March 28, 2006


Can $10,000 Check End Welfare State? (Andrew Ferguson, March 28, 2006, Bloomberg)

"Harebrained'' may not be the first word that comes to mind when you hear about "In Our Hands,'' Charles Murray's new book. "Crazy'' might come first, or maybe the more idiomatic "crackers.''

But then you start to read it, and the word that pops into your mind is ``Hmmmmm,'' which of course isn't technically a word at all.

Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, has made himself famous as a provocateur -- a social scientist and activist who plants his flag at the furthest edges of the contemporary debate and then waits for everyone else to join him.

It takes a while, but often they do. ``Losing Ground,'' his book on the failures of the U.S. welfare system, was considered scandalous when it was published in 1984. Twelve years later it served as the basis for the welfare reform signed by President Bill Clinton.

``In Our Hands'' is an attempt to leapfrog today's political argument about the size of government. The idea he offers is so unexpected and radically comprehensive that it could force both sides to question their own presuppositions. But first they have to read the book. [...]

His larger goal is to revive those social institutions, particularly the family, the workplace and the local community, which the welfare state has weakened and supplanted and ``through which people live satisfying lives.''

If you want to see the enervating effects of the all- encompassing welfare state, he says, look at Europe, where marriage and birth rates have plunged and work and religion have lost their traditional standing as sources of happiness and personal satisfaction.

In Europe, he says with evident disdain, ``the purpose of life is to while away the time as pleasantly as possible.''

Here the reader of ``In Our Hands'' may suddenly pull up short. What began as a wonkish policy tract enlarges into an exploration of how people live lives of meaning and purpose.

Who knew? It turns out that Charles Murray, the nation's foremost libertarian philosopher, is a moralist.

In the end, though, moralizing and libertarianism make for an uncomfortable fit.

On the one hand, Murray says he wants to liberate citizens from the welfare state so they can live life however they choose. On the other hand, by liberating citizens from the welfare state, he hopes to force them back into lives of traditional bourgeois virtue.

It's a circle that Murray can't quite square, but it's fun watching him try.

The rock upon which libertarianism founders is that it requires that everyone freely choose to be a Judeo-Christian moralist along with you.

The Plan to Replace the Welfare State (Max Borders, 28 Mar 2006, Tech Central Station)

Borders: You have elsewhere called yourself a libertarian.

Murray: Absolutely. I wrote a book calling myself a libertarian.

Borders: So do you believe that justice demands we correct the -- as the philosopher John Rawls would put it -- the natural lottery, the inequalities that life hands us? Or is In Our Hands a kind of pragmatic compromise with the egalitarian left?

Murray: More the latter. I want to say to my fellow libertarians out there: I not only still consider myself a libertarian, I don't consider that I've wavered in it.

But here's what I think we have to talk about. You think, if you're a libertarian -- as I think -- that the best solution of all is to leave all of this money in the hands of the people who started with it. And this would energize unimaginably effective, widespread, voluntary means of dealing with the problems we face. You believe that. I believe that. That's fine.

We cannot blink at the fact that there's so much money out there -- and the impulse to use the government to redistribute is widespread. We are not going to change that. For all time to come, governments are going to take in vast sums of money and redistribute it. And then the question for libertarians becomes: if one accepts that it's going to happen, is there a way to do this which leaves people's lives in their own hands?

And that's the source of the title of the book. So there will still be government redistributing a lot of money. The big difference is it's no longer bureaucrats who are going to be doling it out in dribs and drabs under certain conditions if you have demonstrated certain kinds of need. It is going to be giving people sufficient resources to run their own lives.

But let me add, however, one other element.

Whereas I still think that the best solution is the pure libertarian solution, I am more sympathetic – and I think my work on The Bell Curve and IQ sort of pushed this along -- I am more and more sympathetic to the proposition that in the lottery of life some people come up with the short end of the stick on a whole bunch of different dimensions. It's not so bad if you don't have an IQ of 130 if you're beautiful, charming, or industrious. After all, there are all sorts of bundles of qualities that make it very hard to rank people from "high" to "low."

It is also true that there are substantial numbers of people who are not that smart, not that beautiful, not that charming, not that industrious, for reasons that they have no control over -- and they've gotten the short end of the stick. So if I'm talking about using government to redistribute some resources to that person, I'm not going to lie awake nights thinking that I've done some awful thing by helping them out. I'm happy with this compromise.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 28, 2006 3:58 PM

So if I'm talking about using government to redistribute some resources to that person, I'm not going to lie awake nights thinking that I've done some awful thing by helping them out. I'm happy with this compromise.

Once again, being happy and feeling good about himself because of his generosity with other people's money.

Posted by: Ptah at March 28, 2006 8:09 PM

You don't need a 130 IQ or stunning looks to work at Walmart or McDonalds or most anywhere else. All you need is a good atitude and positve work habits. Why does 10K change this equation?

Posted by: Perry at March 28, 2006 8:15 PM

"The rock upon which libertarianism founders is that it requires that everyone freely choose to be a Judeo-Christian moralist along with you."

The nail struck squarely on the head.

Posted by: Minimus at March 28, 2006 9:59 PM

"The rock upon which libertarianism founders is that it requires that everyone freely choose to be a Judeo-Christian moralist along with you."

Righhhttt. So were back to OJ's "redeem government" theme. Government corrupts moralist as fast as it corrupts sectarians, just look at Ohio.

Besides, everything else other than libertarianism is for cry babies.

Posted by: Perry at March 29, 2006 8:15 AM

Lessee: 230,000,000*10,000=2,300,000,000,000. or about the total current income of the United States government for one year.

Posted by: Ptah at March 29, 2006 8:39 AM

Everyone's a libertrian until someone bigger punches them in the nose.

Posted by: oj at March 29, 2006 8:57 AM

The idea here is that the govt will always have some form redistributionist policy. The radical libertarians/conservatives have lost. So we should simply move to a system that accomplishes it with the least bureaucracy, intrusion, and cost.

Ptah, the grant would only go to people 21 and over. So knock off at least 25% of that cost. Also remember that a lot of that $10,000 can simply be seen as a tax refund called a different name.

The real issue is not the money spent. It's hobbling the bureaucrats whose power comes from giving the money. With the bureaucrats eliminated, the worst corruptive elements on the government would disappear - no possibility for social engineering, and nothing that incentivizes bad behavior to qualify for benefits.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at March 29, 2006 12:46 PM


Libertarians respect the rule of law, so I miss you point.

Posted by: Perry at March 29, 2006 7:27 PM

That's got to be self-parody.

Posted by: oj at March 29, 2006 7:47 PM

There are three problems about the proposal.

One is the age cut off at 21. Below that age is where the families are. To extend the distribution further in this way means the amount would have to be less and it might be a lot less. You are still going to have to work to have any sort of life. But families with children have the fewest options to fix their economic situation and so need the most support.

The second is the sustainability. The amount to be distributed should be a proportion of the income and company tax. It should not be related to any amount considered enough or that matches inflation or wage movements. Using a proportion of those tax takes means that the scheme is always sustainable with any economic or demographic change. If it is not as much as wanted then that is because the economy cannot afford it.

The third is that in US (and New Zealand) other taxes especially gasoline tax is too low to allow Government to survive on the rest of the tax take.

If it could be done it sure would hugely reduce the size of government and the extent of government intervention in our private lives.

Posted by: Bill Macky at April 21, 2006 8:00 PM