I’ve been wanting to write a post on libertarianism for a while and since I have a ton of things I’m supposed to be doing right now, I thought now would be an excellent time. When I was philosophically naive I found libertarianism quite compelling. I think this is common for most youth–especially young white men. (Libertarians in the US are 80% white and 67% male PEW US political demographics ) It’s very easy to attribute our individual successes solely to personal effort and to be blind to the effects of social privilege as well as overlook the social hurdles others must face.
My position on libertarianism, however, is evolving. For the last decade the pendulum swung to the extreme opposite side. I considered libertarianism juvenile and naive, not to mention morally bankrupt. Recently however, I’ve started to moderate my position, from visceral dislike to a recognition that there is at least some merit to some aspects of libertarianism. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still see libertarianism–particularly it’s contemporary popular form–as a scourge that is merely a justification for greed and selfishness. Nevertheless, I think there is something to learn from its emphasis on individual responsibility and ownership (which I discuss at the end of the post).
Lets get the definitions out of the way so I can get to what I actually want to talk about: the relationship between libertarianism and moral obligation to others. I guess before I do that, I should say that there are several different flavours and aspects of libertarianism and so I’ll give a couple of definitions soz you get the gist of it:
Libertarianism: (1) is the idea that individuals fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things. SEP
(2) is a set of related political philosophies that uphold liberty as the highest political end. This includes emphasis on the primacy of individual liberty, political freedom, and voluntary association. Wikipedia
(3) is the view that people should be permitted to run their own lives as they wish. The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman
(4) is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others. Libertarians defend each person’s right to life, liberty, and property-rights that people have naturally, before governments are created. In the libertarian view, all human relationships should be voluntary; the only actions that should be forbidden by law are those that involve the initiation of force against those who have not themselves used force-actions like murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and fraud. Libertarianism: A Primer by David Boaz
There are a couple of key elements you should extract from these definitions.
(1) Libertarians typically favor individual rights over collective/community rights.
(2) From (1) it follows that government should have very limited power and a very limited roll in people’s lives.
(3) Property rights are very important to libertarians. (Gid doffa my lawn!)
(4) Libertarians are primarily concerned with negative freedoms rather than with positive freedoms. (distinction is discussed below.)
(5) Classically, the libertarian view of moral obligation to others is simply that we ought not to interfere with their negative freedom.
Negative freedoms are typically described as “freedom from x.” For example, I have the right to be free from harm and intervention in how I live my life. It is primarily concerned with absence of constraints on what I do or think. Summed up, it’s the philosophy of “you’re not the boss of me so you can’t tell me what to do” or “your right to swing your arms ends at my nose.”
Positive freedoms, on the other hand, are about having the possibility of acting in such a way as to control or fulfill one’s life purpose. So, under this idea of freedom, the absence of physical obstacles isn’t sufficient for one to be free. Freedom also requires having the available means, infrastructure, and social support (amongst other social goods) to pursue one’s goals. Basically, it’s not enough to say someone’s free to eat if they can’t afford a meal.
Lets consider an example to bring out the differences. Consider college education. A proponent of negative freedom says since there’s no one physically stopping the poor marginalized individual from attending college, they are free to go. The proponent of positive freedom sees things differently. They say that an individual without the social and economic capital to attend is not free to attend, even though there are no physical obstacles.
This is taking us a bit off track, but such scenarios are at the heart of the conflict between small ‘l’ liberals and libertarians. Libertarians argue that it’s not the role of government to redistribute funds (because that’d be stealing another’s private property through taxation) and provide the social goods necessary for the marginalized to attend college (or do whatever to increase their positive freedoms).
You cannot interfere with another’s negative freedom (to do what they want with their money/property) to help another (i.e., increase another’s positive freedom). If someone voluntarily donates the money, that’s fine, but it has to be voluntary.
Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” lays much of the groundwork for discussions about a tension between the competing goals of social equality and negative freedom.
Ok, so now that we have a little background I wanted to throw one more element into the mix: moral obligation. I’m just going to assume that most people feel some moral obligation to help people or animals who are badly off in life. There many be disagreement over just who is deserving, but I hope most people reading this blog feel that there are at least some categories of people (and/or animals) that are badly off to whom we have a moral obligation to help.
Libertarianism and moral obligation to others: one of the more pernicious aspects of the modern libertarian movement–especially the brand espoused by Ayn Rand and her followers–is that everyone is somehow responsible for their own situation, no matter how poor it is.
