Bryan Caplan  

Libertarianism Against the Welfare State: A Refresher

Krugman's confusing argument f... Hammock on the Chicken Tax and...
I'm a hard-core libertarian who defines libertarianism broadly.  If you think voluntarism is seriously underrated and government is seriously overrated, you're a libertarian in my book.  I also strive to treat others with common decency regardless of their political views.  That includes libertarian apostates.  People sometimes cease to be libertarians even on my broad definition - and when that happens, the proper reaction is not anger and ostracism, but friendliness and curiosity.

In recent years, I've heard many libertarians expressing new-found appreciation for the welfare state.  This is most pronounced at the Niskanen Center, but that's only part of a broader trend.  If the revisionist position were a clear-cut, "Sure, most of the welfare state is terrible, but the rest of okay.  We should cut social spending by 80%, not 100%," their libertarian credentials would not be at issue. 

When libertarians start describing Danish "flexicurity" with deep admiration, however, I don't just doubt their libertarian commitment.  More importantly, I wonder why they changed their minds.  And to be honest, the more I listen to them, the more I wonder.  The most enlightening path, I think, is to restate what I see as the standard libertarian case against the welfare state, and find out exactly where they demur.  Here goes.

Soft-Core Case

1. Universal social programs that "help everyone" are folly.  Regardless of your political philosophy, taxing everyone to help everyone makes no sense. 

2. In the U.S. (along with virtually every other country), most government social spending is devoted to these indefensible universal programs - Social Security, Medicare, and K-12 public education, for starters.

3. Social programs - universal or means-tested - give people perverse incentives, discouraging work, planning, and self-insurance.  The programs give recipients very bad incentives; the taxes required to fund the programs give everyone moderately bad incentives.  The more "generous" the programs, the worse the collateral damage.  As a result, even programs carefully targeted to help the truly poor often fail a cost-benefit test.  And while libertarians need not favor every government act that passes the cost-benefit test, they should at least oppose every government act that fails it.

4. "Helping people" sounds good; complaining about "perverse incentives" sounds bad.  Since humans focus on how policies sound, rather than what they actually achieve, governments have a built-in tendency to adopt and preserve social programs that fail a cost-benefit test.  Upshot: We should view even seemingly promising social programs with a skeptical eye.

Medium-Core Case

5. There is a plausible moral case for social programs that help people who are absolutely poor through no fault of their own.  Otherwise, the case falters. 

6. "Absolutely poor." When Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to save his sister's son, he has a credible excuse.  By extension, so does a government program to tax strangers to feed Valjean's nephew.  If Valjean steals a smartphone to amuse his sister's son, though, his excuse falls flat - and so does a government program designed to do the same. 

7. "No fault of their own." Why you're poor matters.  Starving because you're born blind is morally problematic.  Starving because you drink yourself into a stupor every day is far less so.  Indeed, you might call it just deserts.

8. Existing means-tested programs generally run afoul of one or both conditions.  Even if the welfare state did not exist, few people in First World countries would be absolutely poor.  And most poor people engage in a lot of irresponsible behavior.  Check out any ethnography of poverty.

9. First World welfare states provide a popular rationale for restricting immigration from countries where absolute poverty is rampant: "They're just coming to sponge off of us."  Given the rarity of absolute poverty in the First World and the massive labor market benefits of migration from the Third World to the First, it is therefore likely that existing welfare states make global absolute poverty worse.

Hard-Core Case

10. Ambiguity about what constitutes "absolute poverty" and "irresponsible behavior" should be resolved in favor of taxpayers, not recipients.  Coercion is not acceptable when justification is debatable.

11. If private charity can provide for people in absolute poverty through no fault of their own, there is no good reason for government to use tax dollars to do so.  The best way to measure the adequacy of private charity is to put it to the test by abolishing existing social programs.

12. Consider the best-case scenario for forced charity.  Someone is absolutely poor through no fault of his own, and there are no disincentive effects of transfers or taxes.  Even here, the moral case for forced charity is much less plausible than it looks.  Think of the Good Samaritan.  Did he do a noble deed - or merely fulfill his minimal obligation?  Patriotic brainwashing notwithstanding, our "fellow citizens" are strangers - and the moral intuition that helping strangers is supererogatory is hard to escape.  And even if you think the opposite, can you honestly deny that it's debatable?  If so, how can you in good conscience coerce dissenters?

