As anyone who has ever met me will know, I spend an unhealthily large proportion of my life ranting about how I loathe the state. This applies to absolutely everything it does, be it foreign policy, taxation, drug prohibition, and of course, welfare. Opposition to the welfare state isn’t unique to libertarians; we will hate it because of the coercion that is used to fund it, whilst conservatives may share our animosity but place a greater emphasis on personal responsibility and hard work.
The opposition across the right-wing spectrum to the welfare state is extremely prevalent and quite understandable from a number of positions, and it is also one of the tools that the left will use to attack us the most. By playing on emotive arguments about how libertarians hate the poor and wish them to starve to death in the streets, our enemies can effectively paint us as heartless and apathetic to human suffering. We know this isn’t the case; I have never met anybody who is a libertarian for any other reason than the fact that they fundamentally believe in bettering people’s lives. However, we need to be careful in the way we bring our message across, and this means not demonising the very people that we wish to help.
A crucial aspect of libertarianism is the belief in the concept of rational self-interest. Whilst many ideologies like conservatism and socialism believe that there is a ‘common good’ that people should be pushed into achieving, libertarians trust people to work out what’s best for them by themselves. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people aren’t going to make decisions that we may personally find idiotic or wrong, but generally the pursuit of preference satisfaction – which for many will mean the pursuit of wealth or profit – leads to peaceful and mutual co-operation on the free market as the best way in which to achieve this goal. This becomes distorted when the state gets involved.
When a coercive monopoly is capable of giving you whatever you want regardless of the consent of those it takes from, the most rationally self-interested thing to do may not be to work and produce something of benefit to others that they wish to voluntarily pay for – it may simply be to ask or simply accept the money that the state has to offer. This is essentially what those who take from the welfare state are doing; acting according to their rational self-interest.
As libertarians, we of course cry that this is wrong; these people are benefiting from what is essentially violence! We may perhaps also argue that they are work-shy shirkers who need to take responsibility for their own lives. These arguments are flawed and are lazy in themselves. The latter strikes me as a more conservative argument; as a libertarian I would not ascribe any objective value to traits such as ‘hard work’ or ‘responsibility’. In a truly free market I may recognise that much of the time they will produce desirable outcomes, but ultimately I am anti-coercion, not pro-responsibility. I believe that rational self-interest would lead to more people taking responsibility for their own lives in a world without a state, but I see this as a side-effect, not the ultimate goal.
If we are going to be in the business of judging people’s lifestyle choices and the character traits they possess we need to re-consider how ‘libertarian’ this truly is. The former argument – that benefit-claimers are benefiting from violence – sounds more rationally libertarian, but it is an un-attainably idealistic view. The idea that everyone should understand the philosophical consequences of the non-aggression principle and become a card-carrying libertarian activist is unrealistic when the majority of people are more concerned about getting through their everyday lives in a hostile world. The time it takes to immerse yourself in political philosophy is a luxury that the majority of people do not have. It is also unnecessary – as I mentioned before, rational self-interest is why free markets ultimately work best, not because we will ever be able to foster a society of dedicated libertarians.
To attack benefit claimants is ultimately hypocritical. Even for those of us who understand the nature of statism, it is impossible to avoid the state in our every day lives; it monopolises roads, transport, healthcare, education and countless other services to the extent that only the very wealthy can afford an alternative. Likewise, state-funded welfare is a monopoly. There is no incentive for charity or even private businesses to provide any alternative to the benefits system we currently have, because the state is currently doing it. There will always be people who need help from other people in life, state or no state; we just wish to change how this is funded. Indeed, it is important to consider just how much the state actively makes everyone poorer (http://thebackbencher.co.uk/
It is the system itself we need to attack, not the people who take advantage of it. There is no shame in asking for help, and there is no shame in accepting the help that is available. What there is shame in doing is forcing citizens to give up their money via the threat of physical force. This is not something that benefit claimants are doing – this is something that the state itself is doing. Libertarians need to attack the system, not the people who quite rationally take advantage of it.
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