Bryan Caplan  

Tough Luck

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"What if a poor person gets sick, doesn't have insurance, and can't get friends, family, or charity to pay for treatment?"

"What if an elderly person gets defrauded out of his entire retirement and the perpetrator vanishes into thin air?"

"What if a child is starving on the street, and no one voluntarily feeds him?"

"What if someone just can't find a job?"

If you're a libertarian, you face what-ifs like this all the time.  The point, normally, is to make you say, "Tough luck" and look like a monster.  What puzzles me, though, is why libertarians rarely ask analogous questions.  Like:

"What if Congress passes an unjust law, the President signs it, and the Supreme Court upholds it?"

"What if the government conscripts you to fight in an unjust war, and you die a horrible death?"

"What if a poor person drinks and gambles away his welfare check?"

"What if the government denies you permission to legally work?"

"What if the President decides your ethnicity is a national security risk and puts you in a concentration camp, and the Supreme Court declares his action constitutional?"

"What if a person lives an extremely unhealthy lifestyle, so by the time they're retired, they're in constant pain no matter how generous their Medicare coverage is?"

"What happens if a President lies to start a war, and voters don't particularly care?"

Once you start the what-if game, it's hard to stop.  Name any political system.  I can generate endless hypotheticals to aggravate its supporters.  The right lesson to draw: Every political perspective eventually has to say "Tough luck" when confronted with well-crafted what-ifs.  There's nothing uniquely hard-hearted or cruel about libertarianism.  Defenders of democracy, nationalism, liberalism, conservatism, the American Constitution, and social democracy all eventually sigh, "Life's not fair," or "Well, what do you want me to do about it?"

The obvious reply is that some of these hypotheticals are more realistic than others.  But that puts the critics of libertarianism on extremely thin ice.  None of my alternate what-ifs are fanciful.  Several of them - lethal conscription, unhealthy lifestyles, denying foreigners the right to work, mendacious wars -  have happened or continue to happen on a massive scale in the most democratic nations on earth.  In contrast, we've never seen a rich, modern, libertarian society.  For all we know, private charity in Libertopia would more than suffice to end absolute poverty.  Stranger things have happened.

Why the double standard?  The root, I suspect, is status quo bias.  Most people tolerate the unpleasant ramifications of the status quo because they're used to them.  You might get conscripted and die a horrible death?  Oh well, that's life.  Most people won't tolerate the unpleasant ramifications of libertarianism because they're used to a world where government says, "We'll never let that happen."  But what's so great about that assurance, when it's bundled with a long list of other evils that governments blithely tolerate - or actively commit on a grand scale every day? 


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COMMENTS (29 to date)
Sieben writes:

> What if the government did *something bad*?

>> I don't advocate bad governments. I only advocate good governments.

James writes:

Meant as a hypothetical:

Argument for being conservative: Major changes in political systems often end poorly. Arguments in favour tend to be the (highly visible in Western history) French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions along with generalized anti-capitalist backlash in the mid 20th century, where negatives are emphasized more than positives (fairly or not). Arguments opposed would be the American Revolution.


A separate point with relevance to the upcoming US election, and possible past elections. The status quo for both parties seems to be a mythologized narrative of the past, it would be interesting to examine how their policies match up with their "status quo".

Greg G writes:

"we've never seen a rich, modern, libertarian society. For all we know, private charity in Libertopia would more than suffice to end absolute poverty. Stranger things have happened."

Which stranger things would that be exactly?

Kevin writes:

I think one of the differences is that the horrible outcomes in the libertarian-offered hypotheticals aren't as bad for the non-libertarian. If you're a staunch conservative, someone being conscripted into and killed in a war probably isn't as bad/wrong/unjust/whatever because it's 'in defense of the country' or what have you.

On the other hand, Haidt's work hints that maybe the kind of outcomes generated by the non-libertarian's hypotheticals aren't as averse to the libertarian as they are to the non-libertarian.

Tom West writes:

The difference is that in the Libertarian's tough luck, you are admitting a bad outcome is a possible inherent consequence of the system.

In the Statist's tough luck, that's a flaw to be fixed by rallying the people and changing the government - at least in the case of unjust law, conscription, work permission, ethnicity and war question.

In the other two questions, drinking and unhealthy lifestyle, the Statist has at least attempted to do his best. It's not so much "tough luck", but "we tried our best" (which lets us morally off the hook).

The Libertarian "tough luck" sells as well as a politician saying "Sorry, some times bad things happen" in response to a tragedy. Both are true, but if you're trying to sell your philosophy or yourself to the populace, you're better off sweeping such sentiments under the rug.

Liam McDonald writes:

I may be wrong here, but wouldn't negative income tax combined with a flat tax (a Friedman concept) take care of most of those issues?

