Welfare State vs. Drowning Child

I describe and analyze the Drowning Child case in the previous post. Huemer proceeds to make the following distinctions between that and welfare statism which he dubs “Charity Mugging”:

a) In the Charity Mugging, the problem you seek to address is a chronic social condition, whereas in the Drowning Child, the problem is an acute emergency. …

b) In the Drowning Child case, one can easily and quickly solve the problem, whereas in the Charity Mugging case, one can realistically hope only to alleviate the problem.

c) In the Drowning Child case, the coercion required to address the problem is a one-time intervention, whereas in the Charity Mugging, it is an ongoing program of coercion. (155)

He adds in a footnote that Peter Unger objects to (a) that the only difference is that the victims of a “chronic problem” “have been suffering for a longer time; but this surely cannot lessen the reasons for helping victims of chronic problems.” (156n)

As it happens, I discuss this problem in my book. The requisite passages are below.


Utilitarians like Peter Unger who harp on our alleged duties to the poor in faraway lands fail to grasp the details of their own moral theory. For the demands of utilitarianism are hierarchical. At the base lies the prescription to make a society (or the world as a whole) as efficient as possible. There are very few truly needy in rich and successful societies.

The second tier is private charity, voluntarily discharged duties to help the poor, the widows and orphans, the church, and suchlike. The reason why there is a lexicographical priority is that it is worse than useless to throw charitable donations into a society that cannot but remain poor because of its abhorrence of capitalism. First, the citizens must learn economics and cooperate according to its teachings. Only then, with respect to abandoned infants, the incapacitated, and so on, will charity play its indispensable role. One must first teach the vast majority to fish and give fish only to those who cannot produce.

A reply to Unger’s Living High and Letting Die then is that unless the poor countries put themselves together and on their own eliminate poverty for the general population, flooding them with foreign aid or charitable donations is futile. If we want to help, then we should send them economics teachers who will explain to them what’s what. Only once laissez-faire capitalism is accepted and implemented, and the standard of living is rising rapidly, will it make sense to care for the sick, the dying, and so on. When the masses are dying from hunger or live on the brink of starvation or barely subsisting, there can be no talk about helping the few deserving poor, because everyone is poor.

Again, what “they” need is not charity but a solid grounding in economics and libertarianism. It is contrary to utilitarianism for the failed nations to leech off the successful ones: must not “they” cooperate with “us” honestly? Paying people for not producing diminishes overall wealth and happiness. Unger postulates second-tier duties to “us,” while forgetting about first-tier duties to “them.” If it is objected that they cannot in principle help themselves, then I reply that in that case, they for all intents and purposes are not human, and we have no duty to feed them, just as we have no duty to feed wild animals.

I agree that it is a scandal that many people in Third World countries are malnourished. But “we” are not responsible for that. Left-liberals, for all their coercive “compassion,” think that the Africans, etc. are an embarrassment to humanity. In a way, they are right: it is their flaws that cause their poverty. That does not mean that we should be treating them as subhumans who (we have decided) cannot take care of themselves.

Not only does acting on our alleged second-tier duties tempt them to violate their first-tier duties, but if the latter were fulfilled, then the former might disappear entirely, because the givers, “we,” in Unger’s cases, are too far away which violates the subsidiary principle which may have some authority even for a utilitarian. Why should an American help the beggars in Africa and not someone closer to them by location, kinship, language, etc.? It should not be a “burden” to be a “white man.” …

The third tier is paternalism. If everything fails, and a person’s powers incline to evil, then those powers must be temporarily taken away, until such time when he will learn to use them responsibly.

Thus, taking what seems to me everything in account, utilitarianism is promoted by (1) a social system of efficient laws which create such incentives as to make individual profit and the good of society (or common good) to harmonize with each other, i.e., making society prudent; (2) teaching people how to succeed in their personal undertakings, i.e., making individuals prudent within that prudent society; and (3) prescribing certain limited, imperfect in the Kantian sense, and voluntarily discharged duties, such as helping the poor or donating to the church, that redistribute resources within the social values scale (insofar as love of friendship entails merging of the values scales of the lovers) to satisfy the most urgent needs, i.e., remedying situations in which the prudence of an individual fails through no fault of his own (essentially bad luck). (SAtK, I, 42)


Regarding (a), it is plain that the chronic problem of the poor’s poverty is a normal, settled, and expected state of affairs. An acute emergency on the contrary is a significant disturbance in the regular course of life. Moreover, the poor bear full responsibility for their contemptible (allegedly chronic) poverty and remain the very people who must through their own efforts lift themselves up. An acute emergency is different in that without further details we assume that the drowning child is in grave danger to his life through no fault of his own. For example, the situation would be relevantly different if we knew that the same child insisted on drowning himself anew every day.

In addition, “poverty” is not the same as an imminent threat to life. As I argue in a brief discussion of rescues, “Even if a person is seriously disabled and has no one who loves him to care for him, a charitable organization is by the nature of its mission not obligated to do more than sustain his physical life. It is not required to feed him pomegranate juice.”

This brings us to point (b).

