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.