Economic Myths #9 – Social Safety Nets

[First published on Free Life]

It is often trumpeted as a virtue that “civilised”, social democratic countries offer their citizens one or more types of “social safety net” in an attempt to eliminate the most dire effects of, say, unemployment, illness or some other kind of incapacity that could inflict a condition of extreme poverty upon the individual members of the citizenry. The idea is that the most basic wants will always be guaranteed by the state should one be unable to provide them for oneself and no one need have any fear of hunger or lack of shelter – situations that are said to be “intolerable” in a modern, twenty-first century society.

The first problem with this theory is that poverty is not some selectively appearing disease that makes a magical appearance every now and then to infect an otherwise healthy and wealthy society. Rather, poverty is the natural state in which human beings first found themselves. When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden they saw that the world was a barren and harsh place that is capable of providing precious little – may be just air to breathe – without the conscious effort of its inhabitants. The only way to alleviate this terrible situation is for humans to work to produce the goods that they need and, eventually, to bring about capital investment in order to expand the amount of consumer goods that can be enjoyed – whether it’s cheap food, housing, education, holidays or whatever – a process that only really got underway in any significant form in the 1800s.

If, therefore, the individual beneficiaries of a social safety net are not able to produce these goods themselves then it follows that somebody else must do so. Legislating the welfare state into existence does not, unfortunately, create the goods and services it needs to dispense to the poor and needy in order to banish poverty and want. Rather, existing goods have to be forcibly confiscated from those who have produced them and dished out for free to those that haven’t. Social safety nets are compulsory redistribution programmes, not wealth creation programmes and any benefit one receives under them will be at the expense of another person.

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