Looking at the strategy of conservatives and libertarians in the United States, one can plainly see welfare activism is a strong focus. But is this the most important topic to promote the free market? We promote the ideas of the free market in order to bring about human flourishing and prosperity, but are welfare programs the main obstacle holding us back from our full potential in trade? I think not. Actually, I think that focusing on this, instead of other facets of the economy, is quite dangerous.
People generally join welfare programs for one of two reasons: 1) they need it to put food on the table. That is to say that they truly need it to survive either because of some disability, some unfortunate circumstance, or what have you. And 2) they see a profit of some kind. This is to say that they see they can make some kind of cash value with doing minimal work or less work then they would need to do otherwise to make that cash. Both are noble causes. In the market we are all trying to both survive and profit. It is what motivates us to fulfill our own wants and needs.
However, those that are for the free market generally demonize those that use these programs. This is a flaw in strategy and in principle. Most of those that promote the ideas of liberalism and the market say that we are all self-interested and we all take actions to advance ourselves and meet our goals. Why is this any different from those that use welfare programs? They are doing exactly what we say is natural. They are either seeking survival or profit or both.
Generally, the response to this is that people who use welfare are not mutually benefiting those around them. Mutual benefit is a natural consequence of market action, but it is not the goal of the actors in a market. When an entrepreneur sells his product or service, they are not intending to benefit those around them from their service, but they do regardless. This follows the logic of the popular Adam Smith quote about the baker not selling his labor and products for the good of his customers, but instead for his own self interest. The mutual benefit between the baker and his customers is simply happy coincidence that should be expected from voluntary action.
The same motivation is behind the actions of those that enroll in welfare programs. The only difference is that mutual benefit (a positive sum gain) doesn’t result from the transaction. The transaction is neutral sum. Value is taken from one and given to another in similar amounts. Someone benefits the exact same amount that someone is negated. However, this is not because of the actions of those that are enrolled. They are doing vaguely the same thing as the baker in the Adam Smith quote. They are taking a tally on the environment or setting they are in and choosing an option that is open to them that gives them the best profit (or the perceived best profit). Therefore the issue doesn’t lie in the receiver, but the taker and giver. The taker and giver in this scenario is obviously the government agency that facilitates the program.
Demonizing the welfare recipient ignores key principles of the liberal philosophy (particularly that people are self-interested) and is clearly bad strategy. The free market is what could help these recipients the most. Yet they are ostracized from the ideas by bombastic and fiery conservatives and libertarians that accuse them of laziness, idleness, or what have you. They aren’t lazy. They are self-interested.
However, there is one more key flaw to fighting welfare programs as a free market supporter. Though, it rests in a strategic hypothetical. What if the market cannot bear the introduction of unemployed or partially employed welfare recipients? What if there are not enough jobs in a particular area? What if the market doesn’t meet demand? People would suffer immensely. In a world with no welfare programs, these people could potentially starve if there isn’t a charity willing to give them support. This should be unacceptable to all people promoting the ideas of freedom and liberty. Not only think of the direct human suffering, but imagine how quickly people will demonize the ideas of the free market if just one person that used to be on welfare starved. The proponents of socialism and immense state control would flourish and our hope of liberty will be lost. We would have won, temporarily, the fight against the welfare state only to lose in the long run not only the welfare fight, but most likely every other fight for more freedom.
This is not to say that libertarians and conservatives should end the fight against the welfare state. It is an abomination and one that creates networks of dependency to the state. This is to say that this fight should be put on a backburner of sorts and we should focus on creating a market environment that would be guaranteed to support these people when welfare is removed.
This means fighting the regulatory state. The regulatory state suffocates our markets to a degree that forces otherwise productive people to be enrolled into welfare programs. I think of licensing laws that force people that want to do something as simple as braiding hair to get a permit. I imagine there are a handful of people that would love (or at least could) braid hair for money, but cannot due to a long, laborious permitting process. I think of licensing laws for florists, coffin makers, and hair dressers. I understand that we all want beautiful bouquets and great haircuts, but to create huge permitting processes for these professions is ludicrous. It isolates people from our markets and forces people into welfare programs.
While I see libertarians, in part, focus on the regulatory state, not so much can be said about conservatives who believe in the free market. The Republican Party’s main focus for years has been cutting welfare. There is hardly a word to be said about regulation, at least on the national stage. Perhaps they have their own strategy that I am not seeing. While libertarians have, in part, had some focus on regulation, they are not perfect in this either. As it goes, libertarians will generally parrot that of their conservative free market allies, even if only to form a coalition.
To me, this is not an arm chair discussion either. This is not simply a whimsical conversation about how I want libertarians or conservatives to act. I truly believe this distinction is the difference between fulfilling a more free society, and the possible end of liberalism in the United States. If free market advocates win the fight against welfare, the long-term results could be devastating for the free market. If free market advocates lose the fight against welfare, they will have only wasted their time as the government continues to grow. If free market supporters shift the fight to regulation instead of welfare, we could have the potential to win both fights.