Mises Wire

It Seems That Everyone Who Isn't a Hard-Core Leftist Is a "Libertarian"

Mises Wire Christopher E. Baecker

Back in the summer of 2006, perhaps sensing momentum for Democrats going into the midterm, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas gave it a push by making a play for the libertarian vote. Considering the degree to which the Bush/GOP years disappointed, it made sense.

At the outset, he targeted “government efforts to intrude in our bedrooms” and “NSA spying,” a couple of sore spots in light of President Bush’s proposed constitutional restriction of marriage to between a man and a woman and new state powers enacted to conduct the war on terror.

Slowly but surely, though, Moulitsas started cutting out on his target audience, alluding to free healthcare and “poverty prevention programs.” San Antonio Express-News Smart Money columnist Michael Taylor has trodden similarly shaky ground lately.

First, in astutely pointing out how some Republican senators are unwittingly greasing the skids for a huge new entitlement called a universal basic income (UBI), he erroneously asserted that “trusting people” with such a handout is a “deeply small-government idea.” Now, he’s criticizing the moralization of “poverty-reduction programs.”

To be sure, he starts out on solid footing in shaming government for picking winners and losers by deciding which types of businesses merit public help after being shut down the last couple months.

Libertarians have been at the forefront of freeing so-called victimless crime from the chains of the supposed morally superior. More and more jurisdictions are decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing gambling; criminal system reform passed a couple years ago.

Taylor’s case becomes tenuous, however, when he equates restrictions on public welfare programs to “blaming poverty on the immorality of its victims.”

Few would disagree that children born into destitution are the most unfortunate segment of society. That consensus is reflected in the $13–18 million that the local United Way spends on helping them every year. But giving their parents checks with no strings attached is not a solution.

While anyone who demands the efficient use of taxpayer funds (assume for the sake of argument that this is possible) would certainly support reducing bureaucracy, giving free reign to the beneficiaries of public aid funded by resources taken from others’ earnings, the thrust of Mr. Taylor’s pitch, is the real immoral act.

Pairing the loosened strings with commensurate cuts to these programs’ provision would be a logical step. Include a reduction on individual payouts, and you might even have a deal. Best of all, transfer these programs entirely to state and local jurisdictions. But even following a more proper federalist path, you can’t call it “libertarian,” despite the best efforts of those who try to appropriate the label.

With a headline that read “An Unusual Breed: A Libertarian Democrat,” The Economist parroted Colorado governor Jared Polis’s self-identification as such upon assuming office last year. In the same paragraph, they touted his support for “universal health care, investments in renewable energy, etc.”

Apparently wanting to lower income taxes is just enough to qualify for the moniker. Cute.

One state-run program that Mr. Taylor holds up as immorally administered is unemployment assistance.

The wages you forgo when your employer is forced to contribute to this program is already a tough pill to swallow. To not insist that those out of work look for a job while drawing benefits would not only compound that burden, but would be counterproductive. Taylor seems to lack an understanding of incentives, a tenet of economics 101.

In the immediate aftermath of the recession a decade ago, the unemployment rate hovered around 9 percent. Once expanded benefits were rolled back, it started dropping. This is roughly the inverse of what happened when Lyndon B. Johnson declared “war on poverty.”

Before Uncle Sam got involved, the poverty rate had been in clear free fall. Once he joined the battle, that trend was arrested, never to escape an 11–15 percent range.

The problem with these appeals to liberty-minded citizens is a confusion over rights.

The petitioners are cool with protecting people’s right to privacy in their home, to do whatever they please as long as they hurt no other. But they also feel that some segments of society are entitled to the resources or support of others, as embodied by Mr. Polis’s support for “paid parental leave.”

The former are negative rights, many of which are the foundation for prosperity (property, trade, etc.), while the latter are positive rights. The two cannot coexist, as the latter necessarily intrude upon the former.

Whether they’re the party faithful, trying to reform the GOP from the inside, or so irritated with the process that they lodge a protest vote for Democrats, libertarians know that “all efforts by government to redistribute wealth…are improper to a free society” and that “agreements between private employers and employees…should not be encumbered by government-mandated benefits.” Their strength of principle is impervious to flaccid, linguistic sleights of hand.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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