What You Should Think About Social Minima

October 17, 2007

“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

–Charles Darwin

Earlier today America was witness to an extremely unusual event in 21st century politics. Our President subjected himself to public press interaction in which the questions and answers were generally not orchestrated by prior arrangement. A healthy national dialog would be supported by routine exchanges of this nature. Still, this is better than nothing. Any acknowledgment of public accountability by senior executive officials is a positive thing.

In today’s press conference, repeated references were made to the fact that families with an income as large as $83,000/year would be eligible for participation in a proposed program to subsidize health care for children. Depending on the specifics of the surrounding national economy, there could be a case for arguments about excessive taxation or better use for those funds. No such arguments were offered. Instead the President justified his veto on purely ideological grounds. It was as if breaking with a particular political orthodoxy were a wrong in itself, children be damned . . . and I mean literally damned.

It is fair to argue that a typical family with $83,000 in annual income would not be part of America’s neediest population. Yet not all families are typical. Children are not immune to horrible accidents. Children are not immune to developmental disorders. Children are not immune to chronic degenerative diseases. As it is Medicaid will provide for those families with enormous medical expenses only after they spend themselves into poverty before appealing for government assistance.

So, under the status quo, giving birth to a child with cystic fibrosis or watching your child cope with severe spinal cord injury after a bus accident is reason enough to experience poverty — regardless of however hard-working family breadwinner(s) might be. How does this mesh with the notion that economic status ought to incentivize productivity? How does this mesh with an ideology that makes no distinctions between what quality of life an individual merits and what financial resources he or she controls?

Hostility toward any form of economic welfare tends to emerge from one narrow view of the intersection between economics and justice. The question is typically framed as a matter of how much unproductive freeloaders “deserve” from the pockets of those with substantial personal income. Yet this misrepresents the natures of both society and income. It rests on faulty assumptions holding that personal wealth in any meaningful concentration could exist in the absence of social support. It also fails to recognize that not all wealth is merited (e.g. senior Enron executives) nor is all poverty is a reflection of personal worthlessness (i.e. starving artists, community activists, humble clergy, etc.)

The law of the jungle may have some bearing . . . in a jungle! I do not deny that a society so bereft of resources that entire communities may be one bad harvest away from ultimate doom cannot afford to provide generous economic support to its least productive members. However, I vehemently deny that the modern United States is in any way that sort of society. Again and again public figures boast that we are the richest nation in the world. By some measures that remains true. Yet that is all the more reason not to let our social policies be shaped by thinking as if modern America is precariously balanced on the brink of national destitution.

To some degree it is all a perversion of Darwinism. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, there were two comparably popular interpretations of the term “social Darwinism.” West of the Iron Curtain (or, perhaps more accurately, to the political right of basic human decency) it was argued that economic systems emphasizing a competition for survival between individuals would improve national gene pools. Of course this is nonsense, since the time frame of biological evolution is wildly out of proportion with the persistence of any regime, never mind an ideologically orthodox body of economic policy. Yet it was also nonsense because it equated fitness to live with ability to gain income — without any regard whatsoever for the ethics or consequences of that activity. Is it at all sensible to go through life believing Bill Gates or Paris Hilton is thousands of times more fit to live than a typical American citizen?

Yet social Darwinism has a different resonance when taken from a Marxist perspective. After all, in nature, competition between species is as, if not more, significant than competition between individuals. A collective approach holds that the best way to promote human fitness involves working toward common goals to improve the overall quality of life enjoyed by a society. There can be no doubt that Stalin corrupted a communist superpower with outright evil that was orders of magnitude worse than the worst abuses of power by any American President. That history does very little to shed light on the merits of any economic philosophy.

Personally, I believe that we can do better in framing our economic and social policies than to be guided by half-baked pontifications on the struggles of primal beasts. However, if one perspective must be favored over another, just why should anyone favor an approach that divides America between winners and losers over an approach that unites America behind common goals? A (typically misplaced) sense of personal superiority, contempt for poor people, satisfaction from the suffering of others . . . these are not the stuff of any noble vision, especially one fit to make its way into the laws of our land.

“Social Darwinism” means different things to different thinkers. On the other hand, “social minimum” is a concept used consistently by economists and philosophers from a wide range of traditions. That term defines an economic boundary beneath which members of a society are not permitted to fall regardless of circumstances (save voluntarily eschewing material possessions, of course.) In many societies with respectable rates of economic growth, a robust social minimum guarantees all citizens material subsistence, medical care, educational opportunity, and much more.

For the most part the United States has not endeavored to uphold a lower social minimum than the rest of the civilized world. That tendency is a fairly recent phenomenon coinciding with decades of deliberately expanded class divisions. Whatever ideological wallpaper is pasted over policy, the underlying reality is that it has been framed so as to hasten the concentration of American wealth and reduce the incidence of class mobility in our society. The England our Founding Fathers rebelled against was never so obsessed with making the rich richer. One might even question if the pre-revolutionary France under Louis XVI was more moderate in its plutocracy.

There is no choice that is not a choice. Nothing in the U.S. Constitution forbids subsidized higher education or socialized medicine or even outright income redistribution. To the contrary, if we are to honor the intent of the founders’ and such utterances as Lincoln’s immortal, “by the people, for the people,” sentiment, then it is anti-American to espouse flimflam about bogus technical obstacles to obstruct any public desire to legislate change.

President Bush is correct to argue that the children’s health care bill he vetoed would expand the role of government in meeting the needs of the people. Where he and his most loyal supporters go wrong in is standing on that argument alone, ignoring all practical consequences of their actions. This only perpetuates a system that demands poverty of American families guilty of no greater misdeed than having an extremely sick child. It is shameful that such shoddy thinking is all that stands between the status quo and successful elevation of our own social minimum. After all, that same thinking also stands between genuinely desperate families and a significantly brighter future for their ill or injured children.