Some excerpts from Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know (which is once again in stock at Amazon). [Please excuse the inconsistent capitalization of “left”. That’s because I’m grabbing text from different pre-publication versions.]
First, a pervasive criticism:
Many critics believe that libertarians are unusually selfish people. They think libertarians are opposed to helping others. They regard libertarianism as a defense of selfishness.
Critics often say that libertarianism is just an attempt to rationalize greed and selfishness. For instance, the conservative Michael Gersen, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, asserts that people turn to libertarianism during late adolescence because adolescents are egoistical and self-centered.
I respond, to start, that at base libertarians are no different from others. Some egalitarians are pompous jerks, the kind of people who will say to grad students, “Oh, you want to go to dinner with me? Let’s go to this expensive NYC restaurant, and you students can foot the bill in exchange for the privilege.” (Yes, I’m referring to a real person, but I won’t say whom.) Some are kind and loving people. Some socialists are callous and cruel. Others are generous and warm. Same with libertarians.
Are there systematic differences? Jonathan Haidt’s work show us some differences in people’s expressed attitudes, but we don’t know much about their behavior. (Also, many people whom I would classify as libertarian in this book–such as Jason Brennan–Haidt classifies as liberal.)
In principle, social scientists could study whether people of some ideologies tend to be more selfish than others. As far as I know, no one has done so. So, if we ask whether libertarians are more selfish than others, the answer is that we do not know, and we do not have any reason to think they are.
We might try to make such estimates by seeing whether libertarians donate more to charity. And, in fact, some social scientific work indicates that support for free markets is positively correlated with more charitable giving, even once you control for religious giving. Does that prove libertarians are actually less selfish?
…it’s tempting to conclude free market supporters are thus more selfless and benevolent than socialists and members of the left. After all, donating to charity costs real wealth. If I give thousands to charity, that’s a vacation I don’t take. In contrast, to advocate or vote for a welfare state with high tax rates costs me nothing. Suppose a left-liberal votes for a candidate who promises to triple her taxes and give the proceeds to the poor. Her vote has almost zero chance of changing her actual tax rates. (The left should be thus careful in accusing libertarians of selfishness.)
However, we should not rush to this conclusion. Perhaps the left gives less because they believe private charity does not work. On their behalf, we might say: If you refuse to throw money at what you regard as bad medicine, this does not show you are indifferent to the disease.
See how nice I am to the Left? If you give less, it might not be because you care less. It might instead be because you think that giving doesn’t work. That’s the charitable thing to say. But charity goes both ways here.
… libertarians often criticize institutions the left believes help the poor. For instance, libertarians often criticize the welfare state. To the left, this comes across as callous indifference to the plight of the poor. Yet most libertarians criticize the welfare state because they believe the welfare state hurts the poor more than it helps them. If libertarians refuse to throw money at what they regard as bad medicine, this does not show they are indifferent to the disease.
There’s a difference in strategy here.
When members of the left want government to help people, they often seek to have government do so in the most direct way: through handouts. Libertarians argue the best way to help the poor is indirect. Left-liberals say, “Let’s help the poor by giving them health insurance.” Libertarians say, “Let’s help by creating background conditions that generate so much wealth that no one needs a handout.” Left-liberals say, “Let’s give the poor free food.” Libertarians say, “Let’s create background conditions that make the poor rich so they can buy their own food.”
Why are we so suspicious of others’ motives? That’s only natural:
Psychologists have shown that most of us are biased to believe that people who hold political views contrary to ours must be stupid, irrational, and evil. It is no surprise that members of the left tend to think libertarians are selfish. They regard their own political beliefs as the only sensible expression of benevolence. They thus conclude libertarians must be selfish and cold-hearted.
It cuts both ways.
Libertarians are also suspicious of the left. Libertarians do not take it for granted that social democrats are benevolent or concerned for social justice. From the libertarian point of view, whenever the Left has power—and it frequently does—it seems all too eager to grant special favors to elite financiers, corporations, and special interests. Worse, many on the Left oppose free immigration. To libertarians, this makes the Left’s expression concern for the poor seem disingenuous.
And, of course, talk is cheap.
…if I publically advocate a welfare state, people will tend to assume I am a loving and kind person. I can feel good about myself, even if I haven’t actually done anything to help anyone. It is cheap and easy for me to advocate having people fed. I get to enjoy the warm glow of benevolence at no cost to myself.