Explain something to me, libertarians

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

I just know there are some libertarians (small or big L) hanging out here. So answer me a few things I’ve been wondering for a long time.

Despite being a fan of tax-and-spend government policies and income redistribution, I’m also sympathetic to small government (yes, I walk a narrow line).

But I’m not fond of ideologies. I don’t like it when people have answers before they know the question. So why shouldn’t libertarianism be dismissed as just another ideology. Perhaps less government is the solution to many specific problems. But I refuse to believe anything is the solution to all problems. I’m willing to accept (or at least debate) libertarian positions on any policy issue. I’m not willing to consider libertarianism as the Correct Ideology.

That’s my basic problem. Here’s my real question: What is the libertarian answer to society’s f*ck ups? What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail? What do we do about the undeserving poor?

I don’t want to see people starve in the streets. I certainly don’t want desperate people to mug me. At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it? Isn’t that what government is for? Isn’t it cheaper than prison?

[–Peter Moskos]

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135 Responses to “Explain something to me, libertarians”

  1. #1 |  Scott | 

    I believe something becomes an ideology, an intrinsic methodology of thinking about and approaching a problem, after coming to the same conclusion innumerable times. I call myself a libertarian because more often than not when I try to ponder the deep questions and apply research, logic, and all of my book learning to an issue at hand, I wind up with a libertarian-ish answer. I suspect many people “turn libertarian” after gaining some background in economic theory and United States history.

    Libertarians don’t want to see people starving in the streets anymore than you do, Peter. The fundamental difference in my thinking versus yours is that I don’t believe government is the solution to this problem. In fact, the government is one of the biggest sources of unemployment you can possibly imagine. It is one of those things that is “unseen” if you don’t think to look for it. The function of government is very limited in my world. I won’t bore you with a long explanation as to why government is an inefficient solution to societal problems as there are much more eloquent treatises on the subject than anything I could provide. A cursory Google search should yield pretty good results.

    Happy blogging!

  2. #2 |  Brent Royal-Gordon | 

    You don’t want people dying on the streets. So if the government took a lot less of your money but told you it was up to you to help prevent people from dying on the streets, do you think you might donate some of your extra money to a church or shelter? Do you think you might even help in other ways—buying a homeless man a sandwich or volunteering at a soup kitchen—if you knew the government wasn’t doing it for you?

    And if you would do those things, why do you think the rest of America wouldn’t?

  3. #3 |  Difranco | 


    A human being is first responsible for themselves, when they fail or are neglectful of themselves the burden then falls upon their family and lesser to their friends. When their family fails then the burden falls upon non-government organizations (Churchs, charities, etc.).The government welfare/entitlement system has through taxation largely gutted charitable organizations.

    This done through two mechanisms. First a persons conscious is largely released of the belief that they need to give because they figure “hey, I pay my fair share through my taxes”. For those who do choose to give do so largely to IRS corporations which do to paper

  4. #4 |  matt | 

    Private charities are more capable, and would be better funded if you took the government solution away. Once communities get involved rather than government, money is more efficiently distributed and spent. There is not a lack of compassion in america, but rather an inefficient model of helping those that need help. Just stay home for a day and watch daytime television to see how many disability lawyers run ads. Once we get aid coming from local, rather than federal, agencies people will have less success gaming the system.

  5. #5 |  Sandy | 

    I view libertarianism as much an approach as an ideology. The most ideological part of it is simply placing a greater value on the rights of the individual than conservatives, liberals, or socialists do. The approach part is looking at each policy question with the question “what is the way to do this that least impinges on individual liberty?” in mind. While in practice this can, through lack of time (or even inclination) to study every policy issue to the nth degree, lead to “cut government” as the solution, it also doesn’t usually guarantee the same answer–even among those who do study the issue.

    Specifically as to the undeserving poor, splitting the deserving and undeserving is frequently considered part of the knowledge problem: nobody sitting in DC or a state capital can really know who is deserving or undeserving. That means there are a couple of options, all supported by various libertarians: a negative income tax, minimum subsistence aid, not letting the government do it and let private actors who can apply their own, noncoercive judgement as to who is and is not deserving (generally charities), and a few others.

    Because I believe as evolved creatures we won’t accept a pure laissez faire solution, I tend to favor a negative income tax, preferably coupled with the elimination of any other aid programs.

    That being said, if you think just a guaranteed minimum will stop you from being mugged in the street, I suspect you’re in for a nasty surprise if such a scheme is enacted. I think “entitled-feeling young males looking for easy gains in money and hence status” is a better description of most muggers than “desperate people trying to feed themselves or their families.”

  6. #6 |  emerson | 

    I’m a pretty diehard libertarian but I often wonder the same things, Peter. I believe people should be able to keep what they earn, but I don’t want to see people starving on the streets either. A couple of things I’ve come up with:

    1. Look at the world over the last 100 years. The standard of living in just about every country in the world is vastly better now than it was in 1900. Fewer people are starving, more people have adequate housing, and people are living longer than ever before. Why? Not because of government programs to reduce poverty, but because of growth, technological progress, and markets. Government can put a Band-Aid on poverty; only markets and growth can cure it. We market-oriented folks are often accused of being obsessed with growth, but I care about it not because of the iPad 2, but because of the standard-of-living improvements that everyone will experience.

    2. Government programs like food stamps, welfare, and Medicaid are just about the least of my problems with the government. Not to speak for my fellow libertarians, but I don’t think our blood really boils when we think about food stamps. I would, however, like to make sure that the only people receiving government benefits are those who really need it. That’s far from the case right now.

    3. Many people are skeptical that private charity could be sufficient to sustain the poor. I am less skeptical because I think government probably crowds out a lot of private charity. If government stopped giving out welfare checks and food stamps, generous people would probably make up much of the short fall. If I heard that government was cutting welfare and that poor people were hurting, I’d probably cut a check.

    4. Think about who REALLY takes care of the poor right now. Walmart, Goodwill, food pantries, Catholic hospitals, soup kitchens, homeless shelters. All of these could easily exist in a world without welfare checks and food stamps.

  7. #7 |  Dan Story | 

    Let me preface this by saying that libertarians are as widely varied in views as any other group — maybe more so than most — so I can’t claim to speak for anyone but myself.

    My inclination for the “undeserving poor”, as you’ve put it, is to leave them to private charity. The existence of so many charitable organizations in the US, *despite* a massive, bloat– er, “well-established” government safety net suggests that Americans are more than willing to help the unfortunate out of their own free will. We’re hardly a nation of Scrooges.

    But what about the ones who are so bad that private charities won’t help them, you ask? Personally, I’m just fine with those people starving. People eventually have to take some personal responsibility for their situations; if you’re so intransigent that you can’t persuade anyone to take compassion on you, perhaps an empty belly will give you incentive to amend your ways. If not, I’m really not convinced society isn’t better off.

    To the extent that those people turn to crime, I see absolutely no difference between them and other criminals, and it’s a law enforcement matter. Imprison them, preferably put them to work doing something useful and teach them a trade, but for those who refuse to improve and continue committing crimes, I’m quite okay with capital punishment as a final step. (Note that I’m speaking of an ideal society here, one where, unlike ours, not every adult is some kind of felon due to over-criminalization.)

    It’s not necessarily that libertarians lack compassion; rather, it’s that we have at least equal compassion or more for the people who are being forced to support the “undeserving”, as you’ve put it. Many people see a difference between a criminal mugging you for your wallet and the government taxing you to cut that same person a welfare check; I don’t. Either way, my money is being taken by threat of violence and given to a person who has provided me nothing in exchange. I find the “but they’ll turn to crime otherwise” argument particularly repulsive, as it’s quite literally a “protection” racket straight out of the old mobster films. “Nice society ya got here, sure wouldn’t want anything ta happen to it…”

    I don’t see it as moral just because it’s done by a politician with fifty-percent-plus-one support, any more than I would any other violation of my rights.

  8. #8 |  MidCap | 

    I consider myself a libertarian and, all other things being equal, I would rather not see people starve. But, as Scott points out, Government is often not the solution to this problem but a part of the problem

    But more to the point: Who is this “we”-person you are talking about, Peter?

    If *you* believe that income distribution is a good thing then you have the right to distribute your income in any way you see fit. But you do not have the right to hold a gun to *my* head and force me to give up any of my income.

    Libertarianism is an ideology in the sense that it relies on a basic assumption that you have to take for granted (every theory needs assumptions because you have to start *somewhere*). And this is the idea that you (and only you) have the right to your own body and to stuff that you created using your body (do you agree with this? If you do, you are probably already a libertarian ;) )
    One can construct different assumptions, of course (and I find it very instructive to actually do this and then work out all of their implications). But the libertarian assumption is really the only one that I find philosophically pleasing.
    It also turns out that libertarianism usually leads to superior economic outcomes. But even if that were not true, I would still be a libertarian.

  9. #9 |  PeeDub | 

    “Perhaps less government is the solution to many specific problems. But I refuse to believe anything is the solution to all problems.”

    Once that quote becomes this one:

    “Perhaps government is the solution to many specific problems. But I refuse to believe anything is the solution to all problems.”

    I think you’ll be much closer to understanding the libertarian viewpoint.

  10. #10 |  Michael | 

    Honestly, I don’t even know what “libertarian” means any more. There are a lot of people using the term now in scary and disturbing ways. I used to be a big believer in Ron Paul. Now I hear the term used more for his son. I’m definitely no fan of Ayn Rand. Be careful who you are “libertarian”-ing around.
    To me, small government is no ideal worth promoting, in itself. The real core ideal is personal choice at the individual level. I believe that a higher standard of living enables a higher level of personal choice. Thus, the poor should be cared for and have at least their basic needs provided for them.
    I also see many public services as wonderful enabling programs: transit, libraries, internet access. All of these things that universally promote production and well-being are awesome. These are the easy things to agree on, though. I believe that there is a kind of leap of understanding in seeing more “fundamental” programs like shelters and food campaigns in the same way as public libraries.
    If you’re familiar with Mazlow’s Hierarchy, I think it provides a good model of needs a government should focus on. Unfortunately, it’s easy for those that “exist” at various levels to be blinded to the importance of those below them.
    I do NOT believe that corporations are “individuals.” Frequently businesses present the most direct threats to individual freedoms.

  11. #11 |  Nate | 

    To me, those really are the last thing to be removed. And whether it’s government aid or private aid, you can’t save everyone. The big question for me is, does that marginal help outweigh the fact that a coercive entity has now been granted the same level of power that will be used in disasters like the war on drugs/terror/etc. Fundamentally war-making is the only venue of large governments, against foreigners, poverty or the most vulnerable amongst us (see: sexting, drug laws, eminent domain abuse, prostitution).

  12. #12 |  rmv | 

    Public Choice Theory

  13. #13 |  Difster | 

    Peter, (L)(l)ibertarians as a rule are just as compassionate and concerned about the poor as your average liberal/progressive nutjob. I’d actually go so far as to say we tend to be more concerned; especially those of us that consider ourselves to be Christian libertarians.

    The people that would be completely unconcerned would be radical utilitiarian darwinists that are truly in this world purely for their own gain. That describes a very small percentage of those who count themselves libertarian.

    There certainly are people in society that have no ability to care for themselves whether it’s because they have totally screwed up their lives or they are true victims who are so afflicted they must rely on the good graces of other for their survival. We do NOT believe however that money should be forcibly taken from one group of people and handed over to another group of people in the name of compassion. That certainly doesn’t show any compassion for the people that have worked hard for the money and have no choice over how large chunks of are spent.

    Libertarians believe that we should be taking care of each other voluntarily; and history shows that we do. I give money to the poor. I’ve helped the homeless, I’ve taught the illiterate to read, I’ve donated my time and money in a variety of ways to help people less fortunate than I am.

    No matter what reason a person needs help, there are people that stand ready to help them get back on their feet. But a wasteful, corrupt and very inefficient government takes away more and more resources from productive Americans who then have less to give to others. And yes, this includes the rich. Just because rich people have money doesn’t mean they don’t voluntarily give some of their resources to others. Why should the government lay any claim to it in the name of compassion?

    Liberals see government as the first line of defense for any problem. The truth is, when government starts trying cure “problems” of society it only makes them worse. We were never meant to have a welfare state and because it exists, we have a rather permanent underclass and generational welfare recipients who have simply found it easier to take than to produce.

    In any society there are always poor people; it’s unavoidable. But even during the Great Depression in this country, very few people actually starved. There were soup kitchens and bread lines and it all came from donated resources. Some people were hungry for a while, but there was not mass starvation, rampant crime and pestilence because there was no “social safety net.” Quite the opposite.

    I have observed that the bigger the government safety net grows, the LESS compassionate people are simply because the responsibility for taking care of people shifts to the government. People think, “Screw it! I’m getting taxed to death already, why should I give more?”

    Liberals cry out for more taxes so that we can help more people. Rich liberals do this too. Show me ONE, just ONE rich liberal who has given voluntary contributions to the US government in order to live up to this ideology. Yes, you can make contributions to the General Fund of the United States Government; the largest “charity” in the world. I’ve never heard of a rich liberal who calls for more taxes writing a big check to the government to cover what they consider their fair share. They take their deductions, get their refunds, etc. And yes, many donate to various charity too, but if they’re rich and they’re saying the rich should be taxed more, shouldn’t they be volunteering more of their money to the government? It’s only logical.

    The bottom line is this: Government isn’t good at charity. They are inefficient, corrupt and do not adapt quickly (or much at all) to changing needs in a society. When a government giveaway is started, it follows the “build it and they will come” principal which then becomes “a vital part of the social safety net” and people cry and scream when the budget for that program isn’t increased every year or God forbid it’s actually cut. People WILL take care of each other, really, we will. But people shouldn’t be forced to take care of each other. If I want to be a total ass and hoard my resources and not give a single dime to anyone without getting something in return for it, that should be my prerogative. But most people aren’t that way. Even low income people give to those that are less fortunate for them. We have a Judeo/Christian ethic in society that practically demands it, we don’t need a government to do it for us.

