Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

July 15, 2007

Liberty And Generosity

by Doug Mataconis

John Stossel has a great column out today about the relationship between libertarian ideas and benevolence.

He starts off by relating something that Michael Moore said to him recently:

I INTERVIEWED Michael Moore recently for an upcoming “20/20″ special on health care. It’s refreshing to interview a leftist who proudly admits he’s a leftist. He told me that government should provide “food care” as well as health care and that big government would work if only the right people were in charge.

Moore added, “I watch your show and I know where you are coming from. …”

He knows I defend limited government, so he tried to explain why I was wrong. He began in a revealing way:

“I gotta believe that, even though I know you’re very much for the individual determining his own destiny, you also have a heart.”

Notice his smuggled premise in the words “even though.” In Moore’s mind, someone who favors individual freedom doesn’t care about his fellow human beings.

This is, of course, a standard leftist retort to people who believe in free markets and individual liberty. It is, at best, a distortion of what libertarians believe, as Stossel points out:

A free society is about voluntary communities cooperating through the division of labor. Libertarianism is far from “every man for himself.”

(…)

Individual freedom, with minimal government, made it possible for masses of people to cooperate for mutual advantage. As a result, society could be rich and peaceful.

As the great economist Ludwig von Mises wrote, “What makes friendly relations between human beings possible is the higher productivity of the division of labor. . . . A preeminent common interest, the preservation and further intensification of social cooperation, becomes paramount and obliterates all essential collisions.”

Freedom and benevolence go hand in hand.

I’d take it a step further. Statism not only isn’t necessary for the creation of a benevolent society, it actually discourages people from being concerned about their fellow human beings on an individual level. If the state says that it will “take care of” the poor, then, someone might ask, why should I bother worrying about them. If it says it will “take care of” the sick, then why worry about the elderly woman who lives downstairs ?

From first hand accounts, we’ve learned that this was in fact the attitude that existed in the USSR and some parts of Eastern Europe before the collapse of Communism. And it’s not at all surprising. If people think that the state is going to take care of everything, then they don’t need to care about it.

Americans have long been known as an incredibly generous people. When a crisis has erupted in some part of the world — whether it was the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, or the crisis of abandoned Romanian orphans after the collapse of Communism — Americans have been at the forefront of private fundraising efforts.

America is also the birthplace of liberty.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

H/T: Mises Economic Blog

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  • js290

    …that big government would work if only the right people were in charge.

    Throughout history, when has more government EVER benefited the poor? I don’t see how the poor can trust anyone who prescribes more of the thing that plagues them.

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    Where does that altruism comes from, I don’t see it as a byproduct of libertarianism, I see as a byproduct of values that have been passed down from your family or community. More often than not from a religious upbringing. I may be in some peoples innate nature. There can be selfish and self centered individuals on the left. I wish that every attribute of ethical behavior would not be attributed to economic or political theory. There are so many facets of life that can’t rely on that kind of thinking.

  • js290

    I wish that every attribute of ethical behavior would not be attributed to economic or political theory. There are so many facets of life that can’t rely on that kind of thinking.

    Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it invalid. How do you magically disassociate religious upbringing from economic and political theory? What is religion if not the practice of those theories?

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    js920,
    Just why would you say that?
    Sometime I think some libertarians think of it as a religion. I not a religious person, so I can not debate whether religious principles precipitate economic or political theory, but I can not see a system that says that good comes from selfish interest, being a precept of any religion. I see economic system and political systems as being amoral. Some may try to guide those system into a moral system, such as when members of government, think it is right for the government to feed the hungry, cloth the naked or even “teach them to fish.” That quote of Stossel’s clearly shows that he doesn’t think that it is government’s purpose.

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    The way libertarianism reminds me of religion is the way they think they have the true path of freedom and no one but them loves or understands liberty; like the religious who tell you, their way is the only path to salvation.

