Libertarianism and the Welfare State

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.

Read the whole paper here.

  • Jerome Bigge

    Any political philosophy will fail if it creates more “losers” than “winners”. When Libertarians get about 1% of the vote in elections, you know that we’ve failed to prove to people that they would be better off with us than with the Democrats or Republicans. To win an election, you have to prove that you can make their lives better. Better than what the candidates of the two major parties can do.

    Take for example health care… What do we have to offer compared to what Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz have to offer? OK, with the exception of Sanders, the Democrats will simply continue with Obamacare. The Republicans haven’t really explained what they will do, but it appears to be in the line of a tax deduction to buy your own insurance along with perhaps health savings accounts. In any case no “major changes” are being offered except for Sanders, who likely will not win the nomination the way things are going now.

    I have a blog on WordPress under “”. I’ve suggested that we repeal prescription laws as a good first step. Dump medical licensing for certification by private agencies. Allow people to purchase their medications from wherever they wish. Allow the formation of “tiers” of health institutions so that people only have to pay for the level of services they need. Strip the professions of their government provided legal monopoly that limits services only to those who are members of the professions. In effect, stop “rewarding the few” at the “cost of the rest of us”. These are all ideas that would benefit everyone through lower costs and most likely much better service. Free competition always reduces costs and saves money for the consumer.

    • Sean II

      “To win an election, you have to prove that you can make their lives better.”

      That’s not how the other guys win. Not even close.

      • Jerome Bigge

        The Republicans win by exploiting people’s fears.

        • Sean II

          Everyone in politics does that.

          There’s a name for people who decline to use fear as a motivator in election campaigns. They’re called losers.

    • John

      I agree almost 100%. But, we must also agree that if you purchase on the level of care you desire, then we must be willing to let some die because they made poor choices. I am ok with that because I don’t believe health care is a right. And, I don’t believe I should be paying for others poor choices, ie: drugs, alcohol, fast food, smoking, etc.

      • Jerome Bigge

        I do believe in individual responsibility. Giving people the “choice” is perhaps the key to encouraging people to be more responsible for themselves under the libertarian principle of “self ownership”.

      • John, yours is not only a wise but a morally upright stance as well, for paying for those poor choices you mention is called enabling, which makes those who willingly enable a party to the other person’s poor choice(s), and likely their downfall.

  • Are Taylor and Wilkinson arguing that forced redistribution of income (or wealth) is moral, or just that supporting governments that do that is a better strategy to get a system that is closer to what libertarians would consider good? I agree that the all or nothing strategy is not working. I would be willing to accept a robust economic safety net for everyone in the world, if it would stop military aggression, but I fear that unintended consequences of increased forced redistribution would end up not stopping aggression, or providing a robust safety net.

    • Phil Magness

      Taylor and Wilkinson are arguing for something that neglects and/or consciously omits any *meaningful* consideration of the public choice constraints upon its execution. They offer a moderately appealing tradeoff, but few routes to seriously execute upon it (well, unless you think Bernie is a serious option…and I don’t) and almost no consideration of what could and likely will go wrong during the attempted execution.

      They are essentially offering a non-ideal solution yet assuming the ideal still governs its implementation. They are operating in the world of utopias and unicorns.

  • And I think a lot of the resistance to this idea among libertarians is based on a misunderstanding of the libertarian intellectual tradition.

    Matt, what? This isn’t an academic misunderstanding. The word “libertarian” was created to be used in a specific way: to denote the free-market-plus-socially-liberal ideology. By attempting to use this word to describe something that is pro-welfare-state, you are essentially trying to redefine a word that already has a robust and time-tested definition.

    If you want to argue that libertarians should rather be pro-market social democrats, then fine, but we already have words to describe that. Why do you need to co-opt the one word that means “socially left, economically right”?

