Larry Kaufmann, Liberty 21
“The Rhetorical Challenge of Social Justice”
The Philadelphia Society National Meeting
Indianapolis, April 7, 2013

The theme of this panel is the rhetorical challenge of social justice, and I think most people here would agree that meeting this challenge is difficult but necessary.  Even if your highest political ideal is liberty, everyone would like to live in a society that is both free and good.   Moral arguments are also extremely persuasive.
But when it comes to helping the disadvantaged, libertarians and conservatives often cede the moral high ground to progressives without a fight.  Part of the reason is that people on the Right are temperamentally allergic to the concept of “social justice.”  We would rather talk about almost anything else, and when we do address the subject it is either to excoriate it or say things like “conservatives don’t do welfare.”  This leaves the Right open to the critique that it is greedy and cold-hearted, an unfair and inaccurate charge that nevertheless resonates with a large share of the public. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that libertarians and conservatives should stop pointing out the failures of our welfare state.  It deserves withering criticism, since it’s been an almost complete failure and will soon literally be bankrupt.  This looming bankruptcy creates a tremendous opportunity for the Right, but we’re more likely to seize this opportunity if we present a credible and compelling alternative to the welfare state, not just attack it.  This alternative should communicate a positive vision of a just society and show how policies and reforms that are oriented around liberty are necessary for this vision to be realized. 

This is obviously a very large task, and yesterday we heard many interesting ideas on how this might be done.  This morning I would like to offer one more idea which, while very simple, may nevertheless be helpful as an organizing principle for this vision and concrete policy reforms.  This idea is “participation,” and it is relevant in both personal efforts to help the disadvantaged and in government policy.  Participation is also a small but necessary first step towards “self command,” which I’m sure many people here know is one of the central ideas in Adam Smith’s  “other” book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  Self-command is in turn critical for moderating one’s own needs, learning to respect and work with others, and to make prudent decisions that consider the long-term consequences of one’s own actions.      

So what is participation?  Well, the idea begins by recognizing that the chief problem of the underclass in America is not a lack of money, it is a lack of connection to the broader society.  Increasingly, the poor are disconnected - and absent - from the institutions in a free society that would enable them to flourish and succeed on their own.  These institutions include the marketplace, the family, the community, and other civic and religious organizations. 

    Charles Murray has illustrated this lack of connection vividly in his most recent book “Coming Apart.”  He depicts two very different classes that have emerged over the last 50 or so years in white America, which he focuses on to show that these changes have nothing to do with race.  He refers to these distinct Americas as Belmont and Fishtown.  These communities are not just separated by differences in income; more importantly, they differ in terms of values, culture, and behavior.   Murray also shows that it didn’t used to be this way.  In 1960, Fishtown and Belmont did not have fundamentally opposed cultures, and both largely embraced bourgeois values of hard work, stable families, and community engagement.   Since then, the public sector has lavished attention and resources on the disadvantaged and in the process it has helped transform Fishtown into an enclave that barely intersects with mainstream society.  Fishtown is now characterized by dysfunctional behavior and attitudes that will keep it outside the mainstream regardless of how many new government dollars are “invested” in an effort to help it.  

I think it’s self-evident that the problems with Fishtown will never disappear until its inhabitants become more active participants in the institutions of mainstream society.  But how can we make this happen?

The first step is re-invigorating civic society.  Voluntary, civic organizations should always be the first resort for advancing the welfare of the disadvantaged.  This applies not only to charitable groups but also to fraternal or mutual aid organizations.  In fact, this has been the main vehicle of social uplift for the poor throughout American history, and the US has a rich history of such voluntary, public-spirited organizations.   David Green discusses this mostly forgotten history in After the Welfare State, edited by Tom Palmer, and I recommend both his article and the book highly.

Mutual aid societies are run by members for members, and traditionally they have provided pensions, some health insurance, and help during times of economic duress.  They were especially important in providing services to African Americans and recent immigrants.  There were at least 120,000 societies in the mid-1920s, but their numbers declined dramatically after the New Deal reforms of the 1930s. 

Mutual aid societies differ in important respects from charities.  Most importantly, they are organized around a spirit of reciprocity among members, where reciprocity includes mutual obligations as well as the potential for mutual benefits.  This contrasts with both charities and government welfare programs, which are organized around a benefactor – recipient model.  That is, with government welfare and charity, one side gives and the other side receives. 

