Why I Am Not a Libertarian III

Opportunity and Obligation

One of the driving notions behind libertarian political theory is that society should be a meritocracy. By removing all restraints on competition, we will create a system where the hardest-working, most talented, most creative people succeed. And this is a good idea which I agree with. We need to encourage effort and innovation to create a healthy society; we should not punish motivation, nor reward laziness. We should give people an incentive to work and to strive. However, where I think libertarians err is in assuming that if we eliminate all or most regulation, the most talented, motivated people will naturally and inevitably rise to the top. This is an oversimplified view of reality, which overlooks the institutional forces and natural barriers that can prevent individuals from succeeding through no fault of their own.

Libertarians often point to examples of people who overcame difficult circumstances to become successful as proof that no social safety net is needed, that the deserving will always stand out. But this conclusion does not follow from a few anecdotal cases. The fact that some people have escaped poverty does not mean that everyone has an equal opportunity to do the same. The few who did escape might simply have been lucky, or had opportunities not available to everyone, while even more talented or motivated people languish in circumstances they cannot escape.

This is why I support social welfare programs created through taxation. The point of redistribution, in the classical liberal philosophy, is not to create equal distribution of wealth, but rather equal distribution of opportunity. Where nature has created an inequality, we should use the power of society to remedy that inequality. By guaranteeing universal access to basic goods like health care and education, differences in natural ability and talent have the best chance to manifest and are less likely to be cut short by bad luck. In this sense, a classic liberal society, rather than a libertarian society, is the truest form of meritocracy.

Inevitably, programs like these will be funded primarily by tax contributions from the wealthy. To fund them most equitably, I advocate a progressive tax code where the percentage of taxed income rises with the individual’s level of income.

This is not, as many libertarians seem to think, a desire to punish the wealthy for their success. Again, this is the wrong paradigm by which to approach the issue: a better view is as the repayment of an obligation. All people who live in a society owe that society a debt in exchange for the services it provides and the standard of living it makes possible. And the wealthy, who have been able to achieve so much more than most thanks to the resources society provides, owe society a particularly significant debt which it is right that they repay.

The resources which society provides go beyond basic goods like public utilities, police and national defense, laws against force and fraud, and a system of free speech and free enterprise – although it does provide those. More fundamentally, society institutes and maintains the very economic systems that are arranged so as to reward people who have certain skills and abilities. Except in very rare cases, “talent” is not a universal currency, convertable into wealth in any system in which the bearer happens to live. On the contrary, people are generally talented at certain things, and our society is structured so as to highly reward certain things. When those two overlap, the people who succeed rightfully owe society a debt of gratitude for that.

Even members of the super-rich classes acknowledge this. Warren Buffett has said the following (quoted from p.164 of Janet Lowe’s Warren Buffett Speaks: Wit and Wisdom from the World’s Greatest Investor):

I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned. …I work in a market system that happens to reward what I do very well – disproportionately well… I do think that when you’re treated enormously well by this market system, where in effect the market system showers the ability to buy goods and services on you because of some peculiar talent – maybe your adenoids are a certain way, so you can sing and everybody will pay you enormous sums to be on television or whatever – I think society has a big claim on that.

Or Robert Crandall, former chief executive of American Airlines, as quoted in a recent New York Times article “The Richest of the Rich“:

The nation’s corporate chiefs would be living far less affluent lives, Mr. Crandall said, if fate had put them in, say, Uzbekistan instead of the United States, “where they are the beneficiaries of a market system that rewards a few people in extraordinary ways and leaves others behind.”

Or, from the same article, American industrialist and steel titan Andrew Carnegie:

“Carnegie made it abundantly clear that the centerpiece of his gospel of wealth philosophy was that individuals do not create wealth by themselves,” said David Nasaw, a historian at City University of New York and the author of “Andrew Carnegie” (Penguin Press). “The creator of wealth in his view was the community, and individuals like himself were trustees of that wealth.”

Again, this is not to say that innovative, hard-working individuals should not be able to reap the rewards of their effort. We should have a society based on merit; I find no fault with that. What I do find fault with a system where a few people are given the enormous opportunity needed to become successful, while billions more have little or no access to the same opportunity. People who do become wealthy have a moral obligation to reinvest some of that wealth back into the system so that other people can enjoy the same opportunities it has given to them.

The great insight of capitalism is that wealth, unlike matter and energy, is not a constant but can be created. Ironically, it is libertarians who have forgotten this, implicitly assuming that the amount of wealth in society is fixed and that taxation is a zero-sum game, that one person must lose for another to prosper. On the contrary, by wisely reinvesting the proceeds of taxation, we can create a more prosperous society in which everyone is healthier and happier. This sums up my core objection to libertarianism: its central ethic is “every man for himself”, while I believe the superior ethic is “we’re all in this together”.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    This sums up my core objection to libertarianism: its central ethic is “every man for himself”, while I believe the superior ethic is “we’re all in this together”.

    To the extent that human nature is based on natural selection at the individual level, your ethic seems to go against what I view as evolutionarily formed core human values. “We’re all in this together” expresses a value system based more on group selection, which has been pretty much discredited.

    As long as people are in competition with one another, (which will be forever) I think there will always be a conflict between individual and group priorities.

    I DO think there is an implicit social contract, and I DO think there should be a certain amount of investment in society. But without an “opt out” mechanism, the social contract is not really a contract, it’s mandatory. It’s hard to separate taxation from concepts of coercion and theft. The government takes money from its citizens using the threat of incarceration for non-compliance. The more “progressive” the tax, the more it does in fact penalize success. I’m not buying your idea about how people who make more money bear a greater responsibility. By that logic, why not also penalize people with good genes? After all, smarter and prettier people generally are more successful. The only just tax is one that takes an equal percentage from rich and poor.

    As a citizen, I am given no choice about programs in which I want to participate. For example, the government has decided for over a century to heavily subsidize fossil fuels, including most recently mounting a multi-trillion dollar war for oil which I am forced to help pay for. If I had a choice, I would opt out of all such subsidies in favor of renewable energy, and by result U.S. energy self-sufficiency. But powerful corporations and lobbyists hold the government hostage to the oil addiction and therefore all citizens by proxy.

    In an ideal world where taxpayers were only investing in social programs which conformed to universal human value systems, and if they were taxed at an equal rate, I might go along with what you propose. But right now, the system suffers from severe corruption. Which makes the coercion of taxation far from a utilitarian or even benevolent process.

    The biggest “regressive” part of the tax code is the business deduction, which can never be effectively eliminated (since tax is only paid on profits). Then there’s the capital gains rate, which again is necessary to promote job creation. Poor people don’t generally have capital gains income, and that’s why Warren Buffet famously “pays less taxes than his secretary.” But people with high W-2 incomes get SLAMMED! Heard of the Alternative Minimum Tax? This is hardly fair.

    I think that we’re going to have to do much better than that. It may yet turn out that the best utilitarian system (resulting in the greatest opportunity and the best outcomes) is a freer market and less government. I make an exception for strong and compulsory monetization of all negative externalities. Make businesses (and consumers) pay the true costs of what they are consuming and what they are dumping.

    Only complex agent-based economic simulations that have not yet been developed will be able to give us the ultimate answers. But philosophically and ethically, a freer market is where I’m placing my bet. I think it’s the only system that has any hope of aligning with human nature.

    If people are so generous and moral, why don’t they voluntarily give their money to the causes they profess to support? Ultimately, if we’re “all in this together,” why does someone have to come to your house (essentially with a gun) and take your money?

  • Alex Weaver

    Blacksun:

    This might clear up a few things.

  • Alex Weaver

    Err. Apparently they either changed it or I misremembered the article; the “appeal to nature” link is more relevant. I’ll save further replies for once I’m done with this project.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    But without an “opt out” mechanism, the social contract is not really a contract, it’s mandatory.

    But as I’ve pointed out to others, there is an opt-out mechanism: if you don’t want to participate in the social contract of a society, you can leave. I don’t mean that as an insult. A libertarian, or anyone else, who feels that the society he lives in is not serving his needs is perfectly free to vote with his feet and seek out a new one more congenial to his politics. Is that not sufficient as an opt-out mechanism? What other kind of opt-out mechanism could there be?

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Ebonmuse,

    What other kind of opt-out mechanism could there be?

