Over the past few weeks, I’ve given three arguments for redistributing wealth to shrink the gap between the rich and the poor. First, I argued that societies that redistribute more are seen as less corrupt. Second, I argued that vast inequalities do significant harm to individuals. More unequal societies have more poverty, more spending on the military, higher infant mortality rates, more people in prison, more homicides, greater substance abuse, and lower life satisfaction. Third, I argued that if we follow the widely popular “Golden Rule,” then we’ll see that a rational, self-interested person ought to ensure opportunities for the disadvantaged instead of being concerned about the well-being of those at the top.
I’ve now reached the last, great bastion of fiscal conservatism: libertarianism. The guiding principle behind libertarianism is the noninterference principle: one should be able to do as they please so long as they are not interfering with others, and one should be free from interference by others. The noninterference principle applies to property: one should be able to do as they please with their property so long as they are not interfering with others, and one should be free from others taking their property. You can see how fiscal conservatism easily follows: individuals have the right to do whatever they want with their money, and redistribution violates this right.
Robert Nozick appropriately applies this fiscal conservativism to taxes: “Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor…taking the earnings of n hours labor is like taking n hours from the person; it is like forcing the person to work n hours for another’s purpose” (Anarchy, State, and Utopia). Redistribution is akin to the harms of slavery.
Some Important Philosophical Terms: An implication of the noninterference principle is that persons only have negative rights; persons do not have positive rights. What’s the difference? Well, a negative right is a right not to be harmed. The right to life is a negative right; it’s the right not to be killed. The right to freedom is a negative right; it’s the right not to be constrained. The right to property is a negative right; it’s the right not to have your things taken away from you.
Libertarians are more or less committed to the strong claim that persons only have negative rights. Opponents believe persons also have positive rights, where a positive right is the right to be helped. The right to food, shelter, and clothing are positive rights. It’s the right to be supplied with clothes, a roof, and adequate sustenance if we cannot supply them for ourselves. These are the basic positive rights we’re taught in elementary school, but there is wide debate on what else would count. Do we have a right to healthy food? Do we have a right to education? Healthcare? A job? Paid maternity leave? And so on.
You can easily see why a libertarian would reject positive rights. How would the hungry person be supplied food? Well, by the government interfering with my property in order to help this other person. And such interference is wrong.
Against the Libertarian: The libertarian believes such interference is objectionable because it violates our rights. I will argue that it is obligatory because noninterference violates our rights. The punch line? Guaranteeing positive rights is necessary for exercising negative rights.
Guaranteeing positive rights is necessary for exercising negative rights.
I’ll begin my argument with some research on the harms of poverty. Being poor actually causes severe physical and mental damage:
“When the researchers analyzed the relationships among how long the children lived in poverty, their allostatic load* and their later working memory, they found a clear relationship: The longer they lived in poverty, the higher their allostatic load and the lower they tended to score on working-memory tests. Those who spent their entire childhood in poverty scored about 20 percent lower on working memory than those who were never poor, Evans said.”
“A new study on mental health in war-ravaged Afghanistan conducted by researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis comes to a jarring conclusion: socioeconomic indicators such as poverty and social vulnerability are more telling risk factors for mental illness than even exposure to warfare.”
“Eighty two percent of infants living in households with depressed mothers were enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP programs, health care programs for low-income people, according to a separate 2010 report by the Urban Institute about children affected by maternal depression. Of the mothers, at least 40 percent were not receiving any treatment. Outcomes were consistently worse for uninsured families.”
“A new study by researchers at the University of Georgia finds that young teenagers from poor communities who are good students, in good mental health, and well-adjusted socially end up with high levels of stress hormones, high blood pressure, and a higher body mass index by age 19. In turn, that compromises their immune systems and puts them at greater risk for developing conditions such as obesity, cancer, hypertension, stroke, and cardiovascular disease at a young age.”
Why do the known harms of poverty matter? Well, it all comes down to what it means to be free, unconstrained by others.
Are you free when your stomach is grumbling—or are you a prisoner to your hunger? Are you free when the eviction notice hangs from your door—or are you forced to then live in a trashy motel for weeks until you can save up to pay both one month’s rent AND a deposit on a new place? Are you free to just “go get a job” when there are no jobs in your neighborhood? When you’d be using 75% of your paycheck for childcare? When you don’t have the right clothes to impress an employer? When you don’t have a computer to type a resume? When you don’t have a bank account for them to deposit your check in? When you don’t have a phone number to call when you finally get a job? Are you free when you cannot even speak because your tooth hurts so badly, but you can’t afford to go to the dentist? Are you free when you lose your job because you got pregnant because you don’t have access to birth control?
