Contrary to what many people say today, it is obvious that we live in a welfare society. Social Security takes money from current workers and pays it to current retirees every month. Medicare is financed by taxation and is used to supplement medical costs for the elderly. Medicaid does the same for the poor. Other forms of welfare include food stamps, public housing programs, unemployment benefits—the list goes on and on. All of these programs are a form of welfare.
So why do we have these programs? The justified rationale is that these programs are instituted to help people. While I politely disagree with that point, I will not address the economic and social concerns in what is supposed to be a wholly philosophical argumentation of the case at hand.
The question of whether or not welfare is a right is an interesting discussion that has only recently been considered. In the 1960s, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) as well as Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven developed the idea that people have a right to public assistance through welfare programs. Although the NWRO has since disbanded and Richard Cloward has passed on (Frances Fox Piven still lectures at CUNY Graduate Center), this idea of welfare rights has expanded beyond just basic public assistance. With the advent of ObamaCare and the expansion of Medicare under the Bush administration, the continuous cycle of welfare has led to economic uncertainty in the United States and a troubling addition to its already burdensome financial outlook. But I digress.
So is welfare a right? It depends how one defines a right. A right can be either positive or negative. A positive right is a right where someone has the duty to provide for someone else. A negative right is a right to be free from interference from other parties. For example, I have a negative right to my property in the sense that it is mine and I have justly and legally acquired it, whether through a purchase, a reward, or a gift. However, I would also argue that I do not have a positive right to a cellular phone because then that would require me to force someone to buy me or make me a cellular phone. I have a negative right to pursue the purchasing of a cellular phone, but that is the limitation of my legitimate action.
Using these terms, it is obvious that welfare is a positive right. Having a right to welfare (or an entitlement to it) means that someone else must provide it for you. In the case of Social Security, the money that retirees receive is provided by the current labor market. Welfare is not an intangible idea like life or property; it is a good that must be provided. Therefore, welfare is a positive right, an entitlement.
But is welfare a negative right? Judging from the terms, it is hard to argue that welfare is a negative right (sometimes referred to as a liberty). Because welfare is a tangible thing, it must be provided by someone in order for someone else to receive it. This is not to say that welfare is a right, it is simply meant to argue that welfare is not a liberty. Furthermore, in order to provide a positive right for someone, someone else must be forced to provide it. In the case of welfare, individual taxpayers are required by law to fund welfare programs through taxes on the fruits of their labor. Doesn’t this violate their negative rights or their liberty? It is clear that in the case of the positive right to welfare, rights must be abridged for rights to be provided.
Therefore, this begs the question once more: is welfare a right? A better question is this: is welfare a liberty or an entitlement?