    If you’re interested in having an actual back and forth debate on this, I’m happy to do that. It would be interesting, email me at the address provided by my comment.

  14. #14 |  Acksiom | 

    I’m more a pronational transgressivist than a libertarian, but I’ll take a few whacks at it.

    “So why shouldn’t libertarianism be dismissed as just another ideology.”

    “Dismissed as just another ideology,” in comparison to. . .what, exactly? What standard are you applying?

    “But I refuse to believe anything is the solution to all problems.”

    Who besides you is expecting that of you?

    “I’m not willing to consider libertarianism as the Correct Ideology.”

    A rational person who understands the basics of natural science should be willing to consider any ideology as possibly being the Correct one. That’s part of the wonder and glory of Science.

    “What is the libertarian answer to society’s f*ck ups?”

    What do you mean by “society’s”? I.e., what kind of definitional distinction are you trying to draw between the set of people who f*ck up in general, and the set of “society’s” f*ck ups in particular?

    “What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail?”

    Don’t you really mean, ‘What about my feelings about people who –- through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse -– simply fail?’

    “What do we do about the undeserving poor?”

    “We”? What do “we” do? Is there a mouse in your pocket?

    No. Don’t do that, kid. Don’t try to presumptively push us into a forced-sell association with you. It’s rude. Some of us don’t share your concerns and choose to find your attempt to assimilate us as being offensive.

    “I don’t want to see people starve in the streets.”

    Do they have a right to starve in the streets if they choose? Because if you agree that they do, then your wants are irrelevant.

    “I certainly don’t want desperate people to mug me.”

    Have you tried carrying openly? Apparently it’s a really good deterrant.

    “At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it?”

    Or. . .what? You’ll force us to do so, through violence or its threat?

    “Isn’t that what government is for?”

    No. Government is for regulating the initiation of force. The primary responsibility of agents of a moral and ethical State is the protection of the Citizenry from the agents of the State themselves.

    “Isn’t it cheaper than prison?”

    Aren’t guns, bullets, and training even cheaper than that?

  15. #15 |  Chris Hallquist | 

    I’m not sure if I count as a libertarian or not* but I don’t think your post is really fair to libertarians.

    The snappy answer to “So why shouldn’t libertarianism be dismissed as just another ideology?” is “Why should it be?” But to your real concern here, the issue of “solution specific problems” vs “solution to all problems,” I think you fail to see the middle ground of “generally a good idea.”

    Really, I think very few libertarians literally think less government is the “solution to all problems.” Not until you get into the extreme, borderline-anarchist versions of libertarianism (and heck, you can be an anarchist and not think abolishing government would solve literally all the world’s problems.)

    What more libertarians think is this: government policy isn’t about a bunch of unrelated questions whose answers have nothing to do with each other. Rather, it should be guided by general principles. Some libertarians would emphasize moral claims about the rights of citizens; others would emphasize empirical claims about what tends to produce the best results.

    Do you reject that approach to policy? If so, why?

  16. #16 |  Chris Hallquist | 

    *Note on last post: “libertarian” is an awkward term, because some people would like to use it as shorthand for “socially liberal, fiscally conservative,” but part of me thinks of “libertarians” primarily as the extreme Randian/Nozickian variety. Maybe “free market liberal” would be a better label for me.

  17. #17 |  Wesley | 

    I am rather confused by this post. Peter, I think you’re making a rather extraordinary assumption that all libertarians toe the party line, so to speak. We all hold many different ideas about the proper limits of the government. Just because we generally will be more small-government than the mainstream political lines does not mean we ALWAYS think no government intervention is the best.

  18. #18 |  D | 

    In my opinion, libertarians are as pro helping the poor/failed as anyone else. The difference lies in the method, not the intention. We think it’s more productive and moral to allow private organizations — churches, charities, hospitals, etc. — to lead this effort, rather than the government. More productive because charities are held more easily accountable by those who give them money, and the best are less wasteful than government programs (I have no data to support this off hand, but if I had time to look, this is what I would expect to find).

    More moral because donations to charity are voluntary. Government run programs are “charity at the butt of a gun,” in that you have no choice but to pay taxes to support those programs.

  19. #19 |  Wesley | 

    Just to add to that, I want to point out my own application of libertarianism. I view it as a set of principles (basically, that voluntary interaction is preferable) that, in a majority of circumstances, are consistent with my values (freedom, individualism, etc.). But there are some circumstances where a strict application of those principles would conflict with more values. In which case those principles are either used less or even completely set aside.

    Libertarianism is not dogma. It is not something held to without question, or at least not for any rational libertarian.

  20. #20 |  JS | 

    Difranco “A human being is first responsible for themselves, when they fail or are neglectful of themselves the burden then falls upon their family and lesser to their friends. When their family fails then the burden falls upon non-government organizations (Churchs, charities, etc.).The government welfare/entitlement system has through taxation largely gutted charitable organizations.”

    This is a pretty good description of what life was like before the rise of the welfare/warfare nanny state or socialism. In fact I think you could make the case that the rise of government services replaced the family, friends, church or other organizations like Masonic lodge etc. We didn’t have too many old people dying of loneliness in nursing homes before the rise of the nanny state. People made their marraige work because it was economically necessary for survival.

  21. #21 |  Miko | 

    There are two possibilities: either their exist problems which can be better solved by the use of coercion, or there do not. Believing either of these things is an ideology. So yes, libertarianism is an ideology, just as statism is.

    However, at no point does libertarianism suggest that it has all of (or any of) the answers. Rather, it suggests only that attempting to solve problems through nonviolent cooperative means is more likely to achieve positive results than attempting to solve problems through violent coercive means.

    Let’s take what you call the undeserving poor, for example. Through government manipulation of markets, food, housing, medicine, heating, and the other basics of life are much more expensive than they would be in the absence of the state (a blog comment isn’t the place to get into why this is the case; I’d suggest the works of Kevin Carson and Charles Johnson as a starting place) and the cartelization of employment into a few hierarchical firms that would be inefficient in the absence of government tax policies that punish small firms and co-ops depresses wages at all levels, and especially for entry level positions. So, in the absence of government, those who’d rather spend most of their time high and do the minimum amount of work necessary at unskilled jobs would be in a much better position to do so than under statism. And to the extent that they can’t, there’s no reason to suppose that people wouldn’t be willing to provide charity. A government provided safety net couldn’t survive unless people at least somewhat supported its aims, so it’s unreasonable to suppose that something similar wouldn’t exist on a voluntary basis in a stateless society.

  22. #22 |  BillC | 

    I’m a liberal. I just like this blog because Balko exposes police abuses.

    That said, I think this country would be a lot better off if Libertarians were the dominant conservative group rather than the Republicans. At least Libertarians might actually do something about wasteful spending rather than just talk about it a lot and then do nothing about it.

    I can’t think of a single issue where I agree with Republicans. At least Libertarians are on the same page as me when it comes to social issues. I also agree with Libertarians on reducing military spending.

  23. #23 |  Rhayader | 

    First of all, the notion that libertarians are uniquely absolutist doesn’t hold water. To give one example, I’d wager that most commenters here would happily vote for a liberalized “harm reduction” approach to drug control — heroin maintenance programs, safe injection sites, you name it — over criminal prohibition.

    More fundamentally — can you name one single approach to civilization that doesn’t have its fuck-ups and and tragedies? That’s a reality of life that has nothing to do with ideology or “pragmatism” (which itself is as much of an ideology as any other).

    Even if you abandon every single moral and philosophical argument, and focus only on outcome-based reasoning, there’s simply no evidence that increased individual freedom results in greater suffering or abandonment of particular segments of society. Our compassion and charity requires no ultimate authority backed by lethal force. In fact, government coercion is indicative of the exact opposite of true sympathy for one’s fellow man.

  24. #24 |  lunchstealer | 

    I’m a small-ell libertarian and I tend to agree with Sandy’s ‘approach’ formulation.

    First you need to know the various kinds of people who use the libertarian label. There are hard-core team-read Republicans who like the ‘maverick’ image of libertarianism, and maybe the low-tax/low-regulation-of-business ideal, but don’t particularly feel opposed to massive, expensive adventures abroad, or a tough-on-crime approach that’s not particularly concerned about the 1st, 4th, 5th, or 6th amendments when it comes to ‘external’ threats. They’re likely to take the Rush-Limbaugh “ZOMG! WELFARE QUEENS” approach to your question.

    There are most-state-action-is-illegitimate old-school libertarians who think that taxation is theft, and that a government’s only legitimate role is to protect property, enforce contracts, provide some minimal defense, and almost nothing else. They’re likely to be very much of the private-charity-will-take-care-of-that opinion.

    There are Objectivists – the hard core Ayn Rand types, and they’re likely to call those guys looters or second-handers or what have you, and complain about them, but provide no particular solution to the problem (I could be wrong about this, as I’ve largely ignored Objectivism, so they may have a more nuanced approach to this sort of thing, I know some who could probably make a better account of themselves.

    There are your anarcho-capitalists, who think that even police and national defense could be handled by private corporations through voluntary contracts. Again, I think they’d insist that handling this through anything more coercive than private charity would be immoral, or at least counter-productive. I know an-caps, and they have interesting ideas, but I always think of it as thought experiments more than real answers.

    I’m more of the liberal-libertarian, sometimes liberaltarians or cosmotarians (cosmopolitan libertarians) who feels that government action can be legitimate in areas outside of the old-school minarchist ‘night-watchman’ role of government. Specifically, in my case, I’m OK in theory with environmental rules. But even then, I think they need to be broad frameworks in which people are free to find their own solutions to issues. Rather than mandating CFLs and providing subsidies to companies that are working on photovoltaics, for example, to reduce carbon emissions, instead regulate the carbon emissions themselves, by imposing a carbon tax, making the use of carbon-intensive energy more expensive, and allowing people to innovate with wind-power, conservation of various kinds, and so forth. I think this approach, if applied to the problem of poverty and failure, would lead to a least-intrusive negative-income-tax as a method. That way, each person will have SOME minimal access to resources, but supplementing that with work will reduce the aid, but will reduce it by less than the amount of gain they get from the work they do, until their income rises above the break-even point, at which point they start paying taxes, rather than receiving them.

    In all such systems, there will be winners and losers, but the libertarian point is not to have government choose those winners and losers specifically. Provide a loose framework, and let people find workable methods within framework. Complex frameworks tend to lead to prescribed outcomes, and also to loopholes and distortions in peoples’ behavior that might or might not be beneficial.

    Also, libertarians, even liberaltarians, are not of the profit-is-evil, profit-means-you-ripped-someone-off mindset that you find among socialist-influenced progressives (socialist here is not a pejorative but a descriptor). Free-market capitalism absolutely leads to some with much bigger shares of the pie than command-economy socialism, but the overall pies are so much bigger due to the knowledge problem for command-economies, that most of the small pieces of pie in the free-market system will be bigger than the more-equal pie pieces in the command-economy system. So it’s less that we don’t care about the poor, than that we don’t care about the rich. Richness is neither good nor bad, it simply is, and should neither be encouraged nor discouraged. But that non-encouragement is important. Government shouldn’t be pro-business, because pro-business government leads to corporate largesse, and that’s how we get into the situation where the biggest welfare queens in America are ADM and Monsanto and Lockheed Martin and Bank of America. Government should be business-neutral.

    Oh, and most libertarians I know feel that BP’s liability should be completely uncapped, and that if the Gulf disaster had been big enough, that the company should’ve been bankrupted by their liability. Companies that ignore safety and generate huge externalities shouldn’t be saved from themselves, or bailed out by taxpayer dollars. Same for TARP and GM.

  25. #25 |  qwints | 

    Sure, ideologically driven policy proposals can be dismissed on their face if they’re divorced from reality (e.g. end taxation because it’s wrong to take money from people at the point of a gun.) But one should endeavor to distinguish such blue sky solutions with fundamental values. There’s nothing wrong with laying out what values you’re trying to achieve with your policy proposals before you look at the facts.

    Libertarians believe in individual autonomy first and foremost. They make many different policy proposals to achieve their values (e.g. open borders and ending the drug war.) They evaluate proposals by looking at how they effect their values – redistribution of wealth is bad because it decreases autonomy. In arguing with a libertarian at the most theoretical level, one can argue that individual autonomy ought not to be valued, that their are more important considerations or that there are considerations to be considered at the same time. But one can also argue about the effects of any individual policy.

    You implicitly argue that society must take responsibility for certain classes of people because 1) they will starve otherwise; and 2) they will infringe on other people’s rights. You then ask what is “the libertarian answer” to this policy problem. As the other comments show, there is no standard libertarian proposal. Some libertarians tolerate state intervention here while others believe that private charity could perform better. A few may think that society is better off letting them starve on the streets and protecting itself through individual gun ownership. Is it fair to dismiss any of these solutions just because they are informed by a value system? Of course not, but if anyone justifies their answer by saying “that’s the libertarian way” then you should dismiss it as an uninformed ideological answer.

    tl;dr – Ideologies are useful for laying out value systems. There’s nothing wrong with someone proposing a policy to further his or her values. Anyone who attempts to justify a position simply by referring to a value system can, however, be dismissed on sight.

  26. #26 |  Jim March | 

    Here’s the bottom line.

    Mankind is SLOWLY moving away from a basic model in which we are owned, body and soul, by our various governments and/or overlords.

    This model is wrong. It has always been wrong, it always will be wrong. But it’s been the case for so long that the mindset behind the “feudal lord” model is build into our culture. We’ve managed to replace the concept of a single overlord with some kind of nebulous “we”, at least here in the US. That single-overlord mentality is still absolutely the case in North Korea, the parts of Libya Quadaffy or whatever-the-hell he’s called still rules, and too many others. But even when we get as far from that as the US has, the “government as master” model is really still there. If you don’t believe me, ask how is it that babies being born today are going to have to pay off the trillion dollar debt we’ve rung up from Reagan’s rule to today. Or how the draft isn’t completely gone yet, or any number of other “throwback leftovers” of the feudal period.

