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More about me slowly coming to (always temporary) conclusions in :

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For a long time, I failed to define a clear line between fair, necessary, humane benefits on the one hand, and greedy, opportunistic, unjustified rent-seeking on the other.

More recently I settled on a heuristic that I find just, and that is fairly simple to apply:

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First of all, I establish

  • a universal, absolute threshold for human well-being (enough food, reasonable shelter, basic medical treatment, physical safety), and
  • the moral obligation of society as a whole to help those who find themselves below that threshold, for whatever reason,
  • for as many people as necessary, for as long as necessary, and regardless of the cost in taxes.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a long-time beneficiary of social benefits already, a former billionaire who recklessly burned all their cash, a chronic tax-evader, or an unrepentant serial killer: if you are starving, have no roof, or suffer from illness or violence — and you do not have the resources to remedy your situation — and you have not unequivocally rejected the assistance of society — then it is not only moral but mandatory that our taxes be directed towards lifting you out of that dire state and back into human dignity.

That’s the unconditioned baseline for welfare benefits.

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What about needs up and beyond that basic threshold? To give a few examples: predictable, regular cash flows from retirement until death (public pensions); subsidies for IVF or child care; public study grants; tokens for public transport; subsidised campsites or holidays; everything having to do with “culture” or sports (coupons for book shops, concerts, museums, sport centres, sport clubs).

For those, I draw a line between situations of necessity that are caused by events mostly outside the control of the person, and those for which the person is much to “blame”. I am all for taxes to fund the former, and zero for the latter.

So: individual responsibility, and the predictability of the (bad) outcome, are my deciding criteria.

Here go a few examples:

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A single parent who finds themselves struggling to raise their offspring while at the same time enjoying themselves the small luxuries of modern life (tourism, Netflix, eating out, a new car, a gym membership). If they are a single parent because their spouse died or left, leaving them with precarious income, they should get some benefits to help them make ends meet. If, on the other hand, they decided to raise kids without a partner in the first place, they are not morally entitled to anyone else’s money.

A new retiree who suddenly can’t afford more than the basics and has to lead a monastic life until death. If that person had miserable jobs all their life and still managed to be frugal and save a bit for retirement, society owes them a chunk now, since their misfortune was not their fault and they made responsible use of the bad cards they were dealt. If, on the other hand, that person used to be well-off and had the resources to invest on their own retirement plan, but was reckless enough to live hand to mouth instead, then a monastic life is all they get, in all fairness (no assistance from the rest of society).

Someone who is unemployed. If they are unemployed because they are handicapped, belong to a marginalised group, suffered an important workplace accident, have a very low IQ, etc, then society should fund a reasonable life for them (ie, above the minimum threshold). If, on the other hand, that person is lazy or unconscientious, or too picky when offered a job, then food, clothing and shelter is all they are entitled to get from the rest of society.

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I realise many cases won’t be easy to adjudicate. But that’s a problem with our current welfare laws, too.

It shouldn’t be too difficult for the State to collate all the relevant data they hold for each person and feed it to an algorithm which in many cases would produce a fairly confident result. Think work history, tax returns, residency, health indicators, race, education, reports from social workers, property owned, investments, criminal record, etc. A good chunk of the population are clearly “privileged” or “dispossessed” by looking at these metrics.

Expressed this way, it sounds eerie and inhumane. I’m just describing the logic of it here. Of course, there still would be judges, social workers, recourse, and exceptions involved — just as in the current system. But I feel this general guidance would deliver as well if not better than the current system, while decreasing rent-seeking and public expenditure (taxes).

Thoughts?

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Addendum (lest I should be accused of utopian over-simplification):

Yes, chance plays a huge role in life outcomes. Yes, the past, which we can’t control (heritage, inheritance, the womb, childhood) is decisive, too. Yes, even conscious life decisions are strongly constrained by circumstances and by the information available at the time.

Yes, free will might be but an illusion.

I just want to stress that all the above holds true in our current welfare systems, too.

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@tripu you are just restating the obvious except the control freaky starts to show with the “I can’t decide, so let our new overlord youtube algorithm do it”.

oh no, i’m not inhumane I still want social workers
sure 1 social worker per 100 000 of potential beneficiaries, and you don’t get an audience unless the proverbial algorithm deems you worthy. It serves no purpose other than cutting costs by treating people as commodity. And that’s your only take in these entire thread.

@tripu I think your argument fails at the premise: can you objectively demonstrate the "universal threshold for human well-being"? If not, it's subjective and you will have to impose your will upon others that don't agree with your arbitrary threshold, by force.

@tripu That is why Libertarianism proposes a set of minimal rules to have a stable society. Each person is then free to establish voluntary contracts above that minimum to establish any kind of society they want. You can have a communist commune in a libertarian society, but you cannot use force to keep people inside (good luck).

@fidel

The impossibility of “objectively [demonstrating] the ‘universal threshold for human well-being’” does not destroy my reasoning, I think.

Two arguments:

@fidel

1. Many other moral rules that I (and I think most human beings) hold true do not have clear, objective cut-off measures or thresholds — but that does not utterly invalidate them.