Personally, I embrace all twelve theses.  But even the Soft-Core Case implies radical opposition to the welfare state as it currently exists.  My questions for lapsed critics of the welfare state: Precisely which theses do you reject - and what's the largest welfare state consistent with the theses you accept?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (46 to date)
BC writes:

On K-12 education, isn't the rationale for public funding of K-12 based on positive externalities of education, that people other than the child benefit from that child's education? In fact, I think Caplan has argued that people should have more children due to positive externalities: more people to trade with and more potential future spouses for one's own children. Presumably, one would want one's children to choose from an educated spousal pool.

Other than that, his soft-core case against universal welfare seems spot on. Why tax someone just to return their own money back to them?

Thomas B writes:

Gosh, I consider myself pretty libertarian, but I think even your soft-core case falls on its face as an influential argument, which suggests to me that there might be a more useful way for you to think about this.

1. Universal programs - "taxing everyone to help everyone makes no sense".
I don't think most people would agree with you.
Essentially, if you are a starving old person, we're going to wind up feeding and housing you. And that's going to be true EVEN if you once had the means to save for your old age, but partied instead. So, we're going to force everyone who can save for retirement to do so, at least to a minimum extent. Whether Social Security is the best design for that, is debated, but the basic concept of "taxing everyone to help everyone" is not, per se, altogether invalid. This is why the government increasingly looks like a heavily armed insurance company.

2. "Absolutely poor through no fault of their own".
I don't think this one gets universal - or even majority - agreement either. I think a LOT of people think that in a society as rich as ours, there is a certain (moving) threshold of basic needs and, yes, wants that can and should be met - EVEN if the person is not "worthy". I understand that you don't, but enough people do that you will lose the discussion IMMEDIATELY if you emphasize this point. They will find your position - and that of people who "have succeeded in our social system but don't want to help the less fortunate" - morally repugnant.

Finally, with your view that "ambiguity should be resolved in favor of the taxpayer", I think you're going to get blank looks from most people. At present, in our society, people are not going to know where you got that idea - and many of them will quickly see that, since there is always SOME ambiguity, your principle would eliminate all social programs - which they will reject without further consideration. They would not see your "principle" as any more valid than "ambiguity should be resolved in favor of the person with the greater need" or "ambiguity should be resolved through the democratic process". You're stating a subjective value and not, as you may think, the obvious.

On the other hand, perverse incentives are much easier to discuss and you'll get much less push-back. I also think it's possible to frame "responsible behavior" in ways that look less like blaming/shaming (increasingly considered morally reprehensible themselves) and more like helping/enabling. Same behaviors, though.

Liam writes:

I must say I don't see why it is wrong in principle to steal to help people who are only relatively poor. If I knew I could get away with stealing a multi-billionaire's tenth Rolls-Royce and use it to fund cataract treatments for poor old ladies or an acne treatment for a teenager who was seriously depressed about their appearance, it would seem to me the right thing to do. If you vividly imagine the increase in well-being for these people, as compared to the slight decrease in utility for the billionaire, it seems to me the right thing to do. I think some libertarians are too caught up imagining the horrors of a mugging situation and they think, 'No! Nothing could justify this!'. If you exercise a bit more moral imagination, I think the intuition against stealing will lose some of its force, especially when you imagine the stealing taking place within a more stable and predictable system of government welfare so that you avoid the terror of having guns pointed in people's faces in the night.

Lauren writes:

Hi, Liam.

So, um, where do you live? What's your address? I'd like to steal from you and give the proceeds to people I care about who are not only just relatively poor but even more destitutely poor than you or me.

I know this sounds facetious. But the important issue you raise is this: In principle it may sound fine and dandy to steal from someone else to give to those who are poor. But if you are the one being stolen from, wouldn't you have a problem with that?

You, Liam, are richer than many others--for sure, because you have access to a computer and are able to read and able to type up your comment and post it on EconLog. So, where would you draw the line? When is it okay to steal from someone else, but hey, you yourself are not okay to steal from?

The concept of Robin Hood in the days of yore was about a desperate situation that is not apt today.

I am trying to reach out to you because, frankly, I don't want anyone to steal from me in my home. But that's how your comment comes off when you say things like it's okay to steal so long as it's to help people who are only relatively poor. So, it's okay to steal so long as your motives are--what? to give to those poorer than who? You? the person you stole from? So, me, if you steal from me? I guess I'm just baffled by your saying you don't see why it is wrong in principle to steal so long as it's to help people who are relatively poor. Relatively poor compared to whom? You? Me from whom you say you see no problem in principle from stealing? Someone abstract you'd like to imagine who is some kind of King John of yore who first stole from his citizens and was deserving of punishment, and who certainly did not, like you, or like me or my parents and grandparents here in America, earn their keep and save and struggle to put aside a nest egg so as to take care of themselves or their grandchildren? Steal from me in my home? My parents' or grandparents' homes? My child's home, who finally has a good job and is socking away money to save for a rainy day after the long, hard financial crisis of 2008? All okay to steal from "in principle" so long as they are not "relatively poor"--so, say, poor relative to whom? you? the person from whom you steal, however much or little that person may have? You draw the line where? If you are richer than me--and you make it sound like you are--may I steal from you without concern or moral repercussions so long as I'm going to give it to others poorer than me? I give a whole lot to people poorer than me. Let's do it together! Why wait for the government?! What's your address?!