    Libertarianism represents the most advanced, most complete break with the old way of doing things that might actually work. Anarcho-Capitalism is in theory an even bigger break but…it appears unlikely, at least for now.

  27. #27 |  GT | 

    I’ll have a crack (and doubtless will get more animated as I type, to typos will become rife)…

    If you believe the naive version of Public Finance (market failure/public goods problems ameliorated by government expansion, funded by taxation that is progressive in order to exploit the diminishing marginal utility of money), then it’s all about the little triangles of consumer surplus that are generated by ameliorating suboptimal market outcomes.

    It doesn’t matter if its widgets, healthcare, education, national defence or income redistribution… the economics of it is identical… non-anarcho-capitalists believe that government (‘The State’) generates net-positive sums of these “little triangles”.

    Anarcho-capitalsits go one step further, and introduce behavioural feedback and an intertemporal aspect: instituting a compulsory taxation system results in a giant pot of money, which attracts rent-seekers who have an incentive to ‘capture’ public monies by subverting the (now politicised) allocation of government funds.

    And I go even further than that: that big pot of money attracts the most vile, base, corrupt and parasitic sub-species of humanity; homo politicus cheneyii, if you will (although I shorten that to homo cheneyensis, but you could use Blair, Brown, Obama, Chavez as you see fit).

    The political process (on the supply side) becomes a farcical rationing of candidature, where the person most likely to advance the interests of the PARTY are pre-selected – the interests of the party are not coterminous with (in fact may be orthogonal to) the interests of the society.

    The system ensures – since politicians do not face the costs of failing to meet an intertemporal budget constraint – that over time all State mechanisms will tend to expand their expenditure, and their debt, until the market refuses to continue to fund the debt. From there the State will resort to inflating away debt, and the result is usually hyperinflation.

    And – to put icing on the cake – only the state can ‘do’ large scale industrial war… which fucks up a SHITLOAD of those teensy welfare triangles that you’re all about producing.

    Make it all voluntary, and the welfare pot, the health pot, the national defence pot and so forth, would be smaller – but they would NOT fall to zero (the experience of Churches under voluntary-subscription shows us that – and churches are peddling something that is orders of magni0dtude less credible than ‘market failure amelioration’).

    If you want a fair-dinkum academic-style exegesis of this shit, I can do that too – chapter, verse, pictures and footnotes… I have all my Pub Fi notes in electronic form and could sticky-tape it together in a day or so.

  28. #28 |  Daniel Almond | 

    “That’s my basic problem. Here’s my real question: What is the libertarian answer to society’s f*ck ups?”

    You’re supposing that “society’s f– ups” pose some kind of a question. As a libertarian I dont see them as some kind of question to be answered, and I certainly don’t see them as some kind of a problem that screams out for a government solution or answer.

    “What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail?” Pretty broad question there. Whatever the crux of it, it doesn’t rise to the level of bringing in the government.

    “What do we do about the undeserving poor?”

    OK, this question is loaded. It assumes there is some “we” here. Who is this “we?” All Americans? Or the government? As an libertarian individualist, I see the question above and say: “You do your thing about the undeserving poor and I’ll do mine. There is no “we” when it comes to this. The situation, that there are poor people who are undeserving (for the sake of argument glossing over the criteria for this category of people), does not create a “we.” Just because some people decide to this or that, or choose not to do this or that, ought not create some big “we” that sucks me, you, or other individuals up into it like a vortex. So some crackhead made some bad decisions with his life—- that fact does not create any obligation on me to do anything or join any kind of “we.”

    The only “we” I’ll subscribe to in a political sense is the “we” referred to in the country’s founding documents. “We as Americans” — OK. And “America” as outlined in the Declaration and Constitution. Upon close inspection, you will find that this particular “we” does not involve obligations to “do something” about the undeserving poor, society’s f-ups, or whatever causes contributed to their status. it’s a non-issue so far as that “we” is concerned. And as a libertarian, that limited government version of “we” is the only political “we” that I will identify myself with.

    “I don’t want to see people starve in the streets. I certainly don’t want desperate people to mug me. At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it?”

    Maybe some of the individuals in this country may feel like they need to be compassionate by helping people who may or may not deserve it. If you feel you have to be compassionate, by all means, go for it. But there is no legitimate obligation. There ought not be FORCED COMPASSION.

    “Isn’t that what government is for?”

    No. Government needs to be limited. The alternative is unlimited government. The country’s founders tried to put limits on government in the Constitution, enumerating powers. In these enumerated powers you will not find the administration of forced compassion schemes.

    “Isn’t it cheaper than prison?”

    Again, cheaper for who? Who is the we? Let me guess here: We are all of us and we are also the government. They seem to be used interchangeably here. We see a problem, and we must come up with a solution. It’s cheaper for us to spend our money on social programs than it is for us to.

    We need to do this or we need to do that.

    This is good for us. That is bad for us.

    Let’s spend our money on this. It’s worth it to us.

    Collectivist brain wiring—– nauseating. Not for me.

  29. #29 |  James A Donald | 

    The undeserving poor need discipline and punishment, they need a structured environment with someone unpleasant in authority over them.

    Auction them off to the highest bidder.

    Institute that system, and you will find there are surprisingly few undeserving poor.

  30. #30 |  EH | 

    You have to pay for some people, and that’s just the way it is.

  31. #31 |  not my name | 

    i like this post a very good start and i think there are some good responses here.

    my very quick thoughts:

    What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail?


    I don’t want to see people starve in the streets.

    I certainly don’t want desperate people to mug me.

    At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it?




  32. #32 |  Obama's dad | 

    When society’s believe that people are not responsible for their decisions and their failures we come to the point that the USA has reached. The productive will be villified and taxed to death to support a leech class.

    We will be informed by our elites that it is “our better nature” to submit to government mugging to provide for the less fortunate.

    But the truth is prisons are far cheaper than welfare. We forgot that and today we stand at the brink of economic collapse. Doubt it, even Mexico, a collapsed nacro state just bought 100 tons of gold.

    What do they know that we don’t?

    Or Americans are such suckers.

  33. #33 |  Chris | 

    Simply put Government is not the only way we interact with each other. It is unnecessary to redistribute wealth because growth itself is the constant redistribution of wealth without government intervention. Remove the bureaucracy and you save the most valuable commodity mankind has, time, and therefore money.

    People who don’t work government jobs may find themselves as chemists, doctors, business owners of all sizes, and many other professions that actually benefit society instead of pretending to keep it in line, thus also accelerating growth.

    Growth doesn’t just make life better, it also makes it more accessible through cheaper quality education, and other services such as cheaper groceries. We can rely on markets to give us growth because WE ARE markets, and we demand growth wherever that may take us (with a few goals in mind to keep along the way).

    Most government and corporate spending is about profits and losses instead of growth over the long term. What need would there be to redistribute wealth if low income individuals had better opportunities to start their own business with fewer government road blocks, not all of them but simply put fewer? How much of that money that gets redistributed through the government has to go toward workers to maintain the system? These people do not volunteer their time and must be paid. This leaves fewer people to be nurses, doctors, police officers, firefighters, mechanics, engineers, and many more professions that advance our species as a whole. All because we still can’t learn to teach a man to fish? Or because we feel bad for the poor? Some of those people are right where they want to be, the rest may have fallen on some bad luck (the price of failing to be successful) but bad luck never lasts forever.

    Economics is the study of how we interact with each other through markets and it’s why I’m a Libertarian. Even social policies put a strain on the economic policies of a country if they constrain freedoms. They cost money to maintain. If our government is to maintain order is it necessary to stop a gay couple from getting married or a stoner from getting high? Are these laws necessary or do they waste the time of our law enforcement officers who should be stopping thieves, rapists, murderers, and other people who might use their freedom to ruin the lives of others through serious misdeed?

    I don’t see how you can continue to be a fan of tax-and-spend government or wealth redistribution when we’ve been doing those very things and we now have a 14 trillion dollar debt that your children will likely inherit, and what do we have to show for it?

  34. #34 |  Mike T | 

    Society’s fuck ups actually pose a bitter problem for most libertarians: they disprove the libertarian view of human nature which is man-as-rational-actor. The fact is that most of the underclass’ behavior is utterly irrational. No one in their right mind would be sexually promiscuous given the rise of AIDS or use hard drugs knowing how damaging they are to the body. While there is a case for letting people be idiots, the very fact that a large minority chooses to be self-destructive idiots in the face of all supporting reason to the contrary does indeed pose a problem for the libertarian view of man.

    Some libertarians like Vox Day take a dark view of human nature and base their libertarianism on that, but they’re in the distinct minority.

    The fact that man is not rational, but rationalizing, is actually the most powerful argument against social welfare policy. Social welfare has had a demonstrably harmful impact on family life by creating the circumstances under which many men have been rendered unnecessary for the welfare of their children and their mother. This lead to many mothers choosing to walk away from their marriages, something which many liberals and cultural libertarians celebrated as a form of “individual liberty.” While the latter may have been squeamish about the state subsidy that enabled it, you won’t find a cultural libertarian who laments a marriage with kids broken up because one spouse wanted to be happier. Political libertarians at least always recognized that undermining family life even in the name of individual freedom invariably leads to a greater role for the government because broken families are poorer and more vulnerable, which makes it easy for collectivists to argue for intervention.

    Another problem, which I’ve written about in greater length elsewhere is that libertarians don’t want to admit that a culture of radical individualism is actually quite compatible with statism because the form that most radical individualism takes is highly unproductive and the same “liberated individuals” quite often want the state to clean up their mess. It is accurate to say that for every person excited primarily about the freedom that a libertarian state would provide them to maximize their productive potential, there are a good 50 who are most excited about their ability to consume vices.

    I don’t see that as a problem with individual freedom per se, but rather a problem with libertarians’ lack of thoughtfulness on the subject. In order to be a practical and effective philosophy of governance, libertarianism is going to have to evolve a nuanced understanding of human nature and individual freedom, in part because libertarians will always have to deal with the left’s tendency to use the state to clean up social problems. Libertarian programs would have to be implemented in such a way as to mitigate the harmful effects that would give rise to a collectivist response.

  35. #35 |  Ampersand | 

    Peter, this post reminded me of another post, written by Matt over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

    Carden claims to be motivated by a concern for the poor. His commitment to free market, his post suggests, is a product of his belief that free markets serve the interests of the poor better than alternative institutions. But his commitment to the free market does not seem at all qualified. He does not say that free markets do, in certain contexts, a pretty good job of promoting the interests of the poor, but perhaps they are limited in such and such ways. He does not present any cases where deviations from the free market might be necessary to promote the interests of the poor. He does not even say that the interests of the poor would be better served by government intervention, but that considerations of aggregate well-being or deontological constraints prevent us from purusing those polciies. The message seems to be that if your concern is to help the poor, free markets are always the best answer.

    Now, maybe he’s right. I don’t think he is, but perhaps I’m under the sway of false economic beliefs. Still, it all seems a little too neat. When someone claims to be committed in a fundamental way to both X and Y, and then claims that (happy day!) X and Y always turn out to be mutually recognizable, I begin to suspect that the conclusion is driven more by psychological processes designed to reduce cognitive dissonance than by careful empirical study or theoretical reasoning.

  36. #36 |  Bill | 

    I’m humbled by the many excellent answers that have already been posted, but here’s my two cents, from a Christian Libertarian perspective. The guiding principles for me here: first, as per the typical libertarian philosophical viewpoint, it is wrong to initiate force, second, there is no utopia (or, as Jesus put it, “you will always have the poor among you”), and finally, if we are all made in God’s image, then there’s no worthless person–grace is for the deserving and the “undeserving”.

    So…you’re walking down the street, and you see this guy with no money, and you say to yourself, “He might mug me! I should give him some money so that doesn’t happen.” But then you think, “Why should I be the only one paying to support this bum?” So you find another guy, and you mug him, and give the broke guy his money.

    Now, it gets to be too much work–and a bit too morally awkward–to keep mugging people to support this altruism habit you’re developing, so you decide to hire somebody else to mug people to give money to the “bum”. While that frees you up for other activities, you still feel a bit guilty about the mugging thing, so you distance yourself by coming up with this great system where you and some like-minded people vote for somebody to hire the mugger to collect the money to pay the bum so he doesn’t mug you.

    But you start to see some problems in the system: first of all, you find that the guy you hired to mug people to pay the bum is occasionally mugging you as well. And to make matters worse, people with more money and influence than you are also getting the mugger you hired to steal for them, making them even richer!

    What lessons might we draw from this?

    Maybe that our policy decisions shouldn’t be based in fear.

    Maybe that “charity” is only charity if you freely choose it.

    Maybe that, no matter how good your intentions, the coercive systems we create usually fail to achieve the intended results, and often end up biting us in the butt.

    Or maybe that you should have just given the bum a $20 in the first place…

  37. #37 |  JdL | 

    Thanks for asking! ;-j

    We let people give voluntarily. Government “welfare” has stifled genuine charity, but it will flourish again once the government is made to butt out.

  38. #38 |  parse | 

    How is it you are demanding answers to questions about people who are starving in the streets who aren’t starving in the streets yet? You explain you antipathy to ideology by suggesting that people should not have consistent principles that they can apply to individual cases as they arise. Then you ask how we should generally approach the plight of those who fail to succeed based on their own efforts is forced to construct some sort of ideology.

