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Monday, September 26, 2005

Response to Tatem Bowers from 9/14/05

I can think of at least one normative framework in which this type of contribution would be justified, that framework is social justice. Social justice is based on the idea of equality and if suddenly a lot of people are no longer equal (or even have the ability to be equal) than the government's contribution is legitimate. Whether by equality we are referring to distributive equality or opportunity equality, when a city is destroyed the victims are no longer "equal" in either respect.

However, I also think that the government's contribution could be justified from a libertarian perspective as well. Government assistance to victims wouldn't be justified from a utopian idea of liberty, but from a constitutional idea of liberty I think it could be. Perhaps it wouldn't be legitimate the way that this specific contribution happened, but this type of monetary help could be justified if the large majority of people voted to help victims of natural disasters. Consent to tax for the specific purpose of helping victims of natural disasters is certainly consistent with liberty. I also believe that the majority of people would in fact vote for such a policy. (I don't know that for sure, but I think it's a possibility.) The utopian idea of liberty would lead us to believe that government isn't even necessary, but I think that most of us would agree that it is indeed necessary. Therefore, we have to compromise the strict sense of liberty at times and I believe that perhaps Katrina may be one of those circumstances. Again maybe not the way that the government stepped in in this specific case, but perhaps the government should consider putting a policy regarding monetary assistance in the event of a natural disaster on the ballot for people to decide.

Furthermore, living on this earth is risky no matter where you live. Of course some places have higher risk than others and some people are going to be more risk adverse than others. It would be unrealistic to expect people to live only in places with the lowest risk of natural disasters. Maybe a policy could be accepted that would include some kind of graded scale that would take into consideration the level of risk to determine the amount of assistance to give, although I'm not sure how that could be done.

Comments:
Thanks for the post, I was hoping someone would say something about mine.

It is true that within the social justice framework federal government relief contributions would be justified. You write:

Social justice is based on the idea of equality and if suddenly a lot of people are no longer equal (or even have the ability to be equal) than the government's contribution is legitimate. Whether by equality we are referring to distributive equality or opportunity equality, when a city is destroyed the victims are no longer "equal" in either respect.

This statement is only true with respect to equality of outcome through the distribution of resources. Equality of opportunity is a concept associated with the protective state and is by its definition unable to satisfy the agenda set forth by the social welfare state. If the state is concerned with equality of opportunity, then once that opportunity has been made available unilaterally the state has completed its mission. Each individual will necessarily make use of their equal opportunities in different ways, thus yielding different results. Some will use their opportunity to create more wealth, like person A, while others will use their opportunity in such a way as to yield less wealth, like person B. Although the welfare state may begin by providing equality of opportunity, there is nothing in social welfare doctrine demanding this; in fact social welfare doctrine might prescribe the opposite. Even if this was where the social welfare state started, it could not stop there. The welfare state must redistribute resources in such a way as to take from A and give to B so that A and B have the same wealth, thus yielding equal distribution.

So you are correct, those individuals affected by Katrina are no longer equal in a distributive sense. However, they are very much equal in the opportunity sense. They had just as much opportunity to choose to live on the Gulf Coast as anyone else in America. They chose to embrace that opportunity, yielding on the whole tragic results. That’s the thing about equal opportunity, there are no guarantees in equality of outcome. Now everyone affected by Katrina has opportunity to go back, or go elsewhere.

You also write:

Government assistance to victims wouldn't be justified from a utopian idea of liberty, but from a constitutional idea of liberty I think it could be . . . this type of monetary help could be justified if the large majority of people voted to help victims of natural disasters.

From a constitutional framework there’s no way you can get around the inappropriateness of the federal provision of relief funds unless an Amendment is ratified to grant Congress the power to assert police power. It is not however the majority of people that would have to vote for the ratification of the Amendment. Rather it is 3/4 of state legislatures. Individual citizens never get to vote directly on whether or not Amendments will be ratified, let alone federal legislation. That’s what your representatives do for you. The founding fathers set things up this way to prevent tyranny of the majority.

