Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Jen PierceThings that might seem obvious
Posted at 3:56 pm on March 26, 2010, by Jen Pierce

Eric suggested that, as a relative newcomer to libertarian philosophy, I have some recent insight into the process that the average person goes through when considering these ideas for the first time. I’m sure everyone’s introduction to libertarianism is different, but having now been on both sides of the debate, I wanted to share a couple of common themes I’ve noticed in people who are having their first conversations about free-market policy. The first is something I run into very consistently, which I’ve come to know as the “oh… you don’t eat babies after all” moment.

The number one concern I hear from people with left-leaning viewpoints is that, under a capitalist system, the poorest and weakest among society will be overlooked. The homeless, the sick, the mentally challenged, and the poor in general will have no resources, no assistance, and no hope. The core of the libertarian response to this, as I understand it, is that if private charity is allowed to take the place of government programs, they will be run more efficiently and, even if the overall financial contribution is smaller (as compared to current government spending on public aid programs), more aid will be delivered to more people. I’m speaking in extremely general terms here, because there are infinite rabbit holes into which one could plunge at this point. I will, however, share one specific example of this line of thinking, from a recent conversation about health reform. A friend of mine with a four-year-old daughter is ecstatic about the new health care bill, because she previously had problems with doctors refusing her daughter treatment because they were afraid it wouldn’t be covered by insurance. She stated, “Anyone who is opposing health reform would change their mind if they’d seen my little girl suffering from double pneumonia last winter.”

This is a great example of a fundamental misperception about economic conservatives. Lots of people assume that anyone who is arguing for less government intervention in business is just out to make as much money as possible. Which might be true, but they fail to understand the deeper premise – that we care just as much about that sick daughter, and because we understand that the market is the fastest way to get the most benefit to the most people, we campaign passionately to leave the market unhindered, to let it do its job. They don’t understand that profit represents a well-run business effectively providing goods and services. And, who can blame them? The average person hears stories about corporate corruption or abusive monopolies, chalks it up to greed, and decides that consumerism is evil, to be avoided at all costs. They don’t necessarily look deeper, to understand the role that lobbyists and government intervention play, or to realize that more freedom for business leads to more competition, which is always in their best interest.

This is old hat to everyone reading this, which is all the more reason to occasionally remember that this is not the way most people see the world. The majority of people aren’t used to thinking in terms of mathematical systems. Emotion, sympathy, and a personal sense of what seems fair are decision-making tools that can pretty much get a person through his day, for pretty much his whole life. And, someone who is concerned that libertarian policy ignores the human equation can easily find reasons to be concerned. Respectable economists make serious arguments that real-world data should be completely ignored when deriving policy. Asking someone to embrace, or even to consider, this idea is demanding that they make some fundamental changes in their understanding of how the world works.

Speaking from my own experience, I find that I’m a lot more inclined to trust a libertarian argument if a couple of things are true. First, I like to hear concessions up front. In the absence of government health care, will there be a section of people who are too high-risk to insure and will be dropped? I want to know about them. I’m still willing to consider that this might be superior to a government-run system. Too often, I find that libertarian crusaders try to gloss over uncomfortable points like this; the more energy I have to spend rooting out the worst-case-scenario, the less I trust or care about their argument.

Secondly, and this is my primary point here – when talking to someone who is really new to this stuff, it’s essential to establish common ground. Everyone basically has the same goal here; provide as much as possible for as many people as possible. Create circumstances that allow for the best quality of life you can have. For libertarians, there’s the additional criterion of interfering with others’ definitions of “quality” as little as possible. But the point is, without spending a fair amount of time seriously considering these ideas, people may legitimately not understand that libertarians don’t burn down orphanages and eat babies in the name of profit. It’s worth taking some time to emphasize the seemingly obvious common goal, and then stressing that we are simply arguing for a better way to get there.

