Charity Liberalism and Justice Liberalism

Should the point of liberal programs be to help the poor? Or to change the economy so that people don’t become poor?

In Thursday’s Washington Post, Catherine Rampell pointed out a subtle but important distinction that liberals should never lose sight of: Elizabeth Warren’s free-college and student-debt-relief plans, Rampell claimed, are “liberal but not progressive”, because “they give bigger benefits to higher-income families than to lower-income ones that actually need the help.” Rampell would rather see money targeted more directly at college-eligible low-income students.

This is a longstanding argument in liberal circles. On the one hand we have universal programs like Social Security, and on the other hand are targeted programs like food stamps. In an economic sense, targeted programs are more efficient at helping the poor — doing more with less. But that efficiency comes with some non-economic costs: increased red tape (you have to prove you qualify) and greater stigma for the recipients.

A universal entitlement is conceptually simpler: If you go to college, we’ll help you pay for it. But it costs more, because (as Rampell points out), we’ll be helping Bill Gates’ kids too. And since everything has to be paid for somehow, the universal program is more invasive to the pre-program economy. You have to tax more so that you can spend more.

A related (but not quite identical) distinction applies to our motives for having a program to begin with: Targeted programs have an air of charity about them. They don’t argue with the underlying structure of the economy, they just try to change the results. Do some people not make enough money to eat properly? Very well, then, we’ll give them food. We’ll leave alone whatever it is about the economy that creates unemployment or produces jobs that pay below-subsistence wages. We’ll just fix the food part.

Universal programs tend to be motivated more by notions of social justice: It isn’t just the outcome that’s wrong, it’s the fundamental structure of things. Yes, a targeted program would be a lighter-handed tweak of the underlying economy. But if the underlying economy is fundamentally unjust, why is a lighter hand good?

Rights. The reason it’s important to understand this distinction is that it’s easy for charitable and targeted-program attitudes to sneak their assumptions into a discussion. “Efficiency” always sounds good. But as soon as you start arguing about efficiency, you’ve bought the assumption that smaller changes are better. And often you’ve also bought an additional assumption about the program’s proper goal.

A universal program establishes a basic right, and re-defines the economy to fulfill it. Re-defining the economy is, in large part, the purpose of the program. The point of making public colleges free isn’t just to help the poor pay for education. The point is that public colleges ought to be free. A society in which public colleges are free is a more just society.

The same ideas apply across the board. One failing of our healthcare system is that too many people get priced out it, with corresponding effects on their ability to survive and thrive. ObamaCare targets people in danger of being priced out and subsidizes their health insurance, so it helps resolve that particular failing (or would if it were properly funded and overseen by an administration that believes in its purpose). But ObamaCare does not establish health care as a basic right.

The point of Medicare for All or some other universal-healthcare plan isn’t just to help the people who are being priced out of healthcare. The point is to make healthcare a basic right. That requires more government spending and taxing than even a fully funded ObamaCare. In that sense, it’s a “less efficient” use of the government’s fiscal powers, a heavy-handed reorganization rather than a light-handed tweak. If you believe that the current economy — where many people who work fulltime still can’t afford to take care of themselves or their children — is fundamentally just, then this heavy-handedness must seem outrageous.

But if you believe that the current economy is unjust, then changing it is a virtue, not a vice. There are efficiency/inefficiency arguments to be made at a number of levels, but the more important point is this: A society in which healthcare is a basic right is a more just society than the one we have now. The problem isn’t just that the current economy produces some downtrodden people who need charitable help from the rest of us, which we choose to channel through government. It’s that everyone should have a basic right to healthcare, and right now they don’t.

Vulnerability. Whether a plan gets framed as a basic right or as charity channeled through the government makes a huge difference in the politics. Most voters see charity-justified, means-tested programs as something the government does for “them”, not for “us”. Such generosity is fine as long as “we” are feeling prosperous and “they” seem deserving. But either of those factors can change, or can be changed through political rhetoric.

Means-tested programs are always open to forms of attack that universal programs are immune to: denigration and demonization of the beneficiaries. “Those people” don’t deserve our help because they are lazy or immoral or have made bad life choices. And usually, there’s no obvious place to draw the line: Are the best-off recipients truly in need, or are they just scamming us? Wherever the cut-off is, why shouldn’t it be lower?

