Libertarians and Compassion

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Are the two compatible?

I ask this question not because I think that libertarians are lacking a basic human emotion (I don’t believe you are), but because politically, I think it needs explanation if libertarian thought is going to be able to reach a larger audience.

Let me explain….when reading a recent interview that Brian Dougherty from Reason did with Ron Paul, Paul said:

The biggest challenge for conservatives and libertarians is to convince people who think being libertarian means you have no compassion, and in politics you better have compassion.

He’s right, in politics you better have compassion. That’s especially true when unemployment is high(at 9% or above 15% if you look at the U6 that includes the underemployed and discouraged). There’s no possible way you can argue that every person in this country who doesn’t have a job right now is in that position because they’re lazy and want to mooch off of the government, or aren’t serious about finding work. It’s a tough time, and companies (the largest of which by the way are raking in record profits) are not hiring.

So how do you convince voters that you have their best interest in mind, and have compassion, and understand their needs if you don’t believe in welfare, unemployment benefits, social security, medicare, medicaid, etc? Unemployment in particular.

I’m genuinely interested in what you agitators have to say…how do you convince Americans that libertarians have compassion, while believing that the government shouldn’t give them any? If not to the government, where else do they turn?

Mike Riggs and I mentioned this in an interview on my program the other night, when Ron Paul officially declared his 2012 candidacy, if you care to check it out.


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77 Responses to “Libertarians and Compassion”

  1. #1 |  Highway | 

    Maybe in the ‘Libertarian credo’ you’ve invented in your mind.

    Libertarians lose because they don’t hand out free ice cream to keep the proles distracted while they’re stomped on.

  2. #2 |  Danny | 

    “Libertarianism: now with legal sit-down strikes!”

    I won’t be holding my breath.

  3. #3 |  varmintito | 


    There a great many problems where the smaller government’s role is, the better. When there is trash on the sidewalk, I pick it up. I don’t call the streets department. This is a trivial example, but most non-systemic problems can benefit from committed individuals.

    Even systemic problems can me vastly improved through collective action outside the government, or evolving social attitudes. Most of the civil rights advances up to 1964 were the product of group action and changing sensibilities.

    In many cases, however, evolving social attitudes are the product of government action. My favorite example is cleaning up dog waste. When I visited relatives in Brookly in the 1970s, the sidewalks were a minefield. Then NY passed its pooper scooper law. There may have been the occasional ticket, but for the most part, people simply changed their habits, and then changed their attitudes. There is no dog doo SWAT team, just hundreds of thousands of dog owners who have internalized that not picking it up is disgusting and antisocial. It didn’t require a commited true believer to evangelize the community (a dynamic with a decidedly mixed track record), just a bunch of political hacks on city council.

    You ask “What are these ‘challenges’ that government is solving? If they’re solvable by government, then why aren’t they ‘solved’ yet?”

    1. Your demand that broad social problems be eradicated or all attempts to combat them be considered a failure is a straw man argument. Although there may be exceptions of which I am unaware, social problems cannot be eradicated, only ameliorated. The police can solve individual crimes, but they cannot “solve” crime as a social phenomenon.

    2. Using the more realistic metric of ameliorating social problems rather than eliminating them, here are a few examples of government policy that have made a huge dent in broad social problems. In addition to winning the war on dog doo:

    According to US Census data, over the past 50 years the rate of poverty among the elderly has fallen from about 35% to 10%, largely as a result of increases in social security payments beginning in the mid-60s.

    In 1870, public school enrollment for 5-19 year olds was less than 50%, and about 10% for black children. 20% of the country was completely illiterate — unable to read or write at all in any language. The rate for black americans was 80%. A century later, attendance was around 90%, less than 1% of all Americans and less than 2% of black Americans were illiterate (functional illiteracy rates are higher, but have shown the same consistent improvement).

    I could go on, but the point is made — government action can have huge positive results.

    The knee-jerk libertarian is too quick to equate all exercises of government power. I suspect liberals and libertarians are often indistinguishable when the issue is the government’s right to invade the integrity of your body or your home, or punish you for the way you state your beliefs and the substantive content of those beliefs. I suspect that both groups are big fans of due process.

    The fork in the road is taxes. Plenty of libertarians are confortable equating most taxation with tyranny. To most liberals, that sounds crazy.

    The weird thing that just occurred to me is that the supposedly touchy feely liberal tends to view taxes in a pretty utilitarian way, while the coldly efficient libertarian ses them in an emotionally loaded way.

