1721673359_d0e85c4a71_oIn my preliminary exploration of the connection between free will, personal responsibility and politics, one of the clearest examples that emerges deals with public benefits. Roughly put, it seems that the more we believe that individual behavior is constrained, shaped and determined by historical and social structures, the more we would invest in ensuring that environments are maximally conducive to human flourishing. If, on the other hand, we felt that individual achievement was mostly a result of personal talent and hard work, we might feel less concerned about the class and context into which individuals are born.

What I say in a clunky way, Heather MacDonald says much more eloquently in a recent City Journal essay on welfare reform:

“The Left’s essential strategy when it comes to poverty is to assess need and desert only in the present moment. If someone shows up at a welfare office saying: ‘I have no means of support for myself and my children,’ the proper role of the government bureaucrat is to ask: “How big a check do you require?” rather than: ‘What did you do to put yourself into this situation?'”

Although MacDonald is clearly saying the Left is wrongheaded about public benefits, her words bring to my mind an interesting correlate with criminal justice. For instance, in a world in which we take our limitations on freedom seriously, when someone commits a crime, the primary question we might ask ourselves is how to rehabilitate the person, as opposed to how to “get even.” We may still be interested in what led the person to commit the crime, but only insofar as we could modify situations to make that crime less likely in the future.

Using a similar “constrained freedom” approach in the case of an individual seeking public benefits, I submit that we might, as MacDonald wants to caricature, focus more on how a person could be helped to have a brighter future than on giving them their “just desert” for (what MacDonald takes to be) their poor personal decisions. In general, I think that less of a focus on the individual as an isolated, all-powerful, self-creation would lead us to concern ourselves primarily with forward-looking policies to both help that individual and others avoid harm and maximize well-being.

(As a side note, it’s interesting to see that MacDonald wants us to expand our “present moment” focus only to past choices of that individual seeking support, as opposed to the generational influences on the person’s income and status, or the neighborhood and other environmental forces that shaped that person’s life. I imagine taking too broad a perspective would distract us too much from ‘personal’ responsibility.)

Photo credit: mezzoblue