If you think about it — and we seldom do — plenty of Social Security recipients fit the same profile as the demonized beneficiaries of means-tested programs: They’re healthy and could get jobs, but don’t want to. The reason conservative politicians don’t rail about their laziness and sense of entitlement is that Social Security is an “us”, not a “them”. They’d be demonizing their own voters, not some isolated scapegoat class.

But if Social Security ever became means-tested — as conservatives and a few efficiency-minded liberals often propose; I mean, what’s the point of sending government checks to Warren Buffett? — we’d soon see the same kinds of rhetoric and tactics: outrage at people who spend their benefits on luxuries, tightening requirements so that fewer and fewer people qualify (“I want to help the truly needy, but …”), and making the experience degrading and dis-spiriting with drug tests, long lines to file your annual re-applications, paternalistic restrictions on how you spend the money, and so on.

The rhetoric just writes itself: Picture all those lazy, able-bodied 60-somethings living on the beach in Florida, spending your tax dollars instead of working. They didn’t save when they were younger, and now they expect the government to make up the difference! Doesn’t that boil your blood?

Local services. You can see the same logic play out locally. In some cities everybody uses public transit. (I’ve taken the BART during rush hour in San Francisco. There were a lot of three-piece suits in the car.) Correspondingly, the service is good in those cities, because transit-riders are an “us”, not a “them”. But in cities (or even neighborhoods within cities) where only the poor use public transit, bus-riders are a “them” and you can forget about rail. In those places, buses are crowded and dirty; schedules are sparse and inconvenient.

Ditto for public schools. In towns where kids of all economic classes go to the same schools, standards are high and it’s not hard to pass a funding increase. But in towns where the public schools are for the poor, and the wealthy all send their kids to private schools, public education is a charity. What do “those people” expect the rest of “us” to provide for them?

Expect worse outcomes yet if Betsy DeVos ever gets her way and public schools are phased out entirely, in favor of private schools that accept government vouchers. The system will quickly devolve into two tiers: Schools that you can pay for solely with a voucher, and schools where the voucher only covers part of the cost. The voucher-only schools will be for the poor, and the vouchers will gradually shrink down to charity levels: Do “those kids” really need music or foreign languages? Are they capable of appreciating literature or higher mathematics? Why should we pay for more than just keeping them under control all day?

Of course, we’d never ask those questions about “our” kids. But “their” kids?

Back to Warren’s proposal. What Senator Warren proposed last week was a program to end tuition-and-fee costs for undergraduates at all public colleges and universities, and to cancel up to $50,000 of student debt. (There are a few means-tested pieces in her program, the biggest being that you’re only eligible for the full $50K if your annual family income is $100K or less, with the benefit phasing out by the time you hit $250K.)

It’s expensive. It costs $1.25 trillion over ten years. She plans to pay for it with an idea that will make plutocrats rage: a wealth tax on households with $50 million or more in assets.

So, no doubt about it, it’s a heavy-handed intervention in the economy. Rampell’s efficiency argument is correct: We could spend and tax a lot less if we carefully targeted the benefits on students who won’t be able to go to college otherwise, and calibrated the size of the benefit to correspond to their precise needs. That would achieve the effect of helping poor kids and working-class kids go to college with minimal changes to the rest of the economy. If you think the rest of the economy is just, that makes perfect sense.

But Warren’s plan does something that no efficiently targeted and calibrated plan can ever do: The option to go to college becomes a basic right. Whose kids are the beneficiaries? Everybody’s. It’s something that we are joining together to do for ourselves, not for some downtrodden “them”. The affected students are not recipients of our charity who constantly have to prove that they come from the deserving poor rather than the undeserving poor.

Socialism? South American Archbishop Dom Helder Camara once said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, hardly anybody is really a communist any more, if they ever were. Our era’s scare-word is socialism, but it means roughly what the archbishop was talking about: building a society where a certain level of dignity and opportunity is a basic right, and does not require that you meet the standards of some paternal benefactor, who can withdraw patronage if you begin to appear undeserving.

I don’t just want to maintain the well-behaved poor at some subsistence level, while the productive power of the Earth and of our complex society accumulates in a few hands. I want our collective inheritance — the planet and the productive legacy of past generations — to work for all of us. If that earns me the title of socialist, well then, so be it.

[If you want to hear more about this point of view, check out a sermon I’ve done at several churches “Who Owns the World?“]

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  • Lisa Moses  On April 29, 2019 at 9:30 am

    Thank you so much for this clear and concise explanation of the value of universal programs.

