Self-interest and the Welfare State. Although David Kelley’s brand of Objectivism tends to be several notches above what we find over at ARI, being saddled with some of Rand’s less defensible notions can lead even Kelley astray. Consider what Kelley wrote about altruism and welfare state in the 1998 article “State of the Culture”: "The primary political expression of sacrificial altruism today is the welfare state. And one of the primary foundations of the welfare state is the idea: 'We're all in this together. We should sacrifice to each other and help out those who are in need.'"
Is it really true that the “primary political expression of sacrificial altruism” is the welfare state? Do we have a welfare state primarily because people have bought into altruistic rationalizations? If people could convinced that self-interest is good, would they immediately abandon the welfare state and embrace laissez-faire?
No, of course they wouldn’t, because the primary motivation for the welfare state is self-interest. The welfare state provides: (1) social security to supplement one’s retirement income; (2) supplemental income to cover medical costs for the aged; (3) income for disabled persons; (4) unemployment insurance to help those who have lost their jobs. All these provisions appeal to the self-interest of middle-class individuals. Indeed, the American welfare state is largely orientated towards the needs of the middle class. It is, hence, a middle-class welfare state appealing to the self-interest of the broad electorate.
In the nineties, President Clinton passed the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” which reformed that section of the welfare state that dealt, not with the Middle Class, but with the poor. This is a rather curious phenomenon. Americans have no trouble reforming welfare to the poor, even if it means cutting or placing restrictions on benefits. But no attempt has been made to cut or limit benefits to the middle class. On the contrary, welfare benefits to the middle class, if they are changed at all, are increased, as they were under President Bush’s Medicare drug benefit plan.
Now the only way to explain this is to assume that middle class voters are primarily motivated by self-interest, not by altruism. Rand’s claim, that from America’s start, she “was torn by the clash of her political system with the altruist morality,” is clearly a gross exaggeration. Generally speaking, in politics, altruistic motivations are dwarfed by self-interest motivations. So condemning altruism is nothing to the purpose. People, of course, like to pretend to be “altruistic”; and they sometimes are “altruistic” in the sense that they give to charity or support (relatively modest) government support for the poor. But hardly anyone follows Rand’s version of altruism to the letter. Self-sacrificial altruism is largely a rhetorical pose used by sentimentalists to make themselves feel good. It’s not an important determinant of the political structure of the nation. Inveighing against it is waste of time.
Precisely because people tend to be more interested in the welfare of themselves and their loved one’s than in the welfare of strangers, appeals to self-interest tend to be more persuasive than appeals to altruistic sentiments. (Best of all are arguments that appeal to both self-interest with altruism, since people tend to like nothing more than to think that by pursuing their own interest, they are helping others.) If the welfare state really was, as David Kelley argued, the “primary political expression of sacrificial altruism,” one could make persuasive arguments against it. But since, in reality, the welfare state is primarily an expression of self-interest, arguing against it on the basis of self-interest is counter-productive. Nor is making the distinction between “rational” self-interest and other varieties going to be of much help, since it is not clear what “rational” means in this context. Why is desiring to live under a safety net any less “rational” than being prey to misfortune?
Once we have unmasked the hollowness of Rand’s attempt to base laissez-faire on “self-interest,” we can appreciate how ineffective her arguments are for capitalism. Rand’s mistake was to take the bad arguments for socialism (i.e., arguments that appeal to altruistic sentiments) far too seriously. Hardly any one is convinced by such arguments nowadays. So trying to refute them in the heavy-handed, Randian manner serves no purpose at all.