Thomas Boyle writes:

On Friedman's proposal - If my arithmetic is correct, I believe you could set aside (i.e., retain) current defense spending, and then use the remainder of the Federal budget to give approx. $8,500 annually to each person in the country - or $34,000 to a family of 4. Police, schools, fire service, libraries, etc., would be largely unaffected, since they're mostly locally funded.
Four thoughts. One: whatever about a family of 4 on $34k, it'd be tough for a single person to get by on $8.5k with no other federal benefits. Not impossible, but tough. Clearly, a partial solution would be for low-income single people to live in group housing.
Two: the big issue would be medical costs. In our present system, individual health insurance would be an enormous cost for someone with an annual income of $8.5k.
Three: it's tempting to say, "well, most people don't need that money - we should stop giving it to most people and then we could give more to the poor". This apparent solution would, unfortunately, create a steep effective tax rate on anyone attempting to stop being poor, creating a poverty trap. In contrast, our current system... Hey, wait a minute...
Four: Despite what I just said in Three, I do think some adjustment would be needed, for people genuinely unable to help themselves. It's one thing to get handed $8.5k as a single person, and be told "you're able-bodied - go out, do something useful, and top that money up!" but quite another to hand $8.5k to someone physically disabled or with limited mental capacity, and just leave it at that. Of course, for every top-up to the genuinely disabled, the starting amount for everyone else goes down a little.

Norman Pfyster writes:

Inaction vs. consequences of action. All your examples of libertarian heartlessness are refusals to alleviate harm when it could be alleviated (thus the charge of heartlessness or selfishness). All your counterexamples are consequences of action that may or may not be justified or outweighed by the benefits.

Brian Shelley writes:

"What if a child is starving on the street, and no one helps them because they assume the government is feeding him?"

"What if someone just can't find a job, and no one will hire him to do odd jobs because the government has made that illegal, and besides, the government offers programs for him?"

"What if the Vice President of the United States gave no money to charity because individual kindness is obsolete when the state is in charge of it?"

"What if ordinary people no longer made any effort to help their neighbors because they assume that it's the government's job?"

Jeff writes:

I'd echo what Tom West said, but I'd add that part of the answer is that progressives have a plausible mechanism for preventing abuses or predations on the part of government: democratic elections, separation of powers (while pretending that they haven't spent the past century trying to do away with this), public education (ie, mass propaganda), etc.

That these mechanisms don't really seem to work in practice doesn't matter. What matters is that you have some rhetoric to fall back on in an argument with someone with drastically different views or in moments of self doubt and introspection. Whereas for libertarians to simply admit that bad things will likely befall some people in a society where the safety net is dependent upon the compassion and generosity of others...shocking to the conscience of people who don't think that way.

R Richaard Schweitzer writes:

In all those initial situations, the response lies with the answer to the question:

"Where do the obligations to deal with the issues of the events lie?"

That, in turn, is dependent on the nature of the social order in which the events occur - which is resultant from the forces that formed and maintain that order ( or are changing it).

The answers will likely differ in the Sahil from San Fransisco.

From thence, we can move to how and by what means those obligations may be, or are to be, met.

David Boaz writes:

What if you save all your life, and then the government inflates away the value of your savings?

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Sorry for the typo;

Sahel not Sahil

To go with the inferences toward Libertarianism attitudes in the second portion, I offer again:

"Normative Libertarianism is framed by the impacts of the functions of governments on Liberty and thus to limit those impacts by limiting those functions."

prometheefeu writes:

I would make it simpler:

What about that starving child right there that the government isn't helping?

And that old person who fell through the cracks and is living off cat food?

And that guy whose unemployment ran out?

And that guy who was denied Medicaid?

Ken B writes:

I rather like PrometheeFeu's take. Just because there are unsolved problems doesn't mean that a government will solve them. If you look at the amount the government spends on allegedly helping the poor you cannot help but notice that only a samll fraction of the 'help' actually gets through.

Peter St. Onge writes:

Excellent point and great post we can all put on our tool belt.

I think it's more than status quo bias. I think what happened is these statist policies were explicitly sold to contrast with the "do-nothing" "what if." They were sold against conservative opposition, but you're naming areas where conservatives and libertarians agree.

pr writes:

"What if the President decides your ethnicity is a national security risk and puts you in a concentration camp, and the Supreme Court declares his action constitutional?"

How would this not happen in a Libertopia society if enough people got scared and frightened?

Reframed:
"What if the Majority decides your ethnicity is a national security risk and puts you in a concentration camp, and the Majority Controlled Courts declares the majority's action legal?"

Libertarianism relies upon too many straw men.

I have tried to understand Libertarianism, great in theory but difficult to implement. Without good moral actors, how does Libertarianism avoid a spiral into anarchy and rule of the strongest?How does libertarianism avoid this fate without a significant majority of people accepting some sort of implied social contract? Given herd behavior and human susceptability to all sorts of less than rational influences, I have little faith a libertarian project could succeed even with a majority in support.

Libertarianism needs people to fundamentally respect other people and leave them alone. Human history does not support this. Ethnic and geographical groups have always lived and continue to live in suspicion of the others.

Andrew Blackmer writes:
Given herd behavior and human susceptability to all sorts of less than rational influences, I have little faith a libertarian project could succeed even with a majority in support.

