Enslaving Recipients

A few days ago I wrote a blog in which I suggested we need to alter our mind-set regarding the payment of taxes. Instead of the pejorative overtones the word has now we should try to give it a positive spin and bear in mind the immense good our taxes do — regardless of the abuses of the system that are inevitable. The blog received a most interesting comment from William Thien who appreciated my take on the question but who worried that recipients of tax relief for food, clothing, shelter, and schooling might in fact become “enslaved” by the money thrown their way: they might become dependent on the government’s largess. This is an excellent point and one I have worried about for many years.

In fact, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche both worried about it as well, and they had much larger minds than mine. They worried that “socialism” (which Dostoevsky regarded as the bastard stepchild of Catholicism, which he hated for the same reasons) deprived humans of their freedom by making them dependent on the generosity of the state (or the Church). In any case they insisted that freedom was the core of humanity: without it we are less than human, “denizens of an ant heap,” as Dostoevsky would have it.

The idea comes from Kant’s notion of autonomy which he regarded as essential to our humanity: it is what makes us human, The fact is that we, of all the animals, are the only ones who can make and follow (or ignore) our own moral precepts. This is real freedom — from which comes our responsibility — and it is the heart of our humanity according to Kant. To the extent that we initiate our own moral precepts to that extent are we human. It is a rich and very persuasive point of view.

But in the “real” world, where philosophers often stumble over the furniture, people suffer from lack of necessities for their survival. They can hardly be expected to achieve freedom in Kant’s sense. Are they then less than human? Certainly not. Further, in the face of human suffering doesn’t it behoove each of us to do what we can to alleviate that suffering and care about our fellow humans who if ignored must go without? Those who suffer from chronic malnutrition and lack of adequate clothing are not really in a position to realize their full human potential in Kant’s sense of that term. One could argue that those who lack adequate schooling cannot be said to be fully autonomous human beings, either — again, in Kant’s sense of that term. These people are too busy just trying to survive in an unfriendly world. It’s not clear that in the extreme case the chronically disadvantaged should even be held responsible for their actions. These people deserve more. And if we are in a position to provide more it would appear we have an obligation to respond by being generous.

If it is wrong to alleviate suffering because it “enslaves” those who are the recipients of our generosity (or our tax money), it is much worse to look the other way and ignore the suffering of those we might be in position to help. I would say it is the lesser of two evils, except that I fail to see that the option of helping others is in any way “evil.” Furthermore, as I look deeper into the issue I wonder whether this sort of dependence, this “enslavement” that is associated with social programs that help people in need is any different from the perfectly ordinary forms of dependence that we associate with “free market” capitalism — to wit, the dependence of the wage earner or the salaried employee on the largess of his or her employer, or even the independent business person on his or her customers. I dare say the “fat cats” at the top of the capitalistic pyramid depend on tax breaks and subsidies to help them increase their already obscene wealth. We are all tied by numerous bonds of interdependence in this or any economic system. But the major impediments to real independence, the achievement of autonomy, are poverty and ignorance. And we are in a position to do something about those if we choose to do so.

In the end I still contend that we need to rethink our take on taxation. Despite the abuses our tax money does immense good: it eliminates a great deal of human suffering and frees many people from dehumanizing conditions. Surely, these are good things.

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10 thoughts on “Enslaving Recipients

  1. I am so disgusted with the human condition that members can look at children who go to bed hungry at night, those who go without need medical care, those living in shelters or on the street through no fault of their own, and claim a measly few hundred bucks will remove their incentive and create dependency on ” welfare.” when did our hearts turn to stone, how did we lose compassion? How is all consuming greed, good, and generosity, bad?

    I can’t find your writers comment, so I am shooting a little blind here, but it appears in the worst economic times since thr great depression, people have become more cold hearted than any time in our history. We should all be ashamed. I know I am.

    • I tend to agree with you. We have become callous –as though these terrible things don’t have anything to do with us! Thanks for the comment.

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  2. I like Lis’ comment. 🙂 And this sentence made me giggle and cry at the same time, so well done: “But in the “real” world, where philosophers often stumble over the furniture, people suffer from lack of necessities for their survival.” Carlos and I went to a session of the Michael Sandel lectures last week where we talked about Kant’s theories and we did feel that he stumbled over the furniture a bit. I think we are all enslaved to the government in some way through the tax breaks we get for owning a home or our dependence on the government to protect us from crime or pave our roads or educate our children. I have a little trouble with the enslaving people living in poverty argument. Frankly, I think it is just an excuse we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better for our inactivity. Thanks for a great post, Hugh! I love that you are not afraid to take on the heavy issues and face them head-on.

    • And I love your always insightful comments! Many thanks. I received another excellent comment on the topic of “enslavement.” The notion is bogus and, as you say, something we tell ourselves to make us feel better about screwing other people! In one way or another we are all beholden to someone else and thus “slaves.” Fiddlesticks!

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  3. Great post. Welfare is also particularly valuable in times of economic recession or stagnation. Providing additional income to the needy through TANF, unemployment insurance, or similar programs, will actually increase the GDP of the economy as a whole and help to get the economy growing again. This is because the people who are eligible for social safety net programs like TANF are already so desperate for extra money that they spend whatever extra income the government provides by going to buy groceries or gas, or other goods. So what the government pays to one person as a welfare check then becomes someone else’s income at that gas station, or grocery store, or wherever. It’s a classic example of how tax revenue is most valuable when used to benefit the least fortunate.

    As for the “enslavement” argument, government payments from welfare and similar programs are almost always less than what someone could make at almost any job. The argument that someone would accept a smaller income from social programs instead of a larger income from work doesn’t hold much water.

  4. Like many, this is a complex topic that deserves far more than sound bytes from candidates and politicians. Any help has to be empowering and not enslaving. Some of the latter must occur at times, but it should be short in duration to help out in emergencies. I have referenced the book “Toxic Charity” by Bob Lupton in earlier comments. It can translate to government support as well. We have to find ways beyond the emergency aid to help people climb a ladder to self-sufficiency. That has to be done through job assistance, opportunity and development focuses, in my mind.

    Yet, we need to encourage employers to be supportive of these efforts by hiring and keeping people by looking to ways to job share, offer flex schedules, etc. One of the problems in business is few leaders know how to grow revenue, so the leaders usually resort to cuts to make their numbers. What they fail to realize they usually cut some muscle along with the fat and actually hinder their rebound. I would much rather see a company be upfront with employees and seek their input to what can be done. They may find folks willing to do what it takes to keep their colleagues.

    I realize I have blended two topics, but we need to get people back to work, but also keep them at work. Governmental subsidies to help along these two paths would be good spends. Some programs exist, but they need to be revisited to maximize utility. Great post and comments.

    • Thanks for the input. It helps expand the topic, which is good. My son also reminded me that large corporations depend on smaller businesses to survive. The notion that welfare recipients are the only ones who are dependent on others is really weak.

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