  • js290

    Some may try to guide those system into a moral system, such as when members of government, think it is right for the government to feed the hungry, cloth the naked or even “teach them to fish.” That quote of Stossel’s clearly shows that he doesn’t think that it is government’s purpose.

    Why does that need to be the government’s purpose?

    The way libertarianism reminds me of religion is the way they think they have the true path of freedom and no one but them loves or understands liberty; like the religious who tell you, their way is the only path to salvation.

    The libertarian response would probably be as long as your views on freedom and exercise thereof doesn’t impede on someone else’s views on freedom his exercise thereof, then we’re good to go.

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    js920,
    “Why does that need to be the government’s purpose?”
    I didn’t say it did.
    To your last comment.
    I haven’t heard that libertarian response.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    VRB, the reason Stossel wrote this article in political terms is because of the popular misconception that libertarians and other small government types are “greedy” or “don’t care about the poor.” Small government types who oppose government welfare DO care about the poor but believe that individuals and charities do a better job of helping the poor than government.

    I also have to respectfully disagree with you about economics being amoral. Systems such as socialism and communism are immoral (in my view) because these systems steal money from even the most productive and redistribute it equally among everyone. The idea that one person can work his ass off and still have the same reward as the person who does little or no work at all seems completely immoral in my mind.

    Then we have a capitalist/socialist blended economy like ours where the more an individual makes, the more the government takes (at the point of a gun). Would it be moral to point a gun at a wealthy individual and demand that he give some of his money (even a small amount) to a homeless person begging on the street? Of course not! Yet this is precisely what we are telling the government to do (and they have many big guns).

    Capitalism is moral because those who are willing to do the work generally receive the greatest reward. Those who are not as willing to get an education, work hard, work smart, invest their money, and avoid making bad decisions generally do not do as well. But in a purely capitalistic system, such individuals know that the government will not be there to bail them out so they have the option of sink, swim, or find help from friends and the community (not the government).

    By continuing to reward the same bad behavior over and over again, we become enablers for such individuals to make the same bad choices. Friends and charities will only tolerate so much before they expect such an able bodied individual to make better choices and become a productive member of society. Sometimes, we need to use tough love to help our fellow man.

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    Stephen,
    My point is that there is someother system which tells you thats something is wrong or not. One living in a socialist system without any exposure to another environment may not think what you decribed as morally wrong. His instinct might make that person feel that it is not right, but his economic system wouldn’t.

  • Tom Gellhaus

    I happen to know a few people whose attitude about libertarianism is… “They believe in ‘Got mine, up yours’ “. Any attempt to bring up liberty/freedom seems to be dismissed out of hand as somehow an excuse for the selfishness.
    It is hard to try to explain things to them.

  • David T

    Stephen,

    What mechanic in capitalism helps provide funding for health care or the infirm? Isn’t there a moral obligation for these items to be affordable to the general public?
    Part of the reason for the semi-socialist economic approach is the belief that medical care is so fundamental to us humans that to render it unaffordable is immoral. A subsidy to those who cannot afford it seems like a reasonable thing to do, and this requires taxes. How would a purely capitalistic approach achieve the same, especially for those who have worked hard all their life, but through no fault of their own have had bad luck, and less money?

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/2007/07/15/liberty-and-generosity/#comment-32502 js290

    My point is that there is someother system which tells you thats something is wrong or not. One living in a socialist system without any exposure to another environment may not think what you decribed as morally wrong. His instinct might make that person feel that it is not right, but his economic system wouldn’t.

    What you’re describing is the philosophical debate between rationalism and empiricism. I refer you back to my original response to you…

  • js290

    What mechanic in capitalism helps provide funding for health care or the infirm? Isn’t there a moral obligation for these items to be affordable to the general public?

    Yes… if our healthcare industry was more free and actually competed on price, you would see more of what you describe… universal coverage via affordable healthcare.

