Implications for Prominent American Values
Distributive justice is not a value that has commanded exceptional attention in postcolonial American society. Prior to the last half century only a small portion of American political commentators distinguished distributive justice even implicitly from the results of market operations. And as the distinction has become more widely accepted, distributive justice has come into increasingly prominent conflict with the values that the American political culture has long considered the primary virtues of market operations: freedom and economic efficiency. In this chapter I will examine the consequences that my conception of socioeconomic rights holds for six prominent American values: liberty, economic efficiency, equality, democracy, community and social solidarity, and human dignity. I will attempt to tease out the contradictions within and tradeoffs among these values. In doing so I am mindful of our limited capacity to explain the effects of social phenomena, such as specific public programs, on society.
Let us follow Isaiah Berlin in differentiating positive and negative liberty, and let us also adopt C. B. Macpherson's dissection of three aspects of positive liberty. First is the freedom to participate in political decision making; these political rights are compatible with, but distinct from, negative liberties, or civil rights. Second, and ac-
cording to Macpherson at the heart of the concept of positive liberty, is developmental liberty, the freedom to be one's own master, to act on one's conscious purposes, and to develop and apply one's capacities and abilities. Unfortunately, developmental liberty is often transmogrified into the third aspect, a distorted form of liberty by which those who think they know human truth more perfectly than others coerce others to act accordingly.
The importance of negative liberties—freedom from external constraints on speech, press, and association—in American history is partially responsible for the characterization of the United States as a nation in which individualism reigns. In the Lockean tradition, American political culture generally holds government to be the principal external threat to liberty. But as Hobbes reminds us, the actions of individuals may pose threats to fellow citizens, in which case government is expected to step in to help. Marketplace operations may also be seen as infringements on liberty, though America has been more reluctant than other advanced industrial societies to adopt this view.
There are potential clashes between my conception of socioeconomic rights and Americans' negative liberties in at least four areas: participation would be compulsory, rather than voluntary, for all members of the paid labor force; increased payroll taxes would further reduce discretionary income; the professional autonomy of physicians and perhaps other providers of essential services might be restricted; and program beneficiaries could be subject to certain requirements. Let us take up each of these in turn.
The kinds of social insurance programs I am proposing require the compulsory participation of all members of the labor force so that the costs are spread as widely as possible. Compulsory participation would also preclude the individual and societal problems that arise when people decline optional enrollment but are subsequently beset by social hazards. Yet compulsory participation in a program addressing hazards that may never afflict some participants seems a poor fit with the aspects of negative liberty that Americans denote with the term individualism.
Nonetheless, there was no widespread public protest when Supplementary Medical Insurance (SMI—Part B of Medicare) to cover physicians' bills was changed from an option that social security recipients had to explicitly elect into an automatic enrollment that
recipients had to explicitly decline. Indeed, the change in procedure was made because more than 95 percent of recipients were opting to pay the extra monthly premium for the additional coverage. In general, the opposition to compulsory social insurance has come not from the general public but from employers, private insurance companies, and the American Medical Association (AMA), with the AMA being the most persistent in its resistance.
As to the cost of social insurance programs, certainly increased payroll taxes would reduce workers' discretionary income and the freedom of choice that it supports. To the degree that new taxes were progressive they might be all the more obnoxious in that those least likely to receive benefits—high-income taxpayers—would be required to pay a disproportionate share of the costs. Such complaints, however, always arise in any discussion about the American tax system. On this count, the theoretical constraints posed by socioeconomic rights are no different than those posed by the overall revenue-gathering system.
The practical importance of progressive taxes is unclear, for we cannot precisely discern how regressive or progressive the current American tax system is. What is the overall effect of various federal, state, and local levies: income taxes, property taxes and assessments, sales and excise taxes, and taxes on estates and inheritances? Suppose we assume that the overall system is moderately progressive and that the well-off do pay more heavily for social programs that serve the poor. Does this mean that our tax system places unfair constraints on the liberties of the well-off?
