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Is the Free Market Uncaring?
A distinct disadvantage of advocating for a society free from state interference is that winning either the rhetorical or emotional battle is a lot more difficult. Democratic socialists and redistributionists can effectively wear their bleeding hearts on their sleeves, forever declaring their care for the poor, the sick, the elderly, or whichever group is in need of their pitiful platitudes at any particular time. Libertarians, on the other hand, appear to advocate for nothing more than greed and selfishness by calling for the right of every person keep own his/her income. Surely this would be the slippery slope to each of us ferreting ourselves away in an increasingly atomised existence?
This misunderstanding is common not only among the opponents of libertarianism but also, occasionally, among those libertarians who mistake freedom for libertinism. How can we counter these straw man attacks?
Libertarianism as a philosophy – by which we mean the theoretical endeavour to determine what are valid legal rights – neither is nor has ever pretended to be a complete blueprint of how a person should live his life. It only states that each person should be given the freedom to choose what he does with his person or property. Having that choice does not mean that it is a good thing for him to, say, decide upon keeping everything he has for himself. One could easily argue that he should, for example, give some of his money to the poor. Simply because a person cannot be forced to make one choice or the other does not mean that his choices are immune from all other forms of moral scrutiny; it's just that libertarianism a) states that these choices cannot be forced, and b) stops short of discussing these other aspects. So as long as any positive, moral obligation is not enforced with violence then it is in accordance with the libertarian ethic.
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Collectivism, however, is markedly different. For when a collectivist posits a certain, forced redistribution of wealth and income amongst society, this is usually based on an all-encompassing moral and political theory. So, for example, a collectivist might state not only that a person should donate a portion of his income to the poor, but that also he should be forced to do so. It is this aspect that makes collectivists look more “caring” and “sensitive” to the needy – the fact that they are prepared to “enforce” their moral outlook seems to show that they mean business. So even if libertarians manage to defuse accusations of selfishness, they can still come across as cold and uncaring through their reliance on only a vaguely defined notion of voluntary charity to take care of society's ills.
There are three possible ways in which view this may be countered.
The first is to admit that libertarians are somewhat guilty of contributing to this view, as few have developed an additional moral philosophy on top of their commitment to individual freedom (although, having said that, challenging state violence in today’s world is more than enough to be getting on with). We must be prepared to turn our attention to developing not only our own, private, moral philosophies, but also to understanding which positive behaviours are conducive to sustaining a free society on a sociological and psychological level so as to craft a resonating political strategy.
Second – and contrary to popular opinion – the history of ideas has seldom been one of “liberty” versus “collectivism” or of “freedom” versus “tyranny”; rather it has been that of one version of collectivism versus another. As Ludwig von Mises points out, every planner has his own, mutually exclusive grand plan when it comes to determining how society should be shaped:
In the eyes of Stalin, the Mensheviks and the Trotskyites are not socialists but traitors, and vice versa. The Marxians call the Nazis supporters of capitalism; the Nazis call the Marxians supporters of Jewish capital. If a man says socialism, or planning, he always has in view his own brand of socialism, his own plan. This planning does not in fact mean preparedness to coöperate peacefully. It means conflict.
By pointing out this fact libertarians can demonstrate how, in a free world, each person and community can pursue, in harmony, the peaceful ends that they believe are morally right with their own property. To pursue those ends violently wouldn’t breed a proliferation of care and compassion. Instead, it would just mean endless antagonism with everyone else who happens not to share your view.
Third, if a collectivist claims to care about the needy in society then we are entitled to ask why he favours a system that is almost guaranteed to make everyone poorer than they already are. In other words, why do they oppose the very system – capitalism and freedom – that has been responsible for the most significant increase in the standard of living in the whole of human history?
It is easy to forget that poverty is the natural state of human existence outside the Garden of Eden. A political system can certainly perpetuate this natural state. But only when our ingenuity has been allowed to flourish through individual freedom have we been able to harness the powers of nature so as to increase the amount of wealth and satisfaction that we gain from them. If we compare the condition of human existence in 1800 (where 85% of the world’s population was living on $1 a day) to that of today (down to 20%) then we can see that freedom has been exceedingly good to the poor.
Perhaps smart libertarians, accused of ignoring the plight of the needy, should raise this point and query whether, in fact, it is their ideological opponents who are really the ones who don’t care?
Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, Liberty Fund/Ludwig von Mises Institute (2010), 242-3.