  4. #4 |  Joshua LYle | 

    In an economy with an official unemployment rate of 9.5%+ and an unofficial one that’s probably twice that, ordinary people don’t want to hear about the virtues of unskilled immigrants. Simply, shut the fuck up about them.

    In other words, the problem is not that libertarians lack compassion, but that libertarians have compassion for people that “ordinary people” don’t really think of as people.

  5. #5 |  Windy | 

    #6 “We have people in this country collecting unemployment benefits making as much or MORE MONEY than many who work full-time. That is morally wrong. Wouldn’t you feel like a total sucker working your tail off and taking home less money than someone who doesn’t work at all? Does the person who sits at home collecting a check equal to or greater than many who work feel any compassion?”
    The money for unemployment benefits are paid by the employer to the State, the benefits received by a laid off employee are based on a percentage of what one has earned over 4 quarters (of a year, but that year begins 18 months prior to receiving benefits). If one does not use all the benefits one has “banked” in the UE system by his/her employer in their benefit year, the unused money goes to the State. The State does all in its power to deny benefits so as to get that money in the State coffers instead of in the hands of the unemployed. But seasonal employees (construction trades, etc.) rely on those benefits to get them thru the off season. It’s not at all like welfare, as you seem to be suggesting. I think most seasonal employees (maybe all employees, seasonal or not) would prefer that such benefits were handled solely by their employer (like a 401k plan) instead of going thru State bureaucracy; I know that, as a libertarian, I do, this should be an agreement between the employer and employee, the government should not be involved.

  6. #6 |  steve | 

    I am afraid you don’t.

    I am afraid the only way to acheive liberty is for the big government approach to undergo a catostrophic failure first. In other words, starve the beast is correct but it will get very ugly first.

  7. #7 |  b-psycho | 


    Yeah, in the sense that factory owners offered a market wage, the workers went on sitdown strike, and the government shot up the workers because they were violating “property rights.” And every bullet was in keeping with “Libertarian” credo.

    …government mass murder of organized labor for a negotiation tactic the company doesn’t like = “libertarian” how?

    Really. Explain please. Because I was under the impression that workers had rights too in a free society.

  8. #8 |  varmintito | 

    Last point then I’m outta here on this thread:

    54 posts in, I’ve heard lots of arguments for why libertarianism is fair, logical, rational, effective. I have yet to hear a single compelling example of how libertarianism is compassionate.

    The closest I’ve heard is the repeated refrain that taxation is “robbing me at gunpoint,” so I guess libertarianism is, by analogy, Dudley Doright saving Sweet Sally Purebred from Snively Whiplash. As the English say, pull the other one.

  9. #9 |  Brent Royal-Gordon | 

    There’s something special about charity—people treat it differently. Most people who accept charity feel a little bad about it. They understand that what they’re getting is coming from the kindness of someone’s heart. They understand that there’s a limited supply and what they’re taking could go to someone else. They accept it because they need it, not because they want it. And because the recipients are so reluctant, the donors know that what they’re giving is going to someone who needs it, and they can feel good about their donations.

    But when charity becomes welfare, this dynamic breaks down. The givers are forced to give. They don’t feel good about it; they feel imposed upon, forced, trapped. And the recipients don’t feel grateful or reluctant. They feel entitled. The money they receive is not something someone else gave up to help them; it is their birthright. It belongs to them. There is no reason to avoid needing it.

    And they understand that it was given to them, not by ordinary people seeking to help them, but by politicians seeking their votes. And they respond accordingly.

    So true charity—true compassion—seems to me to be a healthier dynamic than welfare. Both help the needy, but charity has positive effects: it makes givers feel good and encourages takers to reduce their take.

    This is, of course, not 100% true. Some people take more charity than they need, and some people avoid welfare even when they need it. Some people even feel good about helping others when they pay their taxes. But I think what I’m saying is true enough to explain why we should be skeptical of welfare and encourage private charity instead.

  10. #10 |  b-psycho | 

    “Libertarianism: now with legal sit-down strikes!”

    I won’t be holding my breath.

    Some would very much approve of sit-down strikes. Some are even on the side of the IWW when it comes to legit labor tactics. You don’t hear from those kind because they’ve been whitewashed out of the picture & replaced with “libertarians” who just blindly cheer the big corporate players despite them being the real welfare queens.