Conservatives and libertarians should not be reticent in arguing that reciprocity is a better means for helping the disadvantaged than relying on the coercive powers of government.  Reciprocity is really enlightened self-interest, and it promotes win-win or positive-sum outcomes for all the members of the organization.  This differs from government-based solutions, which are by their nature zero-sum outcomes where one party’s gains (the recipient) come only at the expense of another party (the taxpayer).  Mutual aid societies also naturally make people decision-makers and active participants in decisions that impact not only their own welfare, but that of the broader community. 

But while a re-invigorated civic society is critical, the political reality is that the government will remain involved in a variety of welfare programs for the foreseeable future.   There is almost no appetite in the Republican party for wholesale elimination of federal programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and none whatsoever in the Democratic party.  Government programs will therefore remain part of our institutional environment, but they can be transformed so that they create incentives for productive behavior, and by creating marketplaces for publicly-financed services that will lead to more active participation by recipients.
Some of these reforms are currently underway.  Perhaps the best example is the welfare reform law passed in 1996.  This law put limits on the amount of time that people could collect federal welfare.  This was done because it was increasingly recognized that the system of unlimited, lifetime welfare support was making poor people dependent on the government.  This dependence directly undermined their incentive to work and indirectly enabled illegitimacy and family breakdown.   Welfare reform is now overwhelmingly regarded as a huge success, not because it cut spending and reduced the size of government – although it did – but because it actually moved people from dependence on the government and into participation in the workplace.  Welfare reform is also a perfect case study for demonstrating the superiority of conservative/libertarian efforts to help the poor compared with those of progressives.  Yes, Bill Clinton did sign the bill into law, but we should not forget that he did over the overwhelmingly opposition of his party, who predicted it would have catastrophic consequences.

Another promising and critical area is school choice.  Few decisions impact someone’s prospects in life as much as those regarding education.  There is also no area where the disadvantaged more desperately need to be allowed to exercise choice.  Over the last 50 years, funding per pupil for K – 12 education has more than doubled in inflation-adjusted terms, but academic performance has actually fallen.  The decline in education has been particularly severe in inner city neighborhoods, where poor kids are stuck in failing schools.  School choice is very popular among the disadvantaged because they recognize its long-term value, but of course it’s violently opposed by progressives and teachers’ unions.  Conservatives and libertarians can use this wedge to reach out to non-traditional political allies.  Their pitch is likely to be even more effective if is tied in with a broader platform of helping the disadvantaged become more active participants in some of the most important decisions in their lives. 
Another potential area of participation is consumer driven health care.  Paul Ryan has advanced an innovative reform of Medicare that would transform the program into a hybrid of defined-contribution and defined-benefit insurance.  It would also use consumer choice to control costs.  There are many other consumer-driven health care reform ideas out there, and conservatives and libertarians can meld these into a broader participation agenda which enables individuals to take more control over their personal choices.

All of these reforms are united by the simple but powerful idea of making people more active participants in their lives.  It is also particularly important for these reforms to come to the enclave that Charles Murray calls Fishtown.  A just society is not one that allows a significant segment of its population to exist outside the mainstream, subsisting on government handouts and sinking ever deeper into dysfunction that keeps them separated and prevents them from reaching their full potential.  A just and wise society recognizes that simply throwing more money at this problem will not help, and in fact will make it worse.  A just society will also have vibrant civic organizations and structure government programs so that they empower recipients and not bureaucrats.  Among other things, this means encouraging more participation in choices regarding education, health care, and employment.  It also means more active participation in a civic society that emphasizes reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationships rather than charity, to the greatest possible extent.

The Right can begin to meet the rhetorical challenge of social justice by driving this message home.  At the same time, it can reach out to others who recognize the problem, especially those who have not been traditional allies.  It can then begin the hard work of helping the underclass re-connect to the mainstream society.  This approach may not have the easy and superficial appeal of the left’s agenda of  -supposedly - taking care of  people’s needs through an ever-expanding array of government programs.  But it does have two important advantages, which conservatives and libertarians can proudly proclaim:  first, it is more humane; and second, it is far more likely to work.