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What about Libertarianism? 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
June 29, 2018

Most of us in public administration believe government programs provide important services to the public. We do not believe in extremely small or limited government. We believe the opposite of what President Reagan declared in his first inaugural speech: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Here are some counters to common libertarian arguments.

Metaphysical Arguments

Libertarians tend to argue they have natural rights to maximum liberty and minimal government. They argue they have rights beyond what is given in the constitution and laws of their country. They believe that morality requires extremely small government.

Britannica.com’s entry for Robert Nozick, a leading proponent of libertarianism, says he believed “the minimal state, and only the minimal state, is morally justified. By a minimal state Nozick means a state that functions essentially as a ‘night watchman’ with powers limited to those necessary to protect citizens against violence, theft, and fraud.”

I would counter that metaphysical arguments that rely on natural rights or moral claims cannot be proven one way or the other and should be dismissed out of hand. I could just as easily argue that people have a natural right to large or medium sized government. How could such ideas ever be proven or disproven?

Metaphysical claims from the left (e.g., people have a right to high quality health insurance) are equally invalid.

What we can verify for sure is that each state on the planet creates the rights for its citizens and enforces (or fails to enforce) them. The rights you have under the constitution and laws of the U.S. are different from what you would experience in France or Iran or any other country. The state is the source of all rights.

Factual Arguments

Libertarians argue that the growth of government ultimately threatens liberty itself or even civilization. The argument seems to be that the sheer number of laws and regulations and ever-higher taxation can eventually overwhelm and eliminate individual liberty. This argument is a factual argument capable of being tested.

Do we find that totalitarian governments that suppress liberty become that way because of gradually increasing laws and regulations? No, we find that totalitarian governments occur when small, extremely violent groups take over a government and marginalize other institutions – the courts, the legislature, the press, etc. What about high tax states like California or high tax nations like Denmark? Is there any indication the citizens in those places feel they have lost liberty? And if they do feel that way, they can institute a tax revolt and reduce the size of their government if they want to.

Libertarian politicians often argue against government programs by arguing “we would rather do it ourselves.” The implication is that government programs are just duplicating what individuals could do for themselves. This is just factually wrong in most cases. Government services from Social Security to Amtrak do not exactly duplicate what the private sector provides.

Take Medicare for example. Medicare benefits are exactly the same whether you are a millionaire or you have a modest income. If we replaced Medicare with private medical savings accounts with contributions equal to Medicare taxes, the results would be very different than what current Medicare provides. High-income people would earn much, much higher medical benefits for their retirement than low-income people would earn.

Value Arguments

Libertarians place liberty above all other values. They want extremely low taxes and low government spending so that individuals don’t lose the liberty of enjoying their full income. Libertarians are skeptical of allowing the government to invade privacy even to prevent possibly severe terrorist attacks.

Libertarians tend to believe market results should be left alone. People worth compensation of hundreds of millions of dollars in the market place should receive such compensation; people worth $10 an hour should receive that compensation and so on. If a person is worth zero, they should receive zero plus any private charity or gifts that may come their way. Government should not redistribute income. Private charities can do that.

We can’t say that libertarian values are wrong. Values aren’t right or wrong in my view. We can point out the problems resulting from adopting libertarian values.  Income inequality would be vastly greater than at present if we did away with progressive income taxes, welfare state programs such as Medicaid and Section 8 housing and entitlement programs with a welfare component (such as Social Security or Medicare).

If we want to prevent homelessness or people living in substandard housing, it takes government programs to accomplish these things. Churches and private charity groups simply have not come close to solving these problems on their own. The same is true with health insurance. Universal coverage with high quality insurance simply doesn’t result from a free market in health insurance or from the efforts of churches or charities. It requires government programs.

Final Thought

We should stress to libertarians that in democracies the size and scope of government is continually subject to review by the voters. If enough people want smaller government, politicians will respond.

Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [email protected].

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