    Voting with one’s feet is an all-or-nothing proposition. An example of a more limited opt-out would be people could choose to participate or not participate in public health or retirement plans. The negative consequence of such a choice would admittedly be that when people who had opted out got old or sick, we might have to let them suffer or die. But it wouldn’t take many such examples to make voluntary participation by young people a whole lot more likely.

    I do agree that public roads, water systems, and fire and police services, etc. are not optional. But the only people who should pay for such systems are those who directly benefit. Government should never be allowed to divert revenue from the purpose for which it was raised. Any private entity doing this would be correctly accused of fraud. i.e. gas taxes for roads only, property taxes for city services only, keep education separate from property taxes, and charge people who have children a separate school tax.

    Another possibility would be to severely limit war powers. If a president wanted to go to war (not mount defensive actions), he would have to make a convincing enough case to raise the money from the public. Right now, taxpayers are paying for a war that mainly benefits unaccountable corporations (and of course helps subsidize middle-east oil).

    This is my major problem with public programs–aside from the fact that they are paid for by taxpayers: they insulate people from the consequences of their decisions. This keeps them in a childlike state, not engaging with or being able to reflect on the reality of their actions. If people are given correct economic information, they make better decisions. (For example, paying the true cost of energy would cause more people to conserve.)

    I agree with your earlier post that it is in the public interest to pay for things like education. Still, someone with no children should not pay the same as someone with 10 children. And right now, government control of schools keeps them insulated from public feedback (except through politicized school board elections, and we know how bad that is from the creationism follies). This is the main problem I have, not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with government, it’s just less accountable. If it could be made more accountable, I’d drop a lot of my objections.

    Alex, I’ll check out that link.

  • Mrnaglfar

    An example of a more limited opt-out would be people could choose to participate or not participate in public health or retirement plans.

    But then programs like health care wouldn’t be a possibility. The richer population who could afford health care wouldn’t pay taxes on it, leaving the poor, who can’t afford it, to now shoulder the whole responsibility.

    This is the reason for a lack of accountability; if we all got to chose what taxes we wanted to pay, people would only start paying for things that would benefit them. For instance, you said education is important, but under that same logic, shouldn’t people with no children be able to opt out of paying school taxes, thus increasing the taxes on those with children and making the education payment more private than public? Not only that, but then people would need to go through endless forms and paperwork deciding exactly where they wanted their tax money to go, and that would need to be a continuous process since the government is passing new bills all the time that require our tax money.

  • Polly

    One of the main objections of Libertarians (as I understand their philosophy) is the compulsory nature of the proposed systems for the redistribution of wealth.

    There are many behaviors in society that cause a person, and those around him, harm that are not illegal. Smoking is a great example, but there are many others. We, as a society, don’t choose to ban unhelpful behaviors, preferring instead to educate the public in order to achieve a change of attitude.
    Why can’t we adopt this attitude toward redistribution? Many voluntarily contribute enormous sums to charities even now – the tax benefit isn’t even realized in every case since there are better ways to shelter one’s money. Is there any evidence that a campaign of educating the public on the benefits of public education, mass vaccinations, etc. wouldn’t drive citizens to contribute voluntarily? Especially since they’ll have more discretionary income? Much of the resentment of paying taxes comes from a)its often, but unnecessarily, compulsory nature and b)its byzantine complexity.
    Free riders already exist in the current system. Indeed, any system congress is likely to create will provide their biggest campaign contributors (the wealthy) with an “out.”

  • Curiosis

    Ebonmuse,

    This sums up my core objection to libertarianism: its central ethic is “every man for himself”, while I believe the superior ethic is “we’re all in this together”.

    If this is truly what you think, then you do not understand libertarianism at all. I agree that the wealthy have an obligation to help others. I may not be wealthy, but I try to help where I can. Where we differ is that you think that I should be put in jail if I refuse to help. This is no different than all the christian-right’s attempts to legislate morality that you decry so often (and rightly so).

    You want to use the power of government to force people to do what you think is right. For example, you might agree with a christian that people shouldn’t cheat on their spouses. However, you probably don’t want to see people locked up for having an affair.

    I, too, want to see people helped. I don’t want to see anyone starve. But I’m not going to imprison my fellow citizens for not helping.

    Let’s say that you and I are walking down the street. We see a homeless man who could use a meal. I give him the two dollars that I have on me. But since he can’t really afford a meal on two dollars, I pull out your wallet and give him two more dollars out if it. This is what you advocate. Maybe you need that two dollars for a co-pay at the doctor, or that was your lunch money, or you were going to buy a card for a sick friend. Doesn’t matter. I saw a need and used your money to fill it.

    This is the problem with mandatory wealth redistribution. You assume that people will not give enough on their own, so you will just take it by force.

    I agree that some taxes are necessary. It is hard to get rich if your rights are not protected, so the rich should pay for the protection offered by the government. But you seem to think that the poor who take from society should be rewarded in some way. If the rich are “paying back” to society for helping them succeed, then what exactly did the poor do for that person? What are they being rewarded for?

    The really funny thing is that you are a libertarian, except for the things that bother you. You agree that people should be free to live their lives as they want, so long as they contribute to the causes you think are deserving. I don’t want to force my beliefs on anyone. I will encourage people to do what I think is right and criticize them when they don’t. But I refuse to have the government put people in jail for doing something contrary to my beliefs when they haven’t actually harmed anyone else.

  • http://asmalldarklight.blogspot.com/ Matt

    We’re talking only about Libertarianism in the economic sense, not the social sense (ie, abortion, gun control), so why argue in social terms, treating Libertarian economics as a poli-sci issue?

    The primary objection to Libertarian economics here seems to be that it allegedly sacrifices equity for efficiency–both of which concepts are studied quantitatively by economics. So my objection to Welfare-style redistribution is not ideological–it’s economic, since Welfare seems to negatively affect both efficiency and equity ie, by solidifying the underclass.

  • http://www.accidentaldesigns-photo.com Doug Purdie

    Let me 3rd Polly and Curiosis. It’s not really altruistic if giving is compulsive, is it?

    I also don’t think Libertarians have a problem with Welfare, just unlimited, lifetime Welfare for the able bodied. At least this Libertariran doesn’t.

    If we still haven’t clarified this point enough for you, check out John Stossel at Townhall.com.

  • SM

    Curiosus, your analogy to me taking money from you to give to a third person is flawed. 99% of libertarians live in a democracy, where there really is a social contract. So you and I agree to set up a social safety net in a certain way, and if you try to break our agreement I have a right to retaliate. At least, I assume you believe that it is generally wrong to break contracts …

    Moreover, if requiring people to pay taxes is legislating morality isn’t outlawing murder the same? Both are attempts to make people behave morally through force, after all. The problem with legislating religions morality is that it is not based on principles which most people accept.

  • mithraman

    Don’t forget that it’s libertarian principles that allow us to express any opinion, such as those in this article, without fear of government reprisals. Socialism makes no such guarantees. Libertarian principles are really the foundation of United States. The socialism aspects are of secondary importance. I’d take freedom without socialism over socialism without freedom any day.

  • Halie

    BlackSun said:

    Still, someone with no children should not pay the same as someone with 10 children.

    So what right does it give that person with no children to vote on issues like school board members and budget issues, etc.? After all, isn’t the only reason we’re allowed a say in these is because we all pay for them? And will you have to pay per child? Otherwise, a person with one child would pay the same as the person with ten children, and that’s not right either. And if you pay more, shouldn’t you get more of a vote? So it boils down to the more children you have, the more you pay. And the more you pay, the more your vote counts. Is that really what you’re aiming for?

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Halie, the only people who should have a say in how their school is run are the customers, i.e. parents. I don’t see how non-parents have any interest in the school system, unless they are planning to become parents. In my ideal world, yes, people would pay per child. If you have more children, and you are paying more money, it seems reasonable that you would have more of a voice.

    Having said this, I want to make clear that I’m not for dismantling public education. It’s more of a thought experiment to clarify the lines of accountability (or lack thereof) that I see government bringing to the equation.

    Bringing issues to a vote by people who have no knowledge or legitimate interest in the outcome is useless. (How many people do you know, parents included, who take the time to delve into the backgrounds and positions of judges and school board candidates?) This type of ignorant democracy as currently practiced contributes to a lack of accountability. And thus sometimes accountability and one-person-one-vote are in direct conflict. I’d like to see child development experts with proven track records managing schools, instead of elected school boards. The experts would be evaluated on student’s test performance, and if they fell below certain levels, they would be tossed.