Surely some vertical redistribution takes place, but, as noted in chapter 1, a substantial portion of social program benefits involves horizontal rather than vertical redistribution. The social merging programs I am suggesting would create some vertical redistribution, as does the current AFDC program, but social insurance does not involve much vertical redistribution since a good portion of today's taxes for social insurance programs will be returned to a worker in benefits as he or she encounters social hazards. Thus constraints on current income are the means of providing a citizen with freedom in subsequent situations.
Further, while socioeconomic rights do make substantial demands on government budgets, one cannot say that cutting social program expenditures would reduce taxes or the constraints on
liberty that they represent. The savings might simply be shifted to defense or other programs, as has occurred to some degree during the Reagan administration. It is also reasonable to ask, as I will in the next section, whether the developmental liberty that socioeconomic rights create offsets the constraints to negative liberty that taxes pose.
As to how socioeconomic rights might challenge the liberties of providers of basic services, possible restrictions on physicians are the most commonly discussed. In Britain's National Health Service (NHS), American providers see fearful restrictions on income and professional autonomy. It is possible, however, to ensure broad access to medical services without following the British model. In the Federal Republic of Germany, for example, a system of decentralized private organizations operates within federal guidelines to secure socioeconomic rights to medical care.
The fourth type of constraint on negative liberty concerns various restrictions on the recipients. For instance, programs that distribute basic goods in kind—food stamps and some housing programs—offer recipients less freedom to choose goods than do transfer-payment plans. Public assistance programs such as AFDC and related efforts in other nations in some instances dictate constraints on personal activities, including household membership.
In summary, socioeconomic rights pose or can pose several problems for negative liberty. Libertarians who place negative liberty above all other values and tolerate conflicting concerns only reluctantly can never be expected to exhibit any enthusiasm for socioeconomic rights nor, in many instances, for social programs. But the libertarian position is an extreme one, even in America, and we need not end our inquiry here because libertarians object to the way in which socioeconomic rights infringe on negative liberty. Rather we need to focus our attention on the breadth and depth of the problems socioeconomic rights pose for negative liberty—that is, whose liberty is constrained and how severely—as well as on what practical measures can be taken to reduce these difficulties.
In this vein neither the compulsory character of social insurance nor its characteristic life-cycle redistribution has by and large created problems for participating citizens. Instead, these issues have been used by professional groups such as the AMA as stalking
horses for other concerns. The public may, however, protest if the level of benefits from social insurance programs drops and payroll deductions continue to rise.
The tradeoff of reduced discretionary income against social program benefits has been more problematic for public assistance programs than for social insurance, particularly when vertical redistribution is widely perceived as failing to facilitate improvements in recipients' lives. The investments approach attempts, through social merging efforts, to overcome this problem by assuring that, to the widest degree possible, recipients of these programs earn their benefits by contributing to their self-support in socially approved ways. All other restrictions on recipients could be reduced, for they are not inherent to socioeconomic rights.
This leaves us with the most politically troublesome problem that socioeconomic rights pose for negative liberty: the freedom of private service providers, doctors in particular. But we need look no further than Medicare to see that socioeconomic rights can be implemented in ways that allow providers relatively high incomes and considerable professional autonomy. Unfortunately, the British NHS, which does restrict providers, has so dominated the thinking of the AMA and other American medical organizations that they have exerted their considerable political resources—money, organization, and social position—toward blocking the development of all social programs intended to realize basic socioeconomic rights without stopping to differentiate among proposals according to the degree of threat to their interests.
