How Sufficient Ought Our Personal “Safety Net” Be?

Last week I wrote about defining a political worldview based off seven fundamental questions. Today we’ll focus on the first of those questions: how sufficient ought our personal “safety net” be.

First, a few words to help clarify the topic:

  • The assertion here is that this is focused around a “safety net” that is guaranteed by the federal government.
  • It does leave open interpretation that the delivery of that could be by different agents: e.g. delivered by states rather than the federal government (that is a separate philosophical question).
  • Assessing this question is meant to focus on what a person considers ought to be sufficient safety net. While it is focused on an ideal, it is not divorced from economic reality: while we may think it awesome to provide everyone a private jet, that’s obviously not feasible or even a good investment.
Look – we do have safety nets here! Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So as you can imagine, there are different views to this question that are defensible. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

The Bare Essentialist

Some, traditionally those on the right, believe that a safety net should be minimal. This belief is focused around a desire to limit the size and scope of the federal government and create incentives that orient people toward self-reliance.

To me, this view recalls Jack Nicholson’s speech at the end of A Few Good Men. It’s the realist in the room who stands up and says to these later buckets, “Look, you can sit there in your cozy little home and just give things to people, but you can’t handle the truth: we can’t pay for these things we’re promising, and you need someone like me protecting this country from real economic threats that are out there if we go too far down this road.”

You can’t handle the economics!

And speaking of those economic threats, it’s two-fold:

One – there is the question of incentives. If we give people things regardless of whether they work, will there be an incentive for people to produce things? If we erode incentives too much, we risk having a nation where few people work and there isn’t enough produced to pay for the expansive benefits that we’d offer.

Second – there is the question as to who bears the brunt of the cost of these benefits. While the rhetoric from these other parties will say that we can get it from corporations or “the rich,” this group recognizes that there isn’t such a thing as a free lunch: money that is taken from corporations inevitably comes out of consumer’s pockets, and they are skeptical that “the rich” would only be nebulous billionaires, and that the money would eventually come from anyone who has a bit more than someone else.

So there isn’t necessarily a moral opposition to helping people, but a deep skepticism of the practical realities of promising more and more things to more and more people.

The Comfortable Lifer

On the other end of the spectrum, some on the left believe that we should strive to provide as full a “safety net” as possible – to the point where everyone has the essentials to live a fulfilling life. That obviously includes things like shelter and sustenance, but is also extended to things like unemployment benefits, job retraining, and medical coverage that would prevent an accident or contraction of disease end someone’s life.

And next – a relaxation device for every home in America! Is that too far? Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There is nuance to this view (as with the others). Specifically:

First – the desire to provide these is driven out of an inherent belief that each human has worth and that we should strive to make sure that everyone should have a good life, or come as close as we can to that ideal. While it’s not going to happen overnight, it’s something that they believe is worth fighting for.

Second – folks in this bucket do realize that these things need to be paid for, though can often underplay that fact or the magnitude of the costs. They do see more accessibility for these funds from the buckets of corporations and the rich. But beyond that, they are more okay with a word that a Bare Essentialist finds dirty: redistribution. To them, it is viewed less as a “taking from the rich and giving to the poor,” and more of an extension of the social contract. They do see wealth as something that one earns, but it’s done so within our social contract. Collectively we’ve built this society that enabled an individual to earn that wealth: some of that needs to be paid back into the system in order to both sustain and better it.

The Pragmatist

While those two buckets represent the extremes, there is room for anyone to carve out a space anywhere between those two buckets. As an example, one could feel that we should provide most of these features of a safety net, but to a limited degree: so yes, there should be unemployment coverage, but it would be better if it only lasted three months rather than a full year.

The pragmatist moves slowly and with purpose, or else he doesn’t move at all… Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One clustering within this broad spectrum is a group that believes in more-or-less keeping the status quo or slowly expanding the coverage. This group is focused on practicality and not rocking the boat too far either way, as taking one approach to an extreme can often have strong unintended consequences.

To them, they agree with both sides to a degree. To comfortable lifers, they agree that a fully-featured safety net is something to strive for. But they are closer to the bare essentialist when it comes to the costs, agreeing that there is no free lunch and that there needs to be some curtailing of unfettered expansion of welfare programs to avoid economic challenges down the road.

To some, this position may seem to be an excuse to taking a more principled stance. Indeed, it does fall into a space where they may not have a passionate stance toward a particular issue about the safety net or a reason to fight for either side of an issue.

Yet this position is born from the same desire as the others: to decide a path that leads to the best outcome for our country. It seeks a path that may not offer a clear ideology and moral imperative, but nonetheless defines how they view role of the government in building a safety net.

A Conclusion

Though these views can fall anywhere on a spectrum, most views will end up coalescing into one of these buckets. Primarily, this is because these positions are ideologically consistent. While one could suggest that a safety net ought to include housing but not sustenance, that makes as much sense as telling a homeless person that they need to starve indoors instead of outdoors.

As such, we naturally will coalesce to one of these buckets to avoid hypocrisy and ensure a logically consistent worldview. What we lose sight of as we do that is the nuance and imperatives that the other worldviews see on the topic.

So where do you fall? Please leave a comment below to keep the discussion going, and feel free to add your own nuance or points as to why you fall into one of these buckets, or craft your own bucket!

Also published on Medium.

You have thoughts that will be valuable to the conversation. Add them here!