Public Programs and American Values
It is frequently argued that the United States lags behind other advanced industrial societies in public social provision because a broad social policy agenda conflicts to a peculiar degree with core American values. Samuel P. Huntington identifies six such values: liberty, equality, individualism, democracy, the rule of law under a constitution, and concerns for limited and local government. In the next three chapters I will expand this set a bit, but already we see the crux of the problem. In Huntington's terms, these core values collectively provide American political culture with an antistatist tinge that makes ambitious state programs directed against resource inadequacy difficult to achieve. This view is consistent with Donald J. Devine's earlier thesis about the Lockean character of the American political culture.
Nonetheless, there is an undeniable pragmatic, or operational, strand running through American political culture. Anxiety about and instances of vulnerability to various social hazards lead most Americans to support public programs such as national health insurance. Thus in pragmatic affairs liberalism, in the contemporary American sense of the term, predominates, and herein American political culture rather resembles the cultures of other advanced societies. Pragmatic liberalism, however, repeatedly clashes with America's more abstract or ideological principles, which are the domain of the antistatist values of classical liberalism (Locke and Adam Smith).
An alternate analysis of the disjunctions in American values, presented by Jennifer L. Hochschild, observes that with respect to assessments of fairness, or distributive justice, Americans tend to apply different principles to particular domains of life. Concepts of distributive justice tend to be more egalitarian within the family (the socializing domain) and within the realm of public issues (the political domain) than in the workplace (the economic domain). Situations that cross domains (for example, cases in which partici-
pants can be viewed both as fellow members of the labor force and as fellow citizens) frequently provoke confused responses.
It is not clear, however, that the mass culture is especially relevant for the character of American public programs. Various political scientists and sociologists argue that the values of the American elite have been particularly influential in directing American social policy and shaping public opinion. Scholars generally agree on the distinctive character of elite values in the United States, but some question whether all segments of the elite are adequately characterized by Huntington's antistatist collection of values. In general, American bureaucrats are less homogeneous than their European counterparts (broader recruitment patterns), while American politicians are more homogeneous than the Europeans (no leftist parties). Finally, the attitudes of many American bureaucrats and legislators are more favorable to state involvement in social provision than Huntington's description of core values would suggest.
Three assumptions about American political culture inform my analyses and recommendations. First, Huntington's list of core values provides a useful starting point, although it needs to be expanded and the multiple and frequently conflicting meanings of these values must be enunciated. But basically we must accept antistatism as setting some limitations on American public policy.
Second, this collection of values does not form an internally coherent ideology relatively impervious to change. Rather, these values are loosely defined, ambiguous, and inconsistent. In Huntington's words, "Defined vaguely and abstractly, these ideas have been relatively easily adapted to the needs of successive generations."
Third, because these core values are adaptable, a capable and determined group of elites could today—following the example of the originators of social security—reshape American political institutions. In particular, the early Social Security Board successfully distinguished social security from public assistance and placed social security in the category of earned rights, similar to public education, rather than gratuitous public benefits. This emphasis on earned benefits challenged the near stranglehold that self-reliance had previously held with respect to human dignity. Especially against the macroeconomic forces of the Great Depression, a contributory system of earned benefits came to be seen as a dignified
way for individuals to cope with social hazards beyond their control.
The central implication of public social programs is that market distribution is flawed in some respects. This implication leads us to an inquiry about the nature of distributive justice. Wholehearted proponents of laissez-faire argue that free markets represent a natural evolution and that although one may wish to fiddle marginally with distribution, the topic of justice is as irrelevant to a discussion of distribution as to a discussion of mountain lions killing deer. But I want to approach the topic of distributive justice through the concept of socioeconomic rights, rights to basic material resources that sustain human activity. And these rights both reinforce and pose problems for other values of importance to the American cultural context, most notably for negative liberty and economic efficiency.
Before I turn to the matter of distributive justice, the compatibility of socioeconomic rights and two core values can be mentioned quickly and then set aside. There is no inherent incompatibility between socioeconomic rights and the rule of law under a constitution. A particular conception of socioeconomic rights or a particular manner of realizing socioeconomic rights through public programs might be incompatible with the U.S. Constitution. But since 1937, when the Supreme Court held that social security fell within Congress's powers to tax and appropriate funds, there have been no general challenges to the constitutionality of social programs and the rights they create. Additionally, there is no incompatibility between socioeconomic rights and procedural democracy in Huntington's sense of popular control of government. Throughout advanced industrial societies systems of multiple political parties competing in frequent elections held under rules of universal adult suffrage coexist with socioeconomic rights. With these two points behind us, let us examine the compatibility of socioeconomic rights and American conceptions of distributive justice.