Huemer argues that “given the presumption against coercion, the [antipoverty] programs are justified only if it is clear that they have a net positive expected benefit.” (152)
At first glance, it is strange that after much excellent rights-based dissection of government actions, our author up and throws deontology out the window, saying apparently that any “net benefit” of an unjust government policy beats the prohibition of committing injustices and is permissible (or even required).
The subtlety is that his view is based on his analysis of a particular moral dilemma:
Imagine that you are passing by a pond where you see a drowning child. If you can save the child at slight cost to yourself, then it would be wrong not to do so. …
But now imagine that for whatever reason, you are unable to save the child in the pond yourself. There is, however, another bystander who could save the child at slight cost to herself.
This individual, however, does not care enough about the child to do so voluntarily. The only way to cause the child to be saved is to threaten the bystander with violence unless she saves the child. You do so, and she saves the child.
Call this the Drowning Child case. In this case, regrettable as the resort to coercion may be, it seems justified. (149)
First, as I argued before, this conclusion depends on accepting Christian as versus natural morality, a fact which in itself may threaten the conclusion’s validity, since Huemer’s book is fully secular and does not deal with religious commandments at all. Our intuitions have been shaped by two thousand years of Christianity, but unless nature and grace are thoroughly distinguished, proper grasp of these issues will elude us.
Second, even within Christian morality, the threshold to be used in the exchange of justice for welfare is personal and subjective. I need not feel that coercion is justified in the Drowning Child case, even if the author feels it is. Admittedly, this isn’t an important critique, since the desired conclusion can be reached for most people simply by increasing the number drowning children in the pond that can all be rescued simultaneously to, say, a million.
Third, the scenario assumes that “I” am a good and holy Christian (or at least Samaritan), while the bystander is a callous and wicked man. He may even know his duty full well but rejects it with contemptuous pride. Fine. But does the analogy really transfer to the welfare state? Is it the case that the congressmen who coercively impose taxes are God-fearing saints while the people are ruthless hard-hearted egotists? The benevolent authorities must crush the people’s selfishness and have sweet mercy on the poor. The people deserve to be beaten with many blows until they accept the state’s graces.
This understanding is hard to square with Huemer’s previous note, already quoted below, that “institutions of political authority” were the essential means through which monstrous crimes against humanity “have been carried out, accounting for tens of millions of deaths, along with many more ruined lives.” (109) Suddenly he deems the bombing class compassionate and eager to help the workers and the peasants?
Fourth, even if it were so, and the people were generally marked with consuming selfishness, I have argued that tax-forcing charitable donations from them defeats the purpose of charitable giving, which is to increase the charitable feelings in men’s hearts and ultimately to unite mankind with love. The government rules through fear of punishment alone, which almost entirely disqualifies it as any sort of grace-giver.
Fifth, as we will see later, Huemer himself, as I do as well, makes cogent distinctions between a one-time rescue of a person from a life-threatening situation by a friendly individual and lavish permanent welfare by a tax-eating state.