Solidarity vs ‘Social Solidarity’

GIOVANNI BIRINDELLI, 25 April 2011

(Original publication: Catallaxy Institute)

Frédéric Bastiat who, in addition to being an economist and a philosopher, was in my opinion also one of the greatest poets of liberty, wrote this: «Mr. de Lamartine once wrote to me thusly: “Your doctrine is only the half of my program. You have stopped at liberty; I go on to fraternity.” I answered him: “The second half of your program will destroy the first”. In fact, it is impossible for me to separate the word fraternity from the word voluntary. I cannot possibly understand how fraternity can be legally enforced without liberty being legally destroyed, and thus justice being legally trampled underfoot» [Bastiat, F., 2007,The Bastiat Collection (Ludwig Von Mises Institute, Auburn), Vol. 1, p. 62].

In these very few lines Bastiat makes the following three points: 1) solidarity (which in the language of his time he calls «fraternity»), can be only voluntary and individual: “social solidarity” («legally enforced fraternity») is not solidarity; 2) “social solidarity” destroys liberty because it implies arbitrary coercion of some by others; 3) “social solidarity” destroys the law, in the sense that in order to be legally enforced it requires a positive idea of law (the law intended as command by authority, i.e. as instrument of arbitrary political power) which is opposite to the original, negative idea of law (the law intended as general and abstract principle of justice independent from authority as well as from arbitrary considerations of political, economic or “social” expediency: this is the law intended as limit to arbitrary political power).

The following point could be added: 4) “social solidarity” destroys solidarity: i.e. the more the “social solidarity” arbitrarily imposed by the government, the less solidarity. In fact, because it is individual and voluntary, solidarity is one of the many possible expressions of freedom; as a consequence, it tends to flourish where freedom is defended and on the contrary it tends to disappear where freedom is destroyed (this does not mean, of course, that solidarity is necessarily enough to cope with all situations of severe privation, but this is a different problem that goes beyond the scope of this article). This phenomenon was observed for example by Milton Friedman when he claimed that «The heyday of laissez-faire, the middle and late nineteenth century in Britain and the United States, saw an extraordinary proliferation of private eleemosynary organizations and institutions. One of the major costs of the extension of governmental welfare activities has been the corresponding decline in private charitable activities» [Friedman, M., 2002, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago University Press, Chicago), p. 202].

Beyond the more general considerations regarding the links between solidarity and freedom, more in particular this destruction of solidarity by “social solidarity” happens not only and not even mainly for the obvious reason that the more resources the government takes from the individual in order to arbitrarily finance “social solidarity”, the less resources the individual has at his own disposal for true solidarity, but for a more subtle and powerful reason. By calling “social solidarity” that particular form of arbitrary coercion, the government sends the citizens the message that solidarity is its own business, that via taxes the citizens have outsourced solidarity to the government and therefore that solidarity is not their business anymore. When the Italian region of Abruzzo was struck by a devastating earthquake (2009) someone created a fairly successful group on Facebook stating that he would not donate a penny for the immediate help of the victims because he already paid high taxes which are more than enough to finance “social solidarity”. These people are unable to distinguish arbitrary coercion by political power from the voluntary help offered by an individual to other individuals he or she chooses, that is “social solidarity” from solidarity. In other words, these people are not citizens but subjects: even though they may have the most diverse political opinions, in a way they are all socialists; they all share the same collectivist frame of mind that is incompatible with individual freedom.

One important result of this more and more diffused inability to distinguish collective coercion from individual human action is that the horizontal, voluntary, legitimate and spontaneous links between citizens are weakened and that the vertical, arbitrary, legal and illegitimate links between every citizen (or rather subject) and the government is strengthened: exactly what the totalitarian government wants and needs in order to consolidate its own power.

“Social solidarity” is one of the most typical expressions of modern totalitarian power. Solidarity can be one of the many possible forms of peaceful resistance to it.

At the present time, in coincidence with the crisis in Libya and more in general in North Africa, many immigrants are escaping from that area and are trying to reach Italy (and therefore Shengen Europe) illegally and in desperate conditions. During a talk show, some Italian politicians were discussing whether to allow these immigrants into Italy (and therefore Europe) or not. Those who were in favour of allowing them into Italy based their position mainly on the argument of “social solidarity”, and so did those who were against allowing them to enter Italy (because in that case these immigrants would also have to benefit from the same “social solidarity” their voters benefit from). At one point, a legal immigrant who was invited to talk asked these politicians why did they not consider allowing the citizens who wanted to or, more realistically from her point of view, the legal immigrants who wanted to, to house at least some of these illegal immigrants in their homes under their own responsibility (and, I would add, with no claims of “social solidarity”, which by the way are unlawful also when they are made by – and legally granted to – Italians and “legal” residents). No politician answered her because they were discussing entirely different subjects: this lady was talking about solidarity, the politicians were talking about “social solidarity”, that is political power, arbitrariness, money and votes.

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