The Motives of Social Policy

Everyone has read Scott Alexanders’ anti-reactionary FAQ. Handle is probably right not to let Alexander frame the debate by responding directly. However, one issue Alexander brings up is something I’ve thought about addressing myself, so I may as well address it in response to his FAQ. It has to do with the genealogy of progressivism.

Moldbug and most neoreactionaries situate progressivism within post-Reformation Protestantism, claiming that the nearest ancestor of contemporary progressivism is 19th century millennial theology. Alexander wrongly associates our genealogy with Calvinism: “So please, tell me again how utopian desires for peace and social justice were invented wholesale by John Calvin in 1550,” he writes. I don’t know anyone who claimed that, and if someone did, I would thoroughly disagree with him.

However, Alexander’s larger point is that social policies that look an awful lot like modern progressive policies clearly existed before the Reformation. He travels back to Rome to prove it:

The ideals commonly called progressive predate Calvin by several millennia. Consider the example of Rome. The early Romans not only overthrew their kings in a popular revolution and instituted a Republic, but experienced five plebian secessions (read: giant nationwide strikes aiming at greater rights for the poor). After the first, the Roman government created the position of tribune, a representative for the nation’s poor with significant power in the government. After the third, the government passed a sort of bill of rights guaranteeing the poor protection against arbitrary acts of government. After the fifth, the government passed the Lex Hortensiana, which said that plebians could hold a referendum among themselves and the results would be binding on the entire populace, rich and poor alike. By the later Empire, even slaves were guaranteed certain rights, including the right to file complaints against their masters.

The Romans pioneered the modern welfare state, famously memorialized by its detractors as panem et circenses – bread and circuses. Did you know welfare reform was a major concern of Julius Caesar? That ancient Rome probably had a higher percent of its population on the dole than modern New York? That the Romans basically worshipped a goddess of food stamps?

. . . Equality has a clear antecedent in the plebian secessions of ancient Rome, peace in the Pax Romana, social justice in the Roman welfare system, and community in…well, it’s so broadly defined here that it could be anything, but if we’re going to make it the leadership of benevolent public servants, let’s just throw in a reference to the philosopher-kings of Plato’s Republic (yeah, fine, it’s Greek. It still counts)

First, it’s problematic to associate the plebian secessions with “strikes aimed at greater rights for the poor.” The plebian strikes were in fact aimed at greater rights for plebians, who could be wealthier than the patricians. Most of them were what today we would call the lower-middle and middle classes. Alexander is playing fast and loose with his definitions, as he does in most of his FAQ.

The more important point worth looking at is Alexander’s discussion of the Roman welfare state. Alexander could easily have looked outside ancient Rome to find examples of what he calls “progressivism.” E.g., in Islamic society during the age of the Caliphate, or in the charity policies designed by the Church in the Middle Ages. But the question is: do these seemingly “progressive” policies stem from what today we would consider progressivism? Do they have anything to do with “social justice”? We should remember that when looking back at history, curious similarities arise, but they do so at incongruous joints, and their existence may not signify anything but the fact that large-scale political ecologies have limited practical expressions. Think of it this way: A society whose political discourse and ideals sanction welfare to the poor because it is believed that the underclass is genetically inferior, incapable of taking care of itself, and might revolt if not given enough food . . . that’s a very different society from one whose political ideals sanction welfare because it is believed the poor have a right to good living standards or that the poor deserve welfare because it re-distributes goods rightly theirs but taken from them through an oppressive economic system.

