Bryan Caplan  

"Callous Libertarians": Missing, or Just Unfairly Maligned?

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Jason Brennan, my favorite philosopher of democracy, ponders the "case of the missing callous libertarians" at Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

If you only read academic philosophy discussing orthodox right libertarianism, you might expect that libertarians are callous and indifferent to poverty...

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.

Considering the fourth book I plan to write - not to mention my earlier work with Scott Beaulier on perverse effects of the welfare state, I seem a prime example of this "preoccupation."  Brennan goes on:

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.

Brennan continues:

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:

  1. It's just a fun fact of no moral significance.
  2. It's part of the justification for market society, but not a matter of justice. (If so, then what role does this play?)
  3. 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."

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
nazgulnarsil writes:

it seems like natural righters would be #2 with many preference utilitarians agreeing with #3.

Saracen writes:

Last time I checked, the rapid elimination of poverty among the Chinese people did not require permitting massive Chinese immigration to America. What it did require was a sane Chinese leader, an America willing to rebuild trading relations, and *limited* Chinese immigration that strengthened ties.

Ever considered basing your policy proposals on what has actually been proven to work, Bryan? As opposed to speculative policies that, if California and Texas are any guide, lead to deeply mixed results at best?

MikeP writes:

The rapid elimination of poverty in China did require permitting massive Chinese migration to the industrialized coast. If China were viewed as two nations, west and east, then indeed immigration from west to east was the fuel for its economic expansion.

The example of China only bolsters the fact that free migration of labor dramatically reduces poverty.

liberty writes:

I think American conservatives are more naturally inclined to make those "merit" arguments, seeing them as values-based, but hard-core libertarians are cornered into making them or else having to either be callous or willing to allow for some role of redistribution.

For example:

Conservative: Government should just enforce institutional rules, while local charities, religion, values-based community groups etc. help the poor, and generally create a social structure that lifts the deserving up and punishes the underserving, etc.

Libertarian: Free markets allow anyone willing to work to make a good living and demonstrate their preferences in the market - there is nothing that the state can do to improve the outcome of this dynamic process. Even the poorest members of society are better off in absolute terms if government stays out.

Interventionist: But what about the disabled who cannot work? How can they demonstrate their preferences in the market? How is the system fair for them - or for those who work to serve and help the disabled? How is it fair that some make millions providing products like junk food, while others trying to serve the basic needs of the disadvantaged barely scratch by?

Libertarian: Charity will help the disabled! Anyone who truly needs help will be helped through private charity. Only those who would cheat the system will be left behind...this follows from the self-interested actions of philanthropists.


I don't think the libertarian reply fully addresses the critique in the end, but it is a back-against-the-wall reply not a core part of the theory as it is in the conservative case. I think libertarians only try to prove that private charity helps the poor, or argue about "deserving" and "undeserving" when they need to support the case that those who slip through the pure libertarian solution will still be better off because they will be helped by charity - or that they won't but they 'should not' be helped anyway.

ajb writes:


How odd that you view the Chinese system as supporting "free" migration. The Chinese have explicitly regulated movement to the coastal regions. This is to limit the political disruption from free migration more commonly seen in countries like Mexico. The Hukou system of residence limits where people can live although it is often violated by many migrants, with neg consequences including corruption. Nonetheless, the Chinese system which was originally based on the Soviet internal passport system, is partially designed to allow the growing areas to keep some of the rents from rapid growth without them being too quickly dissipated by the poor. The claim is that to do otherwise would destroy public support for reform. In general Chinese migration is a lot like migration from Mexico to the US with many illegals but on the whole migration levels far below what they would be if made fully legal. Moreover, selective punishment against undocumented migrants is (need I add) harsher than anything one sees in the US.

John Thacker writes:

I have to agree with liberty, the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, and talking about the link between poverty and irresponsible behavior is at least as stereotypically conservative as it is stereotypically libertarian.

The distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor is a large part of why the Earned Income Tax Credit has been expanded as part of essentially every major tax bill, because Republicans are far more willing to help the poor who are trying to help themselves. Needless to say, I don't think you can call Republicans "stereotypically libertarian" in general.

MikeP writes:


The fact that Chinese migration to the coast is regulated does not change the fact that that migration is what has fueled their rise from poverty.

Indeed, I would argue that dropping the regulation would mean an even faster rise from poverty.

But the main reason you point out that the government regulates migration in China is pretty much the same as the principle reason the government regulates migration to the US: raw protectionism.

Saracen writes:

Yes, MikeP, *some* form of migration aided the rise from poverty. However, it was a form that did not have many losers.

Why don't we work harder to identify that type of solution to world poverty, instead of pushing a "solution" that, in the most prominent trial so far, has wrecked the school system and cratered living standards? (Do you really think LA is in better shape now than it was in 1970? Contrast this with Shanghai.)

Kevin L writes:

In my opinion and experience (limited as it may be), I find libertarianism to have its strength when there is a separation of interests. I think people convolute political, economic, and charitable relationships and think they have to be part of one system when they ought to be viewed as very different aspects of human relations. Politicians pander to the charitable side of people, and now a person's kindness is measured by his support for various (economically dubious) political programs. Charity, kindness, and philanthropy ought to be practiced and preached by all, but not tied to politics or economics. I think the wise person would try to increase liberty for voluntary trade interactions because that is the best for that area of life, and try to increase the strength of the moral bond with all people because that is the best for another area of life.

Maniel writes:

@Kevin L
I wish I’d said that.
Republicans want my money to send our sons and daughters to risk their lives far away, and then want my vote because they are “defending America.” Democrats want my money so that they can spread it around to just about everyone and then want my vote because they are so generous. I have no idea if anyone is “helped” by any of this, but I do know that my taxes are high and that all this (federal) government activity makes our country less prosperous; that is why I call myself a Libertarian. I try to help people (rather than government) when I am able.

IVV writes:

One thing to remember about Chinese migration as a driver for Chinese prosperity today is to remember America in the 1850s.

The United States started industrializing rapidly, attracting people from all over the world.

World population in 1850: 1.3 billion.

China population today: 1.3 billion.

The effects are directly comparable. China doesn't need the rest of the world to see the effect internally.

GU writes:
"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 -"

Interestingly, luck egalitarians (e.g. Dworkin, Rakowski, Arneson, etc.) make the same distinction, though I doubt they receive the same grief for it as libertarians (Elizabeth Anderson's broadside against luck egalitarians for this reason aside).

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