If you only read academic philosophy discussing orthodox right libertarianism, you might expect that libertarians are callous and indifferent to poverty. Academic philosophers tend to think that self-described libertarians have the following view:
Cartoon Libertarianism: Protect self-ownership and abide by Nozick’s entitlement theory, though the sky falls! (And many starve.)
If libertarians really believed that, then it would seem hard to explain why so many of them are preoccupied with showing how markets, under the right conditions, end poverty.
Even Ayn Rand, of all people. In Atlas Shrugged, the most productive and innovative members of society–tired of being told they exploit everyone else–go on strike. The American economy collapses. This sends a clear message: the less talented need the more talented more than the more talented need the less talented. So far, there is nothing here to excite a high liberal or a person concerned with social justice.
But notice that Rand is at pains to show that the strikers only hasten an inevitable collapse. In Atlas Shrugged, socialist economies have been collapsing long before John Galt calls a strike. And Rand goes at great lengths to illustrate that the people who suffer the most from these collapses aren’t her heroes (they all lead happy lives in the mountains), or the unheroic rich (they use their connections to exploit others), but instead the least talented and least advantaged members of society. So, in Atlas Shrugged, the bad guys try to exploit Rand’s heroes, but Rand makes it clear that the innocent poor are the ones that suffer the most as a result. If Rand were utterly unconcerned for the poor, or anyone else––as she is often taken to be––why would she do this? As a mere reductio or taunt? (Rand, in thick Russian accent: “I couldn’t care less if the poor starve. But I know you socialists dislike it.”)
All of the libertarians I’ve met believe that in a libertarian minimal state or anarchist society, markets and other institutions of civil society would make nearly everyone better off, the poor would not be left behind, and that there would be significant progress. I’m not here interested in discussing whether they’re right about these empirical claims. I’m just curious what role these beliefs play in their political philosophies, given that they explicitly disavow social justice.
So, suppose markets work the way libertarians think they do, and thus make everyone, including the poor, much better off. What import does this have for libertarians? Some options:
- It’s just a fun fact of no moral significance.
- It’s part of the justification for market society, but not a matter of justice. (If so, then what role does this play?)
- It’s a matter of justice that the institutions of the basic structure of society should provide for all, including the poor, and the best way to do that is through libertarian institutions.