    See Roderick Long on “decimate”:

    • Reasonable Extremist

      Not sure I agree with this. Friedman and Hayek are surely libertarians or widely thought of as libertarians yes? And they supported at least some form of welfare state. So Matt’s argument seems to be valid in terms of saying the libertarian tradition is at least divided on this issue and not the exclusive province of the Rand’s and Rothbard’s of the world.

      • See, this is why the argument isn’t convincing to me. It’s impossible to make the argument that libertarians should support welfare without painting those who disagree as Rothbardian fundamentalists. That should be our first clue that the pro-welfare view is actually an attempt to dictate what is and isn’t libertarianism. First Matt tells us that if we disagree, then we actually misunderstand libertarian theory. Then Jerry Taylor accuses us of not really wanting liberty. Then Will Wilkinson publishes his “dialogue” between a pro-welfare libertarian who harmlessly, innocently wants to implement public choice theory, and a Nozickian fundamentalist who just doesn’t get it.

        So, basically the only argument for pro-welfare libertarianism is that anyone who disagrees is either stupid or a fundamentalist nut.

        I don’t like being called stupid, and I don’t like being called a fundamentalist nut. Especially when it isn’t true.

        • Reasonable Extremist

          So a few things. First off, I wasn’t making that argument. I’m very skeptical of the welfare state for a whole bunch of reasons. What I was saying is that support for a welfare state, however limited, can hardly be said to be alien to the libertarian tradition. Do you disagree with that?

          I think your second point is more difficult. I remember there was a conflagration in the libertarian web community a few years ago when one of the BHLers attacked George Smith as a “cartoon libertarian.” A lot of people felt that philosophers like Rawls were treated with great respect while serious libertarian intellectuals who held to a more Rothbardian line were reflexively denigrated. Personally, I’m highly skeptical of the entire Rawlsian project and I would never suggest those who hold to a Rothbardian or Objectivist perspective are fundamentalists (with exceptions for those who say you must let go of the flagpole; that is a little asylum-esque). I’m not sure if BHLers are really doing that (I know Matt Z has written some very nice stuff about Rothbard in the past).

          As for Wilkinson, his heart points towards Sweden.I don’t see how you look at Sweden and see a society libertarians ought to favour on the whole.

          • It just seems so strange to me. When you think about Hayek, for example, you don’t think about a guy who gave a knock-down argument for socialized medicine. Support for the welfare state has been not-alien to the libertarian tradition in the same sense that support for open markets has been not-alien to the socialist tradition. That is, sure, you can find socialists who have paid lip-service to the free market, but that’s just not the point of it. Similarly, you can find libertarians who have paid lip-service to the welfare state while (as in the case of Hayek) making an impassioned plea to shrink the size and scope of government. If that counts as “support” for welfare, then okay, but doesn’t that seem like an odd way of looking at it?

            Anybody can believe anything they want. I’ve got nothing against my progressive friends personally, and I don’t think they’re dumb or quixotic or whatever. They have their beliefs, I have mine. But it’s best if we don’t try to re-define an ideology out from under the feet of the ones who hold it, that’s all I’m really saying. We all know what “libertarian” means, and it doesn’t mean “pro-welfare liberal.”

          • Reasonable Extremist

            Yeah that’s interesting. I mean obviously the welfare state has had no shortage of defenders in academia, government, the media and so on and so forth. Welfare statism is the ideology of respectable people everywhere. Given that, Hayek understandably didn’t make support for the welfare state, to any extent and in any form, central to his arguments and worldview. But I think it’s a mistake to conclude from that that his support for the welfare state was mere lip service. I also think it’s a mistake to say all social democrat types only pay lip service to markets. A social democrat like Tony Blair has genuine regard for markets whereas many backbench Labour MPs do not. We do need to be careful not to elide real differences.

            That said, “pro-welfare liberal” is surely not libertarianism. But supporting the abolition of most government departments, cutting taxes on net, cutting regulations on net, maintaining a non-interventionist foreign policy with free trade and peaceful exchange at its core, and also having a limited safety net to ensure no one starves and so on is recognizably and authentically libertarian. Friedman and Hayek would have recognized themselves in that sort of policy mix.

