Guest Post: Heidegger on Welfare
There’s been a good amount of political talk lately about the incentivizing effects of social programs like welfare and unemployment benefits on the struggling and out of work. In this post a friend of mine Bryan Reilly offers a new way of thinking about the problem by employing the philosophical concepts originating in the work of Martin Heidegger:
In his work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger lays out the often overlooked idea that there are two distinct ways of caring for the other. Heidegger termed these contrasting ways of helping other people as “leaping in” and “leaping ahead.” With leaping in, one cares for the other by simply taking up that other’s burden and giving it back to him as a finished project. For example, your brother is struggling with his homework so you tell him all the answers, he hands it in, and he gets an A. On the other hand, in leaping ahead you help the other to take up his own burden by giving him the means to bear that burden on his own. In the same example, instead of simply giving your brother the answers to his homework, you could spend time explaining the actual concept he is struggling to understand. In both situations the outcome is the same; your brother completes his homework and gets an A (assuming you adequately taught him the concept). The difference between the two scenarios is that while leaping in and giving your brother the answers helped him in the short term, it failed to provide the same long term benefit that leaping ahead to teach him the concepts could have.
With a general understanding of Heidegger’s distinction between leaping in and leaping ahead there is a clear framework for analyzing how the American government should handle welfare programs aimed at the unemployed. On one side is the goal of providing a short term, lower cost solution to the immediate problems, such as homelessness and hunger, which plague the unemployed. This goal can be accomplished by the government through “leaping in” for the unemployed and simply providing them with a fixed amount of money each week.
On the other side of the issue is the fact that such a program fails to provide any means for the unemployed person to begin carrying his own burden in the long term. Just as simply giving your brother the answers to his troubling homework is a low cost, short term, and beneficial program, so too is merely giving unemployed people monetary benefits for a fixed period of time. While such a program of leaping in for unemployed people may help many of them to survive, it simultaneously creates a dependence that can hinder them from taking up their own burdens again.
Looking at the other half of the homework example it is clear that unemployed people, like confused students, would receive more long term benefit from a mentality of “leaping ahead.” This could entail using government funding to help unemployed people learn more advanced skills and find new jobs instead of merely providing cash money. Like a brother struggling with homework, an unemployed person is far more likely to succeed in the future if someone “leaps ahead” to provide him with the skills he needs in order to carry his own burden.
Having said this, however, there still isn’t a clear cut answer as to whether society should promote programs that leap ahead for the unemployed over those that merely leap in. This is because we still have to answer questions such as, how much do current programs that leap in for the unemployed cost in the short term? How about in long term losses due to a lowered incentive/ability to find work? What would be the added cost, in the short term, of adapting government programs in order to leap ahead of the unemployed? And what would be the long term cost of providing costlier training programs to the unemployed? It is only in answering these questions that we can decide which policy is better for society, but at least the concepts of leaping in and leaping ahead give an ideological starting point.