ZC writes:

@Thomas B

You (somewhat unintentionally) highlight the fundamental fallacy of the welfare state -- " we're going to wind up feeding and housing you". Talk about perverse incentives...

I have no moral or ethical obligation to care for someone I don't know who has made decades of poor decisions. That you sincerely believe that the hard work of individuals should be forcibly taken and given to those who 'partied instead' (your words) is troubling to say the least.

Denver writes:

I don't even think the moral case, as you've presented, holds any water. Taxation isn't equivalent to stealing, it's more akin to mugging. If you evade paying taxes, the state doesn't say "ah, you got around us, better luck next year". No, they use coercion to take your money.

And while there might be a moral obligation to help the truly destitute. It would be difficult to argue that there is a moral obligation to force others into helping the destitute. If you pass an undeservingly poor man on the street, do you have an obligation to give him money? Arguably. If you pass an undeservingly poor man on the street, do you have an obligation to coerce the rich guy next to you into helping him? I doubt many would say yes, and even less would actually do it if the situation arises.

The only real moral justification here is the one libertarian weasel: consequentialism. Does having a redistribution program, as opposed to not having one, provide significant benefits to society as a whole?

Liam writes:

Hi Lauren,

Thanks for your reply.

I think it is OK to steal if it will increase overall utility.

Does this mean people should, in principle, steal from me? Yes, it does. I think people should steal pretty much everything I have and give it to starving children. Do I want this to happen? No, because I am far too selfish. I don't care enough about being moral or creating a moral society to actually want it in reality, unfortunately.

Currently, I allow loads of people to die horrible deaths or go blind from poverty because I am too selfish - like most people. I use the money to buy things like cinema tickets and ice creams. This is not morally acceptable, in my view. I honestly believe the state ought to compel me to save more lives and prevent more people from going blind. I think the libertarian view on all this is severely tainted by self-interested bias. Libertarians don't want to give away almost all their income, so they want it to be true that it's not an enforceable duty to do so.

If I know I can prevent a teenager from being really miserable by giving them the funds to buy an expensive acne treatment, and I fail to do so, I think I act immorally. So the state should take it from me.

It might seem to be a somewhat demanding view of morality, but it's the one that makes the most sense to me.

Philo writes:

Why wait for the State to save you from your irresistable compulsion to wrongfully selfish behavior? Give Lauren your address; she'll take care of it!

pyroseed13 writes:

I think the problem that Will Wilkinson and Jerry Taylor have is that they find the Rawlsian argument for the welfare state far more compelling than your typical libertarian. And I agree with them in part. While it is true that irresponsible behavior partially explain why poor people continue to remain poor, it just seems unfair to punish the children of those families who had no control over which family they were born into. Private charity certainly can play a role here, but I wonder if would be adequate. In general, I'm just not comfortable telling people that society has absolutely zero obligation help its poorest citizens.

rowbigred26 writes:


If Lauren were to forcible steal from you, would you call the police? If so, why? If not, why not?

JLV writes:

Libertarianism is one big moral hazard problem: non-poor libertarians have no skin in the game if their policies fail, and reap financial rewards regardless (in the form of lower taxes).

Michael Savage writes:

I have a particular problem with 5 and 7: how do you define 'fault'? I think you segue from solid pragmatic arguments to questionable moral ones. Conscientiousness itself is at least partly heritable. So is low IQ. There are lots of reasons for poverty that can't be accounted for purely as acts of will. Of course there are good reasons for society to value and reward industriousness, because those traits increase overall welfare. But you imply judgment of moral worth that raises even my hackles. It starts to look like a statement of self-interest on behalf of people with high conscientiousness and low neuroticism.

As stated, I think 10 is in bad faith, because there is always ambiguity. It's just a way of saying tax is never justified; there must be scope for debating probabilistic costs and benefits. Your phrasing is in tension with 4, which I do agree with.

Steve J writes:

The people you are complaining about are most likely libertarians that are influenced by utilitarian thinking. In this piece you mention cost-benefit analysis - why would cost-benefit analysis matter in this argument? Don't allow yourself to think too critically about considering outcomes or you may soon be joining your enemies.

