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The Libertarian Case for Legalized Plunder

I’m often asked why I make such a big deal about the libertarian MO of ignoring or denying the philosophic foundations of liberty. I give my general reasons in “Libertarianism vs. Radical Capitalism,” in which I provide several examples showing that the attempt to defend a free society apart from the principles that underlie and support such a society is hopeless. I discuss a related example in “Libertarians Fiddle while Rome Burns.” Here is another example.

Over at Cato, Matt Zwolinski of Bleeding Heart Libertarians is arguing—with help from other libertarians, including Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek—for a “Basic Income Guarantee” (yep: BIG).

As Zwolinski explains, the BIG program “involves something like an unconditional grant of income to every citizen. . . . ‘Unconditional’ here means mostly that the check is not conditional on one’s wealth or poverty or willingness to work.” So “everybody gets a check each month . . . [and] income earned on top of the grant is subject to taxation at progressive rates, but the grant itself is not.”

Converting Zwolinski’s passive formulations to active formulations, and filling in the unmentioned agents involved in this scheme, we get this (these are my words, making clear the meaning of Zwolinski’s proposal):

Government forcibly takes money from those who have earned it, gives some of that money back to the people from whom it seized the money, and gives some of the money to other people, who did not earn the money. If a person earns money on top of the money the government gives him, the government will forcibly take some of that earned money too; the more he earns, the more the government will take. But the government will not take back any of the money that it initially took from someone by force and then gave back to that person or to someone else.

Zwolinski attempts to justify this scheme in part as follows (his words here):

Current federal social welfare programs in the United States are an expensive, complicated mess. . . . [T]he federal government spent more than $668 billion on over one hundred and twenty-six anti-poverty programs in 2012. When you add in the $284 billion spent by state and local governments, that amounts to $20,610 for every poor person in America.

Wouldn’t it be better just to write the poor a check? . . . Eliminating bloated bureaucracies means more money in the hands of the poor and lower costs to the taxpayer. Win/Win.

The assumption here is that our alternatives are either to continue with the existing coercive-wealth-redistribution state as it is, or to make it more efficient. But why is a libertarian intellectual asserting these as the alternatives from which to choose? If liberty is good—if people have moral rights to think and act on their judgment and to keep and use the product of their effort—then why move from the current way of violating these rights to a new, more efficient way of doing so? Why not name the rights violations as rights violations (A being A) and begin repealing the policies that violate rights?

Well, to do that, one has to accept the idea that rights exist and are inalienable. Bleeding Heart Libertarians, such as Zwolinski, do not accept this.

Whereas many libertarians ignore philosophy altogether, some libertarians deny the objective, demonstrably true philosophic foundations for liberty but embrace false philosophies and attempt to apply them to political policy. Bleeding Heart Libertarians do the latter, and the philosophy they embrace and aim to put into practice is egalitarianism. Egalitarianism was most definitively elaborated by John Rawls, whom Zwolinski cites favorably in his post. In “Libertarianism vs. Radical Capitalism,” I provide a concise summary of this philosophy:

[E]galitarianism . . . holds—not that people should be treated equally before the law (that is a policy of laissez-faire capitalism)—but, rather, that the standard of morality is, as egalitarian philosopher John Rawls puts it, “equality of opportunity” for all members of society, with exceptions permitted only when they are “to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society.” Clearly, if that is the standard of morality, then rights cannot exist—at least not for anyone but “the least-advantaged.” As Rawls explains, on this standard, “it is incorrect that individuals with greater natural endowments and the superior character that has made their development possible have a right to a cooperative scheme [i.e., a legal system] that enables them to obtain even further benefits in ways that do not contribute to the advantages of others.” On the egalitarian standard, Rawls continues, certain actions in the “social, economic, and technological” spheres must be forbidden. “No basic liberty is absolute”—not even “freedom of thought and liberty of conscience, or political liberty and the guarantees of the rule of law, is absolute.” And, “of course,” Rawls emphasizes, individuals do not have “the right to own certain kinds of property (e.g., means of production) and freedom of contract as understood by the doctrine of laissez-faire,” because “the distribution of wealth and income, and positions of authority and responsibility, are to be consistent with . . . equality of opportunity.”

Egalitarianism is patently incompatible with individual rights and therefore with liberty. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Zwolinski’s BIG proposal involves further entrenching the violation of rights.

In addition to using the above efficiency argument in an attempt to justify this rights-violating scheme, Zwolinski makes arbitrary, unsupported claims about “past injustices” that allegedly “justify” coercive wealth redistribution today. But I will not address arbitrary claims beyond pointing out that they are arbitrary.

Zwolinski also claims that if government didn’t coercively redistribute wealth, there would not be enough charity for the poor. In addition to being irrelevant to the question of whether the government has a right to coercively redistribute wealth—it objectively does not; a right to violate a right is a contradiction in terms—this claim is absurd. In 2012, Americans donated $316.23 billion to charity, and huge percentages of that sum went in various ways to low-income people. Americans give this much to charity in the mixed economy of the United States today, in which producers are heavily taxed. Imagine how much more charity Americans would give if they were not being forced to “give.”

Why do we see an article at the leading libertarian think tank (Cato) advocating legalized plunder on the basis of a philosophy that denies the possibility of rights? Because other libertarians characteristically ignore or deny the need to focus on philosophy at all—and, because, in philosophy, as in physics, nature abhors a vacuum.

When people fail to undergird political policy with morality and deeper philosophy, other people fill the void with some philosophy or another. And if the basic premise of that fill-in philosophy is widely accepted or goes intellectually unchallenged—as egalitarianism is and does today—then the policies that follow from that philosophy will seem viscerally reasonable and, over time, will affect political policy.

In the final section of his article, addressing objections to the BIG program, Zwolinski mentions three pressing problems regarding the scheme: “disincentives to employment,” “effects on migration,” and “effects on economic growth.” In each case, Zwolinski leaves the problem unsolved. More importantly, though, he does not even raise the objection that the BIG program violates rights. Apparently, he senses no need to address this objection at all for his libertarian readers.

Will other libertarian intellectuals raise this objection to the BIG program? If so, will they be able to explain what rights are, where they come from, why they are inalienable, why the government morally may not violate rights, and how we know all of this? Or will they say something about the need for ideological inclusiveness and watch Zwolinski and company continue advocating tyranny in the name of liberty?

Stay tuned. We will see.

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