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Friday, June 3, 2011

Tornado Victims and the Unemployed: Tough Luck?

In the fall of 2010, the following was said on Fox News: “The government should spend more on the war in Afghanistan in order to fight terrorism. The problem is that the government has gotten into entitlements.”  The latter presumably includes food stamps, public housing, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  To say that government ought to be engaged in defense and not in supplying needy citizens with food, shelter and health-care is distinct from saying that the federal government should concentrate on foreign policy and defense, while entitlements are formulated and funded by the state governments as their domestic programs. In other words, advocacy for a certain priority in government and for less government is distinct from advocacy for restoring balanced federalism.

Most Europeans in the E.U. undoubtedly view the redistributive right for sustenance resources as founded on human rights and thus as a legitimate part of government.  In contrast, Americans do not typically apply a human rights justification to entitlements for other Americans even as foreign aid may be justified in part on this basis.

For example, on June 3, 2011, Donald Trump told a forum in Washington, D.C.: "A certain Republican representative, two nights ago -– I watched on television -– Representative Cantor, who [sic] I like, said we don't want to give money to the tornado victims, . . . (a)nd yet, in Afghanistan we are spending ten billion dollars a month but we don't want to help the people that are devastated by tornadoes -- wiped out, killed, maimed, injured. We don't have money for them but we are spending ten billion dollars a month in Afghanistan. We are spending billions of dollars in Iraq where they have the second largest oil fields in the world … and we can't help people that got flooded in Mississippi that got hit horribly by tornadoes." The U.S. House Majority Leader was holding up funds for basic necessities at home as leverage in debt-ceiling negotiations with the Democrats, while allowing billions of dollars to continue to flow in foreign aid (and to the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan).  Canter’s antipathy toward government aiding citizens who would otherwise be left to the state of nature represents a rather warped understanding of a social contract.

People such as Eric Canter believe that the market mechanism trumps any right to have one’s basic needs satisfied. Resources are viewed as commodities produced and distributed by private enterprise, even though the market does not guarantee that every citizen’s basic needs are met. Even so, it can be asked whether the right to survival (i.e., life) is part of the American social contract. If so, then relying on the market mechanism alone is not sufficient.

If life is not part of the social contract, then the hungry and homeless, as well as the untreated sick, are (and can legitimately behave as if) in the state of nature. As much as some of the rich do not want to be taxed so the least fortunate can survive, the prospect of the latter behaving as if in the state of nature must surely be even less palatable.

James Madison writes in Federalist #51, “the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger” in the state of nature. Nor is the weaker secured against starvation and sickness.  Without the police to protect their property, are the rich sufficiently strong to ward off the hungry and homeless? Who is the strong and who is the weak in a dog-eat-dog contest between two human beings—one with a bank account and the other with a left hook? Life, Thomas Hobbes writes, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” in the state of nature are all equal in the sense that any one of us can be killed in our sleep. Suddenly having some of one’s tax directed on a human-rights basis may not sound so bad.

What keeps those whose survival is so tenuous from simply taking from the rich is of course the funded social contract that protects property with police force even as there is no guarantee for survival. Such a warped social contract is an aberration in terms of social contract theory.

  The social contract undergirding a political society is meant to alleviate the fear of the want of necessities (and self-defense) while working for the happiness of the members.  In other words, there is a right to shelter, food and medical care. Otherwise, the society is only marginal or partial in obviating the insecurity that exists in the state of nature.

Therefore, to say that government should merely defend citizens from the insecurity of foreign invasion does not go far enough from the standpoint of why government is instituted as part of a social contract that takes people out of the state of nature. However, to say that an empire-level government ought to be charged with protection from foreign invasion, while the individual republics are tasked with ascertaining their citizens with protection from starvation, the elements, and sickness. Without anxiety, foreign or domestic, every citizen—rich or poor—would be freed up from a basic insecurity that without a viable social contract is simply part of life.

Click to add a question or comment on basic needs in a social contract.


The Federalist, ed. Jacob E. Cooke, Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan Press, 1961.

Sam Stein, “Trump Takes Aim at Cantor, Krauthammer, U.S. Foreign Policy,” The Huffington Post, June 3, 2011.