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Comments: 6 Comments


  1. Private charity is certainly central to the libertarian ideal taking care of the downtrodden, but the true *core* of the argument is that there will be fewer people as members of the “downtrodden” if everything is cheaper, higher tech, and more efficient. Things that stifle these advances in the name of helping the underprivileged often (unfortunately) have the opposite effect.

    Comment by Andrew Veen — 2010-03-26 @ 4:24 pm

  2. Mr. Veen’s comment is an important one. But it immediately gets me thinking: Much of what passes for “helping the poor” in our own society is really “covering up the poor” or “putting them out of our sight.” The classic case is immigration control. Our poor are said to be helped by keeping out cheap immigrant labor, but most studies show that the increased ferment with increasing numbers at the bottom of work-life society is that all are spurred to more industry and better lives. So what immigration control REALLY does is keep poor people in other countries, where our richer “liberals” don’t have to see them and don’t have to feel guilty.

    Comment by Wirkman Virkkala — 2010-03-27 @ 6:18 pm

  3. […] reading the comments that appeared on Andrew Veen’s re-posting of  Jen Pierce’s excellent post on a newcomer’s perspective of libertarian arguments, I wanted to address one of the major […]

    Pingback by The Lesson Applied » False comparisons — 2010-03-29 @ 11:19 pm

  4. […] Uncategorized After reading the comments that appeared on Andrew Veen’s re-postingof  Jen Pierce’s excellent post on a newcomer’s perspective of libertarian arguments (from The Lesson Applied), I wanted to […]

    Pingback by False Comparisons « Lady Libertarian — 2010-03-30 @ 7:52 am

  5. Hi Jen. Something I didn’t hear mentioned in your fascinating account (which makes me wonder if you’ve encountered it) is your impression of Rothbardian libertarians — that is, those who may concede utilitarian claims such as the ones you espouse, but aren’t necessarily libertarian BECAUSE of them. Instead, they focus on the inalienability of Rights, and the moral unacceptability of coercion. For instance, even if I thought privatizing the health-care market would lead to poor helpless children dying in the streets of pneumonia (I don’t), I would still be forced to advocate it, because the alternative (government law — i.e. theft, violence, and coercion) is morally impermissible. I also bring this up because it would seem I would be disqualified to discuss politics with you, given your criterion.

    Comment by Bo Zimmerman — 2010-03-31 @ 8:51 pm

  6. Hi Bo! Hmm… yes, I suppose you might be right. I’m a pretty practical person, and embracing libertarian philosophy of any kind already puts you in a rather impractical position. I frequently feel helpless as I watch the government make policy decisions I oppose, with great popular support. Add another layer of abstraction on top of it, and I start to feel like I’m in a logic class rather than a serious policy discussion. (Nothing against logic classes, but the level at which I personally invest in them is different.)

    I certainly favor a society in which rights are respected and citizens are free from coercion. But if I had to choose between that society and one in which children were healthy and well-cared-for, it’s not a clear-cut decision for me. Luckily, these aren’t mutually exclusive, but if they were, I mean… they’re children. They’re dying in the street. It’s a problem. Obviously these are extreme examples – in real life, it’s more likely that these two societies would meet messily somewhere in between (which is, arguably, what we have today). But, yes, in the end, I’m someone who appreciates a practical real-world implementation more than a pure and internally consistent argument. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have better modeling tools; as Vroman stated in his recent post, the system of economic behavior is large and complex, and I understand the temptation to dismiss real-world data and stick with the principles that can be absolutely known. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that political discussions that ignore the reality of how people actually behave are largely uninteresting to me.

    This is a bit of a tangent from your original point; I guess I am neither Rothbardian nor utilitarian, but somewhere in the middle. I wouldn’t choose to give up my civil liberties. I don’t want orphans dying in the streets. Whatever society or policy offers the happiest medium is the one I will root for. Based on my current information, it seems to be libertarianism.

    Comment by Jen Pierce — 2010-03-31 @ 10:45 pm

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson






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