  39. #39 |  megs | 

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be a libertarian and think that some basic support for people unable to take care of themselves is a legitimate function of the government if the case can be made that it is the best (or least worst) way of providing it. I can think of several ways charities can screw up and end up violating people’s personal choices in helping them – you must believe in Jesus to get food here, for example. People who are desperate are vulnerable to coercion, and libertarians don’t like that. I have a sister-in-law who is bi-polar/schizophrenic and has trouble holding down a job because of that – the stress can make her situation worse and being able to slowly transition from the hospital to living on her own requires money. All her family is willing to help, and has since she was a teenager, but the kind of help they can provide without ruining themselves financially isn’t a real benefit for her. The government disability stipend she gets that pays for her rent and food and that varies by how much money she earns (so as not to penalize her for getting a job). This kind of solution is relatively cheap for government spending, is transparent and has good oversight, and I kind of like it. There is no coercion in it for her – she is as free as I am.

    On the other hand, even with these kind of programs set up, there are people begging on the street and stealing and mugging for money. I don’t think you can round up people in need and force them into a program to help them. They are the ones I think of when I hear someone complain about being a rich nation that still has desperately poor people in it. We should never go back to workhouses or things like that.

    Most importantly, I think, for libertarians and people of every political stripe, is to approach a problem and find out what it is before coming up with a solution. So the ideology of treating people as individuals that runs so strongly in libertarianism really is the best. You can’t prescribe a solution for everybody, and as weird as people are, you can’t just try one thing. We need multiple programs to help people, not just one. And there is where the free market has excelled in the past. (and yes, where to give money to charity is a market.) But I doubt most libertarians would rule out government spending on this issue if it seems likely to be effective and worthwhile.

  40. #40 |  JBaldwin | 

    . But I refuse to believe anything is the solution to all problems.

    That is essentially the libertarian position. Solutions to society’s problems arise spontaneously within particular circumstances using discreet (local) knowledge. Universal solutions do not because they cannot possess in advance particular and discreet knowledge of every possible circumstance. Hayek called the assumption of such knowledge the “pretense of knowledge.” To simply say, “we don’t know what we don’t know but we have to do something” avoids the question of “what if what we do makes it worse?” Or, “what if our solution precludes other solutions that might work better given a particular circumstance?” There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that government solutions have exascerbated many problems or created new one.

  41. #41 |  James K. | 

    I *love* charity but hate when I’m forced to participate by an inefficient government.

  42. #42 |  Dave Krueger | 

    But I’m not fond of ideologies.

    I don’t understand this. I looked the word up and I don’t see anything objectionable about it. It sounds to me like it means you believe in a framework or philosophy which guides your response to social and political issues, etc. It promotes consistency instead of an ad hoc approach to different issues that necessarily results in contradiction (like complaining about welfare and then hugely expanding Medicare or complaining about unnecessary wars and then starting a new one).

    I don’t like it when people have answers before they know the question.

    Then you probably won’t like libertarians. Libertarians tend to find it easy to apply a rather simplistic (as it should be) set pf principles to almost everything. For example, they value individual freedom as an end in itself, so they tend to reject anything that infringes on that. Republicans and Democrats, on the other hand, value the expansion of the power and scope of government (as irrefutably proven by their history when each has been in power). The only difference Republicans and Democrats is which set of pet constituencies benefits as a result of the expansion of that power.

  43. #43 |  Dante | 

    “At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it?

    Isn’t that what government is for?

    Isn’t it cheaper than prison?”

    1 Yes.

    2 Yes.

    3 Yes.

  44. #44 |  Gary | 


    Please don’t conflate “libertarian” with “one size fits all”. Any set of ideas can be packaged together and advertised as a “one size fits all” solution, and to do so is silly no matter what set of ideas you’re talking about.

    Here’s how I view libertarianism. In my opinion, it’s a combination of the two beliefs that (a) individual liberty, in its own right, is extremely important and not to be taken lightly, and (b) it is impossible to fix all problems, right all wrongs, make everything better.

    When you combine those two beliefs, you end up with a tendency to be skeptical of centrally organized problem solving. Every libertarian will draw the line in a different place, but the common belief is that all libertarians are skeptical that the government can successfully solve large problems any better than people will solve them on their own. Libertarians also tend to very wary of the side effects of the government trying to solve large problems – particularly the side effects that harm individual liberty.

    The Drug War is almost too easy of a target since it’s a complete failure in almost any way that you can define it, but it’s a very instructive example. Try to think of it this way:

    Pro-government folks are continually optimistic that with enough effort, they can create a program that laser-targets and fixes a specific problem, without causing much in the way of side effects, and without hindering individual liberty. (That, or they aren’t that concerned with the side effects, particularly those that affect individual liberty.)

    Libertarians fear that with enough effort, all government programs will turn into the Drug War.

  45. #45 |  donotknowme | 

    “What is the libertarian answer to society’s f*ck ups? What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail? What do we do about the undeserving poor?”

    Society can’t f*ck up. If we leave choices to the individual(s) then we leave responsibilty to those individual(s) and people are held accountable appropriately. Society shouldn’t do anything about people that fail. We can’t prop people up that don’t want to be propped up. Society should allow people the means to get themselves out of their failures through local charities, organizations, etcetera.

    “At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it? Isn’t that what government is for? Isn’t it cheaper than prison?”

    A society is not compassionate if they are forced to be compassionate-they are oppressed. No, that is not what government is for and it is not necessarily cheaper than prison.

  46. #46 |  Anthony | 

    We’re off to a good start of Radley’s vacation.

    Government ≠ Compassion. It is not compassion to take by force from one person and give it to another. True compassion is helping others yourself.

    My ideology is less of an answer to all but more of a guide to the answers.

  47. #47 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Here’s my real question: What is the libertarian answer to society’s f*ck ups? What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail? What do we do about the undeserving poor?

    In a rich country, voluntary charity can easily handle the undeserving poor. The real problem is separating the undeserving poor from the deserving poor and that should be up to those who are voluntarily giving the aid. One thing that is guarantied not to work is for a third party (ie: government) to dole out other people’s money (especially when the real intent is to garner votes in exchange for the handouts).

  48. #48 |  dingdongdugong | 

    I would start by asking you a question that re-frames the issue towards the libertarian non-aggression axiom.

    What do you think the punishment should be for someone who refuses to pay the taxes that fund the programs that (are claimed to) help the needy?

    Government can be defined by the “legitimate monopoly on the use of force/ violence.” No one here says you shouldnt help the poor. We are saying that violence should not be used on others to FORCE THEM to help the poor.

    Libertarians would point to charities, private work, and throw it back to the question-er, with “what are -you- doing to help the poor?”

  49. #49 |  Burlyman78 | 

    “But I refuse to believe anything is the solution to all problems.” Good point. I agree. This is what I was thinking when I watched the Keynes vs. Hayek, Part II video the other day. I don’t think Keynes was all wrong or that Hayek was all right. But I do have a general philosophy that says the big, centralized, virtually unlimited national government necessary to Keynsianism, results in more harm to individual liberty than good to the economy as a whole. So I have a liberal philosophy (general approach to politics and life based on my skepticism of government and valuing of individual liberty above all else). It’s less rigid than an ideology as you define it. As to your last point about “aren’t government programs for helping people?,” I think people are for helping people. I care about the poor, the sick who can’t get health insurance, the mentally ill, etc., and I think the government can do some good to address all those problems. But I think individuals acting to help their neighbors, one-on-one and through non-profits like their local food banks and homeless shelters, is a better approach because it would help people without creating an oppressive state, and the resentment bread by forced compassion through government.

  50. #50 |  Z | 

    #25 and #35 the problem for me and maybe for our guest blogger is that libertarianism, as practiced in the U.S., boils down to Ayn Randism- I got mine so fuck off.

    #25-No government is not the only way to interact. But government was made necessary due to the shitty way people were treated in the halcyon days of 1890-1920. Workplace safety, minimum wage laws, child labor laws and the like were all put in place- and later the new deal, specifically social security- because without government people were treating each other like absolute shit. 17 hour days, disfiguring workplace injuries and uneducated kids doing hard labor were par for the course. For anyone who earnestly (or in Paul Ryan’s case disingenuously) pines for the good old days, I have only three words: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

    #35- that’s all fine and good until you become the undeserving poor. The line between success and fuck-up is razor-thin and voluntary charity, while lovely in theory, can’t be a foundational precept any more than me believing that my boss will give me a raise because he is a decent fellow. What if he doesn’t?

  51. #51 |  mdb | 

    The difference between libertarians and democrats or republicans, is a democrat or a republican could hold their views in a libertarian society and not be affected, but a libertarian can not live in big government without being FORCED to accept the views of democrats and republicans.

    It is much the same as communism and capitalism. A communist can (and do) exist in a capitalist society, the same is not true in reverse (at least not openly and without severe punishment if caught). If you see a problem with communist society, but not big government in general – is it just a matter of degree? Does China present an acceptable balance between capitalism and communism? If not were would you draw the line?

    The next issue I would present, is I don’t trust politicians (most are lawyer by training) with understanding enough of the real world to make INTELLIGENT decisions on my behalf. I would not want to give those idiots power of attorney for me, but with every new power they take (and you allow them), they come closer to that reality.

    Right now, $45,000,000,000.00 of our retirement plan (Social Security) has been invested for us, by these morons, in GM. Would any intelligent person make that decision (rich people with money and a high risk tolerance might – but I certainly did not put my 401k there)? Would a politician? Why on earth do you trust them – that was a BAD decision? Jobs, you say? Where did the politicians get the money to invest? From successful companies and individuals (taxes and future taxes). These are companies that have a PROVEN track record of making better decisions and creating jobs, now have less money to do it. No jobs is not an answer. There is no justification, it was pure politics.

    I could go and on and on in this vein, but I will end this with – I am a libertarian since I value freedom, independence, but above all I do not TRUST a politician with anything – my money, my health, my job, etc. I simply can not understand how anyone can, there are so many tired jokes about lying politicians – it just boggles my mind

  52. #52 |  Cornellian | 

    Basically you’ll see three libertarian answers to the problem of poor people, and all three are reflected in the various comments above.

    1. They’re not our problem, so no need to do anything about it anymore than we’d do anything about poverty in some other country
    2. To the extent they’re “our” problem we take it on faith that private actors (family members, charities) will take care of them so the government doesn’t have to do anything
    3. If some type of “last chance” welfare program were the only social program beyond basic government infrastructure (defense, police and the courts) then we’d be at the doorstep to libertarian paradise anyway, so let’s work on what we can achieve today on other issue and cross that welfare bridge when we come to it

  53. #53 |  Highway | 

    Z, sure, if you want to base all ‘libertarianism’ on what the most vocal and self-serving people say about it. There is no “libertarianism as practiced in the US”, in one group. This thread, which is probably full of as like-minded libertarians as you’ll find in a group, still shows quite a bit of latitude in how they conceptualize it. And of them, there hasn’t been a ‘I’ve got mine, F you’ attitude yet. You can use pejorative phrases like that, but they’re not useful for the characterization.

    And what is ‘I’ve got mine, F you’? How is a libertarian who says “I’ve earned this pile, and I’ll decide who I share it with – my spouse and children, our parents, our friends, certain charities, schools, businesses, etc” more of that mindset than the regulation heavy “We need to enact these ‘consumer protections’ that my company is able to meet, but will throttle my competition” or “We want to form a union, but we can be the only union, and if you want to work at this company you have to join our union and pay us dues…”?

    The current negative perception of libertarianism, the “I’ve got mine, so F You” is also arisen from this comprehensive government net that we’ve got. So the people who are going to proclaim that the loudest, and rebel against the obvious encroachments by government, are going to be those folks. But that’s not anything close to the entirety of libertarian thought or attitudes.

  54. #54 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    I’m a Crank. Im am far less interested in Theory than I am in what works and what doesn’t. That said, some thoughts;

    1) Legislation is not forever, even given the ostentatious stubbornness of the average politician. We can tray things, and if they don’r work we can repeal them.

    2) Not only are local governments closer to the problems than the Federal government is, they are also closer to the taxpayer. Furthermore, there are more of them. Which means that if solutions are seated in local governments (or State, at the greatest remove) we will get a greater variety of attempts at solution AND when the solutions being tried annoy the productive, they productive can take a day off from work and perch on their representative’s desk until he promises to do something.

    3) Whatever the theoretical justifications for it, the Drug War does not work. time to try something else.

    4) I would like to see somebody, somewhere, to try putting up Army tents and feeding the Undeserving Poor healthy but tiresome food. Absolute minimal support, no means testing, come when you want to, leave when you want to, we make it boring on purpose. Just a thought.

    5) In the Undeserving Poor I would include those self-styled Artists who live on grants, and whose work seems calculated to insult the hand that feeds them. If the consciously Liberal want to support the work of people like Andres Serrano (Piss Christ), let them do so without involving tax money. There is no justification that I can think of for forcing folks who don’t ‘get’ this kind of thing to buy little care packages of hipness for those who do.

    6) Regarding ‘undocumented aliens’, I am seriously uncomfortable with the rhetoric from the right, because (frankly) it reminds me of anti-Irish rhetoric common in the post civil-war era. On the other hand, I see no reason why we should pay for some OTHER society’s f*ck-ups. At least make them get passable ID. Don’t just hand it out to anybody. If they want to live off our generosity, them they can minimally provide financial support to their local document forger.

  55. #55 |  cliff | 

    >>>>>I don’t want to see people starve in the streets. I certainly don’t want desperate people to mug me. At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it? Isn’t that what government is for?<<<<<

    'I don't want…' 'I certaintly don't want…' 'Don't WE just have to…'

    How do you make that transition from YOUR wants to what WE have to do?
    No we don't have to be compassionate. No, that's not what government is for..

  56. #56 |  Dave Krueger | 

    #38 Z

    #35- that’s all fine and good until you become the undeserving poor. The line between success and fuck-up is razor-thin and voluntary charity, while lovely in theory, can’t be a foundational precept any more than me believing that my boss will give me a raise because he is a decent fellow. What if he doesn’t?