What explains the fact that the Starving African Adults continue having Starving African Children? Are they crazy? Are they really animals? Regardless, feeding the Starving Children through “charity” will soon enough result in more of them. Surely, the givers would be perfectly justified in this case in imposing strict population control measures upon the Africans up to and including mass sterilizations. But this sort of treatment is inhuman according to natural morality and disgusting according to Christian morality. Whites and blacks are, after all, members of the same species. The extreme separation between the human whites and subhuman blacks cannot be sustained in the longer run. “Charity” does nothing to narrow the gap in dignity and honor between the races.

Thus, feeding a Starving Child indeed “alleviates” the problem and only for a few hours. The child appears to have no parents who will care for him, or if he does, then they, too, are starving. The entire operation is a massive exercise in futility.

Point (c) follows.

Unger claims that utilitarianism commands “us” to enslave ourselves — and our posterity — for the rest of our lives to foreign wretches, to some insatiable maw that devours resources without even bothering to utter “thanks.” “We” must allegedly sacrifice our own lives and ends to serve the dark Starving African demon-god. I think any reasonable man will reject this outrageous demand. Nor does utilitarianism mandate or recommend it.

In short, the welfare state is nonsense.

Unworkability of Anarcho-Capitalism

The most obvious problem with the “protection agencies” version of free market anarchism in Huemer is that it merely pushes the main problem up one level without solving it. Let there be in a certain stateless city X 1 million people. This situation is presumably intolerable because of the endless mutual slaughter and destruction, a Hobbesian war of all against all. Huemer argues that private protection agencies will arise to provide security to the populace. Let there now be in addition in X 1 thousand such agencies. Assuming that reign of chaos between the individuals is prevented, why wouldn’t there continue to be the exact same orgy of mass murder and looting between the agencies? Huemer is apparently content with the argument that violence is “costly.” But if it is costly, then why do we need the protection agencies in the first place? The individuals, too, should realize the cost to them of unjust violence and abstain from it without any protection by bigger and more powerful organizations.

If violence is costly, then we don’t need protection agencies; if violence is often profitable, then we should expect the protection agencies in engage in violence — both against each other and against their “customers” — at least as often as the unprotected individuals would.

Government makes for a qualitatively different situation. The objection is not that violence ought not to be traded; the situation of Smith’s hiring Jones to assassinate Robinson is no worse than that of Smith’s doing the dirty deed himself. Cops are paid for their services, too, after all. It is that society as a whole cannot dispense with commissioning an agency of coercion and compulsion that is more powerful than any identifiable subgroup within that society, including Smith and Jones, except the society as a whole or its representatives. The government can crush with ease any person or organization within its jurisdiction. The problem of mutual battling, whether of millions of individuals or of thousands of gangs, is nipped in the bud. The problem of preventing the government from aggressing against the people, of course, remains. In Chapter 9, Huemer considers the various devices for controlling state aggression, such as “popular elections, a free press, constitutional limits, and the separation of powers,” (228) and finds them lacking. He is right about that, but the issue comes down to libertarian ideology and decentralization which together can largely defang the state.

Protection agencies anarchism creates yet another problem: the unjust aggression of the agencies against their own customers. The customers of a protection agency will have trouble uniting and defending against their own protectors, if the agency starts preying on them as individuals. An individual does not choose an agency to protect him, as if it were an insurance company; rather, the agency chooses individuals to victimize. Smith cannot say: you people of P, Inc. are robbers; I am switching to Q, Inc. Q will not care to protect him; it will evaluate whether P is strong enough to retain Smith as a victim, a sheep that it exploits. If P seems powerful, then Q will be uninterested in dealing with Smith in any capacity; otherwise, Q may try to conquer P and take the spoils of war, namely, Smith as a serf, especially if Smith is a young woman, for itself.

If agency A is able to harm Smith justly, such as by punishing him appropriately for a crime, then it is also able to harm him unjustly. Conversely, if A cannot harm Smith unjustly (such as because he is protected by agency B), then it will lack the power to harm him justly, as well. A local libertarian government, on the other hand, can harm Smith justly but is for the most part restricted by various clever tricks from harming him unjustly. A protection agency, as a private business, is answerable solely to its owners not the commonwealth or the legislative branch of the government. As one of the toughest firms out there, unless restrained by the entire citizen body, it will be able to use unjust violence against anyone with impunity while keeping its owners safe against any retaliation. In the end, the biggest and baddest gangs will wreak havoc over all the land, and the long struggle against tyranny and for freedom will begin again… from the very beginning.

Huemer believes that “competition” will discipline the agencies in the absence of the artifices of limiting government. But the competition is precisely the original state of nature. We are trying to get out of it, which means we cannot simply up and define it as adequate.

There is a further difficulty. Even if the police by their very nature are a monopoly, it is at this point still conceivable that several companies will be competing to protect a community. But there are two problems with this. First, a big business able to protect two hundred towns will be far too powerful to be controlled by any one town. Such a business would be essentially an army, able (and likely willing) to overpower any municipality. Second, it seems to be a great deal more efficient, instead of firing one entire police force and hiring a brand new one, simply to hold regular elections of the mayor who will then have the mandate to implement whatever reforms of police procedures are desired by the people. For example, the new mayor may forbid hiring ex-military.