All circumstance result from a chain of perfectly autonomous decisions on the part of the agent, so it follows that they are responsible for the end result. Because they’re solely responsible for their circumstances, others are not; and there is, therefore, no moral obligation to help them. I may have missed a few steps of the argument but this is what it amounts to.
Problems for Libertarianism: Although, not the main topic of this entry, I’d like to point out a few problems with the above argument. First, implicit in libertarian is the idea of absolute free will. I think this is mistaken because it flies in the face of well established empirical research in psychology and social psychology. The social sciences provide us with more that enough evidence to show that mere willing is not how people make decisions nor how they end up where they do in life. We have to consider the subtle and not so subtle effects of culture, genetics, home-life, socio-economic class, ethnicity, and so on. Basically, there are a whole bunch of things outside of our control which influence how we make decisions.
Anyhow, even if we dismiss the psychologic/sociological evidence against total free will and suppose that people are 100% responsible for their current circumstances–no matter how poor, it simply does not follow that we are absolved of any moral responsibility to them.
Proof of Moral Obligation:
Scene A: You’re the only one around except for some guy who has a heart attack in front of you. Are you morally obligated to help in whatever way you reasonably can? In this case, probably just calling 911? Or is it OK for you to just walk away? I’m going to assume your answer is that you’re obligated to call 911.
Scene B: Suppose you see a guy do a jump with his skateboard. He lands about 10ft from you and smacks his head on the concrete. He’s bleeding everywhere and he’s got a concussion. You’re the only one around. Since you’ve been trained in first aid, you know that if you bandage his head with your shirt and call 911, you’ll save his life.
Question: is it morally permissible for you to just walk away? Or do you have a moral responsibility to help? The skateboarder chose to do the stunt. Does this absolve you of your obligation to help? I don’t think it does, and neither does sweet baby jesus.
The point is that between Scene A and B the only important difference is that while the skateboarder chose to engage in potentially dangerous behaviour, the man in A didn’t choose to have a heart attack (assuming he lived a healthy lifestyle). Nevertheless, I don’t think we can reasonably say that we are morally responsible for helping the heart attack victim but not the skateboarder. You may disagree, and if you do, please tell me why in the comments section, however, I’m going to assume that most of you are with me up to this point.
Notice that it doesn’t really matter whether you are a moral realist or some form of anti-realist (relativist, constructionist, etc…). All that is needed is that you agree that it’d be morally wrong to not to help and morally right to help. Quick qualification: …so long as helping doesn’t impose an unreasonable burden on the helper. I’m not going to quibble over what the conditions for an unreasonable burden might be. There will certainly be grey areas, but this doesn’t mean that we won’t be able to identify clear cases.
Before moving to my next point lets quickly recap where we are right now:
(A). There exists a moral obligation to help others who are badly off if we are in a position to help and helping doesn’t place an excessive burden on us.
Libertarians and Taxation
Libertarians are often opposed to taxation. Why? Personally, I think it’s just greed and selfishness, but they also have a reasonable philosophical justification that follows from their doctrine of non-interference.
Recall that negative freedom and property rights are 2 pillars of libertarianism. When the guvamint comes along and, against your will, takes a portion of your property (i.e., your money) and does with it something you wouldn’t have otherwise done, then they interfere with your negative liberty as well as commit theft.
So, as you can see, taking money from some and redistributing it to others via social programs that enhance the positive freedoms of others (i.e., via funding public schools, universities, medical care access, roads, welfare, food aid, rent subsidies, etc…) is incompatible with strict libertarianism. Because these public social goods are quite diverse in nature, I’m going to focus on the idea that the government should pay (i.e. collect taxes for) programs like welfare, healthcare, and food stamps. Recipients of these programs are generally the ones to whom the moral obligation to help is greatest and least controversial.
So, lets start to relate this back to the previous section on moral obligation. To my mind, social programs such as I have mentioned are a logical consequence of accepting (A) (i.e., there exists a moral obligation to help others who are badly off if we are in a position to help and helping doesn’t place an excessive burden on us.)
Libertarians argue that it is morally wrong for the government to collect taxes for and to administrate such programs because doing so necessarily infringes on the negative freedom and property rights of those from whom the tax money was collected. The negative freedoms of taxpayers supersede the needs of those who are badly off.
The Moral Libertarian?
But lets suppose the libertarian also has a basic sense of moral obligation and accepts (A). How does he reconcile (A) with his commitment to libertarian values? In other words, how can you reconcile a recognition of a basic moral obligation to others and at the same time uphold negative freedoms and individual property rights as paramount?