By developmental liberty , I am referring to situations in which the application of external resources, tangible or intangible, opens up to a person new choices or opportunities that would otherwise not exist and that encourage the development of individual human potential. In practice, the fostering of developmental liberty involves devising ways by which limiting circumstances may be overcome—ignorance or indigence set aside—so that choices may be expanded. Here, governments often play a constructive role through infusions of resources that enable people to engage in choices denied them by market distribution. Developmental lib-
erty thus comes at some expense to negative liberty (taxes on discretionary income) of either the same or similar people at other points in time (social insurance) or of different and generally more prosperous people (public assistance or social merging). Among social scientists and the public at large, one hears diverse assessments of this tradeoff.
Americans have generally been supportive of developmental liberty as applied to public education, though this support is generally expressed in terms of meritocratic equality of opportunity rather than developmental liberty. Indeed the United States has been more inclined than most other industrial societies to attack problems of resource inadequacy through education (and the upward social mobility that it presumably provides) than through programs that directly upgrade the material resources of desperate households. My emphasis on self-help in socioeconomic rights, particularly in terms of acquiring better preparation for the labor market, fits well with these American predispositions. Beyond the realm of public education, however, the United States has generally been less supportive of developmental liberty, perhaps seeing in it troubling egalitarian manifestations of equal results. The British, in contrast, are quick to point out that the NHS contributes to citizens' liberty by healing and allowing normal activity as well as by relieving citizens of some of the costs and anxieties associated with medical care under market circumstances.
In contrast to what we found in the case of negative liberty, socioeconomic rights mesh nicely with the spirit of and the more prosaic material contributions to developmental liberty. Social programs that supply basic material goods and services such as education and medical care during difficult periods can open or reopen constructive avenues of activity. Of course, human development also requires intangible support, love and encouragement from others, for example. But social programs can help, and the basic resources they provide are more essential to developmental liberty than those directed through the police, courts, prisons, and defense programs. Nonetheless, we must be mindful that while basic resources are necessary, they are not sufficient for socially constructive developmental liberty. Food stamps may help to keep an impoverished child alive, but development can take ugly turns if the child grows up in a destructive family environment, faces stul-
tifying prejudice from society, or receives social program support of a form that stifles self-actualization.
As I pointed out above, the tradeoffs between negative and developmental liberty appear to be less bothersome to Americans in the case of social insurance than in programs designed to address persistent problems of social disadvantage. Self-interest may well play a part in this: most Americans expect to make use of social security, while far fewer expect to rely on AFDC. But the difference also rests on the public's perceptions of the recipients and on the style of redistribution. Social insurance recipients are viewed as sound people facing episodic problems involving life-cycle redistribution, while public assistance recipients are often viewed as persons of dubious character on the fringes of society who take resources from others. Here, the investments approach may be salutary in changing both the nature of programs directed at disadvantage and the public's perceptions of program recipients. People who receive benefits from social merging programs in return for their contributions to the social product are legitimized in a way that recipients of current public assistance are not.
In order to be politically viable, any concept of socioeconomic rights must limit its conflict with economic efficiency. Specific issues include the consequences of socioeconomic rights on work incentives, savings patterns, risk taking, and international competitiveness.
A prominent American view is that existing social programs reduce work incentives and productivity generally. The three principal arguments are that a system of extensive social programs: (1) emboldens organized mainstream labor to press for wage increases and other demands, because workers know they will be protected during strikes or interludes of unemployment; (2) reduces workers' motivation, since increased earnings will be taxed to the benefit of others; and (3) discourages people from accepting jobs that pay about the same amount as might be obtained through generous social programs, especially if those jobs are dirty, dangerous, dreary, or degrading in other ways.
If we look overseas, we have no trouble finding evidence that
casts doubts on each of these contentions. In Sweden, for example, the extensive realization of socioeconomic rights accompanies high levels of productivity and strong work incentives; the Federal Republic of Germany is frequently mentioned in this context as well. Lester Thurow finds little relationship between economic efficiency and economic equality, and Harold Wilensky finds that state spending on social programs is positively associated with levels of productivity.
