Libertarians and the Poor

Television personality John Stossel recently opined about his political views saying that he was "stuck" with the term "Libertarian". Here are a few clips from his article:
I used to be a Kennedy-style "liberal." Then I wised up. Now I'm a libertarian.
We know that conservatives want government to conserve traditional values. They say they're for limited government, but they're pro-drug war, pro-immigration restriction and anti-abortion, and they often support "nation-building."

And so-called liberals? They tend to be anti-gun and pro-choice on abortion. They favor big, powerful government -- they say -- to make life kinder for people.

By contrast, libertarians want government to leave people alone -- in both the economic and personal spheres. Leave us free to pursue our hopes and dreams, as long as we don't hurt anybody else.

Ironically, that used to be called "liberal," which has the same root as "liberty."
When I first explained libertarianism to my wife, she said: "That's cruel! What about the poor and the weak? Let them starve?"

I recently asked some prominent libertarians that question, including Jeffrey Miron, who teaches economics at Harvard.

"It might in some cases be a little cruel," Miron said. "But it means you're not taking from people who've worked hard to earn their income (in order) to give it to people who have not worked hard."

But isn't it wrong for people to suffer in a rich country?

"The number of people who will suffer is likely to be very small. Private charity ... will provide support for the vast majority who would be poor in the absence of some kind of support. When government does it, it creates an air of entitlement that leads to more demand for redistribution, till everyone becomes a ward of the state."
Boaz indicts the welfare state for the untold harm it's done in the name of the poor.

"What we find is a system that traps people into dependency. ... You should be asking advocates of that system, 'Why don't you care about the poor?'"

I agree. It appears that when government sets out to solve a problem, not only does it violate our freedom, it also accomplishes the opposite of what it set out to do.
I found these thoughts to be helpful in understanding the Libertarian point of view. I wish I could have been there with Stossel to ask him about other areas that the government has poked its nose into like slavery, women's rights, anti-trust laws, civil rights, banking protections and other governmental intrusions into our "freedoms".

That said I have to say that I really do not have any answers. On one hand I am frustrated by the expansion of government and the abuses of entitlements by some.. on the other hand I am old enough to remember the stories of the soup lines in the post Wall Street crash years.. it seems that the government was a bit more Libertarian before the crash. But maybe Libertarians are okay with soup lines. I am not. I guess that is why I am a Centrist.

Any Libertarians out there? Any thoughts about the role of government and soup lines?


  1. Bob,

    When I first heard the term "Libertarian", just about 3-4 years ago maybe I thought I had finally found a label that defined me. I am Libertarian on some issues. For example, I don't think the government should tell people what they can and cannot do with their own bodies.

    But, my fundamental problem with Libertarianism is it does not recognize that part of the government's function is to protect the minority (or the weak) from the strong. In that way it's similar to Conservatives.

    I'm all for the government getting out of the welfare business, just as soon as private concerns make it unnecessary. Feeding people and giving them housing may promote an attitude of entitlement. But, is the alternative to let them go hungry and homeless?

  2. The globalizing world we live in hardly seems like a realistic environment to apply libertarian political philosophies, at least not in a country like the USA - it's too big and multinational corporations have too much power to set the terms under which most people live. It seems to me that government, for all its flaws and limitations, is currently the only force capable of counter-balancing corporate power. People who complain about "too much government" seem to be rebelling more against the impersonal nature of contemporary life, especially in its economic and "systems management" aspects (e.g. medical care, education, etc.) But if we seriously rolled back the role of government I have no confidence that private interests or the so-called "free market" would provide better solutions. We'd see more environmental and workplace disasters, all kinds of economic turbulence and displacement and ruthless exploitation if businesses were given full prerogatives to operate laissez-faire. Libertarianism seems as much a fantasy/intellectual abstraction as Marxism or any other idealistic principle applied to human affairs.

  3. Brian, I don't know where in the constitution you found that it was governments role to protect the weak from the strong. In fact, it was to protect the people from the government. Everything else was to be settled individually.
    Bob, you question as to where libertarians are when it comes to slavery, civil rights.... I would say that libertarians are pursuers of such things. The real goal as andrew jackson said is equality before the law. Once we have that, which we didn't with slavery, woman's voting, and civil rights, then we are all free to pursue our failure or success, with no guarantee of outcome

  4. Most libertarians I know would say that the example of soup lines after the Wall Street crash is an example of government intervention, in the guise of the federal reserve artificially creating credit and inflating the money supply. So in other words, the whole reason for the soup lines is the government, and to ask for more regulation would be to ask the abuser for more abuse. This is especially true for those who follow the "Austrian School" of economic thought, especially Hayek, Mises, and Rothbard. Modern proponents would include Ron Paul and Peter Schiff.