    Part of the reason for the semi-socialist economic approach is the belief that medical care is so fundamental to us humans that to render it unaffordable is immoral. A subsidy to those who cannot afford it seems like a reasonable thing to do, and this requires taxes.

    It is through government intervention that healthcare prices have gotten out of control. The government works in collusion with the AMA and big pharms to protect their positions. Who do you think the War on Drugs is protecting? Not children. Why do you think the AMA is against nurse practitioners and alternative forms of medicine?

    How would a purely capitalistic approach achieve the same, especially for those who have worked hard all their life, but through no fault of their own have had bad luck, and less money?

    In a laissez-faire free market where healthcare providers competed on price, the prices would naturally come down. Then insurance would be used properly for catastrophic events.

    From personal experience, a hospital will try to charge you $900 for four stitches, but won’t tell you how much they’re going to charge. And, even after they get paid $600, they’ll still try to bill you for the remainder. Does it really cost $900 to do four stitches? And, did they really not make money after being paid $600? Four stitches…

    Also, in a laissez-faire system the wealthy could not use the government to protect their positions at the expense of everybody else, namely the poor. If one truly cares about the poor, one would not advocate for more government, the very thing that plagues them.

  • Joshua Holmes

    What mechanic in capitalism helps provide funding for health care or the infirm? Isn’t there a moral obligation for these items to be affordable to the general public?

    No.

  • js290

    I happen to know a few people whose attitude about libertarianism is… “They believe in ‘Got mine, up yours’ “. Any attempt to bring up liberty/freedom seems to be dismissed out of hand as somehow an excuse for the selfishness.
    It is hard to try to explain things to them.

    Well, unfortunately, most self described “libertarians” are of the mindset “Got mine, up yours.” People with a deeper understanding usually describe libertarianism with words like laissez-faire and non-coersion.

    On the flip side, the people who dismiss libertarianism, like the folks you know, are likely selfish in an authoritarian sense. They’d probably prefer to have the govt coercively make everybody else behave in ways more favorable to them. That’s why people like Michael Moore, and their neo-con counter parts, will say stupid shit like, “if the right people were in charge…”

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    js920,
    I think you do not understand my argument. Name droping is not an argument.

  • http://kponly.blogspot.com Ryan

    VRB, I think I get what you’re saying, and my response is this:

    Isn’t that how all political institutions work? It seems to me that we choose our political views based on what we personally believe is the right way to do things and then we publicize our views and try to get others to believe them. It’s not just libertarians who think their way is the right way to do things, every political institution is like that. Democrats, republicans, independents, libertarians, communists, all of them think they have the path to “salvation” as you put it.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    David T.:

    I think js290 did a good job of answering your question. I would just like to add that before we ask the government to demand the citizen fund healthcare for others at the point of a gun, we should find out why healthcare is is so expensive to begin with. I agree with js290 that much of the expense is do to government involvement; we simply do not have a free market healthcare system.

    Wal-Mart and a few other companies are already using free market solutions to reduce the cost of healthcare with their health clinics. While you cannot get x-rays or elaborate tests done at these clinics, you can be seen for more minor health issues like sore throat, a fever, cold, skin conditions, etc. I have personally used these clinics and have found that the Wal-Mart physician can write the perscriptions and tend to these basic needs just as well as any other doctor…and at a fraction of the price.

    The AMA does not much like these “doc in a box” clinics because of how it drives the prices down and they fear this will cause competition (how terrible). The AMA is doing its best to shut these clinics down by lobbying the government. I bet Michael Moore didn’t bring THAT up is his crockumentary.

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    Ryan,
    Let me say that some groups proselytize more than others.

