That’s Right, Senator: Buffers

Elizabeth Bruenig wrote some nice things about our very own Adam Gurri at The Week, revisiting some of the hoo-ha at BHL last week. The question she asks, however, begs the question. Policy-wise, “What [should Libertarians, were they in power] do about poor children?” Well, that’s an awfully big a priori, there, with some straight lines drawn straight through some rather opaque boundaries, not the least of which is family.

She cites Rand Paul’s dancing around the issue, like a good politician should, when tackling the issue of unwed motherhood under state support. The aspiring presidential candidate advocated for absolutely no change in the status quo while sounding some boilerplate Libertarian guff. “…[W]e have to get that message through…” he says. Who’s “we,” kemosabe? (apologies to Bill Cosby). The problem of unwed mothers perpetuating poverty by essentially making themselves open wombs for whatever reason is not going to have a solution which an undefined or (as the case has been) over-defined “we” can accomplish for her.

Let’s take up the case of this poor woman, who has four children and is receiving government aid per capita. Why is the relationship I have with her a simple triangle, with her at one vertex, me at the other vertex, and the state at the top, taking from me and giving to her? Where is her family? Do they have no influence on this person? Failing that, is there no extension of the family, say, a local congregation of religious people whose purpose in life is to please their transcendental reality by helping the poor? Or a YWCA? Even in the absence of those basic institutions, we have still more buffers between the individual and the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-compassionate state.

Where are her buffers?

See, we daydream, I think, about finally resolving the problem of poverty, of seeing the poor lifted up and out of poverty, especially when we define poverty as the absence of the pursuit of eudaimonia or arete. In a just society (important qualifier), however, the power to influence the lives of poor people for their own good is not in power structures, but in family structures. Willi Cicci was trying to explain this to the senator, but he didn’t have the vocabulary to pull it off, as Michael Corleone, also, ultimately failed in doing with his own wife–because he was evil, as she correctly evaluates. The point is made, even though the movie is about a descent into evil: there’s nothing the state can do to break the power of a structure which is not about power. It was Kay who attenuated the evil of Michael Corleone, not the federal government. Babies, you see, are going to keep being born, regardless of state policies. Poverty and wealth are existential realities which may or may not persevere for any amount of time, but babies keep pushing us forward. In other words, as posterity unfolds, likewise poverty and wealth.

The state, on the other hand, can foster the flourishing of family structures, mostly by keeping its fat fingers out of the family pie, and by keeping injustice from spoiling the pie. That, I think, is difficult enough. To feed poor people?

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