What are the major arguments for why the state should not provide for the basic necessities of its people? I am thinking of things like water, food, and housing as "basic necessities".

I think some people prefer a state not to provide these things, but I don't understand why. Without access to these necessities, some people will likely die.

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    This question is opinion-based. You should rephrase it to "What are the major rationales that people use to justify the state not providing basic necessities" or something like that.
    – J Doe
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 19:02
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    Please note that most of the answers below are from the point of view of Americans. Most well-off countries in the world other than the US are happy to provide health care, tuition, help to the poor, etc off taxes taken from richer citizens and businesses. Americans view this as "socialism" and somehow for many this gets confused with "communism", which is a taboo word in the US. Most democracies include some aspects of socialism, in order to make sure every citizen can have access to the basics no matter their situation. The US the the exception here, not the norm. Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 19:14
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    @DrunkenCodeMonkey The question itself only makes sense from the point of view of a developed, stable country. I doubt the questioner wonders why the government of Somalia does not guarantee basic necessities for all its citizens. Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 13:40
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    @Tim And therein lies the fundamental misunderstanding - nothing is actually free. Everything the government gives to you was taken from someone else.
    – reirab
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 20:00
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    @reirab In the USA, healthcare is an "industry." In many other parts of the world, it's a "service". I find it curious that making bureaucrats in an insurance company rich is acceptable, but paying less money in taxes for an equal level of service is not. But then, I haven't been brainwashed since birth into believing that America is by definition the best possible place on earth.
    – alephzero
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 13:19

14 Answers 14


The state cannot wave a magic wand and generate the water, food, and raw materials necessary for providing what you've defined as basic necessities. The state has to either pay for those resources, or force someone to give them to it. In a modern state, the state usually pays for goods by collecting taxes in the form of currency from its people. So, in order to provide its people with basic necessities, it must first take from them money to pay for the necessities. The basic argument against the government providing basic necessities for all, then, is that in order to do so they have to increase the tax burden on their population.

Whether or not the state is justified in using its power to take taxes and spend them on basic necessities for all is a moral argument about what duty the people have to support others with their work, and whether the government should be the ones to execute that duty. Individualists would say that a person has no particular duty to help others in need, so the state should not force them to do so by proxy. There is also an argument that the same money that would be given to the state to provide necessities would be better spent on charities and other organizations dedicated to the goal, because they will better manage it, and because that money is being given freely rather than taxed.

This does not even attempt to address the issue of what "basic necessity" actually means. Even the simplest necessity, water, needs to meet a certain standard of cleanliness and get sanitized before it can be considered potable, a standard which is wildly different depending on what area of the world you live in.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 23:36
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    Is that a moral argument? I'm not sure that it is. There's certainly a debate about to what extent states should redistribute the wealth, but I wouldn't suggest it is a moral argument. Even if there is a moral factor, it isn't the only, and isn't even the biggest, component. There are economic and growth factors, too.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 2:23
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    "There is also an argument that the same money that would be given to the state to provide necessities would be better spent on charities and other organizations dedicated to the goal, because they will better manage it" - that is certainly a common argument - usually made without any supporting evidence...
    – user6298
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 23:03
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    @HorusKol, you missed the more important component of that argument: because that money is being given freely rather than taxed (i.e. forcibly extorted). (Was that deliberate cherry picking?) You may argue that charities manage money badly, but as you are not being forced to contribute to them, the point is rather moot. The burden of proof is on your side, on the claim that the government does the best job of money management, because it's only the government that demands contribution "for the good of others" on threat of imprisonment.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 2:46
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    To evaluate a tax's economic utility to taxpayers, what's paid out should be measured, as measured against what's gained by taxpayers from how the government uses those funds. For example, healthy taxpayers might pay out to fund a general vaccination -- but the taxpayers themselves save money and income otherwise lost from the sickness prevented, (e.g. a grocer has more business when his workers and customers don't die of smallpox). IllusiveBrian's answer is incomplete: it considers only what's paid out, but does not show that what's gained must invariably be a net loss.
    – agc
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 21:22

DISCLAIMER: The question can be interpreted two ways: (1) "What are the reasons not to provide" - which is a subjective question because not everyone agrees with said reasons; and (2) as @J.Doe's comment noted, "What are the major rationales that people use to justify the state not providing basic necessities".

As such, I provided the answer to the second form, listing major rationales. Therefore, each bullet point below should not be taken as objective "X is true", but as "X is a reason held true by some people who oppose the motion". In other words, please don't request that I prove the objective truthiness of each argument, as the answer is descriptive and not prescriptive

  1. At its core, many arguments condense to the fact that basic necessities aren't free.

    • The phrase "state provides X" is a nice verbal abstraction which in reality means "someone's resources are taken[1], so that the state has the resources to provide X".

      For every $10,000 that your state "gives someone in basic resources", that means at least[2] $10,000 has to be taken - using the power of the state - from another person, usually against their will[3], [4] (in most modern states, that means if that another person refuses to fork off that money to the state, they get sent to jail for tax evasion. Like Wesley Snipes but not as good looking or rich :)

    • Another alternative (often combined with the first one) for that abstraction is from the supply side instead of demand side. To wit, the state forces basic necessity providers to work for less - or no - pay - to provide those necessities.

      "For less" - that's for example the economic model of socialized medicine in most Western European countries - their model works because their national health system severely underpays their doctors, especially residents; as well as other medical service providers. Since it's single payer, the providers have no recourse; they are forced to accept being underpaid (ex1, ex2 for UK).