Jeff writes:

Overall, quite a good summary, but I think 7 and 8 are a little muddier issues than you make them out to be. For example, someone who is poor because they were born with a severe learning disability would be easy to classify as deserving poor, but if you consider that some people are poor because they have a severe lack of conscientiousness which prevents them from holding regular employment, which is likely also a product of some accident of birth, then how do classify that second group? My instinct is to categorize these people as undeserving poor, but how can I reasonably justify that? It's difficult to distinguish between situations where someone is unavoidably held back by physical or mental limitations they have no control over vs those people who could overcome personal defects if only they tried harder or what have you. I guess you can kind of cover that with #10: when in doubt, choose in favor of less coercive redistribution, but nonetheless I think grouping people into deserving and undeserving poor is a more difficult task than it might at first seem, and someone might easily retort that given, as you state, that first world poverty is pretty rare, we should actually err on the side of classifying people as deserving, because if they are that big an outlier, it's probably due to factors outside their control.

I guess if I were a bleeding heart libertarian type, I might say something about the welfare state stopping people from free-riding, too. If you have a moral obligation to help the poor, then in a strictly voluntary charity model, it's too easy for people to free-ride off the charity of others. I guess you could also make an argument where, even if I never have to use social safety net programs, I benefit psychologically from their existence (ie, it gives me peace of mind), so maybe it's not completely unreasonable to ask me to help pay for them, assuming you admit it's legitimate to have them in the first place.

People on the left also like to make the argument that public education is justified because we all benefit from living in a more educated society. Someone so inclined could make a similar case that we all benefit from having fewer poor people running around stealing bread in the first place or drinking themselves retarded and passing out in public places, etc.

kyle r writes:


As Michael Munger says, the state is not a unicorn. There is no reason to think the government (made up of fallible, mortal humans) is any more virtuous than those outside the government. In fact there are many arguments to the exact opposite (e.g. the principal-agent problem).

I wonder how much Americans would donate to charity if they weren't taxed so heavily by the state. Based on the median household income, number of households, and total amount donated to charity by individuals, the average American currently donates 4% of her income. No doubt this would increase if people paid less taxes and could not assume the welfare state would take care of all the problems (not that it is doing a very good job now). This spending would probably be much more localized and be better suited to improve the community. The issue would be in areas prone to cycles of abject poverty. These areas already see a lot of charitable work, but it could be possible that more would be needed.

Floccina writes:

Well as long as we will have a welfare state and we will, we should try to make it efficient.

Replace almost all of it (SS, TANF, SNAP, housing and energy aid) with a BIG.

Make Medicare and Medicaid pay only for the treatments with evidence of large positive margins. This would cut Medicare and Medicaid to less than 1/2 of their current costs.

Also I do not mind programs for the mentally retarded, the Schizophrenic and severely disabled.

Swami writes:

I am a classical liberal and support social safety nets upon consequentialist reasons. These include K-12 education, retirement insurance, unemployment insurance, aid for the extreme poor, catastrophic medical insurance and progressive taxation.

I do agree that these programs, as designed now in the US, have poor incentives and are in many cases outright iatrogenic. They need reforming and many could be privatized.

I of course also fully support the freedom of libertarians and such to freely exit from these programs. Depending upon the program, I would do this either via clear and strict opt-out requirements, or subsidiarity (where some locations don't have these protections and requirements). Details available upon request.

My argument FOR the above programs is as follows:

Human welfare today is better than any time in history of the universe. This fact cannot be taken lightly. The places with exceptional prosperity all follow a basic model of relatively free markets associated with state redistribution and safety nets. The differences between Scandinavia, Singapore and South Dakota are over the details, but are broadly similar. Libertarian/anarchist conjectures of alternative social arrangements are strictly hypothetical and need long term empirical testing prior to wide-scale adoption. I do strongly support such testing.

Thus I recommend the following:
1). Continued experimentation with improving social safety nets (making them less destructive and inefficient)
2). Continued experiment with opt out systems or locales for those who reject the costs and benefits of mandatory safety nets
3). Experimentation with libertarian/anarchist social models as per D Friedman and such. These should start small and grow as they prove their effectiveness.

Donald Pretari writes:

The bad news, Bryan, is that the welfare state isn't going anywhere. The good is that you'll be able to post this refresher unchanged far into the indefinite future.

jtgw writes:

This comments section needs more physical removal.

Sam W. writes:
If you think voluntarism is seriously underrated and government is seriously overrated, you're a libertarian in my book.