          • That last part, “and also having a limited safety net,” still doesn’t work for me. There is no difference between what you’ve just defined as “recognizably and authentically libertarian” and “recognizably and authentically Republican.” We don’t want to abolish social security, we just want to lower taxes and deregulate. There is no use for a word like “libertarian” if it doesn’t mean something specific. Absent the part about the safety net, your definition would be unequivocally libertarian. But the minute you add the part about the safety net, it can no longer be differentiated from other, more mainstream, ideologies. So why not just use the existing words for those things? Why do we need to specifically use the word libertarian to refer to them?

            I keep thinking about slavery. I could make exactly the same case Matt Z makes above, but instead of welfare, I could say slavery. I could point to people like Jefferson, who were powerful advocates of classical liberalism, but who nonetheless were slave-owners. I could say, “There is a long-standing pro-slavery tradition in libertarianism,” and refer to all those people in the past who promoted recognizably libertarian ideas on the one hand and recognizably pro-slavery or pro-jingoist policies on the other. I could even call the whole abolitionist libertarian streak “an academic misunderstanding.” If I did that, people would understandably recoil, and it’s not just because slavery is terrible and the welfare state is not so bad.

            For any issue, there is liberal policy and a restrictionist one. The more one favors the liberal policy, the more libertarian one is. So Hayek favored the authoritarian policy on health care despite favoring the liberal policy on most other issues. In fact, his stance on socialized medicine is not “recognizably” libertarian because it stands out as a glaring contradiction. It’s hard to reconcile his work on economic calculation with his beliefs about socialized medicine, in exactly the same sense that it is hard to reconcile Jefferson’s ownership of human beings with his Declaration of Independence.

            Slavery and welfare are not part of a libertarian tradition. They are authoritarian policies that have in the past been favored by academics who nonetheless generally favored liberal policies. To me, this is a very important distinction.

          • Reasonable Extremist

            Definitions are always tricky and I can see what you mean but when I say safety net I’m thinking basic minimum income or something like that. Like Friedman, I want to abolish Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. We have a right to plan our own retirement and medical care. The state conscripting us into one of their planning programs is utterly antithetical to liberty. You seem to interpret safety net as “the welfare programs we have now.” Maintaining that sort of safety net, with all of its perverse paternalism and sclerotic bureaucracy, would be highly unlibertarian. But a basic minimum income wouldn’t.

            As for your other point, I think the comparison is a little strained, to say the least. I’ll leave it at that.

          • The state conscripting us into one of their planning programs is utterly antithetical to liberty.

            Then apparently my other comparison is not so strained, after all. 🙂 Anyway, the point of the comparison was only to say that the argument, “Libertarians of yore have held belief X, which means that libertarians today can believe X” doesn’t work for me.

            Could I believe in something like Matt Z’s BIG or Friedman’s “negative income tax,” as long as it were contingent on a hypothetical complete restructuring of the modern welfare state? Maybe; you’d have to ask me when our government actually looked like that. But Matt Z et al. (and especially Taylor and Wilkinson) keep promoting these ideas as “pragmatic.” It’s as if they don’t seem to realize that dismantling the modern welfare state is exactly as improbable as flipping the switch over to a successful an-cap, paleolibertarian agrarian commune.

            So you and I mostly agree, except that I don’t think it’s helpful to say, “libertarians support welfare.” Instead, I think it’s more helpful to say, “Libertarians want less of all-things-government, including welfare,” and if people have follow-up questions we can bring up hypotheticals like negative income taxes.

          • Reasonable Extremist

            I think we definitely agree for the most part. I don’t think that anybody would make that sort of blanket statement though. Rather the claim is that there is a strain of thought within libertarianism that is compatible with some form of welfare state but certainly not the type of welfare state we have now which is heavily bureaucratic and paternalistic. The second statement strikes me as quite true. Libertarians ought to make the point that without all the government restrictions on individual freedom and competition that we have now, we wouldn’t need much in the way of state welfare in any form.