    Perhaps the solution for funding schools is some sort of a mix between private funds and a voucher system, although that could be abused by fundamentalists to get public money for faith schools.

    I don’t have all the answers.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    You have a point about elections not always being the best way to ensure accountability, BlackSun. However, I have to take issue with this:

    the only people who should have a say in how their school is run are the customers, i.e. parents. I don’t see how non-parents have any interest in the school system, unless they are planning to become parents.

    They could have an interest is the school system for the same reason that education is a public good: because a good school system will create more educated people who will make sensible decisions.

  • Vicki Baker

    I agree with Lynet. Viewing people as consumers of services, rather than citizens, seems to stunt the imagination to such an extent that even such an obvious common good as an educated electorate and a literate, numerate workforce is invisible to the Libertarian eye.

    Regarding school board elections, I sincerely hope that one of the results of the current backlash against the Christian fundamentalist hijacking of politics is a re-engagement in politics at the grassroots level by liberal secularists. Grassroots organizing has been the main strategy of fundamentalists ever since the Reagan administration, when they realized they were a captive constituency of the Republican Party. So, learn how to beat them at their own game (but don’t use the techniqe of running “stealth” candidates, as that was shown to backfire in the prominent cases involving creationism in the schools)

    Delving into the backgrounds of school board or city council candidates doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment. If you belong to some local chapter of a secular group, have them put together a questionnaire for the candidates and publish the responses in your newsletter or website. Invite a group of friends and neighbors over to meet local candidates over coffee and dessert. I have managed campaigns for city council and county supervisor candidates, and speaking from experience there is nothing a campaign coordinator loves more than putting these pre-organized coffee evenings on the candidate’s calendar.

    BlackSun also states:

    This is my major problem with public programs–aside from the fact that they are paid for by taxpayers: they insulate people from the consequences of their decisions.

    You’re forgetting that most public programs were instituted to cushion society as a whole from the violent boom and bust cycles of capitalism. If you study American history, you’ll see it wasn’t all a Little House on the Prairie tale of self-reliant individualism. There were periodic bouts of “Hard Times” all through the nineteenth century and up to the Great Depression; these were always accompanied by widespread civil unrest.
    If you want to pick out the class of people most insulated from the consequences of their decisions, I would have to pick CEO’s of major corporations, whose obscenely large compensation packages are seemingly unrelated to the performance of the companies they run.

  • Curiosis

    SM,

    “So you and I agree to set up a social safety net in a certain way, and if you try to break our agreement I have a right to retaliate. At least, I assume you believe that it is generally wrong to break contracts …”

    Funny, but I don’t remember signing any such contract. And if I automatically sign by virtue of being born, then the contract is meaningless, since I did not have an option of whether or not to enter into it.

    “Moreover, if requiring people to pay taxes is legislating morality isn’t outlawing murder the same?”

    Murder is an act that causes harm. If someone does not give to charity, they haven’t harmed anyone. You are confusing a wrong act with a refusal to commit a good act. They are not the same. Having money isn’t the same as stealing it.

  • Curiosis

    Ebonmuse,

    After having read your three articles detailing why you are not a libertarian, I think I can reduce your reasons down to one single sentence.

    “I am not a Libertarian because it means that some people will be free not to do what I think is right.”

    Most people are afraid of freedom. When freedom of speech means that the KKK can have their say, that scares people. I hate the KKK, but I will defend freedom. When freedom means that people might get high, that frightens people. I may think drug use is stupid and destructive, but I will defend freedom.

    I want people to do the right thing. But they should only be punished for doing the wrong thing (i.e. harming another).

    If there was a CEO who made $100 million a year but didn’t give a dime to charity, you have every right to announce that fact and lambaste him for it. I would even agree with your position. But there is nothing that gives you the right to use the power of government to make him share is wealth. He has the right not to do the right thing.

    There is no freedom when others can force you to do what they think is right.

    There are millions of christians in this country who would love to be able to use the power of government to force you to give money to support their religion. They think that this would make our country better and lead to greater happiness. If they could take over and create a theocracy, they would say, “If you don’t like it, you can move to a different country. This is a Christian Nation.”

    I’m sad to say that you sound just like them.

  • John Gathercole

    Curiosis,

    “Funny, but I don’t remember signing any such contract. And if I automatically sign by virtue of being born, then the contract is meaningless, since I did not have an option of whether or not to enter into it.”

    When you were born you were a minor. That means your parents had the right to enter into contracts on your behalf. Assuming you have reached the age of majority, you are now free to opt out of the contract by relinquishing your citizenship.

  • Curiosis

    John,

    “When you were born you were a minor. That means your parents had the right to enter into contracts on your behalf. Assuming you have reached the age of majority, you are now free to opt out of the contract by relinquishing your citizenship.”

    I’ll ask my parents, but I doubt that they remember any such contract. I certainly didn’t agree to anything when my son was born.

    This “social contract” appears to be a figment of your imagination. It is something that liberals came up with in an effort to create out of thin air a legal obligation where none actually exists.

    We all have a legal obligation not to harm others. We have a moral obligation to help others. The two are not the same.

    I have to admit, I’ve grown tired of the “my way or the highway” rhetoric. You and I may not agree, but I’m not about to tell you that you must leave the country if you refuse to play by my rules. I would have hoped that we all would have grown out of this childish mode of thinking a long time ago.

    “Socalist States of America – Love It or Leave It”

  • Maya

    Curiosis – Locke would say you have given your tacit consent to the “social contract” by choosing to live within your society. If you chose to live “off the grid” or move to a society more aligned with your preferences, that would free you from your contract. But once you choose to make use of any of the advantages offered you by the society in which you live, you are consenting to that society’s rules – in most of our cases, that means we’re tacitly consenting to pay taxes and submit to the political system.

    I know a few people who do choose to live “off the grid.” Some of them try not to use money at all, growing or raising their own food whenever possible, or they pay cash for everything, limit their income to avoid income tax or work “under the table,” have their children at home and don’t get birth certificates or social security numbers for them, and don’t make use of any of the benefits proferred by our society. (Arguably – if you use money at all, or government-funded roads, or own property, you’re buying into the system.)

    Locke also agreed that minors cannot enter into contracts, but their parents can, so by choosing to birth you into this society, they did, in effect, sign that contract for you. In his view, anyway. I don’t like the argument that “if you don’t like it, you can leave,” but strictly speaking, it’s true. I prefer to work from within to generate change, but most of us can choose to “opt out” in some way.

    A long-winded explanation of what I think was meant by the “social contract,” but I always like to bring up Locke when discussing economic and political systems since he had so much influence on our modern thoughts on those topics.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I’ll ask my parents, but I doubt that they remember any such contract. I certainly didn’t agree to anything when my son was born.

    Curiosis, if you really believe this logic, I have a suggestion for you: Go into a restaurant and order a meal. Then, when the bill comes, ignore it and leave without paying. Why shouldn’t you be able to do that? You didn’t sign anything.

    That petulant reasoning, on a larger scale, is the exact same argument you’re making.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    On point, there’s a very good post on Slacktivist today addressing this issue:

    The taxes that provide such revenue are legitimate because they arise from the decision by “we, the people” that we do not wish to live in a society in which our most vulnerable and dependent are locked away in houses of horror like Pennhurst, because we have decided that these perpetual children ought not to have to fend for themselves on the street and that their families ought not to be crushed by the responsibilities they may not be financially or technically capable of fulfilling.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    A longer comment addressing this point.

    …I think I can reduce your reasons down to one single sentence.

    “I am not a Libertarian because it means that some people will be free not to do what I think is right.”

    And that is a bad thing, why? All laws are enacted for that very reason. I do not think murder is right, so I don’t want people to be free to do it. I don’t think theft is right, so I don’t want people to be free to do it. And, yes, I don’t think it’s right for people to be free-riders, taking from society while giving nothing in return, so I don’t want people to do that either. The point of having a society is that we can reach some form of mutual agreement on what the rules will be. That is a necessary condition for living together at all. A society where every person is free to act according to his own desires is nothing but an anarchy.

    I want people to do the right thing. But they should only be punished for doing the wrong thing (i.e. harming another).

