David R. Henderson  

Jeff Sachs is Right--and Misleading

Health Care Costs are Hard to ... Tell Me the Difference Between...

My friends Steve Horwitz and Don Boudreaux have taken strong exception to a recent piece by Jeff Sachs. But I think Sachs got this one right, at least on the particular passage to which Steve and Don take exception. Here's the passage from Sachs:

Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable--all are to take a back seat.

Steve Horwitz has made clear in a comment on Robert Murphy's blog that this is not his position. He writes:
I *would* be willing to take people's property against their will IF I really believed that it was true that doing so would make the world a better place on net and in the long run. I don't think it would, hence I think it would be wrong to do. But it's wrong, in my view, not because it abridges liberty per se, but because that abridgement of liberty hurts the people it's trying to help. So for me, liberty is NOT the highest political end. It's one among many ends, and it's also a means to many of those ends.

But many libertarians, including Bob Murphy, do fit Sachs's description. Where am I? I'm squishy. I wouldn't go nearly as far as Steve Horwitz. But what if forcibly taking one dime from one person once would prevent the world from imploding? Then I wouldn't hesitate to do so. So I, like Steve Horwitz, would not fit Jeff Sachs's description of a libertarian. But I have at times, especially when I was in my late teens and early 20s. I bet a lot of young libertarians do fit the description.

Where I think Steve Horwitz and Don Boudreaux are on stronger ground is in pointing out how misleading Jeff Sachs's piece is. A careless reader--and there are many--will think that Sachs has established a tradeoff between, say, compassion, and liberty. He didn't, and, in fact, didn't even attempt to. Steve Horwitz points out, quite correctly, that liberty and compassion are complements: the more liberty people have, the more compassionate they are, typically. One of my Greek students two years ago told me that he was so glad to have brought his kids to America for 18 months while he was in school so that they could see up close how pro-active Americans are in helping each other during times of trouble rather than sitting back and letting the government do it, as this student said happens in Greece.

What would be interesting would be to see where Jeff Sachs stands on the following government uses of force that are not only not compassionate but also hurt people badly and sometimes kill them:
. President Obama's escalation of the war on Afghans.
. President Obama's escalated killings, using drones, of innocent people in Pakistan. (Some of the U.S. military people involved call the innocent ones killed in pursuit of the bad guys "bug splat.")
. President Obama's continued aggressive enforcement of the war against buyers and sellers of drugs.

So my question for Jeff Sachs is this:

How compassionate are you? Specifically, Jeff, if you face a choice between supporting a president who supports some of your favored policies that you work on and supporting a presidential candidate, say Ron Paul, who opposes most of the policies you work on but wants to stop the U.S. government's killing of innocent people abroad and of innocent Americans (think about drug busts gone bad), whom would you support? If, as I suspect, it's not Ron Paul, what is your highest political value?

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (25 to date)
MikeP writes:

I thought the most egregious misrepresentation in Sachs' piece was the following:

By taking an extreme view -- that liberty alone is to be defended among all of society's values -- libertarians reach extreme conclusions. Suppose a rich man has a surfeit of food and a poor man living next door is starving to death. The libertarian says that the government has no moral right or political claim to tax the rich person in order to save the poor person...

Most ethical and political systems find the libertarian position abhorrent, indeed preposterous. Most would hold that the government can, should, and indeed must, tax the rich person to save the poor person.

First of all, such lifeboat ethics are terrible way to figure out how people in a large society should behave. But, more importantly, any consistent application of the moral standard espoused here would yield the conclusion that anytime one thought the government should be giving money to someone in the US, it should instead give that money to someone in some developing country instead. For it is certain that the poor person in the US is the rich man in the parable -- both in absolute wealth and in opportunity -- compared to much of the population outside the US.

That's because most ethical and political systems hold that liberty is only one value among many important values, and that the value of the indigent's life takes priority over the liberty of the rich individual.

And any consistent ethical or political system that would tax the rich in the US to redistribute it to the poor would redistribute virtually all of it outside the US.

Redistributing that money to the poorer person next door instead either shows a massive racist or nationalist bias against the truly poor or, more likely, simply reflects selfish aesthetics rather than considered morality.

In other words, the most important value in such a system is neither liberty nor compassion, but not being around poor people.

Stupid Uncle Bob writes:

I believe your title should read, "Jeff Sachs is partially correct, but also writes propaganda".

Methinks writes:

I can relate to the Greek student and I can't agree with Horwitz's conclusion more.

As immigrants from the Soviet Union, we were stunned by Americans' compassion, fair mindedness and willingness to "spread" their own wealth "around". And by "wealth", I mean more than mere money. Nothing like that would have ever happened in the Worker's Paradise we just left, where everyone was constantly compelled to sacrifice for the dream of a Communist Utopia and obtaining creature comforts at each other's expense was a way of life.

36 years later my family visits from Moscow regularly and they are still surprised by American kindness every time. And that's in New York City!

