On Justice and Libertarianism

Posted on December 8, 2013

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This plastic skeleton is a crucial problem for libertarians. (Via The Nation)

This is an ambitious post. In it, I aim to point out a fundamental and possibly insurmountable problem with libertarian ethics. I’ve been mulling this post over over for a while, but the recent Black Friday strikes and protests at Walmarts across the US provide excellent context for the argument I want to make.

What the strikes highlight is what I like to call the “janitor problem”. This major philosophical contradiction afflicts libertarianism, fiscal conservatism, and any other ideology that opposes the use of tax dollars to provide services to those who cannot afford them. The fundamental problem with these views is that when the free market is left to set wages, a certain class of workers that includes janitors and Walmart cashiers usually get paid so little that they are incapable of accessing essential social services such as education and health care. This drastically curtails their opportunities in life, and inflicts considerable suffering. It won’t be fixed by bootstrapping, because even if every single low-paid worker today manages to get promoted into a better paying job, they will only be replaced by others because society will always need these people to perform certain basic functions. If libertarians are claiming that they advocate a just society, therefore, then they need to find some way to morally justify the fact that this suffering is inflicted on a large segment of the population.

To put it more succinctly, libertarians must explain why it is okay to let some people die of preventable illnesses merely on the basis of which role they play in the economy. As I see it, there are three possible answers to this question. I’ll consider each one in turn.

The first possible answer is that the Walmart strikers somehow deserve their fate. This view supposes that if somebody is working a low-wage job, it indicates some kind of moral failing for which they deserve the punishment of being unable to access basic essential goods and services. This view is so repugnant and nonsensical as to barely merit mention. I doubt that even the most hard-line libertarians would espouse it. But for the sake of completeness, here’s the very simple refutation: Cleaning floors, flipping burgers, and selling xboxes are all useful social functions that provide a benefit to society. Since the only reason to punish anybody is to discourage a particular activity, there is no reason why these people deserve to suffer.

The second possible answer is that the economic damage brought about by government intervention is greater than the harms that the free market inflicts on low-paid workers. The argument has two flavours: The utopian and the dystopian. The first imagines that in a truly libertarian society, the janitor problem will be solved because janitors will receive better pay and cheaper services as a natural consequence of the unfettered market. The dystopian flavour argues the converse: that the plight of low-paid workers might be bad, but the alternative of government regulation will cause such extreme economic distortions that eventually the economy will collapse, leaving everybody worse off. This pragmatic answer argues that low-paid workers, at least in the present, are necessary sacrifices to the gods of economic growth and stability.

The problem with both versions of this argument is that there is no strong evidence to support it. This is particularly clear in the utopian case: Nobody has ever been able to propose a compelling example of a real-life large-scale libertarian society. That means that there is no empirical evidence available to suggest that a libertarian society will solve the janitor problem. Even if their reasoning is sound, the elaborate theoretical models proposed in lieu of real-life evidence exist only in a frictionless vacuum, devoid of any of the complications of real-lifesocieties. The utopian argument therefore asks us to prolong and increase the suffering of low-paid workers based on pure blind faith that they will be better off on the long run. That’s not a good way to make policy. The dystopian flavour of the argument is also flawed, because there is abundant evidence that there is enough money in the economy to provide for all. it just tends to get tied up in the hands of plutocrats. The existence of this abundant source of wealth is probably why nations like Japan, Sweden, and The Netherlands are able to provide fairly well for their citizens without spiraling into fiscal chaos.

The suggestion that the rich are a source of wealth that can be tapped will probably raise the hackles of any libertarian reading this, and that brings me to the last possible answer to the janitor question: That however bad deprivation may be, taxation is worse. If you’ve ever debated a libertarian, they’ve probably said something like this: “Sure, it’s bad that some people are placed into poverty by low pay. But in order to obtain the money necessary to help those people, you would have use state violence to appropriate the wealth of others. This is theft-an act of violence that is absolutely morally wrong, and must be avoided even if that means that some people must suffer”.

In order to make this last argument valid, a libertarian must do more than show that taxation is theft, or that all theft is wrong. Taxation could very well be like war: an immoral act that is nevertheless sometimes necessary to avoid greater harm. To make this argument, libertarians must demonstrate that taxation is so morally wrong that it is preferable to stand idly by while people suffer from poverty. That is a pretty tough argument to make, because a functioning progressive tax code should only deprive people of luxuries. Can anybody seriously argue that it is worse to deprive financially secure people of a little bit of discretionary spending than it is to deny health care to a janitor, or to deny education to her children? I don’t think this argument can be made by any serious person who doesn’t have some kind of vested interest.

Near as I can tell, these are the only three possible answers to the janitor problem. Either low-paid workers deserve their suffering, or they must be made to bear it for the greater good of economic stability or a non-violent state, or, as I think, they have an absolute right to be protected from poverty, and that this must be protected by adequate state intervention.

I don’t expect any libertarians to read this and to come away miraculously convinced of the error in their ways. But I do think that progressives need to engage philosophically with libertarians a little bit more. Libertarianism is the ideological pillar that supports conservatism, and it is rotten at its core. If we kick at it a little bit more, we may be able to make it fall down. Hopefully this post gives a few more ideas on how to make that happen.

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