Should the poor be able to take resources from the rich to meet their basic needs, either on individual basis or through the state?  Notre Dame philosophy professor James Sterba and senior fellow at the Cato Institute Thomas Palmer dealt with this question as they debated whether liberty and equality are compatible.

Sterba identified two sets of rights: classical liberal rights and welfare liberal rights. Classical liberal rights are life, liberty, and property. Welfare liberal rights are welfare, health care, housing, and education.

According to Sterba, welfare liberal rights “complement and complete” classical liberal rights.

Sterba described the conflict of the liberty of non-interference. The rich want to keep their surplus resources for luxury needs, while the poor do not want to be prevented from taking resources from the rich to meet their basic needs.

Palmer, on the other hand, maintained that welfare liberal rights destroy classical liberal rights.  He strongly disagreed that Sterba’s example fit the definition of liberty.

“Liberty is not construed as ‘you can do whatever you want,’” he said. “Liberty is not subject to the arbitrary will of another person.”

“The foundation of human rights is dominion [over one’s own property],” Palmer continued. “Liberty is not a power to be used against someone else.”

“The rich have more resources than they need, while the poor don’t,” Sterba responded. “The high-ranking interests of the poor to meet their basic needs trump the low-ranking interests of the rich meeting their luxury needs.”

Palmer argued that if the surplus were taken from a producer, he or she would not produce a surplus in the future. That would inevitably lead, he said, to taking non-surplus resources from producers who refused to share.

He explained that in the past, in places like Ukraine during the Soviet Era, seizure of resources caused people to starve to death or resort to cannibalism, a practice which he described as “morally repulsive.”

“The poor person doesn’t have a choice,” Sterba said. “If the rich person refuses to produce, the poor person dies. [By not producing] the rich person chose to die with the poor person.”

“You’re just a little too rich because there are so many poor people,” Sterba said. “I’m just asking you to give some of your resources so you both can have a decent life.”

“The practice of redistributing income in the name of equality creates more inequality,” Palmer said. “The mission to make everyone equal is self-defeating.”

 “We know why the rich are rich and the poor are poor—institutions,” he stated. “What matters are rules and institutions, not wishes.”

He said the poor in the United States and Canada are much better off than the poor in states that coercively redistribute wealth.

Palmer suggested richer nations should stop foreign aid to poorer states, because this practice enables failing systems. Instead, richer nations should encourage those states to change their institutions so that they promote prosperity, not redistribution of wealth.

According to Palmer, ending state monopolies, tariffs, and subsidies, utilizing charity, and providing a social safety net “will make everyone wealthier” and help the poor.

He stressed the utility of self-help and mutual aid through volunteer associations, in which working class members pool their resources, to protect each other from the effects of setbacks like illness. 

“If everybody voluntarily took care of the poor, there [would be] no need for coercion,” Sterba said. “But it isn’t happening enough.”

Citing the empirical ineffectiveness of welfare states, Palmer said, “Philosophers need to learn economics, history, and how institutions work. They would become better philosophers.”

“I am not committed to what states have done. We have to create a new moral framework. Sterba said. “We need moral philosophy to make us think we have an obligation to one another.”

Sterba stated that everyone eligible for welfare would have to “do all they can to [meet] their basic needs and have a better life. If you’re a loafer, you aren’t eligible for welfare.”

“We should use up no more resources than necessary,” Sterba said. “We should have a decent life but no more. Using more resources than necessary would deprive future generations of the liberal-based right to welfare.”

“Sacrificing the current generation for future generations is bizarre, because they will be richer than us,” Palmer said.

Sterba concluded that, absent a technological solution, we cannot be certain that there will be sufficient resources for future generations.


Mickey Gardella is a sophomore political science major who resides in Knott Hall.  He can be contacted at