    So what about those who fall through the cracks? We have a huge welfare system in place right now and yet there are still people wailing about expanding it to cover those who still manage to fall through the cracks. I appreciate your willingness to take other people’s money to completely eliminate suffering, but the fact is that there will always be suffering so what you’re advocating is an an open ended claim to my wealth.

    Nothing creates poverty quite like paying people for it.

  57. #57 |  Dave Krueger | 

    #38 Z

    #25 and #35 the problem for me and maybe for our guest blogger is that libertarianism, as practiced in the U.S., boils down to Ayn Randism- I got mine so fuck off.

    I would rephrase that as follows:

    I worked my ass off for mine. That’s why it’s mine.

  58. #58 |  Brian | 

    “At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it? Isn’t that what government is for?”

    Therein lies your problem. Government is not compassionate, ever. Government exists to take from some and give to others, through force. Some people are OK with that.

    Why do you need government to be compassionate for you?

  59. #59 |  Griffin3 | 

    A lot of good points in the comments. One I didn’t see directly addressed, though, was the assumption in:

    What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail?

    There are some real unable people out there, the one who have burned out enough brain cells (or never had them to begin with) to not be rational actors. For these people, any or all of the above arguments apply, as far as safety nets go, or the lack thereof.

    Other people are just marginal. They ‘fail’ because we create this huge and tangled weave of safety nets and crutches and enablers, all of which allow them to bump along at some low level. They get along, in poverty that is miles better than ‘real’ poverty in other places [Somalia?]. They see wealth all around them, they want some of it, but they are not motivated or able enough to pursue it. So we keep them on life support, and everything stays the same.

    Have you ever dealt with an alcoholic? You can provide some minimal level of alcohol and helping them get through the paperwork of life. It’s not even expensive; liquor is cheap, fast food is even cheaper. Are you really helping them by doing that? Some will turn around, but those are people who didn’t need the help in the first place. Most alcoholics have to hit rock bottom before they can start recovery*.

    If people are lazy, or inept, or stupid, keeping them on some sort of subsistence support is one solution. But if you let them fail, to get really starvingly hungry, you will find that the majority of them are not too lazy to work, not too inept to find some job, not so hooked on drugs that they would rather die than work. Let them hit rock bottom. Let them crash and burn. A surprising number will bounce back up, and claw their way out of the hole, if it’s the only alternative. And those people will make sure their kids live better lives than they did, like immigrant stories of yesteryear.

    My neighbor has a peculiar disability: he cannot budget more than $20. If he makes no money in a day, then he will need $5-15 for the basic necessities of dinner, cigarettes and toilet paper (he has three dependents). If he gets more than $20, they go out and have dinner, and the next day, all of the money is mysteriously vanished, and he needs another $5-15. Enough backstory; he was on unemployment for the longest time. Bumping along, no one would hire him, his mother doling out his check to keep them fed. Unemployment ran out; still no one hiring, but now, he’s hungry enough, he’s doing ANY jobs. Painting houses, mowing grass, hacking out undergrowth. Mostly cash, tax free, he’s definitely making more money than unemployment, and happier from what I can tell. Not borrowing money from me, not having to listen to his mother tell him what to buy, providing for his family. He’s doing this because the government support ran out, and he had no alternative. He’s better off without the goverment assistance.

    On the flip side, he’s only able to do this, by violating all sorts of government regulations that were put in place to help him. None of us would hire him to mow our grass, if we had to provide OSHA safety equipment and minimum wage and file 1099s. He couldn’t do handyman work if we obeyed permitting laws. It’s probably not legal for him to leave his kids at the house while working some nights; but they learn to survive, and understand that he’s working to support the family.

    And that’s the goal, if you want to talk about ‘society’**. Productive people raise the living standards for everyone. And you don’t get productive people by maintaining marginal people at some low level, by showing their children that everything will be okay, that money will come from somewhere, somehow. Marginal people are supported in a comfortable fashion, and their kids can see they are no worse off than the working poor: that is no incentive. Inept, stupid, lazy and drug abusing people must be allowed to fail, so other people, their kids, and even some*** of them will say: “Hey! I don’t want to live like this. What do I have to do?”

    * Or drug abusers, or gambling addicts, or stupid people. “Having to hit rock bottom” is a truism, which could be argued. You want to argue it?

    ** The straight libertarian argument barely acknowledges a ‘society’, much less a societal goal. More productive people can still be a libertarian goal.

    *** Some of them will hit rock bottom, and stay there. Or punch through. There you could talk about a safety net. A very low safety net. Or not.

  60. #60 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    I was really confused by Peter’s post here. Since I miss Simon Cowell on AI, I’m going to channel him and be honest (if that’s OK): These are questions an 18 year old asks belligerently at a party.

    But I refuse to believe anything is the solution to all problems.

    …Correct Idealolgy.

    Who claimed this? What list of problems?

    Not to get all taoist, but taoists would really question a couple things with your initial statement…and libertarianism and taoism are very compatible.

    First, define “solution”. What are the success metrics?

    Second, define “good”. I know you didn’t say “good”, but it is often assumed that everyone agrees and that is most certainly not the case.

    Anywho…I don’t know of a libertarian who believes libertarianism is the solution to all problems. That would be silly. I also don’t know of any libertarian declaring it to be the “Correct Idealogy”. Everyone has their own freak flags to fly (communism, democracy, theocracy…). More power to them. “Correct” is a meaningless term here.

    Maybe the better question would be something like “Why is Capitalism and the free market the most efficient allocator of resources?” I can submit a proof for that. Or, “Why does libertarianism produce greater personal freedom than the myriad other forms of government?”

    My apologies for the potential rudeness of my statement here: You need to tighten up your questions.

    don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it? Isn’t that what government is for?

    No. People are for charity.

    Society at the local level has dealt more successfully with “society’s f*ck ups” than government at the macro level.

    Hey, all feedback is a gift, right?

  61. #61 |  Mattocracy | 

    My problems with government assistance is that it’s not pure at heart. Government programs are vote buying initiatives more often than not, whether it’s welfare, medicare, subsidies or home buying credits.

    Also, there isn’t any means to effectively hold government accountable. I mean you can vote, but voting hasn’t been effective at keeping politicians honest lately. Cause, ya know, they’re liars.

    I personally believe that charity should be voluntary, not manditory. At least then I can fund programs that work how I want them to.

    How about this as a compromise…if it is going to be manditory, can I least choose and what and who my tax dollars fund? At least then there is some competition and I can keep my money from funding ineffective programs/methods.

  62. #62 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    @ Highway #41

    The current negative perception of libertarianism, the “I’ve got mine, so F You”

    Relevant: A poster here at TA accused me of this because of my statement “The best way for me to defeat your misguided patriotism and damaging economic policies is to profit mercilessly from them.” Saying that my “I’ve got mine” attitude wasn’t helping libertarianism. He might show up here to defend.

    I wanted to see where he was going and played it up, but there is a fundamental difference here. My position is this: I will viciously get “mine” due to your idiotic economic policies that you line up to support while calling me names and hurting millions. That is the only way I see to put you people in a hole so deep that you won’t hurt anyone ever again.

    The “I’ve got mine” boogey-man is thus manufactured mostly by people who’d rather prescribe a biased view onto a group/individual rather than actually learn the real view. Fear tends to shut a brain down.

  63. #63 |  RandomDude | 

    People who have money that wish to give it to people who provide care for the undeserving poor are free to do so willingly.

    Creating governmental programs providing public jobs for people to spend tax money on outreach to discuss options with the poor and ultimately result in very few success stories is a hot point in the side of libertarians.

  64. #64 |  Chris in AL | 

    “What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail”

    Apparently they end up in government, which is exactly why we want the government doing as little as possible.

    I don’t see the libertarian ideology as saying government is never the solution to any problem. I see it as the belief that there is a better solution for the vast majority of problems. Combined with the belief that personal liberties are sacrosanct. Any solution that involves removing or limiting them should be off the table unless that puts other people in harm’s way.

    So when faced with any given issue, the libertarian ideology is not to ignore it, but to come up with a solution that involves minimal government involvement and doesn’t undermine personal liberty. That does tend to increase the difficulty rating of the problem as it is always easier to just create a governmental department to handle it, let them just toss out any of our pesky liberties that get in the way and justify it all by saying it is for a good cause.

  65. #65 |  John hall | 

    I have read theagitator for years because it is a man taking on the criminal justice system who happens to be a libertarian. I do not read it for someone to argue for or against the basic principles of libertarianism. If you believe that stealing from Peter to give to Paul is justified, then that is your business and irrelevant to topics normally discussed on this blog.

    At least you could have pretended to have read enough from libertarian authors to know the blatantly obvious responses to your criticism (like what Difster says) and try to address them up front. I’d be happy to ready blog posts on topics where you actually know something, but my time is wasted formulating responses to ignorant posts.

  66. #66 |  Deoxy | 

    I have fairly conservative personal beliefs, but my governmental desires are VERY libertarian. Here’s the simplest reason why:

    Perhaps less government is the solution to many specific problems.

    See, you’re thinking about this COMPLETELY backwards. YOU are the one with the answer before the question.

    The question is “How do we solve this problem?”, NOT “Why shouldn’t the government be the solution?” Or, to rephrase your own statement:

    Perhaps government is the solution to certain specific problems.

    I’m ok with government intervention and action if I believe it is the BEST solution to a problem. The number of things I’ve been convinced of that on is… um, small. Still probably larger than most around here (certainly larger than Mr Balko).

    For charity, in particular, the government is really terrible. Huge amounts of waste, huge amounts of fraud.

    So, you want to help people? Then help people! That’s what lots of Americans do… especially those on the right, actually, who (generally, and certainly in comparison to the left) want less government. But don’t take other people’s money to do it.

    It’s so easy to be generous with other people’s money… it’s also easy to WASTE other people’s money. Use your own – it does a lot more good, and you’ll be a lot more careful with it.

    (I would actually be OK with some kind of “bare essential” government program – extremely simple, probably boring, definitely CHEAP but filling and reasonably nutritious food, free to anyone who comes, no questions asked. No paperwork, no bureaucracy, etc. No special orders, no getting food for other people, no money handed out, etc, either. Running something like THAT would keep people from “starving in the streets” but would also not be a ridiculous money hole. It would also be decried as barbaric, insulting to common decency, etc, from the left.)

  67. #67 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    “What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail”

    Apparently they end up in government,


  68. #68 |  Marty | 

    I believe government is too big, too entrenched, and too powerful to fix. If Ron Paul was elected, and Gary Johnson was his vice president, I don’t think we’re gonna stop fighting foreign wars, giving federal grants to police departments to abuse us (just correcting those two things would go a long way toward making me happy), and taxing the hell out of the citizens.

  69. #69 |  Deoxy | 

    One more thing:

    Isn’t it cheaper than prison?

    Almost anything is cheaper than prison… on a single incident basis. The problem is in incentives (really, I sound like a broken record on that – incentives drive everything).

    Example: theft. Steal $100 dollars from me, and OF COURSE it’s cheaper to simply forbive the theft than put you in prison! So, the incentive there is…. hey, free money! Prison (and many other disincentives) cost more than the direct and obvious crimes it prevents, but if there was no disincentive, the problems would be much MUCH greater.

    That’s not to say that we have the prison/other punishment ratio just right (or that we put people in prison for the right stuff, just in general), it’s just pointing out that “Isn’t it cheaper than prison?” is too simplistic to be a useful point.

  70. #70 |  Deoxy | 

    @ #56 Marty

    Government is not too big to fix… but it is too big and too entrenched to fix without a lot of pain. Just the number of people uselessly (or at least extremely wastefully) employed by the government would cause huge unemployment issues to fix.

    That’s not to say it’s not worth fixing, mind you… only that it’s going to be VERY painful.

    Now, “too powerful” is a different problem. It’s not too powerful for the people to fix… the problem is that the people are lazy and uninterested. Much like a small child riding an elephant is in control only so long as the elephant cooperates, so it is with the government and the people. The power really does rest with the people… they just won’t make the effort to exercise it.

  71. #71 |  Sean L. | 

    This is, in a nutshell, the short-sightedness of the progressive mindset. If we’re talking about someone *born* with disabilities making them unable to care for themselves, you would at least have an argument about helping them. But you chose “ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse” as your group of people to consider:

    “At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate”

    Compassion? Compassion for whom? Why would you focus your compassion on a person who intentionally sits idle and not on the person who is actually *earning* the money to pay for it? Who are you to decide that an inept, stupid, lazy or drug-using person deserves my money more than I do? What kind of fucked-up morality is that?

  72. #72 |  SamK | 

    Firstly, congratulations on stirring the pot. Secondly, I’ve called myself a libertarian more often than not, but find myself fond of socialist policies. There are some dyed in the wool “L”ibertarians here I believe, but my approach to it is to use “as it harms none do what you will” as my default position. This means that unless I have a very specific reason, theoretical or empirical, I don’t ask someone else to do or refrain from doing anything. When I find my reasoning vague I need one hell of a lot of real world evidence. Gun control is my favorite example…I own them and don’t “feel” like they should be restricted, but can’t find any good theoretical sociological evidence that presents definite conclusions on the issue (of course definite and sociological are rarely properly in the same sentence). Empirically, on the other hand, there is a wealth of evidence showing that officially disarming a populace precedes increases in violence and that the criminal element in any given society has little problem obtaining whatever weapons they find necessary. Evidence beats theory, theory beats nothing, and when all we’ve got is nothing we should leave people alone. Economics is the place we usually end up fighting about this, and I’m a fan of the afore-mentioned gun control pattern of debate when confronted with something like universal health care. Universal health care dramatically increases the average health of a society and removes almost all extreme negatives and positives. This does mean you lose the best of systems like the US has, but it means you also don’t have people losing their homes when they get cancer. Theory hasn’t been really useful in this debate, but empirical evidence is that universal care isn’t the boogeyman it’s made out to be (much like guns) and on balance I support it.