            Also I was going to ask if you were familiar with Mike Huemer’s book on political authority. He outlines his thoughts here. Long but good To me his approach is the best one to challenging the welfare state, including BHL arguments for it.

          • Reasonable Extremist

            Just to clarify when I say a BMI wouldn’t, I don’t mean there are no good libertarian arguments against but only that it is more defensible.

  • Pingback: The Progressive Case for the Welfare State: A Refresher – anotherpanacea()


    I can’t wait for the book to come out.

    Also, I believe, as a libertarian, that anyone residing in an area with a climate such as San Diego’s ought to have something of their own redistributed to those unfortunates that live outside these areas, with much harsher climates (Boston, Buffalo, Antarctica, etc).

    That only seems fair.

  • Adam Minsky

    I was glad to see this, and I look forward to exploring the links provided. It seems as if though too many libertarians have followed the lead of Tea Party in trying to divide the world into the deserving and the undeserving. When one adopts such a world view, it makes perfect sense to rail against “welfare cheats” on the one hand, while demanding that “Government Keep Your Hands of my Medicare” on the other. For libertarianism to be a healthy movement, we should avoid demonizing the poor and realize that we all feed at the government teat to some degree (is it getting preachy in here, or is it just me). Most of us aren’t nearly the rugged individualist we like to imagine ourselves. As P.J. O’Rourke once put it: Government is a parliament of whores and in a democracy the whores are us. That’s all of us, not just ,or even primarily, those on AFDC and food stamps.
    I would caution about expecting too much from particular policies. There might be some benefits to doing away with certain licensing requirements, setting up enterprise zones in the inner city, providing forms of school choice, and allowing tenants to own public housing. None of these is a panacea, and there will be limits to how many people any of these programs will lift out of poverty. Some will always need assistance, in either public or private forms (or a combination of both). Let’s not expect too much from our politics. We can leave the utopianism to Trotskyites and Neocons.

    • Alex Durante

      This is sort of the problem I myself have with a lot of the “libertarian” approaches to poverty. I have had libertarians more or less imply that if we just got rid of occupational licensing, the minimum wage, and other labor regulations, then all will be good! No more poverty! These are all good ideas, but none is sufficient to eliminate poverty in the developed world.

      • Adam Minsky

        Agreed. There has to be a balance between proposing policies that will advance the interests of the poor, while recognizing that all policies have limits. If I can get on my soapbox, I would like to see libertarians ,particularly those of the “bleeding heart” variety, roll up their sleeves and start volunteering with the poor directly.
        As for your question about the welfare state and government barriers to advancement. I am convinced that the size and scope of government would have to be diminished in a particular order. When conservatives ,and some libertarians, advocate sweeping cuts in public assistance while paying no attention to government barriers to advancement, they come across as being angry and punitive. Getting people off “welfare” should be seen as a means to an end (the end being to become a self-sufficient as possible). for many on the Right, public assistance reduction is an end to itself.
        I’m being a bit long winded, but it is important to remember that most people get off public assistance within two years. This really is not one of the premier issues facing our nation. I wish minimal statist spent less time talking about the welfare state, and more time railing against the warfare state.

      • David Morris

        I think a lot of what you are talking about is pure optimistic “spin”. They aren’t trying to be substantive, just post pro-market memes. For me as a libertarian, I oppose the welfare state but I also think that it’s a long slow climb. I do think the word poverty though is really problematic. We have official government definitions, but really what is the underlying concept even getting at? Why is there something magical about being above a certain income level?

      • Jerome Bigge

        It was easier to start your own business in the past than it is now. Compare what the requirements would have been in say 1946 to now. Or 1916 for that matter. In the past there were numerous small “Ma & Pa” grocery stores to which people could walk to. You could also get groceries delivered. Also there was more public transportation (I remember this from my childhood).

