Why I’m Not a Libertarian, Part 4, People Should Care About Each Other

I have an old card that I’ve kept for a long time that has a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children, to earn the approbation of honest critics; to appreciate beauty; to give of one’s self, to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived — that is to have succeeded.”

I kept this card because the first time I read it I noticed what it didn’t say. It didn’t say “to maximize financial return on investment”. It didn’t say “to look out for one’s own interests with no concern for others”. It didn’t say “to make sure you are insulated from other people’s problems”.

Libertarians think that the interpersonal relationships that are forced upon us by living within a community are chains that must be broken before we can be truly free. They are wrong. Those relationships are the very things that make life worth living.

7 thoughts on “Why I’m Not a Libertarian, Part 4, People Should Care About Each Other

  1. Thanks for the post.
    Here’s my thoughts on this issue:
    Just because we are forced to help others does not mean we “care” for them. Wouldn’t it be better to be able to act on our free will to participate in interpersonal relationships, rather than having it forced? I feel that people would still volunteer in helping the poor, because it buys stability within the community, and it just seems right. This will seem idealistic to some, but this is just how I see things.

  2. You are right that being forced to help others and actually caring about them are two different things. As far as forcing people to help others, you can take a look at my other post about the duty to help. Basically, I believe there is a narrow range of situations where you should be required to help a vulnerable person. Government enforcement of this should be even more narrow because of how easy it is for the government to overreach.

    But in this post I’m not saying government should mandate that people care about each other. I’m saying that people caring about each other is something important that libertarians dismiss too easily.

    For example, capitalism is an economic system based on antagonistic bargaining. You are supposed to get as much as possible for yourself with no concern for the other party. Regardless of the economic productivity of capitalism, the mere fact that it is antagonistic should be counted as a strike against it. If we could find a system that is just as productive and less antagonistic it should be preferred to capitalism. I think many libertarians would scoff at that idea.

    Another example is corporations are required by law to make maximizing profits be their only goal. In my perfect world such a construct would never be created.

    Social norms can have a tremendous influence on not just people’s behavior, but their attitudes as well. These things basically put society’s stamp of approval on the attitude that caring about nobody but yourself is the right and proper way for human beings to behave. We can’t legislate that people care about each other, but at least we can avoid policies that discourage it.

  3. Fun,

    It is also true that there are libertarians that think it’s good for people to care about each other, and that people will naturally care about each other in a libertarian world. I may not actually be that far from some libertarians in practical terms. But I get the sense that the libertarian plan for caring goes like this:

    1) Completely isolate and insulate yourself from everyone else’s problems.

    2) Take care of all your own problems and needs first.

    3) If you feel like it, be nice to others.

    Libertarians put too low a priority on #3, and some policies they support to encourage #1 and #2 get in the way of #3.

  4. booyah, please elaborate.

    I assume you are saying that I am creating a “straw man” of the libertarian position, that is, an inaccurate oversimplification that makes it easy for my argument to appear superior.

    In what way am I misrepresenting the libertarian position?

  5. Booyah hasn’t returned to explain his comment, which is unfortunate. A one word comment like that just does nothing to increase understanding on anyone’s part.

    But I’ve been thinking about it and I can only imagine he means that libertarians aren’t against people caring about each other as I’m representing them to be.

    The way I’m thinking about it is something like this: Lets say you have one social/political/economic system that encourages antagonistic relationships and one that encourages friendly relationships. Libertarians think it is invalid to use that as a criteria for preferring one system over the other. It’s an example of libertarians caring only about whether it’s theoretically possible to achieve an outcome, and not about whether the outcome is actually achieved. If it’s possible for people to be nice that’s all that matters, and the fact that the system actually gives people a nudge in the wrong direction is none of our concern. I think that attitude is silly.

    Another way to look at it is they say people caring for each other is important, but we’re not allowed to do anthing to encourage that. It makes me think it’s not as important to them as they claim.

  6. Joe,Thanks for weighing in.My view is that hisroty – actual hisroty in, say, the US – suggests that the idea we can do without the state or that we have prospered by relying purely on “free market” institutions is delusional. Think interstate highways, the internet, the post office, to say nothing of contract enforcement and so forth. I’d be happy to read a plausible hisroty that leaves out reference to those broad government initiatives. Libertarianism is false to hisroty and theoretically insupportable too. Sure we can argue about the ways this or that program works or might, but that is different from saying that we need as close to a minimal state as we can get.Moreover, I think a lot of people who simply announce “less government” until their own pet programs – read medicare, social security, public schools – are not thinking when they make their general pronouncements.Does that mean I have all the answers? No. But it means that I have a pretty clear idea that others don’t either.As for the ability of folks with other views to successfully and persuasively convey their views, I could not agree more. What we are getting from (Obama, say) is rudderless ‘bi-partisanship’.Jim

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