  73. #73 |  SJE | 

    Libertarianism is an ideology that recognizes that many ideologies exist, and many potential problems and solutions exist, but that none of them have all the answers…including libertarianism.

    Therefore, by devolving decisions and power to the smallest possible unit of government, and preferably the individual, we permit individuals to seek their maximal happiness. Of course, groups of individuals may prefer to be in (e.g.) a socialist collective: they can chose this, as long as they do not expect me to join it or subsidize it.

    The doctrinaire side of libertarianism sometimes fails to see that large government action is necessary. At the same time, the suspicion that libertarians have for government is well founded, and their critiques of government are rarely addressed by their opponents.

  74. #74 |  infopractical | 

    I think it’s up to you to justify having my money forcibly taken at gun point to help people who make poor decisions. Your post seems to remove violent theft of the taxpayer from the utilitarian calculus, not to mention the destruction of incentives (which often contribute to poor decision-making in the first place). To put the questions to libertarians this way is to assume that the state is some sort of moral default, which is far more artificially ideological than the form of libertarianisms known as anarchy or minarchy which at least bear reasonable claim to starting from a neutral position.

  75. #75 |  flotsam | 

    If libertarianism is to be dismissed as just another ideology one should dismiss any elected official as just another person. And we know as humans we are all imperfect and liable to abuse any power granted us. As a libertarian I want desperately to limit the power given to any one person or group of people.

    Here is an interesting look at the political process. Out of the mouths of babes and such.


  76. #76 |  Rimfax | 

    These are fantastic questions. I hope to do them justice.

    > So why shouldn’t libertarianism be dismissed as just another ideology.

    If you dismiss ideologies, then you should dismiss libertarianism. The question under this is: On what basis should you make decisions about ethics and governance and such things?

    If you don’t have an ideology, a framework, an -ism, upon which to rely for such decisions, what do you use? Do you make a gut decision on each and every problem? What happens when you look back over your decisions and find that you’ve been unjustly inconsistent? Or, just as bad, you keep one old poor decision in mind and you’re forever biased in one direction by it.

    If you rely on utilitarianism, you are forever stuck in a multiverse hell of trolley problems and your old precedents slowly make mountains out of piles of crumbs. The argument for forming and using an ideology could fill a library.

    > But I refuse to believe anything is the solution to all problems.

    Then, welcome to libertarianism, because that is exactly what it says. It says that government should govern as little as possible, letting individuals form groups of their own or not to solve problems as they see fit, as long as they do not violate some agreed upon fundamental rights of others.

    Not even libertarians agree on what “as little as possible” really means, but we’ve found that we’re unusual enough in even that vague sentiment to share an ideological identity.

    > What is the libertarian answer to society’s f*ck ups? What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail? What do we do about the undeserving poor?

    Who decides that they are undeserving? If the government decides, there is one essentially unimpeachable decision. If I disagree and I think that someone is deserving, it’s kinda too late in that the government has already taken the tax money from my pocket and given it to somebody else, perhaps someone who I consider genuinely undeserving.

    There is ample scholarship supporting the idea that groups of people over time produce better decisions than one selected expert. The only reason to argue that people shouldn’t be left to make their own determinations about who is deserving and who is not is if you believe that people are more stingy than government redistribution rates. That leads to your next question, sort of.

    > I don’t want to see people starve in the streets. I certainly don’t want desperate people to mug me. At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it? Isn’t that what government is for? Isn’t it cheaper than prison?

    The libertarian argument is that that is what charity is for. (Don’t ask the Objectivists about this. They think charity is immoral.) I wish I could produce data clearly supporting the argument that charities would replace entitlements if the entitlements disappeared, but I have seen many indicators they have in the past and that they would in the future. I am confident that they would, but that doesn’t do you any good.

    The argument for assertive redistribution, taxing the money out of people’s pockets to keep the poor, deserving and otherwise, out of misery and away from crime, relies on one of a few arguments. Either the people can’t be trusted to give accurately, they can’t be trusted to give enough, or it is unfair if everyone doesn’t give at comparable rates.

    The giving accurately argument relies on the assumption that a few government experts can decide who is deserving better than the individuals with the money to give. To me, this is self-refuting, but you can find ample evidence and arguments in the libertarian blogosphere against this.

    The giving enough argument is tough to refute because there is no agreement on what is enough from each able giver, nor what is enough to each needy. In a way this goes back to the previous argument. Who is better to decide how much *I* should give to help the poor to make my world a better place? Me or an expert in Washington, D.C.?

    The final argument is the free rider problem that underlies most everyone’s political views. For social conservatives, it is the libertines that are the free riders, acting the way they want to to everyone’s detriment. To the fiscal liberals, it is the profit-makers, sucking up all the money and leaving the poor to starve. In both cases, these are psychological projections. Study repeatedly show that pro-capitalists are the most generous both by amount and by income percentage.

    So, yes, giving rates are already unfair, and it is those who are calling for higher redistribution rates that are pulling the lowest share, by all measures. The libertarian arguments is, “So what?! Life isn’t always fair.”

    Largely, libertarians aren’t concerned about free riders, social or fiscal. If you have a government that protect the basic fundamental rights and protects the nation from external violent threats, people will work it out amongst themselves. The Nobel Prize in Economics last year (or was it the year before) was awarded for scholarship demonstrating exactly that.

    Hope this helps.

  77. #77 |  MadRocketScientist | 

    For interesting discussions of compassionate Libertarianism, check this out:


  78. #78 |  Cyto | 

    The libertarian ideology holds that:

    1. Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. Same goes in reverse.

    2. I am not so arrogant as to believe that I know what is best for you. Same goes in reverse.

    3. You are not free unless you are also free to fail.

    These basic principles can be a guide in most situations. If you start from a position of “I must solve other people’s problems” (phrased as Society’s Fuckups above), you’ve already violated principle number 2. Remember: You are not that smart. Neither is the brilliant leader you’d elect to make judgements in your stead.

    There’s lots of people living their lives in ways that I would not personally condone. Many of them have proven to be much happier and more successful than they would have been had they followed my advice. (or if some idiot had given me dictatorial powers).

    Would you have advised Penn Jillette to take jobs performing at juvenile prisons, just to stay in show business? How about Bill Gates dropping out of college to live in a hotel room with a few buddies and try to start a software company selling a version of a BASIC interpreter?

    Look, I’m a relatively bright guy. I’ve made a mouse with human hemoglobin that I specifically engineered with a site-directed mutation to create a particularly nasty case of sickle cell anemia as an animal analog for studying the disease and its treatment. Very few people can claim something like that on their resume. And I’ve got enough experience under my belt to know that I’m generally an idiot. I haven’t met anyone yet who isn’t. Nobody knows much about what they are doing. We all just do the best we can.

    That’s why the state needs to keep out of almost everything. Look, would most people be better off if they lived their lives the way I do? Probably. I don’t do drugs, I almost never drink… I’m careful with my money – I only borrow strategically, and even then extremely rarely. I’ve started one business myself, but I did that very cautiously (I kept my day job). I work hard and value my family. I try to live by the golden rule…

    It’s hard to claim that some guy who blew all of his money on coke and lost his job because he was high, then lost his freedom because he was dealing to support his habit is making good choices. But if we applied the “everybody has to make the choices that Cyto would make” rule, we’d have no Microsoft. We’d have no Penn and Teller shows. There’d be no Hendrix albums. And no Sham-Wow or Shake-Weights.

    The question is, what to do about it? If you start letting the state take responsibility for the consequences of your mistakes (by letting them foot the bill when you screw up), you open the door to letting them tell you what you cannot do.

    When you buy insurance you have to tell them about risky activities. I like to skydive. They put a rider on my policy about skydiving. By engaging a 3rd party to assume some of the risk for my behavior, I gave them license to have a say about what I can and cannot do. This is the sort of trade-off that should only be entered into voluntarily.

    The State is not voluntary. You “agree” to all of its restrictions merely by being born. Therefore the state should assume as little of the risk for its citizens decisions as is possible so that it can afford to interfere with its citizens decisions as little as possible.

  79. #79 |  edmond | 

    If you feel strongly about assisting the poor and imprudent, subsidizing people who consistently make bad choices, and providing a high standard of living to those who do not or will not provide for themselves, that is your choice. Give as much of your own wealth to whatever charity you feel can make the best use of it.

    If you can demonstrate to me how effective a welfare program can be, to the point where I will voluntarily contribute to it, I will be happy to do so. Using the threat of imprisonment to extort money from me to pay for a redistribution program which, judging by actual outcomes in the past, is likely to be just wasteful if not outright counterproductive, is something I find morally indefensible, no matter what your good intentions.

    Here is a great video that I think sums up the problem with government providing ‘charity’ http://youtu.be/PGMQZEIXBMs
    How do you justify the use of force to impose your reaction to your feelings onto others?

    If I believed that the best way to help people is to save their immortal soul (may they be touched by his noodly appendage), and given that this body and this world is only temporary, we should completely focus on converting them to my religion rather than trying to get them food or medicine. I feel so passionately about this, that I am going to send in some heavily armed individuals to confiscate half of all your wealth for this great cause. It is such a good cause, and my intentions are so good, that I’m sure you will not object. On what moral grounds is this wrong? How is your redistribution regime different?

    Libertarianism, in my own view at least, is based upon the simple principle that government exists to provide for public goods (using the actual economic definition, not the ‘whatever I feel is a good way for me to spend your money’ definition of politicians). If it is not a public good (neither excludable nor substitutable – though I am willing to be flexible on the practicality of both terms), government should not use force to compel your assistance.

    As sad as you are to see someone hungry on the streets, it does not give you a right to put a gun to my head and force me to hand them my wallet. Mugging me on their behalf is no better than them doing it directly.

  80. #80 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    The State is not voluntary. You “agree” to all of its restrictions merely by being born.

    This is one theory [which anarchists (Spooner wrote about this) would disagree with], but it cannot be used as fact to prove…

    Therefore the state should assume as little of the risk for its citizens decisions as is possible so that it can afford to interfere with its citizens decisions as little as possible.

    I don’t understand how you make this connection.

    Nice post, Cyto. Not that you needed me to tell you that.

  81. #81 |  Jason | 

    I think the idea some of the earlier commenters are chasing after is “subsidiarity“. Basically, it means that a problem should be solved at the lowest responsible level.

    I think subsidiarity explains one of the main benefits of a negative income tax — instead of the government deciding so many dollars goes to feeding the poor via food stamps, so many dollars goes to housing the poor, etc, etc, the negative income tax lets the poor themselves decide what their priorities are — this month the priority might be food while next month it might be heating oil. In other words, the people most affected by the problem will be making the decisions on how to solve the problem.

    As a libertarian, I believe that reducing the amount of regulations on businesses will allow businesses to grow which means they will hire more people. Sure, many will get paid less than under stricter regulations, but is having no job when incomes are higher better than having a job when incomes are lower?

    As for society’s fuck ups… is it right to force them into a life they don’t want to live? There are quite a few people with mental illnesses out there and many simply refuse to take their medications (I’ve know a few of them). Is it right to force them to take their medications?

  82. #82 |  Marty | 

    #58 | Deoxy-

    In theory, I agree with you. I just don’t think it’s realistic. Bureaucrats brought down Rome and the Ottoman Empire- I think bureaucrats will bring us down, too.

    Are there any modern examples of a govt pulling back it’s power and size, without collapsing? Estonia is held up as a ‘libertarian paradise’, but the Soviet Empire had to collapse to allow this to happen.

  83. #83 |  albatross | 

    There’s a difference between seeing a political label as a desired endpoint, and a desired direction. From where we are right now, I want to see us move in a more libertarian direction–broadly, we should be looking to have all levels of government have a smaller footprint, less money to play with, far less powers, etc. That doesn’t mean I think we can organize our society like the alternate-world USA in _The Probability Broach_.

    This is true, I think, for most people. Few people on the left actually want to get to an endpoint where the state owns all the industry and every aspect of economic life is regulated; mostly, they just want to move in that broad direction from where we are now–more regulation, more government involvement in the economy, etc.

  84. #84 |  Cyto | 

    This is one theory [which anarchists (Spooner wrote about this) would disagree with], but it cannot be used as fact to prove…

    I’m speaking from practical reality here, not some metaphysical or moral point of view. If you are born in Iran, you are living according to the laws of the state of Iran whether you choose to or not. That doesn’t make it right, but it is a fact you’d have to live with were that your fate. Emigration is about the only opt-out you have, and it isn’t all that easy to avail yourself of either. (for examples see Haiti, Soviet Union, Cambodia…)

    So, since we cannot practically choose our “social contract”, that contract should be the least restrictive possible. I’ll argue a priori that if you have no opportunity to read the contract before agreeing and no practical means for altering or escaping the contract, morality dictates that the contract be the least restrictive contract as is reasonably possible.

  85. #85 |  Leonard | 

    I’m not fond of ideologies. I don’t like it when people have answers before they know the question.

    Oh, you have an ideology. Perhaps you don’t know it, but you do.

    I.e.: is it “acceptable” for “us” to let the poor starve? Do you know the answers here? If you have any position at all on this: it’s ideology. Consider, by comparison, a analogous question, except removing “humans” as the objects of your patronage, but instead using an animal. Consider an ant colony. Is it “acceptable” for “us” to let an ant-colony starve? I am going to make a guess here that you are not ideological about the rights of ants.

    Or consider your statement that you don’t want people to mug you. OK: how do you justify that? Are they not just as deserving of your wealth, or even your life, as you are? If you say they are not: ideology.

  86. #86 |  Peter Moskos | 

    Wow. Thanks, all. And all those comments while I was asleep! I’ve got some good reading to do…

  87. #87 |  albatross | 

    I think society’s fuck ups raise an inevitable tradeoff.

    In a society with more structure and less practical freedom, the scope for your good/bad decisions to affect both your life and the lives of others is limited.

