Whether there should be a preferential option for the poor

Donald Scott has asked me if I accept the claim that public policy should show a “preferential option for the poor”.  To amuse myself, I will answer in disputation form.

Objection 1:

It would seem not, because favoring some people over others over legally irrelevant criteria like wealth is unjust.  We would certainly regard a preferential option for the rich as unjust.  In particular, taking more money in taxes from the rich while providing the same government services is unjust.

Objection 2:

It would seem not, because virtuous activity must be voluntary, but wealth redistribution is coercive charity, a contradiction.

Objection 3:

It would seem not, because such an option will inevitably lead to socialism, which is a godless tyranny.

Objection 4:

It would seem not, because God, Who is completely just, shows no such preference.

On the contrary, Pope Leo XIII says:

 37. Rights must be religiously respected wherever they exist, and it is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury, and to protect every one in the possession of his own. Still, when there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.

, which is actually a stronger statement than the one I will defend.

I answer that

The duties of the state can be divided into two:  establishing justice, and promoting the good.

The first duty, establishing justice, means punishing wrongdoing, rewarding public service, and enforcing legal rights.  Pope Leo says there should be preference even here, but I think this preference should be small:  the rights of the rich should be defended with nearly the same vigilance as the rights of the poor.  Note, however, that property is not an absolute right; it is only inviolable to the extent that it is needed for a person’s social roles (a father’s provider role, an aristocrat’s public roles, etc).

With regard to the second role, the good may be divided as follows:  the particular goods of poor people, the particular goods of rich people, and the goods that are irreducibly common.  Irreducibly common goods are those things—like public order, communal consensus, or a healthy physical or spiritual environment—that necessarily belong to the community as a whole, rather than its individual members.  Among these goods, the state should first promote the common good, since it is the institution especially ordered to the promotion of these goods.  If forced to choose, common goods should be given preference over individual goods (but not individual justice, which itself is the supreme common good).  Next, the state should promote the particular good of the poor, if necessary at the expense of the rich.  This seems apparent, because the poor are in greater need, have less ability to secure their own interests, and will suffer more greatly from the lack of a public advocate.  Economic policies in particular should be designed primarily if not exclusively with the interests of the lower classes in mind.  For while to rise out of poverty is an undoubted good, rising from wealth to even greater wealth is not necessarily good at all.  In this sense, there should be a preferential option for the poor.

Reply to Objection 1:

With regard to the establishment of justice, no partiality should be shown.  However, with regard to assessing one’s financial duty toward the state, one’s ability to pay is not an irrelevant consideration.  Also, when assessing the state’s duty to promote one’s material interests, one’s current material situation is a relevant consideration.  This is not really a form of partiality, any more than the state sending a policeman to protect a home under attack from thieves while not sending the police to homes not suffering invasion with no need of defense shows partiality.  The state is impartial in providing a service to whichever of its citizens need it.  Poor relief can be considered similarly.

Reply to Objection 2:

The state’s goal in progressive taxation is not to coerce the virtue of charity, but only to secure a material effect.  Because the state should only relieve extreme need (and only when other social organs fail to meet these needs), there will always remain plenty of opportunity for the rich to practice charity.  In any event, alms to strangers is not the primary way this virtue is meant to be exercised.

Reply to Objection 3:

So long as the independent authority of the fathers over their families and clergy over the Church are recognized, and the property needed to discharge their duties is recognized as inviolable, there is no danger of socialism.  What is objectionable in socialism is not forcible wealth distribution, but the attack on nongovernmental authority.

Reply to Objection 4:

To God we are all poor, and He shows no wealth-based preferences.  Mortals, however, are often called to show partiality (e.g. toward our children) where God shows none.

3 Responses

  1. I think you need to be more specific about the precise character of favoritism by the state. I’d suggest that we distinguish between interests and preferences. We might define the poor as people unable to defend their own interests, both because they are poor and because of other attributes that cause them to be poor (e.g. low birth, low IQ, lack of connections, shiftlessness, etc.). Here the state has a special responsibility to look after the interest of the poor, to protect them from exploitation by folks who are richer, smarter, more organized, more energetic. At the same time, the preferences of poor people are very often poor preferences, so in favoring these the state does no good to the poor, and very likely harms the non-poor.

    Here’s an example. I live in a town with a large, poor, immigrant population. They live in rental property, and I think it is safe to say the landlords are much richer, smarter, and more organized than most of the tenants. Here the state should favor the tenants. At the same time, a many of these same poor people prefer loud music and lots of trash in their yard. (I mean, of course, that they evidently prefer to do something other than pick up their beer cans and their children’s toys.) I don’t see why the state should favor this behavior, and take the side of the loud and slovenly against the quiet and tidy.

    I know this is a rather trivial example, but I could give other (more complicated) examples of, for instance, the way the interests of poor should be favored in public education, but not the preferences. Schools run for the poor are one thing, schools run by them are quite another.

    As you no doubt see, what I’m advocating here is paternalism. Paternalism assumes that what you call the “goods of poor people” are, in fact, the same as the “goods of rich people.” Poor people are just not very good at securing, or even identifying, those goods. Modern liberalism assumes that poor people are perfectly competent to identify what is good “for them,” just disadvantaged in securing those goods.

    If the state begins to favor persons pursuing the “poor” preferences, Lord help us! (Or is it already doing that?)

  2. Hello JMsmith,

    I agree with you. In fact, being an anti-democrat, I don’t see any need for the government to be promoting the peoples’ preferences at all.

  3. Bonald,
    I think I may have laid too much stress on the State in my comment. But what I said is also true of civil society and interpersonal relations. Maybe it comes down to this: you should not take advantage of the weakness of persons who mean you no harm in order to maximize your own interests. If you’re bargaining or arguing with a child, or a dim-witted adult, you bear extra responsibility for seeing that the outcome is just and fair. The failure to do just this is why capitalism is said to be pitiless.

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