Whether these patterns are relevant to the United States is a question that admits no easy answer, and the evidence is quite mixed. For example, from 1900 to 1980 aggregate labor trends among men exhibit little change except for a decline in labor-force participation among men of retirement age, retirement presumably as a result of social security; women, again except those of retirement age, have dramatically increased their participation in the labor force across the same period. The negative income tax experiments conducted in stages in several locations in the 1970s, however, show moderate declines in hours worked by people, particularly women, whose income levels were assured. Overall, the rate of growth in American productivity has declined since social programs were expanded in the 1960s, but this association may be attributed to any number of confounding variables.
In a society as atomized or individualistic as the United States, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that particular forms of social programs represent threats to work incentives for people trapped in low-paying jobs, often called the secondary labor market. Characteristically, such jobs not only return low wages and few fringe benefits but also tend to be subject to frequent termination on short notice. Often dreary, dirty, or dangerous, this sort of work does not lead to pay raises, job security, or promotion in rank or responsibilities.
Popular perceptions of the secondary labor market show vestiges of the notion of two races or two species, a conception prominent in early-nineteenth-century Britain. The superior class comprised property-owners, and they were motivated by desires for profit, or what we might call positive reinforcement. In contrast, "the poor," or the class that had to work for a living, was alleged to be motivated by the threat of punishment, that is, by adversive control, such as the prospect of starvation.
Today most Americans have to work for a living, but no one would suggest that professionals, paraprofessionals, white-collar workers, or skilled manual workers are primarily motivated by adversive control. For while their jobs are imperfect in many ways, they do afford varying measures of positive reinforcement: good wages, a sense of personal pride, and the development of personal expertise, among others. But for people at the bottom of the income and job-status distributions, it may well be reasonable to suppose that adversive control remains an important factor in decisions about work and therefore that some forms of social programs reduce work incentives. If so, what is called for is a long-range effort to revitalize these incentives through positive reinforcement rather than adversive control. But in the near term we should also question the wisdom of social programs that, like the policy initiatives of the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, tended to provide benefits without asking for specific forms of constructive activity in return.
The effects of existing social programs on work incentives seem to reflect distinct program features. Wilensky, for instance, argues that retirement pensions provide a powerful incentive for developing a regular work history—a thesis consistent with the aggregate labor trends cited above. But current American practices with respect to AFDC and unemployment insurance may be destructive of work incentives. Even the disability aspect of social security may be more problematic in this regard than are pensions for the elderly. Overall, social insurance programs aimed at clearly episodic problems are less troublesome with respect to work incentives than programs aimed at social disadvantage, although both types of programs may improve the payoffs for socially undesirable activities.
The effort requirement introduced in chapter 2 reduces the work-incentive problems posed by some existing social programs. By facilitating labor-market participation and supplementing its rewards, thereby making household support both necessary and more feasible, the investments approach positively reinforces desirable activity, unlike most current social programs for working-aged adults.
A second criterion of economic efficiency is the personal savings rate. Martin Feldstein, among others, argues that since American
social insurance programs operate on a pay-as-we-go basis, they create no funds that can be used for investment. Further, he maintains that social insurance discourages relatively prosperous citizens from accumulating personal savings to protect themselves against social hazards. Feldstein's first point is accurate, but its significance in this context hinges on the second: Would Americans save more and would the nation have more capital for productive investment if there were less social program support? The historical evidence suggests that the answer is no. The personal savings rate, expressed as a proportion of gross national product was 16 percent in 1973, the same as in the 1920s, before any national social insurance programs existed. Nor does Henry J. Aaron's analysis of American savings patterns in the last fifty years reveal any discernible trends in personal savings.