Sweet I get to be in the club! For the soft core case, I strongly agree with 3 and 4 and strongly disagree with with 1 and 2. Actually helping everyone may or may not be feasible, but believing there's a moral duty to do it strikes me as perfectly reasonable, most people would want everyone to have the aspects of life the welfare state intends to provide, they just disagree with the tradeoffs made in getting there or how efficient the state is at doing the thing in the first place.

I am reasonably convinced that redistributionist policies and overly large governments have negative impacts on the life, health and happiness, of its citizens. But if this wasn't the case, if we could magically reduce the wealth of the .1% to that of the 1% while simultaneously bringing everyone else on the planet up to the same standard of wealth as the 1% while also not retarding future innovation or growth, I would in a heartbeat.

That is sadly not the world we live in. There is poverty, disease, war, want, and a host of other ills that we should wish gone from the world. And I think solving those ills is worth some moral compromises (like "stealing" money from the rich) I just don't think those moral compromises will actually bring the promised benefits. It doesn't surprise me that people that feel similarly about the plight of others, when presented with evidence of the welfare state not failing too badly, respond positively.

Nicholas Weininger writes:

Here are some reasons I think libertarians should be tentatively and guardedly OK with some substantial welfare state, though not with anything as extensive and complex as what we have now.

1. On absolute vs. relative poverty: providing food, housing, and basic health care security is an expensive and substantial welfare state activity and pretty clearly addresses absolute poverty. Much, though not all, Social Security and Medicare spending goes to people who would otherwise lack these things.

2. On deservingness, several points:
(a) you may underestimate the proportion of people who are poor due to lack of network wealth. A strong social network is crucial to avoiding poverty; it provides good leads for jobs etc, good role models to teach effective behavior, and an informal safety net of people you can go to for help when needed. And there's good historical reason (compiled by Ta-Nehisi Coates and many others) to believe that much, maybe most, African-American poverty in particular derives from deprivation of network wealth due to generations of blatantly unjust, repressive, unlibertarian state policies.
(b) the Georgist/Pigouvian position holds, persuasively in the view of many leftish-libertarians, that everyone deserves compensation for the negative externalities others inflict on them by denying or worsening their access to natural resources humans did nothing to create. And again, there is reason to believe that poor people and especially nonwhite poor people are disproportionately victims of those negative externalities-- having been shut out of opportunities for homesteading, subjected to worse pollution, etc.
(c) even though many poor people are nonetheless undeserving, it's still desirable from a libertarian perspective to deny the state the discretionary power to decide who is deserving, a power easily and damagingly abused.

3. On incentives, it's not in general true that more expensive programs create worse incentives, at least if you think of the implicit marginal tax rate as the main bad incentive mechanism. A guaranteed minimum income paid for by consumption and/or Pigouvian/Georgist taxes, for example, could produce much lower implicit marginal tax rates on work for a wide band of income levels than does the current welfare state, even though the absolute level of tax revenue required to fund it might be higher.

4. On private charity, while its effectiveness is certainly underestimated by statists, it does have real scaling and resilience problems that the Great Depression made manifest. Beito's _From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State_ is a good reference on both sides of this coin.

5. Finally, there's a practical political consideration Will Wilkinson and maybe others have raised, namely that if people feel economically secure against destitution and catastrophe, they will be more likely to support other forms of economic freedom, and individual freedom more generally, in the voting booth. We may not like that we should have to bribe people for our liberty in this way, but it is difficult to see a less expensive and more effective alternative.

Against all that, the "hard-core" argument #12, i.e. that it is wrong to help even deserving poor people by taking by force from strangers who did nothing to create their poverty, actually seems the most forceful one to me. The best answer I have to it is 2(a)-(b) above, which doesn't really get you to a very large welfare state by modern standards, but does get you to considerably more than zero.

Liam writes:

If Lauren stole from me, I would call the police to get the money back. I don't think it would be the right thing to do if I knew that Lauren was going to use the money to save a starving child, but like I said I am too selfish and I want that money for myself. I am an immoral person. Think about it. Somebody is going to die or go blind because I spent money on a sofa. How can that possibly be right? Surely any justifications for such a state of affairs must be saturated by selfishness.

I totally accept the point about government being no more virtuous. I am talking hypothetically. One actual advantage the state has is they can make the redistribution take place within a stable and predictable system of law that avoids the negative secondary effects of private charity muggings and burglaries, which would be terrifying and psychologically scarring in a way that a tax bill is not. That's why a utilitarian can consistently favour government redistribution over private redistribution.

Sieben writes:

I don't know why libertarians keep taking the bait. Our opponents don't really care about eliminating absolute poverty or anything lofty like that. They just care about preserving the white middle class lifestyle. That's why social security and medicare are so popular. People just want to preserve the status quo or maybe live in a slightly nicer house. They don't want to imagine that things will sort themselves out in a dog-eat-dog free market.

