Libertarians say they prefer to help vulnerable groups, such as the poor and disabled, through private means such as charity versus through public programs like Social Security or welfare. They argue that since taxes are compulsory, the government, and by extension, recipients of social welfare programs, are “stealing” from them. Libertarians insist that people will help one another out of the goodness of their hearts without being “forced” by the government to help. Others go so far as to say that it is their right to ignore the plight of others in society altogether. That group usually has Ayn Rand under their pillow having already starting to absorb her sociopathy.
Ethically, using the philosophy of John Rawls, analysis shows the libertarian way actually restricts freedom where it claims to enhance it. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued that people are basically selfish and want to maximize their own fortunate circumstances. So far, so good. We’re on track with a libertarian worldview. But then he says, in order to make a just society, that society would need to be designed with a “veil of ignorance,” meaning that everyone involved in constructing a particular society would have to be unaware what their own social status would eventually be. For example, if you are going to design a society that treats everyone equally, you want the designers of the society to believe that they have just as much of a chance of being a heterosexual, white man as they do a lesbian, Asian woman.
Under a veil of ignorance, any of us could be born the child with low intellectual ability, grow up in a toxic environment, or become the welfare recipient. Keeping in mind the risks of drawing the short straw in life, the ethical, and yet still selfish, person will choose to create a society where everyone, especially the most disadvantaged, is living the best possible life with the most freedom. This means that in order to have a just society, you would plan one that would be ideal for disadvantaged people just as much as for the others. It’s justice through a combination of blind empathy and enlightened self-interest. This means you would want your society and its tax system to be advantageous to the most vulnerable people, because if you were in their shoes, that is what you would want. It is a part of the social contract, the reason that humans agree to work together in harmonious, political communities in exchange for the hassles of group life.
This brings us to a historical examination of private charity to see if it provides either freedom or the best possible life to the disadvantaged as ethically described. How much research has the average libertarian done into the provision of services in the private versus the public sector? Very little, although there are think tanks funded by the Koch brothers that devote their time trying to prove that private charity would be sufficient to replace government benefits (e.g., Cato Institute). Long-time scholars of social services provide a different picture through their own research that shows prior to government intervention, poverty was much more rampant among the elderly (National Bureau of Economic Research), and disease and illiteracy more common among the poor (The Future of Children).
There has never been a Golden Age when people gave to one another both generously and privately. Prior to the use of a public system, people suffered without help or with minimal interventions (e.g., The Public Good by Lindert). What else was wrong with the era of private charity? People were forced to attend religious services in exchange for their charity. This could hardly be seen as evidence of freedom for the vulnerable. This practice continues today where many church-based charities require help-seekers to complete religious programming prior to receiving services (e.g., the Salvation Army).
There are also pieces of historical fiction that offer a window into the world before government intervention. Whether it’s Charles Dickens in England or Herman Melville writing from the States, there are vivid depictions of life without public services. Orphans of less than 10 years old living homeless on the streets, women and children left to starve (e.g., Copy of “What Redburn Saw” by Herman Melville), and charity assistance so minimal that you did not get to eat and many of your family members died (e.g., Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt). Some would claim these are examples from a different time gone by. If so, check out the indifference and venom in the comments section of any article on the web written about today’s tent cities (Tent Cities Scorn).
There are modern practical reasons for government to provide the social safety net during times of economic troubles. According to Ezra Klein, just as the recession was swelling the demand for social services, private charitable donations were reduced by 11% (The Problem with Charity by Ezra Klein). Government does not respond to the market in the same way that the private sector does, thus becoming a reliable source of services to the people who need them, whether the economy has tanked or not. The relationship between taxation and charitable giving seems tenuous given that corporate taxes dropped precipitously from the 1960s to the present, but subsequent increases in philanthropy did not increase (Good Hearts by Robert Kuttner). Scholars have also shown that charity has not functioned in American society as a tool to help vulnerable groups as much as people would like to believe (What’s Love Got to Do with It? By David Wagner). For example, rather than funding unpopular, but particularly needy causes like treatment of serious mental illness, money often goes to upscale nonprofits such as operas or theaters.
What is the ethical underpinning of libertarianism? Are they seeking a society where property is valued above people? How do you avoid creating a society where there is freedom for the haves and none for the have-nots? Why hasn’t there been any record of a large, successful society using libertarian principles? These are questions Rand Paul, and like-minded individuals, need to answer as they sell libertarianism as an alternative to public options.