Even if we assume that Americans would start to save more, we cannot be sure what proportion of the new savings would be available for capital formation rather than locked into collectibles or real estate. We may also wonder whether productivity-enhancing investments would rise with the savings rate. If Americans saved more, they would purchase less, and if social programs reduced their benefits, consumer demand would also drop. Thus the combination of higher savings and lower social benefits might dampen demand to the point that American producers would see little motive to invest in improved domestic capital stock. In that case public policy could structure incentives to channel savings in specific directions and to stimulate domestic capital investment, but such incentives are fully independent of funding for social programs, neither following from reductions in social programs nor requiring such reductions as a preliminary step.
A third aspect of economic efficiency involves business's attitudes toward risk taking. Production costs (including payroll taxes for social insurance programs), the incentives of workers, and the availability of capital all affect the willingness of American entrepreneurs and corporate managers to take risks with new enterprises or to expand or modernize existing facilities. In the United States, indeed, business enjoys an unusual independence in risk-taking decisions. Whereas French state managers and Swedish labor officials may routinely participate in corporate investment decisions, American businesses expect relative autonomy in their
decision making. The prospect of government "interference" regarding worker safety or environmental impacts makes American private managers hesitant to invest capital in a new enterprise. Similarly, a restive or powerful workforce, or the perception of one, tends to curtail risk-taking.
For this reason, American businesses are wary of social programs that strengthen labor's hand. In offering substantial benefits to limited segments of the working-age population without a clear quid pro quo, programs like unemployment insurance and AFDC could be interpreted as counterproductive. But this does not mean that economic benefits must be denied to vulnerable individuals in order to allow business managers to feel more confident about risking capital. Rather, it suggests that we try to provide these basic benefits in a way that will be less troubling to business. Again, the investments approach to socioeconomic rights is designed to address this concern.
Increasingly, economic efficiency is discussed in the context of global economic competitiveness. Once, American businesses argued that if social programs were inevitable, uniform national programs were preferable to interstate variations that would put some businesses at a disadvantage. Today they envision the United States as a relatively homogeneous unit competing with other advanced industrial societies, and they ask whether national social programs may hamper the competitive position of American products and services. Among the potential dangers cited are deleterious effects on work incentives, additions to labor costs, depletion of capital, and constraints on business managers' willingness to take risks due to uncertainties about such problems.
As noted earlier, however, the United States spends a smaller percentage of gross national product on social programs than do most other industrial societies. Thus any lack of competitiveness of American products cannot be attributed to anomalous social program costs. Nonetheless, one might argue that reducing social program costs might increase the competitiveness of American products or that reducing future increases in social program costs might improve the competitiveness of American products over time.
Such arguments, however, exceed our understanding of the practical consequences of existing social programs and alternatives to them. There is simply no clear consensus among economists or
other analysts about the macroeconomic costs and benefits of social programs. Recent debates about deregulation suggest that business managers perceive social programs as conflicting with their interests—and perhaps with economic efficiency too. The perceptions of this exceptionally influential group carry significant political weight, but we have no way of objectively judging whether they are accurate.
Despite these uncertainties, two points seem indisputable. First, social programs are merely one factor contributing to work incentives, savings patterns, risk taking, and international competitiveness. And if social programs were shown to impinge on the realization of economic efficiency, it might be possible to counterbalance this effect by other actions. For example, changes in management style might enhance work incentives, and various taxreform strategies have been proposed to stimulate savings.
Second, we can easily see that some formulations of socioeconomic rights are more inconsistent with economic efficiency than others. On this criterion my proposal seems less disruptive than, say, the guaranteed-income approach of the Nixon and Carter administrations. Again, anticipated conflicts between socioeconomic rights and core American values may be reduced by careful design of social insurance and social merging programs.
Equality is a value frequently set in juxtaposition to both negative liberty and economic efficiency. We may usefully distinguish between equality of results, which has not achieved considerable support in theory or in practice among Americans, and equality of opportunity, which in limited senses, at least, has become a core American value.