  • Tracy Flanigan  On April 29, 2019 at 9:49 am

    Thank you. As usual, you helped clarify some muddled thoughts of mine. I really appreciate your work and am so glad I found you.

  • Bert Bowe  On April 29, 2019 at 10:34 am

    Excellent article – that pointed out the issues with trying to decide who is appropriately “needy!” Very worthwhile to read…

  • Creigh Gordon  On April 29, 2019 at 10:58 am

    I think a more direct way to get to what you’re talking about in your sermon is that without society, we’d all be operating on a subsistence level; beans every day with maybe a chicken once in a while. But operating together as a society, we can do so much more. And so it is just that society takes some of the surplus it creates in order to maintain and improve itself.

  • James  On April 29, 2019 at 11:30 am

    Love your work! I guess for me I feel like the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘socialism’ are being a bit squishy here. I get that the right uses ‘socialist’ as a scare word but we don’t have to lean into it.

    Socialism would include changing society to include basic rights for dignity, but also ownership of labor and limiting power of capital. Nationalizing Healthcare would for example eliminate capitals power over healthcare, but not necessarily give ownership of production to anyone, and it’s only one industry.

    Anyway to me that’s a difference between the liberal progressives and socialists. Progressivism is not explicitly anti-capitalist (and is often specifically pro-capitalist like Warren, check out her maternity care plan for how that works).

  • James  On April 29, 2019 at 11:31 am

    Love your work! I guess for me I feel like the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘socialism’ are being a bit squishy here. I get that the right uses ‘socialist’ as a scare word but we don’t have to lean into it.

    Socialism would include changing society to include basic rights for dignity, but also ownership of labor and limiting power of capital. Nationalizing Healthcare would for example eliminate capitals power over healthcare, but not necessarily give ownership of production to anyone, and it’s only one industry.

    Anyway to me that’s a difference between the liberal progressives and socialists. Progressivism is not explicitly anti-capitalist (and is often specifically pro-capitalist like Warren, check out her maternity care plan for how that works).

  • Diana Whitney  On April 29, 2019 at 11:50 am

    This sort of clear-headed analysis is exactly what drew me to The Weekly Sift to begin with, and what keeps me coming back for more. The past few years especially, I feel so overwhelmed by the daily onslaught of hate and greed (white supremacist terrorism? attacks on moms in crisis? destruction of the freakin’ planet? ….) that I often feel just too weary to think clearly about important policy matters. I feel batted about like a weathered shuttlecock (remember those?) in a multi-player game of energetic giants. Thank you for grounding me and reminding me that we are not asking for charity but for justice.

  • Zeroth of Rationalia  On April 29, 2019 at 11:57 am

    One small quibble about the costs of universal vs means tested programs. Often the savings of a means tested program, especially in a population with large income disparities, is an illusion or strictly political rather than fiscal in nature after the costs of administering the program are accounted for.

    Paul Krugman writes on this topic often when cuts to social security and medicare.

    Secondly, while I don’t doubt than some percentage of children of the wealthy people will go to state colleges, as we saw with the admission scandal, the sions of generational wealth will go to private colleges as legacy admissions. Therefore, having these children educated out of general taxation is a relatively moot issue. (The same would be said about State primary and secondary schools)

    • weeklysift  On April 29, 2019 at 5:57 pm

      I think Rampell is thinking more about professional-class children, who are better off than most, but not the kind of people whose families will pay the wealth tax.

    • Eric L  On April 29, 2019 at 11:05 pm

      The bigger reason why the cost savings of means testing are mostly illusory is that it is a false comparison between the government spending a boatload of money under one option and pretending the cost doesn’t exist even though everyone is spending a boatload of money on it in the other. If we are considering a new benefit that I want and have the means to get already, the cost to me of making the program universal isn’t the cost of the additional taxes I’d need to pay, it’s the additional taxes minus the cost I’d otherwise pay directly for that same benefit. If you look at who actually ends up spending more money total and sum up what they spend, the cost won’t be anywhere near the total cost to the government.

      Granted this applies most strongly to things like social security, basic income, and food stamps, and applies pretty well to Obamacare subsidies, but less to universal college. This is because even with the means a lot of people wouldn’t want college or wouldn’t want the same amount of it. There’s also the transitional issue where at first it will largely be paid for by people who will never get the benefit. That said adults may not view it that way if they are expecting to pay for their children’s tuition and at this point I think most people with the means go to college, so the cost to the government of a universal program still overstates the total cost by a lot.

