Can Libertarians Be Charitable and Generous?

A friend wrote me recently and asked what my opinion of charity and generosity were, “as a libertarian.”

There’s a strain of libertarianism, influenced by Ayn Rand’s “objectivism,” that considers altruism and charity to be a vice practiced by people who have been brainwashed into a slave morality. They’ve got their reasons for holding this point-of-view, and they shouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand, but some of them are fond of saying that this view is a logically necessary part of libertarianism. I think it’s more accurate to say that this view and libertarianism don’t depend on each other so much as on a previous cause — typically that of reading Ayn Rand at an impressionable age. (The same way humans didn’t evolve from chimpanzees, but both humans and chimps have a common ancestor.)

Anyway… Some of the most public faces of libertarianism in the U.S. today are the “libertarian wing” of the Republican party, the Libertarian Party itself, and Reason magazine.

And, sad to say, you can’t listen to these groups very long without discerning a common set of prejudices above-and-beyond a stated love for liberty. Among these: that a rich person can probably be assumed to be more virtuous than a poor person, that technology and the marketplace are bound to leave things better off than they found them, that the economic system advocated by the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal approximates a libertopian free market for all intents and purposes, and that there’s no environmental crisis that won’t go away if you just look at the data the right way.

It’s a weird mythology that makes the government out to be this evil conspiracy to take money from virtuous rich people who have somehow managed to earn their money in spite of the politicians who hate them, in order to give the money away to lazy poor people who hold these politicians in their greedy little hands. Meanwhile, the government relies on junk science to suppress beneficial technologies in a vigorous quest to save worthless species that aren’t even endangered.

Anyone who looks out one of the portholes of the S.S. Libertarian and notices that the government is really one big redistribution scheme to take money from the productive and give it to rich campaign contributors and government contractors, or that the government is one of the worst polluters and disregarders of the environment, or that it subsidizes wasteful and unneeded and dangerous technology, is told that there’s plenty of room on the S.S. Whiny Liberal for that kind of talk.

There are exceptions — for example in today’s Reason Online, the article Confessions of a Welfare Queen, which notes that “the biggest welfare queens are the already wealthy” and frankly discusses some of the many ways the rich benefit from milking the government.

If you look beyond this most public face of “libertarianism” you can find a more balanced outlook — one which recognizes that being rich under the current economic system is as likely to mean that you traffic in stolen goods, bribes, and extortion as that you are a virtuous entrepreneur — one that recognizes environmental tragedies of the commons as challenges to which libertarian theory must adapt rather than unfortunate facts to be wished away — one that realizes that “free market” reforms like NAFTA are only window-dressing for a government-controlled economic system — and one that knows that you can only call Alan Greenspan a libertarian in a joke.

It hasn’t always been like this. Believe it or not, there was even a time when libertarian orthodoxy was profoundly anti-capitalist. Times change, and intellectual trends along with them. It should be no surprise that a viewpoint that flatters the rich has become one that has a loud voice and a gilded megaphone — it’s one of the consequences of libertarian ideas moving into the mainstream. Consider Christianity, which started with a fellow who encouraged people to sell what they owned and give the proceeds to the poor because it was so difficult for a rich person to be saved — today a Christianity that quite shamelessly flatters the rich is mainstream.

That said, people sometimes look at my experiment in tax resistance via income reduction and assume that I think that poverty and simplicity are virtues in and of themselves. That’s not my point-of-view.

I guess what I wanted to say was this: If when you think “anarchist” the image that comes to mind is a college kid in a black balaclava throwing a brick at a Starbucks, you might want to revisit the topic. Ditto if when you think “libertarian” the image that comes to mind is a guy in a three-piece suit yelling into his cellphone “I don’t care if they are widows and orphans, I want ’em out of there by this time tomorrow!”

Julian Sanchez wrote an essay, I Am Not Snidely Whiplash, from a similar point of view:

…most free-market types I know think of liberals and other lefties as basically decent, well-meaning people afflicted with a tragic critical-thinking deficiency. So how is it that, in return, these good-but-confused folks seem to regard us as Nietzschean monsters who fantasize about crushing homeless people beneath our limousine wheels?…

Read on for his theory of how this came to pass.