The essence of the relationship between socioeconomic rights and equality of results was presented in chapter 2. Because equality of results remains a controversial value in American political culture, my proposal for socioeconomic rights is based on a limited conception of this principle, one designed to minimize the conflict with negative liberty and economic efficiency. My contention that people who contribute to the social product from which basic resources are derived have rights to these resources beyond
what market allocation provides entails a reduction in the relative inequalities of some results. But both the manner of assuring certain minimums for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy and the means of rewarding efforts at self-help fit reasonably well with American political culture. Beyond these basic resources, for which distributive justice demands allocation on the basis of effort, market or other means of distributing tangible and intangible resources are acceptable; my proposal for socioeconomic rights does not attempt what Michael Walzer calls simple equality or roughly equal shares of resources.
As we have seen, these limited socioeconomic rights involve some sacrifice of liberty by some persons to meet the needs of others. While the United States has engaged in a variety of practices that sacrifice liberty to achieve greater equality of selected results, the nation has characteristically done so grudgingly, complaining all the way, and frequently implementing the redistributive mechanisms in a hostile manner inimical to the abstract intent of achieving greater equality of results. By requiring contributions to the social product as a prerequisite to recipient status, I intend to make more palatable such tradeoffs between liberty and equality. Like beneficiaries of social security and public education, recipients would be entitled to benefits in return for constructive activity. And the requirement that effort be exerted in the paid labor market brings equality of results within the bounds of economic efficiency as well.
In contrast to equality of results, limited senses of equality of opportunity have achieved considerable support, in both theory and practice, within the United States. One aspect of this value is procedural fairness, the use of performance-related criteria rather than sex, race, or age in the distribution of work or educational opportunities, unless such native characteristics are directly relevant to performance. While the historical record of American practice leaves a lot to be desired and our progress has been slow and painful, it is probably appropriate to identify this aspect of equality of opportunity as part of the American creed.
The most obvious shortcoming in this regard evinced by existing social programs involves race. Because social security and other public insurance programs serve a broad cross-section of the population, while AFDC and public assistance programs have a
disproportionate number of minority recipients, many socioeconomically comfortable Americans view public assistance as an "us-versus-them" issue. If programs created to help our most economically vulnerable citizens are to acquire greater political viability, they must be designed to emphasize inclusiveness, serving minorities as an indistinguishable aspect of serving a much broader and more representative constituency.
A second aspect of equality of opportunity relates to differences in developmental opportunities, or the equality of life chances. Obviously procedural fairness will not in itself equalize opportunity among youngsters who attend private preparatory schools and the children of migrant farmworkers. Nor can efforts to equalize life chances by giving disadvantaged youngsters extra preschool or afterschool activities put them on a par with children whose lives are richer in the developmental experiences and role models that foster abilities to compete successfully for educational and occupational positions. Related efforts to give preferential consideration to school or job applicants who have disadvantaged backgrounds have been highly controversial.
The sources of resistance to efforts to realize greater equality of life chances are several: such efforts necessarily constrain negative liberty and procedural fairness, and they sometimes unnecessarily abridge other values as well; and racism and related forms of prejudice predispose some constituencies to oppose any form of affirmative action. While conservatives in the late 1970s and 1980s made a constructive contribution in emphasizing the desirability of eliciting greater responsibility from people who sought social protection or assistance, conservative thinkers have balked at fathoming the full array of problems that profound social disadvantage presents.
The socioeconomic rights that I have suggested are necessary, but far from sufficient, for improving the life chances of the disadvantaged. Government programs can and should provide food for hungry children, but social programs cannot supply these children with the supportive parents, peers, and school environments that encourage intellectual and emotional growth.
The situation in the case of episodic social hazards is more encouraging, for here benefits serve to mitigate the effects of problematic episodes in the lives of those who generally cope relatively
well. In such cases equality of opportunity greatly resembles developmental liberty, with socioeconomic rights expanding the opportunities of those whose fortunes, were they limited to private means, would be more restricted.