When people have liberty the things Sachs wrings his hands about tend to grow. People are more compassionate, humble, honest and respectful. Those adjectives would never apply to the Soviet population. These are all things that must be felt by people. They cannot be forced by government.

I don't think that you have to be an inattentive reader to think that Sachs established a trade-off between liberty and virtue. That was clearly his intent.

David R. Henderson writes:

All good points and you made them well. But you missed my point about the trade-off between liberty and virtue. I think his intent was to suggest a trade-off. My point is, and I would bet you share it, is that he didn’t establish, or even try to argue, that there is.

Methinks writes:

@David Henderson

Thank you. You're right on both counts. I did miss your point and I do agree. Thank you for setting me straight.

GoogleBingAsk writes:


If promoting liberty promoted other values instead promoting them, why is libertarianism a fringe movement? Why do most people not gravitate towards it naturally because it "feels right"? Why are you guys considered fringe wingnuts by the mainstream of most countries?

PrometheeFeu writes:


It's a simple free-riding issue. Thinking about issues is hard and might make me feel uncomfortable. But hey! If I vote for the wrong guy that has almost 0 impact on that person getting elected. So we all make that choice, vote for the wrong guy and voila. (Mind you this just refutes your argument, it doesn't prove libertarianism is the best policy)

@David Henderson:

I think a fairer characterization of libertarians is that they hold liberty as the most important value. That does not mean that we'll always choose liberty over other values. It just means that we'll default to liberty and only accept it being abrogated given sufficient reasons. For some there is no such thing as a sufficient reason. But I think that for most, there are many cases where we would accept intervention. I'd go for a proper negative income tax in a heartbeat for instance.

Methinks writes:


My observation is that the overwhelming majority of the people I meet in the United States are quite naturally libertarian - though they know nothing of libertarianism per se. Liberty is a natural feeling here. It's rarely advocated because people take it for granted. America and liberty are virtually synonymous. The extreme right and extreme left, brimming with varying forms of patriotism and collectivism, are both utterly devoid of so much as the rhetoric of liberty - which is why, I suspect, they are the fringe of the two political parties.

Also, note the increase in anti-libertarian shots from both the right and the left. Why would they bother if libertarians - or, more accurately, libertarian ideas - are merely fringe?

MikeP writes:

GoogleBingAsk, why don't you tell us? Why is liberty such an odd thing to mainstream America?

When mainstream Americans learn about the fringe wingnuts that wrote things such as...

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

...how does that make them feel? Do they really disagree with the founding notions of the country that much? Or do they simply not find it important enough to think it through?

fundamentalist writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Ken B writes:

I think Sach's has a stronger case than Boudreaux admits as well. david is right that sachs has not made a case that there is a trade-off, but I expect sachs simply thinks it is obvious. I'd be interested in his argument and David's response.

@DRH: Are you really as squishy as you say? We discussed lend-lease and you told me you objected to providing military supplies to allies even during wartime, presumably from libertarian scruples. L_L might not be a dime to save the world but its a few large steps in that direction, and you object.

Ken B writes:

@GoogleBingAsk: No complete answer but some thoughts.
1. Lots of people say the same thing about atheists. Does that prove there is a god?
2. There are some extremists in the libertarian end of the spectrum, and they get a lot of attention. They aren't always representative. Is alcee Hastings the typical liberal?
3. There are a lot of docrtrinaire pacifists who are libertarian (wander over to a Caplan post someday). This attracts some deserved criticism. Not all libertarians are pacificists (and to risk the comment censor's ire, I will some support actual liberations.)

Ken B writes:


I think a fairer characterization of libertarians is that they hold liberty as the most important value.

I see it as the most fragile value. Hence the one that needs the greatest protection.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
I was trying to be a little humorous with my “squishy” remark. Maybe it didn’t come across that way.
Re Lend-Lease, I think America would have clearly been better off by staying out of WWII and that subsidizing two moral monsters--Stalin and Chiang Kai Shek--was a bad idea.

Philo writes:

Sachs can reply that (1) American war efforts in Afghanistan are aimed at providing the Afghan people with freedom and prosperity in the long run; (2) something similar about Pakistan; (3) the War Against Drugs is aimed at preventing the harm done by drugs, especially to children. Whether these governmental efforts do more harm than good is an empirical question, about which (Sachs can say) he has a different opinion from yours.

Jonathan Bechtel writes:

@Ken -

Great point about liberty being fragile. I agree, and probably one of the reasons libertarians are squishy about political action. The rationale for political decisions is usually based on symbolism and moral abstractions, and libertarians worry about the millions of heterogeneous details that get ignored when decisions are made by a few on behalf of many.


The populist libertarian movement gets the most media attention, but I think most libertarians are probably like the ones who read this blog. They're not at conspicous pep rallies dressed up like Thomas Jefferson, just "regular" folks who hold a particular belief.

I think the reason libertarian virtues aren't more widely held is rooted in biology. We almost all adhere to the "It Takes a Village" mentality, but I think Libertarians disagree over how you would define the village. The nation state is not the most useful way to define "we", and that's probably at odds with most of the population, and why many non-libertarians view many libertarian policies as being cold-hearted and scornful.