    The point you have been steadfastly avoiding is that you have an obligation to the society in which you live. Do you suppose that you, the heroic capitalist, dug the fruits of your labor out of the earth by the sweat of your own brow, and only then does some officious bureaucrat show up with his hand out, there to collect his cut? Foolish naivete! Only in flights of Randian fancy does the world work that way.

    In reality, the situation is quite a bit different. You are – as we all are – enmeshed together in an intricate and subtle web of relationships and dependencies, whether you like it or not, whether you want to admit it or not. The products of your labor, the ones you think you produced all by yourself? Guess what: we helped. We gave you police and military protection, to deter those who would take your handiwork from you by force or by fraud. We gave you protection against fire and other natural disasters that would otherwise have interfered with your work. We gave you medical care when you needed it. We created environmental rules so others could not poison you with the carelessly discarded waste of their own labor. We created an infrastructure so that you could distribute and advertise your goods. We created a well-organized society, a society of clear rules, where commerce is protected and the stable fabric of human interrelation is cultivated and maintained, so that you live in a thriving, healthy democratic market rather than a lawless anarchy where trade is impossible.

    And beyond just the benefits you have directly received, there are the benefits you have received indirectly. We gave other people medical care so they did not become fertile ground for new epidemics that would otherwise have threatened you. We educated other people and gave them job opportunities so they would not turn to crime and pose a direct risk to you and those you care about. We funded science and technology so that you would have options for making a living other than hunting and gathering. We fed, sheltered and clothed others so that they would be interested in the things you offer, instead of having to spend every waking moment struggling for survival.

    We did all of this – we the people, working together to make collective decisions, engaging in a rule-guided process of rational deliberation for the benefit of all. That vast, sprawling, multilayered creation, a dense mesh of constructs both concrete and abstract, is what we call society. Whether you recognize it or not, you are part of that society and you always have been. Everything you produce, everything you create, is in part due to what all the rest of us have done. We gave you the structure, the resources, and the protection needed for true innovation to thrive. You owe us for that. And now, we want you to repay that obligation; we are calling in your debt. We seek a fair exchange of value for value.

    And what we seek from you, in exchange for everything you have been given, is the ability to grant others the same. We want to live in a society where everyone has those same privileges and opportunities, where people are free to succeed or fail by their own efforts, just as you were. We want to live in a society where everyone can exercise their creativity and dedication to the fullest, ultimately benefiting us all.

    You think society is some distant, faceless machine, dumping edicts down on you from on high without your participation or consent? Again, this is a Randian delusion. As Slacktivist says, society is all of us, the system of collective decision-making through mutual debate and persuasion, and you are a part of it. The decisions we all make together may not always be to your liking, but no one ever promised they would be, and more importantly, you have as much of a voice in it as anyone else. As I’ve said many times, if you want no part of it, you’re more than welcome to seek greener pastures elsewhere.

    Your wish, I’m afraid, is a selfish one: you want to live in society, taking advantage of everything it provides, and yet refusing to repay that obligation whenever you do not wish to do so. That isn’t the battle cry of the heroic individual, but of the spoiled child who wants to have everything his own way. Your seeming magnanimity in chastising wealthy CEOs who refuse to give back is, in reality, a tacit endorsement of that wrong, because you would refuse to take any effective steps toward putting a stop to it. The only freedom you offer is the freedom for individuals to shirk their obligations and opt out of paying their debts, and that attitude, if widely adopted, would be far more corrosive and destructive to the free market than anything a scary, nasty socialist like myself would ever advocate.

  • Alex Weaver

    Not to mention that our decision as a society to provide for public education ensures that all the “heroic capitalists” will have people to employ who are capable of doing jobs more complicated and skilled than “pick that up and put it over there.” Seriously, I’d be very interested to see how an economy like ours would manage without that.

  • Curiosis

    Ebonmuse,

    “Curiosis, if you really believe this logic, I have a suggestion for you: Go into a restaurant and order a meal. Then, when the bill comes, ignore it and leave without paying. Why shouldn’t you be able to do that? You didn’t sign anything.

    That petulant reasoning, on a larger scale, is the exact same argument you’re making.”

    By ordering a meal, I have tacitly agreed to pay for it. I chose to order the food and am made aware of what it will cost.

    What you are advocating is that I pay for someone else’s meal without any idea of who they are or if they really need it. And I have no say in how much the meal will cost.

  • Curiosis

    Maya,

    “Locke would say you have given your tacit consent to the “social contract” by choosing to live within your society. If you chose to live “off the grid” or move to a society more aligned with your preferences, that would free you from your contract.”

    The same could have been said of slaves prior to the civil war. By living in society they were accepting there role within it. Only by escaping it did they free themselves. Because this contract is whatever the majority decides that it is, this thinking gives society carte blanche to do whatever it wants.

    “But once you choose to make use of any of the advantages offered you by the society in which you live, you are consenting to that society’s rules – in most of our cases, that means we’re tacitly consenting to pay taxes and submit to the political system.”

    I have no problem paying taxes for the protection I am afforded by the government. I don’t, however, want to be forced against my will to pay for other people.

    “I don’t like the argument that “if you don’t like it, you can leave,” but strictly speaking, it’s true. I prefer to work from within to generate change, but most of us can choose to “opt out” in some way.”

    I, too, choose to work from within. I don’t want to stop those like Ebonmuse from giving to charity. I just want the same respect if I choose not to do so.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    By ordering a meal, I have tacitly agreed to pay for it.

    And by living in a society, you have tacitly agreed to pay taxes.

    And I have no say in how much the meal will cost.

    At this point I can only assume you’re willfully refusing to admit the obvious because it would undermine your argument. You have the same say as anyone else in a democratic society – and if you really can’t tell the difference between choosing to live in a society and being abducted and enslaved there, then there is no hope for you.

  • Curiosis

    Ebonmuse,

    And that is a bad thing, why?”

    Because it is the antithesis of freedom. So long as I am forced to live according to what others deem right regardless of whether or not I am causing harm, I live under tyranny.

    All laws are enacted for that very reason. I do not think murder is right, so I don’t want people to be free to do it. I don’t think theft is right, so I don’t want people to be free to do it. And, yes, I don’t think it’s right for people to be free-riders, taking from society while giving nothing in return, so I don’t want people to do that either.

    The first two examples have victims. Who are the victims of the third? You seem to think that anyone who has money has “taken” from society. You talk as if they have stolen what they have.

    Also, you are not forcing people to stop harmful behaviors. You are forcing others to perform what you believe are good behaviors.

    The point of having a society is that we can reach some form of mutual agreement on what the rules will be. That is a necessary condition for living together at all. A society where every person is free to act according to his own desires is nothing but an anarchy.

    I don’t advocate anarchy. I advocate freedom. Clearly if we are to live together, we must not harm each other. But you want to take that a step further and force us all to help each other. What you can’t achieve through words you are willing to have through force. Even tyrants with the best of intentions are still tyrants.

    The point you have been steadfastly avoiding is that you have an obligation to the society in which you live. Do you suppose that you, the heroic capitalist, dug the fruits of your labor out of the earth by the sweat of your own brow, and only then does some officious bureaucrat show up with his hand out, there to collect his cut? Foolish naivete! Only in flights of Randian fancy does the world work that way.

    I have already said that we all have a moral obligation to help others. What does not exist is a legal obligation. And yes, I could not have achieved what I have without a free society. But you still haven’t explained how the poor helped me achieve anything. It is them that you want to reward through wealth redistribution, after all.

    Guess what: we helped. We gave you police and military protection, to deter those who would take your handiwork from you by force or by fraud. We gave you protection against fire and other natural disasters that would otherwise have interfered with your work. We gave you medical care when you needed it. We created environmental rules so others could not poison you with the carelessly discarded waste of their own labor. We created an infrastructure so that you could distribute and advertise your goods. We created a well-organized society, a society of clear rules, where commerce is protected and the stable fabric of human interrelation is cultivated and maintained, so that you live in a thriving, healthy democratic market rather than a lawless anarchy where trade is impossible.

    And I have already said that I have no problem with taxes that maintain a government that protects my rights. That is the function of government and it takes money to make it work. If that were all you wanted, everything would be fine. But you want to take that money and give it directly to others. Not place it at the disposal of all of us like with a road or the police.