      "For no pay" - that was, for example, the economic model of "panem et circenses" ("bread and circuses") model of the dole in Ancient Rome (and yes, that "panem" is the exact origin of the name of the country in "Hunger Games" books and movies). Rome could afford said bread (in the form of "dole") for so cheap because of slave labor; and obviously, gladiators providing the entertainment were slaves.

    Aside from that main consideration, there are other ones. They include things like:

  2. Efficiency considerations.

    The state is often a very poor vehicle for providing anything well OR efficiently. The stereotypical example here is the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

  3. Moral hazard.

    Basically, you're incentivizing people to be a burden to others (and people do tend to respond to incentives, surprise!). If I can make &^*(ty life decisions and be sure that I'll still be taken care of no matter what, I'm far more likely to be lazy, and make bad/imprudent choices.

    This issue isn't some newfangled neocon/libertarian notion. It was most famously discussed by Aesop in one of his fables.

  4. It can cause issues for overall economy.

    The specific cases of education and health care demonstrate that efficiency and redistribution may conflict.
    (["Social and population policy. Considerations on efficiency and equity" by Gomez De Leon Cruces J ] - PubMed 12158040)

  5. It presents an unstable (and very dangerous) equilibrum in a society.

    Absent abundant cheap energy (not available on Earth yet, or anytime soon), abundant material goods (not available yet), and general post-scarcity economy, you need a sizeable portion of population making net contributions to the economy.

    Unfortunately, due to moral hazard, you won't have that; ensuring that earlier or later you'll run out of Other People's Money to pay for those "basic necessities". Exacerbated by double demographic bombs of (1) Well to do spoiled westerners not having enough kids to fund their retirement and (2) people who are on basic income - and thus have the leisure - out-reproducing those who are willing to work by a large margin. In a way #2 is already happening, e.g. in Israel with secular vs. Hareidim communities being a very clear example stripped of external factors like race differences.

  6. People have different, and often, unreasonable, expectations of what "basic" means. @Brythan's later answer covers this better than mine, but my explanation is as follows:

    One person's "basic necessities" aren't an objectively defined category and may differ from other's.

    • E.g. Do we include food in basic necessities? OK, that seems somewhat reasonable to most people. Do we include ANY food? including overpriced and unhealthy junk food, sodas etc...? including exotic expensive food like quinoa or beef (instead of oats and chicken)? What about people who'll use their food stamps to buy 4x-priced organic food at upscale food retailer that's near their house instead of spending extra 1 hour going to cheaper generic supermarket with far less expensive non-organic food? Does their food lifestyle get included in "basic"?

    • Do you include housing in basic necessities? OK, that's a bit more controversial but I can see people at least somewhat agreeing with where that premise comes from. Do we include ANY housing? Does it have to be housing in super-expensive metropolitan area or can we insist that basic housing MUST be in a much cheaper area; and if you need to commute longer for work, that's the cost of having "free" housing.

    • How about healthcare? Again, in principle, people may agree to an extent (very few people object to Medicaid in USA). Should we cover exotic and unnecessary and expensive medical stuff like sex reassignment surgery? Cosmetic surgery? "BEST" medicine (patented instead of generic pills)? How about medicine that's required as a result of someone's bad choices and not bad luck? I really don't feel it's fair to make me pay for replacing an alcoholic's liver. If he didn't want to die, shouldn't have drank his liver away. How about super expensive end of life treatment for someone whose life expectancy is <6 months in 99% of cases?

    • How about college education? Do I really have to pay for someone to study modern interpretive dance and if I refuse to, I'm a bad greedy person? What's wrong with requiring people who get "free" education to be forced into plumbing classes or nursing school?

    • How about Internet? Some people assert "free" broadband is a basic necessity (my personal POV: give me "you need expensive broadband to be able to study" - somehow, prior generations managed to get educated and successful first without internet; and then with dialup. Wikipedia doesn't require broadband, nor does StackExchange. Streaming movies/online games isn't "basic").

  7. Additionally, there are non-rational, political tribal reasons.

    Basically, support for "basic income", like most of social welfare spending, is associated with - using American political grouping - "blue tribe" (typically incorrectly expressed as "left wing").

    Therefore, people are very likely to oppose the concept merely because they - for reasons that may have absolutely nothing to do with this specific topic - belong to "red tribe"; and that imposes a pre-built bundle of sociopolitical positions that people tend to adopt, often without bothering to familiarize themselves with nitty gritty details (this is true for both tribes of course).

    So, some people oppose this just because "Daddy always voted for Reagan who was against welfare, so I am too against it". It's not based on issues but on tribal membership.

[1] - one might quibble that deficit spending using sovereign debt avoids the problem of taking someone's money. Except that's incorrect - you simply time-shift the resource collection from current taxpayers to the next generation whose taxes will be used to service that debt.

[2] - In reality, it costs the state much much more than $10,000 to provide $10,000 worth of basic services

[3] - yadda yadda social contract social shmantract. The whole point is that the "social contract" does NOT have a nice and tidy wording that says "X, Y and Z are included" - see section #6 of my answer

[4] - and if you say "well most people want to help those less fortunate" - if they truly want to help them, that's what voluntary donation to charity is for. When you "help" someone by giving them Someone Else's Money, you didn't help anyone. The person who had their money taken helped; and they weren't asked if they wanted to, at least by you.

