When I think of what it means to be a Republican economic libertarian, I think of someone I know — call him “Bob”. He is a very affluent periodontist who lives in an enormous house in a beautiful suburb. Some years ago, Bob expressed his outrage over being forced to pay property taxes in support of the local public schools, since his own children were being educated privately. That’s an attitude that perfectly captures the essence of economic libertarianism:
What’s mine is mine and the rest of you, the damn government, shouldn’t take it away from me for something I don’t care about and isn’t doing me any good!
If Bob had read a certain book by another Bob (the late Robert Nozick), he might have expressed his outrage with a brief argument:
1) It’s the most fundamental principle of morality that people should be treated as ends in themselves, not as means toward achieving someone else’s goals or for someone else’s benefit.
(2) Taking my property against my will in order to benefit other people is treating me as a means, not an end.
(3) When the local government forces me to pay property taxes to fund the local school district, the government is taking my property against my will.
(4) Therefore, the government should not force me to pay taxes to support public schools.
What’s wrong with this argument?
One serious problem is that it depends on a hidden assumption: namely, that the first sentence is not merely an important principle of morality, but the supreme principle that overrides all other moral principles. That’s a questionable assumption. Life, for both philosophers and normal people, is too rambunctious to fit under a single ethical umbrella. There are always exceptions and additional considerations.
When we were teenagers, for example, didn’t we all joke that the Golden Rule doesn’t apply to masochists (you know, do unto others…)? Similarly, imagine an isolated town in Alaska that’s been hit by a dangerous epidemic. The local pharmacist has a drug that will attack the disease but insists on full payment (or 75% of the price or whatever) before distributing his supply. He’s not a bad person — maybe he needs the money because he’s deeply in debt and on the verge of losing his store.
If the single overriding principle of morality is that we should always treat everyone else as an end, not a means, the town’s residents should accept the situation and either come up with the cash or do a lot of praying. Or are they justified in confiscating the drug, distributing it among themselves and watching the pharmacist go bankrupt? Can we apply principle (1) all by itself to solve this problem? I don’t think so. Principle (1), the philosophical basis for economic libertarianism, doesn’t say whose ends are more important when they conflict.
Fortunately, there are other ethical rules that come into play in situations like this (even though those rules aren’t foolproof or all-encompassing either). The British utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, if he were available as an ethical consultant, would probably agree that treating everyone as a means, not an end, is a decent enough moral principle. But only because it tends to support a more important moral principle: “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. In other words, we should always do what will ultimately result in the most happiness for the most people (including a town full of sick Alaskans and kids going to public school in New Jersey).
Here’s another problem with this argument. It’s incredibly self-centered. If it’s valid, the principle that people should be treated as ends, not means, applies to those kids at the public school just as much as it applies to my acquaintance Bob. But how can Bob treat those children as ends? A really excellent way would be to pay the taxes that will help them get an education.
In fact, if Bob refuses to help those kids, he seems to be treating them as means, not ends. Some of them will grow up and take jobs in the community, working in stores, or maintaining roads, or performing heart surgery. Will Bob benefit from their labor? It’s true he might directly pay for their services one day, but he’ll also benefit from living in a community that’s safe and prosperous because of the work performed by people he’ll never bump into.
Consider what his life would be like if the few people selling groceries in his town were the only people selling groceries in the state of New Jersey. His town would still be a great place to live if he could find food on the shelves and didn’t mind checkout lines that were 20 miles long.
There’s also a problem with how this argument seems to identify me with my property. How do people acquire property anyway? The French anarchist Proudhon had an opinion: “Property is theft!” How was the first piece of property acquired? It was a long time ago, so we don’t know. But we do know that not one of us begins life as a clean slate and grows up in perfect isolation. The argument above suggests that taking any of my property against my will is a violation of my humanity regardless of where my property came from. That probably sounds plausible to whoever wrote the sentence I quoted in an earlier post, the one that referred to “the sanctity of private property”.
But are property rights sacred? Are they more sacred than anything else, like kindness or compassion? Are property rights so sacred that the tax collector who takes part of your paycheck against your will — for purposes other than the common defense and the maintenance of a free market — is committing a sin or a crime against humanity? Maybe if you think every penny you earn is solely the result of your God-given wonderfulness and had nothing to do with your genes or your upbringing. Or if you identify yourself with your property.
Like it or not, as everyone knows, we are social animals who grow up and survive in communities. Economic libertarianism, however, is a radically individualistic doctrine. It’s also simplistic and atomistic (in the social sense, not the physical sense). It reeks of adolescence.
A teenager, usually a boy for some reason, trying to figure out how to navigate the world, in the process of breaking away from his parents, looks for words that will explain other people and help him feel good about himself. Maybe he makes the mistake of reading Atlas Shrugged instead of The Lord of the Rings or The Brothers Karamazov:
“Pleasure is all that really matters.”
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“Poor people are stupid or lazy”.
“If God doesn’t exist, all is permitted.”
“Asking for help shows you’re a loser.”
“When I earn money, I should be able to keep it.”
Taken to its extreme, in fact, economic libertarianism reeks of infancy. We all have to share. That’s what we’re supposed to learn before we get to kindergarten.
Of course, there are probably few economic libertarians who hold the doctrine in its purest form. No doubt there are some who debate the finer points, however, like Russian intellectuals who debated the finer points of communism before the revolution. A wonderful person can have libertarian tendencies along with common sense. It’s all a matter of degree. Where on that chart above should people reside? Where does Senator RP reside? Where do you reside?
I’m not sure, but I’m proud to say I’m not a Republican or an economic libertarian. I’m also not a “social liberal and fiscal conservative”. That’s too often code for comfortable people who enjoy their station in life while consistently supporting right-wing candidates and policies, the kind that “comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted”, not the other way around.
(Photo courtesy of Philosopher Shaming.)