In his May 2 article, “An Ideology at Odds with Itself,” David Leathers of the Claremont Port Side argues that people who claim to be “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” – namely, Libertarians – hold an inconsistent set of beliefs. On Leathers’ account, socially liberal causes like free birth control and higher education student loan subsidies cut against the grain of fiscal conservatism and require higher taxes; however, Leathers’ account rests on a misunderstanding of what Libertarians mean when they identify as “socially liberal” and fails to recognize how a fiscal conservative might consistently claim to be socially liberal.

The traditional distinction between fiscal conservatives and liberals rests on the distinction between negative and positive rights. Where fiscal conservatives typically favor negative rights of non-interference, liberals generally favor a more expanded role of taxation and government in redistributing wealth so as to ensure substantive equality of opportunity. The fiscal conservative stance has its philosophical roots in the libertarianism of Robert Nozick, who famously argues, “Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor…taking the earnings of n hours labor is like taking n hours from the person; it is like forcing the person to work n hours for another’s purpose.” On this view, redistributive taxation is unjust because it is tantamount to coercion.

In an obvious sense, Libertarians would be committed to negative liberties like marijuana legalization, gay marriage, and freedom to choose, but not policies which require taxation, for instance the Affordable Care Act. Yet, as Leathers notes in a recent email interview with the Claremont Independent, “Sure, you can be ‘socially liberal and fiscally conservative’ if you only endorse a narrow swath of negative rights, but in 2013, socially progressive causes encompass much more than just ‘negative liberties’ like the right of gay couples to marry.”

To a certain extent, Leathers is right. Even self-styled Libertarians typically recognize the necessity of redistributive initiatives such as the public school system and some level of state-sponsored medical insurance. Fiscal conservatives typically justify their commitment to these sorts of policies with reference to equality of opportunity. However, liberals can just as easily justify a commitment to a more expansive set of redistributive policies by appealing to the same principles. As Leathers explains, his commitment to liberal initiatives like the ACA and government-sponsored higher education is founded in a belief “that we should elect a government that helps to create equality of opportunity for each citizen.”

Who’s right? Most reasonable people think that a system of total redistribution is unjust. If I work, I ought to be entitled to keep my wages. But yet, as Leathers correctly points out, “a rich person who gets sick is more likely to recover than a poor person without health insurance. This rich person can return to work and support their family. The poor person cannot…the cycle continues.” On both my Libertarian view and Leathers’ liberal perspective, the need for fair equality of opportunity overrides the Nozickian principle that taxes are unjust.

The question now becomes, “To what degree does a concern for equality of opportunity dictate a policy of redistributive taxation?” This question is a thorny philosophical problem. Leathers agrees that “it is impossible to tell when there really is ‘equality of opportunity,’” but suggests that “this is the direction our country needs to head.”

I disagree. Leathers’ account blurs the distinction between equality of opportunity and substantive equality. Leathers suggests that “giving each kid a free college education would be a major component” of ensuring equality of opportunity. But this kind of substantive educational equality is conceptually distinct from the kind of equality of opportunity I, as a Libertarian, espouse. A policy of government-funded free college education for every child seems, superficially, to ensure an equal level of economic opportunity to college graduates entering the workforce. But there’s a conflation of terms at play here: the economic opportunity Leathers appeals to is, in fact, a masquerading form of substantive equality of outcome.

Equal opportunity in the Libertarian sense of the term is grounded in exactly the kind of negative rights that delineate Libertarian views from liberal perspectives. A person’s opportunity is equal to another’s if that person is not deliberately coerced in a manner that restricts her capacity to freely act upon her ends. Provided a person is not deliberately excluded, in spite of her merits, from attending college, that person’s opportunity to attend college is exactly equal to any other person’s.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule: Libertarians could defend a publicly funded education system through high school since children aren’t fully developed moral agents and ought not to be held responsible for their parents’ financial situation. Somewhat differently, Libertarians could defend a system of baseline health insurance as a policy that accords with the general will of the people: most people intuitively think that everyone ought to have access to a decent minimum of healthcare even if, like me, they aren’t aware of a compelling moral argument for why this is the case.

But it is clear Leathers’ argument in favor of equalizing economic opportunity does not fit into this Libertarian conception. Perhaps if everyone attends college the least-well-off will learn enough to earn higher wages and make their lives substantively better. But compressing the range of economic outcomes is only just if one is committed to substantive equality. “Substantive equality of opportunity” sounds appealing, but isn’t conceptually distinct from “substantive equality of outcome.’”

