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September 15, 2011

Cold-hearted libertarians

During Monday night's Republican debate, in response to a hypothetical question from the awful Wolf Blitzer, the audience and Ron Paul seemed comfortable with the idea that a young person who is uninsured but suffers a life-threatening condition should be allowed to die because he chose not to buy health insurance. The alternative of a socialized single payer medical system where everyone is covered without exception, the norm in almost all developed countries, is of course too ghastly to contemplate for these lovers of personal freedom.

It turns out that the question was, at least as far as Paul was concerned, not that hypothetical after all. Kent Snyder, Ron Paul's campaign manager in his run for the presidency in 2008, died at the age of 49 of complications from pneumonia, penniless and uninsured, because the premiums he would have had to pay to buy insurance were too high because of pre-existing conditions. The death of someone who was so close to him, purely because he could not afford health insurance, does not seem to have influenced Paul in the least. Instead, being the true believer he is, he eulogized Snyder as a martyr to the libertarian cause, which I am sure Snyder's bereaved mother, who was also stuck with her son's medical bills, deeply appreciated.

A self-described libertarian posted this comment on the above article about Snyder's death: "My personal belief is that it is not society's responsibility to deal with the uninsured. In extreme circumstances (national disasters for example), perhaps. My tax dollars need to go to basic government services, nothing else. I don't need to fund the NEA, someone's family planning mistake or alternative energy companies, etc, etc. I'm sorry to appear callous but its not my responsibility to take care of a total stranger. We are all adults here, presumably, lets deal with our own issues ourselves."

I am always amused by libertarians' careful inclusion of the 'basic government services' and 'national disasters' exemptions to their general 'keep the government out of everything' policy. It usually means that they want the government to intervene only to help when they themselves are in need. These libertarians tend to be well off owners of property and are self-centered hypocrites, wanting the government to provide only the services that they want and benefit from. So they want things like police and a military and a fire department and good roads because those things benefits and protect their property, and they can afford to pay for everything else. They also want a national disaster exemption because earthquakes and hurricanes do not distinguish between the rich and poor and could hit them too. If you are a consistent libertarian, surely you should support the idea that those services too should also be the product of the free markets? Why shouldn't people organize and pay for their own police and fire departments and pave the roads they drive upon?

Fortunately, not everyone embraces the cold-hearted libertarian philosophy that the wellbeing of total strangers is not our concern. Watch this video in which a motley group of strangers from all walks of life spontaneously come together, risking serious injury, to rescue a motorcyclist who was trapped under a burning car. They are hesitant and frightened, not sure what to do, but something about the plight of a fellow human being drives them to feel they must help and they come together to lift the car and drag him out.

Of course, there is a difference between the way one responds to an immediate need that one sees in front of one's eyes and how one reacts to people who are suffering out of sight. But the difference is not as great as one might think. The impulse to help others in need is universal. News reports afterwards said that the motorcyclist survived. The rescuers did not know what drove them to help but as soon as the woman who looked under the car said that he seemed to be alive, it galvanized everyone to take collective action.

This is why I think that the libertarian philosophy of having the government not take responsibility for the general welfare of the people will never take root beyond the ranks of a small, smug, affluent, minority. There is something deep within most people that causes them to be stirred and respond to the plight of others in need. I believe that it is biological and primeval and cannot be extinguished by the oligarchy and the manipulative politicians who are its servants, who seek to stoke the selfish instincts of people in order to benefit themselves.

I will trust my life in the hands of ordinary people over doctrinaire libertarians any day.

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Comments

Tangentially related to this, I've been really interested in the articles and interviews of David Graeber and his new book on debt because of how his research regarding the evolution of debt and money repeatedly disproves the notions of homo economicus that most market-oriented and libertarian doctrine is based on.

Posted by jpmeyer on September 15, 2011 10:22 AM

"I am always amused by libertarians' careful inclusion of the 'basic government services' and 'national disasters' exemptions to their general 'keep the government out of everything' policy. It usually means that they want the government to intervene only to help when they themselves are in need." A point nicely made by this cartoon: http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/090211_Evil_Government.jpg

Posted by Steve LaBonne on September 15, 2011 10:34 AM

I'm confused. How was the mother stuck with the medical bills? When a person dies their non-secured debt dies with them unless they had an estate with money. If he was penniless then there was no estate and therefore the debt passed.

You can't collect from a dead person and debt doesn't magically pass to the next of kin.

Posted by Henry on September 15, 2011 01:06 PM

Mano,
I am not a libertarian, but I feel compelled to defend them against your unfair attacks. Libertarians aren't cold-hearted or against helping people. They just don't think the federal government has the right to decide how we should do it, and how much of our money we should spend on it.

>These libertarians tend to be well off owners of property and are self-centered hypocrites, wanting the government to provide only the services that they want and benefit from.

This is closer to slander than thoughtful commentary. It could just as easily be said that supporters of government welfare programs tend to be unproductive, selfish, hypocrites that contribute nothing to anyone else, but expect others to shoulder the cost for government services that they benefit from but can't otherwise afford. At least libertarians are willing to pay for the services they use. How is that more selfish than someone who wants others to pay?

>There is something deep within most people that causes them to be stirred and respond to the plight of others in need.

In the example of the rescued motorist, a libertarian would point out that the rescue was achieved without any government help, possibly because people realized they don't need the federal government in order to be responsible, compassionate members of society. Your example actually supports libertarianism.

