post by Paul Kelleher (@kelleher_)
Defending President Obama's recent use of it, Jonathan Chait claims that the term "'social Darwinist' captures the prevailing Republican philosophy pretty well." Chait cites as evidence a paper by Romney advisor Greg Mankiw in which Mankiw defends a "Just Deserts Theory" of justice. (I have previously critiqued that theory on this blog). In response, Mankiw accuses Chait of unfair and selective quotation. Mankiw then highlights the following passage from his paper in his own defense.
What about transfer payments to the poor? These can be justified along similar lines. As long as people care about others to some degree, antipoverty programs are a type of public good. [Thurow 1971] That is, under this view, the government provides for the poor not simply because their marginal utility is high but because we have interdependent utility functions. Put differently, we would all like to alleviate poverty. But because we would prefer to have someone else pick up the tab, private charity can’t do the job. Government-run antipoverty programs solve the free-rider problem among the altruistic well-to-do.
According to Mankiw, a social darwinist is someone who believes (in part) that "the weak and unfit should be allowed to die." Now, I have no interest in wading into a discussion of whether "social darwinist" applies to Mankiw (or to anyone), but I will note that the passage Mankiw accuses Chait of ignoring does not entail that the poor (or the sick, etc.) must be helped as a matter of justice. Rather, it says that since the "altruistic well-to-do" happen to care about the poor, and since government can sometimes step in to help citizens achieve what they care about, government can step in to help alleviate poverty. This is quite consistent with the view that if the well-to-do did not care about the poor, there would be no good rationale for state-administered policies to help the poor. Indeed, Mankiw seems to admit this in his paper when he discusses tax policy that would be aimed at helping poor foreigners (emphasis added):
Imagine a candidate for president campaigned on a platform of imposing a one-third tax on the average American’s income and transferring the entire proceeds of the tax to poor nations around the world. Would you be inclined to support this candidate? I am confident that most voters would not. I say this because I know of no political candidate who has proposed something even remotely like this. Moreover, the foreign aid that the United States does provide to the world’s poor is far smaller than this and, even so, tends to be wildly unpopular. […]
The reason Americans are more ready to vote for transfer payments to the American poor than for foreign aid is simply that they care more about their own neighbors than they do about the poor abroad. As a result of these preferences, caring for the American poor is more of a public good than caring for the poor in other nations.
Mankiw never suggests that it is wrong to care so little about the world's poorest individuals, or that it would be wrong to become indifferent toward the poor in America. Labels aside, this fact seems relevant to the substantive moral issues raised by the brief Chait/Mankiw dust-up. For many, justice is about what we must care about, not merely about what we happen to care about.