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Milton Friedman: Is Welfare a Basic Human Right?

The Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is important, I think, to note that the founding document of the United States only guarantees citizens the right to the “pursuit of Happiness.” There is no right to Happiness itself.

Nowadays, many would consider this list of rights too short. Where is the ‘right’ to healthcare? The ‘right’ to a college education? The ‘right’ to welfare? In recent years, leading political candidates have claimed that all of these things are ‘rights’. Of course, not a single one of them actually is a ‘right’ at all. If made mandatory, each of them imposes obligations on others to provide healthcare, a college education, or welfare, and these obligations infringe upon the rights of others. So, while these might all be desirable things, that is not the same as saying that they are ‘rights’.

The attempt to get anything we desire designated as a ‘right’ which someone must provide for us is not a new one. Back in 1972, the economist Milton Friedman tackled exactly this issue in his column for Newsweek.

In a recent Newsweek column on poverty, Shana Alexander wrote, “Access to food, clothing, shelter and medical care is a basic human right.”

The heart approves Ms. Alexander’s humanitarian concern, but the head warns that her statement admits of two very different meanings, one that is consistent with a free society, and one that is not.

One meaning is that everyone should be free to use his human capacities to acquire food, clothing, shelter and medical care by either direct production or voluntary cooperation with others. This meaning is the essence of a free society organized through voluntary cooperation.

This meaning is far from trivial. Indeed, I conjecture that most hardship and misery in the U.S. today reflect government’s interference with this right. You cannot earn your livelihood by becoming a plumber, barber, mortician, lawyer, physician, dentist, or by entering a host of other trades, unless you first are licensed by the government. And the granting of a license is typically in the hands of practitioners of the trade you desire to enter, who find it in their self-interest to restrict entry.

You will have difficulty getting a highly paid job as a carpenter, mason or electrician unless you can persuade a union to let you join, and that may not be easy if your brother or father or uncle is not a member of the union. It will be especially difficult if you are black and poor, however competent. Like the American Medical Association, the unions can enforce their tight monopoly only with the support of the government.

If you are a black teen-ager whose services are currently worth only $1.50 an hour, it is illegal for most employers to hire you, even though you are willing to accept that wage.

And I have only scratched the surface of existing restrictions on your basic human right to use your capacities as you wish, provided only that you do not interfere with the right of others to do the same.

But this is not Ms. Alexander’s meaning, as is clear from her next sentence: “When lawmakers attempt to convert welfare into workfare … this is less conversion than perversion of that basic idea.”

Ms. Alexander apparently believes that you and I have a “basic human right” to food, clothing, shelter and medical care without a quid pro quo. That is a very different matter.

If I have the “right” to food in this sense, someone must have the obligation to provide it. Just who is that? If it is Ms. Alexander, does that not convert her into my slave? Nothing is changed by assigning the “right” to the “poor.” Their “right” is meaningless unless it is combined with the power to force others to provide the goods to which Ms. Alexander believes they are entitled.

This is clearly unacceptable. But neither can we rely solely on the “right to access” in the first sense. Protecting that right fully would reduce poverty and destitution drastically. But there would still remain people who, through no fault of their own, because of accidents of birth, or illness, or whatever, were unable to earn what the rest of us would regard as an acceptable minimum income. I believe that the best, though admittedly imperfect, solution for such residual hardship would be voluntary action on the part of the rest of us to assist our less fortunate brethren.

But our problem is far more serious. Restrictions on access in the first sense, plus ill-conceived welfare measures, have made millions of people dependent on government for their most elementary needs. It was a mistake to have permitted this situation to develop. But it has developed, and we cannot simply wipe the slate clean. We must develop transition programs that eliminate the welfare mess without unconscionable hardship to present welfare recipients.

That is why, for three decades, I have urged the replacement of our present collection of so-called poverty programs by a negative income tax that would guarantee a minimum to everyone and would encourage recipients to become self-supporting.

I favor a negative income tax not because I believe anyone has a “right” to be fed, clothed and housed at someone else’s expense but because I want to join my fellow taxpayers in relieving distress and feel a special compulsion to do so because governmental policies have been responsible for putting so many of our fellow citizens in the demeaning position in which they now find themselves.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.