        It is true that these small stores were more “expensive” for what you got than today’s supermarkets, but they were also “there” for those who didn’t own a car. As for housing, zoning has eliminated the room and board places and housing is also more expensive today relative to wages than it was in the past. I blame “government” for much of this. Increasing regulation, less freedom.

        • Alex Durante

          This is all true, although I think much of this nostalgia for “Ma & Pa” stores is overrated. But the simple fact is that most of the poor in the U.S. are not interested in starting a business. They want some kind of economic security, and simply removing government barriers to advancement may not be sufficient. Having said that, I think better housing policy is one idea that would solve many of these problems, considering how much of a poor person’s income goes to rent or mortgage payments.

  • Alex Durante

    I would also be interested to see how libertarians feel about Steve Horowitz’s argument that until we eliminate government barriers to advancement, we should not try to reduce the size of the welfare state. I myself am not persuaded by this argument, but I would be curious to see how others feel about it.

    • Reasonable Extremist

      There is certainly some force to it no? If some group of people break my leg, they damn well owe me money since I can no longer work (assuming my job requires the use of my legs). If we view government policies in these terms, working to reduce the welfare state seems wrong. Of course in my example people have done harm to me and they are the ones compensating me for the harm they inflicted. The welfare state forces people who did others no harm to compensate harmed parties for the actions of others (the state). It’s also very important that we clarify “welfare state.” Social Security is largely a middle-class entitlement. Food stamps is not.

  • Fritz
    • your links were broken for me

      • jdkolassa

        It’s the parenthesis on the end, remove that and it works.

    • jdkolassa

      Disqus tip: put a space between the last character in your URL and the parenthesis on the end, otherwise people get 404 errors as Disqus puts the parenthesis in the URL. Took me awhile to figure that one out.

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    There can be the intellectual opposition to all social welfare but one can also have a practical view which is at odds with the intellectual view. In my opinion no modern pluralistic state can exist without some form of state wide social welfare. The public will demand it.

    If it is too ineffectual then the media will seize upon every horror story and demagogues will demand more, and before long you will end up with full blown socialism.

    Which is why I am interested in experiments such as BIG to see what we can do that is effective but minimal.

  • “Strict libertarians, on the other hand, generally support state welfare only as a mechanism for making restitution for past injustice.” But would a “strict libertarian” support state welfare even as restitution? We had a discussion on this blog awhile back on the subject of reparations for slavery and related cases of injustice committed or at least endorsed and facilitated by the state, and there was major opposition to considering state action to make restitution for such injustices.

    I didn’t (and don’t) share that opposition, but I think it makes sense from a libertarian point of view. Among other things, general skepticism about government would imply particular skepticism about government’s ability to accurately identify and effectively correct past injustices. Also, since both libertarianism as a philosophy and libertarians as individuals tend to be pretty individualist, for them the “half-life of injustice” is consequently relatively short. If (to paraphrase a past BHL commenter) no person living committed (or suffered) a particular injustice then (so the argument goes) we in the present have no obligation to make restitution for it.

    So I think for a truly strict libertarian the circumstances that would justify even “welfare as restitution” would be very narrow, and certainly far too narrow to justify Nordic levels of welfare spending.

  • David Morris

    I like this site because I feel the Libertarian movement may be devolving into a strange right wing cult. The rise of fusionists like Ted Cruz also annoy me. I wasn’t convinced by this paper that there is ever a reasonable time for the state to use taxpayer funds to help the poor. But I’m glad this site exists.

    • Adam Minsky

      I’m queasy about using the term cult, because it’s such an elastic word. I do ,however, share your concerns about libertarians getting to close to the Right. There probably was ,at the very least, a strong argument for fusionism during the cold war. Making such a case on today’s political climate seems far more difficult.
      Libertarianism probably would be best served by offering itself as an alternative to those unimpressed with the options offered by the liberal/Left and the Right. To use a horrible term, this site seems like it could be a “safe space” for those on the portside to explore anti-statist politics and free market economics.

