The Beauty of Universal Benefits

Pete Buttigieg scored some points at last week’s Democratic debate by going against popular party opinion on the issue of free college tuition. It isn’t fair, Mayor Pete argued, to make working-class families pay for free college for wealthy kids. The Boston Globe, among other commentators, opined that this positioning made Buttigieg a “standout” in the debate.

While many of the other candidates view the issue differently, none offered what is the most convincing rebuttal to the Buttigieg position on the issue. That rebuttal starts with an understanding of the unique value of universal public benefits, as opposed to needs-based benefits.

No one would argue, for example, that only poor and middle-income families should enjoy free use of public libraries or public schools, or free protection from police and fire departments. Those public benefits are paid for by all and enjoyed by all, part of what makes them, generally speaking, relatively uncontroversial public expenditures.

Social Security is one of the most popular government programs in history because, for practical purposes, its benefits are paid for by all and received by all. Of course, some of us don’t live long enough to enjoy retirement benefits, but the basic idea is simple: everyone pays in so that all elderly citizens are guaranteed a minimum income upon retirement. (There are exceptions, such as some government workers who pay into another system instead of Social Security, but these exceptions are so minute as to not matter here.)

Whether we realize it or not, these universal benefits help to bring us together as a society, in many ways defining what we consider to be fundamental rights that everyone gets. Benefits that are universal, whether free reading from a small-town public library or free entry to a Smithsonian museum, are our richness as a society on display.

Needs-based benefits, while sometimes necessary, by definition create distinctions (one class receives them while another does not) and thus can create division and resentment. This resentment is usually not from the wealthiest toward the poorest, but from those who just miss the cutoff for receiving benefits toward those who do receive them. Needs-based benefits can also provide fodder for the creation of social stigmas, where the recipients are shamed and judged.

In fact, wealthier families are supposed to pay more in taxes (although they don’t always, but that’s a discussion about fair taxation for another day), and thus they actually are paying more towards universal benefits such as police, fire, and libraries. If college tuition were free and taxation were fair, wealthier families would be paying more towards “free” college as well.

Of course, in the real world, the wealthiest would still be shooting for the Ivies and other elite colleges, even if state universities were free, further weakening Buttigieg’s argument. Just as the upper classes today often send their kids to private primary and secondary schools despite the availability of free public schools, the same would surely hold if a state-sponsored college education were free.

Mayor Pete succeeded in finding a pitch that allowed him to stand out in the debate, but under closer analysis that pitch was wide of the plate. His criticism of universal free college draws class lines, putting “us” on one side and “them” on the other. Universal benefits, however, make everyone part of “us.”