Thursday, November 11, 2004

Nothing to offer beyond moral disapproval

DPF has jumped on Judy Turner's bandwagon, repeating the standard right-wing line that he shouldn't have to pay for other people's kids. Which is all well and good - but the flip side of that position is that they starve. Like all right-wingers, DPF ignores this inconvenient fact, preferring instead to focus on the problem and the cost to the taxpayer, but that doesn't make it go away.

His commentators likewise focus on irresponsibility, the evil of "bringing a child into the world when you cannot hope to support even their most basic needs", and the cheapness of contraception, but in the end offer nothing beyond moral disapproval. The best they can do is say that

The implementation of a solution is clearly problematic, but it would be a start to agree that it is a problem that needs a solution.

"Problematic" indeed. As I said yesterday, there are no non-coercive solutions to this problem. It boils down to abortion, sterilisation, or starvation. Any of these is worse than the problem itself.

It is however far less of a problem when looked at through a liberal (rather than Libertarian) lens. On this view, welfare benefits exist to insulate people from risk - to allow them to continue to pursue (or at least not completely lose sight of) their individual vision of the good when misfortune (such as joblessness, sickness, or poverty) strikes. They are there to make freedom real, substantive, and available to all, rather than just of the rich.

I don't think anyone would disagree that having a family is central to many people's life plans. Opinions of ideal family size may vary, but the importance of children is undeniable. But this means that we can't really deny the right of people on benefits to have kids. Sure, we can talk about it being unwise, but we can't really say that they shouldn't without undermining our own right to pursue our own life goals.

Much of the fire behind this right-wing beat-up comes from their underlying belief that the poor (or at least those on benefits) are inherently feckless and incapable of making their own decisions. This is an attitude that should be rejected - on principle, because it invites authoritarianism, and because it simply does not fit the facts. People are quite capable of altering their plans to suit their circumstances, and this is borne out by Turner's figures. According to Turner,

one woman has had eight additional children while on a benefit. Three beneficiaries have had seven, 13 have had six, 85 have had five, 351 have had four, 1378 have had three, and 5120 have had two additional children while on a benefit. Some 19,843 women have had one additional child on a benefit.

It is clear that we are not being inundated with a tide of "welfare mothers" having large families at the taxpayer's expense because they are too stupid not to. The vast majority of Turner's 26,794 new parents have one, or maybe two kids - an ordinary sized family. While there are some who do have large families, they are a small proportion of the total - and an even smaller proportion of the total number of beneficiaries. Imposing grossly coercive conditions on all simply to combat this tiny group is both horrifically tyrannical and not worth the effort.