    • A cult requires a charismatic leader. Libertarians don’t seem to have or want one.

      • Sean II

        Ayn Rand built a cult out of libertarians, and did it without benefit of charisma.

        • Relative charisma, though. As in, compared to Greenspan.

        • Adam Minsky

          Ouch. That’s cold.
          I wonder if a Randian cult would be possible in our high tech world. Today’s youthful equivalent to Nathaniel and Barbara Branden has a tremendous degree of information and material at his/her disposal. This may serve as a check on becoming too infatuated with anyone individual (or so one hopes).

          • Sean II

            I think you’ve hit it. The people who gravitated to Rand were probably info hungry and starving in the climate of the 60’s. Otherwise known as the 2nd worst decade ever for political rationality. Coming across with any kind of coherent alternative must have seemed like the ultimate shaman’s trick.

          • Adam Minsky

            What was the worst decade ever for political rationality? Just wondering.

          • Sean II

            The 1930s, of course. Although I’m only ranking decades from 1900 on. You know, when the decade was invented. Before that they just had centuries. And pocket watches.

          • jdkolassa

            And if you go back long enough, they just had millennia. And sundials. And Mick Jagger.

          • Sean II

            “He’s so old, he woke up to the rooster!”

            Get it?

          • The 1860s. 600,000 dead in the first half of the decade alone prove it.

    • Sean II

      Strange comment. The big theme of 2016 seems to be that the right wing is devolving into something very anti-libertarian, not that libertarians are devolving into the right wing.

      Unless you define “right wing” to mean “anyone who disagrees with”, in which case “not left” would be a better term.

      • David Morris

        I’m really referring to the last 6 years, the aftermath of the Tea Party movement. Lots of conservatives who believe libertarianism is the new thing, and that’s the fusion we’ve been having.

        • Sean II

          Libertarianism isn’t gaining “so many new members from the right” because libertarianism isn’t gaining new members.

          • Adam Minsky

            Excellent point. As the journalist Andrew Ferguson wrote: Most people are philosophically libertarian and operationally statist.

          • jdkolassa
          • Sean II

            Did you see the question they used to get that number? Really puts the “if” in specificity.

  • jdkolassa

    I just want to add here that there is a possibility of using Bitcoin to create a universal basic income independent of government. I myself was in favor of something like UBI yet was still a libertarian, so when I found this article I was pretty pleased. I’m sure that means there is something wrong with it that I haven’t considered, but it might be a useful datapoint for this upcoming discussion.

  • David Morris

    One point you could make in a further post – can a libertarian make the case for some welfare state programs as a substitute for more punitive and expensive criminal justice system programs? I’m not saying you can, but it would be interesting to try.

  • David Morris

    I’m more of an anarcho-capitalist than a bleeding heart libertarian. Though I’m very BHL in style. I have often wondered if we ended public education before we went full ancap, would it lead to a a moronic, ignorant zombie voting block that would vote for some kind of evil demagogue.

    • Sean II

      Again, you puzzle me with a crazy premise.

      Is public education currently producing something other than ignorant zombie moron voters?

      • David Morris

        What we don’t want is a society where voters can be persuaded by a strong arm character to create a military regime, or where a religious movement could turn our society into a theocracy. That’s the type of stuff you have to think about if we get rid of public education. As I said, I think I would prefer to evolve some kind of restriction on democracy first, because that’s the fundamental problem. Freedom should never be “up for a vote” or based on popularity. Get rid of democracy first, then it doesn’t matter if freedom is unpopular, as long as you have an influential group that can promote commerce and liberty.

        • Sean II

          The best way to avoid having a military junta take over in the States is to continue importing voters from Latin America.