Though socioeconomic rights lead us in the direction of greater equality of life chances, these rights are not forceful facilitators of this value. And they are of less help in cases of disadvantage than when applied to episodic problems. But in the process of lending minimal support to equalities of results and opportunities, these socioeconomic rights reflect some of the tension inherent in our nation's troublesome commitment to two incompatible values, negative liberty and equality.
In the late eighteenth century democracy was rescued from political obscurity and given a representational structure. Civil rights—to speech and assembly, for example—were gradually established, and in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries political rights were added. The distinguishing features of democracies of this sort were depicted by Joseph Schumpeter as procedures involving periodic elite competition within widely accepted guidelines. Civil rights formed the background rules of political competition, and the exercise of political rights—roughly one person, one vote—determined winners and losers.
As more recent empirical studies have revealed, this conception of democratic practices harbors several inadequacies. For one, levels of political information and participation are not as high as the conception of electoral competition suggests. For another, this description largely overlooks how elected and appointed officials reach public decisions. Additionally, the focus on democracy as a process of selected procedures tends to downplay the outcomes—who gets what—and the values or ends those outcomes support.
Specifically, empirical studies show that individual information and participation levels are associated with socioeconomic status as well as membership in politically minded groups—unions and other interest groups, political parties, churches. And whereas the electoral competition conception of democracy focuses on individuals who are organized into parties at elections, in practice
we see a range of groups, many of which are well-organized and backed by extensive financial resources, relevant expertise, and impressive social connections, and which are active during and in between elections, lobbying public bodies to support their interests.
These findings have led some to argue that average citizens are only marginally involved in contemporary democracies. And even their interests are represented largely by groups reflecting a limited portion of the citizenry and subject to the iron law of oligarchy.
If contemporary democracy involves such modest participation on the part of the citizenry, what makes it democratic? An increasingly prominent answer focuses on a substantive matter: the values a polity realizes. By this line of thought a polity cannot rightfully be considered a democracy by procedures alone, particularly if these procedures appear to benefit primarily a socioeconomic elite. Rather, a democracy must uphold certain ends, including a conception of distributive justice whose policy outcomes benefit the population broadly. In essence, there is an implicit tradeoff: the price elites pay for encouraging political ground rules and mild competition is sharing material payoffs with the many who do not participate as regularly or thoroughly as elites in the expressive freedoms of procedural democracy. This tradeoff fits the suggestion, mentioned in chapter 2, that negative (civil-political) rights may be useless from the perspective of the masses, while positive (socioeconomic) rights are redundant for the elite. The presence of each in contemporary democracies thus provides something for everyone, or nearly so; in effect, the "subsistence rights" of feudalism have been recovered. By this reformulation democracy involves the realization of three types of rights, shared in varying degrees by different groups: civil rights, or rights against the state; political rights, or control of the state; and socioeconomic rights, or claims on the state.
What we have here are alternative conceptions of the contemporary meaning of democracy. By one, democracy is appropriately a procedural matter, and extraprocedural considerations of who gets what are external or anterior, rather than inherent, to the meaning of democracy. Charles A. Beard, for instance, argues that the American system of democracy was designed to leave "the fundamental private rights of property anterior to government and
morally beyond the reach of popular majorities." The alternative view acknowledges some substantive essence to democracy: regardless of procedures, in a democracy political outcomes realize certain other values, among them protecting citizens from the social hazards created by wage dependence and vulnerability.
Socioeconomic rights have little place in the property-rights-as-anterior conception, for they entail constraints on negative liberty—taxes—and perhaps also on economic efficiency—taxes or regulation more generally—that effectively dissolve the special anterior status of exclusionary private property rights. Nonetheless, all contemporary democracies, including the United States, have for some while treated the screen protecting property rights as permeable in at least some instances.