Libertarians, conservatives, and liberals alike must reconcile themselves to a hard truth: although human persons are worthy of equal moral concern, with respect to their natural capacity to lead healthy, prosperous lives, human beings are radically unequal. By virtue of the birth lottery some people wind up with high IQs and are born to wealthy families. Economic outcomes are generally much better for Claremont College students than high school dropouts. But what’s the alternative? Liberal guilt over the fact that one is well-off in life is philosophically bankrupt: a commitment to justice only requires a commitment to negative rights of non-interference. Life isn’t fair.

Where does this leave us? Libertarians are committed to negative liberties like marijuana legalization, gay marriage, and the freedom to choose, which are grounded in the principle of non-interference, but not broadly redistributive policies like the Affordable Care Act. This is the sense in which Libertarians mean they are “socially liberal.” After all, as Leathers points out in his article, the key issue for fiscal conservatives who claim to be socially liberal is gay marriage. Leathers might be right in suggesting that “social liberalism moved far beyond traditional ‘negative rights’ a long time ago,” but that merely means that “socially liberal” is a misnomer for Libertarians like myself, not that our ideologies are internally inconsistent.

I would suggest, then, that the real debate David Leathers and I should be having is a philosophical one. Liberals like Leathers are committed to the idea that a respect for human dignity requires more than a commitment not to infringe upon the rights of others, whereas Libertarians like me disagree. It may be the case that we as human beings are morally obliged to minimize the suffering of others through redistributive policies, and so ought to be liberals. But that’s an open question. For now, it suffices to say that it’s perfectly consistent to deny the primacy of that obligation.

Categories: Opinion Rebuttal
  • Hal

    This the worst and most dishonest thing I’ve ever read. You could’ve cut everything but the “Life isn’t fair” paragraph, and the article would be the same – and I might even respect your honesty in doing so. But this? This is revolting. Thanks for revealing how awful your brand of libertarianism is, Clay. If nothing else, you’ve given me that.

    • Friend of Clay’s

      Hal, please think next time before you call someone’s article the “worst and most dishonest thing” you’ve ever read and “revolting.” Clay’s article is respectfully and thoughtfully written and he did nothing to deserve your unfounded comment of purely malicious nature.

      • Hal

        Y’know, I was thiiiiis close to admitting that I was a little too harsh, but then I read the article again and remembered that Clay Spence’s argument for libertarianism boils down to “I shouldn’t feel bad that life isn’t fair,” so yeah: tell Clay he’s still awful in every way, shape, and form.

        • Clay Spence

          Hey Hal — make arguments not ad hominems and we’ll debate.

        • Rob

          Hal seems bitter. Maybe he thinks life dealt him an unfair mind, body or skin color. People who question the morality of forced takings from people who work to give to those who don’t are “awful” for even raising the question.

  • chimpsky

    I’m certain libertarians don’t believe “life is not fair” applies to factors decided at birth. For instance, race, gender, and socioeconomic background are all things that people can’t control and yet those factors can contribute to or prevent success in life. How does the libertarian take these factors into account without taking action?

    • Presumptive Much?

      I assure you that libertarians hail from a range of backgrounds, rich, poor, colored, white, male, female, gay, straight, etc. Many of them are well aware that people are disadvantaged in various ways but rather than simply complaining about these inequities, they pose the question: What exactly should one do about it? 90% of government policies that have been proposed to alleviate poverty and equalize opportunity have proven unreasonably costly, ineffective, harmful, or some combination of the above. Despite being the largest per-capita recipients of state welfare for over a half century, Native and Black Americans have remained hopelessly impoverished. Misguided policies like minimum wage have disproportionately hurt young minority workers (especially young black men) by pricing them out of entry-level employment. Increased funding to inner city schools have proven time and time again to be ineffective in increasing literacy and mathematical acumen, all the while driving state governments deeper into debt. On an international level, protectionism for American industries (especially the auto industry) which is ostensibly aimed out helping working class blue-collar families simply leaves the downtrodden third world poorer while driving up prices for goods domestically.

      Libertarians recognize inequality and many of them are bothered by it. Many of them even take action by devoting their time and money to private charities and volunteer organizations. However, they recognize that government policy is one of the most flawed and inefficient ways of mitigating that inequality and more importantly, they see government officials as the self-interested human beings they are rather than saints that can design a perfect society for the rest of us.

      • chimpsky

        Odd that you brought up the diversity of the libertarian movement itself. I said nothing of it; I merely observed libertarianism is ill-equipped to address systemic racism. But while we’re on the topic, 85% of libertarians are White and 67% of them are male according to PewResearch. Frankly I don’t think it’s worth examining the supporters behind potential state policy, but it seems like you do.

        Maybe I’m unfamiliar with the literature, but where did this 90% figure come from?