    Before any of the sophisticated systems we speak of today, I feel humans developed a system of values, which ensured their cohesion as a society and survival to suceeding generations. Later this may be reinforced with religious morals. However I don’t see polital systems or economic sytems generating these values. The actions they cause may be good or bad depending on other influences. This is what I meant by being amoral. That is whay I use the example of what one may do with government. It would still be a democratic system, whether it would be more socialist or not, would depend on the values of those making policy. I think capitalism operates in the same way, to best meet it business goal, it might be necessary to create a situation that is bad for society or the individual. Lets say, it appears to be unfair. How can we assign moral blame, if it is simply following its purpose. Would you say that capitalism is evil, I know some do. These may not be good examples, but I do not think moral values can be derived from these systems.

  • http://www.indiancowboy.net/blog/ Nick

    VRB, you seem to confuse selfish interest with self interest. Can’t blame you considering the way many libertarian-types have sounded over the years (*cough* Rand *cough*)

    Self interest underpins all of evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology. Economics is nothing more than a subset of behavioral ecology.

    Behavioral ecology today concerns itself primarily with cooperation. Cooperation as mediated by the underlying principle of self interest.

    Whether we’re talking about capuchins adopting orphaned marmosets or alpha male baboons facing down jaguars, the underlying principle is self interst, no matter how ‘altruistic’ the behavior seems.

    Self interest is where cooperation comes from. Biology teaches us that.

    Attempts to quash the interactions of individuals acting on a self interested manner will also quash their ability to interact in a truly cooperative way.

    One of the reasons that socialist systems devolve into every man for himself scenarios is because interpersonal interaction loses the ability to profit either party as such things are now mediated by the government.

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    Nick,
    I thought I was talking about something else.

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    What do you call it when you give animals human qualities? That is what I see being done here.

  • http://www.indiancowboy.net/blog/ Nick

    anthropomorphism?

    It’d be anthropomorphism if I said that capuchins adopt marmosets because they look so cuddly and cute and they can’t stand to see them starve because of their compassion.

    It’s not anthropomorphism to show that females who ‘adopt’ like this often gain in status because they prove they can handle an increase in energy expenditure that doesn’t directly reward them (i.e. making more babies). It’s not anthropomorphism to show that females who ‘adopt’ like this, especially nulliparous females end up with valuable parenting experience and tolerance that leads to better outcomes when they actually do start breeding.

    It’s not anthropomorphism to point out that if an alpha male defends a baby that isn’t his, the mommy will be less inclined to see him kicked out and will be more likely to defend him against challengers because she’s in his debt (reciprocal altruism). Neither is it anthropomorphism to point out that other males who’ve seen him do this will be less likely to screw with him.

    All of which has been scientifically verified and forms the cornerstone of modern behavioral ecology.

    There’s no anthropomorphism there to be found.

  • http://www.indiancowboy.net/blog/ Nick

    [i]Where does that altruism comes from, I don’t see it as a byproduct of libertarianism, I see as a byproduct of values that have been passed down from your family or community.[/i]

    Altruism is a byproduct of the fact that self-interested individuals acting together can often increase their own gains. It’s not all zero sum games. Strong individuals often need a group in order to maximize their success; it’s hard to get rich being a hermit since there’s no one to sell anything to. And one of the best ways for a strong individual to maintain group cohesiveness while simultaneously cementing his/her role as a leader is to act in a way that benefits the group. To put it in other words, you can show your strength more easily by how many people you pull up than how many people you hold down.

    This is why things like reciprocal altruism are so important in many group-living species. Which we happen to be…

    Governments act as proxies for such displays of ‘altruism’ (which are better understood as acts of self interest). They pay taxes, government handles it for them. And because they feel like their responsibility is discharged once they’re done paying taxes, they’re less likely to bother with it as individuals.

  • http://www.indiancowboy.net/blog/ Nick

    What mechanic in capitalism helps provide funding for health care or the infirm? Isn’t there a moral obligation for these items to be affordable to the general public?

    There is no mechanism for it in libertarianism. That doesn’t mean it won’t get taken care of. This is the fundamental flaw in such arguments. Just because we do not believe in government responsibility in a social area does not mean we believe it shouldn’t be taken care of. I believe in the legalization of all drugs–even hard drugs. But I certainly don’t believe we should allow all children to take them.