Thomas B writes:


You say:

"I have no moral or ethical obligation to care for someone I don't know who has made decades of poor decisions. That you sincerely believe that the hard work of individuals should be forcibly taken and given to those who 'partied instead' (your words) is troubling to say the least."

I'm not arguing that you have any such obligation.

I'm arguing that when you tell the median voter that, they will dislike you. This will make it very difficult for people like me, who are trying to educate people on the benefits of libertarianism.

Think about how you'd help a codependent. Telling them, "bailing your loved one out of jail isn't helping them in the end" may be true, but it's not the place to start. They're going to bail their loved one out. You need to start smaller, with more easily grasped ideas. You can only work up to "actually, becoming responsible for their own sobriety is going to help them more than you ever could" after some smaller victories.

Thomas B writes:

Liam, Lauren,

You have to consider the reason why stealing is considered "wrong" in successful societies. It's because if people have no security in their property, they won't strive to create property - and societies where people don't strive to create property are not successful.

But successful societies also tend not to have large masses of hopelessly poor people who have to look at rich people. In those that did, there's a history of the poor rising up and wrecking the place. So, successful societies have had to find ways to deal with that, too.

A key difference - and it truly is important - between welfare state taxes and stealing is that taxes are predictable. When you decide to cause a taxable event, you know about the tax in advance. So, at the margin, things you might have done, that would have created value, don't get done - and that's a loss. But you don't give up altogether.

I'm not saying this makes taxes "right". I'm saying that evolutionary pressures probably make them as unavoidable as the common cold.

Koenfucius writes:

The first soft-core argument makes sense in theory, but it hits rough terrain in practice. The political support for means-tested benefits, especially among the lower-income slice of those who would not qualify, is patchy.

Universal benefits attract much stronger support. So from a pragmatic point of view, a universal benefit, even if much or all of it is clawed back from the wealthier recipients through taxation, may not be as much of a folly as it looks.

(Of course, technically they wouldn't then really "help everyone", but they do look like they do to the people who matter.)

Market Fiscalist writes:

isn't the libertarian case for redistribution based on the need for social justice ?

Because they have been deprived of their rights both in the past and in the present the poor generally have less wealth and less income than they otherwise would.

Therefore, until such a time comes when these issue can be addressed more directly, redistribution via welfare programs is supportable on the grounds of libertarian justice.

Jon writes:
The best way to measure the adequacy of private charity is to put it to the test by abolishing existing social programs.
Step 1: abolish all social programs. Step 2: count up all the deaths and try to quantify the levels of misery among those still alive. Step 3: compare the numbers from Step 2 with those obtained previously under existing social programs.

Given that there is a non-zero chance that this experiment might lead to a massive increase in human suffering, are you sure it's the "best way to measure the adequacy"?

James writes:


Every potential policy will have different consequences for different people. That is not unique to libertarianism. It's also a feature of every single policy that libertarans oppose.

How concerned are you about the unequal distribution of consequences associated with TANF, agricultural subsidies, medicare, social security, public schools, the income tax, budget deficits, central banking, vice laws, etc?

Thomas B writes:

Market Fiscalist,

You wrote, "isn't the libertarian case for redistribution based on the need for social justice ?" It rather depends on what you mean by "social justice". But, if you mean what I think you mean, then


Libertarianism is based on the idea that a society tends to thrive when people mind their own affairs and help others on a voluntary basis, but do not gang up to direct the affairs of others, nor take advantage of others through force.

So, no. Libertarians can desire social justice, however they define it; they can try to rally others to their social justice cause (and many do); but they do not force others to contribute to their particular view of social justice.

Jesse C writes:

I agree with Liam.

Additionally, I approve of stealing a loaf of bread from a quadrillionaire who feasts on the flesh of starving children, to divide that loaf among ten poor starving mothers to feed their starving children (who are all blind and paralyzed, in addition to starving), if only to prolong their precious time together in this realm by a few hours.

I think most of us reasonable people can agree on that - just not the libertarians who run large multinational corporations!

Gemma Seymour writes:

My position has always been that the majority of libertarian opposition to public welfare has been the idea that taxation is theft, but that if public welfare can be funded without taxation, then there are no obstacles to the people choosing to, via the constitutional democratic-republican due process, allocate public funds as the people see fit.