  • Louisa Beal  On April 29, 2019 at 1:08 pm

    Hi, Doug

    I am manager of a new LPFM community radio station.  Our mission: *Radio Tacoma is a low-power FM public access radio station developed to serve Tacoma, Washington, to provide our community with the opportunity for participatory democracy and to provide a voice for progressive groups, union members, minority groups and local talent that might otherwise not get heard.*

    I would love to create a weekly program to get your blog on air. Would it be OK with you for me to read your blog and give credit and links to you?

    Thank you for your consideration,

    Louisa Beal

    Executive Director

    Radio Tacoma  KTAH-LP 101.9 FM

  • Raymond Horton  On April 29, 2019 at 1:32 pm

    Could I obtain permission to give your sermon at the umc church where I am minister of music?

    Raymond Horton Composer/Arranger Minister of Music, Edwardsville (IN) United Methodist Church Retired Bass Trombonist, Louisville Orchestra, 1970-2016


  • curiousdk  On April 29, 2019 at 1:35 pm

    Great article. Another way of looking at this problem is to devise a definition of a society’s infrastructure. We usually define it as highways, transportation, natural resources, etc. as responsibilities of the government in order to have a well-operational society. The cost of the society’s infrastructure is spread across society.

    Other countries define education and health as part of society’s infrastructure and that is why they are “free” to the citizens. Society cannot be strong unless it has a well-educated society. Society cannot be strong unless it has a healthy society. Thus, education and health are considered part of the government’s infrastructure and the cost is not through middle-men such as insurance companies, nor through private institutions such as private (or semi-private) colleges. Education and health both build a society.

    I have never had children, yet I have paid school taxes all my life. Why? Because I believe that we owe it to our children (our own, or others) to be well-educated.

    David Kimball

  • Graham Thorburn  On April 29, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    As an Australian currently visiting the USA (as I do regularly), I’m constantly amazed by the binary view you (or perhaps just your media and politicians) take of the idea of socialism, whereas in practice there is a continuum between socialism and capitalism, and even the USA has aspects of socialism in its economy – and I’m not talking about ObamaCare. Arguably the recent tariffs applied by the current administration are a form of socialism – making the rest of the economy pay extra in order to protect inefficient industries and the populations dependent on them certainly isn’t pure capitalism. Though of course the majority of American socialism is corporate socialism – in particular the billions you pour into the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned against gives rise to all the worst characteristics of rampant socialism. On the other hand, countries with more community-focused socialism in their mix generally report happier inhabitants. I wouldn’t want to be rich and sick in America, let alone poor and sick. And yet, in a recent discussion on CNN about ‘Bernie Sanders, the hypocritical socialist’ (because his book sales had made him a millionaire, and he was arguing for higher taxes all the wealthy, rather than donating all his wealth to charity) the Republican participant kicked off by saying ‘We all agree that socialism is a disaster,’ to which both his Democrat ‘opponent’ and the convener nodded in furious agreement. Exactly what you’re talking about.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On April 29, 2019 at 4:53 pm

    The fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals view society as a community, while conservatives view it as a collection of individuals. Can’t afford college? Well, since the only reason to go to college is to get a better job and make more money, society has no reason to help you with that than it does to subsidize your playing the stock market. Can’t afford health care? Tough luck, that’s your problem. Can’t afford day care? Well, maybe you shouldn’t have had kids. Liberals on the other hand see things like an educated and healthy populace as good in itself, something that society should contribute to because it benefits all. Conservatives only see these as annoying hobbies that some people engage in and have the audacity to demand the rest of us subsidize.

    This is why debates over these issues are futile – you’re not going to convince someone that your plan for universal health coverage is good if they don’t think that’s a worthy goal. The only solution is to motivate enough people on our side to vote and install politicians who will put these programs in place.

  • katherinemurtaugh  On April 30, 2019 at 10:04 am

    Thank you for your clarity. I really appreciate your writing.

    Kathy Murtaugh

  • Martin malone  On May 6, 2019 at 3:29 pm

    I think it was harry truman, in a defense of social security, who said “Programs for the poor quickly become poor programs.” I may not have the quote exactly right, but his point sums this up nicely. Thanks again for your clear thinking.


  • By Separation of Powers | The Weekly Sift on April 29, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    […] week’s featured posts are “Charity Liberalism and Justice Liberalism” and “Impeachment: On second thought […]

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