18 April 2008

Libertarianism and Welfare

Johnathan Pearce at Samizdata kicks off a discussion:

"A barrier to people accepting libertarianism is the notion that we'd let people starve in the streets."

I think this is true. And while the notion is fundamentally unjustified, there is a grain of truth in it.

For one thing, to the extent that there are people who believe that the poor should be left to starve in the streets, they are likely to be found among our allies and supporters.

For another, while most libertarians would say, like Johnathan, that the unfortunate would be looked after by private charity, and might well end up better off than is the case today, most would also say that there should be some stigma to being a recipient of charity; that the deserving poor (as judged by donors) should be better off than the undeserving poor, in order to provide useful incentives.

Similarly, people should be encouraged to look after their families, meaning the poor with families to look after them will be better off than those without, and that misfortune falling on one person would also impact their families.

There is a separate problem which results in a bad impression of libertarianism: there are things (like redistribution) which we can see are wrong as a matter of principle. Pretty much by definition, we agree that the state should not redistribute income. There are other issues which do not so easily resolve to matters of principle - like whether the state should invade Iraq. We do not all agree about that, and therefore we do not take such a strong position. So while I, personally, might see the war as a vast waste of lives and resources, I would be cautious in arguing it, because people I respect disagree for reasons which eventually come down to matters of judgement. On the other hand -- state funding for opera! That is just wrong, and anyone who disagrees cannot be "one of us".

The result is that it looks as if I care passionately about withdrawing state funding of opera (or cutting benefit for the disabled, or whatever), but am indifferent to the bombing of civilians. That is not the case. Whatever the right answers, the Iraq war issue is much more important than the arts funding question. If we, as libertarians, give the opposite impression, it's because we see arts funding as an easy question and the right response to terrorism as a difficult question. For the pedantic mind, which characterises many of us, it is tempting to dwell on the easy but minor point rather than on the difficult but major one.

To improve the image of libertarianism, we should perhaps express more of a sense of proportion regarding things that could be done better, but, on the overall scale of things, aren't all that big a deal.

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