04/16/12 – Don Watkins at Brown


7:07 p.m.
Amazingly, I found free parking almost immediately upon arriving at the Brown University campus for Don Watkins‘s talk for the Brown Republicans, “What’s Really Wrong with Entitlements.”

Technical difficulties have me a bit behind, though, and Watkins is already going.

He’s started by characterizing the problem as one of $100 trillion, beginning with a graphic of piles of cash to illustrate how much money we’re talking about.  (I seem to recall Kevin Williamson showing similar graphics seven years ago or so.)

7:12 p.m.
Watkins: Why are entitlements sacrosanct? The first response to attempts to end them is that “people will starve in the streets.”

“I was surprised by how well people did cope in the era before entitlement states.” “They flourished.”

7:14 p.m.
Around the 19th century, standard of living exploded, corresponding, he says, with the “unleashing of capitalism.”

7:16 p.m.
He’s been talking about how quickly life went from subsistence-level to what we have now. “Capitalism ends poverty.”

He’s presenting a graph showing the anti-poverty spending increasing at the same time that poverty itself stopped disappearing. His explanation: government spending comes out of investment, which grows the economy and would otherwise end poverty.

7:19 p.m.
Watkins: What about people who run into hard times? He notes that, pre-welfare state, people worked and saved against problems.

People also helped each other with charity and person-to-person credit (local butcher). Mutual aid societies… “voluntary associations,” creating a precursor to insurance.

7:23 p.m.
Watkins: If people could take care of themselves back then, how would they fare now? He notes that poverty in the U.S. means air conditioning, TVs, and cars. (He could add in cell phones, videogames, and so on.)

7:24 p.m.
With a slide showing a guy holding a sign reading, “Obama ain’t the only one who wants change,” Watkins is saying that much of the motivation for the welfare state was ideological and the principle that ” need gives somebody claim to other people’s wealth.”

Says the New Deal had to be sold, including Social Security as an insurance program. “That is all an illusion created by politicians like FDR.”

7:26 p.m.
Watkins: Entitlements are a third rail in politics because of the belief that “we are our brothers’ keepers.”

The real problem with entitlements (slide showing Steve Jobs) is that “producers have to foot the bill.”

7:29 p.m.
He described the plot of Where the Red Fern Grows about a boy who worked and saved up for two years to buy two hunting dogs. “Well what if Sheriff Obama came along” and sought “dog equality” and gives one of the dogs to the boy down the street?

We can agree that that’s unjust, but that’s what the government does. “Isn’t stealing wrong” (slide).

He says the entitlement statist’s answer is that it’s done in the name of morality. “You call it stealing, I call it fulfilling morality’s demands.”

“That is an indictment of the idea that you are your brother’s keeper.”

7:32 p.m.
“What kind of person benefits and what kind of person loses.”

Who loses in Social Security? The one who invests, saves up, and prepares for his own future.

7:34 p.m.
Who benefits? Watkins says its the people who “wouldn’t receive help because they wouldn’t receive benefits.”

“Sacrifices the best people to the worst, those who are irrational and irresponsible.”

“We really face a choice” of what kind of nation we want to be.

7:36 p.m.

First: How would you transition us from entitlements to no entitlements?

Watkins: A transition is important; it would be an injustice to pull the rug out from those who’ve planned their lives around current circumstances. But the hard part is getting people to realize that a change is necessary. Once that’s understood, it’s a matter of practical decision making.

Two ways it could be done: One, set an end-by date so everybody plans accordingly. “People would have to move back in with their kids,” in a period of “rough adjustment.” But we’d end with a better society. Two, “a slow, tapered transition” that phases it out over a few generations.

7:39 p.m.
Watkins: “There’s going to be pain one way or another.”

Q2: The only way to get to that would be a real catastrophe like the black plague. “It brought people back to their senses,” with more opportunity in a shrunken society. “There’d have to be a revolution.”

Watkins translates as a question: Is it possible without a catastrophe? He thinks so. It would take a revolution, but “it would be a revolution in people’s thinking.”

7:43 p.m.
At a time of catastrophe, he says, you get change, but it implements the ideas existing at the time. So, right now, we would get a horrible dictatorship if a catastrophe were the catalyst

District 2 Congressional candidate Michael Gardiner, in the audience, has settled in to a speech designed to “give another side.” He says the world pre-entitlement wasn’t a marvelous time. He’s better off because his sister got grants and loans to go to college and become a teacher.

Gardiner says the battle is between the progressive idea…

Watkins asked him to “wrap it up real quick.”

Gardiner’s still going… “The necessary ingredient is accountability.”

7:47 p.m.

Gardiner: “Do you see police, fire, regulation of the stock market” as “taking from the individual?”

Watkins rephrases: Does government have a purpose? Yes, to protect rights, through three basic systems: police, military, and a legal system. “The one harm” that the government can interfere to prevent is force. People can lie and be mean, but it’s not government’s role to step in, there. And we can debate how to provide funding for legitimate purposes, but that’s different than taking from people and giving to others.

7:50 p.m.
Next, a student is challenging the notion that the rich are the only producers.

Watkins: Apologizes if he gave that impression. “Productive people exist on every level of income.” There are productive poor and completely unproductive rich.

“Productive is: you contribute to the process of creating wealth.”

7:52 p.m.
Watkins argues that the person who creates a single TV, for example, only contributes to a limited degree. Those who have the idea for a TV or put together the resources for a factory are more productive. Cites Steve Jobs.

7:53 p.m.
Will Ricci, of the Rhode Island Republican Assembly, responds to the Steve Jobs mention, noting that making iPhones in the U.S. would make them prohibitively expensive. He’s characterizing the New Deal as bribing people with other people’s money. “Why do we assume that people have good intentions”?

