Libertarian case for government safety nets

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There’s no simple definition for Libertarianism (or any political party) but one might call it, the belief that the government should be no bigger than necessary to secure the rights and freedoms listed in the constitution. There’s more to it naturally but I think it’s a pretty good summation for a single sentence. How this philosophy is acted upon specifically varies from person to person and I have no interest in putting together an exhaustive list of Libertarian flavors. The point being that with no wish to offend anyone we’re still talking about painting a picture with very broad strokes here.

I think we can also say that Libertarians are also very concerned with economic freedom which can be reduced in a number of ways. Unwise banking practices can reduce the value of money, government taxes, an intriguing theory called ‘opportunity cost’, a burdensome regulatory environment, debt and deficits, and a sundry list of ways governments can degrade the financial health of the country and impede personal financial growth and freedom. Now each of these things can and should be debated but in a very broad sense these are some of the things a libertarian believes with, I’m sure, very few exceptions. Now to say the government shouldn’t interfere in the lives of individuals is not to say a government shouldn’t exist. Libertarians are very pro-government in many cases. They believe in a strong military for example so long as it’s main function is to secure American borders from external threats. They’re very fond of law enforcement, our system of justice, laws that keep people from infringing on the rights of others. And this is something I feel is worth emphasizing. Preventing your rights from being trampled is the fundamental goal of libertarians whether we’re talking about simple theft (which can usually be handled locally) or from exploitation of large companies or most especially from the government.

Typically Libertarians frown strenuously on government-sponsored social safety nets. They have their reasons but it generally boils down to, first, its expensive and, secondly, it’s beyond the purview of the federal government. I want to challenge both those assumptions.
First off poverty carries with a couple of costs especially in the way of healthcare and law enforcement. I suppose we could let the very poor die but we don’t for two reasons. It’s morally repugnant, and because death forever removes that person as a societal resource. When we provide basic services to the homeless we find their financial cost to the city falls dramatically.

In addition to cost of caring for people on the extreme edge of poverty, we have, and this is a real accounting issue, the cost of an underperforming asset. From a strictly utilitarian perspective (though certainly not from a moral or humanitarian one), a poor person who remains forever poor does not contribute to the economic health of the country. (I stress poor people should not be thought of as commodities. I merely want to discuss the economics of social stratification). Indeed, socially mobile or not, people do make contributions to your personal individual freedoms. Keeping institutional barriers in place represents a miscarriage of justice to the poor or sick and simultaneously a limitation on the financial freedom of every person in the country. Lost productive capacity is not only inhuman on multiple levels, it’s also very costly, especially in the long run. This cost must be born by every member of our society and as such reduces economic freedom. Further not only is increasing economic mobility good for them, good for the economy but it has a synergistic effect. The more people able to become upwardly mobile the easier it becomes for everyone.

Let’s talk about that miscarriage of justice. Normally we think of injustice as an active construct. (for example an armed robber stealing from you would be an “active” injustice). This is probably what keeps most libertarians passive when confronting social ills and dysfunction because injustice can also be a passive. For example poor access to reliable healthcare, education, transportation, water, housing, internet, and infrastructure are barriers to economic mobility. Not only does it reduce their freedoms, it is also an independent harm to the individuals. Harm the state is duty bound to prevent or redress.

Justice does not distinguish between passive harm and active harm to an individual. I do. It’s an artificial distinction on my part. Even if pursuing justice was not a goal for libertarians as it manifestly is, or securing economic liberty for others, being silent in the face of social and economic injustice represents run counter to ones own personal economic and political freedoms.


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