Is a Welfare State Consistent with Libertarianism?

  • October 20, 2023
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Governing Least: A New England Libertarianism
by Dan Moller
Oxford University Press, 2021; xii + 326 pp.

Dan Moller’s thoughtful book is packed with arguments, and in what follows I’ll be able to discuss only a few points of interest. The central thread of the book concerns the welfare state in contemporary capitalist societies. Moller is not a strict natural rights libertarian in the style of Murray Rothbard, who would rule out the welfare state in principle as a violation of the nonaggression principle (NAP); but nevertheless, Moller argues that most welfare state measures can be shown to conflict with the implications of moral principles that are widely accepted.

We may well have moral duties to aid others in certain circumstances, Moller contends, but to coerce people to fulfill these duties it is not enough to show that there is a moral duty to be charitable. It must be shown that justice requires this; and even if someone is in need, this does not suffice to show that coercion is justified to relieve that need. The reason for this is that people have such a strong right to their liberty and property that only an obligation of justice has the requisite strength to override these rights. Moller illustrates his point with a vivid example. He imagines someone who has come upon hard times and at a town meeting demands that others help him:

Thus, I’m here to insist that you (yes you, Emma and you, John) owe me assistance as a matter of justice. It is a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations, if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, to help me. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts. Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf. No, I insist that you force your fellow citizens to assist me. (emphasis in original)

Moller then asks whether we could bring ourselves to give this speech. He suggests that most of us could not and that if this is so, the welfare state lacks justification, because the justification for the welfare state is the same as that of the person giving the speech at the town meeting.

Moller’s argument thus far rests on an appeal to “ordinary morality,” what our intuitive judgments about the town-meeting example and others like it would be. But revisionist utilitarianism is prepared to jettison these intuitive judgments should doing so lead to the best consequences, and this sort of utilitarianism is supported, Moller thinks, by a strong argument: If an option really has better consequences than all alternatives to it, isn’t it right to choose it?

Perhaps the welfare state can be supported by arguments from this moral theory. One could in response point out the shocking implications of revisionist utilitarianism, and this has been done at great length in the philosophical literature. The revisionist utilitarians, however, will not be swayed, and we are at an impasse.

Moller suggests a way out. He offers the hypothesis that revisionist utilitarians could not live by their doctrine: “At some level, utilitarians simply are not prepared to jail the innocent or steal from their friends when doing so promotes the greater good.” Instead of directly confronting the deep issues he acknowledges are raised by revisionist utilitarianism, Moller leaves that view of morality aside, arguing that even if it justifies the rejection of libertarianism, those contemplating the morality of the welfare state can ignore it.

Moller seems on solid ground in dealing with the impasse, but I am not satisfied by what he says about another problem. Some people appeal to ordinary moral judgments to support the welfare state. In their opinion, for example, it’s obvious that the state ought to provide certain basic welfare services for the poor, or that equality of income and wealth is a fundamental moral value. Why should one prefer the moral intuitions that oppose the welfare state to those that favor it? Those who don’t have the pro–welfare state intuitions don’t have this problem, but what has Moller to say to those who do? His answer is this:

The point the libertarian is making is ultimately just that there is a conflict between our ordinary moral beliefs and the welfarism that people take for granted now. The libertarian is not denying that we could resolve this conflict in favor of the welfare state, for instance by embracing revisionist utilitarianism. . . . One way of putting the libertarian point, then, is that we face a choice between our moral beliefs about the appropriate use of threats and violence against our neighbors on the one hand, and beliefs about how to address problems like inequality on the other. (emphasis in original)

Moller is wrongly assuming that the conflict between the belief that threats and violence against our neighbors to bring about redistribution are inappropriate and the belief that the welfare state is justifiable must be a conflict between ordinary and radically revisionist theories of morality. But supporters of the welfare state might claim that they too are appealing to intuitions that redressing inequality is a matter of justice. In this connection, they might point to the fact that the reason one can’t use force in Moller’s town-meeting example is that the structure of rights is already in place. To refute arguments for the welfare state that appeal to intuitions that justice requires egalitarian redistribution, a more fundamental grounding for rights than Moller has attempted is necessary.

The closest Moller comes to addressing this concern is in response to an argument by Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel in their book The Myth of Ownership (2002). These authors contend we aren’t entitled to our pretax incomes because a social system could not exist at all without the state. Because this is so, we can only use the same process by which we establish the justice of our political and social system to determine how much of our income we are entitled to.

Moller replies that this argument would at most support taxation for a minimal state, not a welfare state. (Unlike Rothbard, Moller isn’t an anarchocapitalist.) But this reply fails because it takes for granted that the considerations that determine what property rights people have exclude egalitarian claims. In Rothbard’s Lockean account of property acquisition, these claims of course are excluded, but Moller doesn’t adopt Rothbard’s approach. Instead, he maintains that a number of different factors give people claims to property, especially stressing the provision of services as bestowing a partial, and sometimes full, interest in property and takes it as given that egalitarian concerns arise only after property rights have been fixed (which he fails to show). But it is precisely the argument of Murphy and Nagel that this isn’t so.

Moller hasn’t to my mind refuted them. His book nevertheless contains much of interest. I especially liked his point that the argument that trade benefits both parties to an exchange doesn’t depend on an appeal to general equilibrium theory. And his criticism of the contention of the great historian Fernand Braudel that capitalism is a centuries-long system of oppression is not to be missed. The book repays careful study for its many insights and provocative arguments.

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