Paternalism and the Ideal of Self-Support

by Reihan Salam

Because I found Paul Ryan’s new anti-poverty plan interesting and important, I wrote about in two separate columns, the first of which tried to place the plan in a larger political context and the second of which more specifically addressed the emerging critique that Ryan’s plan is far too paternalistic. Annie Lowrey of New York offers one distillation of the paternalism charge that is clear and concise. 

First, what exactly do we mean by “paternalism”? The idea is that some authority, like a schoolteacher, limits the rights and responsibilities of some subordinate, like a pupil, in their own best interest. Not all social programs are paternalistic. Social Security, which Lowrey addresses, is not. But why is it not paternalistic? One obvious reason is that a Social Security beneficiary is a contributory, i.e., one pays into the system over the course of a working life, and one receives benefits after a set period of time in exchange for said contributions. Unemployment insurance is broadly similar.

Yet there are other programs that are better understood as public assistance — the assistance that we seek out when we’ve fallen on hard times that goes beyond what contributory programs will offer us, perhaps due to a patchy work history, or when we lack the skills and the networks we need to find employment or family support in the first place. We could give people who seek public assistance money on demand. And for some people, particularly those who already have the skills and the networks they need to flourish, but who are temporarily suffering from a shortage of cash, this could work very well. For those who lack the skills and the networks they need to thrive, and for those suffering from substance abuse or the lingering effects of a chaotic upbringing, however, cash alone is unlikely to yield much improvement in the capacity for self-support. One question is whether we should value “self-support” as such at all. There are many who believe that self-support is a myth, as we live in an interconnected society, and that the ideal of self-support is itself noxious and reactionary. The truth is that I have little to say to such people. Brink Lindsey has done an able job of walking through some of the reasons why we might value self-support through paid employment as valuable, but my sense is that the extent to which we value self-support depends to a large degree on our underlying moral sensibilities.

What is worth mentioning, however, is that the paternalism of Ryan’s anti-poverty plan is certainly not without precedent. The 1996 welfare reform law required that TANF beneficiaries develop “individual responsibility plans.” States have met this requirement in a number of different ways. The basic idea is that beneficiaries make commitments and develop individualized plans with goals and metrics in concert with a caseworker. What’s new about Ryan’s proposal is that it envisions treating far more of the anti-poverty spending pie in the same way. This would mean that more resources would be at the disposal of caseworkers working in concert with individuals in need of assistance, and also that more of the anti-poverty spending pie would be treating as a bridge to self-support rather than permanent assistance. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.