Kindness And Cruelty (2005 Feb)

by Barry A. Liebling

A conventional bromide compares the principles of capitalism to those of the welfare state. Both advocates of capitalism and those who would like to see it expire agree that capitalism is superb at generating wealth. The problem with capitalism, according to the bromide, is that it is heartless, cruel, lacking in compassion. The principles of the welfare state are not particularly effective at generating wealth, and socialist societies are notorious for lagging far behind in material riches. However, according to this view, the welfare state is kind, compassionate, caring, and filled with benevolent sentiments.

For a long time the advocates of mixed economies have repeated this cliche and have said that the solution to the problem is “the third way” – harness the incentives for production that are part of capitalism and blend them with the humanitarian sentimentality of welfare state programs. In essence, they are urging the government to “redistribute wealth” and label this as “benevolent.”

Naive defenders of capitalism, as well as its covert enemies, do not question the soundness of the platitude. However, the notion that capitalism is inherently cruel while welfare state policies are motivated by kindness is wrong headed. In fact, the underlying assumptions of capitalism are benevolent toward human beings while the basic arguments for the welfare state are explicitly cynical and coercive.

How can you recognize whether a policy is kind or cruel? An essential requirement for an action to count as benevolent is that it must respect individual rights. Every person is the legitimate owner of his or her own life. When you deal with others you must not violate their rights, even as they must not violate yours. A necessary condition for benevolent dealings is that they occur by voluntary mutual consent.

Benevolent dealings are characterized by both parties acting of their own free will – without coercion or the threat of coercion. By contrast, dealings that are based on physical force or physical threats are never benevolent. Force and threats of force are tactics that are appropriate for encounters with enemies and have no place in civil, friendly relations.

How does this relate to capitalism and welfare state policies? The philosophy of capitalism is based on the recognition of individual rights. The first rule of a principled capitalist is to deal only by mutual consent. In a capitalist setting people have the opportunity to act ethically, to treat one another with respect, and to develop mutual affection.

The doctrine of the welfare state is based on coercion. Individuals do not have natural rights to their own lives. Instead they are “owned” by society, or the state, and are the instuments of society’s “representatives” – government officials. In a welfare state system each individual has permanent chattel status. To a welfare state advocate people who act autonomously are viewed with suspicion since proper behaviors are supposed to be induced and enforced by government decree.

Advocates of the welfare state attempt to disguise their underlying nature – do what I say or suffer physical consequences – by mislabeling coercive acts as “kind and caring.” Take note that the welfare state proponents are quick to discount or to denounce voluntary actions while praising force. For example, if Jane Doe decides to give a hungry stranger some money she may be kind or she may have some hidden ulterior motive. By contrast, if Mary Contrary urges her government to force everyone to surrender money for a new tax to feed strangers, Mary is praised as being kind hearted, benevolent, and socially conscious.

When someone tells you that capitalism is heartless, but that the welfare state – or “the third way” – is kind, take them to task. Pay attention to the misanthropic actions of the welfare state. Explain that anyone who uses force for achieving goals is disqualified from claiming benevolence.

Capitalism sets the stage where people can be kind and benevolent to one another. The recognition of individual rights is a necessary condition for compassionate sentiments. To be sure, free individuals may or may not act properly. Some people will never be nice, regardless of the type of political system they inhabit.

In contrast, there is no kindness in the doctrine of the welfare state. Its starting point is that individuals have no right to live for themselves and should be compelled to comply with official directives. The philosophy underlying the welfare state is inherently brutish since it cynically views individuals as tools for achieving the goals of those with governmental power.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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