          • EPGAH

            Please tell me that was MASSIVE sarcasm?

          • jdkolassa

            No, Sean is anti-immigration. He’s of the opinion that bringing in more immigrants will lead to them all voting for socialists.

          • Sean II

            Not anti-immigration. Just anti-open borders.

          • EPGAH

            That makes two of us.

            You can have a Welfare State, OR Open Borders, but not both.
            If you have a Welfare State AND Open Borders, foreign parasites will flock in, suck you dry, then leave, like locusts or something.

            But I see more Third World invasion as CAUSING a military junta, whether because that’s what they have “back home” and they seem to reenact the Hell they came from wherever they invade…
            OR by the Welfare State to force more wealth from their Civilized World hosts for their support…
            OR the Civilized World hosts rise up and kick them out in the only way they understand.

          • Sean II

            I was kidding about the junta, by the way.

            The parsimonious explanation for why third world countries gravitate toward that form is that their voters really suck.

            Think about how often this pattern has repeated: 1) Western meddlers call for home rule and free elections in some global south hellhole or other. 2) Voters in said hole promptly fall in love with bearded Marxist or crazy-eyed mystic. Because they can’t possible know better and have no business wielding ballots. 3) Second group of slightly more realistic Western meddlers sees this absurdity, decides it won’t do, and backs an unsavory gang of tinpot colonels that is, pathetically enough, the hellhole’s best hope. 4) Resulting junta shoots handful of bearded Marxists and/or crazy eyed mystics, causing right-thinkers everywhere to call for free elections.

          • EPGAH

            Wow, that’s sadly accurate!
            That happened most recently in Egypt, when the Bum forced out a Christian leader, and setup elections. Moslems just POURED in and elected one of their own, who promptly ordered its followers to murder the Men and gang-rape the women!

            Could’ve also been a reference to Cuba, which Kennedy called off us trying to fix, and now the Bum has legitimized the junta’s theft of American property…

            It’s hugely unpopular, but on another Site, I wrote a spiel about elitism being necessary when it comes to allocating voting rights, otherwise idiots will elect an idiot who will destroy them, the nation, or both in the Name of freebies and an Easy Life.

          • EPGAH

            Third Worlders will always vote for whoever gives them more undeserved freebies.

            It’s established practice in Mexico for candidates to buy votes with small appliances!

            That’s why in our current Government, Democrats push for Amnesty…and Republicans sadly prove they’re another finger of the same hand by doing nothing to stop it.

        • jdkolassa

          “What we don’t want is a society where voters can be persuaded by a strong arm character to create a military regime, or where a religious movement could turn our society into a theocracy.”

          Well, we’re almost there right now, aren’t we?

          • Sean II

            Not an argument for going further.

      • CJColucci


    • Kass Belaire

      Hell, they’re voting for some kind of evil demagogue as we speak.

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  • mayalibre

    If we’re nuancing terms like neoliberalism, neoclassical liberalism, classical liberalism, and libertarianism, it might be worthwhile to also dig into and nuance the term “welfare state.”

    Some people say we don’t actually live in a (general) welfare society, we live in a rentier society. That makes sense to me. The common good is worthwhile — just a brief look at Michael Moore’s new movie “Where To Invade Next” is astonishing, to consider (for example) how the education system in Finland, which used to track equally with ours, now is the most excellent in the world with far lower costs. The Finnish society chose the common good (without big bureaucracy) over the enrichment of rent-seekers, and it’s paying off for everyone *including* those rentiers who preferred special waivers.

    So why doesn’t this happen more?

    Another example I heard yesterday is how welfare recipients now receive benefits through Chase Manhattan cards, with customer support provided via an 800 number in India and Chase receiving the program markup to their bottom line — when it would be just as easy to HIRE the welfare recipients to provide Chase customer support, giving those welfare recipients both job experience and dignity. Why doesn’t it happen? The rent-seeking shareholders of Chase stock wouldn’t profit as much.