I (and most people) believe that interrupting procreation by force one minute after intercourse is OK, but that doing so one day before the due date of the child is wrong. There might not be an instant in time where the act switches from morally acceptable to morally wrong. So what.

I (and most people) believe that an adult having sex with a newborn is wrong, but that sex with some who is 30 or older is OK. There might not be an age where the act switches from monstrous to normal. So what.

etc.

@fidel

2. Even the most staunch sceptic/relativist/rigorous critic would agree to an absolute minimum for that threshold, don’t you think? If you think my assessment (whatever it is) is too generous, divide it by ten. Can we agree on that, at least?

Imagine a person who is ill and malnourished to the point where any doctor would predict their death in a matter of hours if they don’t receive assistance. Or a person with chronic pain who lives in constant agony but doesn’t have the resources to afford painkillers, anaesthesia nor euthanasia.

Do you believe in the moral obligation of society, or of the Sate, or of you personally (Fidel Ramos) to somehow help that complete stranger who is staring you in the eye?

If your answer is “yes”, you agree with me in that there’s at least a minuscule baseline for human dignity that imposes moral obligations in others to help. There’s the hole in your Libertarian absolutism.

If you answer “no”, then there’s a much wider gulf between our philosophies than I thought.

@tripu I believe in that moral obligation to a point, but I don't think it's right to impose that obligation on anybody else. However I can choose not to associate with people of low moral character: I can refuse to do business with them, refuse them access to my private property or refuse to support them in any way. But I cannot force them violently to behave the way I want them to behave, as long as they don't actively harm anybody else.

@fidel

One more point where I think you’re wrong:

You are right in that forcing an action upon others is in principle morally wrong (eg, nobody should force you, in principle, to donate money to the poor). But forcing an inaction is equally wrong in principle. This is how I think your reasoning actually imposes inaction upon others:

Imagine three people:

  • A is the most privileged person imaginable (say, Jeff Bezos),
  • Z is the most miserable and helpless human being, and
  • Y is someone who is slightly above Z, but still basically destitute and resourceless.

The three people stumble upon each other. A sees without a doubt that Z is in agony and on the brink of a horrific death, but A is utterly selfish and decides to give Z nothing, not even a glass of water from his Olympic pool. Y contemplates the scene, and feels the moral obligation to steal a dollar, or a banana, or a paper clip (since Y doesn’t even have that to spare) from A (exerting no violence upon him) and to give it to Z to somehow remedy their plight, or even save their life, at least temporarily.

I bet you that the vast majority of human beings (including the sub-groups of ethicist and political philosophers) would agree with Y and defend his “altruistic theft”.

Your absolutist , on the other hand, would impose inaction on Y and condemn/prosecute/ban that behaviour.

@tripu I think this "altruistic theft" you speak of is a slippery slope to justify socialism. It's a short step from stealing just a dollar to feed the poor to the massive taxes we have today. It's all for the "common good". Well I don't think it is for the common good.

@fidel

You are joking, right?

In my thought experiment I painted what is literally the most justifiable case for compulsory — one where the decrease in wealth and well-being for a person being “taxed” is indistinguishable from zero, while the benefit to an utterly helpless recipient is enormous (the difference between life and death, no less). Even you “believe in that moral obligation to a point”.

…and yet you worry that admitting so much, and defending a system where that absolute minimum of redistribution is somehow “imposed” on people, could easily lead to what is (again, literally) the most extreme case the world has ever seen of forced redistribution (ie, , ).

“It’s a short step from stealing just a dollar to feed the poor to the massive taxes we have today.”

No, it’s not. It’s a huge leap.

duckduckgo.com/?q=slippery+slo

@tripu A slippery slope is not always a fallacy. You present an extreme case which cannot happen, and if granted then what would be the next step?

Previously you established:

> a universal, absolute threshold for human well-being [...] and the moral obligation of society as a whole to help those who find themselves below that threshold

This makes me believe your argument would lead to enough compulsory taxation and redistribution to fund that level of welfare. That is the slippery slope.

@tripu That being said, I'm also pragmatic. We cannot switch from our >50% GDP states to 0% overnight, not even in decades. So we would need to plan a transition. If we agree that the end goal would be ~0% public welfare, because everybody is wealthy enough to have their necessities covered, then I believe we could agree on a concrete plan on how to achieve it, based on reducing the size of the state and increasing wealth for everybody.

@fidel

I don’t think that expecting everybody to be “wealthy enough to have their necessities covered” is “pragmatic”.

I believe in progress, too. But precisely because I’m pragmatic I assume fallible individuals, misfortune, illness, disasters, etc.

Even in a very wealthy and egalitarian society there’ll be people who find themselves destitute, maimed, threatened… People who give birth to a sextuplet, who are born predisposed to sabotage their own lives (addiction, self-harm), who lose all their family members at a very young age, etc.

My thought experiment appeared farcical — that’s why it’s a thought experiment. But even in a much more prosperous society, there’ll always be an A and a Z, by definition. Those two may never stumbled upon each other by chance as depicted, but they are still fellow citizens and coetaneous. As I see it, the challenge stands.

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