To a considerable degree this desanctification of property rights stems from wide experience suggesting that if the pursuit of property is left relatively unhindered by the state, a tiny proportion of the population ends up with most of it, while the vast majority of people have insufficient wealth to endure common social hazards. To meet these needs, life-sustaining public entitlements—to some a new form of property —have been fashioned. Such programs have increased the legitimacy of the state for many, but they restrict the traditional property rights of the few. Naturally, these restrictions elicit resentment and protest from proceduralists and members of the propertied minority.
Community and Social Solidarity
Individualism has such a hold on American society that the values of community or social solidarity have received relatively scant attention. Most often a sense of national community or social solidarity has appeared in response to foreign threats or natural disasters. This form of social solidarity is not unusual, but other societies, frequently with organic pasts, have been able to transcend community based solely on such threats, and social programs have been relevant to these achievements. For instance, while the British criticize nearly innumerable specifics of their National Health Service, they nevertheless derive a sense of community and comfort from its existence. And the Swedes have made some progress in reducing income differentials through solidaristic approaches to wages.
But Sweden has a tradition of state paternalism, and American individualism may prohibit similar social program contributions in the United States.
Yet we often hear discussions these days of Americans' yearning for a sense of community. Individualism, it seems, fails to fulfill personal needs for fellowship and a sense of meaning derived from contributing to broadly recognized values. Historically most American experience with community has been local and voluntary, but other aspects of social solidarity are relevant to national scales of action, for example, exhibiting concern for fellow citizens' medical-care needs by establishing a national program.
Whether public programs can, outside of wartime, engender social solidarity against the background of the individualistic American political culture is unclear. Up to now the categorical character and political vulnerability of American public assistance has often made these programs sources of divisiveness. More promising is the example of social security, which suggests that Americans are willing to support an involuntary social insurance program that is broadly inclusive. It does not, therefore, seem foolish to hope that socioeconomic rights that are inclusive and generally compatible with American political culture might further the values of community and social solidarity.
Rights are a relatively new means for achieving human dignity, but they have become indispensable to the American conception. One's capacity for self-esteem stems from the possession of rights that others must respect.
During the nation's first century, the civil and political rights associated largely with negative liberty were sufficient supports for dignity for much of the American population. Most people were born into relatively large families and lived in households that owned life-sustaining property. The traditional American conception of human dignity thus came to be closely associated with self-reliance. The dignified American lived free from both predatory government tyranny and supportive government paternalism.
Self-reliance, however, was not well suited to the industrial America that began to develop between the Civil War and the Great Depression. During the progressive era a few state govern-
ments tried to adjust public policy to fit the changing character of American society, but no general progress with respect to wage dependence and vulnerability was made until the 1930s, when worldwide economic calamities led the Roosevelt administration to propose the New Deal. It is well worth remembering that the programs initiated by FDR were largely designed to cope with the nation's immediate problems, rather than to inaugurate a competing concept of human dignity.
But the creators of social security, a relatively insignificant part of the overall effort, used the concept of individual accounts of earned rights to give social security a special status and dignity among American efforts at public social provision. In contrast to public assistance that was applied to indigency, social security benefits were earned throughout the beneficiary's working life. Individual workers paid taxes into a personal account that provided a right to draw on the program's trust fund when aging disrupted wages.
The creators of social security may rightly be faulted for sacrificing the immediate well-being of the needy elderly and others during the depression years in order to develop a long-term social insurance program that was in fact and in symbolism different from public assistance. Benefits were not paid out until 1940, and the program initially provided extremely modest benefits to a limited number of people. However, the concept of individually earned rights enabled Americans for the first time to view public social provision within the realm of dignified human activity.
In the half century since the New Deal, Americans have increasingly come to reject as too restrictive the traditional conception of human dignity. Through the example of social security, we have come to see dignity in planned participation in earned public entitlements that offer protection from social hazards. Put another way, earned rights are now viewed as a dignified way to cope with the social hazards caused by wage dependency. Dignity is no longer afforded solely by self-reliance; it can also be achieved through public benefits earned by conscientious efforts at self-help.
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.