    Basically, I think what we’d like is to be able to prevent bad decisions and encourage good ones. But that’s really hard, because there aren’t any genius angels to put in charge of making the rules. What we can do with human societies, through law and custom and social pressure, is to make some decisions about how much variance in decisions and outcomes to allow. If your society ensures that almost everyone follows the same standard career track, there will be little variance possible–hardly anyone will end up in the gutter or in the penthouse suite. If your society allows people great freedom in choosing their path in life, there will be far more variance. Fuckups will fuck up. Born entrepreneurs and salesmen will sometimes get filthy rich. Drunks will drink themselves to death. Weird borderline-crazy artist types will produce lots of weird crap and occasional works of genuine amazing genius. And so on.

    Charles Murray makes the argument (I’ve seen it elsewhere) that the easing of social and legal pressures against divorce and bastardy and shacking up has had a much bigger impact among people in the lower class than in the upper class, and similarly a much bigger impact among less smart/educated people than among more smart/educated people. That’s consistent with this kind of tradeoff. Give people more freedom, and the folks who are the smartest and most functional and who have the most resources are likely to do okay, or at least to be able to salvage something from their fuckups in one area of their lives by their resources in other areas. People without those advantages often do rather worse. (This isn’t an argument against sexual freedom, FWIW, just an observation that more freedom often has different effects on different groups of people.)

  88. #88 |  Josh Jordan | 

    Why shouldn’t http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolitionism be dismissed as just another ideology?

  89. #89 |  M. Steve | 

    @Boyd Durkin #50

    “Relevant: A poster here at TA accused me of this because of my statement “The best way for me to defeat your misguided patriotism and damaging economic policies is to profit mercilessly from them.” Saying that my “I’ve got mine” attitude wasn’t helping libertarianism. He might show up here to defend.

    I wanted to see where he was going and played it up, but there is a fundamental difference here. My position is this: I will viciously get “mine” due to your idiotic economic policies that you line up to support while calling me names and hurting millions. That is the only way I see to put you people in a hole so deep that you won’t hurt anyone ever again.”

    Now it’s you who needs to define your terms. Who is “you”? Who are “you people”? You seem to willfully ignore that fact that not everyone who will be hurt in the coming societal breakdown is a myopic Statist.

    That was my whole point. Your actions, you believe, are bringing about a downfall of a failed governmental system, and ideology. I agree. In point of fact, I’ve no quarrel with your actions. It’s your attitude, which, intentionally or otherwise, lumps together the foolish masses who bring the flood upon themselves with those who do oppose, who do disagree, who do advocate against our government’s policies. You would watch the next generation’s future destroyed, many of whom have NOT consented to the policies which caused their destruction, and you would dance a jig as it happens.

    That’s the “I’ve got mine, fuck you” attitude in a nutshell. If you believe differently, the onus is on you to convey that in your communication.

  90. #90 |  Rick | 

    Clarify society’s fuck-ups…..you mean like Detroit or Oakland?

  91. #91 |  B | 

    “So why shouldn’t libertarianism be dismissed as just another ideology.”

    Personally, I think it should.

    I apply to the word “libertarian” to myself as an adjective, not a noun. No “-ism” has all the right answers. But I tend to value freedom as an end, so “libertarian” aptly and succinctly describes the way I am predisposed to approach an issue. It does NOT determine my thinking.

  92. #92 |  Leah | 

    I love #40’s list. I think 3 applies to me, though 2 would be most ideal.

  93. #93 |  DJB | 

    “What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail? What do we do about the undeserving poor?”

    You will have to explain to me how government action has fixed these problems.

  94. #94 |  Marcus | 

    I find that I agree with the root libertarian desire for freedom. I am pro individual choice in most if not all areas. Drugs, alcohol, sex, reproduction, religion or lack thereof, suicide, …

    My basic belief is that if you are not materially hurting someone else, go for it.

    But what I do not understand is how we (a group of people living in such close proximity to each other) can implement the level of freedom discussed here without major problems. I agree that the government is flawed, but it helps address some problems. Government is flawed because it is run by people, not because the idea behind governance is flawed. Libertarians are just as flawed.

    Also, it seems a lot here are taking an easy topic by talking about (probably due to the OP) welfare type programs. It is facile to have almost anyone agree that they do not want someone to (forcibly|at the point of a gun|steal) money from a hard working person and give it to a non hard working person. How do you feel about other government programs? Roads? Should they all be private toll roads? Police? Fire Departments? EPA? FDA?

    Lastly, I think some people get caught up on the forcible, point of a gun type thinking, AND the issue of helping the OTHER (defined as people you wouldn’t choose to help left to your own devices) that they lose site of the simple fact that SOME things can be cheaper if done by a large entity (government). Imagine an insurance industry that wasn’t there solely to separate you from your money.

  95. #95 |  Glenn Nielsen | 

    That is a broad question which can’t be given due diligence in blog comments.

    I would recommend you skim the book Healing Our World in an Age of Agression by Dr. Mary Ruwart. The first edition (1992) is available online. I consider her book to be an excellent first read for those coming from the compassionate liberal side of things to libertarianism/voluntarism.


  96. #96 |  Highway | 

    Marcus, I think an important point to remember is that ‘government’ cannot do anything that ‘people’ cannot do. If government has advantages in accomplishing things, that’s because it has the coercive power to raise funds in great quantity, or to force other individuals to do things they don’t want to, or it can ignore the rules it puts on other people. It’s not that government can do things cheaper, unless it is breaking rules that other people have to follow. Given a level playing field, government isn’t going to do anything cheaper.

    So of the things that people think are only doable by government, it’s usually because they assume that they need to be done in the same scope they are currently (like roads everywhere) or done by some neutral party (as if the people that make up the government is free from jealousy or rent-seeking or the normal foibles of humans).

    In the specific example of something like the EPA, the discussion could hinge on the externalities that are generated by things. For instance (one I’m familiar with), the regulation of stormwater discharge into common streams and rivers, or the increase of flooding potential for people downstream due to development.

  97. #97 |  cApitalist | 

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m an anarchist because of the nonaggression axiom. An axiom, for anyone who’s unfamiliar, is something accepted as true or self evident. I don’t just take this notion as a rule of thumb, I take it as fact. No one may aggress against others.

    A rejection of the state flows logically from the nonaggression axiom. If you don’t think taxes are based on coercion and aggression, try not paying them. If you resist adamantly, you’ll be killed or thrown in a cage. Thus, the states very lifeblood is aggression, and it must be rejected.

    So, what do we do about the fuck ups? Well, we help them. I donate to food banks. You do whatever you do. But, we may not ethically commission the state to aggress against others by depriving them of their property. Feel free to address the problem any way you like, as long as its voluntary.

    If you’re interested in a safety net in the absence of the state, pool you’re resources with others in a down on your luck fund. Buy unemployment insurance. Start a civic organization that helps local hobos. Donate to religious organizations. Again, we can do whatever we want as long as we don’t aggress against others in trying to solve what we perceive as problems.

    Thanks to all for the discussion.

    Footnote: I realize my whole position rests entirely on the truth of the nonaggression axiom. If it is incorrect, I’m sunk. If you disagree with this axiom, or you don’t believe it prohibits state action, please raise objections.

  98. #98 |  scott in phx | 

    “I don’t want to see people starve in the streets.”

    You are free to help as many of them as you can or want to. Don’t force me at the point of a gun (and that is EXACTLY what the IRS is doing when they enforce the tax law) to help.

    “I certainly don’t want desperate people to mug me.”

    Nor do I. But not all muggers (or other criminals) are motivated by poverty, many just believe that stealing is a “better” way to achieve their ends, so forcing me to contribute to charity as above will not alleviate in whole the problem of crime.

    And that, the prosecution of crime, comes under the “provide for the common defense” part of the Constitution. That is, one of the reasons for government is the ability of the governed to decide what is a crime and how it is to be punished and to provide for police, courts etc to in an impartial justice system – rather than relying on the rule of the jungle. This is one of the few areas where gov’t is clearly the answer (that doesn’t of course negate the right to self-defense – it just removes the option of “tribal” justice and so prevents personal score settling).

    So, actually, I think pretty much everything can be “solved” (that is all questions of how to organize a free society) within the framework of a “libertarian” ideology. I haven’t come across any domestic issues that can’t be handled by that “ideology”.

    It does get a little trickier when international affairs have to be considered.

  99. #99 |  Elliot | 

    Rejecting an organized method of evaluating questions because this falls under a convenient label classified as an “ideology” is attacking the use of ideas in a consistent manner. The consequence of this anti-intellectual cringing at commitment to principles without discriminating between good ideas and bad ideas, consistency vs. special pleading, rationality vs. irrationality, is that reason itself is dismissed as a way to solve problems.

    The label “libertarian” means many things to different people, which complicates any defense or explanation. For example, LP members seek to work within the democratic system, often defending crony capitalism, targeted taxes (“incentives”), stringent immigration hurdles, foreign military interventions, and even defending a strict law and order mentality of punishing people for violating admittedly bad laws, arguing that such laws must be obeyed until overturned by democratic process. In contrast, there are individualists who reject elections as popularity contests which don’t establish moral authority, who advocate free markets without cronyism, “incentives”, or other governmental manipulations (Laissez faire), open borders, anti-war, jury nullification, etc..

    Even worse, you’ll get very confused people who try to fit the square peg into the round hold, classifying themselves as “left libertarian” or “libertarian socialist” (e.g., Noam Chomsky). Such a hybrid requires a significant level of cognitive dissonance, or worse, cynical exploitation of popularly favorable labels to mask their true intent—Orwellian/Goebbelesqe propaganda. (In short, I would argue that a minimum requirement for being “libertarian” is an acknowledgement of an individual’s right to property, and the “leftist” rejects property rights. I see no way to reconcile that logically.)

    So, when you ask “libertarians” to defend their ideas, you’re going to get all sorts of different people defending a range of ideas. Unlike Marxism, for example, there isn’t a libertarian version of the little red book, even if there are sects (Objectivists, original intent constitutionalists, etc.) who do share a more dogmatic variety of “libertarianism”.

    I can’t speak for all the other flavors of libertarianism (or the strawman versions proffered by critics). You perceive that “libertarians” have answers before questions are posed. Perhaps some people to whom you react offer up dogma uncritically. But consider the basis of individualism: self ownership, from which each individual derives the three types of rights: life, liberty, and property. (Here is a good intro to this.) Once you accept these three rights, then the questions that non-libertarians throw out don’t require extensive analysis if you see the fault in the underlying premise.

    For example, libertarians are often challenged to come up with a “better system” or accused of imposing their own allegedly arbitrary system on everyone else. However, this presumes that every political ontology is a “system”, i.e., a blueprint for ruling others. But freedom is an anti-system, an outright rejection of the necessity of having one subgroup rule others.

    So, if you ask, “What should we do about addicts on the street?” I reject your question as flawed for a number of reasons. First, referring to “we”/”us” as an individual which acts, decides, or benefits as one, is an example of the collectivist fallacy. Each of us has a separate and distinct mind. We can definitely benefit from cooperating with one another, but that must be predicated on mutual, consensual arrangements, not polls, popularity contests, so-called representatives or proxies who assert the authority to decide for others, etc.. Secondly, this presumes that all people have a duty to solve the problems of others. I argue that any duty or obligation must be predicated on an actual choice through which one becomes accountable. Unless I encourage or enable an addict to use drugs, or I am responsible for the addict as a parent or guardian, I don’t have any obligation to solve his problem. And, if you insist that I do so, even indirectly by requiring that tax money I spend be used for treatment, then you are violating my rights.

    A superficial analysis of my reaction to the question of what “we” do about the problem of addicts might conclude that I have the answer before you ask the question. But, in fact, I’m applying principles—the result of previous careful thought—to the underlying premises of the question to dismiss it as fundamentally flawed.

  100. #100 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Love this discussion. What an incredibly cool group of people we have here.

  101. #101 |  Tom | 

    I often wonder how anyone would or could mistake taking resources from one individual by force and redistributing it to others has anything to do with compassion.


  102. #102 |  Marcus | 


    “Marcus, I think an important point to remember is that ‘government’ cannot do anything that ‘people’ cannot do. ”


    “If government has advantages in accomplishing things, that’s because it has the coercive power to raise funds in great quantity, or to force other individuals to do things they don’t want to, or it can ignore the rules it puts on other people.”

    The advantage comes in the size and scope of the activity. Just as a large widget manufacturer will have lower per unit costs than a equally well managed small manufacturer and Wal-Mart will get product more cheaply than than a corner store.

    “It’s not that government can do things cheaper, unless it is breaking rules that other people have to follow. Given a level playing field, government isn’t going to do anything cheaper.”

    Not true. Government doesn’t need profit.

    Please note, when I say government I mean the idea of government. I understand that in practice, governments are broken to some degree. My contention is that individuals are as well, and of course are the root of what is broken about governments.

  103. #103 |  Marcus | 


    Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  104. #104 |  Highway | 

    Marcus, government does ‘need’ profit about the same amount that any business does. Same thing with ‘non-profit’ organizations. Profit is just some amount of money that’s used in a way that’s not acceptable as a cost, but that doesn’t mean that money doesn’t get spent. Some companies roll that into employee payments, others roll it into capital improvements, some distribute it to shareholders. Government does all of those things. If we’re talking an ideal government, they’d give the ‘profit’ back to the taxpayers, either as refunds or in lower future tax rates. But just because there’s a leftover item on a business’s spreadsheet that isn’t accounted for by other expenditures doesn’t mean that it’s something only private businesses have.

    As for the projects of giant scope, generally the large size of government is as much of a hindrance as it is an economy. In manufacturing, sure, there tends to be economy of scale. But government tends to not do much in the way of manufacturing. In service, sometimes there is. But not always. And there isn’t the economy of scale when the budget pressures are relaxed, the way they are when you’re talking government budgets, where more money can be dialed up either through debt that doesn’t need to be repaid or increased tax rates or increased printing of cash.