The libertarian answer is that both moral commitments are not in conflict. They only come into conflict when they are forced against their will to help (via maditory taxes). They reply that it’s not a necessary condition that social programs be conducted through government-run tax-funded programs. To meet the moral obligation of (A) and to avoid infringing on negative freedom, it’s perfectly fine for an individual to donate to a NGO, create their own charity, or hand out money on the street.
But here’s the prollem with that. What to do when, given the choice, people don’t help others to whom they have a moral obligation? Is there then an obligation for guvamint to step in? Or are these people who need assistance to receive that assistance only at the whim of those who can help? In a culture that worships the accumulation of money more and more, I would not like my chances if I had to rely for help on the good will of wealthy strangers. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
This leads me to an aside. The libertarian might respond here that…”welp, tough titties. Whatever crappy circumstances you’re in, they must be the result of choices you made, so you sort of deserve it. And besides, if I help you, you’re not going to learn your lesson and it’s only going to encourage you to stay in your shitty position.” Sadly, I hear stuff like this all the time from libertarian-minded folk.
Or worse, you get responses like this: (The fact that this type of statement can be made in public without inciting the same reaction one would have to a psychopath is evidence of a sad state of affairs of American morality.)
Obviously, this type of response ignores the reality that many people who are in a crappy situation aren’t there as a consequence of poor decisions. Many people lose their homes and go bankrupt because they had to pay medical bills. And I don’t think many people chose to get sick.
People can suffer from mental illness too. Are they responsible for that? Are they responsible for the psychological consequences of a poor upbringing? There are plenty of other counter-examples, but that should suffice.
Anyhow, returning to the main issue: the conflict between individual negative freedoms and property rights with the moral obligation to help others. Let say we agree with the libertarian and say, OK, ain’t no guvamint gong touch your precious $ or force you to do anything you don’t want to do. Suppose we do this, and lo and behold, no one helps out the poor or the ill and they all die the death. But hey, at least no one had their negative freedom transgressed!
The libertarian objection to taxation for social programs is that it violates a moral obligation to respect people’s negative freedom. Fine. But why does the moral obligation to not violate negative freedom win over the moral obligation to help others when you can (and it won’t adversely harm you). We have a moral values cage match on our hands.
You Want to Make a Wrestle?
So here’s what I think. Oh shit. I just realized that to properly support my view and pre-empt obvious objections, I’d probably need to write a book…so, I’ll just restate what I’ve already said: The moral obligation to help others is fairly uncontroversial if helping them isn’t excessively burdensome. We can quibble over what “excessively burdensome” means another time, but for now, going to leave it mostly unqualified except for this: Helping would be excessively burdensome if it prevented an individual from living their life in modest comfort.
(Particularly) in a culture that worships the accumulation of wealth for its own sake and in which there are massive inequalities in wealth, the guvamint plays a necessary role in ensuring the moral obligation to help others is met.
What I Think Libertarianism Gets Right
I think libertarianism is partially right about emphasizing personal responsibility and the dangers of creating a psychology of dependence. I’m too tired to look up the articles right now, but there is some psychological literature supporting the idea that top-down assistance programs can create a culture of dependancy. (See especially the literature of foreign aid to Africa).
But these problems on their own aren’t an argument against government supported social programs. The moral obligation to assist isn’t dissolved simply because some methods of discharging it are ineffective. It simply means that social programs need to reconsidered and perhaps employ some libertarian principles such as being bottom up and actively empowering its participants in coming up with solutions and pathways.
Projects that eschew a top down approach in favour of individual empowerment have had very good success rates:
By and large, it seems people will live up to the standards and expectations that are set for them–whether they be high or low. And of course it doesn’t hurt to help people set their own standards…
When we talk of personal responsibility I think we have to be careful that it doesn’t devolve into victim-blaming. There’s a distinction in there somewhere, but I’m too tired right now to tease it out. Maybe someone can point me to some literature on the topic. Anyhow, social and psychological factors should be recognized but not seen as an excuse. This approach robs the individual of their autonomy. I think the libertarians have that part right.
I think there’s also something to their idea that ownership of personal property is important, but maybe it needs to be toned down a bit. From personal experience, (that’s science!) since I’ve become a home owner and landlord, I not only take better care of my own living space, but I’m better able to understand why I need to respect and take care of other people’s property. When everything I owned fit in a backpack, I don’t think I really understood why it’s important to respect and take care of the property of others. If more people can develop this respect for other’s property, there might be less vandalism and theft.
Anyhow, I’m fading. Lemmi know what y’all think.