    As I understand it, there is a debate in some libertarian circles called the "minarchist vs. anarchist" debate. The minarchists argue that some government is a necessary evil to protect life and property (that is all), where the anarcho-captalist argues that the market and volunteerism would solve everything.

    I personally am not a libertarian (I find many libertarians worship the individual, and the Christian worldview has much to say in regards to community and group values), but I do find some of the contributions to economic thought in the Austrian school to be most helpful. One only has to look at how people such as Paul and Schiff predicted the current collapse years before it happened to ascertain that they are probably on to something. In a society that is increasingly fractionated, I can understand where libertarian thought is attractive for some.

  5. I think that I resonate most with Dave's thinkings. The recent mining disaster in West Virginia is evidence of how safe we might expect working environments to be. I think that the global workplace would be the new measure for compensation and working conditions if government laws were not in place.

    I am not disagreeing with all things libertarian.. I am just picking on them and their attitudes towards the poor.. of course I might be wrong. I think I will write more about this tomorrow.

  6. One last thought.. something I heard years ago:

    The Communist says: "What's yours is mine".

    The Capitalist says: "What's mine is mine".

    The Christian says: "What's mine is yours".

  7. Bob, I've been thinking about this since you posted. I was initially very interested in Libertarians. While the idea of personal responsibility and a minimal federal government appeal to me, the indifference to the issues of those in need did not. I agree that government has a role in taking care of those in need, because it is a basis of my requirements for morality: those that can take care of those that cannot. I find this the most conforting reason for paying taxes. That being said, the Libertarians (at least those up here in NH) seem to be made up of people who have lived responsibly and are often far too proud to take any kind of handout. Most have lived through tough times, pay check to pay check or worse going into debt and then digging their way out. Maybe their attitude toward the poor reflect resentment for those they believe have not suffered as they have? You hear it in their talk of welfare families with SUV's and big screen TV's. I think their view of the poor is skewed because of this resentment. Plus, don't all Americans seem a little skewed in this way? We think having no money put away for our kid's college or retirement means we are poor. Of course we get upset when someone "just like us" is getting something we didn't get. It's funny that we often think only poor people think they are entitled. I think that is where the Libertarians are coming from.

  8. My assertion that part of the government's role is to protect the weak is not based on the constitution or my studies in social sciences, it's based on what I would call common sense (not meant to be offensive). It seems obvious to me that that would be a role of a just government. I think there are lots and lots of precedence for that kind of thinking in the Bible (if you're into the Bible). And, if you're not, just as human beings, I think it's best for all of us and for our societies if we provide for the weak and the poor.

    I know many Americans read the Constitution as if it's a never-changing perfect document that addresses every concern America has ever had or will ever have. I don't see it that way. It's a great starting point written by some brilliant men. But, it's not perfect nor is it completely self-contained.

  9. @Missy - This is an insightful thought: "It's funny that we often think only poor people think they are entitled."

    @Brian - I hear what you are saying. I think that some see the constitution on a level with the bible.

  10. Here's the line that stuck with me Bob: "But it means you're not taking from people who've worked hard to earn their income (in order) to give it to people who have not worked hard."

    I know a guy who digs ditches 60 hours a week, gets into all sorts of muck and comes home tired and achy every day. I know another guy who developed a faster computer program that recognizes when a big stock trade is about to take place, and it automatically goes in and makes a buy so it can resell that stock a second later for a fraction of a penny more.

    One guy is poor and has no idea how his kids will go to college. The other guy has a house in New York, Vale and France.

    The idea that the poor and needy are lazy, greedy and takers is the big lie that makes it easier for the fortunate few to sleep at night.

  11. @Ed - I agree. Most of the success I have had in my life is more representative of the opportunities that I have had rather than my wonderfulness.

  12. "The idea that the poor and needy are lazy, greedy and takers is the big lie that makes it easier for the fortunate few to sleep at night." Well said, sir.

  13. That a man should have a right to make a life for himself is true and noble. The problem is how most (Christians, too) will chose his own right even when it is in opposition to that of another's. I'm the last to believe in the elitism that pervades much of liberal politics, but the mob almost always fails in caring for others unless it's on a small or specific scale. But care for the entirety of the U.S. poor is too large to rely on neighborly care. This has always been an issue in dense populations, especially since the industrial age where people relied on the employment or charity of others to survive. Where one declines, the other must escalate.

  14. "too large to rely on neighborly care"

    -well said Missy!


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