    In short, the economies that are theoretically possible when one moves up to the scale of a country’s government are usually more than offset by the lack of competitive pressures on that same government.

  105. #105 |  EH | 

    The fact is that most of the underclass’ behavior is utterly irrational.

    LOL, just the underclass, though, right?

  106. #106 |  Marcus | 

    Highway, I have to disagree on “Profit is just some amount of money that’s used in a way that’s not acceptable as a cost, …”. That seems almost an IRS definition. To me profit in relation to this discussion is more closely defined as revenue in excess of costs needed to deliver the widgets.

    “Some companies roll that into employee payments, others roll it into capital improvements, some distribute it to shareholders.”

    Profit is not the same as Revenue – Cost of Goods Sold.
    For the most part employee payments and capital improvements are not profits. At least to the extent they are necessary to deliver the widgets. This is where I think government can differ from private sector as they have no need to enrich / create new billionaires.

    On government being a hindrance to the economy, please contrast that to any large entity providing similar services. I would argue that it is only a hindrance IF it is unnecessary. My point is, spending a Billion resource units having the Government perform a function is equivalent to spending that same Billion privately.

    Of course there are unnecessary, IMO, parts of government, but that is not a failing of government the idea, it is a failure of execution. My concern is that the alternatives presented here are good at the idea level, but the execution may fail for the same root cause, people.

    Finally, as someone else stated earlier, we didn’t always have many of the social programs we have today, but the situation on the ground created a need that wasn’t filled privately.

  107. #107 |  2nd of 3 | 

    I think we’re looking at the high water mark of libertarianism right now. Your nightmares of “collectivism” will seem quaint when your grandkids are uploading your old blog comments directly into their brains from the shared group consciousness. Yeah, you think I’m exaggerating. We’ll see.

  108. #108 |  Highway | 

    Marcus, sure the incentives are different on the part of government versus the management of a private company, but they manifest the same sort of way.

    For example, the US government bureaucracy, where there’s only minor competition for your budget and where promotion is less a function of hard work and merit than it is time served, a major effort is made to ’empire building’. So you use all of your budget to acquire ‘things’. And you make sure you spend all that budget because that’s how you get more next time.

    My point is that profits really are just the name of another type of cost. Thinking they are fundamentally different is where one of the major pitfalls of government ‘efficiency’ comes from. Taking your example, where a company might figure out a way to spend less than a billion resource units because they can pocket or distribute the remainder, government has no incentive to increase efficiency. They need to spend that budget to be able to argue for more.

    Also, arguing about the ‘idea’ of government without acknowledging the failure of execution that is nearly a certainty is just as unrealistic as the folks who say that libertarianism is going to lead to libertopia. If people are always going to be in government, then it will always have failings, so why should the failings of people be held against those who want to limit government, but waved away when holding a pro-government position?

  109. #109 |  colson | 


    I’ve always understood the “rational actor” in the economic light. To paraphrase the wikipedia entry on Rational Choice Theory,

    “Rational choice theory uses a specific and narrower definition of “rationality” simply to mean that an individual acts as if balancing costs against benefits to arrive at action that maximizes personal advantage”

    However your use of the rational actor tends to meld “rational” with judgement of the actor’s decision without knowing his reasoning. Man as a rational actor is just as is described above – there is no finite moral judgement of the man’s reasoning in the definition used when a libertarian uses the concept of man-as-rational actor. In essence, we know people make subjectively bad decisions – but the decision and reasoning is there own. You’re not telling us anything we don’t already know about human nature. There’s no gaping hole in the philosophy or ideology.

  110. #110 |  Cyto | 

    #92 | colson |

    we know people make subjectively bad decisions – but the decision and reasoning is there own.

    There it is, in a nutshell. Who do you trust to make decisions? Who better than you to decide what is in your best interest? Right or wrong, nobody has better motivation, better information and more pure incentive for making decisions about your life.

    I work in an industry that is regulated (heavily) by the federal government. One regulation we deal with requires obtaining a court order in which the court determines if the contract is in the customer’s best interest. The nanny state taking itself literally.

    One particular judge handled the determination thusly: He asked the appellant to stand up. He asked him ‘Do you believe this is in your best interest?’ The man answered ‘yes’. The judge ruled: ‘The court finds that nobody is better able to determine what is in your best interest, certainly not the court. Order approved.’

    If he’d run, I’d vote for him.

    I’d vote for that guy for

  111. #111 |  JS | 

    #93 Great example Cyto!

  112. #112 |  perlhaqr | 

    I’m someone who hit the edge of libertarianism and fell right off into the Void of Anarchy, and I hire homeless people to do yardwork for me. And I pay more than minimum wage, and they don’t get taxed on it.

    Do you think I’m less likely to do things like that if the government isn’t taxing me to death anymore?

    I’m not a heartless bastard. I don’t like to see people starving and suffering. But I don’t like being mugged, either, even if the mugger in question has an Official Clown Suit on.

  113. #113 |  Marcus | 

    Highway, thanks for your responses, I will go and read some of the items that have been linked here.

  114. #114 |  Cyto | 

    @Highway –

    If people are always going to be in government, then it will always have failings, so why should the failings of people be held against those who want to limit government, but waved away when holding a pro-government position?

    Because by limiting government you de-facto limit the damage that can be done by those people with failings. Less power –> less opportunity to screw things up.

  115. #115 |  parse | 

    I worked my ass off for mine. That’s why it’s mine.

    This suggests you think it’s OK to confiscate wealth from those who inherited it or otherwise acquired it without working (hard) for it. Is that really your position?

  116. #116 |  Random Nuclear Strikes » Sums it up in two words | 

    […] guest bloggers, Peter Moskos, asked for the libertarians who haunt the comments at the Agitator to explain certain positions to him. The community did a pretty good job responding, but one of the other guest bloggers really, IMHO, […]

  117. #117 |  Highway | 

    Cyto, I completely agree. I was addressing Marcus’ assertion that he can argue about the ideal of government in support of government (ignoring the flaws humans introduce), while arguing just the reality of libertarianism including the flaws.

  118. #118 |  tman | 

    wow, this post sure hit a nerve.

  119. #119 |  joel | 

    “At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it?”

    The rich and compassionate fallacy…

    Part 1: the rich. We are not rich. Most of the public “assets” we have are actually liabilities. If we had perfect income redistribution for all wealth created by Americans – that would be 45K each person, each year. If we divided up all the existing wealth, that would be a one time pay out of around 170K. Part of the reason government is too big is simply because people think there is this super rich country with tons of wealth around to do whatever we want.

    Part 2: the compassionate. The compassionate thing is not to take from those who have more and give it to those that have less. The thing to do is allow the amount of wealth available in the country to go up. I benefit directly because someone else has a lot of money. That guy had enough money to invest in and build a business. Now we work together on making him richer and I benefit. If it would have just been the two of us with our 170K income redistribution starter cash – we would not have been able to start this business. And neither of us would work hard to build the business and hire more people – because making the company worth billions would only be worth a few extra bucks a year because of “compassionate” redistribution. Instead, the company gives thousands of dollars to charity, and we give valuable things to people that want them.

  120. #120 |  steve | 

    Peter- Read up on the difference between positive liberty and negative liberty. Also, many libertarians, not all, have a very different idea about what life was like in the 1800s. That informs a lot of their thinking.


  121. #121 |  Cyto | 

    #98 | parse | May 6th, 2011 at 10:25 am

    I worked my ass off for mine. That’s why it’s mine.

    This suggests you think it’s OK to confiscate wealth from those who inherited it or otherwise acquired it without working (hard) for it. Is that really your position?

    The implied subordinate clause of “that’s why it’s mine” is “and I can do with it as I please”. Included in “as I please” is give it to my heirs or to anyone else I choose. So no, you can’t confiscate my wealth from them either.

  122. #122 |  Chuck | 

    I keep reading that private charity is somehow more efficient than government assistance, as if caring for the needy is an either/or undertaking. What I don’t see are any numbers that show that somehow private charity alone could take care of the needs of the poor, or that it does a “better job” of this somehow. Also, logic leads me to the conclusion that government assistance came about specifically because private charity proved incapable of caring for the needy on its own. So government provides assistance to fill in when private charity fails. Ideology is apparent when one chooses either a private or public solution solely, when a combination of public assistance/private charity continues to be effective, if not perfect.

  123. #123 |  scp | 

    “Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.”, Thomas Paine

    No matter how hard you try, you are never going to be able to transform government into society. The more government you have, the less society.

  124. #124 |  moskos | 

    I was reading a book review about George Orwell and came across this quote: “The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.”


  125. #125 |  Eric | 

    Compassion is using your own money… Not mine.

  126. #126 |  John Hardin | 

    It’s not “compassion” if it’s extracted under duress, at gunpoint.

  127. #127 |  jimbob86 | 

    “You have to pay for some people, and that’s just the way it is.”

    1. No, actually, I don’t. I just won’t make enough money to pay taxes. At such time as the government stops confiscating huge portions of profits, I might get around to making some.

    2.You want to pay for them, go right on ahead, for all the good it will do: You are ignoring a basic tenet of economics, that if you reward a behavior or product, you will get more of it……. maybe that is why we have such a huge underclass……

    This “We have to do something to help these people in society who fail.” ……

    That’s a foolish idea, there: “Let’s subsidize failure, with other people’s money, and when we run out of that, we’ll borrow some more! You see this is unsustainable, don’t you? And you want my children to promise to pay this back? You said “We”….. what, you have a frog in your pocket? There is no “we” who must help these failures. Not me. You, fine. Knock yourself out, just leave me and mine out of it. “We” (me and mine) will not be tilting at windmills with what little we have.

  128. #128 |  DonM | 

    In a libertarian society, If you wish to help the undeserving poor, you will not be stopped.

  129. #129 |  Doc Merlin | 

    No, no, there is no we. There is only I. What will *I* do for the undeserving poor. Ask yourself that question and be enlightened.

    Using someone else to threaten/violently attack people into complying with your policy preferences is immoral. If you wish to change the world, you must be that change yourself.

  130. #130 |  Explaining things, Part 1 – Ideology | Nobody's Business | 

    […] at the Agitator, guest blogger Peter Moskos wants libertarians to explain a few things to him. The Agitatortots have been answering him in the comments, but I thought it would be a good […]

  131. #131 |  Billy Beck | 

    “What is the libertarian answer to society’s f*ck ups? What about people who–through their own ineptitude, stupidity, laziness, or drug abuse–simply fail? What do we do about the undeserving poor?”

    That’s none of my fucking business, and that means *I’m* none of *yours*. No matter what your problem is, you have no moral claim on what I produce. If you want to help these people, then you can *ask* for my help, but here’s the bottom-end: when you once threaten me with the force of government in order to assist the project, it’s on. We’re at *war*.

    Now, think it through. Is that what you want?

  132. #132 |  me | 

    “I don’t want to see people starve in the streets. I certainly don’t want desperate people to mug me. At some point, in a rich and civilized society, don’t we just have to be compassionate… even to people who don’t “deserve” it?”

    That is why we have the police, and that is why we have concealed weapons permits.

    If you are arguing in favor of paying the Danegeld, history demonstrates that this is never a viable strategy in the long run. Or even the short run.

    In 1960, there were 172 murders and 3988 armed robberies in the city of Detroit. In 1970, after the transfer of uncountably vast sums of the people’s wealth under the auspices of President Johnson’s soi-disant “Great Society” programs, there were 495 murders and 23038 armed robberies in the city of Detroit.

    This would appear to be empirical disproof of your claim, good sir, and support for my counterclaim that the “progressive” ideology is at odds with objective reality because it has its roots in a form of Stockholm Syndrome.

    I shall make further counterclaims: that the welfare state as it exists, as it was conceived by Lyndon Johnson and his party, was created purely and solely as a multi-trillion-dollar bribe to purchase the Negro vote for the Democratic Party. At this it has been tremendously successful; at reducing crime, not so much… but that was never the intent, was it?

    And lastly I shall make the counterclaim that the social contract exists as an agreement for services in return for fee, like any contract–that it exists, in other words, between the taxpayer and the state. Useless eaters are not and never have been party to the social contract. Welfare recipients should, like felons, be stricken from the voter rolls for life–“no representation without taxation.” As such, they will take whatever we choose to give them of our own free will, and they will goddamn well like it. They can always leave if they don’t like things here–if another country can be found that will accept people incapable of supporting themselves and incapable of existing except as burdens on society.

    Your turn, good sir.

  133. #133 |  Lupis42 | 

    Snarky answer: give them your money. When you say “we” and “society” what you mean is “anyone who isn’t willing to pay for this voluntarily should be robbed to help cover the costs”. If “we” as a “society” decide to do something, and anyone who wants to opt out is forcibly opted back in, then “we” are forcibly robbing all those people who didn’t want in, at least from a moral perspective.

    Real answer: Most people who Libertarians consider the “undeserving poor” will find non-criminal ways to take care of themselves as the disincentives for not doing so become sharper. Those who can’t hack it effectively become the “deserving poor”, and private charity is a lot more morally acceptable than institutionalized theft.
    But here, more than perhaps anywhere else, is the crux of the debate:
    You are advocating the forcible taking of resources from other people for the benefit of third parties.
    Libertarians are claiming that, no matter how successful you are, the end does not justify the means. They are not arguing that these people should not be taken care of, just that any means that involves forcing people to take care of them is morally unacceptable.

  134. #134 |  Explaining things, Part 2 – Force and Freedom | Nobody's Business | 

    […] at the Agitator, guest blogger Peter Moskos wants libertarians to explain a few things to him. The Agitatortots have been answering him in the comments, but I thought it would be a good […]

  135. #135 |  Explaining things, Part 3 – Compassion | Nobody's Business | 

    […] couple of weeks ago over at the Agitator, guest blogger Peter Moskos asked libertarians to explain a few things to him. The Agitatortots answered him in the comments, but I thought answering him here would make […]