12 November 2007

I'll take the cash please

Seeing Chris Dillow's argument attacked by certain other leftists has made me realise there is something in it.

Chris says

... rather than try to offset the disadvantages of being born poor through the education system, the left should focus more reducing those disadvantages in later life. One thing I have in mind here is a form of Dworkinian insurance. There should be redistributive taxes that replicate the insurance payments people would agree to behind what Rawls called a veil of ignorance. If people didn’t know what family they would be born into, they would probably agree to insurance contracts, in which those born to rich families - or with high skills - would pay out to those born to poor families.

Chris seems to be suggesting we give up on the illusion of creating equal opportunity and just give money to those we consider disadvantaged.

There are a number of reasons for regarding actual monetary transfers as preferable to ostensible attempts at creating equal starting points for people.

1) Even the purest motive to create equal opportunity is likely to encounter severe difficulties of design and implementation, and may easily end up making things worse.

2) In practice, the pure motive gets mixed up with other objectives — e.g. compensating particular social groups for supposed injustices in the past — so that the most appropriate targets for improving equality of opportunity (e.g. very bright working class children) are passed over in favour of more ideologically fashionable recipients.

3) Worse, any system has to be implemented by people who are unlikely to share the same motives as those who designed it, and who may indeed be negatively motivated towards recipients (e.g. old people in NHS hospitals, comprehensive school pupils).

4) More cynically still, we may wonder whether the pure motive really exists at all, or whether it is a cover for more normal motives aiming at power and advantage, and is more often than not used to legitimise doing damage to rivals.

5) If certain realities are ignored as ideologically unacceptable (e.g. that there will always be some genetic correlation between success of parents and offspring, however equalised the opportunities), then no amount of intervention will ever be regarded as sufficient. This means the programme to improve opportunity will inevitably run well beyond any optimal level.

6) The great advantage of cash payments is that they unequivocally increase the freedom of the recipient, something which cannot necessarily be said for any non-monetary benefit. And cannot (of course) be said at all where the 'benefit' is one which may not be refused.

So I agree with Chris to this extent:

If I had to choose between (a) allowing the state to distribute £X million of taxpayers' money in the form of cash handouts to group Y and (b) allowing the state to spend £X million of taxpayers' money on providing services which it is hoped will be used by group Y (or, worse, on ancillary managerialist activity supposedly linked to those 'services'), I would always choose (a).

This, in any case, is what redistribution should mean. What, instead, is usually meant by it is something more correctly described as transfer of economic power from individuals to collective.

It should be noted that my argument, i.e. that monetary transfers are to be regarded as morally and economically superior to the provision of services, severely conflicts with the prevailing consensus position of 'trained' academic philosophers, economists, sociologists etc.