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A kinder, gentler libertarianism

Posted by Chance on July 7, 2006

Now, I am not a full-blown libertarian, but I often take a libertarian approach when it comes to government programs and the economy. As mentioned in a previous post I echoed agreement with Arnold Kling from Cato that “If I had to give up a little bit of freedom in order to see a meaningful reduction in poverty, I would do so. My problem with government is that I see it doing harm on both counts”, so I would say I do not believe in the abolition of welfare.

But the point of this post is not to discuss politics themselves, but the arguments that libertarians often use when arguing their point of view when it comes to welfare and the free market, especially when their target of persuasion is political liberals. I support most of these ideas that libertarians argue when it comes to the market and welfare, although maybe not to the same extent.

Libertarians often use the argument that it is wrong for the government to use force to redistribute money from some people to the other. Some even argue that all taxation is theft. They typically focus on the morality of one person being “robbed” so that the money goes towards someone else. Libertarians often use Randian terms such as “the barrel of a gun” to describe how government redistributes money.

Whether this viewpoint is right or wrong is not the point. I simply don’t believe this is an effective argument against the welfare state. Liberals, for instance, are well aware that government uses force, but sees helping the poor as a justification for doing so. Also, when making any argument, I don’t think the most effective means is talking about my rights, or that I shouldn’t have to do this or that. Some may even see this argument as selfish argument, which some libertarians may even agree, unapologetically. Liberals (or even conservatives or centrists for that matter), simply believe that the good caused by a government involved in economic affairs is better than the libertarian ideal of self-ownership.

These are what I think are better arguments in favor of a more libertarian ideal when it comes to welfare and economics. I won’t go too in depth of each argument, my purpose here is not to persuade, simply point out what I think are effective arguments.

1. An extensive welfare state hurts the poor more than it helps them.
Some libertarians argue that welfare produces a state of perpetual dependence on the government. Government welfare can produce perverse incentives, in which people are better off not working. Many claim that this dependence passes on through several generations. Good Source: Dr. Mary Ruwart

2. Private charity does the job better than government welfare.
The Acton Institute is a good source for these types of arguments. Acton and other similar institutions argue that voluntary help is much more powerful than welfare. Organizations such as Red Cross and the Salvation Army can help someone face to face and help with needs beyond money, rather than simply writing a check. The church is an institution that can minister to people’s spiritual needs while helping their physical ones. Voluntary charity is better for the recipient and the giver. On the recipients side, they are less likely to see the help as an entitlement. On the givers side, they give out of willingness and compassion, rather than something they have to do.

Now, here is the thing. I think most would agree that private charity is better than welfare, but they see a need for much of both. I think there are valid arguments that the more welfare there is, the more harm to private charity. For one, welfare is less efficient when it comes to actual dollars sent to those who need it. So, when one has to spend more money on welfare, it leaves less money to charity, which would be more productive.

3. America as the land of opportunity.
I think many Americans admire their country because it is a land of opportunity. There exists the idea here that one can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make a good living for themselves. An extensive welfare state can harm this, in which one exchanges economic freedom for supposed economic security.

Again, I am not against all welfare as many libertarians are, just a large welfare state. However, I think the same arguments can work for either.


3 Responses to “A kinder, gentler libertarianism”

  1. The Prophet said

    John Piper has a great quote concerning the welfare mentality:

    “There is a mind-set in the prosperous West that we deserve pain-free, trouble-free existence. When life deals us the opposite, we have a right not only to blame somebody or some system and to feel sorry for ourselves, but also to devote most of our time to coping, so that we have no time or energy left for serving others.”

  2. Dan Trabue said

    I come from a more practical place that wants the smallest gov’t possible but also wants to be fiscally responsible.

    If we totally did away with “welfare,” then all that money (~$20 billion/year) would be freed up to go back to its original owners, right?

    Well…probably not. Poverty has costs associated with it. Folk who are homeless can’t easily assure that their children are getting educated. A less educated workforce costs society. Folk who are homeless might take to stealing to survive, costing society. If they get caught stealing, they’ll go to jail, costing society.

    So, as a fiscally responsible person (and setting aside the issue of compassion for the moment), I’m fine with sharing some tax dollars to go towards education, for instance, or homeless prevention if it ultimately reduces the cost to society.

    That is, for example, if it costs $x billion to educate children, but the results of NOT educating our children is $2x billion, then it’s obvious to me that we ought to educate our children. If not out of compassion, then out of pure self-interest and fiscal responsibility.

  3. Chance said

    Hey Dan, Thanks for stopping by!
    You bring up a good point. Like the government investing in people to avoid future costs. I suppose it depends on how much good one believes the government can do. IMO, I think most gov’t programs do more harm than good. I think less gov’t action would help the homeless, such as the ability to work for less than minimum wage, or be allowed to get a bank account w/o a permanent address. But so much of it is “what would happen if…”. You present a very effective argument.

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