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    A lot of interesting points, though somewhat mixed with opinions. I particular appreciate (6): getting a definition of "basics" is really difficult. On the other hand, I find (4) unsubstantiated. I actually remember reports (from Denmark maybe?) where unemployment aid was judged as stimulating innovation: being freed from the worry of being jobless and subsequently penniless, people were more willing to quit their job and mount their own start-ups. A number of successful start-up owners specifically mentioned that since they had a family, they would NOT have done so otherwise. Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 18:19
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    @MatthieuM. - hopefully my freshly addded disclaimer addresses point #4 - the answer set out to list and describe the reasoning; not to defend it. Tangentially, a study in Denmark may not necessarily hold true in every polity; and "stimulating innovation" is a qualitative but not a quantitative measure. You can still arrive at the overall ESE that's bad in aggregate, but achieve a couple of useful startups in the process (which nevertheless didn't prevent overall aggregate bad result).
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 18:55
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    @MatthieuM. - again, tangentially, if innovation is specifically is your desired goal, there are far more precise and less moral-hazardy ways to achive that (e.g. specific budget allocated on "incubator insurance", to be paid specifically to cover unemployment for those who are trying to establish a viable startup. This immediately eliminates a large part of the moral hazard - even more so if it's funded out of marginal profits of past startups it funded; which not only eliminates all moral hazard but ALSO self-regulates - if the policy is good, more profits => more funding).
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 18:58
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    @Andy: I would expect most start-ups fail in Denmark too, which is why most people (especially with family) would be reluctant to start one. I suppose the underlying motive is that in average, a single successful start-up will create enough new jobs to cover the unemployment aid given to those which failed. Do note that we are not talking about start-up financing aids here, only unemployment aids for those who fail. Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 10:17
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    @user4012 Please don't presume what I think a startup is. Go do your own research, and you'll see that most startups fail. If a bank/private investor isn't willing to back a startup, I don't think a country should by providing a basic income level either. Its the same reason you shouldn't loan someone money to buy a car; if a bank has refused them, its because they're likely not going to repay the money.
    – Andy
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 20:15

Someone lives in Utah (United States), about fifty miles from Salt Lake City in the middle of a desert. Water costs about a dollar a gallon, as it has to be brought there by truck. Who should pay? The individual choosing to live in the middle of the desert? The county? The state of Utah? The US? North America? The world?

Should a subsistence farmer in rural Mexico pay taxes to support someone living in the middle of a desert in Utah? Should a goatherd in the Sahara pay taxes to support a person in Utah?

There are condominiums in New York City that cost $4000 per square foot, so on the scale of $4 million for a two bedroom apartment. Should sales taxes paid by the homeless in India or Ghana subsidize that?

I think it would be cool to live on a space station with artificial gravity. The International Space Station, which does not have artificial gravity, costs something like $3 million a square foot. And I shudder to think how much water and food cost. That's not even considering air, which you don't mention.

Those are extreme examples. We can set those aside by setting some maximum levels and not subsidizing people with incomes above that.

A less extreme example is that a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan (New York City) costs more than $1000 while a three bedroom house in Dallas, Texas can cost less than $1000. Why should people in Texas have to pay for people to live in Manhattan?

We could of course fix that by relocating everyone to places where water, food, and housing are cheaper. While we're at it, we could choose people's educational paths. Make sure that they were on the right career path. And of course it would be illegal to be unemployed. Of course, when the Soviet Union tried that, it didn't work so well.

Another potential principle is that people should pay for our own decisions. That gives us incentive to make our decisions carefully while still making our own decisions.

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    Nice use of reductio ad absurdum, I especially like the international space station example. Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 3:38
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    RAA requires a necessary and necessarily impossible conclusion to be valid. When you're talking about a spectrum where arbitrary cutoff can be made, it doesn't apply. This is much more slippery slope logical fallacy than reductio logical argument. But it is one that's made regardless, so it does answer the question.
    – Nij
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 4:56
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    Then again, why should the state provide protection against people just taking the water from those who have it? Why should property be something the state pays for protecting, but welfare shouldn't? Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 9:16
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    If you want to understand about the increasing returns to scale of law enforcement, you should ask a separate question. Note that I already suggested the principle that people should pay for their own decisions. If private theft is allowed, then that goes against people paying for their own decisions in the same way as "guaranteed necessities". This is in fact part of the argument that taxes are government theft.
    – Brythan
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 19:10
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    This does not strike me as "reductio ad absurdum" but simply as "absurdum". The OP did not ask about getting whatever he needs for free, but about essentials. Essential being defined as "without it you die". All the rhetorics in this answer have little to do with that (for example: it would be trivial for the state to declare reasonable zones in which this free basic life support is given, and obviously the desert or the space station would not be part of this).
    – AnoE
    Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 13:16

Why should the state not provide for the basic necessities of its people? I am thinking of things like water, food, and housing as "basic necessities."

Housing is built by people.

Water is purified into drinkable form and transported and delivered by people.

Food is grown or cooked or otherwise made ready to eat by people, and is transported and delivered by people.

Look closely at this abstract term you call "the state" and you will see that it is only composed of people. Really it is just an idea. It's an agreed-upon idea held by people.

An idea cannot do something. Only people can do something.

"The State" cannot do anything. It cannot breathe, it cannot think, it cannot fight, it certainly cannot feed people or house them or water them. Only people can do these things. Individual people.