    Part of the reason for the semi-socialist economic approach is the belief that medical care is so fundamental to us humans that to render it unaffordable is immoral.

    The problem with that is that ‘medical care’ is such a vague term and that people who talk about ‘providing medical care’ to everyone rarely if ever set limits on what is sensible.

    In my med school time in outpatient pediatrics I’d wager that roughly 50-80% of visits were COMPLETELY unnecessary. The child would’ve gotten better regardless and in most cases weren’t that badly off to begin with. About half of the others could’ve been handled by PAs or even public health nurses. The rest were well child checkups. A whole month. Not one case did I see that really required a doctor. Do people have a ‘right’ to be seen by a doctor when they have no ‘need’ of it, especially when someone else is paying?

    What about when someone ruins their own body? Do you have a ‘right’ to demand that other people pay for your own mistakes?

    More and more of our pharmaceuticals are lifestyle drugs. In that I include drugs that are a result of peoples’ own stupidity. Do people have a ‘right’ to those too?

    A subsidy to those who cannot afford it seems like a reasonable thing to do, and this requires taxes.

    The problem with that again is that healthcare costs are a variable. A HUGE variable dependent on genetics, childhood environment, adult choices, and sheer chance.

    I can buy such arguments when it comes to education, which theoeretically would cost the same from student to student. At the very least I’ll give such arguments a fair hearing.

    But the vast, vast majority of healthcare costs are spent:
    1. on the last couple days/weeks of a person’s ‘life’ when they’re basically dead people walking.
    2. on lifestyle issues that could’ve been avoided, even if one *did* have bad genetics.

    Regardless of one’s stance on the first issue, the second issue amounts to government enforced theft. Demanding that the healthy who made good choices pay for the costs incurred by the sick due to their own selfishness (and it really is nothing more).

    So if we were to be sensible about it, where would we go from there? Obviously the only truly just costs for the government to force us to share are ones that are genetic, emergent, and/or unpredictable.

    So then how do we define ‘genetic’? There are lots of diseases out there in which family history are extremely important (some cancers, heart disease, diabetes, etc). Yet if you live a proper lifestyle, they’re simply not an issue. Asians are one of the highest risk groups in terms of genetics for the development of Type II diabetes. Yet such risks almost completely disappear when we watch our weight and diet, which is why we never had a problem with it 100 years ago.

    So then do we only offer to pay for some of the costs in these multifactorial disease? Do we use a sliding scale depending on how good the lifestyle choices were prior? Do we determine the level of payout based on age of onset?

    And what about emergent problems? What if I break my leg rock climbing? Do I really have a right to force you to pay for my care because I chose to undertake something stupid and risky? What if you cut off a finger building yourself a coffee table? Should we be forced to pay for its reattachment?

    I have to be convinced of a strong probability of meningitis before I even set foot in a doctor’s office when I’m sick. Yet I’ve got classmates who go to the doctor at the drop of a hat. I’ve never filled a vikodin scrip after a wisdom tooth surgery. Yet I know some who go in for their two weeks worth and then go back for more. Should I be forced to subsidize them for being sissies?

    IF you can propose a truly just system of government-mediated healthcare that doesn’t involve theft and overuse, I’ll listen…

  • js290

    There’s no anthropomorphism there to be found.

    Give it up, Nick… if I had to guess, VRB is confused about a lot of issues… probably a female feeling her way through arguments…

    IF you can propose a truly just system of government-mediated healthcare that doesn’t involve theft and overuse, I’ll listen…

    The universal healthcare zealots are probably more about controlling people’s behaviors than they are about healthcare.

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    js120,

    This is how you finish, with a sexist remark. This shows who you really are.

    No female could ever argue with you superior male logic, unless they were you handmaidens.

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    My letters stick. you=your

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