The libertarian’s starting point is freedom. He hangs his hat on the notion that the worst thing you could ever do is interfere with my right to do whatever I want. Keep the government out of my business.
The libertarian’s starting point is freedom.
But for so many people in this country, their starting point is not freedom. No, their starting point is suffering. They are bathed in the womb with the stress hormone cortisol. Their first experience is a mother who is too depressed to hold them, too poor to feed them, and too sick to play. Their brains have atrophied; their will is weak; their waistlines are too wide. They are born into struggle and strife. They live in a constant state of fear—“will today be a fight day or a flight day?” There is no in between.
But for so many people in this country, their starting point is not freedom. No, their starting point is suffering.
Fifteen percent of people in this country are born into suffering. There is no freedom in suffering. There is no freedom when you’re homeless, starving, depressed, afraid, beaten. You are a slave to your physiological and safety needs.
Poverty is a jail cell. It’s suffocating. It’s all consuming. It prevents rational, long-term decision-making. It prevents you from doing what you want, what’s best for you. You are not free when you’re poor.
If the worst thing that could happen to me is taking away my freedom, then poverty is one of the worst things that can happen to me. We must alleviate poverty before we can be free. So, we must guarantee a person’s positive rights to be helped in the face of poverty as a way to protect her negative right to be free from interference.
Individual Responsibility Versus Government Intervention: I will admit, however, that a sophisticated libertarian would very much agree that we ought to help the poor. That is we, as individuals, may have some reason to voluntarily give to charities. But it does not follow that the government can violate OUR rights by forcing us to give.
I have two responses. First, this comes down to a “my rights versus your rights” debate. If the government redistributes from the rich to the poor, then some of the rich folks will have their rights violated. But if the government does not redistribute from the rich to the poor, then many poor folks will have their rights violated. So, to simply say redistribution violates MY rights cannot end the argument. To end the argument, you’d have to say why violating rich folks’ rights is somehow more egregious than violating poor folks’ rights. I must admit, I see no way to make that argument.
In fact, I find the latter argument more persuasive. If someone makes millions of dollars a year, will his needs be met with half that? Say I make ten million dollars in 2016. Can I have all my needs met, and thus be one hundred percent free in the ways mentioned above, with five million? Definitely. Violating someone’s right to an extra jet simply isn’t as concerning as violating someone’s right to basic necessities.
(1) Violating someone’s right to an extra jet simply isn’t as concerning as violating someone’s right to basic necessities.
Second, it’s just a fact that rich people do not donate to the poor. “In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity.”
Those same people pay between 30% and 35% of their income to taxes today, and 14.5% of people live in poverty. There’s no way we’d be able to help the poor with a measly 1.3%.
What’s worse is that the 1.3% donated went to organizations that help make rich people better off:
“Of the 50 largest individual gifts to public charities in 2012, 34 went to educational institutions, the vast majority of them colleges and universities, like Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley, that cater to the nation’s and the world’s elite. Museums and arts organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art received nine of these major gifts, with the remaining donations spread among medical facilities and fashionable charities like the Central Park Conservancy. Not a single one of them went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed.”
Given this is the way the elite donate now, there’s good reason to doubt that the rich would willingly foot the bill for the government in a libertarian utopia.
(2) It’s just a fact that rich people do not donate to the poor.
To be free requires us to be unconstrained. Poverty constrains us. Thus, individuals have a right to be free from poverty, which—unfortunately or not—requires government intervention. And so, any libertarian view must be built on a very non-libertarian foundation of positive rights.
With that, I rest my case. When someone says, “I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative,” we should not release her from moral blame. A fiscal conservative policy harms people’s well being, introduces corruption, violates the Golden Rule, is irrational, and infringes on a person’s right to be free.
If we care at all about our fellow humans, we ought to be both socially and fiscally liberal.
*Allostatic load: The score was based on the results of tests the children were given when they were ages 9 and 13 to measure their levels of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, as well as their blood pressure and body mass index.