In my opinion as a geolibertarian (and I would like to note that this website publishes the unabridged version of Henry George's "Progress and Poverty"), you can't be properly libertarian and believe in Feudalism—private property in Nature—so there is no libertarian case to be made *against* the permissibility of public welfare. Therefore, the only libertarian case that can be made isn't really properly a libertarian case at all, since it consists of arguing over whether or not public welfare is useful.

One can certainly argue that it is not, but what has that got to do with Liberty, if the funding comes from inherently public sources and the people have spoken and decided to enact welfare using their rightful powers of governance?

Market Fiscalist writes:


If someone steals your stuff would it be unreasonable to force them to contribute to your view of social justice by demanding it back ?

Mark Bahner writes:


One aspect that hasn't been mentioned is the law. In the United States, there is nothing in the Constitution that authorizes the federal government to take from one group of people and give to another group of people without any service rendered. Or as James Madison put it:

I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.

But why does it even matter if the federal government follows the law? Because if it doesn't, the U.S. is not ruled by law, it's ruled by people. We end up with the current leading candidate for the Republican party saying that not only will he continue the extra-judicial executions of the current Democratic president, but he will extend these executions to innocent women and children.

Jameson writes:

I think many of the comments have already indicated that point 2 should not be placed under "soft core." The vast majority of people are quite persuaded that Social Security and Medicare and (most of all) public education are good things. You really have to be in a hard core libertarian circle to reject this.

Personally, I think these programs are wrong, but not in the sense that their goal is fundamentally flawed. For social security, I would rather just see it privatized--that is, the government would still require a retirement plan for everyone, but they wouldn't charge a social security tax. I'm also in favor of public funding for education, but I'd rather it be through a voucher system.

I'd like to tie points 9 and 12 together. In fact most people miss the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus wasn't explaining what you should do for someone in need--every good Jew knew that. No, he was explaining that you should do it even for the ethnic group you hate most. Samaritans and Jews hated each other--that's why it's so significant that the Samaritan stopped while the priest and the Levite passed by. Likewise, I think we need to learn to overcome our hatred for our neighbors and learn to fulfill our basic moral duty toward them, which necessitates among other things a policy of open borders.

Raul writes:

Liam.... If you go to a movie and buy and ice cream, the teenager who sold you those things can then afford his acne treatment. If you buy a sofa, the guy who made it can't get his granny that eye surgery.

ThomasH writes:

Universal programs like SS, Medicare and public funding and revision of K-12 education might not make perfect sense (meaning that noting more sensible could be conceived) but that is a long way from “folly” in my book.

I do not agree that any policy that is not Pareto optimal is necessarily wrong unless you judge any redistribution as undesirable. In the real political world in which cost-less redistribution does not exist, I think it sometimes makes sense to trade off economic costs for redistribution. For example, that there might be a disincentive to look for work created by unemployment insurance is not definitive in deciding whether the transfer might be worth the cost. One weights the amount of disincentive against the benefit. [A similar argument can be made about minimum wages.]

From these it appears that the essential difference between Libertarians and Liberals is redistribution. The practical disadvantage to us Liberals I see in this is that we cannot expect any help from Libertarians with policies that reduce economic distortions but include elements of redistribution. The de facto skepticism of Libertarians to a carbon tax, or financing SS and Medicare with a less distorting and regressive tax than the wage tax, or replacing the corporate income tax with a progressive personal consumption tax or minimum wages with the EITC, seem to be the best examples of this.

A further obstacle to any practical alliance on ameliorative measures is a frequent tendency of Libertarians to argue as if the only difference between our points of view were our failures to understand (or refusal to accept) that there ARE and economic costs to SS, or minimum wages, or means tested benefits or, indeed, to any way of raising revenue or administering government activities and expenditures (when it is not argued that we are secret totalitarians).

Finally, there seems to be a political reluctance to favor measures that only incompletely realize our shared goals. So, for example, we Liberals get no support on immigration reform that is short of open borders nor am I aware of Libertarian support for, say, turning airport security over to the owners of the airports and the airlines. In practice that means that Libertarians will ally only with Conservatives who wish to preserve the status quo except to further redistribute income upward and expand the national security state.

I do agree about maintaining an attitude of good humor and curiosity about our differences.

Tim B writes:

Thanks for this ....

Libertarianism is one of my favorite Utopias. Yet, I voted with my 401k committee to make our employees have to opt out (rather than opt in) to contributing, and that little bit of behavioral coercion resulted in doubling the number of people whose money we temporarily confiscated for their own good.

I love including K-12 in #2. When a friend of mine since grade school attacked the "47 percent" in a conversation with me, she was aghast when I brought up public schools (and the mortgage deduction). We are funny animals, I guess, is the point.

