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Friday, January 20, 2006

The economic, the political, and the charitable

At http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=21113445&postID=113752960655218826 Harp Maven writes,

If more people who live with freedom as their motto demonstrate that others in need will get the help they require in order to live with their basic needs for food and shelter met, then I think those people, perhaps many who have adopted Libertarianism as their creed, might have a greater following!

This is one of the toughest challenges for libertarianism: how to reconcile one individual's right to his or her life and property with another individual's need for basic necessities.

Let's say Joe has a need for food. He can meet this need by growing food or he can produce something else that he can exchange for food directly or indirectly (using money). Alternatively, he could steal the food he needs. But stealing is immoral, right? If Joe steals food from Sally, he's violating Sally's right to her property. Another way to look at it is that Joe is initiating force against Sally. That's why stealing is immoral.

Instead of stealing food from Sally directly, suppose Joe persuades enough of his fellow voters to elect politicians that enact a law under which the State takes food (or money) from Sally and gives it to Joe and his fellow voters. From Sally's point of view, nothing has changed: someone has violated Sally's right to her property; someone has initiated force against her. From Sally's point of view, has she not been the victim of theft?

(The commandment is, "Thou shalt not steal", it is not, "Thou shalt not steal unless thou findeth thineself amongst the majority of the voters, in which case thou mayest stealeth with abandon"!)

Wendy McElroy writes,

The German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer explained the difference between these two terms [state and society] in his classic work, The State. By “state,” Oppenheimer meant “that summation of privileges and dominating positions which are brought into being by extra-economic power.” By “society,” he meant “the totality of concepts of all purely natural relations and institutions between man and man....” In other words, the state uses the political means — or force — to acquire wealth and power. Society uses the economic means, or cooperation. An example of the political means is to acquire wealth through taxation. An example of the economic means is the acquisition of wealth through productive labor.

The goal of libertarianism is to persuade people to look to the economic means, first and foremost, to achieve their goals. When this is achieved, society will be both peaceful and voluntary

Thus, if Joe meets his need for food by growing it or by producing something else that he can exchange for food, he is using the economic means to satisfy his need. On the other hand, if he persuades his fellow voters to elect politicians that enact a law under which the State takes food from Sally and gives it to Joe and his fellow voters, he uses the political means to satisfy his need.

It seems to me that there is a third means, the charitable means. If Joe is unable to meet his real needs by productive labor and if he is unwilling to initiate force against his neighbors--either directly (through outright theft) or indirectly (through taxation, which is nothing more than legal plunder)--then he can still ask his family, friends, and neighbors for help. This has the advantage that the help provided by his family, friends, and neighbors would involve no coercion, no initiation of force. The help provided to Joe by his family, friends, and neighbors in this way would be entirely voluntary. Because it is voluntary, Joe's family, friends, and neighbors can feel good about themselves for helping Joe out (which is not the case if Joe's family, friends, and neighbors are forced to help Joe out through taxation). Moreover, because Joe has been helped by the voluntary action of his family, friends, and neighbors, he can feel gratitude toward them. On the other hand, if Joe's family, friends, and neighbors (not to mention all the people who are strangers to Joe!) are forced to help him out through taxation, Joe will come to think that this help is not something for which he should be grateful, but, rather something to which he is entitled.

So, if Joe is unable to provide for all of his real needs, the charitable means is to be preferred over the political means. And, whenever possible, the charitable means should focus on helping Joe meet his future needs himself through the economic means rather than making him permanently dependent on the charitable means.

Would all the Joes of the world get all the help they need through the charitable means? I think a more fruitful question is as follows: why is it, that after 42 years of the War On Poverty (declared by Lyndon Johnson in January, 1964), we still have people who are unable to meet their needs through the economic means? Doesn't the fact that we have lost the War On Poverty tell us that the attempt to meet Joe's needs through the political means has been a complete failure? Isn't it time to try something else? Isn't it time to drop coercion (the political means) and try peace and cooperation (the economic and charitable means)?


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