  11. #11 |  Acksiom | 

    “Rationally, most voters aren’t going to bother to dig into the details and most of those who do aren’t going to understand the economics well enough to dispute the claims of the politicians anyway, so the political libertarian is left with the two unappealing choices of either 1) becoming just as despicable as the statist politician or 2) losing.

    Politics is rigged against libertarianism and so libertarians should avoid it. Instead, we need to focus on building alternative institutions and showing people that they work, without bothering with political rhetoric.”

    THIS. Miko nails it.

    Alonya, you’re starting from a false position because of a crucial error in Paul’s statement. Convincing people that libertarianism is compatible with compassion is “the biggest challenge” only for conservative and libertarian *politicians*. The rest of us don’t need to bother.

    You convince people in general that libertarians have compassion by actually doing compassionate things for them while identifying yourself as a libertarian.

    If you must address restraints on the State, simply point out to people how you could do even more for them if the State would stop getting in both your ways. If that’s not enough for someone, explain that you’d rather be doing much more practically compassionate things for others, so they need to pitch in and help

    Paul’s statement is incorrect. Convincing people that libertarianism is compatible with compassion is “the biggest challenge” only for conservative and libertarian. . .politicians.

  12. #12 |  Highway | 

    varmintito, I addressed that in my first response to you. You have defined ‘compassionate’ in such a way that libertarianism cannot meet it. You have also defined it in a way that libertarians would not. If the definition of ‘compassion’ is school free lunches and government programs for autistic children, then pretty clearly the idea of removing the public schools and replacing them with private schools of choice, where they might or might not provide lunch as part of the cost of the school, and they might have classes for autistic children or might not, will be incompatible with your definition of compassion. You can never be convinced.

    Yet libertarians might choose to donate their time or money to homeless shelters, to food banks, to centers for development of treatments for autism. Or they might advocate for the freedom of use of marijuana and its derivatives that have helped at least one autistic child achieve a quality of life that he likely wouldn’t have otherwise ( ). The difference is that the libertarian will choose his or her compassion as they see fit, in scope and direction. They will not be directed or forced to give to a general fund which is then fought over by competing narrow interests.

  13. #13 |  Mattocracy | 

    varmintito wrote…

    “Before the New Deal, we had a few millenia to test the idea that private acts of compassion would be enough to protect our most vulnerable and least powerful. What we got was children crippled by hard labor before they could shave, men who had worked hard all their life cast aside like garbage once their bodies gave out, and so on and so on.”

    That still happens pal, it happens in poor countries. What changed America wasn’t the New Deal, it was prosparity. That’s how you get rid of child labor and get better working consitions.

    To say that government is the reason this ended in America is incorrect. That undermines your whole premise that government is the only/best means to care for people and without, it never would have happened.

  14. #14 |  2nd of 3 | 

    @55 Don’t be disingenuous – workers may have rights under libertarianism, but property owners always have the power to protect their property. You can carve out exceptions for strikers if you like, but shooting tresspassers is in no way antithetical to the core philosophy. Asking the government to do it for them insteadof hiring private sector guards to do so may be a bit unseemly, but protection of private property is generally seen as a legitimate function of government by most libertarians I know.

    I’n the end, libertarianism goes full circle. I trade one master for another, but it’s okay because it isn’t the gub’mint that is doing the whipping.

  15. #15 |  Greg C. | 

    Hey. I actually am unemployed. Though I guess I am technically “self employed,” but I often have a negative income. I am self employed and my income is below the poverty level. I can’t really make ends meet without debt and being very creative.

    I also happen to consider myself a very “hardcore” libertarian philosophically. Honestly, I spent a lot of my formative years doing a lot of thinking and reading and not much living, at least not living “among the people.” The more I got to know people, especially of diverse backgrounds, the more I got to see a human side to this stuff and see people who are mostly good and well-intentioned, who are NOT lazy, but ARE affected by a variety of circumstances ( government policies, biased employers,etc).

    So, yeah, I agree with that part ( about unemployed people not always being lazy) of the main post and tend to disagree with what I now see as the simplistic view of #6. Phil D. ( though I would have written the same thing a few years ago).

    You know that 1 million people applied for 62,000 jobs at McDonald’s last month. So that means 93.8% of applicants were declined.. for MCDONALDS.