    And beyond just the benefits you have directly received, there are the benefits you have received indirectly. We gave other people medical care so they did not become fertile ground for new epidemics that would otherwise have threatened you.

    Again, if only this was all that you wanted. You want to pay for everyone’s medical care. You want me to help pay for someone’s lung cancer treatments after they spent a lifetime smoking.

    We educated other people and gave them job opportunities so they would not turn to crime and pose a direct risk to you and those you care about.

    How is this any different than blackmail? “Give me what I want or I will turn to crime.” And yet you still want to reward these people. Amazing!

    We funded science and technology so that you would have options for making a living other than hunting and gathering.

    Most of science and technology was brought about because of capitalism. Government has a role to play in protecting property, both physical and intellectual, but the truth is that non-profit ventures are never as successful as their for-profit conterparts.

    We fed, sheltered and clothed others so that they would be interested in the things you offer, instead of having to spend every waking moment struggling for survival.

    And it’s fine if you want to feed, shelter, and clothe others. I often give to charity to do the same. But putting people in jail for opting not to help is immoral.

    Everything you produce, everything you create, is in part due to what all the rest of us have done. We gave you the structure, the resources, and the protection needed for true innovation to thrive. You owe us for that. And now, we want you to repay that obligation; we are calling in your debt. We seek a fair exchange of value for value.

    Great. But this still doesn’t explain why I am giving money to the poor. What value have they given me that I now owe them? You want to reward those who give the least to society.

    And what we seek from you, in exchange for everything you have been given, is the ability to grant others the same. We want to live in a society where everyone has those same privileges and opportunities, where people are free to succeed or fail by their own efforts, just as you were. We want to live in a society where everyone can exercise their creativity and dedication to the fullest, ultimately benefiting us all.

    I may owe society something for the protection it provides me, but, legally, I owe these others nothing. You want to replace all of society with only the neediest among us. To pretend that what I owe society I really owe the disadvantaged. I’m not buying this little switcheroo.

    I’ve already quoted this, but it deserves added emphasis: “…where people are free to succeed or fail by their own efforts…”

    You don’t believe this at all. Many of the poor in this country are there by the failure of their own efforts, and yet you make no distinction among them. You want a safety net for everyone regardless of how many times someone decided to jump into it.

    You think society is some distant, faceless machine, dumping edicts down on you from on high without your participation or consent? Again, this is a Randian delusion. As Slacktivist says, society is all of us, the system of collective decision-making through mutual debate and persuasion, and you are a part of it.

    No, I think that society is a collection of individuals, not an entity unto itself. What is best for the individual is best for society, since society is simply the individual writ large. Freedom is best. Whether we are one or 300 million, we all have the right to benefit from our efforts. We all have the right to decide for ourselves how and when best to help our fellow man. We all have the right not to act, if we so choose.

    Your wish, I’m afraid, is a selfish one:

    Only a liberal would see the desire to excerise property rights as selfishness. After all, we should be grateful that the government lets us keep any of our money, right? My wish is for freedom. Nothing more, nothing less.

    you want to live in society, taking advantage of everything it provides, and yet refusing to repay that obligation whenever you do not wish to do so.

    I will pay the government to protect my rights. I expect everyone else to do the same. How is that anything but fair?

    That isn’t the battle cry of the heroic individual, but of the spoiled child who wants to have everything his own way.

    I’m not the one advocating prison for those who refuse to do what I want them to.

    Your seeming magnanimity in chastising wealthy CEOs who refuse to give back is, in reality, a tacit endorsement of that wrong, because you would refuse to take any effective steps toward putting a stop to it.

    Do you really want a society where we incarcerate everyone who doesn’t do what we think they should? I refuse to use the government to force people to do what I think is right when they are not harming others. I will speak out, but I will not legislate my morality. You may think that this is not enough, but the ends cannot justify the means.

    The only freedom you offer is the freedom for individuals to shirk their obligations and opt out of paying their debts, and that attitude, if widely adopted, would be far more corrosive and destructive to the free market than anything a scary, nasty socialist like myself would ever advocate.

    No, I’m all for paying debts. But they should be paid to those to whom we are indebted. Those who protect our rights. Not those who take and think they have a right to take.

    Your words are well crafted and persuasive, but in the end they ring hollow. If freedom means anything, it means the right to not do what others think you should. Others think that you and I should believe in god, but we have the freedom not to. The freedom not to act is just as important as the freedom to act. I recognize that we all must contribute in order to protect our rights. I am more than willing to do that. But we have given the government so much power that anyone with a pet project and a lobbist can now latch onto society’s collective teat and take even more from us.

    I don’t want to see charity go away. I want to see government mandated charity disappear.

    I greatly admire your dedication to educating others about the evils and inherent irrationality of religious belief, but you do not advocate that we outlaw such belief. You are unwilling to force your beliefs on others because you recognize the immorality of such a position. And yet, here, with socialism, you have no problem at all doing just that. You are ready to lock up anyone who doesn’t help to the extent that you think proper. Where words may have failed, you are ready to use the weapon of government to bend others to your will. Where you are unable to persuade, you offer either the first plane out or the prison cell.

    I ask only for the freedom to decide for myself. I’m disappointed to find that it is too much to ask.

  • Curiosis
    By ordering a meal, I have tacitly agreed to pay for it.

    And by living in a society, you have tacitly agreed to pay taxes.

    Yes, but you want me to help pay for everyone else’s meals, too. How about I pay for what I eat and you pay for you eat? I pay for the protection the government afords me and everyone else does the same.

    And I have no say in how much the meal will cost.

    At this point I can only assume you’re willfully refusing to admit the obvious because it would undermine your argument. You have the same say as anyone else in a democratic society – and if you really can’t tell the difference between choosing to live in a society and being abducted and enslaved there, then there is no hope for you.

    I wouldn’t pretend that I am enslaved, but socialism is on the tyrannical spectrum just as slavery is. I’m glad not to be a slave, but I can also take issue with the socialism I see encroaching on my freedoms.

    Yes, I have a say. But when the majority can vote to take the property of the minority, my say seems to have far less of an impact. As originally intened in our constitutional republic, some things were to be beyond the control of the majority, property rights among them. At some point, we lost our way on this.

  • Polly

    @Curiosis:
    If I may jump in with a few questons. I find your distinction between morality and law interesting and soundly argued. Yet, I can’t fully support it for pragmatic reasons.
    In the absence of taxation:

    1)How do we provide public education so that we can have a literate and competitive work force? The benefits have already been discussed by others. If private schools, how do we ensure that private schools aren’t mere indoctrination centers?

    2)How do we construct public works like dams and the national highway system that contributed to the national economy and from which many companies derive advantage?

    3)How will we ever internalize negative externalities like pollution by transferring the cost of pollution back to the factories that produce it? Or, do we? Public goods are subject to the free rider problem.

    4)How do we regulate the market without creating federal agencies (bureaucracies) to break up monopolies, ensure good investor information, etc.? These are crucial to free-market capitalism that I know Libertarians value, as do I.

    It seems like some large scale projects require a strong central authority to coordinate and direct the use of resources. If we vote on these things, then we are back to “mob rule.”

  • Polly

    As for the other side of the coin:

    There is more than just a hint of hypocrisy in supporting freedom to do as one pleases as long as they don’t hurt others while not extending this freedom to one’s hard earned financial resources.
    You may say that I “owe” society, which really means the government. But, the only reason I must take advantage of the “benefits” of the government is that in many cases it preempted private investment. It’s possible that private industry could have produced many things that we enjoy from the government (with the exception of law enforcement) and at greater efficiency. But, I acknowledge that this is speculation.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Another post I recently read noted that there was an inverse correlation between the money spent on education and the money spent on jails. If given the choice, I would of course be in favor of higher taxes going to support schools to prevent higher taxes being imposed to pay for building more jails.

    This partially negates my earlier statement about “non-parents having no interest in schools.” But all such tradeoffs needs to be supported with strong evidence. I think our economic modeling needs to improve dramatically so we can study such relationships in agonizing detail and tweak spending and taxation toward their socially optimal levels.

  • Curiosis

    Polly,

    I think that these are excellent questions, and I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I will take a crack at them.

    1)How do we provide public education so that we can have a literate and competitive work force? The benefits have already been discussed by others. If private schools, how do we ensure that private schools aren’t mere indoctrination centers?