    I have a feeling that if we nuance the term “welfare state” we find that its problems don’t actually stem from unemployed people, or retirees, or disabled folks. They stem from the people with the MEANS to structure a system where they can live off the productive work of others without doing anything productive themselves.

  • martinbrock

    The strictest libertarians advocate free association based on consensus and would not even impose individual property rights, as formulated by Locke or Rothbard or anyone else, outside of a covenant community in which community members agree to respect these rights. Only such a voluntary community, in which all members agree to respect community standards including individual property rights, may exclude persons from resources, and the fullest individual liberty also requires some proviso entitling a sufficient number of persons to secede from a community, with some of the community’s resources, to found a new community governed otherwise if unclaimed resources are not sufficient for this purpose.

    The conventional “welfare state” is meaningless in this context, because individual property rights are contractual terms of association, and these terms may include what conventional libertarians call “redistribution”, i.e. respect for my exclusive governance of productive means may be contingent upon my contribution to a fund for orphans or the like. We have no reason to expect people associating freely to respect individual property rights (rights exclusively to use parcels of land and the like) and only these rights, and we have every reason, historically, not to expect this outcome.

    So I see nothing “anti-libertarian”, fundamentally, about supporting a welfare state given the existence of a state. This support is no less libertarian than supporting a minarchy imposing respect for individual property rights. Libertarians can dispute the utility of existing welfare state programs, but defending a Nozickian minarchy while opposing, fundamentally, any “redistributive” welfare state program is not a libertarian position at all in my way of thinking. A monarch decreeing Nozick’s minarchy in his realm is no less a monarch, and his subjects are no more free of him.

  • Reasonable Extremist

    Very interesting post and great blog! I wonder what we mean here by “welfare state.” Many libertarians would accept the idea that no one should starve or go without basic shelter or what have you. Nozick speaks about such things being permissible to prevent “catastrophic moral horror.” But the modern welfare state goes much, much further. So do BHLers think Swedish style welfare state programs that do a lot more than ensure no one starves or lives on the street are acceptable? I guess it comes down to what your standard for sufficiency is. More specific engagement with this question would make it a lot easier for libertarians skeptical of BHL to get an idea of what it stands for.

  • Reasonable Extremist

    Question: Redistribution and regulation cannot be easily separated can they? The ostensible purpose of Social Security and Medicare is to redistribute money but that necessarily involves regulating (i.e. conscripting individuals into planning their retirement and medical care with the state) personal choices no? Brennan’s distinction seems untenable.

  • Reasonable Extremist

    Matt lays out Bryan Caplan’s case but he doesn’t respond to it. All he says is that “I think some form of state-based welfare is defensible on libertarian grounds.” Caplan’s challenge, though, was to get proponents to specify what form and to get critics to say what aspects of the soft/ medium/ and hard-core case they agreed or disagreed with. With all due respect to Matt and his very interesting work, saying “some form” is “defensible” does not tell us much.

  • Lorenzo Sleakes

    “One need not be a libertarian, for instance, to believe that it is at least generally
    wrong for one individual to take another person’s legitimately acquired property by force or threat of force.”
    Libertarians start with a belief in a natural right to ownership of one’s own body and labor but that does not extend to all property rights being legitimate. Georgist or left-libertarians believe that land should never be outright owned but in principle is rented out for use from the public. George’s Land Value Tax is then not a violent appropriation while all transaction taxes are. In the same way money itself can be viewed as a form of public property as it is not the creation of labor. Then it too can be rented out at interest as a Gesellian tax. It is only transaction taxes that restrict free labor and self ownership, not usage fees for rent of public property. see:

  • P James

    You realise libertarian originally meant anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian anarchist, right?

    The whole idea that fanatical devotion to the authoritarian, hierarchical system that is capitalism is ‘libertarian’ is utterly nonsensical and false.

    Right-wing “libertarianism” is a complete fraud.

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