Jeff Sachs is Right--and Misleading
By David Henderson
My friends Steve Horwitz and Don Boudreaux have taken strong exception to a recent piece by Jeff Sachs. But I think Sachs got this one right, at least on the particular passage to which Steve and Don take exception. Here’s the passage from Sachs:
Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable–all are to take a back seat.
Steve Horwitz has made clear in a comment on Robert Murphy’s blog that this is not his position. He writes:
I *would* be willing to take people’s property against their will IF I really believed that it was true that doing so would make the world a better place on net and in the long run. I don’t think it would, hence I think it would be wrong to do. But it’s wrong, in my view, not because it abridges liberty per se, but because that abridgement of liberty hurts the people it’s trying to help. So for me, liberty is NOT the highest political end. It’s one among many ends, and it’s also a means to many of those ends.
But many libertarians, including Bob Murphy, do fit Sachs’s description. Where am I? I’m squishy. I wouldn’t go nearly as far as Steve Horwitz. But what if forcibly taking one dime from one person once would prevent the world from imploding? Then I wouldn’t hesitate to do so. So I, like Steve Horwitz, would not fit Jeff Sachs’s description of a libertarian. But I have at times, especially when I was in my late teens and early 20s. I bet a lot of young libertarians do fit the description.
Where I think Steve Horwitz and Don Boudreaux are on stronger ground is in pointing out how misleading Jeff Sachs’s piece is. A careless reader–and there are many–will think that Sachs has established a tradeoff between, say, compassion, and liberty. He didn’t, and, in fact, didn’t even attempt to. Steve Horwitz points out, quite correctly, that liberty and compassion are complements: the more liberty people have, the more compassionate they are, typically. One of my Greek students two years ago told me that he was so glad to have brought his kids to America for 18 months while he was in school so that they could see up close how pro-active Americans are in helping each other during times of trouble rather than sitting back and letting the government do it, as this student said happens in Greece.
What would be interesting would be to see where Jeff Sachs stands on the following government uses of force that are not only not compassionate but also hurt people badly and sometimes kill them:
. President Obama’s escalation of the war on Afghans.
. President Obama’s escalated killings, using drones, of innocent people in Pakistan. (Some of the U.S. military people involved call the innocent ones killed in pursuit of the bad guys “bug splat.”)
. President Obama’s continued aggressive enforcement of the war against buyers and sellers of drugs.
So my question for Jeff Sachs is this:
How compassionate are you? Specifically, Jeff, if you face a choice between supporting a president who supports some of your favored policies that you work on and supporting a presidential candidate, say Ron Paul, who opposes most of the policies you work on but wants to stop the U.S. government’s killing of innocent people abroad and of innocent Americans (think about drug busts gone bad), whom would you support? If, as I suspect, it’s not Ron Paul, what is your highest political value?