Of a tilted playing field and how to level it

Those of us who work in social services, or concern ourselves with social justice, often face unsympathetic auditors who call themselves libertarian and condemn our desire to use the power of the state to modify social and economic outcomes produced by the market.  That condemnation is based on the notion that any exercise of state power is both unjust and doomed to failure because it interferes with the natural order in allocating economic reward.

How delightful to discover a libertarian who acknowledged that the actual allocation of economic reward is anything but natural.  Say hello to Herbert Spencer, whose defense of unregulated capitalism was so famous that Mr. Justice Holmes blamed it for the Supreme Court’s invalidation of a statute governing working conditions: "The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics."  But as scholar Steven Shapin explains in his New Yorker review of a biography of Spencer, the economic philosopher believed

…Natural and moral law required that all people should compete on a level playing field, but in practice land and other property were inequitably distributed, as the result of ancient crimes.  And so this supposedly laissez-faire writer advocated both a progressive death [sic] tax and the nationalization of land, projects that put him on the side of the socialists he so vigorously attacked.  The role of the state was, ideally, supposed to be minimal, but the fundamental law also meant, for Spencer, that equal justice ought to be guaranteed, and this, in turn, underwrote proposals for a vast extension of systems of free legal aid, far in excess of anything we have today.

So one must take with a grain of salt Spencer’s view that in fact private charity is preferable to state support for welfare:

There could hardly be found a more efficient device for estranging men from each other, and decreasing their fellow-feeling, than this system of state-almsgiving.  Being kind by proxy!–could anything be more blighting to the finer instincts?

The ‘finer instincts’ might be more blighted, the Nonprofiteer thinks, by a refusal to admit that resources are allocated unfairly and that the winners of this lottery can’t be counted upon to share their spoils with the losers.


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