My taxes are confiscated annually for a military budget that I don't believe passes a cost-benefit analysis. Other may (and do) differ. They may even be right, though that is hard for me to imagine. Those that are obsessed with these kinds of issues bicker and argue about it, and break to about even numbers on both sides. Then policies are enacted by people elected (by the large group that doesn't pay attention or doesn't have a coherent point of view) because of their Q score.

Appreciate the post and the comments. One thought about the "service" rendered by redistributive policies: Pitch in your tax dollars, and the service you receive is that you don't get a pitchfork jammed where the sun don't shine by people happy to prove that their behavioral norms are not up to par. That's not my rationale, but it might work for others.

Alex writes:
taxing everyone to help everyone makes no sense
Only if you give everyone back exactly what you taxed them. But that's not what happens. Redistribution can be a pareto optimal outcome, can't it?
Social programs - universal or means-tested - give people perverse incentives, discouraging work, planning, and self-insurance.
How about the EITC?
Upshot: We should view even seemingly promising social programs with a skeptical eye.
I find the skeptical argument to be unconvincing to people. What happens when you're skeptical? The only argument I have is that the burden of proof is on the coercer, so being skeptical invokes that burden.
Ambiguity about what constitutes "absolute poverty" and "irresponsible behavior" should be resolved in favor of taxpayers, not recipients
I agree with other comments. You need a reason for this.
Thomas B writes:


You write, "we Liberals get no support on immigration reform that is short of open borders nor am I aware of Libertarian support for, say, turning airport security over to the owners of the airports and the airlines".

I support both.

So, now you're aware of one such libertarian!

I don't think libertarians' objections to the welfare state are entirely based in utilitarianism (situation-specific cost/benefit analysis): I think they are deeply troubled by the means. As am I.

I think of the Progressive position as being that if curtailing liberty has plausible net benefits, try it (and if it doesn't work, try more). The libertarian, in contrast, presumes that liberty is best, absent strong evidence (and sometimes the evidence is strong).

In practice, the Progressive view appears to be careful to protect certain non-economic freedoms from government action, but to have particularly little regard for economic freedoms - which is where the disconnect from libertarians lies.

Plucky writes:

The best counterargument for universal vs targeted programs is on incentive effects, the classic marginal vs lump-sum economic case. This is a particularly acute problem for many "anti-poverty" programs, in that the phase-outs that occur as income increases can create >100% effective marginal tax rates (scare quotes because any program or overlapping set of programs that create this disincentive are in effect pro- rather than anti- poverty). If one were to implement something like Charles Murray's "the plan" (universal 10k/yr income guarantee), the disincentive effects that get built into current programs vanish, because you've replaced a marginal, conditional payment with a lump-sum one.

While universal guarantees of that sort are by no means "libertarian", a universal benefit can be at the margin far more libertarian than the present system, in that doing so replaces much of the paternalism in consumption choices inherent in what exists now.

Floccina writes:

@Swami I think that so many USAers agree with you about K-12 education that if the state did not provide it, it would still be provided for the children of lower income people at a sufficiently to not change the numbers much.

Pete writes:

I am happy that I meet your definition of libertarian. That said, I find myself faltering a bit the older I get. I think uncertainty about the future, moral dilemmas, human behavioral issues, and the complexity of situations lend some credibility to some social welfare.

David Hurwitz writes:

Emigration rates from Scandinavian countries are far higher than from the U.S. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation (OECD) here are some rates relative to the U.S.(for population age 15 and over)
Denmark 7X; Finland 10X; Norway 6X; Sweden 5X (results derived from Table 2)

Also the World Bank gives the emigration rates for those age 25+ with one or more years of college. The following are the emigration rates relative to the U.S:
Denmark: 16X; Finland: 14X; Norway: 12X; Sweden: 9X

David Condon writes:

Strangely, I find the most issue with your soft-core case. I would not describe the major welfare programs as indefensible, and I find the evidence that taxes produce bad incentives to be weak, and generally ignores behavioral theory.

Duncan Frissell writes:

On the positive externalizes of monopoly state education, I can only say, "not the way they do it." They seem to be cranking out a slightly higher supply of illiterate communists than the market demands. Government failure or success?

Ever since the 1830s (steam-run presses/pulp paper), education has been super cheap. Abe Lincoln taught himself rhetoric with a few books. Today, there are thousands of schools in the Mumbi slums that charge circa 5 rupees/week. The Universal Library in your hand delivers any knowledge with a zero price.

Like printed works:

Lincoln's favorite school books the KJV and Shakespeare are currently on AMZ for $0.01 and $1.13 respectively (+$3.99 shipping). And for another penny 1955's "Why Johnny Can't Read -- and what you can do about it".

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