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Philosophy of the welfare state

A week after our meetup on libertarianism but with still a week remaining before election day, we'll have another meetup on political philosophy, this time on something that is in some ways the opposite of libertarianism.

The Britannica Online Encyclopedia defines the welfare state as a "concept of government in which the state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life. The general term may cover a variety of forms of economic and social organization." For an overview, see Wikipedia on "Welfare state".

In contemporary American political culture, the term "welfare state" is generally used pejoratively, although both major political parties express strong support for some elements of it, such as:

  • universal schooling from kindergarten to 12th grade funded by general taxation, regardless of pupils' families' ability to pay;
  • Medicare, which pays for health care for the elderly, and is funded by mandatory payroll taxes;
  • Social Security, an old-age pension plan also funded by mandatory payroll taxes, with benefits depending on the amount an individual has paid in to the system.

Some other American welfare-state programs such as Medicaid and food stamps are targeted to the poor and are paid for by general taxation.

Any form of taxation is, by definition, the confiscation of resources from taxpayers by a government.  When these resources are used to pay for welfare-state programs, it is a kind of redistribution, with the beneficiaries of the programs receiving either a share of the confiscated resources or benefits that have been purchased with them.  Under what circumstances is such redistribution justified?  And why?


  1. Christian Barry, "Redistribution", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition)
  2. Joseph Heath, "Three Normative Models of the Welfare State", Public Reason: Vol. 3, No. 2, Dec. 2011

Since this is a reading group, everyone who attends this meetup is expected to have done the reading.  At the beginning of the meetup, we'll go around the table letting each person say what he or she thinks of the readings (but if you don't want to speak, that's OK, too). Then we'll open it up to general discussion.

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  • Mike T.

    Been struggling with the decission to attend. And here is why:
    1., as soon as one operates with the keyword 'ought' the discussion becomes an ethical one. Ethics in Germany apply to the private sector a lot stronger than in a state like California.
    2., "what the state ought to be doing" - means in Germany something different. I. Kant and what ought to be done is in Germany part of culture [German lens: not interests but standards are imperatives].
    3., Schooling, medicare and social security in regard to wellfare are far to complex [each segment schooling and wellfar, medicare and welfare, ect..could be discussed in one meeting and still leave questions open] that I don't expect to examine the questions in a productive way.
    Conclusion: Eventhough I am not coming, I wish for everyone a highly productive evening.
    Best Regards,

    October 29, 2012

  • Jeff G

    Glad to see that the philosophy reading group is active again! I'd like to float an idea that would help us get more out of our reading. Separate from our general impressions (which often are not really of the reading), can we allot a certain amount of time to ask for comments on the reading, section by section? The sections can be of whatever size is workable, and certainly we shouldn't feel obliged to comment on every one. We should know in advance how it will be broken down, so we don't have to bring copies. It would give us a sense of the flow of the author's thought, the structure of his argument. It does take a significant amount of time to actually do the reading, but after most meetings I feel that I could have glossed over it.

    October 25, 2012

    • Peter

      Jeff, that is a good idea. We'd need to judge how much time to spend on each section, so how about if in each person's initial statement, they give some indication of which sections they think are more or less interesting to talk about?

      October 28, 2012

    • Jeff G

      That sounds good, to assure coverage and balance. For example, one of these two readings is much more interesting to me than the other. I still would like to know the sections in advance so I don't have to bring a copy or be flipping pages during the meeting.

      October 28, 2012

  • Josh 1.

    That's quite a loaded description, especially when using the negative term, "welfare", in the title. You definition assumes that taxes are "confiscation" by the state, while many people would see it as collaborative "purchase" by the citizens, even if they may not agree on how it's spent. :)

    1 · October 22, 2012

    • Max

      Sounds fair-handed to me, even if that word has a bad connotations to you, the word "welfare" is simply the wellness of the people. And whether taxes are confiscated by force, we can't really argue that here, but all I know is that if I don't pay they will forcefully take my money, as much as I might want to distribute my own money to those in need. I hope you attend so we can discuss it!

      October 22, 2012

    • Josh 1.

      "Welfare" doesn't necessarily have negative connotations in all situations, but it becomes biased in the context of a statement that taxes are "confiscation"­. I'd venture to say that most people worldwide would not call taxes "confiscation"­, though most might disagree about how the taxes are spent. I will sign up though, because it is an interesting topic. :)

      October 22, 2012

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