To each according to what he needs. From each according to the benefits he gleans.

Ok, it's not as snappy as the traditional (and much-maligned, in the United States) socialist mantra.

What follows is the very first development of an idea that occurred to me tonight, so certain deficits of argument are to be expected. With awareness and adjustment, I hope they can all be remedied, but comment and counter-argument will be appreciated, so that I can find these errors and attempt the repair.

For a while now, I have been rolling around the idea that rich people ought to pay a disproportionately higher amount of taxes than the average person because they disproportionately benefit from the system set up by society. As they benefit out of scale, they should pay out of scale to maintain that which provides them the benefits. It is also the case that the rich tend to use the resources of society more than the poor. The poor person may use food stamps or housing subsidies or other benefits, but it is the rich who rely on public infrastructure to move the goods and services they produce and bring their workers to the place of business, who rely on public education to train the highly-skilled workers they employ and who engage in lawsuits that commandeer outrageous resources from the public justice system in order to protect their intellectual property. There is much more to be said on that topic, and I believe it stands as a compelling argument for a progressive tax system that takes an increasingly high percentage in taxes from the upper echelons of society, but it is not what I am writing about tonight.

What came to me this evening is the other side of this argument. Society is structured so that some benefit far above the scale of most others. But that is only at the top. What about the bottom? Society is also structured so that some at the far bottom will benefit far below the scale of most others. Part of our society wants to label these people as lazy or stupid and blame them for their own misfortune. Many of us recoil against that notion and refuse to think of the poor as losers. But I will not attempt to argue that the poor are not stupid or lazy. I absolutely do not believe the poor to be stupid or lazy as a rule (I think they are stupid and lazy in precisely the same proportion as trust-fund babies who get life on easy mode thanks to some predecessor's success), but I believe that stupidity and laziness are irrelevant to the argument:

As a society, we have structured the world we live in such that it is impossible for some people to thrive in it. Whether they are the victims of genetics or experiences incompatible with today's society, there are at least some percentage of people who absolutely cannot succeed in today's society. Incontrovertible examples include intellectual disabilities or severe mental illness. But I believe it goes further, into categories like severe substance abuse, extreme attention disorders and "anti-social" behaviors (generally these categories allow others to feel superior to the sufferer out of the amazingly arrogant assumption that the mere application of will would allow these people to turn their lives around). It is as unreasonable to expect some people to thrive in our society as it is to expect some people living today to survive being magically dropped into the African Serengeti 60,000 years ago. While all of our genes were shaped in hunter-gatherer societies and it presents challenges to all of us on occasion, the reality is that some people get dealt a genetic hand or grow up in an environment that makes them summarily unfit for a successful life in modern society. The very characteristics that would allow them to survive as a hunter thousands of years ago - or survive horrible conditions as a destitute child today - make it virtually impossible for them to succeed on the terms the rest of us demand. And it's not their fault, no more than an heir who inherits millions from a successful relative is responsible for that windfall.

The fault lies on society. We have built a system that works for a great many of us. It is, in sum, a good system (though by even making this argument I obviously think it stands ready for improvement). But it does not benefit all equally. Some at the top disproportionately benefit and some at the bottom disproportionately suffer. This is the result of the rules we have built. We have, collectively, constructed a society that locks some out by its very nature. There may be many reasons one cannot thrive in this society and why expecting that one succeed on his or her own without assistance is unreasonable. Whether it is someone prone to addiction and feeling far stronger urges to chase a chemical substance or particular activity than show up to work or the powerful sexual urges that make expecting teenagers to not have sex a complete fantasy, some will not be able to hold down a job or will become pregnant or suffer from another medical condition that render them unemployable. We recognize some of these barriers to normal life, those that we collectively consider to be beyond the fault of the affected individual - severe injury, paralysis, disease, etc. - and we have put in place some level of support in the case of their occurrence.

Other barriers, however, many of us assume are mere failings of character and expect one to be able to will themselves out of trouble; to be able to effectively think one's way out of obsessions and compulsions: just have the strength of will to not take drugs or not have sex or not gamble and your life will turn around. I find this to be an extremely uncharitable opinion and also one completely devoid of an understanding of the sheer reality of human biology. For one thing, it may be that some of the very deficits that separate someone from success in our society would have enabled their wild success (compared to other humans) in other times and other places. It is these cases that I argue for here. Persons against whom the rules of society are stacked, who have little reasonable chance of succeeding in this world. As they suffer more because the structure the more-numerous rest of us have constructed locks them away from success, it is incumbent upon us to create a minimum reasonable standard below which we let no person fall. I believe it to be morally requisite that we provide all people with some portion of the benefits the rest of us glean from our society, even those who contribute nothing to society in return. Where this level lies will always shift over time as we move the bar to balance costs and benefits, but I think it is rightly substantially higher than it is now. Universal health treatment at a strong level of care is an absolute requirement under this obligation of society to its lesser members, for instance.

Do not mistake this for opposition to programs to break addictions, train job skills and empower people to take care of themselves and join in the benefits most of us enjoy. Do not mistake this for blanket approval for the creation of welfare dependency cycles, which do exist. Do not mistake this for a full indictment of capitalism nor an endorsement for unfettered socialism. Do not mistake this for willingness to blindly dump money into social programs with no oversight or objective assessment of benefits.

Take what I have said here for what it is: a recognition that the society we have created guarantees that some will greatly benefit and some will greatly suffer. It is effectively the duty of those who benefit more to pay a higher portion of the cost of the society than those who benefit less. And there are some who will not benefit at all, unless we undertake to grant them an explicit minimum level of benefits with no requirement or expectation of their contribution back to society in return. I consider this undertaking to be morally requisite upon society, because, by its very nature, our society itself prevents some from achieving any level of success at all. As we have effectively destroyed, or failed to provide, any trace of an environment they can thrive in, it is our duty to ensure they can survive in what we have created.


shaner said...

This was a very rational and well laid out argument. I agree in all aspects.

Numbers such as 47% should not scare us into do what is both sensible and morally right.

I think every person should contribute what they can to society. those whose contributions are limited should still be cared for, fed, educated, and sheltered.

Norm the Ump said...

Well stated, Bob. I remember that Nixon actually proposed a National Minimum Income back in the early 70's. Didn't get far, unfortunately, but on the face of it not a bad idea.