"Callous Libertarians": Missing, or Just Unfairly Maligned?
By Bryan Caplan
only read academic philosophy discussing orthodox right libertarianism,
you might expect that libertarians are callous and indifferent to
If libertarians really believed that, then it would seem hard to
explain why so many of them are preoccupied with showing how markets,
under the right conditions, end poverty.
All of the libertarians I’ve met believe that in a libertarian
minimal state or anarchist society, markets and other institutions of
civil society would make nearly everyone better off, the poor would not
be left behind, and that there would be significant progress.
I have to quibble here. Current immigration levels do seem to make low-skilled Americans slightly worse off. Even I expect that free global immigration would make at least a hundred million low-skilled workers in the First World moderately worse off. In my book, that falls short of “nearly everyone.”
Of course, the upside of open borders would be the rapid elimination of absolute poverty on earth.
So, suppose markets work the way libertarians think they do, and
thus make everyone, including the poor, much better off. What import
does this have for libertarians? Some options:
- It’s just a fun fact of no moral significance.
- It’s part of the justification for market society, but not a matter of justice. (If so, then what role does this play?)
- It’s a matter of justice that the institutions of the basic
structure of society should provide for all, including the poor, and
the best way to do that is through libertarian institutions.
The best explanation, in my view, is a version of #2: Most libertarians ultimately realize that respecting libertarian rights is only a prima facie obligation. In plain English, it’s wrong to violate libertarian rights unless you have a good reason. If liberty actually benefits the poor, that takes one seemingly good reason to violate libertarian rights off the table.
As a self-styled Non-Bleeding-Heart Libertarian, though, I should say that Jason overlooks two major reasons why libertarians are often seen as callous. Namely: Libertarians are relatively unafraid to (a) make a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor – and (b) to point out the powerful link between poverty and irresponsible behavior (see e.g. here, here, here).
Of course, libertarians don’t have a monopoly on these insights; Nicholas Kristof admirably applied them to poverty in Africa. But these insights are stereotypically libertarian; and since they happen to be true, perhaps the solution to the case of the missing callous libertarians is simply: “They’re not missing, just unfairly maligned by the enemies of merit.”