Why I Am Not a Libertarian

I was raised in an environment that combines economic libertarianism with the goals of the religious right. We were for ending government regulation of business, but banning abortion and regulating divorce. Economics = get the government OUT. Morals = get the government IN. Strange, I know, but somehow it made sense to me at the time. This post is not about this inconsistency, though, but about why I am no longer a libertarian.

My father taught me that if the government would just get out of the economy, the free market and capitalism would result in a truly fair and vibrant system based entirely on merit. You should stop subsidizing poor people, because they’re only poor because they’re lazy and if they didn’t get handouts they would actually get jobs and work hard and better themselves. You should stop taxing the rich more, because the rich got where they are through innovation and hard work and deserve their higher incomes. It was a very “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. If the government got out of the economy, good ideas and hard workers would float to the top while lazy people would float to the bottom.

This idea makes sense until you realize that people don’t start at the same starting points. Some people are born with privilege, and others are born with disadvantage. Consider these two examples:

Bob is born to a poor family. His father left before he was born, and his mother works several minimum wage jobs just to put food on the table. Bob’s mother never graduated from high school, and the public school Bob attends is old and run down. There is no computer lab, and no funds to build one. It’s the kind of school where teacher turnover is high and student achievement is low. Bob’s mother does what she can, but life is hard and college seems out of reach. Bob starts working minimum wage jobs, enjoying the independence a little extra money gives him, and his grades, which were never high to begin with, dip lower. He toys with the idea of dropping out of high school.

Jared is born to an upper middle class family. Both of his parents have college degrees and good stable jobs, and they send him to the best preschool they can find. The public school he attends is a large suburban school with computer labs, swimming pools, and every activity you can think of. Jared’s parents encourage him to work hard academically, and help him with his homework. Jared’s parents take him to science museums and on field trips, and he grows up with college as an expectation. Jared wants to take an after school job to make some extra money, but his parents tell him that his grades should be his first priority, and offer to pay him for good grades so he’ll have extra spending money.

I’m not saying that both Bob and Jared can’t succeed. What I’m saying is that Bob would have to expend a great deal of effort to succeed while Jared almost can’t fail. The two boys start at very, very different starting points. This is why I’m not a libertarian. (Actually this is just the first reason – I also happen to believe that the government can do some things, like education, police departments, and health care more equitably and efficiently than can the free market – but that’s the subject of another post.)

I have succeeded in life, but I’ve had a lot going in my favor. I was raised in the upper middle class by educated parents who valued education and encouraged my academic pursuits. Sure I’ve worked hard, but is it any wonder I’ve succeeded academically? I am white, so I haven’t had to deal with the prejudice that, while much subtler than fifty years ago, still does exist. My parents stayed together, so I didn’t have to deal with the instability of a broken home. I know and readily admit that I haven’t succeeded only through my own merit. Had I been born to a different family in a different situation, my life would have been very different. I might have placed no value on school, I might have gotten pregnant and dropped out, I might have ended up working minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.

I am not a libertarian because the rich aren’t necessarily rich because they’ve worked hard to get there and the poor aren’t necessarily poor because they’re lazy. It’s not that we shouldn’t reward wealthy people for the hard work that they do (being a CEO is no picnic!) or that poor people can’t work their way up (it’s not easy, but they can!), but simply that we need to recognize people start at different starting points and have different advantages and disadvantages. This is why we have the social safety network that we have, imperfect as it is. We recognize that the rich can afford to give back to society by paying more in taxes, and that the poor may need a leg up. Can our system be improved? Sure!  But should it be dismantled? No!

I was very encouraged to see the following tumbler feed today: We are the 1% and we stand with the 99%. Read some of these testimonials. These people get it. Here are some examples:


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