    The same way that parents provide all the necessities for their children. It is the job of parents, not government or society, to provide for children. Education is an integral part of a child’s development and is a task in which parents should be heavily involved. We don’t expect society to get kids their allergy shots if they need them. Why do we expect society to ensure that our children are educated? My son attends a private, christian (gasp!) school. He does so because of the far higher standards at his school. He receives some religious indoctrination, but I do what I can to counteract it. The most important thing is that he is educationally prepared for his future. Private groups can provide accredidation for schools, so that parents can make the best decisions. The myth that government run schools must exist is just that…a myth.

    2)How do we construct public works like dams and the national highway system that contributed to the national economy and from which many companies derive advantage?

    As I’ve said, I have no trouble paying taxes for things that we all have equal access to, like roads. Dams are tougher because we have the question as to who gets the power from them. If we all pay into the contruction of the dam, then we should all be able to receive the benefits from it. That dam should not be just turned over to a company to run and own.

    3)How will we ever internalize negative externalities like pollution by transferring the cost of pollution back to the factories that produce it? Or, do we? Public goods are subject to the free rider problem.

    You are right, this is a major problem. Pollution that causes direct harm to individuals, like toxic waste, or crosses property lines should be a punishable offense. We as a society must decide the cost of pumping gases into our shared atmosphere. A company that doesn’t do this owes us nothing. But one that does should foot the bill for cleaning it up. By including the true cost of using fossil fuels, alternative energy would suddenly become more viable.

    4)How do we regulate the market without creating federal agencies (bureaucracies) to break up monopolies, ensure good investor information, etc.? These are crucial to free-market capitalism that I know Libertarians value, as do I.

    Many monopolies are created by the government, not stopped by it. Look at the rail tycoons created by the government during the 19th century. So long as a company doesn’t commit fraud, then there should be no limit to its size or how much of the market it has. The government has a duty to protect its citizens from fraud, which should help ensure good investor information. Many people have a problem with modern monopolies like Microsoft, but so long as people think that they have the best software and Microsoft doesn’t lie or steal, the government shouldn’t do anything to them.

    It seems like some large scale projects require a strong central authority to coordinate and direct the use of resources. If we vote on these things, then we are back to “mob rule.”

    Companies have a vested interest in providing a quality product at a fair price. If they don’t, then someone else will and will drive the first company out of the market. Government is the ultimate monopoly, truly answerable to no one. It is inefficient and slow. If it were a business, it would have gone out of business decades ago. Government is a necessary evil, and we should use it sparingly.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Because it is the antithesis of freedom. So long as I am forced to live according to what others deem right regardless of whether or not I am causing harm, I live under tyranny.

    Only if you define “freedom” as “the ability to do whatever I want at any time with no consequences”. This is a warped and stunted definition. I argued in Part II that maximum freedom is actually achieved by a society that helps all its members to achieve their desires, an argument you have yet to address.

    The first two examples have victims. Who are the victims of the third?

    The victim of free-riding is society in general, rather than any single person. Your appeal to freedom sounds noble, but in practice, what it would produce is a destructive tragedy-of-the-commons spiral where increasing numbers of people stop contributing because others have done the same. You say helping others is a moral obligation, but in your ideal world, how would you answer someone who demands to know why he should take up the slack for others who have selfishly opted out?

    Also, you are not forcing people to stop harmful behaviors. You are forcing others to perform what you believe are good behaviors.

    I advocate requiring people to repay the debt they owe to society for the services and opportunities it has provided them.

    But you want to take that money and give it directly to others. Not place it at the disposal of all of us like with a road or the police.

    As I have shown, using taxation to fund social programs like health care and education provides indirect but undeniable benefits to all members of that society. This is another argument you have not addressed.

    How is this any different than blackmail? “Give me what I want or I will turn to crime.” And yet you still want to reward these people. Amazing!

    I don’t know what your ideal libertarian world would be like, but if you expect that people who have no legitimate opportunities are going to quietly sit there and starve to death rather than cause trouble, you’re likely to be disappointed.

    If people are trapped in a system that gives them no real opportunity for advancement, then yes, many of them will turn to crime. This is not a problem that can be wished away, regardless of what economic system one favors. Something has to be done to encourage people to be productive members of society: we can either commit to educating and helping them now, or we’ll end up having to incarcerate them later. Either way, society pays. But prison is nothing but cost, whereas as I showed earlier, people who have access to education and job training are actually a net bonus to society in the long run. Providing access to public education and other such goods is therefore the rational position.

    …the truth is that non-profit ventures are never as successful as their for-profit conterparts.

    This sweeping assertion, as usual, is presented devoid of evidence. The invention of the Internet was not a for-profit venture. Nuclear fusion was not developed for profit. The structure and encoding of DNA was not unraveled with an eye to the commercial applications, nor was the development of space travel. On the contrary – as all four of these examples show – many of the most successful scientific ventures were originally brought about as public projects, with the commercial applications following only later. This is inevitably so: the commercial applications of a radically new technology are rarely visible far in advance, and most corporations will not fund research for which there is not a clear profit motive.

    Great. But this still doesn’t explain why I am giving money to the poor. What value have they given me that I now owe them?

    You owe that value to society in general, which includes the poor. Have you never heard of the concept of transferring a debt?

    You want to reward those who give the least to society.

    This is a perfect example of what you’re not seeing. The reason that the poor contribute little to society is because they lack the opportunities that they would need to use their ability to the fullest (which is the subject of this post). Your view would be a self-fulfilling prophecy: start with people trapped in poverty, lacking opportunities and resources; refuse to give them any of the assistance that would enable them to escape that condition and make meaningful contributions to society; and then justify that refusal by claiming they contribute nothing. It’s perfectly circular logic.

    Many of the poor in this country are there by the failure of their own efforts, and yet you make no distinction among them. You want a safety net for everyone regardless of how many times someone decided to jump into it.

    As I said, I believe that people’s wealth and social status can and should be determined by their talent and dedication. I do not believe, however, that people who lose out in the competitive lottery should be left to starve to death in the street as a lesson for others. We as a society should provide for the basic, fundamental needs of everyone, and whatever additional, non-essential luxuries a person desires, they should be left to earn by their own effort. Again, this is another indirect way in which the social safety net benefits society: it encourages people to take risks and to innovate. There’s strong incentive not to take any chances if you risk losing everything, even your life, if your venture doesn’t work out.

  • Polly

    @curiosis:
    Thank you for your candid answers. So, aside from law enforcement, would you say there is some room for government in areas like penalizing polluters and roads, and (possibly) dams? In other words the ban on government is not absolute, in your view? If that’s so, then my next question is: How do we support such activity financially without taxes? Or, if taxes: Where do we draw the line?

    I disagree strongly with allowing monopolies because only a competitive market is likely to be efficient. Monopolies, especially those that establish, or stand protected behind, strong barriers to industry-penetration are likely to become as inefficient as government. There will be no incentive to innovate without healthy competition. Technically, providing a less than optimal product and an inflated price is not fraud. You could say that if I don’t like it I don’t have to purchase the product, but like a home country, some products are better to have mediocre, than not at all. But, I’d rather have a free-market optimum.

    @Ebon:

    Nuclear fusion was not developed for profit.

    Have we started harnessing fusion power already? I thought they didn’t net any power.

    I do not believe, however, that people who lose out in the competitive lottery should be left to starve to death in the street as a lesson for others.

    Are you really completely convinced that individual charity cannot be equal to the task of caring for those who fall on hard times? I don’t think it’s as hopeless as you make it sound without government. In fact, it may be the attitude that it’s the government’s responsibility that contributes to an artificially depressed sense of duty. If each of us knew that we were our neighbor’s and community’s only hope, then maybe we’d all be more likely to adopt the attitude that “we’re all in this together.”

    The invention of the Internet was not a for-profit venture.

    The internet was developed by the military and only the commercial interests turned it into what it is today. But, I have little doubt that business would have caught on to the idea of networking computers.
    Much technology has come from the military and NASA, but at what cost? Scietific developments by government are probably hit and miss from a cost-benefit perspective. There is also the opportunity cost of foregone ventures that may have been even better but government crowding-out precluded industry solutions.
    I brought up highways as an example of good government action, but, maybe something better than encouraging gas guzzling trucks to criss-cross the country would have developed in the absence of “Free” accessible highways.
    Even our war of on terror is government’s ham-fisted attempt to meet our energy needs…uh, er…and to spread democracy – funny I’m not crazy about the way we’re doing that here and now we’re trying to export it.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ Ebonmuse

    But prison is nothing but cost, whereas as I showed earlier, people who have access to education and job training are actually a net bonus to society in the long run.