Posted by Robert Allen on September 15, 2011 01:37 PM

Robert,

If libertarians "don't think the federal government has the right to decide how we should do it, and how much of our money we should spend on it" then on what basis do they support the government doing anything at all, even police and fire and even the military? Why should we have the FDA to monitor the safety of food and drugs? Why should we have publicly funded courts of law? Why should we have governments monitoring our water quality? Why should the roads be free for everyone? Why not have tolls everywhere so that only those who use the roads pay for them? The list goes on. Why should others pay for those just because libertarians want/need them?

My point is that everyone wants and needs the government for some things, we just disagree on what those should be. Libertarians are no exception. It is just that their idea of 'basic government services' that the government should fund tends to conveniently match with their personal needs that cannot be met out of their personal funds.

Of course it is true that "we do not need government to be responsible, compassionate members of society". But government enables us to translate that compassion in more efficient ways to reach more people.

Posted by Mano on September 15, 2011 02:12 PM

A "libertarian" is akin to an idiot who is against mandatory seatbelt and helmet laws. He claims to "object to government interference in his life" and "thinks" the police are wasting time enforcing such laws. And yet, when he crashes and suffers inuries that were easily preventable, he wants compensation and everyone around him to be blamed but himself.

If he were truly all about "personal responsibility", he'd agree to haul his broken body to hospital by himself, not ask for an ambulance and not sue anyone.

Here are some good, descriptive comics on the subject:

http://lacithedog.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/no-exit-libertarianism-anarchy-for-rich-people.gif

http://neuralgourmet.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/libertarian_housepets.jpg

http://robertlindsay.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/types_of_libertarian1.jpg

http://robrimes.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/libertarianism-1.jpg

Posted by P Smith on September 15, 2011 04:55 PM

Mano,

The guiding principle appears to be for the federal government to have power to protect the basic freedoms as laid out in the Constitution, and nothing more. The constitution is, after all, the document that is supposed to dictate what powers the people bestow upon the federal government. By that principle, a federal justice system of some kind is required to protect our right to a fair trial. Some kind of military is required to protect our life and liberty.

None of the services you mentioned are things libertarians expect to use at other people's expense. They expect to be taxed to cover what they use. That's the difference. They don't expect other people to pick up their tab.

>My point is that everyone wants and needs the government for some things, we just disagree on what those should be

But we all agree on the things the libertarians want. Some people just want more; and it's usually people who can't earn what they want on their own, and so need the government to provide a way to force rich people to pay for it. The libertarian's object because they don't think the federal government has the right to effectively force us to give to charity, because the federal government is only supposed to have the rights granted it in the constitution.

> It is just that their idea of 'basic government services' that the government should fund tends to conveniently match with their personal needs that cannot be met out of their personal funds.

I believe your example of Paul's dead friend contradicts this claim. He clearly had a great personal need that could not be met out of personal funds, and yet he didn't expect the government to conveniently bail him out, even when his life depended on it. Granted, I'm sure most libertarians would abandon their ideology and gladly accept a federal handout if they found themselves disabled, uninsured, and in need of medical help. But then, it's also true that most welfare recipients would become callous and selfish if they somehow found their way to riches.

I agree with you by the way. I think health care should be free, but I just don't think we need to demonize the libertarians for wanting the right to opt out of charity.

Posted by Robert Allen on September 15, 2011 07:20 PM

@P Smith

I consider myself a libertarian (actually an anarchist but I don't want to confuse you) because I see myself as a sovereign individual. I am not ready to yield to a government that does not have my interests at heart.

That said, I recognize the need for cooperation and collaboration to get projects done.

Taxes are often thrown around as an example of government working in the best interest of its population. Yet, I have no say over where the tax dollar goes. Every paycheck I am forced to financially support a war that I am vehemently opposed to. How can I exercise 'personal responsibility' when the gov't has a gun at my head (or at least the threat of imprisonment for not paying taxes) and forces me to support an unjust war?

Posted by henry on September 15, 2011 10:09 PM

"Taxes are often thrown around as an example of government working in the best interest of its population. Yet, I have no say over where the tax dollar goes."

That's the unfortunate side effect of living in a democracy. You don't have a direct say in how your tax dollars are spent, primarily because getting 300 million people to divy up over $1 trillion is impractical. Therefore, we elect people that hopefully represent our values and trust that they will make decisions that reflect that. I'm not naive enough to think that that's exactly how it works, or that our system is perfect, but that's the basic idea.

I know a lot of libertarians, and they all say that it's not their responsiblity to help others, and I respond "Why not?" They usually can't answer, because it's strictly a value judgement. I think it is our responsibility to help each other, and that soceity, and ultimately we, benefit from helping each other, and government, for better or worse, is in the best position to ensure that that help is distributed equitably.

Posted by Scott on September 16, 2011 11:05 AM

Robert,

It is not at all clear to me that we all agree on the things that libertarians want because I am not sure exactly what they want, so greater specificity is needed.

If libertarians are taking the constitution as their guide to what the government should or should not do, then we need to be more specific for this discussion to advance. What exactly do libertarians want? There are things that the constitution says that government should do, things that it does not require but allows, and things that it says the government should not do.

Should the government only do the things required of it or could it also do the things that are merely allowed?

Also, I am not sure what you mean by 'charity'. I am not suggesting that people be forced to donate to (say) the United Way. But is providing universal health care considered charity towards those who cannot afford insurance? Is providing free public libraries considered 'charity' towards those who cannot afford to buy lots of books? Are public libraries and public schools that are funded by taxes things that libertarians support?

I guess I need to better understand what are the things that libertarians support and do not support and why.

Posted by Mano on September 16, 2011 12:49 PM