There is still the possibility of letting people voluntarily “subscribe” to police enforcement services or withhold their patronage. The subscribers can call upon the police to enforce arbitration decision that have been made in their favor; the non-subscribers are out of luck, because private uses of violence cannot be tolerated, lest there would be endless outbreaks of private wars. (The whole point of monopoly policing is to suppress such wars by threatening to crush the would-be warriors with overwhelming force.) A market is thereby created in the place of a government-provided service, seemingly a happy development. But there are complications that seriously devalue this market.

First, subscriptions produce positive externalities: the more people subscribe without the criminals knowing exactly who is and who is not subscribed, the greater the deterrence effect will be. It is somewhat like concealed carry: every subscription helps one’s neighbor by creating uncertainty in the criminal’s mind. This might be a case for subsidizing police subscriptions, if we were not dealing with the problem precisely of funding the police in the first place and assuming that the government collects pretty much no taxes for anything else.

Second, specifically for criminal cases, the district attorney obviously has his own “subscription” and can file a complaint of his own. But no particular individual but society as a whole benefits from punishments administered (as opposed to restitutions or civil lawsuits won). The benefit of any actual punishment now is the public and visible reinforcement of the threat of punishment to future potential evildoers who, seeing the efficiency of the state at punishing crimes, are deterred from injustice through servile fear. This creates a presumption for public financing of criminal prosecutions.

Third, as a matter of common sense, it is absurd to cut oneself off from the justice system by refusing to subscribe. Anyone can prey on such a person, and he will not be able to get his verdicts enforced for him. He is almost an outlaw.

Therefore, most communities decide to solve these problems with one stroke by insuring everybody and requiring universal subscriptions. There is admittedly some coercion involved, but it is minimal, and the benefits seem to outweigh the costs. The contradiction is real and unfortunate; but let justice be done unless the heavens fall.

Whither Punishment?

A particularly interesting part of Huemer’s book is his discussion of restitution and punishment. He points out that “it is thought that society as a whole benefits from this practice because it… deters others from entering a life of crime.” And he follows Rothbard in (1) finding it absurd that taxpayers are forced to pay the costs of incarceration and (2) believing that “a thief, for example, would have to pay back significantly more than the value of what he stole. This would provide a deterrent to crime.” (272ff) Rothbard affirms the necessity of punishment but argues that punishment beyond pure restitution, the 2nd tooth of the criminal for the victim’s tooth should be forced labor to profit the victim.

I don’t like this. The criminal law is not a means for victims to enrich themselves. They are owed restitution, not any further spoils of victimhood. We don’t need any extra incentives to alleged victims for frivolous lawsuits. In addition, forced slave labor is very inefficient and cannot realistically be used to provide restitution.

Huemer has another argument up his sleeve. Prisons are

regularly overcrowded, and inmates live in danger of gang violence, rape by other prisoners, beatings from guards and other prisoners, and other forms of abuse. … In recent years, the use of solitary confinement has become increasingly common, a practice that leads to mental deterioration on the part of the prisoner and higher rates of recidivism once the convict is released. …

Some observers have argued that incarceration not only fails to rehabilitate criminals but actually renders them more dangerous when released than they were when they entered. … Some have gone so far as to suggest that incarceration may cause more crime than it prevents. (283-4)

If true, this condemns imprisonment as a form of punishment. But it cannot eliminate the need for punishment altogether. Consider even a basic civil dispute. Unlike a criminal case, there is a genuine uncertainty as to which party is right. Smith the tenant claims that Jones the landlord owes him his security deposit. Jones disagrees. They go before a judge who rules in Smith’s favor. Yet Jones refuses to pay. The civil case has now transmogrified into a criminal case, where Jones with a malicious intent has stolen Smith’s money. Another judge orders Jones to be fined. Jones ignores it. Judge #3 issues a warrant for Jones’ arrest. And so on the sanctions are ratcheted up, until the cops physically restrain Jones and punish him somehow. If imprisonment fails as an adequate punishment, then perhaps Jones should be beaten or put into stocks or something else. But punishment remains the state’s sole prerogative and its ultimate power.

I therefore still think that there must be a single authority endowed with an irresistible power to punish offenders, and that is what we call the “state.”

Pacifism Is the Proper Foreign Policy

Each citizen, Smith, ruled by any state S should demand as a matter of ideology unconditional foreign policy pacifism on the part of S. There shall be, he should insist, no standing military forces of any kind, nor should the state defend itself against any foreign aggression.

Let now some state T led by ruthless dictator Jones invade, decapitate the S’s chief, install Jones as ruler, and bring foreign mercenaries as the new military.

No “defense” should be attempted. Still less ought Smith to be conscripted by S to defend S and the existing ruler. S’s price of power is precisely its vulnerability to be conquered.

Instead, Smith, when things settle down, and T gets down to the daily grind of governing, even if perhaps with a heavier hand, should continue influencing the new government, T and Jones in particular, toward complete pacifism, disarmament, and retrenchment.