The Riddler Unmasked: Why I Am Not a Libertarian

Batman beats Riddler

When Bat-Dan first raised his challenge to the existence of transfer programs, I took the easy way out and kept him busy with riddles. But Batman always captures the Riddler in the end, doesn’t he? I knew that at some point I’d have to come out of the shadows and offer my own argument. Time to put up or shut up (or blow up a bank vault).

I’m going to keep it short and sweet here because I expect Bat-Dan will come back at me (with exploding toys or weaponized umbrellas, perhaps!) and give me a chance to draw out the details at greater length. We’ll get more out of the dialogue than we would out of a long treatise up front.

I hold that there is no justification for the existence of the state that does not, in principle, justify the existence of some transfer-type programs as circumstances permit. With Locke, I hold that the proper justification for government is the moral imperative (ultimately rooted in the divine ordering of the universe) to preserve human life. With Locke, I hold that the imperative to “preserve” life includes not only its bare physical preservation – which would justify only laws against murder and nothing else – but also 1) the maintenance of a broad scope of necessary social and civil preconditions for the preservation of life, such as the security of property; 2) the growth over time (i.e. multiplication) of human life, and 3) the growth over time of the social and civil preconditions of life (e.g. wealth creation, moral consensus).

As Locke shows in the First Treatise of Government and reaffirms (more briefly) in the Second, the imperative to preserve life implies a positive duty on the part of all people to rescue those in dire need. If we think we have no duty to rescue, we don’t really believe in an imperative to preserve life; we only believe in an imperative not to murder. And the imperative not to murder is insufficient to justify the existence of the state; murder is rare enough and murderers are few enough that spontaneous social cooperation would suffice to manage them. The state is necessary because in addition to the negative duty not to murder, we have a positive duty to preserve life, which requires the maintenance of a huge panoply of social and civil conditions that presuppose the state.

Additionally, in his reply to Filmer’s political absolutism in the First Treatise, Locke shows the deep connection between absolutism and the denial of such a positive right of intervention to rescue. He does this to expose the implicit inhumanitarianism of Filmer’s absolutism. Filmer argues that God gave the world to Adam, so everyone else is dependent on Adam (and his heirs) for their survival. Owning everything, Adam (and subsequently his heirs) can give everyone the choice of submission or starvation. Locke replies that even if God did intend for one man to own the whole earth (which he didn’t) that would still be no excuse for him to use that position of power to enslave his fellow human beings.

However, this logic also runs the other way; denying the duty rescue implies absolutism. For if I can use my neighbor’s distress to offer him a choice between submission or starvation, there will be no stopping the introduction of enslavement. This is the source of the two famous “provisos” on Locke’s theory of property in the Second Treatise; neither waste nor the denial of opportunity to support yourself through your own labor (including the access to minimal resources necessary for that opportunity) is ever legitimate. That the positive duty rests on all people is also presupposed in Locke’s account of familial obligation, and elsewhere. Remove the positive duty to rescue and Locke’s whole system falls apart – which only makes sense if Locke is the great theorist of anti-absolutism and the positive duty is necessary to anti-absolutism.

By now you see where this is leading. If there is a universal duty to rescue, government must be the rescuer of last resort where other rescue fails. And while we might envision a system where we wait for people to be on the brink of death before government helps them, it’s in everyone’s interest to introduce rules and regularity (a rescue-on-demand system would be subject to all kinds of arbitrary abuse).

Now, if the duty to rescue lies on all people, of course we would hope that most cases of need would be handled first by the spontaneous assistance of those most proximate, and failing that, non-political forms of social organization such as church programs. And it’s true that the existence of transfer programs has some “crowding out” effect, where people don’t mobilize to rescue because the government will do it.

But as we’ve already had occasion to notice on HT, the existence of a welfare state – indeed, an overly large welfare state that needs to be shrunk – has not prevented our Mormon friends from maintaining a huge national system of aid. Philanthropy magazine calls it “A Welfare System that Works.” So the crowding out effect is resistible. It doesn’t strike me as remotely plausible that resisting it requires the total abolition of government rescue.

The other major problem besides “crowding out” is the development of dependency and entitlement. But the success of welfare reform in 1996 shows that this tendency, too, can be resisted.

There is (sorry, Dan) no such thing as a system designed so perfectly that it will not develop evil tendencies over time that need to be corrected by prudential action. Crowding out and dependency are the tendencies of the welfare state. But the libertarian state can never overcome the contradiction at its heart – that it demands the positive and proactive creation of a huge social system for the protection of property while denying that the duty to preserve human life is positive and proactive.

Speaking of prudence, there is a prudential case for transfers as well. Andrew Biggs of AEI defends his desire to reform Social Security rather than abolish it in these terms (I’m paraphrasing): without Social Security, some number of old people will be able to present themselves to the public as in dire need of rescue, and whether we think it’s a good idea or not the public will overwhelmingly demand that the government rescue them. Better to design a sensible system in which the overwhelming majority of the saving is in privately owned accounts, but the accounts of the poorest people are “topped up,” than having no system and enduring unpredictable social crises that open the door to much more arbitrary impositions of power.

I await Dan’s batarangs.