And yes, you are correct. Congress has our consent to tax and this is not in conflict with liberty. Such consent is granted so long the taxes levied do not allow federal government to overstep the bounds set forth by the Constitution. Congress passing legislation that clearly is within the range of police power is unconstitutional as it oversteps the boundaries of federalism put in place by the Tenth Amendment. Only the legislatures in the states affected by Katrina have the power to approve relief funds to their citizens. Those state’s with constitutions demanding all or allowing any tax appropriations be voter approved allow citizens to get their say. Otherwise citizens put the decision making power in their state representatives.

You also write:

The utopian idea of liberty would lead us to believe that government isn't even necessary, but I think that most of us would agree that it is indeed necessary.

I’m not sure exactly what you mean by utopian idea of liberty. But any means that leads to an end absent of government is anarchy. Even the most devoted libertarians hold government is necessary. See Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman and The Constitution of Liberty by F.A. Hayek.

Finally, your graded scale suggestion sounds like something prescribed by the social welfare state.

I live at 9,000ft and sometimes the weather causes damage to my property. How comfortable are you allowing government to subsidize my repair costs? I like to think I am in the best position to consider whether or not the costs are worth the benefits of living so high up and should not expect you to pay for my miscalculations in what my net benefit will be, nor should I expect you to subsidize my choice because I’m not willing to pay the price.
 
Sorry it’s taken so long to respond. I wasn’t ignorning you, just have been real busy. Anyway, here is an attempt to sound some what logical. : )

You write:
“If the state is concerned with equality of opportunity, then once that opportunity has been made available unilaterally the state has completed its mission.”

I agree that generally once opportunity has been made available unilaterally it should be “equal” from then on out. However, I don’t think it is the reality or always the case. I do not believe a person who just lost their source of income, their house, their school, and everything else, except their lives, has the same opportunities as another person has who has not lost everything. Placement assistance for employment and housing could be needed to get these people “back on their feet”. Certainly they have the opportunity to go out and get another job while they live in a shelter that could be supported through charity rather than government, but I just don’t see that being practical for such a large amount of people. You say they have the choice to leave or go back, but I don’t think they all do in fact have that choice. They go where they can get a job and survive. However, redistribution (by taking from person A to give to person B) seems to be the only way to achieve any type of equality that social justice proponents are looking for.

You write:
“It is not however the majority of people that would have to vote for the ratification of the Amendment. Rather it is 3/4 of state legislatures. Individual citizens never get to vote directly on whether or not Amendments will be ratified, let alone federal legislation. That’s what your representatives do for you. The founding fathers set things up this way to prevent tyranny of the majority.”

I haven’t studied the constitution very much, but from what I remember from junior high school, our government was designed to be a representative government. Therefore, the state legislatures are supposed to support the desires of the citizens they represent. I understand preventing “tyranny of the majority”, however; find it hard to see how helping victims of a hurricane would be tyranny, unless it does in fact violate the constitution. However, I’m not real sure how Katrina relief violates the constitution. I’ve read over your explanation and because I’m just too lazy to read over the entire constitution right now, I just don’t see the violation. It still seems to me that our legislators pass legislation all the time on how to spend tax money. Are you saying that most of them are in violation of the constitution?

By “utopian idea of liberty” I mean exactly what you say, anarchy. Liberty is based on the idea that I own myself and the fruits of my labor. If the government takes ANY of my money they are in violation of my liberties. I use the word “utopian” because anarchy is neither desired nor practical. And I agree most devoted libertarians hold that government is necessary, but I also think that they must give up some level of liberty just to have government.

Also, I’m really trying to figure out exactly how much the government should be involved in reducing or insuring against risk. I agree in your comment that I should not be responsible for repair costs to your home, yet I feel that it’s okay to take some of my money to help Katrina victims. Last week we were discussing in the Economic and Freedom class, how the government is involved in reducing the risk of a pandemic from the “bird flu” and we all seemed to agree this was an appropriate role for the government. So, exactly where that line is drawn I haven’t figured out yet, but I do think the government has some role in insuring against risk of huge disaster that can harm a large part of the population. Maybe it has to be determined by government if it’s a “pandemic” or “natural disaster”. Do I personally trust government to always make the right choice? Absolutely not, but I do believe that if the decisions are made by a large majority of the legislatures who are representing the “peoples” desires, it seems pretty consistent with a practical idea of liberty.
 
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