        Obviously someone in favor of governmental policy isn’t committed to defending counter-productive policies just as someone in favor of libertarianism need not defend the times where Tea Party congresspeople masquerade their racist beliefs as libertarianism. Someone in favor of government regulation merely has to defend particular policies. At which point, the empirics you claim exist have little to do with whether libertarianism is a solution to racism.

        I’m also having a tough time understanding why the government is so irreparably inefficient. It seems like it’s a crucial argument, but you haven’t made it yet. How does private charity avoid this problem? Isn’t it just a less potent form of social distribution?

        • Long Response

          Of course 90% is not a hard figure, it was meant to be a rhetorical device rather than an accurate statistic.

          Now, if you have the time to examine the literature with which you are “unfamiliar”, I can refer you to two excellent books: “The State Against Blacks” and “Race and Economics: How Much Can be Blamed on Discrimination?” They are both written by a respected black economist, Walter E. Williams, and they are both compendiums of the various government policies that have proven “ill-equipped” to address systemic racism or the problems stemming from it.

          On the issue of private charities, I think it would be disingenuous to say that they are “less potent.” An organization like the Gates Foundation or Habitat for Humanity can easily re-allocate funds or make structural changes to make their organizations run more efficiently, especially when inefficiencies or corruption are uncovered by the press. Simply put, they would lose donors in droves (as Invisible Children recently did) if they didn’t put the proper corrections in place. Does the Social Security Administration, the HUD, or Medicare face such checks and feedback loops? NO. They are funded with taxes (and foreign loans) up until the very moment that cuts in those funds can be agreed upon by BOTH houses of Congress through strenuous debate and compromise in various committees. How many instances of Medicare fraud have you heard about lately? How is it that an estimated 10% of Medicare funding continues going to waste due to fraud? How many public housing projects built in the entire history of HUD are still standing, let alone in good condition? For crying out loud, we are still subsidizing millionaire cotton/corn farmers because of laws passed during FDR’s administration in 1938 (see, Agricultural Adjustment Act) to help struggling farmers during the Great Depression. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Conceived of and founded by the federal government in 1938 and 1970 respectively, they are both bloated GSE’s that have not yet been abolished despite playing an instrumental role in bringing about the 2008 financial crisis.

          It seems to me that the overwhelming advantage in using private charity to remedy social ills lies in the fact that necessary adjustment can be made next week if necessary. Flaws in government policy, on the other hand, take at best 4 years and at worst a half century to correct.

          I rest my case.

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  • Rob

    Point One: Government is less efficient than the private sector in every respect. Unlike private citizens, government bureaucrats have the power of law enforcement behind them and can coerce people into doing the bureaucrat’s will whether that is the best and most efficient thing for society or not. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Government workers may start with good intentions but soon find themselves defending the agency’s interests rather than anything noble. As an example, agency staffs spend an inordinate amount of time every fiscal year making sure that all allocated funds are spent and then preparing and justifying a budget for the next fiscal year that is even larger than the last.

    Point Two: Government workers are playing with other people’s money. Unlike private enterprise, government workers can unionize and negotiate their compensation packages with liberal politicians whom they elect. Neither cares about the costs because neither cares about a bottom line. The politician benefits from loyal union votes and the government workers are able to negotiate higher pay than the private sector and far better pensions and benefits than the private sector. It is always in the liberal politician’s interest to increase the number of government workers because it means more votes. This is directly opposite to the private sector, which is forced to be efficient or to go bankrupt. Government workers also negotiate union contracts and laws that virtually prohibit them from being fired. To fire a government worker takes a long times due to mandated review hearings and appeal processes and the agency often loses and has to pay and reinstate the worker. This is grossly inefficient. Workers who do not have to care about performance and who are not at risk of being fired at any moment are not going to be as productive as those who are at risk every day on their jobs, as in the private sector.

    Point Three: There is no systemic racism. Inequality of outcomes has only increased with decades of spending trillions on programs to better the lot of certain races. There is upward mobility available for every single American who strives for that every single day.

    Point Four: Legislating and regulating for equality of outcomes can only work in the sense of bringing every one down to the lowest level. Equality of outcome is the stated goal of communism. It is a proven failure and has caused of the greatest amount of human misery ever inflicted by governors on the governed (e.g., USSR, North Korea, Cambodia, Maoist China, etc.).

    Point Five: If you subsidize certain behaviors, you will get more of them. If you tax people who earn incomes to give to people who don’t, you will get more people on welfare. The same is true for unemployment benefits (just think of the title: getting benefits for being unemployed). The same is true for forgiveness of student debt, more people will have four year degrees that do not qualify them for productive jobs that enable them to pay back what they took from people who work hard and pay taxes.

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