Opposition to the welfare state is often considered to be a defining feature of libertarianism. But over the last few years, a few of us libertarians have been seeking to challenge that claim. Jason Brennan, for instance, has argued that regulation is a much greater threat to human freedom than redistribution, and thus that there is a good case to be made that Denmark is a more economically libertarian country than the United States. Over at the Niskanen Center, Will Wilkinson has recently set out a libertarian case for Bernie Sanders on similar grounds, a case on which his colleague Jerry Taylor has thoughtfully elaborated.
All of this has Bryan Caplan scratching his head and wondering why these people call themselves libertarians, and whether they really understand the libertarian case against the welfare state at all. Bryan helpfully sets out that case, dividing libertarian arguments into three categories: soft-core, medium-core, and hard-core. Those arguments lead to somewhat different conclusions about the permissibility of welfare in the abstract, but all of them, Bryan claims, imply “radical opposition to the welfare state as it exists.”
I think some form of state-based welfare is defensible on libertarian grounds. And I think a lot of the resistance to this idea among libertarians is based on a misunderstanding of the libertarian intellectual tradition. That tradition, as John Tomasi and I argue in the book we’re writing together, is both much more pluralistic than is usually supposed, and also much more progressive. That isn’t to deny that libertarians have made a number of important, influential, and insightful critiques of various forms of welfare. But libertarian opposition to state-based welfare is neither as absolute nor as universal as is commonly supposed.
That, at any rate, is the thesis of a new paper I have coming out in the Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism on “Libertarianism and the Welfare State.” That paper explores why opposition to welfare is the default libertarian position, but also why libertarians as diverse as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Herbert Spencer have deviated from that default in various circumstances. I encourage you to read the whole thing for the details. But here’s a bit from the introduction:
[B]oth the reasoning employed and the kind of welfare that is justified varies between what I identify as the two main branches of libertarian theory. Classical liberals, when they support any welfare state at all, tend to support a moderate form of welfare aimed at providing relief to the very poor in order to ensure that all members of society share to at least some extent in the general prosperity of a free society. Strict libertarians, on the other hand, generally support state welfare only as a mechanism for making restitution for past injustice. But while their rationale is theoretically narrow, it is potentially quite radical. In a world where historical injustice is ubiquitous, the strict libertarian approach has the potential to yield a stronger case for redistribution than many alternative theories
The paper concludes by harkening back to some of the first words Jacob Levy ever wrote on this blog (exactly five years ago today, it turns out). Part of the reason that opposition to the welfare state has come to be seen as a defining feature of libertarianism, especially among academic philosophers, is that this kind of redistributive activity is one of the relatively few points of policy about which the great libertarian philosopher of the 20th century, Robert Nozick, disagreed with the great left-liberal philosopher of the 20th century, John Rawls. But focusing too much on what separates Rawls from Nozick both blinds us to the great deal they have in common, and distracts us from the many important commitments of libertarianism that have nothing to do with the welfare state, or socialism
We do not live in a Rawlsian world, separated from a Nozickian one merely by the existence of a few poverty relief programs. Instead, we live in a world in which states imposes licensing requirements on a host of occupations, making it difficult for the poor to support themselves through honest work. It is a world in which most states impose severe restrictions on immigration, thus restricting the world’s poor from moving to nations with better economic opportunities to support themselves and their families. And it is a world in which the state’s police, driven by a combination of racism and institutional pressures, are enabled by the war on drugs and a host of petty restrictions to single out the poor and the marginalized for the very worst sorts of coercion of which states are capable. Eliminating these programs might not be a distinctively libertarian goal, but it is an important libertarian goal, and one that many libertarians believe would make a tremendous positive difference in the lives of the poor.