Individuals who work in agreement with some other individuals can accomplish something. But what accomplished something? The idea they agreed upon? No.

No group ever DID anything. It either assisted the activity and "doingness" of the individuals in the group, or it hindered their activity. The group itself never DOES do anything.

Accomplishment depends on the willingness and ability of individuals to DO. Nothing is ever accomplished in any other way.

Preserving that willingness is a vital principle of successful management.

Try to restate the question only in terms of individuals without using the words "government" or "state" or any similar word, and see what conclusions you reach.

If you define "the state" as an entity that does not consist of individuals, that does not depend on individuals, and that does not require personal responsibility, willingness or activity on the part of any individual anywhere, but which can nevertheless be assigned the responsibility for the wellbeing of individuals—then I'm afraid you're looking at a fictitious beast. And one far more implausible than unicorns, dragons or the tooth fairy.

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    This is a good argument for why "the state" should not provide anything. I like it quite a bit, except that it's not specific at all to the original question about basic necessities.
    – industry7
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 18:00
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    I feel like this argument is reduces the state to nothing because it's parts are people. Therefore only people can do things. However, this argument can equally be applied to people (and let's totally ignore the state's ownership of things, because that's not people). People can do nothing because it's really their muscles and bones that perform actions. Try to restate your objection only in terms of muscles and bones without using the words "individuals" or "people" or any similar word, and see what conclusions you reach. Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 4:52
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    By the same argument, since Congress is a group/idea, not an individual, then then it literally cannot "make a law respecting an establishment of religion". So what's the intent and effect of the First Amendment, if it fails to prohibit the individuals who constitute Congress from working collectively to pass just such a law? Clearly there is some meaning attached to a description of a group or institution "doing something", other than the meaning you dismiss in this answer as formally impossible. In whatever sense "Congress makes laws", the "state" can "redistribute resources". Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 10:37
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    I believe that Wildcard is attempting a reductio ad absurdum argument, but I'm not personally convinced. It's not absurd to me that a system of government causes things to occur, since my conception of the state includes its employees, its federal land and property, and even its reputation. The state can do nothing except through its parts. The federal leaders and employees are parts like people have arms. Although it is true that if every leader and employee of the state stopped following the current leaders, the state would essentially dissolve, until that time, the state may provide. Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 3:47
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    Re ""The State" cannot do anything.": states are emergent phenomena, that may in their own way be alive, and can both do things people can't, and often do things that no individual citizen wants. Some liken a state to a ship at sea, or a leviathan, or a body; I'd suggest a colossal mule, a host to fleas and ticks, and prone to infections...
    – agc
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 1:45

I think some people prefer a state not to provide these things, but I don't understand why.

It's not that we prefer them, it's that states have a horrible track record doing this. What if the state gave you (mostly) clean water (it's kinda brown and you boil it "just in case"), a simple 4 wall shack in a tract of shacks, and a sack of rice a month. All of your basic needs have been met, but only at the poverty line. Is that really a success? There's two points you need to consider

The state has no disincentive for failure

Businesses fail and cease to exist. People fail and go bankrupt. But the State cannot fail. Indeed, States can maintain failure long after any private solution would have fallen by the wayside.

Take health care. If the State, for instance, takes half your income in taxes and provides "free" health care, most people would say that's good. But what if that system made you wait an average of 20 weeks for necessary care? I once heard someone (in a non-political setting) talk about a dark time in his marriage when his father-in-law had a heart attack. He was treated in Toronto and sent home to await heart surgery... 6 months later. Yet there's no alternatives because Canada has made them all State-based. It's no wonder increasing numbers of Canadians seek treatment in the US.

The problem is that the State has created a distortion in the market. Private pay means you get treatment much quicker, but Private pay also means some people might not get any care at all. Politicians take the latter and rail against it as "unfair". Yet, there's no disincentive for the government to create long wait times for care. Indeed, if the free taxpayer subsidized healthcare actually killed half the patients it treated, there would be an outcry that would simply spark an electoral revolt and the new party in town would pass some minor, and likely meaningless, reforms (I can see the headlines now: "Reforms reduce death rate from 50% to 48%!"). This is the ratchet effect

This can be applied to other topics like

Scarcity doesn't vanish just because you want it to

Let me go back to the health care thing and explain why it's not all it's cracked up to be. In single payer, only the State can pay for your health care and that money comes from higher taxes. But single payer is a cost control mechanism and cost controls never work in the long run.

Let's say you need an MRI. Under private pay, we'll say an MRI costs $250. MRI companies turn a healthy profit and companies that do them are abundant. Single payer comes along and says that the State (now the only legal payer) will only pay $50 for one (a price ceiling). That's an enforced 80% reduction in the price. The politicians look good for stopping the "greedy" MRI companies, but what happens is that you can now only make a profit if you consolidate. 20% of the payment means 80% of the capacity will leave the market. Companies that did only MRIs will close. Hospitals will stop replacing MRI machines and technicians. And MRI wait times will explode because there's no longer capacity.


The problem is that you can't get around supply, demand and price. There's no an unlimited capacity in any market for any good or service. What you're advocating is removing the price factor. Price ceilings never end well

Rent control is a price ceiling on rent. When soldiers returned from World War II and started families (which increased demand for apartments), but stopped receiving military pay, many could not deal with the jumping rent. The government put in price controls, so soldiers and their families could pay the rent and keep their homes. However, this increased the quantity demanded for apartments and lowered the quantity supplied, meaning that available apartments were rapidly taken until none were left for late-comers. Price ceilings create shortages when producers are allowed to abdicate market share or go unsubsidized.