Contemporary progressive policies emerge from ideals and discourses about morality, justice, oppression, and rights. The poor (especially the dark-skinned poor) deserve the welfare they get; it is theirs by Constitutional right. It is a moral and political imperative not to take away the welfare they receive and to give them more if possible. Progressives actively try to alleviate the shame once associated with receiving welfare. Pointing out that the poor in America have it pretty good is a distinctly right-wing thing to do. “Food stamps” are now “EBT cards” that look and function like debit cards.  Medicaid patients sit in the same waiting rooms as patients paying high insurance premiums, and you can’t tell the difference. (Well, you can, but . . .) Welfare in America has become a right, a moral imperative, a matter of justice and just desserts, a thing that brings no shame, a thing to be proud of, a thing to demand, a thing to stand up for.

~~~

When categorizing social policy, the motives and ideas behind a policy are just as important as the policy itself. Among the ancient Israelites, slaves and indentured servants were freed every 50 years, during Jubilee. But obviously, Jubilee should not be compared to 19th century abolitionist movements. Roughly similar policy. Very different motives. And a very different context. Abolitionists did not argue that the slaves should be freed and the fields laid fallow because the Sabbath demands rest and that, as servants of God, men should not always be bound to serve both man and God. The moral fervor of abolitionists was cranked up much higher than that and drew from new and radical Protestant theologies that mostly eschewed the Bible. The Good Book is clear that, outside of Jubilee, slavery and servitude are fine with God as long as masters treat their slaves decently. (But as far as I know, not a single abolitionist took the position that slavery needn’t be abolished as long as laws were passed to ensure the better treatment of slaves.)

So Scott Alexander is correct that social policies in ancient Rome look similar to contemporary progressive welfare policies. But were the motives the same? Did the poor and the plebians get free or reduced-cost corn, grain, wine, and olive oil . . . . because they deserved it? because it was theirs by moral and legal right? because it was a matter of social justice?

I’m not a classicist, so I’m willing to be corrected on this, but as near as I can tell, the Roman dole was wrapped up in discourses about a) the might and wealth of Rome and b) goddess worship. Welfare policies in ancient Rome were built upon very different ideals and emerged from very different motives than contemporary progressivism’s welfare policies.  Nowhere have I been able to fine a discussion of the Roman congiarium in terms of rights or justice. The dole was there because it made the emperor more popular and demonstrated the wealth of Rome to the people. What’s more, the dole was personified as Annona, a goddess to be worshiped and thanked. Scott Alexander even recognizes this difference in motive when he says that ancient Romans “worshiped a goddess of food stamps.”

Indeed they did. And that’s the whole point. When was the last time you heard welfare policies discussed in terms of worshipful gratitude, mercy, and thankfulness? If that were the discourse surrounding welfare policy, America would be a very different country. It seems that Roman welfare and American welfare are as different from one another as Jubilee is from abolitionism.

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12 responses

  1. This is great

    curious similarities arise, but they do so at incongruous joints, and their existence may not signify anything but the fact that large-scale political ecologies have limited practical expressions.

    I guess that brings up the question, however, of what difference the different motives make. I prefer that recipients of welfare feel grateful instead of entitled, stigmatized instead of compensated, but the point is supposed to be that all that gratitude and stigma creates incentive for work ethic and motivation for diligence (and the example displayed to children) instead of slothful, surly dependency transmitting multi-generational social pathology.

    But maybe we can’t avoid the later after any long period of widespread, generous welfare. And if we’re going to have the welfare anyway, I can hear the progressive ask what benefit does society derive by making a lot of people feel bad about it?

    My answer is that it makes the productive, from whom the wealth is taken, and which is experienced by them as a sacrifice, more likely to tolerate the system that imposes the burden upon them. You wouldn’t want the productive – your cash cow – to come to resent the poor and the state that feeds them alike.

    October 30, 2013 at 1:47 am

    • Yes, exactly. You’ve answered your own question re: What difference does the motive make?

      If we have a welfare system, we also need to have, say, a “Thank the Rich People” day. We need to re-stigmatize welfare and make envy a sin again rather than a virtue. Welfare + resentment + entitlement is a much worse equation than Welfare + gratitude + shame.

      October 30, 2013 at 1:52 am

  2. Well how did the Roman dole came to be? Junior members of the elite routinely learned that rousing the plebs and threatening the Senate with a riot would get them power, so they blackmailed the elite into giving the plebs benefits and a good fat political office to them. The plebs got the message so they threatened to riot all the time. Eventually the government learned that panem et circenses worked better than giving them political voice.

    It’s not that different from the history of socialism in the 19th century and their riots and assassinations.

    The real difference is that the dole was a local policy of the city of Rome, not empire-wide. So it was easily sustainable. Socialism though was a society-wide movement, which means it can’t last. We don’t have a captive Egyptian province to grab grain from.

    October 30, 2013 at 5:32 am

    • Your last paragraph is a brilliant point.

      Your first paragraph, though, doesn’t change the fact that the ideals behind the dole were definitely not ideals of “social justice.” Although I suppose you’re implying that in contemporary Europe and America, the politicians and rich old bastards fueling the “social justice” flames don’t actually believe their own rhetoric either.

      October 31, 2013 at 2:26 am

      • I have a hard time thinking that Bismarck actually cared about social justice when he decreed welfare into law.

        Of course the official motive of welfare today is social justice, and there is a whole bunch of ethnic/gender theology behind it. To what extent the overt theory influences the application of law, in comparison to the real political interests that started it? That’s a good question.

        October 31, 2013 at 7:12 am

  3. Alexander Stanislaw

    You are a brilliant writer. This is the first reactionary response that actually makes sense to me and I sympathize with the main point.

    “Welfare in America has become a right, a moral imperative, a matter of justice and just desserts, a thing that brings no shame, a thing to be proud of, a thing to demand, a thing to stand up for.”

    Yes I do find this troubling, I consider myself a progressive but I’ve gradually begun to realize that my reasons for supporting progressive policies are very different than an typical Americans. Healthcare to me is a matter of whether or not the country does better when the costs of healthcare are distributed. The language of deservedness, entitlement and rights I think are unhelpful – I’d prefer if progressives thought about social policies in terms of costs, benefits and tradeoffs.

    Perhaps though, it is just too much to ask for people to think of social policies in term of tradeoffs, take smoking in public for instance. Its easier for someone to comprehend “No one should have to deal with health consequences of someone else’s behavior” than “Banning smoking in public places will stigmatize smoking thus harming people who continue to smoke however, it will also dissuade people from smoking in the first place and the public health gains outweigh the drawbacks”. There is no way a campaign would get off the ground with the second message, so politicians frame their discourse in terms of rights and deontological rules. The goal of politics of course isn’t careful discourse – it’s to motivate action. So lazy claims like “everyone should have access to healthcare!” get made and more nuanced statements like “universal health care would benefit society and although some groups will pay more than they otherwise would have, the gains are worth it”. I don’t expect you to agree with the second statement but it at least might be true whereas the former statement is incoherent.

    November 1, 2013 at 3:51 am

    • Alexander Stanislaw

      Butchered part of that comment: here is a corrected version:

      “So lazy claims like “everyone should have access to healthcare!” get made instead of more nuanced statements like “universal health care would benefit society and although some groups will pay more than they otherwise would have, the gains are worth it”. I don’t expect you to agree with the second statement but it at least might be true whereas the former statement is incoherent.”

      November 1, 2013 at 4:05 am

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  7. VXXC

    @Handle – “You wouldn’t want the productive – your cash cow – to come to resent the poor and the state that feeds them alike.”

    No, we wouldn’t want that to happen at all.

    December 6, 2013 at 12:50 am

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