    I agree with your post and all of your arguments, but strictly speaking, we should want prison to provide education and job training too. The primary goal of the prison system should be, as far as possible, to reform criminals into hard working, law abiding citizens.

    We as a society should provide for the basic, fundamental needs of everyone, and whatever additional, non-essential luxuries a person desires, they should be left to earn by their own effort.

    In most cases I agree, but it is undeniable that some people who live off benefits are quite simply lazy. They don’t want to work, they just want to live off the state. They’re ok with not having a life of luxury, as long as they don’t have to work for they’re bare essentials. I’m not stereotyping, I’ve met people like this, and they’re pretty shameless. One person I spoke to found it actually amusing that I was funding the state while the state was funding him – he found the irony a lot more pleasing than I did!

    Do you think there should be cases where state aid is cut off to people who clearly, evidently have no intention of bettering them selves? For example, could unemployment benefit be suspended if a person declines say, three, perfectly good job offers?

  • RiddleOfSteel

    The libertarian should acknowledge the rights of all parties. If I am born into this world, I have the natural right to do with it what I desire. But if there is another person, or in our case billions of persons, then what I do may infringe on other’s rights to do what they would with the world. To deal with this situation, rights infringements must be acknowledged, and compensation must be provided. This is where the arguments of Curious and his compatriots are flawed – they are acknowledging the rights of certain parties at the expense of others.

    A typical example is the claim of right to appropriate property without compensation. Consider that if Curious has appropriated a piece of property, he has not contracted with or received agreement from me to appropriate the property. Very likely, he has not done so with any of you reading this post. We are no longer free to do with the property what we would have, had Curious not infringed on our rights, by appropriating the property without freely entered agreement on our part. Curious must therefore compensate for his rights infringement. A method to accomplish this is taxation – in this case property taxation. The tax can be distributed to fund entities such as schools, especially since kids will be born into rights infringement due to Curious’s property appropriation. Curious can compensate the kids by helping to fund their education. We can build on the tax issue, making a case for tax rate based on scarcity, and even common (government trustee) of land that is significantly scarce, such as national parks.

    How is it that some abuse the rights of other’s by appropriating things without agreement, and then complain when required to provide compensation? It is interesting how some would decry the government and it’s coercive power, but ironically would employ that coercive power if you set foot on “their” land. In this regard, the quote from Curious is telling:

    “And I have already said that I have no problem with taxes that maintain a government that protects my rights.”

    I disagree. I want a government that protects all of our rights. A libertarian rights argument is actually a very powerful protection – if the rights of all parties are acknowledge. I think a lot of the abusive/immoral scenarios that are ascribed to libertarianism are actually the result of acknowledging the rights of certain parties at the expense of others.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Sorry for the delayed reply.

    Do you think there should be cases where state aid is cut off to people who clearly, evidently have no intention of bettering them selves? For example, could unemployment benefit be suspended if a person declines say, three, perfectly good job offers?

    Yes, absolutely. Those people are trying to free-ride at society’s expense just like a wealthy individual who refuses to contribute to the common good. It’s the duty of every member of society to participate. As I said in Part II:

    Certainly we should not indefinitely support people who refuse to work, and the emphasis should be on helping recipients return to the workforce as soon as possible.
    </blockquote

  • http://deanpence.com Dean

    Some commenters seem to be confusing one’s political obligation not to harm someone else with one’s (alleged) moral obligation to help others. It is not that the majority does not agree with fundamentalist Christian morals that is the reason we should not legislate their morality; it is the fact that such legislation creates a positive coercive burden on citizens to do some acts. Legal prohibition of murder is a negative burden: You cannot do it because it would deprive someone else of his right to life. Legal obligation to fund someone else’s child’s education or hospitalize him when he’s sick and can’t pay is a positive coercive burden. I don’t think this fact dismantles your argument for the equalization of opportunity, but please do not equivocate. You are not proposing to outlaw that which would deny others of their rights; you are proposing to legally obligate people to help their neighbors. Two different things.

    As for this argument that rich people are rich because of society’s aid, you are absolutely correct, but you are wrong about the reason. Capitalism, like it or not, is a system that enables producers and consumers to trade for no other reason than self-interest, without sacrificing or coercing either party. While a free society is certainly necessary for people to morally earn wealth, no one is sacrificed in the act of free trade. Your debt is paid, totally and completely, when the transaction is completed. No one agreed to additional compensation.

    This is a separate argument from the issue of social and civil services, though, which the government provides through taxation to equalize opportunity. I am not a fan of utilitarian ethics, but these do actually help to equalize opportunity for the poor and disenfranchised; however, again, one’s taxes is the price one pays for these services, and I find it difficult to conjure a justification for additional obligations for these services.

  • http://deanpence.com Dean

    The great insight of capitalism is that wealth, unlike matter and energy, is not a constant but can be created. Ironically, it is libertarians who have forgotten this, implicitly assuming that the amount of wealth in society is fixed and that taxation is a zero-sum game, that one person must lose for another to prosper.

    Well, you’re right that wealth is not a zero-sum game. It can certainly be created where none existed before. I usually see this misunderstanding applied by the Left, however, in their misguided effort to claim that rich people have too big a piece of the pie; that is, that the gap between the rich and poor is too big, and that the rich own a disproportionate amount of wealth.

    However, how is taxation not a zero-sum game? Or is that even a valid question to ask? I understand that social and civil services have some effect of equalizing opportunity, but the taxation that funds those services is only an indirect cause of the wealth that is potentially created by those who prosper because of better opportunity. Opportunity is not a cause; effort is. And ultimately, you’re reversing the issue. Taxation is a not a zero-sum game, but that’s not even a valid question here. Wealth is dynamically created by people, and taxation takes that away after it’s created–the more that is created, the more is taken. And while it probably does have a widespread impact in bettering the conditions by which others can prosper, there is no guarantee that the taxed will ever personally gain from that prosperity of others, and I fail to see how it’s anyone’s right to take one person’s property for his own good or for anyone else’s.

    [Libertarianism's] central ethic is “every man for himself”, while I believe the superior ethic is “we’re all in this together”.

    “Every man for himself” is more like neo-conservative thinking, and it’s a perversion of libertarianism. Libertarianism realizes that non-coercive self-interest benefits all parties involved. It’s only when another party (like a corrupt or otherwise coercive industry) demands sacrifice of the other party does it go wrong, and that’s not libertarianism.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Hi Dean. I don’t think I’ve seen you comment before. Are you new?

    [O]ne’s taxes is the price one pays for these services, and I find it difficult to conjure a justification for additional obligations for these services [my emphasis].

    Additional obligations beyond taxation? I think the question at issue was merely that of taxing people to provide these services.

    Opportunity is not a cause; effort is.

    Charitably, I assume that what you mean is that opportunity will not be worth anything unless those who have the opportunity put in the effort; opportunity is not a direct cause. Which is true, but I have a strong suspicion that the opportunity to attend university with no tuition fees which was available in New Zealand for a few brief decades probably was a cause behind the proliferation of doctors and dentists and the like among the various cousins of my decidedly working-class mother. Just saying.

    Wealth is dynamically created by people, and taxation takes that away after it’s created–the more that is created, the more is taken.

    You make it sound like the wealth is disappearing as soon as it’s been given as tax :-)

    [T]here is no guarantee that the taxed will ever personally gain from that prosperity of others.

    There is no guarantee, no. There might be considerable probability, given the potential to reduce crime and to increase the overall wealth by allowing capable people the opportunity to use their talents. But I confess it — for me, the good of society as a whole is reason enough.

  • australopithecus

    I don’t much care about the philosophical argument going on, so sorry if this is a little off-topic by now, but I wanted to address the first comment here:

    To the extent that human nature is based on natural selection at the individual level, your ethic seems to go against what I view as evolutionarily formed core human values. “We’re all in this together” expresses a value system based more on group selection, which has been pretty much discredited.