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    I don't think you understand the single payer health system. In England the NHS is funded by the state and provides free care for all; but you don't have to use it. There is a parallel private system. You can choose a (private) doctor and pay in full to get treatment on your terms if you wish and your budget allows. You can also choose to buy (additional) health insurance which will then cover you to get cared for in a beautiful (I've been in one) private hospital. It' doesn't have to be "either-or" it typically is "Both". Most people settle for the decent but underfunded NHS. /1
    – mcottle
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 7:41
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    However, high net worth individuals will typically get treated outside of the NHS for reasons of privacy, quality of care, time pressures etc. Look up "Harley Street" which is the famous street in London where the best (or at least the most expensive) private doctors congregate. So, in summary, the NHS, which covers every citizen costs roughly half (per capita) than it costs the American people to cover less than 90% of themselves and the story is similar in every other developed country. /2
    – mcottle
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 7:53
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    @mcottle That's very interesting about the UK, but I should note that Canada outlaws private payments (true single payer). The UK would not be a true single payer in that case.
    – Machavity
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 13:12
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    @jameqf In the US, uninsured people have virtually no access to preventive care. They wait until something gets so bad it has to be treated in the ER, and this drives up the eventual cost. In the UK, NHS doctors are reluctant to prescribe treatment for conditions that are self-induced, such as obesity, until ever effort has been made to stop the self-abuse. Individual physicians are trusted to make moral judgements.
    – Philip Roe
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 17:02
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    @Andy "only when access to healthcare is factored in that Europe is better" = that's a pretty major "only".
    – user1530
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 18:10

Let's dissect it a little bit.

A state is a an organized political community living under a single system of government. (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 9th ed., 1995)

As such, it is up to people living in such community - some, or most, to decide what the government and state is responsible for. It case of a despotism, it could be up to a single person. In democracy, it is a communal decision, whether direct, or not.

I think some people prefer a state not to provide these things, but I don't understand why.

Depending on who and how decides what state obligations are to its people, reasons not to provide basic necessities will vary. A despot might believe in survival of the fittest. In a plutocracy, wealthy might see poor and malnourished as not a threat to their rule, thus not a problem they should spend their current or potential wealth on. Even in direct democracy, majority of people might develop an ideology, where providing basic necessities unconditionally by taxing a broader community is counter-productive to the goals of the community as a whole. The number of reasons is probably indefinite. How many of them will stand up to a check against humanistic principles we seem to have agreed upon, be it in context of UN decisions or via cultural exchange, is another story.

One possible "humanistic" and "Keynesian" solution could be e.g. that any member of the community can receive a loan to cover basic necessities, with appropriate limitations against abuse and with a fair annual rate. Obviously, community will or should also incentivize paying out these loans and dis-incentivize bankruptcy. State, as an issuer of a currency, could underwrite such loans to some extend, making it less Keynesian, but more realistic. The reasoning behind it is the same as why you would provide a loan to a friend in need vs. a money gift. However, it is not a widely adopted system, and the reasons are quite interesting to explore, but go beyond this topic.

In other societies, instead of doing it purely monetarily, it can be a part of religious or spiritual duties. Whoever is considered a "decent person" has to help build or maintain a local temple that in part can be inhabited by people in need and has to cook or bring food to them from time to time. To various extents, this is what really happened in various societies historically, helping society to survive under the harshest despots and worst economic collapses.

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    The issue with your loan example is that most who need help meeting basic necessities do not have the means to pay off the loans. Ex: If one's income 80 units and the cost of "basic" necessities are 100 units, then one will always need another loan and never be able to payoff the first loan. Therefore, the loan scheme described only works if one is guaranteed to get a "real" increase in income (as opposed to an increase driven by inflation).
    – sharur
    Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 21:32
  • @sharur Obviously, the loans need to be provided with the background of improving productivity or skills. Say, if a person loans 20 units, 40 is offered instead where 20 goes towards training by a local employer or some other similar program. That said, in countries with low unemployment (~5% like Canada and US) a lot of people in dire need of state help have either substance abuse or mental health issues or simply personality traits like "I will not slave for anyone" that make them unemployable. That part can't be fixed by loans and requires broader public involvement.
    – Alex Pakka
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 1:51
  • "In a plutocracy, wealthy might see poor and malnourished as not a threat to their rule, thus not a problem they should spend their current or potential wealth on." - US politics has many OBVIOUS counter-examples to this, Teddy Rosevelt's policies being the most iconic and credited with delaying the popular spread of socialism until early 2000s, by 100 years.
    – user4012
    Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 22:59
  • @user4012 Your comment is not correct. US wasn't a plutocracy neither in 1933 nor in 1939. One can argue it had certain plutocratic features or tendencies in one period or another, but describing it as a plutocracy is not widely accepted by historians; the term was and is, however, widely used by communist or fascist regimes' propaganda to describe west as a whole. In the end, poor and malnourished still had a vote and a voice. Also, I provided the quoted sentece as an example of what might happen in theory. Historically, the behavior of plutocrats was more nuanced, of course.
    – Alex Pakka
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 0:02
  • @AlexPakka - wrong Roosevelt :) And thus wrong time period. I agree it was more "had plutocratic features" than "was plutocracy", but the mood/features fit your scenario.
    – user4012
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 2:07

Most states do so to some extent, as it is vastly cheaper to provide these things directly than to provide effective access control.

