Over the last year, British comedian Russell Brand has fashioned himself into something of a champion for the little guy–for poor and marginalized people in society. Politically, he’s a classic, old school Marxist. He sees politics as a fundamental struggle between owners and workers and wants a revolution of some kind to empower the masses (though he admits he doesn’t know what form that revolution should take). I’ve written about Brand before, and I don’t fully agree with his views, but I sympathize with his core observation–that our society is not yet fully just and that many groups of people suffer unnecessarily as a result. I also appreciate that he is providing us with opportunities to discuss fundamental questions of political theory with a wider audience. In recent weeks, we have seen conservatives in Britain attempting to discredit Brand as a political actor by labeling him a hypocrite. The story goes that because Brand has a lot of money (an estimated net worth of $15 million), this disqualifies him from taking issue with the distribution of wealth in Britain. This is a deeply misleading argument that would, if universalized, leave the poor and marginalized utterly voiceless.
Oftentimes when we discuss whether or not economic inequality is justifiable, we have the tendency to consider only the most extreme form of the left wing position. The right often defends its model of the market economy by comparing it to the old communist states, to the Soviet Union–countries in which everyone, at least in theory, had the same income. In places like the Soviet Union, incentives fell apart. If you will be paid the same amount no matter how much work you do, there is little reason to do additional work. The trouble is that this argument straw mans all left wing positions as strictly egalitarian. The left wing position need not be that societies should be perfectly economically equal, it need merely be that much of the economic inequality we see is superfluous and unnecessary. That is the argument I intend to make today.
There’s a set of institutions that most western countries have that we collectively call “the welfare state” and, in the drive to shrink budget deficits, it has come under attack. But why do we have a welfare state in the first place? What is its function, and what are we putting at risk when we cut funding for it? That is today’s point of inquiry.