The circle of obligation and the mandatory-participation “social contract” (Mandatory Participation on Trial, Part 12)

The circle of obligation and the mandatory-participation “social contract” (Mandatory Participation on Trial, Part 12)
The circle of obligation and the mandatory-participation “social contract” (Mandatory Participation on Trial, Part 12)

By Karl Widerquist

See original post here.

Most of us, of course, don’t view ourselves as using the threat of homelessness to get people to accept bad jobs, low wages, and poor working conditions. The ideal of the conditional safety net is an imagined “social contract” with a circle of obligation in which everyone shares in the work and benefits of the joint project we call our economy. The implied contract for individuals is that everyone promises to work if they can; in return, they receive a fair wage if they can work and generous support if they can’t. People who take this view believe that just about everyone in need can prove they’re deserving in one of these two ways. Once we make them prove it, we’ll feel solidarity for them and provide generous, secure support: free from stigma and invulnerable to political attack. Virtually everyone will see the benefit of meeting the real but doable conditions.

            The conditional safety net has never fulfilled that promise, even for people who meet its conditions. Conditional programs have never eliminated poverty among those who work or those who meet virtually anyone’s definition of genuine need. It hasn’t protected recipients from stigma. It hasn’t protected programs from political attack. It puts the vast majority of individuals in the worst possible starting point in the market, making them vulnerable to low-wages, poor working conditions, harassment, and so on—always trying but never succeeding in making up for those vulnerabilities with regulation. It forever holds the threat of homelessness over the heads of workers to get them to keep doing the things more advantaged people demand. 

            Because potential workers have no reasonable alternative, the imaginary agreement is more of a “social ultimatum” than a “social contract,” and that’s part of the reason the conditional safety net has consistently failed to fulfill its promises. Social contract theorists like to pretend that democratic decisions are everyone’s decisions. They imagine everyone agreeing on a fair reward for a fair contribution. In reality, even if everyone participates in the decision-making process, the best a democracy can do is obtain the decision of a majority. Majorities tend to be made up of relatively advantaged people; ruling coalitions inherently become insiders; and no method can ensure that they will adequately appreciate the concerns of the less powerful. 

            UBI would be a new kind of check on our political process, conceding real, practical power to every single individual—no matter how disadvantaged, no matter how far from the center of power. Without this check on political power, the terms of the social ultimatum are solely in the hands of privileged people—property owners and political decisionmakers.

            Psychological theory and historical experience indicate that ruling coalitions suffer from self-serving bias like everyone else. Even in a perfect democracy, the ruling coalition might not have sufficient empathy for or understanding of outsiders and disadvantaged people to be capable of judging them. The farther you go from the centers of power, the more people’s lives deviate from decisionmakers’ expectations, the more their stories are untold, the more their situations are misunderstood, and the less weight their concerns are given. And our democracy is far from perfect. Our government is dominated by wealth and other forms of privilege.

            Many of the assumptions of the conditional system reflect the self-serving bias of this group. The ruling coalition has to believe that there are people who deserve poverty and homelessness and that the relatively advantaged people who make up the coalition have the right, responsibility, and capability to judge who deserves homelessness.

            The requirement of a fair contribution for a fair wage sounds good, but fairness is subjective. Whose opinion is most important—powerful decisionmakers or the people who have to live on those wages? I don’t think I am capable of deciding what is fair to people less advantaged than me. I, therefore, suggest a modest approach in which we admit the closest we can get to a “fair” wage is one that both the employer and employee agree on when both have the genuine power to say no. 

            Many specifics of the conditional system also reflect self-serving bias. For example, privileged people justify the participation requirement by arguing that jobs give people a sense of purpose. That’s a paternalistic rationalization and a poor reason to force people to take what often turn out to be dead-end jobs. If we respected disadvantaged people, we would free them to decide whether a job provides enough sense of purpose—along with pay and other rewards—to be worth taking.

            Probably the most important example of self-serving bias in the conditional welfare system is that the number one thing people are supposed to do to prove they are “deserving” or “truly needy” is to be willing, if able, to take a job. That is, they have to provide services for people who control more resources than they do.

            In reality, we have not created a circle of obligation but a hierarchy of obligation. Our labor obligation is to serve the whims of property owners, who have no reciprocal labor obligation. Nonwealthy people serve each other as a byproduct of secondary importance. You have to do something for the benefit of at least one landlord and one person who owns the inputs you need to make your daily bread. If you then want to do things for other people, that’s optional. Workers can make money by serving other workers, but their ability to reward you is proportional to how well they have served the people who own resources and capital.

            The self-serving assumptions built into our system are, in many ways, self-defeating for most of us. Our policies promote the values they display rather than the values they demand from others. The mandatory-participation requirement is supposed to promote unselfishness. People in need of help are supposed to learn the virtue of giving back when they receive, but the principle the authority promotes by its example is selfishness: never give unless you get something back.

            People in need in a mandatory-participation economy will rightly question whether the authority has their best interest at heart when the authority’s first question is, “What can you do for us?”

            People who have been through our conditional system have reason to think, “When I was in need, they made me work for them or prove I was unable. They gave me nothing. I will never give them anything.” The authority’s attempt to force others to be unselfish actually promotes selfishness for the simple reason that the authority behaves selfishly. If you really want to promote the unselfish desire to give back, you must share unselfishly and unconditionally. 

            Probably the most important way in which the self-serving assumptions of the mandatory-participation economy are ultimately self-defeating is that they’re really only good for employers who like paying low wages. Some middle-class people believe that mandatory participation is good for them because they participate, but as argued above, you don’t help workers by putting them in the position in which they can’t refuse to work. Our increasingly punitive mandatory-participation policies have led to greater inequality, lower middle-class incomes, greater workplace insecurity, greater stress, and so on. 

            Many people have imagined a workers’ revolution that cuts out property owners and establishes a true circle-of-obligation. As always, let me see the plan. Maybe it solves some of the problems I’ve mentioned, but no plan solves the insider-outsider problems inherent in politics. Wishful thinking about everyone becoming better people after the revolution won’t make the self-serving bias of people in power go away.

            This concern is beginning to take root on the left as well as in the center. As Katja Kipping says, the old left wanted to control the means of production; the new left wants to control their own lives. 

            Once you’ve introduced your plan for reform, it’s not up to you to tell oppressed people when they’re free: they’ll tell you. Whatever your plan to eliminate oppression is, if you have to force people to participate, you’re just another oppressor.

            One might respond that the reality behind the circle of obligation is that, sooner or later, people really do need each other. That is true, but that doesn’t mean anyone needs to force people to do things for each other. We have other tools. It’s better to give every individual the power to opt-out than to give advantaged people the power to force everyone in.

            A voluntary-participation society can’t ensure that everyone will work, but it can eliminate poverty and homelessness. It can reduce the fear and stressfulness of middle- and lower-class lives. It’s a kinder society. It invites you to do the things society recognizes as useful by offering you rewards, but it doesn’t force you to do what you’re told by hogging all the resources if you refuse. 

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