For water and power, the distribution network spans a wide area, and connecting to it is fairly easy if you know what you are doing, and also pretty much undetectable. It would be possible to add network monitoring stations, but these come with their own cost in initial installation and maintenance, plus they increase the probability of failures.

It is thus cheaper to just give access to everyone regardless of whether they are paying, and then use the judicial system to collect payment. If it is impossible to extract money from an individual at all, it is still cheaper to accept the loss rather than attempt to protect against the loss.

The same thing also applies to medical services. Emergency care cannot be contingent on whether the patient can show that they are able to pay, because in many cases they will be unconscious and not carry ID, so emergency care centers are effectively becoming a very expensive and at the same time ineffective form of primary care for those that cannot afford cheaper options.

This can be optimized further by defining a basic standard of living that will be provided by the state, usually including food, water, electricity, telecommunication and medical services. Most states require that recipients of subsidies actively look for work or explain why they don't, and many states also set the level of service fairly low in order to "create incentives" to seek better employment.

Actual implementations differ. Typically, states with good infrastructure and dense population centers will provide more services unconditionally, as the benefits are more pronounced and the marginal cost is lower. Also, people in population centers are generally more open to central organization, as living in close quarters requires a lot of central planning anyway to be workable.

Another important point is that, if done right, this also keeps wages up because no one would accept a job that pays less than a living wage, so the state will be able to collect significantly more income tax.

  • This answer misses the impact on infrastructure maintenance if the system is underfunded; look towards Detroit for what happens when people don't pay their water bill. Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 13:34
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    @DrunkCynic, cutting off people's water supply due to non-payment wouldn't have saved that infrastructure either, only redistribution of tax money from other parts of the state or country would have worked. Rebuilding will cost a lot more now. Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 15:15
  • @DrunkCynic Cut off a few peoples' water supply for non-payment, and make sure people know, and I'd think that most others would re-consider the priority of paying their water bill.
    – Andy
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 1:08
  • 1
    @Andy, in general water bills are high on people's priority lists, and they are privileged in court orders for wage garnishment. If they still are not being paid, there is a good chance that there is no money to be re-prioritized toward water. At this point we can either spend lots of resources (technician for shutting off, police for ensuring it stays shut off), or just accept the loss of a few dollars worth of water every month. Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 23:05
  • 1
    @Andy, there is a balance between effort invested in security and effort invested in breaking it. For water and food, people will go to great lengths, so you'd need to step up security quite a lot (think checkpoints on the street and huge walls to stop people from getting water from mall bathrooms). So there is no slippery slope here. Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 4:52

Libertarians might contend something like:

Do you need men with guns to see to it that no one starves? If you don't need to compel people there are options other than government for filling the role.

In fact while several government programs for food or other vital resources exist in my area there does not appear to be a government program that will certainly get you warm, clean and fed tonight (other than a cell). Several non-governmental organizations do attempt to achieve exactly that goal, and have enough resources that they almost certainly are having a meaningful effect. My area has a reasonable number of people without homes or jobs, but very little death by starvation or exposure.

Other local organizations aim to take care of longer term needs or protect statistically vulnerable demographics. All funded by voluntary contributions.

That last line is often an important point for libertarians.

  • and yet they still want to take my involuntary contributions to pay for professional thugs to make sure I don't do anything they don't like. Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 17:10

Because it's the default choice.

As soon as you start discussing how to provide free water and food and housing, the issue very quickly becomes very complex. What kind of water? Can the state be sued if the quality of the water isn't right? How big should the houses be? Can we provide houses for the poor outside the city walls? What kind of food is justified for the poor? How do we discourage people from wasting resources if they are free? Should we pay poor people a TV? Should poor people be allowed to own a car?

In fact, in the developed world it seems to be the standard that free water, food, housing, and medical aid is indeed provided by most states. But to what standard and by which means differs considerably by state.

And even developing countries have countless checks and balances that decrease the number of people that would otherwise freeze and starve to a slightly more acceptable level.


Social Darwinism

According to theory of social darwinism, society is a population which undergoes natural selection. It is an application of 19th century biological ideas to the social and political world. Although usually considered an ugly theory by modern standards, it was an extremely influential and oft-argued perspective in its time.

One application of this theory is that by providing basic necessities, the government would be ensuring that mal-adapted people continue to survive, which is a detriment to society. Why weren't those people capable of thriving in a competetive environment? Perhaps they had physical, psychological, or social disabilities - why would you want to pass those on to future generations? Perhaps they didn't have the skills or education necessary for high-paying jobs. In that case, why would the government want them to have children who are likely to have the same problem?

If you want to read more, Herbert Spencer is one of the best known names in social darwinist theory.

