Rule of the Buffers

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?

What I like about David’s characterization of welfare above is the “simple triangle” framing. I can think of no better way of describing the conceptual scheme of modern individualism in the context of redistribution. Your historically literate redistributionist will point out to various schemes for taking care of the poor throughout the reign of Christendom; my father remarked that tithing for the poor used to be quite common.

But when tithing for the poor was a common practice, the model of institutional relationships was nothing like David’s simple triangle. There was definitely a thick layer just above the level of the individual, whose existence apart from such institutional relationships was hardly acknowledged.

Which brings me to Mark Weiner’s argument that draining the power of that layer to strong-arm individuals just is the chief accomplishment of post-Enlightenment governance, and allowing individuals more scope apart from their clannish obligations is a noble and dignifying task.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic Weiner’s argument that thick clannish obligations can be suffocating. If Deirdre McCloskey is right, such restricting obligations may have (and in parts of the world, continue to) reduce the scope for innovation.

On the other hand, as McCloskey herself would be the first to point out, such clannish connections also play a vital role in local, regional, and global commerce by creating thick trust networks. And deeply connected communities have been shown again and again to be more resilient against disasters.

It also seems to me that a problem with David’s critique might be that modern poverty of a more persistent sort often arises precisely because the institutions of a particular community have become hollowed out, and there’s very little community left to speak of. One may shake their fists at modernity for bringing this about, but I suspect it is not unique to modernity; we’ve simply reached a level of affluence where such a thing is not fatal, though not exactly pleasant either. Nevertheless, the question remains of whether those of us who have found ourselves in more fortunate circumstances have any responsibility to those who do not.

I do not have a problem being a vertex on David’s simple triangle, within reason and if the person (people) on the other end are actually getting help. It seems to me that many schemes in this country that have tried to help have ended up making things much worse—public housing in particular comes to mind, and the black hole that that quickly became, sucking in generations and not letting go. It’s why I’d prefer Liz’s simple triangle whereby we’re just giving cash in some amount.

I also think community-level entrepreneurship is important. I saw some of this in DC—a church would sponsor a group that would tutor children in the projects with the hope of both providing them the education they deserved and building a relationship with them and their families. Such efforts seemed to have trouble struggling against the black hole, but were not entirely without hope. I hope those efforts continue, and that many of the bear fruit.

19 thoughts on “Rule of the Buffers

  1. I’m really sorry about what you’re going through and I really, really hope things get better and you don’t have to end up on the streets just to keep your dog! 😦

    But in the future, if you want to make this kind of comment, please email me directly. My gmail address is adam.gurri. I really want this blog to be a place of comfortable, friendly conversation. If you’d put this comment on anyone’s post but mine I would have deleted it, but I’d feel like a pretty big jerk to do it now given what you’ve said. But I just want you to know that going forward you can feel totally free to say these things to me directly, but this isn’t the place for it.

  2. Jessica

    Okay. I’m really sorry. I don’t know how else to say what needs to be said. Is there a way that you or I can delete my previous comment?

    1. It’s OK, I’ll leave it. I’d feel like a pretty entitled jerk to remove it at this point to be honest.

      Let’s try your questions suggestion.

      What about what I said is out of touch specifically? All I meant to talk about was people’s relationships to their families and community. And at the end I basically said I should be expected to pay my taxes to help the poor, but I’d like it to actually help the poor, and I’d like the taxes to be somewhere (hopefully well) below the point where I become poor, too, or end up with no options for saving money and getting better off over time.

      What part specifically was no good?

      1. Jessica

        That all makes sense, it just seems like the problem itself may have been over-simplified. 😦 Please delete my comments, if possible. I feel like a jerk.

      2. You’re absolutely right that it’s oversimplified. Unfortunately it’s hard to do the life of real people on the ground justice in short blog posts; but that’s not really an excuse.

        I’ll delete your original comment, but don’t feel like a jerk. You’re going through something really rough and much more important than the conversation on this blog. Really sorry if reading this post just made you feel worse about it.

  3. David Duke

    I have no problem being a vertex in the triangle as long as I am free to leave the triangle and as long as the top vertex is not the state. The politicization of welfare is best managed locally–as well as welfare itself. As an unwilling participant in a fraught emotional system such as this case, I have experienced an encroachment in my own dignity.

    1. Jessica

      It seems like one of those issues that might solve itself if people had a better understanding of science, even the soft science of deadweight loss. I wonder if knowledge gaps are to blame for the fact that we haven’t transitioned to some other type of safety net, creating a transition for those on welfare while respecting individual autonomy and creating a better society for us all in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps I am oversimplifying the debate. It seems like a big misunderstanding to me.

