Ethics & International Affairs Volume 12 (1998): Articles: More Than Anyone Bargained For: Beyond the Welfare Contract [Abstract]

Dec 4, 1998

The notion of the "deserving poor" used to refer to those who were poor through no fault of their own, providing the basis of selection on welfare policy. Increasingly, across a wide range of policy initiatives throughout the developed world, it is coming to refer to contractual and quasi-contractual entitlements. Morally, this is a dubious proposition: contractual entitlements are based on bargaining power in a way that is antithetical to morality as commonly conceived. Institutionally, it is inappropriate: the whole point of the welfare state, as commonly conceived, is to adjust and override market-based distributions of precisely the sorts that contractualist prescriptions would enshrine in social welfare policy.

Because the poor lack the bargaining power available to the rich, contractual bargaining between the two sides merely reinforces the ability of the rich to turn their "might" into "right." Rather than base social welfare policies on contractual bargaining, policies should focus on the duties the strong members of society have toward the weak: the poor should clearly receive more, and the rich pay more, than either group has bargained for.

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