  • 4
    I'm very tempted to call this a straw-man argument absent some evidence. Do you have any evidence that a meaningful amount of people actually hold that as specific reason to oppose such provision? (and very specifically, NOT confused with a different reason which holds that it's unethical to subsidize people-on-the-dole-having-more-kids-while-those-paying-cant-afford-to, which is an argument having nothing to do with natural selection)
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 20:28
  • 1
    I won't even go into how this stated theory contradicts actual modern evolutionary ideas (including kin selection, epigenetics, etc..)
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 20:31
  • 3
    @user4012 Hardly straw-man; it's a very old political theory called en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malthusianism (however it was initially without Darwinist roots; based simply on observation that poor people generally have poor offspring because the offspring do not inherit any property). It was influential enough in its time to result in actual legislation reducing aid en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poor_Law_Amendment_Act_1834 "relief would only be given in workhouses, and conditions in workhouses would be such as to deter any but the truly destitute from applying for relief". Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 22:22
  • 1
    While correct for 18th century, modern (post 1950) maththusianism is NOT mainly about survival of the fittest and definitely NOT about rejecting basic income (since a large portion of pro-basic-income left are actually Malthusian)
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 22:30
  • 1
    @user4012 There's several different ideas that might be called "Malthusian" - initially Malthus just started with the observation that population growth is exponential; to this was added the idea that poor people reproduce more quickly and dilute their inherited property and finally the idea that aid is counterproductive because it essentially just allows property held to go negative as aid allows poor people to collect "rent" on their mere existence. Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 22:35

Some cynical theories by a few skeptics of the status quo:

  1. You know how I define the economic and social classes in this country? The upper class keeps all of the money, pays none of the taxes. The middle class pays all of the taxes, does all of the work. The poor are there just to scare the shit out of the middle class. Keep 'em showing up at those jobs. --George Carlin

    Scarcity and poverty creates fear, which goads workers to pay taxes to support a state that perpetuates the cycle. Providing those necessities would remove that fear, and break the system.

  2. Al Capp's Shmoo stories are premised on the notion that if those basic necessities were already provided for naturally, then such a fear-based system of governance would deliberately ruin those provisions to preserve the institution of scarcity itself:

    In a sequence beginning in late August 1948, Li'l Abner discovers the shmoos when he ventures into the forbidden "Valley of the Shmoon" following the mysterious and musical sound they make (from which their name derives). Abner is thrown off a cliff and into the valley below by a primitive "large gal" (as he addresses her), whose job is to guard the valley. (This character is never seen again.) There, against the frantic protestations of a naked, heavily bearded old man who shepherds the shmoos, Abner befriends the strange and charming creatures. "Shmoos," the old man warns, "is the greatest menace to hoomanity th' world has evah known!" "Thass becuz they is so bad, huh?" asks Li'l Abner. "No, stupid", answers the man — and then encapsulates one of life's profound paradoxes: "It's because they's so good!!"

    Having discovered their value ("Wif these around, nobody won't nevah havta work no more!!"), Abner leads the shmoos out of the valley — where they become a sensation in Dogpatch and, quickly, the rest of the world. Captains of industry such as J. Roaringham Fatback, the "Pork King", become alarmed as sales of nearly all products decline, and in a series of images reminiscent of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the "Shmoo Crisis" unfolds. On Fatback's orders, a corrupt exterminator orders out "Shmooicide Squads" to wipe out the shmoos with a variety of firearms, which is depicted in a macabre and comically graphic sequence, with a tearful Li'l Abner misguidedly saluting the supposed "authority" of the extermination squads.

    After the shmoos have been eliminated, Dogpatch's extortionate grocer Soft-Hearted John is seen cackling as he displays his wares—rotting meat and produce: "Now them mizzuble starvin' rats has t'come crawlin t'me fo' the necessities o' life!! They complained 'bout mah prices befo'!! Wait'll they see th' new ones!!" The exterminator congratulates him.

  • Be nice to other users, please. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 18:31
  • 1
    @indigochild, Good advice. Please clarify which words or statements in this answer fail to accord with those standards.
    – agc
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 18:59
  • "Most of the answers here seem to be by apologists for the status quo who dread the idea of providential states. In contrast, a few mockers of the status quo:" - You can frame your answer without this kind of attack. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 19:04

"What are the major arguments for why the state should not provide for the basic necessities of its people? I am thinking of things like water, food, and housing as "basic necessities"."

I have a machine that makes a machine that provides clean water, basic nutrition, and shelter (bed, heat, a/c, and shade). Both machines require air (water is taken from the air), land, and sun to function.

There are two reasons not to give a machine to every human born.

First, there's over population. This is easily fixed. In addition to the basic necessities you'll need to teach people what happen's to a population that doesn't control it's birth rate.

Second, it would be difficult to convince people to do something unpleasant or demeaning. You wouldn't be able to hire someone to clean your toilet. This would be the end of the world for many people.

  • Reason #1 should be labeled "Malthusianism". Reason #2 is imho overly dramatic as stated ("the end of the world") - western society already learned to overpay sanitation workers as they are vital to not drowning in garbage; and basic tasks like cleaning a toilet is easily done by the user without having to hire someone at exorbitant price.
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 18:23
  • Technically I'd say neo-malthusianism. If you don't agreed with the idea that uncheck population growth will out pace resources I'll show the pile of money next to the kids I don't have. I think the statement "It's so hard to find good help these days" sums up my second point. Sure cleaning a toilet is easy but if you can make someone else do it without have to ask nicely cleaning a toilet is awful. How do you make sure good help is easy to find?
    – slOOP
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 0:48
  • @user4012, Re "drowning in garbage": manufacturers of mass produced disposables subvert the fourth estate with misleading advertising that makes the idea of torrents of disposable objects seem normal, and a charmed public therefore permits them to externalize the the heavy societal costs of their output.
    – agc
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 18:18
  • Conclusion #2 doesn't follow from your argument. Why would people in this situation not be willing to do unpleasant tasks? Also, why does the government care about either of these two reasons? Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 18:22

As you can see most of the problems come down to money (currency). If we did not use a currency based ecomonic model, then we could probably come up with a system where people just take as they choose.

