise in the way that it determines what makes someone an expert, but it is similar to those other theories in that it ultimately concludes that those with lesser expertise should defer to those with greater expertise.

ID’s theory of prescriptive politics basically maintains that those with lesser expertise (so defined) should generally adopt the political and policy ideas of those with greater expertise. This means those belonging to privileged identities should adopt the ideas of those in oppressed identities, at least where the oppressed identity is more proximate to the issue in question.

Identity Policing
One of the problems of ID is that it makes identity policing necessary. As with any other theory of expertise, ID needs a way to separate the experts from the non-experts. Because ID bases expertise on identity, that necessarily means separating those in the identity from those outside the identity. On the prescriptive political level, identity policing is necessary in order to determine precisely whose ideas should be deferred to and adopted by others.

In concrete terms, it matters for the politics of ID whether Shaun King is white or black. If he is white, then he has no particular claim to wisdom on racial issues. That doesn’t mean his views are automatically wrong, of course. It just means they don’t receive any particular deference from others. If he is black, then the opposite is true: his identity gives him a special insight into what is necessary for racial justice. What side of the line he ultimately falls on has huge implications for whether he is himself a source of racial justice truth or simply a dedicated ally to those who are.

The identity policing issue expands to all identities, not just race. For instance, even in the gender realm where there has been great efforts made against gender policing, you still have such concepts as “transtrender” floating around (see e.g. here and here). This epithet, which comes out of trans communities, is targeted at those who allegedly identify as trans because they think it is trendy to do so. There are many concerns with such “fake” self-identification, but one of them seems to be that such people don’t have the authentic knowledge about trans and gender issues that they may claim to have. Put simply: such imposters don’t deserve identitarian deference and take away from those who do.

Even in the much more nebulous realm of queerness, you see some queer people frustrated with people they think are imposters. A noteworthy xojane article from earlier this year titled “If You Only Date Men, You Don’t Get to be Queer” sliced into those the queer-identified author said were using queerness for “cachet” and “social capital” without actually being queer in any meaningful way. In the article, the author is more concerned about someone usurping all the good parts of the queer identity (as she sees it) while avoiding all the bad parts of it. This folds directly into the ID problem as well: such opportunistic people would presumably lack the identity qualifications to be an authentic source of wisdom on queer-related issues.

The issue of identity policing comes up in other adjacent realms too. For instance, in an extremely uncomfortable segment on the MSNBC show “All In with Chris Hayes,” Nancy Giles essentially accused vlogging star Jay Smooth of cultural appropriation because of his use of rap music and particular mannerisms in his videos. The light-skinned Smooth had to inform Giles that he is actually black, something Giles clearly didn’t realize. Here, as with ID, whether Smooth is black or not is critically important to whether or not his videos are offensive. If he is white, then he is engaging in impermissible appropriation, as Giles observes. If he is black, then he is not. So, as uncomfortable as the question of Smooth’s “true” identity is, it must be determined in order to know whether his vlogging is good or somewhat racist.

Identity policing is also an issue in diversity counts. Especially in the media, counting the diversity at workplaces has become a much more common thing and is often written about. For reasons discussed below, these counts are almost always constrained to gender and race diversity. But even in that narrow range, there is going to at least be the question of who counts towards which race. One interesting case where this issue has arisen is Vox, which a few years ago was derided as being part of a host of white-led new media start ups. This criticism was likely driven by the perception that Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein are white. Maybe they are ultimately white (however defined), but you also could easily categorize both as Latino. Thus, whether Vox is the rare Latino media start up or just another white media start up turns, once more, on how you police identity boundaries.

Invisible Identities
ID works the most smoothly for identities that are readily apparent. Most of the time, you can tell what someone’s gender and race is just by looking at them. But when the identity is less apparent, or indeed totally invisible, the only way to establish yourself as belonging to a particular identity is by revealing all sorts of private details about your life, as King had to do here.

Yasmin Nair has written extensively on this topic and the demands it places on people:

I’ve been thinking a lot about confession, lately, and the ways in which the world I occupy—a putatively radical one, where there’s a great deal of confessing and revealing to do, where people are constantly standing up and trying to outdo each other in what they can reveal about themselves—exerts a constant pressure to always be the Confessional Subject. I feel like I’m constantly dancing on the precipice of Confession.

