A. the Injustice Objection

      All three reciprocity arguments are vulnerable to the objection that the basic structure of U.S. society is grossly unjust. (Some defenders of a civic obligation to work acknowledge this point and build in appropriate qualifications.) When a society is manifestly unjust, refusing to work, even if there is a pro tanto civic obligation to work, may be a reasonable response. Indeed, such refusal to cooperate can be a form of political protest. Even if we were to set aside the uncompensated injustices of the past (e.g., slavery and Jim Crow segregation), which continue to affect black life chances in the present, there are current social injustices that heavily burden the ghetto poor. For instance, the structure of economic opportunity that they face is deeply unfair. Public schools are still unequal and racially segregated, and many urban schools are substandard. Consequently, the ghetto poor are severely disadvantaged when it comes to opportunities to develop marketable skills. There are great inequalities in wealth, which shape life chances in numerous ways, and which poor families in the ghetto are also on the losing end of. Even setting aside these general egalitarian concerns, racial discrimination in employment, housing, and lending are still a problem, and there are persistent racial disparities--in income, wealth, employment, infant mortality, health outcomes, and life-expectancy--that go back to the antebellum era, never having come close to parity between blacks and whites. Moreover, the overall work burden is unfairly distributed in the society--that is, others are not doing their fair share of the work--and, to make matters worse, this unfair distribution is racially marked, with blacks (and Latinos) doing a disproportionate share of menial labor, hard work, and dirty jobs.

      If these justice-based criticisms of U.S. society have merit, which I think they do, this weakens if not undermines the force of the reciprocity argument for the new work regime. Taking these criticisms seriously, let's first consider the benefactor/debtor model. It is hard to see why the ghetto poor should be grateful to be citizens of the United States. In light of the burdens of injustice that they are forced to carry, resentment or indignation, not gratitude, is the apt response to their situation. To expect otherwise would be like expecting a child who has been subject to consistent parental abuse and neglect to be grateful to his or her abusive and negligent parent. One response to this objection is to point out that the ghetto poor of America could have been born into much worse circumstances--e.g., into the slums of São Paulo, Bombay, Jakarta, or Lagos. But, again, emphasizing this comparative advantage would be like attempting to exonerate abusive and negligent parents on the grounds that at least they did not let their children starve.

      Even if the ghetto poor do have things to be grateful for (say, the rule of law or national defense) and should express this gratitude in some concrete way, it is not obvious that full-time employment is the best or only way for them to show their appreciation. They could, for instance, choose to show their gratitude and fidelity to the nation by fighting to make their society more just. And if they believe that, under current circumstances, work requirements for the poor are themselves unjust, they may carry out this fight by refusing to cooperate with the new work regime, engaging in a form of passive resistance. However, instead of objecting to a particular unjust law, as with traditional civil disobedience, they would be objecting to the social scheme as a whole.

      What about the market exchange model? As is well known, attempting to derive political duties from the idea of a commercial contract has numerous difficulties. The biggest problem is that contracts must be freely entered into if they are to be binding, and most citizens of existing polities cannot be said to have made a voluntary agreement to live under the political regime into which they were born. The vast majority of the ghetto poor, having been born in the United States and possessing meager, if any, means of support, certainly cannot be said to have chosen or consented to live under the dominion of the U.S. government. Tacit consent arguments are sometimes thought to be better than explicit consent arguments. But these arguments depend on there being a suitable alternative to living under the political regime in question, and the ghetto poor, like most citizens of the United States, cannot just leave for another country. Hypothetical consent arguments, to the extent they are able to do any justificatory work, turn on it being rational to have agreed to the terms to which one finds oneself being held. But in a hypothetical agreement among equals, what rational person would consent to a social structure in which he or she could turn out to be a poor black denizen of a ghetto who is required to work to maintain full civic standing?

      Even if we allow that a civic duty to work can be grounded in the idea of a market exchange, the injustice objection stands. The ghetto poor have not received many of the benefits they have been “promised”--e.g., equality of opportunity and the equal protection of the law. We can, therefore, view their refusal to work in an unjust social scheme as the moral equivalent of a rent strike against a slumlord: they refuse to pay their civic debt until the government makes good on its promise to treat all citizens fairly. There has not been a breach of civic contract but a governmental failure to perform so fundamental that the aggrieved citizens, the ghetto poor, can rightfully refuse to comply with their “agreement” to work. At a minimum, the government's failures constitute a material breach, and thus the ghetto poor have a just claim to damages.

      The fair-play argument suffers from similar difficulties to the market exchange argument. Most fair-play arguments depend on the idea that the benefits of social cooperation are freely accepted, not imposed. But as Jeremy Moss rightly points out, since welfare recipients, who are typically poor women with young children, are among the most vulnerable in society, they cannot correctly be said to have freely accepted welfare benefits. What real choice do they have? But even setting aside these concerns about the voluntariness of the choice, the benefits of a cooperative scheme are unfairly accepted only if the scheme itself is fair. Or, to put it differently, the moral requirement that all play by the rules is valid only if the rules are fair to everyone who plays the game. No fair-minded person would seriously suggest that, because a slave receives the benefits of food and shelter, the slave thereby owes a labor debt to the slave regime that makes these benefits possible. The situation of ghetto denizens is analogous, if less dire. They undoubtedly receive some benefits as citizens of the United States (e.g., food stamps, some basic social services, and defense against external threats), but because they are so burdened by the structural injustices of the social system, they should not be considered free-riders if they refuse to comply with a civic work requirement.