Watkins: Mentions the brother’s keeper thing, “the morality of altruism.” You can’t practice that consistently, he says, because if you give everything up, “you’ll die.” [Huh? He appears to mean that “being your brother’s keeper” implicitly requires giving absolutely everything away, no matter how presumptuous the request.]

He says there’s no way to determine what’s good for others. “There’s no objective criteria.” “It unleashes the worst among human beings” because good intentions make it “everything goes.”

He’s using communism as an example, but I’d have to insist that the example only emphasizes the degree to which he’s forgetting the individual value of the human being. You’re not your brother’s keeper, I’d say, if you’re killing him to help your other brother. It’s very libertarian of Watkins to accept the progressive definition of individual versus community, merely choosing to privilege the former.

7:59 p.m.
The head of the Brown Republicans notes that the community-based insurance that Watkins supports has limits, at which point neighbors will stop lending, whereas the government “never runs out of money.”

Watkins begins an answer noting that there are no guarantees. The bill has to be paid “by other men.” “I regard that as complete injustice.” “In a free society, if you want to help, then you are free to do that.”

[At this point, I discovered that the outlet that I’d been using was actually not live, and my battery quickly ran out. What follows is from my handwritten notes.]

8:05 p.m.
An audience member suggests that Watkins is being pretty “extreme” in his attacks on the Golden Rule, saying that a line can be drawn that leaves us morally obligated to help others without government’s being the best mechanism.

Watkins insists that the “logic” and incentives will inevitably lead a society that accepts the “brother’s keeper” morality to use government toward those ends, which will ultimately lead to the welfare state.

8:09 p.m.
Gardiner’s back, talking about government being active because voters think things “are smart” activities, not out of moral obligation.

Watkins: “I am an individualist,” so groups can’t decide what individuals must do.

[I think the reaction to Watkins begins with a differing understanding of government, abstractly defined, almost as a mutual society, itself.]

Gardiner’s still interjecting, but another audience member shouted out: “We came to listen to him, not you.”

Watkins: A “precondition of society” is that the use of force must be completely removed.

[I find myself distracted, here. Isn’t government implemented among men to secure certain inalienable rights? That is, isn’t our representative democracy carefully drawn almost as bylaws within which we can develop the kind of government that most closely suits our principles? It seems to me that a strong federalism, with intelligent counterbalancing of power, would bring to government almost precisely the hallmark of private association: the ability to leave one arrangement for a more amicable one.]

Ellen Kenner: Mentions Naziism’s victims as the poorest of the poor, not having any control over their own lives. She says that’s the end result of intrusive government.

Watkins: The “moral high ground” belongs to capitalists, who eliminate poverty.

8:19 p.m.
Next question: Government has camouflaged pride. As a boy, the speaker remembers the humiliation of collecting handouts to bring home to his mother, so much so that he desperately wanted to get off of the system.

Watkins: Responds by citing ’60s mentality of promoting welfare as even less shameful than menial labor. Entitlements lower standards “inch by inch.”

8:25 p.m.
In response to another question equating big government with fascism, Watkins defines fascism as “complete government control with nominal property rights.” He says we’re still a long way from that, but it’s the direction in which we’re heading.

8:28 p.m.
Next questioner suggests Walkins should use the word “Congress” in his speech rather than “government.”

Watkins doesn’t think that’s the key. He doesn’t want to limit his criticism to Congress, offering the Supreme Court as another example.

8:31 p.m.
The questioner clarifies that he meant to indicate that Congress does what it does for reelection purposes.

Walkins says that the underlying problem is that people will vote for those policies.

11:39 p.m. [from home]
I have to say that I’m very glad that I made the trip into the city for Don Watkins’s talk, because he drew in bright colors some of the, well, inconsistencies that seem often to emerge beneath the rationality of full-bore libertarianism. To start with, a speech that began by extolling the powers of capitalism to end poverty and advance society, with the presentation of family, community, and voluntary associations as an alternative to a safety net, ended by directly attacking the very notion that we have a moral obligation to each other as human beings.

Making that leap particularly jarring was the fact that Watkins claimed we must jettison the idea of such an obligation because it could not be followed, in practical terms, without deteriorating into a mandate for the welfare state. Yet, in practical terms, it’s difficult to imagine his own ideas catching fire, as he seems to believe that they will, without any constituencies that hold to Christian values or even think that self-government requires allowing people to implement local governments substantially different from what we might choose for our own towns and states.

Finally, that leads to the question of just how Watkins defines government. Presumably, for example, mutual aid societies had bylaws. Private corporations have policies and codes of conduct. Clearly, there are distinctions to be made between institutions that we generally think of as private and those that we generally think of as public. However, I’ve been a part of private organizations that operated very much like, say, town governing boards. At what point does a freely chosen organization by, of, and for the people included in its fold become a government?

I can’t shake the feeling that libertarians like Watkins sense, at some level, that their logic will ultimately lead them to conclude that they should voluntarily conform to at least some traditional norms. Perhaps even some of those that lead them to reject broader conservatism. So, they wind up, as I said above, conceding the progressive concept of government. It’s not individuals’ making up a community that operates in such a way as to counterbalance power and authority; it’s individuals on one hand and abstract government on the other. It’s not inherent human rights that government can only have a hand in helping to secure (more often by staying out of it); it’s conceding that calling something a right (or a “claim” in Watkins’s framing) means government must directly secure it.

I find that view neither logical nor appealing in a way that could conceivably win a society-changing unanimity in the general public.