By Bryan Caplan
Like Jason Brennan, I think that truly “callous” libertarians are few and far between. But I keep thinking about reasons for the misperception. I already mentioned two. Libertarians are relatively unafraid to…
1. Make a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor.
2. Point out the powerful link between poverty and irresponsible behavior.
But wait, there’s more. Libertarians are also prone to:
3. Emphasize the distinction between relative and absolute poverty – and point out the fact that “the poor” in the First World are rich by world and historic standards. Libertarians often chuckle about the obesity of the American “poor” – and the percentage with cable t.v.
4. Dwell on the trade-off between helping relatively poor Americans and absolutely poor foreigners. Hyperactive sympathy for our unsuccessful countrymen is a powerful rationalization for indifference and malevolence toward people from other countries. Some libertarians therefore take a standard against it.
5. Ask questions like, “If there shouldn’t be a legal responsibility to support the parents who gave you life, why should there be a legal responsibility to support complete strangers?”
The reason why people call libertarians “callous,” then, is that they’re asking awkward questions instead of kowtowing to the people that mainstream intellectuals say they should feel sorry for. What’s the solution? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that we should keep asking our awkward questions until we get some decent answers.
P.S. I’m flying to Italy tonight. You probably won’t hear from me again until March 21. Ciao.
P.P.S. In a reply to my earlier remarks on the deserving/undeserving poor distinction, Matt Zwolinski writes:
But the mere fact that there is a valid moral distinction to be made
does not entail that we want our public policies to make it. It is,
after all, difficult to discern between the deserving and the
undeserving – maybe especially for governments, but for private
charities too. And any measures we take to diminish the likelihood of
false positives – people getting welfare who don’t deserve it – will
probably increase the likelihood of false negatives – people not
getting welfare who should. Most plausible systems of morality, I
should think, will hold the latter consequence to be much more
troubling than the former.
That sounds reasonable at first. But when charity in involuntary, these “false positives” seem much more morally troubling. As I once wrote in reply to David Balan:
If the government taxes us to satisfy our obligation to the deserving poor,
it seems like a gross breach of trust for the government to turn around
help any Tom, Dick, or Harry who happens to have low income. If a
philanthropist gives you money to help war orphans, you’ve got a moral
obligation to look before you hand over his money – to make a good
faith effort to check whether the person you want to help is a bona
fide war orphan. The governments’ responsibility to taxpayers seems at
least as strong. Isn’t it especially outrageous to misuse charitable funds if the donors cannot legally discontinue their support?
grant that if there’s a legal duty to support the deserving poor, it’s
forgivable for an occasional undeserving recipient to slip through the
government’s safeguards. But that’s no reason for David to
enthusiastically support government programs that blatantly ignore
desert. If I were him, I’d be embarrassed by Medicaid and Obamacare’s
misuse of taxpayer funds. In fact, I couldn’t in conscience support
them. I’d keep thinking, “It’s wrong to turn our backs on the
deserving poor, but that’s no excuse for forcing taxpayers to support
the undeserving poor, too.”
My point: You don’t have to be a
libertarian to admit that government is treating taxpayers unjustly.
If taxpayers have a legally enforceable obligation to help the
deserving poor, taxing them to discharge their obligation is only
fair. But if government taxes the public for the benefit of people
they’re not obligated to support, even social democrats should start to wonder whether taxation has become theft.