In response to the progressive proposals to provide new and expanded benefits to Americans, the right has made use of two stock arguments. The first is the deficit argument, which I addressed in my previous essay. The second is the Dependency argument.
The gist of the Dependency argument is that if people get assistance or benefits of a certain sort, such as unemployment benefits or childcare, from the state, then they risk becoming dependent upon the state. Since this dependence is claimed to have negative consequences, such assistance and benefits should be limited or not provided. This can be seen as a utilitarian argument.
There are numerous variations of this argument which tend to focus on specific alleged harms. For example, it might be contended that if unemployment benefits are too generous then people will not want to work. As a specific illustration, in April, 2020 Senator Lindsey Graham argued that public financial relief for the coronavirus would incentivize workers to leave their jobs. Other alleged harms include damage to the moral character of the recipients of such benefits and, on a larger scale, the creation of a culture of dependency and a culture of entitlement. While this argument is passionately advanced by many on the right, there are two main issues that need to be addressed. The first is whether the argument is being made in good faith. The second is whether the argument is a good one from a logical standpoint.
Bad faith argumentation can occur in a variety of ways. One way is for a person to knowingly use fallacies or rhetoric as substitutes for good reasoning. Interestingly, a person can use fallacies and rhetoric in good faith when they do so unintentionally. In such cases, they are using bad logic in good faith. Another way is for a person to use premises they believe are untrue. Naturally, a person can make untrue claims in good faith—they do not realize their claims are untrue. Another way a person can argue in bad faith is to advance arguments that they do not believe in. This usually involves making arguments based on principles or reasons that they do not actually accept, while they pretend that they do.
Because of the problem of other minds, sorting out when people are engaged in bad faith argumentation can be challenging. After all, even if you can show that a person has used a fallacy or made a false claim, this does not itself prove they were arguing in bad faith: bad faith involves intent. Fortunately, there are ways to make a decent case that someone is engaged in bad faith and one of these is to provide evidence of inconsistency. This is, unfortunately, not always decisive: people can be sincerely inconsistent because they do not understand the implications of their claims and for other reasons that do not involve an intent at deceit. But in the case of the right, their dependency argument seems to generally be a bad faith argument.
If we take the Dependency arguments seriously, then they would also tell against inheritance. In fact, philosophers have long made this argument.
Mary Wollstonecraft contends that hereditary wealth is morally wrong because it produces idleness and impedes people from developing their virtues. Inheritance is unearned. So, if receiving unearned resources creates dependency, then inheritance would create dependency. It could be countered that people can earn an inheritance, that it might be granted because of their hard work or some other relevant factor. While such cases would be worth considering, earning by hard work is not the usual way one qualifies for an inheritance. However, an earned inheritance would certainly not be subject to this argument. This exactly mirrors the conservative Dependency arguments, and they should, if they are consistent, agree with Wollstonecraft. But they clearly do not.
As one would expect, conservatives on the right generally favor inheritance and oppose estate taxes. During the Trump administration, the exemption to the estate tax increased to $5.49 million and in 2017 it increased again to $11.18 million. This is inconsistent with their Dependency argument; if they fear that people getting small benefits from the state will create dependency and destroy incentives, then they should be terrified by such massive inheritances: these would, as Wollstonecraft argued, seem to be vastly more harmful. If one does not like the inheritance argument, then there is also the welfare for the wealthy argument.
While there are some exceptions, the right typically favors subsidies and benefits for corporations, businesses, and the wealthy. As such, it is hardly surprising that the bulk of social welfare spending benefits them rather than the poor. With almost no exceptions, one does not hear the people railing about dependency argue against these benefits and assistance—they are only concerned when the beneficiaries are the poor rather than the rich.
One can, of course, argue that there are relevant differences between benefits and assistance for the rich and those for the less-well off (or everyone). Often, these arguments also tend to be made in bad faith—a common tactic is to use the Perfect Analogy fallacy. This fallacy occurs when one takes the standards for assessing an argument by analogy to the extreme and imposes unreasonable requirements for similarity. This is the opposite of the Poor or False Analogy fallacy; this occurs when the standards are applied too laxly by the person making the argument.
As a tactic, when using the Perfect Analogy Fallacy, one simply refuses to accept that the two things are similar, no matter what evidence or reasons are presented. As always, it can be challenging to prove that someone is doing this in bad faith, but one can sometimes push the person into trying to defend something that they clearly do not believe, and their bad faith becomes evident. That said, one must always be careful to not assume that a person who rejects an analogy must be arguing in bad faith or that they must be wrong—to refuse to consider their arguments would be an act of bad faith.
In closing, those who oppose the progressive proposals and use the Dependency argument generally seem to be arguing in bad faith. Naturally, if they have also argued against inheritance and benefits for the wealthy using the Dependency argument, then they can bee seen as arguing in good faith. As far as whether benefits create dependency or destroy incentives to work, that is another matter. But the answer seems to be “no”, as long as one looks at the statistical data rather than simply speaking from ideology or “common sense.”
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