    Biologically speaking (which you are), this is nonsense. Human evolution hasn’t been “based on natural selection at the individual level” since at least as far back as the great apes branching off from our monkey ancestors. You can say that group selection “has been pretty much discredited” all you like, but that won’t make it true; altruistic behavior exists in amoral organisms as well as in humans, which at least demonstrates that such things are selected for somehow, and kin selection provides a plausible mechanism for its arising.

    Just wanted to clear that up. Coupled with the fact that sexual selection is vastly more significant for us as a species nowadays than selection by simple survival, the simplified rules of evolution that apply more precisely to simpler organisms can’t be legitimately used to make claims about “core human values,” even before considering the appeal to nature fallacy. And in any case, any half-competent anthropologist could tell you that “we’re all in this together” is, to a surprisingly broad degree, precisely one such core human value; Modern Western Philosophy should not be confused with core human values.

    As to the OP, in short I agree, but I think an important missed point is that modern political Libertarianism doesn’t even truly optimize total negative freedoms; economic power is just as dangerous a force for controlling others’ behavior as is political or military power (if not more so, under modern conditions), and playing major power structures against each other (in this case, regulating the potentially tyrannical exercise of economic power by applying political power) is probably the best tactic available to us for guaranteeing personal freedoms for all, rather than just for the wealthy. Money is power, and keeping such power from being used to control people is an important (philosophically) Libertarian pillar that (political) Libertarians seem a bit too quick to gloss over in the case of economic power; this contrast makes it hard for me to take the philosophical arguments for political Libertarianism too seriously, since it all just starts to sound (fairly or unfairly) like Ayn Rand fanboyism.

  • australopithecus

    Oh, hey, I just noticed that this is like 3 years old. Hello from reddit. <:D

  • Alex Weaver

    It’s still relevant today. There’s a booth among the fraternities, sororities, gazillion religious organizations, and such on campus at Sac State which exhorts passersby to “Defend Liberty! Defeat Statism!”

    In terms of implications about how seriously those using it should be taken, “Statism” is on the same level as “poopyhead.”

  • KDESwift

    Just stumbled upon this and I had to shake my head.

    I’m frankly disenchanted with the whole idea of welfare as it is because it’s an inefficient way of giving people an advantage. I know firsthand of people who have held back from getting jobs because they would lose their welfare check if they did so!

    The people who are getting these checks are largely in the situation they’re in because they don’t know how to use their resources properly. I’ll give you a prime example. I worked for about 8 months as a pizza delivery driver and I witnessed some astoundingly bad examples of money management. Some of our regular customers were getting maybe $800 a month on welfare, and spent about $40 PER NIGHT on meals of pizza, wings, and ranch cups (they’d rake you over the coals if you forgot their precious ranch cups).

    This was at a time when I was living off of $20 PER WEEK on food, and making about $800 a month in a hot, sweaty pizza kitchen.

    The problem, it seems to me, is that parents aren’t teaching their kids to manage money, and they grow up and raise kids who they teach the same bad habits. The only way to really break that cycle is in the schools.

    Public education is the only worthwhile investment of tax dollars. Do you know why the welfare systems in Scandinavia aren’t over-burdened? Just take a look at their standardized test scores compared to ours. Our schools are a joke and an embarassment and a social democracy can’t survive without a solid education system.

    While I’m on the subject, when talking about fiscal matters everyone seems to ignore the elephant in the room, namely the continued fiasco of the American military trying to be the world’s police force. If we’d spend our defense budget trying to keep threats out of our borders rather than chasing monsters around the world, we’d have money for nice things like good schools and better health care. Of course, you won’t hear about that on CNN or Fox Noise or any of the other “news” networks.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    While I agree with your comments inRE the military, I’d like to know your sources for Scandinavian school performance; and I’d like to know how you knew your customers were on welfare, absent prying in their mail.

  • lpetrich

    KDESwift, your numbers don’t work out. $800/month and $40/night means that their welfare payments would run out in 20 days.

    As to working at a pizza shop, are you sure that you never considered any of the pizzas or pizza-making supplies some of the extra benefits of the job?

    Furthermore, if everybody ate for $3/day, as you claim to have, you would not have had any pizza shop to employ you, so you ought to have been grateful for others’ big spending.

    As to the way that welfare is currently structured, I don’t agree with a de facto marginal income tax of 100%. It should be structured as a negative income tax, not something that drops off 100% when one starts earning something.

  • http://libertarianatheist.com mdr

    Before I continue, I’d like to thank you for the article. Very fun to read without being antagonistic to those with a different understanding or perspective.

    I would like to say, as a libertarian and an atheist for most of my life now, that I do not believe that some natural balance or perfection can be achieved through a laissez-faire system, on the contrary plenty of people will be hurt and rights will be violated. There is a place for government in this though, in the form of judicial recourse.

    I’m not a libertarian because I believe that a free market is perfect, I’m libertarian because I have yet to see evidence of regulation and bureaucracy doing any better. You could argue that it does but then you would need to provide some serious examples to prove that free markets wouldn’t do just as well.

    I have anecdotal evidence to the contrary, for instance, many monopolies would not exist were it not for government intervention, ie oil, train, telephone, software (in the form of patents and copyright). Don’t believe it? Try to ship a barrel of oil overseas or try to build an operating system and name the main button on the screen a “start” button. See how the government will get involved.

    “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” – Thomas Jefferson

    This quote is truth, government knows no bounds and once you allow it to continue, it will impede on as many fronts of civil life as it can, it’s truly like a runaway train, note my link:
    http://www.libertyamendment.com/growth.html

    My argument has never been that the free markets are perfect or everything will work out, I would never make the claim that those in need of recognition will always be rewarded “proportionately” or that those in the direst of situations deserve to be there, that is heartless and beyond foolish to assert. I will state, though, that small government can’t give out tax breaks, can’t hand out monopolies on technology or medicine, can’t regulate the medical industry into astronomical prices, can’t stop anyone from getting ANY medical procedure they want, can’t go to war oversea for the benefit of industry, won’t force people out of their house so that an interstate can be built, and won’t take away people’s guns when they’re trying to protect their own home and food against mobs.

    My argument is simple, small government is better than the ultimate and inevitable alternative, and at least equitable if not better than the path to it.

  • Sean

    On school vouchers etc:

    I think that these articles represent a very reasonable version of progressivism with which libertarians can get along and negotiate. I call myself a libertarian, but I don’t think we should get carried away with words and bright ideological lines. To me, libertarianism is the position that we need government and community (it’s not anarchism), but that we should err on the side of respecting the individual wherever practical.

    My point is that this can be applied to progressive causes. There is no reason progressivism needs to be necessarily bureaucratic and hard-left. School vouchers and choice are a good example: why are so-called “progressives” so against them? They are a great way to implement the progressive vision. It levels the playing field via taxation, but does not take away parents’ dignity by forcing them into a particular school. It allows them to choose and judge on their own which schools are best for their children.

    I think progressives need to realize that, by and large, we have implemented redistribution and progressive taxation. Now it’s time to clean your own house. It’s time to fight the greed of the unions and other “progressive” forces who don’t have equal opportunity in mind at all. Then you’ll get more conservative folks like me onboard, and you might even be able to get me to call myself a “libertarian progressive”.

  • Jim Baerg

    The thing that bothers me about school vouchers & home schooling is that some parents motivation for using them seems to be to keep their children from learning about ideas outside the parents narrow (usually religious) ideology. If there is some way to use school vouchers without them enabling such child abuse I might consider them the best option.

  • scott F

    I enjoyed this set of posts.I am myself an ex ‘right wing libertarian’ of the lew rockwell,rothbard kind and then moved to left libertarianism of Kevin Carson.Now I’m heavily anarchist.Your arguments here are tending me to be drawn back into mainstream political pro-government thought.

    I would say though I always though classical liberal meant a state ONLY for police,armies and courts such as Ron Paul advocates.Though clearly such a philosophy have a vast number of issues with it.

  • superlucky20

    I find it telling that the idea of libertarianism only occurs in relatively rich countries like the United States and is entirely alien in relatively poor countries like the Philippines, where I’m from. It seems that American libertarians have been fully immersed in the advantageously beneficial environment that they live in that they forgot how exactly that came about and believed that it has always been there. People living in less advantageous environments like me see firsthand how things like universal health care and social security are important; basic survival is still a big issue here. It is when people like these American libertarians start focusing on things other than survival when they take survival for granted and think they probably don’t need to contribute to maintain those things in the first place.