Rorty on Welfare
In response to Brian Reilly’s post “Heidegger on Welfare”…
Richard Rorty draws a sharp distinction between our private and public lives but doesn’t offer a very definitive account of what that means. To make things easier we can use Rawls’ contrast between so-called comprehensive doctrines and reasonable pluralism. Reasonable pluralism is what happens when all of our political and moral beliefs make room for the liberal conception of justice as reciprocal non-interference. Comprehensive doctrines are any privately held religious or metaphysical beliefs that are compatible with such a consensus.
But this is about as similar as these thinkers get. Rawls is concerned with justifying our liberal democratic institutions from undisputed principle of justice; Rorty is concerned with pursuing a continual program of reducing cruelty in the public sphere. It’s Rorty’s concern that I want to take up in the political question of unemployment benefits. All things equal it seems clear that without the checks recipients would be worse off, violating Rorty’s criterion of social justice. But what about (i) the incentives created by free money and (ii) the possibility that other programs would net a greater reduction in harm? I’ll consider each point in turn.
(i) It’s seems to be a typical Republican soundbite to say that unemployment checks artificially increase recipients’ quality of life, and that such an increase consequences a decrease in motivation to find employment. Allowing the unemployed to fall to the true depths of their hardship, their story continues, would more forcefully (and accurately) propel them out of laziness. And while the unemployed may suffer more in the short term, that harm will be offset in the future by a long-run increase in quality of life. But, I think, a more urgent motivation doesn’t necessitate a better paying job than under an ‘artificial’ motivation. In fact it likely consequences a lower paying job taken out of necessity. From a Rortian perspective, this argument rather quickly seems to fail to justify the revocations of unemployment checks.
(ii) But what about the idea that these checks aren’t the best way to promote the well being of the unemployed? Brian’s post offers a good framework for thinking about whether there are alternative unemployment schemes that would decrease the ‘cruelty’ of unemployment. Leaping-ahead with an alternative unemployment program may confer more benefit than does the conventional leaping-in scheme. But say for example that (thought leaping in and) instead of checks the unemployed received assistance transitioning from a dying field to a new industry. Further assume that they don’t receive checks in the interim, but that in the long term there is a net increase in quality of life compared to the conventional leaping-in program. Would the harm incurred during the penniless transition be justified by a net increase in long term quality of life? If Rorty’s goal of reducing societal cruelty is broadly construed as reducing harm every step of the way, such a program would be impermissible. But it isn’t clear that Heidegger would object to such a program.