David Kelley subjects the institutions of the contemporary welfare state to sustained and withering criticism. A Life of One's Own is a devastating refutation of the flawed concept of "welfare rights." Kelley presents empirical evidence of the welfare state's effects on behavior, historical research on the origins of the welfare state (and on what it displaced), and philosophical clarification of such core ideas as freedom and rights. After a careful examination of the various arguments made on behalf of welfare rights, Kelley concludes that "the concept of welfare rights is invalid."
Kelley distinguishes between statutory rights, constitutional rights, and human rights. Although current law creates statutory rights to welfare benefits, Kelley demonstrates that there are neither constitutional nor human rights to welfare. As he notes, "Just as the idea of a constitutional right to welfare is at odds with the Founders' legal conception of the function of government, so the idea of a basic human right to welfare is at odds with the Founders' philosophical conception of the rights of the individual. Welfare rights are radically different from, and incompatible with, the classical rights to life, liberty, and property."
Kelley traces the emergence of the welfare state to the combination of two factors: on the one hand, "real problems, of which the two most important were continuing poverty among those left behind by economic progress and the new forms of economic risk that arose as the economic fortunes of individuals became bound up with national and international markets" under industrial capitalism and, on the other hand, "intellectual and cultural trends [that] were increasingly hostile to individualism and capitalism." The first factors were being addressed "by private, voluntary organizations well before government programs were conceived and enacted" and were rapidly being ameliorated. In A Life of One's Own, Kelley directly addresses the intellectual challenge to individualism and capitalism.