David R. Henderson writes:

True, he could say that. But what I want to know is what he does say.

Ken B writes:

Well I don't want to pick a fight, and I won't be able to show you the error of your ways in blog comments, but on Landsburg's site the old argument about fly-paper tax incidence is going on again. I'd say your characterization of L-L to Russia and China is a fly-paper notion of who benefits. I think the average Ivan, Pierre, or GI was the real beneficiary, as he rode the truck, used the morphine, and didn't get shot as often due to the L-L supplies, and that you have some work to do proving the regime was the only real beneficiary.

Perhaps I misread you but you seemed to oppose it to Britain during the war too.

Ken B writes:

Jonathan Bechtel: "The rationale for political decisions is usually based on symbolism and moral abstractions"

That nicely encapsulates my object to DRH's characterization of Lend-Lease to Russia! His assessment seems to me based precisely on moral abstractions and symbolism.

On GoogleBingAsk's point I fear there is an ugly grain of truth to his charge. One important reason is that Ron Paul is the country's best known libertarian (self described) and that many -- Henderson, caplan, Boudreau -- leap to his defense. But really he's not so defensible. http://ricochet.com/main-feed/Unhand-Us-Greybeard-Loon

PS DuckDuckGo is a good search engine that unlike Google does not make deals with the communist gov't of China.

Methinks writes:

I think the average Ivan, Pierre, or GI was the real beneficiary, as he rode the truck, used the morphine, and didn't get shot as often due to the L-L supplies...

Increasing the probability of surviving the war only to helplessly face Stalin's regime which declared all POWs to have committed treason and either shot them or destroyed the rest of their lives, making them long for that fatal fascist bullet.

Just sayin'.

Ken B writes:

@Methinks: fair point. It's poetic fancy about longing for the fascist bullet though, and that hides a very real benefit; everday a survivor doesn't kill himself we can infer he prefers being alive. And of course it still leaves a lot of beneficiaries.

Methinks writes:

It's only poetic fancy until you see it first hand (as a child, long after the war ended, I had no idea the war was over it was so prominent in our lives). It's possible to prefer death by drink, as so many survivors did. Those aren't counted as suicide.

On net, the regimes won. Of course, it's hard to really confirm that beyond doubt. The value of life is subjective. Do you prefer slavery to a bullet? A life of fear to a bullet? Undoubtedly, there are those who do. But, if such survival was a benefit, then it was a dubious one in the USSR.

It took me a long time to abandon my previous position on the war (one I suspect I shared with you), but I now think it's entirely possible that both Hitler and Stalin could have lost without the help of the Americans. I think that could have been a greater win.

fundamentalist writes:
Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable--all are to take a back seat.

My previous post was deemed too insulting to Sachs to print, so let me try to soften it a bit. I think Sachs’ characterizes all libertarians as if they were devotees of Ayn Rand. Most are not, and since Sachs’ knows that I think he is being dishonest.

I don’t even agree with Dr. Henderson that Murphy fits Sachs’ characterization. Individually, I know for a fact that Murphy would give his last piece of bread to a hungry person. But Murphy, like most libertarians, think “Compassion … civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable” are the responsibility of individuals, churches and private groups, not the responsibility of the government.

I left justice out of Sachs’ list because justice is the main job of the state.

[N.B. fundamentalist: Your comment privileges will not be fully restored until you respond to our email.--Econlib Ed.]

Ken B writes:

Methinks: I do doubt the dual destruction scenario. Dual survival is also a possibility.

I think a better case (against my side) can be made in re the portion of eastern europe stalin was able to consume and keep. It's complicated by the western decision not to race to conquer territory and deny it to the soviets, but I think there's an argument i there. (It also might split the methinks/DRH camp -- would you have fought harder to liberate that territory ahead of the red army? I think DRH's answer would be no.)

Methinks writes:

The thing about counterfactuals is there are so many you can really have fun!

Russia was such a vast, underdeveloped country that Russians could retreat effectively forever and stretch Hitler's supply lines beyond the breaking point. Hitler made two terrible mistakes in the beginning - delaying the invasion to June 21st (an anniversary of Napoleon's invasion, no less) and splitting the sixth army. He weakened himself so much that he couldn't win Russia despite Stalin's persistent idiocy.

93% of Hitler's losses were on the Eastern Front. I have serious doubts that Hitler could have fought on two fronts and held any significant part of Russia and Western Europe. The "if it weren't for blah blah blah, we'd all be speaking German" argument just seems silly given the task facing the German army. Similarly, it's possible that Soviet rule, like Nikolai II's before him, could have been irreparably damaged. The communist revolution was not a populist uprising and peasants hate the state about as much as they hate starving to death.

I think it would have been complicated to fight the red army for bits of Western Europe. That would mean effectively starting a new war with one of your allies. Plus, I'm not sure the other allies knew that the Soviets wouldn't give back conquered territories. Did they?

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