Ah, to confess, always to confess, to reveal, always to reveal, to always, always be She Who Will Bare Her Literal and Metaphorical Breasts and Speak Grand Truths. This is the Neoliberal demand, especially of women of colour: “Oh, baby, don’t you have a story? Of abjection, ruin, despair? Did you lose a child? A lover? Were you not raped? Beaten? Oppressed? How could you possibly go through all that and not confess, confess, confess? How can we possibly think of you as real if you don’t confess? No tragic dramas? Make them up! But, always: Confess and Reveal.”

If you want to command ID for yourself on topics related to your invisible identities, there simply is no other way to do it than confess about your life. This is a problem because it puts people like King in really bad situations. It’s also a problem because those who are not willing to hash out their personal life to establish their identities can be locked out of the discourse altogether.

Why Have Property At All?

So I’ve been reading this paper from libertarian philosopher Matt Zwolinski about why a basic income is both consistent with, and even required by, libertarian precepts.

What’s interesting about Zwolinski basic income advocacy is that the way it works is by first establishing that property is anti-libertarian, in the sense that it clearly relies upon the initiation of coercive aggressive violence to restrict bodily movements of others:

If I put a fence around a piece of land that had previously been open to all to use, claim it as my own, and announce to all that I will use violence against any who walk upon it without my consent, it would certainly appear as though I am the one initiating force (or at least the threat of force) against others. I am restricting their liberty to move about as they were once free to do. I am doing so by threatening them with physical violence unless they comply with my demands. And I am doing so not in response to any provocation on their part but simply so that I might be better able to utilize the resource without their interference.

From here, Zwolinski’s move is basically to say that a basic income is what you need to put in place to make this kind of liberty destruction permissible. This argument proceeds by appealing to a Nozickian-like formulation of the Lockean Proviso (which is to say, not the actual proviso, but a made up version of it said to capture its essence). The short of this is you need to fork over enough resources to everyone so that they can have a basic standard of living if you are going to fence them off from all the resources. Otherwise, your fencing off the resources from them is literally killing them.

As regular readers here will recall, I think this style of libertarian argument (from Nozick on down) is way off the mark. For starters, this Lockean Proviso approach basically tries to ensure people are at least as well off as they would be in the alternative without property (hence neutralizing any harm the introduction of property has caused). But if all your resource-use institutions need to do is make sure everyone is better off than an alternative world without resource-use institutions, then basically any set of resource-use institutions will do. I can just as well declare all resources will be used according to social democratic institutions and then justify the liberty infringements that entails by pointing to the Lockean Proviso and noting that I’ve clearly ensured everyone is better off than they would be in the alternative without any resource use rules. In short, basically every economic system passes the Lockean Proviso.

Beyond this point though, what astonishes me about the way Zwolinski proceeds (not just here but elsewhere) is that he starts already with the view that property must exist. But there is little explanation or why this is so. Surely the natural reaction of a libertarian committed to the abstract principles of liberty above all else should be to reject property period once they realize it is liberty-infringing. Why is there any effort, coherent or not, to even try to salvage the institution of property from the brutally straightforward conclusion that libertarian precepts forbid it because it is a form of violently coercive liberty restriction?

In asking these questions, I certainly know of some answers people can give. But all of these answers pose severe problems to libertarians. You can say property is good because it’s solid for human flourishing and that kind of thing, but this is precisely the argument, say, social democrats make about the welfare state and they have really good evidence to support themselves on that. You can say it’s necessary so that people may be able to get what they produce (a kind of “sweat of the brow” argument), but this naturally falls apart with complex capitalist development where huge portions of the national output flows each year to landowners (who don’t deserve it), capitalists (who arguably don’t deserve it, at least under strict labor-desert), and to people more generally from accumulated technology/knowledge that nobody alive made and therefore nobody really deserves the output from.

The strong move for libertarians here is to actually go back to the origination of the term “libertarian,” which had to do with anarchist communists. The anarchist communists so loved liberty that when they realized property infringed it, they said to do away with property. These propertarians who masquerade as lovers of liberty, however, just walk themselves into increasingly weird logical circles and corners trying to salvage an inherently anti-libertarian institution with exaggerated hand waving.