I’m not very good with labels. I’m a devout born again Christian, but as a writer, I don’t bill myself as a “Christian” author because I don’t want to write “Christian” genre books.
Similarly, I’ve never been a member of a political party, except for one day every four years when I game Alaska’s closed primaries. I’m a registered non-partisan the rest of the time.
Back when I first started blogging, someone asked me to label myself and I said I was a conservative with libertarian and anarchist leanings, but I’ve had conservatives and libertarians both tell me I’m a libertarian. I’m not a Libertarian, as in a member of the political party, and probably never will be.
I define libertarianism broadly. I think voluntarism is seriously underrated and government is massively overrated. I also strive to be civil to others regardless of their political views. That’s supposedly another hallmark of libertarianism. Does that mean I’ve crossed the unmarked divide from conservative to libertarian? Perhaps. It’s hard to tell because above all libertarianism is about freedom of the individual to define what life is for themselves.
In trying to decide whether I really could use that label, I ran across an article by Bryan Caplan on FEE in which he discusses 12 reasons to oppose the welfare state. He expressed curiosity that some self-described libertarians are now embracing Scandanavian-style socialism such as Danish “flexicurity”. He’s curious about why they changed their minds. In trying to understand it, he grouped the libertarian objections into three classes and 12 points.
So, I thought I would work through these and see where I fall on the scale.
Soft-Core Libertarian Case Against the Welfare State
- Universal social programs that “help everyone” make no sense because taxing everyone to help everyone is evidence of cognitive dissonance. Regardless of your political philosophy, taxing everyone to help everyone makes no sense.
- In the U.S., most government social spending is devoted to these indefensible universal programs – Social Security, Medicare, and K-12 public education. These programs are taxing everyone to help everyone, so make no sense. I agree with this one.
- Social programs – universal or means-tested – give people very bad incentives by discouraging work, planning, and self-insurance. The taxes required to fund the programs give everyone moderately bad incentives. The more “generous” the programs, the worse the collateral damage. Even programs carefully targeted to help the truly poor often fail a cost-benefit test because they encourage people to remain in poverty rather than lifting them out of poverty. Libertarians need not favor every government act that passes the cost-benefit test, but they should at least oppose every government act that fails it. I agree with this one.
- “Helping people” sounds good; complaining about “perverse incentives” sounds bad. Since people focus on how policies sound rather than what they actually achieve, governments have a built-in tendency to adopt and preserve social programs that fail a cost-benefit test. Upshot: We should view even seemingly promising social programs with a skeptical eye. I agree with this one. Apparently, I am at least a soft-core libertarian.
Medium-Core Libertarian Case against the Welfare State
- There is a plausible moral case for social programs that help people who are absolutely poor through no fault of their own. That does happen. Otherwise, the case falters. I definitely agree on the moral responsibility for Christians to help people who are absolutely poor through no fault of their own.
- Define “Absolutely poor.” When Jean Valjean (Le Miserables) steals a loaf of bread to save his sister’s son, he has a credible excuse. By extension, so does a government program to tax strangers to feed Valjean’s nephew. If Valjean steals a smartphone to amuse his sister’s son, though, his excuse falls flat and he should go to prison. So a case can be made for a government program designed to feed the absolutely poor who are that way through no fault of their own, but there is no case for a government program that provides more services than that. I mostly agree with this.
- Define “No fault of their own.” Your reason for being poor matters. Starving because you’re born blind is morally problematic. Starving because you drink yourself into a stupor every day sounds like your own problem and none of my concern. My husband is a recovering alcoholic. Trust me when I say I didn’t word that glibly. It’s what you eventually learn in Alanon.
- Existing means-tested programs generally violate one of conditions. Even if the welfare state did not exist, few people in developed countries would be absolutely poor. Because I used to work in the social work field, I know the average income of those “homeless” people standing outside the grocery store. It’s a nice living — panhandling — so nice that my daughter’s band has done it when they’ve been short on gas money to the next gig. They at least give you a show for your change. These people still get their benefits even when they have a good week at the mall, thus violating the means-testing. Similarly, many poor people engage in very irresponsible behavior. Poor people smoke both tobacco and cannabis more often than middle-class and wealth people do, for example. Smoking is an expensive habit. So, “poor through no fault of their own” is also often violated. I completely agree.
- First World welfare states provide a reasonable rationale for restricting immigration from countries where absolute poverty is rampant: “They’re just coming to sponge off of us.” Given the rarity of absolute poverty in the First World and the massive labor market benefits of migration from the Third World to the First, it is therefore likely that existing welfare states make global absolute poverty worse. I don’t really agree with this one. Yes, the welfare programs are a good reason restrict immigration in general (not just from poor countries), but I doubt the existing welfare states of developed nations makes global absolute poverty worse.
Hard-Core Libertarian Case for Opposing the Welfare State
- Ambiguity about what constitutes “absolute poverty” and “irresponsible behavior” should be resolved in favor of taxpayers, not recipients. Coercion is not acceptable when justification is debatable. I agree.
- If private charity can provide for people in absolute poverty through no fault of their own, there is no good reason for government to use tax dollars to do so. The best way to measure the adequacy of private charity is to put it to the test by abolishing existing social programs. I agree.
- Consider the best-case scenario for forced charity. Someone is absolutely poor through no fault of his own, and there are no disincentive effects of transfers or taxes. Even here, the moral case for forced charity is much less plausible than it looks. Patriotic brainwashing notwithstanding, our “fellow citizens” are strangers and the moral intuition that helping strangers is going beyond the call of duty is hard to escape. And even if you think the opposite, can you honestly deny that it’s debatable? If so, how can you in good conscience coerce dissenters? Kaplan tried to make a case in his links that the Good Samaritan only did his duty and nothing more. I disagree because of Jesus’ own commentary on the subject. However, I do agree that my fellow citizens are strangers to me. I have a Christian obligation to help them if I have surplus. I have a greater obligation to my own family. I am, therefore, not required to allow my own family to starve so that I might support strangers. If I had the approximately 40 percent of my income that is taken from me by various taxing authorities, I would likely not have this dilemma.
Kaplan personally enbraced all 12 theses and asked lapsed critics of the welfare state precisely which libertarian theses do they reject and what’s the largest welfare state consistent with the theses they accept?
My answer (not that I’m lapsed, more like I’m joining) is I mostly agree with 10 theses with partial acceptance of the other two. I prefer private charity, but I wouldn’t object to some sort of storehouse idea for government where people who were absolutely poor through no fault of their own could go to get temporary assistance. It’s probably best if that exists on the state or local level rather than the federal level because people who know local conditions are better judges of the truthfulness of needs claims than is someone thousands of miles away. Does that mean I’m a libertarian?