If you removed money from your daily routine would it really change anything?

  • Go to work
  • Get things from store
  • Pump gas

None of these things require money to happen, but we use it to implement limitations. How much money you have limits how much you can get. More money only means your limit is higher then someone with less money.

Money gets its value from scarcity. If everyone had a $500 bill, the $500 bill would have no value. But if everyone has a $1 bill, then a $500 bill is suddenly worth a lot. The bill didn't change, only its scarcity changed.

This is why socialism or "free stuff" as we call it in America doesn't pan out. Of course everyone wants free stuff, but the entire world is tied to a system of currency. So by giving stuff to everyone it devalues the worth and then it becomes hard to justify creating it. The countries that appear to be wealthy have exported their poverty to somewhere else. The poverty exists SOMEWHERE.

If you give everyone money in order to compensate for lack of money, then why have money at all? This is why you can't win the war on poverty or hunger.

Money gets value from scarcity, which means money creates poverty. Wealth is only a by product of money. The system itself relies on many more people being poor then rich. By pushing more money to a small group of people, money gets more value. "Middle class" is an equilibrium, which negates the purpose of money.

The concepts of "free stuff" and money are simply at odds with each other. You can't have both. You can have some bastardized middle ground where it kinda sorta works, and that is what the world has been doing for a long time. The constant ebb and flow of wealth and poverty keep the system moving along. But make no mistake, there will ALWAYS be proportionately more suffering under this system.

  • 4
    If there's no money involved, getting things from a store requires either (1) barter (no different than money, just incredibly impossible to scale to modern economy given different types of goods/supply); (2) Forcibly taking, using either your own, or the state's brute force, as backing; or (3) Theft. Absent #4 (store owner gives it up as charity, which isn't preordained so doesn't count). #2 is slavery (you're forcing someone to work for free to get you the stuff); #3 devolves to #2 the moment the owner tries to prevent the theft.
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 4:06
  • 3
    Please take a basic economy theory course to understand why this answer is nonsense. Money itself isn't a problem; all it does is represent limited resources.
    – Andy
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 0:15
  • @user4012 You are still trying to give an item a value. Barter, theft, steal, whatever. This is how you look at it because we can't accept the idea that goods could just freely flow. We are ingrained with the idea everything has to have a value.
    – Westrock
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 13:08
  • @Westrock - "freeely" implies you either force whoever had the goods to give them to you; or convince them. The former is #2/3 in my comment; the latter is #1 (or charity, but you're unlikely to charity-get 100% of the goods you want in life)
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 18:55
  • 1
    @agc - Actually, if heir-less man didn't will his fountain to someone, that's equivalent to volunteerism in my view; as he chose not to give it to whoever he could. But yes, let's call the rather unlikely rare case a fourth production method, just to be methodical. But ask yourself, what's the likely proportion of drinking fountains produced by first 3 methods vs 4th? (i'm pretty sure very few people die with their estate going to public use, and even fewer own water fountains).
    – user4012
    Commented Sep 30, 2017 at 18:43

The modern, industrialized state has a moral obligation to pay for basic necessities.

Failing to provide the necessities to a segment of your population is a punishment for them not producing sufficient goods or services to deserve the level of compensation to survive.

In the United States, the notion of scarcity of resources is poppycock.

The problem with this form of punishment is that wages are not set by the value of work produced, it's set by the balance/imbalance of control of the employers. When the government tilts the balance of control away from labour, it depresses wages, and pushes people below living wages.

Other people who the government deems undesirable (drug users, petty thieves) are barred from working at jobs paying living wages by systems that charge them punitive fines that they can't pay back, and stigmatizing them with criminal records.


I don't think you can answer the question without addressing the other side of the question, and remove the basically eugenicist excuses.

How much would it cost to lift Americans now in poverty to the poverty line? Currently, there are about 45 million in poverty. I'll use wikipedia numbers, assuming an average of 2 persons per family unit in poverty, we would need to supplement those households to an income of $16,000. Considering that many are currently on on food stamps, working low paying jobs and other income assistance, I'll assume that on average they need 50% supplement, or $8,000 per year. $8,000 x 45 million = $360 billion per year. The US GDP is $18 trillion dollars. So that's 2% of GDP. The recipients of this assistance would spend every dollar, generating follow-on effects for the economy as a whole. As a comparison, we pay 15% of GDP per year on healthcare, for a system that everyone says is full of inefficiencies.

When you consciously don't take action to prevent the poverty of our fellow man in a country we claim to be the richest on the earth, that's the same as inflicting punishment.

  • This answer is receiving down votes. I'm no mind reader, but here are a couple suggestions: when you make claims, back them up (for example - show me that there is no scarcity of resources in the United States). Second, separate moral claims from empirical ones. What's the connection between scarcity and the moral obligation to provide help? Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 18:19
  • I have't voted for or against this answer, but it doesn't answer the present question, instead it answers the opposite question.
    – agc
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 18:24
  • What moral obligation, based off which subjective set of morals? Provide justification for your imbalance of control conjecture. People with criminal records have demonstrated a higher risk of being detrimental to society. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 18:40
  • @DrunkCynic, Re "subjective set of morals": declaring all sets of morals to be subjective seems almost as absolutist as supposing that only what is legal is moral and vice-versa.
    – agc
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 1:16
  • @agc To the contrary; what is legal is not necessarily moral. Morals are inherently subjective. Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 5:37

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