Libertarianism, Egalitarianism, and the Needy

Natural rights libertarianism and egalitarianism are often seen as representing the polar opposites of political theory. However, while this idea captures an important truth regarding these two ideals, it also may, as discussed below, obscure a critical feature of libertarian thinking. Specifically, I am referring to the fact that libertarians are absolutely indifferent to the distribution of holdings between individuals, provided that such holdings emerge from a morally unobjectionable process.

 Libertarianism and egalitarianism are diametrically opposed in their respective positions regarding state coercion of innocent persons, i.e. those individuals who are not engaging in violence or fraud against others. Adherents of the former philosophy hold that there is, at the minimum, a heavy moral presumption against the actual or threatened use of force by the state, while egalitarians are much more willing to sanction such compulsion for what they regard as worthy objectives, such as the alleviation of poverty, the funding of public education, government “investments” in public goods, etc.

 Yet, if the state confined itself to what minimal state libertarians, such as Nozick and Rand, consider its few legitimate functions, such as national defense and law enforcement, it is possible that the outcome would be a more and not less equal distribution of goods that egalitarians typically care about, such as material resources, welfare,  and opportunity. Indeed, there are many libertarians who are drawn to the doctrine precisely because they believe it would improve the welfare of the worst-off groups. And, it is certainly plausible to conclude that governmental policies over the last several decades have both served to unjustly enrich certain people, while at the same time unfairly impoverishing others.

Just a sampling of the ways in which the former occurs, would include the government’s role in inflating the great housing boom over the last decade, followed by its response to the crisis. Here, we witnessed the phenomenon of great private gain and socialized loss. Commercial and investment banks, savings and loan associations, hedge funds and their collective managers and investors often made great profits, while taxpayers and homeowners ultimately footed the bill for the clean-up.  But this outcome was only possible because by government involvement in this industry, which took the form of tax provisions that favors homeowners over renters, the creation of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and government insurance of consumer bank deposits.

To this we must add egregious agricultural subsidies/mandates like the wasteful, costly and counterproductive ethanol and sugar programs, and crop support programs generally. The federal tax code is riddled with arbitrary provisions that favor certain ways of doing business over others (corporations vs. corporate-like partnership structures), and some corporations (depending on the nature of their business) over others, reflecting our politicians foolish efforts to micro-manage the economy and advance various social objectives. Add in government grants and loan guarantees for Solyndra-style programs, and you begin to get the picture.

But the government is not so helpful if you are struggling to raise yourself out of poverty. As President Clinton said when signing the Welfare Reform Act in 1996:  “A long time ago, I concluded that that the current welfare system undermines the basic value of work, responsibility, and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency and hurting the very people it was designed to help.” This legislation only partially addressed the ill effects of our various welfare programs.

OK, but  why are people poor to begin with? Surely, part of the answer is an inadequate basic education, courtesy of our benevolent politicians. Unless they are extremely fortunate and have access to a good charter school, educational “choice” for needy and working class parents is limited to whatever public school happens to lie closest to them.  If that school is substandard, unsafe, or features an educational style that in not conducive to their child’s natural way of learning…well that’s just too bad.

 Before he tuned to politics, our current President demonstrated that he fully understood the  tragedy of this situation. In his 1995 book, Dreams From My Father, he recalls his days as a community organizer in inner-city Chicago:

The biggest source of resistance [to educational reform] was rarely talked about though–namely, the uncomfortable fact that every one of our churches was filled with teachers, principals, and district superintendents. Few of these educators sent their own children to public schools; they knew too much for that. But they would defend the status quo with the same skill and vigor as their white counterparts of two decades before.

 Right, but the government doesn’t mind forcing children from disadvantaged households to attend these same schools.  According to the Third Way, moderate Democrat think-tank, taxpayers spend an average of $11,800 per pupil nationwide to educate kids in low income school districts, see http://thirdway.org/subjects/143/publications/435. More, by the way, than we spend in middle class districts.

 Why not give the parents a voucher equal to this amount, and let them choose the best school for their kids? Well, as President Obama observed then, and benefits from now, the teachers’ unions are a core constituency of a certain major political party that shall go nameless.

Unemployment amongst African-Americans in the 18-19 age cohort as of December, 2011 was an appalling 35.4%, see http://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpseea13.pdfBut, heaven forfend that any of these teenagers accept employment–thereby taking their first step up the economic ladder–at less than the federal (or sometimes higher state) minimum wage. Because this would be a crime against…well, who?  Here the state has decided, in Nozick’s memorable phrase, to “forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults.”

