Libertarianism

Libertarianism

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 20 1997 12:30 AM

Libertarianism

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Dear Charles Murray,

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       First things first. I'm not sure I understand what you take libertarianism to be. From Lysander Spooner in the 19th century to Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick in recent times, libertarianism has stood for the idea that individuals have certain natural rights, including the right not to be coerced either for their own good or for the good of others. Persons should be free to choose their own values and ends, whatever they may be, provided they do so in a way that respects the right of others to do the same.
       Libertarians typically draw from this principle the conclusion that no collective body, even a democratically elected one, may tax people for any purpose except (possibly) to provide for defense, police protection, and the enforcement of contracts. (Though some libertarians would privatize even police protection.)
       On this view, many functions of modern government, and all redistributive functions, are unjust violations of liberty. For example, as Friedman has famously argued, it is a violation of liberty for government to license professions, from barbers to surgeons. If people want to take a chance on an inexperienced surgeon who may, in compensation for his inexperience, charge less for a triple bypass, then they should be free to make this decision for themselves. Social Security is, on similar grounds, a form of unjust paternalism. Saving for one's retirement may be a good thing, but people should be free to decide for themselves whether they wish to do so. If a person wishes to live for today and live a penurious old age, it is an unjust violation of liberty for government to tell him he may not do so. This argument would also condemn those proposed "privatized" versions of Social Security that would remove the redistributive aspect of the system and simply require people to invest a certain portion of their earnings in personal retirement accounts. This too would be unjust paternalism. Finally, any policy that taxes the rich to help the poor would be unjust, on libertarian principles. While charity may be a good thing, libertarians say, it is unjust to coerce people, even through democratically enacted taxation, to contribute to the well-being of others, whether in the form of food stamps or school lunches.
       My question to you, then, is: Do you accept the standard libertarian principles I have described? Do you agree that it is unjust for government to license (and therefore coercively restrict) the practice of medicine? Is Social Security unjust in principle? Is it always wrong to tax the rich to help the poor?
       The reason I pose you these questions before turning to your points about local communities is this: If you accept the moral principles underlying the standard libertarian view, then your enemy is not Big Government, it is any government, whether national, state, local, or within a neighborhood. Coercion is coercion, and if it is unjust as a matter of principle, then it is objectionable whether inflicted by a big government far away or a small government close to home. If it is unjust in principle for the national government to tax its citizens to feed the hungry or provide housing subsidies, then it is also unjust in principle for the residents of a small town to tax themselves to feed or house the poor among them.
       For a principled libertarian, devolving power from the federal government to state and local governments is no service to liberty or justice. It simply shifts the site of unjust coercion. What do you think?

Michael Sandel

Charles Murray is a Bradley fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of What It Means to Be a Libertarian. Excerpts of his book are available on the MSNBC Web site. Michael Sandel is a professor at Harvard University and author of Democracy's Discontent: America In Search of a Public Philosophy.