      1. There’s something to this, for sure. Though I also think a large part of the problem at this point is simple inertia; the system has grown so big and so complex that no one has the political power to meaningfully simplify and reform it.

    2. Of course I certainly agree, I think being closer to the ground is better in terms of both having the knowledge of who actually could use the help and also in terms of being more likely to share in the values of the community the welfare is funded and paid out.

      On the other hand, the areas that could often use the most help are also the ones least likely to be able to provide the funds.

      And what I was really getting at is that we’re all unwilling participants of something or other. In a more clannish society, we don’t choose which clan we’re born into or what restrictions they impose on us. In a modern liberal democracy, we don’t choose to be born into a country where the ties of the clan have been weakened for reasons cultural and political. We don’t choose to be born into the stock of traditions, norms, and rhetoric that we take for granted.

      So, in my continued drift from libertarianism, I find that the unwillingness is not prima facie the problem with the modern liberal state and modern welfare. The problems that it does have are legion, of course. But in principle I see no problem with having the state at the top vertex, but again, within reasonable limits.

      1. David Duke

        If you take both is/ought dilemmas as stand-alone scenarios–for the sake of the hypothetical, mine (where is her family?), and yours (the state fills the vacuum), which is more likely to find a happy fulfillment of what ought to be, with euvoluntary exchange, eudaimonia, or even makarismos? Can the state really provide arete with cash redistribution?

        My point: get the state out of the vacuum, and the family structures regenerate. It may take some time and there might be some pain, but…

      2. When it comes to this question, I like to talk concretely about specifics.

        There are a lot of specific areas where the state is actively becoming the radiation that kills the roots of family and community. Public housing and the war on drugs, together, have done so much damage; I would like to see them rolled back entirely (with some sort of transition for the former of course, not just kicking people out) and I agree, I think the healing process will begin to take place.

        But there’s a very big community of people who feel that some level of paying into a system that gives to the poor is an obligation of not just a member of a community, but a citizen of a modern liberal democracy. I don’t agree with most of the ideologies expressed in defense of this notion but I don’t mind Mark Weiner’s particular version, or Matt Zwolinski’s, or the general, vaguely articulated notion that a lot of people have about it.

        Part of the problem is that I don’t think most government officials are very good at discerning who is the family or local organization appropriate to helping particular people. And in my mind it should be the family or local org that reaches out to government on behalf of the people they’re taking care of, not the other way around. But it’s precisely that process that has led to the mess of a system we have in place, with a fair number of groups also claiming to act on behalf of people who perhaps are only loosely affiliated with them.

        What I like about things like basic income is that it can just be a check that is cut for everyone without getting the state into the business of figuring out who your custodian _should_ be.

  4. I would like to see a lot more empirics here. What is the evidence that people on welfare do not in fact have thicker familial and religious support systems than, say, highly educated professionals? It’s just that those support systems are made up of people in similar circumstances with similar problems.

    1. This is fair, and to the extent that that is the case I do think David’s approach of working with such support systems rather than around them is preferable.

      I don’t have any studies on hand on the matter, but I was thinking mostly of my wife’s experience tutoring in the projects of DC. There, it seemed that such family support was quite tenuous, and not just materially. Many of the mothers there had had their children extremely young, and not taken well to parenting. If the tutoring organization informed a parent that their child was struggling, or seemed to be going through an emotionally rough time, or admitted that they’d been cutting school or something, the mother often seemed indifferent to the news. And of course the father was very rarely in the picture.

    2. I would further add that my thought was less about the difference between highly educated professionals and those on welfare, than between the clans described by Mark Weiner and his argument about the modern state and society’s role in weakening them.

      The payoff of such weakening, Weiner argues with ample historical detail, is more room for individuals to flourish. The downside, I would argue, is that the benefits individuals get from their clannish associations are less, though for nearly everyone this is more than offset by the Great Enrichment.

      Still, the burden on support systems is in some ways greater when they are indeed called upon. Consider the Amish and their elderly. They have no problem caring for them once they’re too frail too far gone mentally to take care of themselves. They also are a demographically young population, and they’re also an agricultural, settled population.

      I don’t want to go back to agricultural clans, even with the Amish’s selective inclusion of some of the trappings of modernity. But I would argue that there’s a downside risk created by the modern alternative that we nevertheless have more than enough resources to provide a cushion against.

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