For several core American values—negative liberty, the procedural or property-rights-as-anterior sense of democracy, and the equa-
tion of human dignity with self-reliance—my conception of socioeconomic rights poses incompatibilities. These conflicts are significant insofar as these values have been central to American political culture. So long as these values inspire a following, the realization of socioeconomic rights will require some sacrifice and compromise, but not the complete subjugation of these core values. These socioeconomic rights broaden certain facets of democracy and human dignity; they also entail compulsory participation in social insurance programs, some restrictions on discretionary income, and some limits on the income and professional autonomy of some private service providers.
Thus Americans who place great importance on selected aspects of negative liberty, or particular conceptions of property rights and human dignity, will not be enthusiastic about socioeconomic rights. And the American population may well include a larger proportion of such people than some other advanced industrial societies contain. But these values are no longer the sole constituents of American political culture, especially when the discussion turns from abstract theories to practical affairs.
On the relationship between socioeconomic rights and economic efficiency, empirical uncertainty precludes any easy assessment of the seriousness, even the existence, of incompatibilities. Reputable scholars using different data and methods offer contradictory conclusions. Nonetheless, two points seem clear. First, regardless of the actual effects of social programs on work incentives, propensity to save, willingness to invest, or American competitiveness, there are widespread perceptions that such effects are negative. Any programs created to implement socioeconomic rights must therefore be designed to reduce perceptions of conflict between public social provision and economic efficiency. Toward this end, programs that emphasize personal investments of effort and self-help are preferable to, say, a guaranteed-income system.
Second, all measures of economic efficiency are affected by a constellation of factors. If social programs are shown to reduce, for instance, the propensity to save, we can probably manipulate other aspects of public policy—tax policy—to counter this effect. These manipulations will require careful thought and difficult choices, for values do conflict. But we should not see the issue as an all-or-nothing decision.
Among values less central to American political culture than negative liberty or economic efficiency, we have discussed several that are compatible with socioeconomic rights: developmental liberty, equality of results and opportunity, the triple-rights-conception of democracy, community and social solidarity, and the contemporary conception of human dignity. In most cases, however, basic socioeconomic rights admit only limited or partial realizations of these values so as not to impinge severely on core values. For example, socioeconomic rights will reduce the inequality of some results but cannot enforce equality of results without threatening the fundamental principles of liberty. The realization of these secondary values also depends on the nature of particular programs; a social insurance program, for example, much more clearly realizes the contemporary conception of human dignity than does a public assistance program like AFDC.
Would the cumulative impact of all these conflicting influences produce a situation preferable to current patterns of public social provision in the United States? Despite the incompatibilities I have mentioned, implementing basic socioeconomic rights would neither broaden nor intensify fundamental value conflicts inherent in the American creed. Further, socioeconomic rights offer possibilities for moderating other value conflicts. More-comprehensive social insurance would reduce reliance on vertical redistribution; earned rights would enhance work incentives; the supplementary character of benefits would encourage working and saving; strong work incentives would facilitate managerial risk-taking; and the clear association between beneficiary status and self-help would afford a new measure of dignity to social provision.
Were American political culture based on an internally coherent and relatively fixed ideology, the inconsistencies we have examined would represent impressive obstacles to the implementation of socioeconomic rights. But the values of the American culture have a heuristic openness that permits new nuances to emerge as empirical conditions change. Moreover, the core set of values contains internal inconsistencies. It has been through gradual shifts in the meaning and emphasis of core values that American institutions have been able to accommodate changing circumstances, such as the transformation from rural commercial capitalism to advanced industrial capitalism. In some instances, as in the case of
social security, institutions even lead the way in the evolution of American values.
A set of basic socioeconomic rights tailored to American political culture would not, we may conclude, produce value conflicts novel in kind or degree. The crucial problems, to which I now turn, are practical ones.