Libertarians and Charity

2011-09-15

As an undergraduate I largely avoided political science because I couldn’t imagine getting interested in reading The Republic, Leviathan, or Wealth of Nations. Political philosophy, and philosophy in general, just seemed like a horrible painful exercise, so I avoided it. Of course now that I’m involved in public policy and not organic chemistry, it feels as though I’ve done a horrible disservice to myself by not going through and systematically exploring more fundamental questions about the role of the state, ethics and morality, justice, etc.

Part of my personal re-education in this area has been much easier by having access to a host of well-written blogs that host great conversations about these issues. These sources are smart, generally trustworthy, and are generally collegial. By reading actual academics apply their knowledge to current events, I am able to get access to a much more sophisticated conversation than is available in most popular media.

One of these sources is Bleeding Heart Libertarians, which seeks to explain how libertarians can have robust participation in social justice. This is a particularly interesting topic since, as I understand it, one of the major critiques of libertarianism is that it does not address social justice in a comprehensive and sufficient way.

Today, commenting on Ron Paul‘s response to Wolf Blitzer‘s baiting on healthcare1, BHL contributor Professor Roderick Long brought up one of the libertarian arguments that most confounds me— charity and mutual aid. Long writes that a libertarians second response to an individual’s failure to use basic services ((Specifically, Blitzer presents the case of a healthy young man who foregoes health insurance. However, Professor Long’s suggested response is sufficiently vague that I believe it is safe to say that he would apply the same three stages to any situation where an individual’s circumstances or decisions have jeopardized their access to basic needs. This includes all social safety net programs.)) should be, “talk about how charity and mutual aid are more efficient than government welfare, and how we therefore need to shift the venue of assistance from the latter to the former.”

This argument had always felt extremely classist to me. It seems that those who are most vulnerable have never been the folks who have access to mutual aid or charity through local community organizations, family members, friends, and other contacts. General social capital aside, even people who have strong community ties who are most likely to need access to a social safety net live in communities that overwhelming don’t have the collective resources to offer sufficient aid to promote the welfare of that community. The whole concept seems steeped in a highly culturally informed sense of reality that imagines a small town church community as opposed to the generationally impoverished’s reality.

It’s not that I’m not sympathetic to the argument that it is possible that models of mutual aid and charity could ultimately private superior resource allocation, it’s just that I don’t think that aggregate efficiency is the goal here. I realize that this is a statement of prior moral conviction, but it seems to me that the ostensible purpose of safety nets is to make sure the most coverage against a failure to meet the basic needs of all people. Under this situation, efficiency is desirable but secondary, and I don’t see how mutual aid and charity will provide sufficient coverage to meet the needs of the most important beneficiaries of these policies.


  1. http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2011/09/the-libertarian-three-step-program 

This entry was tagged as bhl bleeding heart libertarians charity health insurance libertarianism political philosophy politics poverty ron paul social safety net

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