TM Scanlon is wrong about in-kind benefits and you might be too

My prior post was about cash transfers versus in-kind benefits. In the twitter thread which motivated that post, I noticed Mike Konczal linking back to a TM Scanlon argument on his old WordPress site on the issue. I am pretty sure Mike and I have had this argument out in a comment section somewhere before, but I’ve never posted about it. I think Scanlon’s argument is very wrong.

Here’s Scanlon:

The strength of a stranger’s claim on us for aid in the fulfillment of some interest depends upon what that interest is and need not be proportional to the importance he attaches to it. The fact that someone would be willing to forgo a decent diet in order to build a monument to his god does not mean that his claim for aid in his project has the same strength as a claim for aid in obtaining enough to eat (even assuming that the sacrifices required on others would be the same). Perhaps a person does have some claim on others for assistance in a project to which he attaches such great importance. All I need maintain is that it does not have the weight of a claim to aid in the satisfaction of a truly urgent interest even if the person in question assigns these interests equal weight.

In sentence one there are already extreme problems. Providing cash transfers to someone is not aid. If you think it is aid, you have fallen into the pretax income fallacy described briefly in the prior post. A cash transfer is income someone is owed. It is theirs. It belongs to them. It is not any different, from a distributive justice perspective, from other kinds of income.

So in sentence one, we need to switch out the word “aid” for “income.” Now the first sentence says: “The strength of a stranger’s claim on us for income in the fulfillment of some interest depends upon what that interest is and need not be proportional to the importance he attaches to it.” When rephrased in a more acceptable way, it’s clear that Scanlon thinks that there are some things people should not be able to spend their money on (again to emphasize, this is all money, not just “aid”). That’s fine. We already have a way for dealing with that though: you make it illegal for them to spend their money on that thing. We do it already with drugs and prostitutes.

If Scanlon doesn’t want people spending their income on religious monuments, he should just ban spending income that way. It has nothing to do with aid. If spending income that way is a waste or not preferable in some way, then it is a waste and not preferable no matter who does it, rich and poor alike.

In response to this “just universally ban it” argument, I can hear someone objecting: it’s not that we want to ban building such monuments, but just that we want to ban poor people from building them. That sounds bad, but you can see what’s going on: poor people don’t the kinds of means to waste on such a project. Oops: we’ve devolved into the pretax income fallacy again. There are no poor people other than the ones we create. If we gave them more money, they wouldn’t be poor, and this argument wouldn’t trigger.

Now there are people who are perhaps mentally unfit to make good decisions regarding expenditures. If a heavy hand is used to ensure they are well cared for and such, that’s fine. If that’s what Scanlon is talking about, then sure. But I don’t think his point is narrowly targeted at mentally unfit people.

So where Scanlon goes wrong (as applied in the cash transfer situation) is that he classifies cash transfers as aid, and uses that classification to give us additional control over it. But cash transfers are no more aid than paychecks are aid. Income is income. Society might have a compelling reason to prevent people from spending their incomes in certain ways, but that has nothing to do with aid or the cash transfer debate. If spending cash transfer income on a religious monument is a bad thing, then spending paycheck income on it is a bad thing too. So just ban spending income on it across the board.