    I also look at it this way: I am a white male. I am young, physically strong. My IQ is in the upper 2%. I have no criminal record. Educationally- I have underachieved, but my level of degree attainment is higher than most. I can’t get hired anywhere. I imagine it’s probably a lot more difficult for those who don’t have educational opportunities, aren’t too bright, don’t have the “right” family background, and/or have a criminal conviction of some sort.

  16. #16 |  BamBam | 

    Well, I think it’s very tough, because it’s not the definition of ‘compassion’ to the libertarian that matters. It’s the definition of ‘compassion’ to the person who wants something. So if you don’t want to give them something they want, they will dismiss you as uncompassionate.

    NAIL. HEAD. DEAD CENTER HIT. Who gets to define compassion is the key question. The same can be said for anything, who gets to define _______ which then allows actions to flow from the definition (by government force).

  17. #17 |  Danny | 

    Beware rhetorical traps laid by the apologists for the master class.

    There is no such thing as a “negative right” except against the government itself.

    All laws against theft, or murder or arson are “positive rights,” no less than schooling or medicaid or food stamps. There is no grand metaphysical distinction between mutual aid and mutual protection. There is no fundamental difference between a police officer or a firefighter on one hand and a social worker or schoolteacher on the other. All provide a service which could be rendered by public or private charter, according to political choices made in the halls of representative government.

    There is no right to food or shelter only in the same sense that there is no right to have 911 available to dial, or to have an army protect your land from invasion.

    There is no such thing as a “night watchman” form of government, because, without the vast, reticulated, and mostly arbitrary superstructure of law and privilege erected by government, there is nothing for the watchman to watch over.

  18. #18 |  varmintito | 

    I can’t resist. danny @ 63:

    The criminal laws against theft, murder and arson DO NOT create a right, whether characterized as positive or negative, not to be robbed, killed or have one’s house burnt. They define prohibited acts and state potential punishments for those who commit them.

    If somebody mugs me, I cannot sue the police for damages because they failed to protect me. I cannot sue the police in mandamus requiring them to investigate, charge or prosecute whoever did it.

    The only things preventing criminal acts against me are the basic lawfulness and decency of most people, my right to self-defense, and the disincentives provided by the criminal and civil laws.

    Government benefits, once enacted, become a positive right for those who qualify. They can be withheld only if they meet the constitutional requirements of equal protection and due process (not an exhaustive list, but those are the two biggies).

    Negative rights, as you correctly state, prohibit specific kinds of government action.

    The positive/negative distinction oftenbreaks down in practice — for example, the free exercise clause permits you to worship as you please by barring the government from preventing you from doing so. What the clause does not do is prevent private individuals from preventing you from worshipping as you please. Private individuals are restricted from such interference by criminal and civil tort laws, and since 1965 by the Civil Rights Act.

  19. #19 |  supercat | 

    Allowing people on the dole to live well enough that they’re willing to stay on the dole is not compassionate. It would be evil, and would be evil even if it miraculously didn’t require taking money from the pockets of people who earn it.

    Real charities are run by people who know that every dollar given to someone who didn’t deserve it is a dollar that can’t be given to someone who does. Government entitlement agencies by contrast realize that every dollar that’s given out to someone who doesn’t deserve it is another dollar that can be demanded in next year’s budget.

    Some people, if given an extra $100 today, would a year from now be more than $100 richer than if they hadn’t gotten the money. Other people, if given an extra $100 today, would a year from now be in even worse financial shape a than if they didn’t get it (e.g. because they’d use it to make a down payment on a television set they really can’t afford). It is by no stretch of the imagination compassionate to suggest that money should be taken from people of the first type and given to those of the second, but that is the behavior of government entitlement programs.

  20. #20 |  Phil D | 

    #Greg C.
    “You know that 1 million people applied for 62,000 jobs at McDonald’s last month. So that means 93.8% of applicants were declined.. for MCDONALDS.”

    That example strikes me as highly, highly atypical because that was part of a well-publicized, coordinated effort by McDonald’s to get lots of applicants. Most people probably get hired by their local McDonald’s franchisee by simply going to the restaurant, filling out an application and getting a phone call later. My own experience and those of my friends from high school when we were in the market for low-wage, part-time jobs is that they were readily available. You basically had you choice between the fast food chain, the dry cleaners, the supermarket, etc. (That’s not scientific, but anecdotal evidence obviously. I’m not sure where you would find scientific evidence on the subject honestly). Bottom line is that I find it very hard to believe that someone who wants a low-wage job cannot find one, even today.

