Mises Wire

A “Libertarian” Argument for the Welfare State

The Niskanen Center

The Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C, bills itself as a “libertarian think tank:” but its conception of libertarianism is one that many of us will find surprising. Jerry Taylor, the founder and president of the Center, in an article of March 10, “Do Libertarians Want Freedom or Not?” argues that libertarians ought to be sympathetic to welfare measures and legislation that restricts freedom of association to promote civil rights.

Why should libertarians support these policies? Taylor’s argument is a simple one: libertarians want to promote liberty and these policies will do so. “If libertarianism is about advancing individual liberty, however, these aren’t acts of surrender. They are necessary prerequisites for a free society.”

How can Taylor say this? The welfare state seizes people’s property in order to “help” those whom the state wishes to subsidize, and laws that forbid racial discrimination in housing and employment likewise in obvious ways restrict liberty. No doubt there are arguments for these measures, but how can these arguments be libertarian ones? Surely these arguments would have to take the form that it is justifiable to restrict libertarian rights in order to help the poor or racial minorities.

Taylor disagrees. Exactly what he claims is that support for welfare to the poor and for anti-discrimination laws promotes freedom. His argument for welfare is this: “It should be fairly obvious that one’s freedom is enhanced when one has the resources to act freely. We increase the amount of freedom in this country when we eliminate the greatest obstacle to living freely: poverty.”

It is apparent that by “freedom,” Taylor does not mean the absence of force or threats of force, the customary definition of the term by libertarians. Rather, freedom for him consists of wealth, the possession of resources. Similarly, in defense of anti-discrimination laws, he says: “A country with a savage three-century history of state-sanctioned slavery and apartheid can’t just drop the official discrimination and expect members of downtrodden groups to suddenly enjoy anything resembling equal freedom.” In other words, blacks have fewer opportunities to get jobs and housing than others: here “equal freedom” appears to mean “chances to get economic goods.”

I’m opposed to the welfare state and anti-discrimination laws, but the merits of these measures aren’t what concern me here. What strikes me as odd in Taylor’s article is that he has baptized as “libertarian” a standard criticism of libertarianism and classical liberalism.

The socialist antagonists of classical liberalism denounced it for a “negative” concept of freedom. The freedom of the classical liberals was “freedom to starve.” “Real” freedom, by contrast, meant the possession of resources, exactly the view Taylor favors. Taylor’s suggestion to libertarians is to join the other side.

Taylor would no doubt respond that I am a hidebound Rothbardian, who wrongly insists on a narrow conception of libertarianism. In the comments section of his article, he says:

I suspect the nub of the problem is that, for many libertarians today, “libertarian” means the ideas of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Nozick. But there are other libertarian thinkers of note in this world — past and present — and many of them disagree with this triumvirate.

Taylor is right that not all classical liberals have unconditionally opposed state programs to aid the poor, but he misses what I take to be the key issue, the meaning of liberty.

In support of my contention that, in his conception of liberty, Taylor has deserted libertarianism for the opposition, let us appeal to Hayek, one of those he mentions as a supporter of assistance to the poor. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek says:

To harness to its cart the strongest of all political motives, the craving for freedom, socialism began increasingly to make use of the promise of a “new freedom” ...

The subtle change in meaning to which the word freedom was subjected in order that this argument should sound plausible is important. To the great apostles of political freedom the word had meant freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the orders of a superior to whom he was attached. The new freedom promised, however, was to be freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us, although for some very much more than for others. Before man could be truly free, the “despotism of physical want” had to be broken, the “restraints of the economic system” relaxed. Freedom in this sense is, of course, merely another name for power or wealth.

Perhaps Taylor will now add Hayek to his list of superseded libertarian thinkers.

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