Reply To: How do you guys keep going?


MarkHTR; You raise some really core issues. How often have you had it urged against you in debate – “You libertarians care nothing for the poor and disadvantaged. Let ‘em starve! All you care about is grimly and mean-spiritedly hanging on to your money.” This is a powerful rhetorical claim very often used against libertarians. It’s not always easy to respond to this claim, especially in the heat of battle. Could I suggest the following rough points?

When we talk about libertarianism and its social implications, we sometimes seem to be saying that our brave new world is just like the old not-so-brave world except that it doesn’t have (social) welfare. Do not allow this impression to form, not least because it isn’t (or shouldn’t) be true. Yes, we are opposed to welfare—all forms of it, corporate as well as social. But our key point should be this. Welfare programs and those who support them institutionalise poverty. It’s as if they were to say “You poor people stay in your ghettos and we’ll give you money, but don’t ever think that you have something to contribute to your family or community. Don’t ever think that you can make a life for yourself, develop and exercise your skills or grow in self-respect based on achievement. Just stay where you are and know your place.”

But the libertarian vision is not just the status quo minus welfare. It’s about a world populated by people, families and communities that are free to take responsibility for themselves and their dependents. The libertarian vision isn’t only about the elimination of all forms of welfare—it’s about empowerment through liberty, so that anyone who has any skill at all can make some contribution and so become not only financially self-sustaining but also socially responsible.

We cannot demonstrate the point but many libertarians believe that in a libertarian world, there would be very many fewer poor people. And yes, private uncoerced charity would be at least as good as current welfare programs at assisting those people, and very likely much better. (See Taylor 1984) We don’t reject voluntary ‘re-distribution’—we just reject the welfarist’s forcible redistribution of other people’s resources.

Welfarists are like a doctor who would say to a man with a broken leg: “Just stay on crutches and we’ll give you pain medication to help you get around”: the libertarian is the doctor who tries to get the man back on his own two feet as quickly as he can.

The writings of Charles Taylor are classics in their field. His Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980 was published in 1984, with a second edition sometime in the early 90s. It’s still relevant though obviously, examples, figures, and stats would need to be updated. In 2006, he published In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State. I haven’t read this yet so can’t vouch for it personally but it is surely worth a look.