The Right Coast

January 03, 2005
The Basis of Libertarianism
By Mike Rappaport

An interesting debate published in Liberty magazine between Charles Murray, David Friedman, David Boaz, and R.W. Bradford over the proper foundation of libertarianism: "What Is Right vs What Works." I strongly fall in the What Works category.

Here is an excerpt from the question and answer period:

Audience member: Why do libertarian policies come across as uncompassionate?

Murray: They come across as uncompassionate because the arguments for them are indirect. If you say you are against children being hungry, and you are in favor of a government program to feed hungry children, you are off the hook. It makes no difference whether you will have fewer or more hungry children after that program than before. At least you can say to yourself that you're trying.

When instead someone like me says that I don't like children to be hungry either, but the way that you have the fewest hungry children is to get rid of all social welfare programs to feed hungry children, I am making a complicated argument. Very few people will stick with you through that argument. So once you say that the operational solution is to get rid of food stamps, the operational solution is to get rid of WIC and the rest of the programs that are supposed to feed hungry children, you have already defined yourself as not caring. Because, then as you go on ahead to say these programs don't really work, they create negative incentives whereby you have more children born into families which can't feed them, etc., etc., other people listen to this and say, "Well, this is just an elaborate rationalization to avoid doing the right thing, which is trying as best you can to feed hungry children."
I think that Murry is right, but that means that libertarians really need to be correct about their facts. If it is more intuitive that social welfare programs help the poor, then one needs to show that they really don't or that their costs are undue (or some other explantion) -- or else advocating their elimination really is heartless.