Libertarianism needs people to fundamentally respect other people and leave them alone. Human history does not support this. Ethnic and geographical groups have always lived and continue to live in suspicion of the others.

Well, my "libertarian" argument in response to this is: given the fact that people do act irrationally and are prone to act violently and violate people's rights, why should we give any human beings the monopoly on the use of force? Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Jeff writes:
Without good moral actors, how does Libertarianism avoid a spiral into anarchy and rule of the strongest?How does libertarianism avoid this fate without a significant majority of people accepting some sort of implied social contract? Given herd behavior and human susceptability to all sorts of less than rational influences, I have little faith a libertarian project could succeed even with a majority in support.

Libertarianism needs people to fundamentally respect other people and leave them alone. Human history does not support this. Ethnic and geographical groups have always lived and continue to live in suspicion of the others.

Replace "libertarianism" with "democracy" in those two paragraphs, and what changes? Not much, right? Any society not governed by a totalitarian dictatorship requires that there be some level of mutual respect among citizens. Libertarianism is not in any way unique in this regard. It is not anarchism (for most people; Bryan might be a rare exception). It is just a matter of confining the state to a few fundamental functions.

Trespassers W writes:
Libertarianism needs people to fundamentally respect other people and leave them alone. Human history does not support this.

Have you noticed that things have improved over time? Why do you think that is?

Jeff Perren writes:

"The root, I suspect, is status quo bias."

I respectfully doubt this.

All such scenarios come from the Progressive mentality (no matter their ideological self-identification) and are appeals to Comtean altruism. They're attempts to instill guilt to soften up the opponent for the next step: to have the government "do something" to solve the problem.

Without Comtean altruism as moral support, all such appeals will fall flat.

MingoV writes:

pr said:

Without good moral actors, how does Libertarianism avoid a spiral into anarchy and rule of the strongest?How does libertarianism avoid this fate without a significant majority of people accepting some sort of implied social contract?
You are correct that a libertarian society requires people to follow libertarian principles: self-reliance, honoring contracts, not harming other persons except in self-defense, and not taking or damaging property owned by others (which includes not using the government to redistribute wealth). However, few people wish to be self-reliant and fewer still want to live in a strict contract society. That's why the only nation that started with a nearly libertarian government (the USA) continually moved toward a nanny-state, freedom-reducing, non-federalist, massive, and powerful national government.

No nation can adopt a libertarian government. Libertarians will need to create and populate a new nation in order to establish a successful and enduring libertarian society.

Philo writes:

“Every political perspective eventually has to say ‘Tough luck’ when confronted with well-crafted what-ifs.” Not so. Whatever nasty counterfactual you produce, the statist can say: We’ll set up a(nother) government commission to deal with that. You can keep on producing your bad scenarios indefinitely, but the statist can keep on giving his standard statist reply. Because this goes on forever, you don’t win and the statist doesn’t lose. The statist never has to say ‘Tough luck’; he just keeps on saying: We’ll charge the government with rectifying that (even if 'that' is some sort of government failure). To his ear, this *sounds nicer* than ‘Tough luck’, so he continues to feel good about his position.

Drewfus writes:
None of my alternate what-ifs are fanciful. Several of them - lethal conscription, unhealthy lifestyles, denying foreigners the right to work, mendacious wars - have happened or continue to happen on a massive scale in the most democratic nations on earth. In contrast, we've never seen a rich, modern, libertarian society.
The answer to the posts' central question is in the post - the bold part of the above quote. Hypothetical what-ifs are always more frightening than what-ares - even if they are less objectively damaging in practice.
mark writes:

"What if an elderly person gets defrauded out of his entire retirement and the perpetrator vanishes into thin air?"

This is a weird complaint. First, the SEC has been atrocious about preventing this kind of thing. "What if the government created a regulatory body that gave elderly people a false sense of security but didn't do its job competently and as a result the elderly people got defrauded?".

Second, the most common culprit for taking money from an elderly person is a family member or caretaker.

Third, to the extent the fraud is systematic and not a one off hit on someone, the person is going to be engaged in an ongoing fraud and easily found, and, in the modern era, the proceeds of the fraud are pretty traceable.

Fourth, there are insurance funds to mitigate this.

But the main point is I don't think anyone has proposed a regime where this would have any plausible prospect of happening. Caveat emptor AFAIK has not been urged to apply to elderly buyers of financial products in anything I have read.

"...we've never seen a rich, modern, libertarian society. For all we know, private charity in Libertopia would more than suffice to end absolute poverty. Stranger things have happened."

I can't put into words how sublimely lacking in self-awareness you have to be to write something like that and believe it.

Ohio libertarian writes:

What if someone is willing to work for less than the minimum wage, but the government makes it illegal for them to do so?

Peter writes:

What if a vote-grubbing DA decides to throw you in jail because a media outlet edited an audiotape?

David Ray writes:

There's also "What do you mean 'what if'? All that stuff happens with benevolent government."

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