TAMPA, March 28, 2013 – This week’s anti-libertarian nonsense is “libertarians are heartless.”
There are many variations on this theme. Libertarians oppose government-run education so they must not want poor people to get an education. They oppose government-run healthcare so they must want poor, sick people to die. They oppose government-subsidized housing so they must want poor people to be homeless, too (if they aren’t already). Libertarians are selfish, amoral…You get it.
Libertarians also oppose state religions, but no one claims libertarians are against religion. I wonder why? It seems to follow.
The people who make these claims don’t understand what libertarianism is and don’t really understand the nature of government or their relationship to it, either.
Libertarians do not object to you helping the poor. They merely object to you forcing someone else to help the poor.
Libertarianism answers only one question: When is violence or threatening violence justified? The libertarian answer is only in self-defense. That includes defending your life from an immediate attack upon it or defending yourself against a previous theft of property or other crime.
This is where libertarians face reality and their opponents don’t. Libertarians understand all government action is violent action. That’s not because people in the government aren’t doing it right. It’s because that is what government is designed to be. Violence is its raison d’etre.
The philosophical justification for government in a free society is security. Because humans will sometimes invade the life, liberty or property of their neighbors (whether next door or in another country), there has to be some adequate means to force the perpetrator to cease his criminal activity and make restitution to his victim.
Government is supposedly the answer. Government is the pooled capacity for violence of everyone in the community. That’s all it is. That’s why Thomas Paine based his entire treatise Common Sense on one fundamental assumption:
“Society in every state is a blessing but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one;”
Why an evil? Because it is an institution of violence, nothing more. This is a foundational American idea. It is the reason for the entire Bill of Rights. Government must not be allowed to suppress speech because offensive speech does not justify violence. Government may not prohibit the keeping and bearing of arms because merely possessing arms does not justify violence against the possessor.
When intolerable? When it is used to initiate force, rather than respond to it. If one individual steals from another, the victim has a natural right to point a gun at the thief and demand his property back. In society, the individual supposedly delegates this power and the government points the gun at the thief for him. Almost no one would consider this unjust.
But what if no crime has been committed? Suppose I knocked on your door and demanded money from you at gunpoint. Would you drop the charges against me if you found out I had taken your money and paid some anonymous stranger’s medical bills? Do you believe that is the best way for human beings to solve the problem that the stranger can’t afford to pay them?
Almost no one would answer either of those questions “yes.” Yet, there is absolutely no substantive difference between that scenario and a government-run healthcare program (or education, or housing…). The only superficial difference is a government official is holding the gun. But most Americans can’t see it and will actually argue with you that it isn’t there.
There is an easy way to find out. Simply refuse to cooperate. Deduct the amount you owe for Medicare from your tax return next month and include a note waiving any benefits from the program. Or deduct the amount of your property taxes that underwrite public education and Medicaid (which is most of the bill) and indicate you waive the right to utilize either.
What will happen next? You will get some “reminders” about the oversight in the mail, followed by increasingly threatening letters. Sooner or later, someone in a black robe will write on a piece of paper. Then, men with guns will show up at your door. Don’t believe me? Test my theory.
So what do libertarians really say that is supposedly selfish or amoral? That initiating force against people is wrong. Period. You are free to help other people who need it, but you cannot force your neighbors to do so under a threat of violence if they don’t. You may build schools and hospitals for the poor and ask for contributions for anyone you wish. You just can’t pull out a gun if they decline to participate.
At one time, Americans believed so strongly in this principle that they seceded from their country and formed a new one based upon it. Imagine if they reestablished it again.
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.