  21. #21 |  yonemoto | 

    I know I’m late to this, but it’s a huge topic that I care deeply about, and one of the things that got me was this:

    Economically, I think what we are seeing is that people are forced to be incredibly self-centered to maintain financial stability in a system of secular inflation – and that’s impairing our capacity to be compassionate. As a Hayekian, I also think that distribution of the resources and insight to be charitable is over the long term going to be more effective than centralized charity (be it by BINGO or government). So, libertarianism is highly compatible with compassion.

    The thing is, it also requires emphasizing the personal, moral argument for compassion. That’s hard to do and requires a lot of self-discipline. When I was in DC, I volunteered weekly with these folks:

    And could never once get any of my friends (liberal, conservative, or libertarian) to come help me. Even the other volunteers were mostly non-committals who were only showing up every once in a while, or on special days. MLK day was a particular disaster as we never had enough things for people to do and a flood of volunteers, who never really wanted to do the toughest of tasks anyways. I used to joke that the day exemplified the Austrian principle of bubble economics and malinvestment.

    Also, I was never forced to volunteer as a kid. I did so two years in high school, but only because I was asked if I was interested with no incentive to otherwise. When I found out that the NHS had a volunteership requirement, I quit. (but kept volunteering)

  22. #22 |  John Q. Galt | 

    Wat. I have compassion for the victims of the bloodsucker political class.

  23. #23 |  JOR | 

    I don’t see why libertarianism should be incompatible with a compassionate society. Look at it this way: The state is not made of magic, it is made of the same substance as “private” enterprise, charity, everything else – it is made of people. It is people who choose to spend time and money on doing stuff for poor people, or whatever. If it’s the case (accepting for the sake of argument the statists’ claims that the state more or less conforms to the will of the majority of voters, at least issue by issue) that people in a given society are willing to fund a welfare state, then they’ll be willing to fund charities for them without a welfare state. This is leaving aside the various ways that states keep poor people from scratching by (as Kevin Carson noted), sometimes “for their own good” and sometimes motivated simply by the urge to socially engineer.

    This is all quite aside from the question of whether libertarians can be personally “compassionate” of course; I reckon they can be as much as anyone else, even if they show it or express it differently. Why else would libertarians (tend to) care so much about, say, people railroaded by the state’s criminal justice system? There are other motives at play, of course, but often enough I’d guess at genuine compassion and feelings of outrage at perceived injustice.

    As an anarchist, I think that the state gets by mostly by playing on peoples’ cruelty and callousness on one hand, and paranoia on the other. Even where it does play on people’s empathy and compassion, it must necessarily get them to (at least) callously disregard whoever is getting hosed or abused by the program(s) in question.

  24. #24 |  John David Galt | 

    Leftists (I won’t call them “liberal” or “progressive” since they are enemies of liberty and progress) have always known how to cry crocodile tears about how heartless the rich are … unless the rich person is themselves.

    Like the phony emergencies they make up whenever it’s a slow news day, or the so-called racism some of them blame for all their problems, the notion that leftists are “compassionate” is hogwash, and anyone with a brain knows it. If we ever get a media outlet that isn’t left-biased, I suggest they point their cameras at things we never see now, like Oprah’s mansion or Ralph Nader’s huge bankroll.

  25. #25 |  Sean L. | 

    2nd of 3 #64:

    “…shooting tresspassers is in no way antithetical to the core philosophy.”

    It’s clear you don’t know what the core philosophy is: Do not initiate force upon others. That means avoiding the use of bullets unless my health or life was in danger.

    The strikers, sitting on my property have initiated force against me by not leaving when I have asked them to. I would be well within my right to enlist the assistance of police to enforce my property rights. (Of course, willing to pay a per-use fee.) If *government* agents decide to use bullets to finish their job more quickly, that certainly would not be on me, especially since the police have a monopoly on law enforcement. How nice would it be if I could choose a competitor that would guarantee not to use guns?

  26. #26 |  Alan W. Bock, RIP - Hit & Run : Reason Magazine | 

    […] knew him much better than I did. The other day, guest-blogging at The Agitator, Alyona Minkovski asked, "How do you convince Americans that libertarians have compassion?" Part of the answer, I think, […]

  27. #27 |  barry Klein | 

    At the city level, a committee of Libertarians can do coalition building to replace a harsh or cruel policy, such as cruel practices in the city jail.
    the resultant publicity should redound to the credit of Libertarians, demonstrating their compassion.