Are Libertarians neutral?

There seems to be a popular, but mistaken, opinion that Libertarianism is somehow a neutral position—that it does not take a stance on a variety of issues.  Consider the following statement by Penn Jillette in his article ‘I don’t know, so I’m an atheist libertarian’:

And I don’t think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don’t even know what’s best for me. Take my uncertainty about what’s best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in the United States and I have no idea what the government should do.

Since Jillette doesn’t know how the government should help people, he concludes that any philosophy attempting to dictate the government’s behavior in this area is problematic. So, he’s not going to advocate any specific governmental stance.

I sense we’ve just entered a cul-de-sac. Notice that this position is at once a denial that any approach is valid and is itself a recommended approach. Libertarians do not lack a moral, economic, or political stance. No, they advocate very specific stances. For this reason, the idea of purist laissez faire is a self-defeating and absurd principle.


So, where do we go from here?

First and foremost, let’s stop pretending that the debate is about the level of government intrusion. We aren’t ready for that yet. The debate is really about what goods should flourish. Government involvement is not itself virtuous or vicious; it is merely a means to an end. It requires context.

If we turn our attention back to Jillette’s article as whole, we should be able to recognize that his isn’t really an opinion based on not knowing, as he claims. Rather, it is based on his feeling that coercion is vicious. Thus, since government intrusion is coercion, it should not be allowed. This is a very different argument than saying, ‘I don’t know, so I’m not going to take a stance.’

Once we recognize that this is really the context of our disagreements, I think some real progress can be made. Of course we will disagree about the level of government involvement in public life when we are working from different conceptions of the good! That is where we should focus our discussion instead.


6 thoughts on “Are Libertarians neutral?

  1. I feel like Penn’s argument was something like this (and recognize this is just part of the article):

    Feeding the poor is good.

    Coercion is bad.

    Coercion is a greater bad than feeding the poor is a good. (this isn’t stated but implied by the conclusion)

    So, favor abstention and hope that private citizens freely feed the poor.

    I can see that argument being defended. I just don’t get why you would dress it up as “I don’t know” because he isn’t really saying that. So, framing the discussion around this claim of ignorance is clearly wrong.

  2. Mike,

    Many libertarians use that sort of argument to reject being forced to do just about anything. Any reasonable libertarian, however, would add at least one other premise; in this case: the poor are not substantially helped through welfare. This would change “Coercion is bad” to “Coercion is bad unless it is sufficiently justified.” After all, they still favor the government using force against those who break basic laws.

    Unfortunately for them, this is still a poor argument unless a clear alternative is presented. It is obvious that welfare does help the poor even if it is not an actual solution to poverty, so we have a good reason to keep it. What else would Jillette suggest? While it is good that he donates to charity personally, it is clear that optional charity cannot replace welfare. Besides, many of those who resent being forced to help the poor through welfare would presumably donate less on their own, otherwise they gain no advantage.

    Now, some may only object on principle, but principles aren’t important when they are disconnected from their actual moral value. In this case, the moral value is helping the poor, which ultimately serves to improve our society and maximize happiness. Making an actual choice to help others may show that you are compassionate and meet the usual standards for a “good person,” but a more meaningful understanding of the good must take into account the results of a behavior or policy. Since coercion produces better results without substantially and unjustly harming anyone, we must choose coercion.

    Others may object because they believe that the government distributes their money inefficiently. This is intelligently utilitarian and therefore respectable as long as there is actual evidence for the belief. But we can again ask: what do they suggest we do instead? If we were all libertarian with a sense of moral obligation to our fellow man, perhaps we could pull it off without the government’s intervention. Unfortunately, we are a diverse body of morality and immorality, rationality and irrationality, knowledge and ignorance, ambition and laziness, sympathy and apathy, responsibility and irresponsibility. Until we overcome these deficiencies (and we may never do so), we are not ready for libertarianism.

    In any case, “I don’t know” just doesn’t cut it. We may never know. But if we agree that poverty is a problem we ought to resolve if possible, then we should at least experiment. Our longest experiment was not helping the poor at all. It failed. Our present experiment is our welfare system. It does some good. What’s next to try?

  3. Just to retroactively ground my post in Jillette’s own words:

    “People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we’re compassionate we’ll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.”

    So he seems to put moral credit (more appropriate in the context of virtue ethics) above moral value (more appropriate in the context of utilitarianism). The only caveat is that he doesn’t seem to think that our welfare system actually works. But let’s look at his own words again:

    “What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist — I don’t know. If I don’t know, I don’t believe.”

    The trouble here is precisely what I described: there are degrees in the effectiveness of a policy. It is not a matter of solving the problem vs. not solving it. In contrast, God either exists or does not.

  4. I meant to add that one can resolve the supposed problem of “charity coercion” a few ways:

    1.) Support politicians who support welfare–for that very reason. By supporting it, you effectively own it as a moral choice.

    2.) Donate a little more than what is required by the government.

    3.) Help charities in person, not just with money.

  5. Pingback: Reason as the Handmaiden of Christianity | Strive Toward the Sun

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