 Of course, if you are amongst those looking for their first job you will need a way to get there and back. And, unless you can walk or bike to your workplace, or it just happens to be on a convenient mass transit artery, that transportation will take the form of a car. And not a brand new BMW or Porsche, but just something that runs, a “beater.” 

 But wait, the government destroyed some 700,000 perfectly serviceable older, gas-guzzling vehicles in its brilliant 2009 “cash for clunkers” program. Good for automakers, their shareholders and dealers; yes, and for the environment, maybe; but good for the less fortunate, not so much. As Dave Bing, Detroit’s mayor, recently noted, “people are losing jobs because they can’t reach them.” Once again, government policy undercuts the efforts of the poor to better themselves.

 Perhaps frustrated by the difficulty of finding a job, less privileged members of our society might prefer to go into business for themselves. Well, the government hardly rolls out the red carpet here either. In fact, the state places stumbling blocks before the disadvantaged in the form of licensure laws. And I’m not talking about just doctors, lawyers and architects.

 Our various state governments have imposed licensing requirements on an astonishing variety of “professions,” including barbers, cat groomers, tattoo artists, taxi drivers, tree trimmers, locksmiths, caterers, massage therapists, interior designers, florists, and so on. According to one estimate, 23% of U.S. workers are subject to state licensing requirements, up from 5% in 1950; see http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703445904576118030935929752.html. To get licensed the would-be “professional” must often take classes, pass exams, and pay fees to the state. The effect of all of this nonsense is not to protect the consumer against (say) incompetent interior designers, but to erect barriers to entry that boost the incomes of those already licensed by keeping others out of this trade.

 So, to sum up: libertarians care deeply about establishing and maintaining a fair and impartial process by which goods come to be owned. The state should act as a neutral referee of this “game,” policing against the use of force or fraud by any party, without attempting to influence the outcome in favor of any constituency. Whatever distribution of goods emerges from this process is just, whether it resembles one more or less egalitarian than we have now. Libertarians don’t oppose equal outcomes, just the use of coercion to achieve them.

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4 Responses to Libertarianism, Egalitarianism, and the Needy

  1. Agis says:

    The last paragraph nicely sums up the libertarian position and highlights the limitation of libertarian thinking: by taking a “non-interventionist” stance with respect to various constituencies, libertarians implicitly favor wealthy interests and corporate oligarchs, because they wield political power owing to their wealth and influence. As a Whig, I believe that the role of government is to prevent any constituency from gaining too much influence: it aims to prevent the poor from acting on their “leveling impulses” and to prevent the wealthy few from acting on their oligarchic impulses. It is only by addressing both that it will be possible to promote a more egalitarian society.

    • Mark Friedman says:

      Whig,
      Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I also don’t wish either the well-off or the masses to be able to use the apparatus of the state to advance their particular interests by arbitrarily redistributing resources from one group to another. However, I don’t see why you regard your solution as susperior. The minimal state libertarian view is simply to limit the state to its core functions, i.e. foreign defense, domestic law enforcement, and a minimal safety net for the “deserving” poor. The state would have no other powers, so it COULD NOT be bought off by the wealthy to do their bidding.

      • Agis says:

        Interesting – but when we talk about defense spending, isn’t that one of the largest sources of corruption? Defense contractors overcharge etc etc. So really one could suspect that even the most minimal of governments could be susceptible to corruption. A Whig would argue that, rather than shrink government to prevent corruption, government needs to be redefined so that it is strictly accountable and transparent, and there are real penalties for self-dealing.

        • Mark Friedman says:

          Whig,
          Thanks for this. Since I believe that “politics” is nothing more than the process by which economic favors are traded for votes and campaign contributions, I agree that the national defense function will be corrupted. However, since I regard this activity as one of the few that the state should undertake, I see no remedy other than the “usual suspects,” i.e. transparency, competition, accountability, etc. Some corruption is the inevitable price of national defense

          I see two problems when the state seeks to expand upon its core respsonsibilities, and seeks to manage the economy, provide universal healthcare, retirement benefits, and so on. My primary objection is that this is unjust because the state is using coercion to fund these goods and forcing people to participate. I think that the state’s core functions stand on a different moral footing than these other programs: //naturalrightslibertarian.com/2011/02/can-the-minimal-state-be-justified/.

          But also, just as there is inevitably corruption in national defense, there will also be in these “ancillary” activities. Politicians are venal, and interest groups are powerful, so I continue to think that the best solution is to simply take the power to make decisions in these areas away from the authorities. There is no reason to bribe a politician who has no power to help you get your “goodies.”

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