The libertarian case against the welfare state is really just the result of the consistent application of moral common sense.

Matt Zwolinski is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego and director of USD’s Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy. He is the editor of Arguing About Political Philosophy and, with Benjamin Ferguson, The Routledge Companion to Libertarianism and Exploitation: Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (both in progress). He is currently writing a book on the history of libertarian thought with John Tomasi, and a book on the idea of a Universal Basic Income with Miranda Perry Fleischer.

Libertarians are generally opposed to the welfare state. Part of that opposition is pragmatic in nature. Libertarians often argue that welfare encourages dependency, and that it destroys incentives to work. But the more important source of opposition–the more distinctively libertarian source–is that the welfare state is coercive. It’s one thing to give your own money to charity; it’s quite another to do as the state does, and give money that you’ve coercively seized from someone else.

Let’s call this the Core Libertarian Insight about the welfare state.

Core Libertarian Insight (CLI): Coercive redistribution of wealth by the state is generally wrong. 1

Libertarians often defend the Core Libertarian Insight by appealing to two other claims:

No Positive Duties (NPD): People don’t have any positive moral duties to provide aid to others in need.

Non‐​Aggression Principle (NAP): The initiation of physical force is always morally impermissible.

If NPDs is true, then there’s no justification for taking from Peter in order to pay Paul, even if Peter is wealthy and Paul is desperately poor. But even if NPD is false, and we do have positive obligations to others, the NAP entails that it is morally impermissible to use force to compel that aid.

I think that both NPD and NAP are false. But I think that CLI is true. How can these claims be reconciled?

Start with the NAP. I’ve argued before that the NAP is a good principle, but a bad rule. In other words, there is a very strong moral presumption against the permissibility of initiating force against another human being. But it is a presumption that can be overcome if the use of force is necessary to prevent something much worse from happening. You can’t punch your neighbor to take his money or his horse, but you can punch him if, for some reason, that’s the only way of saving a thousand other people from being killed.

As for NPD, I’m convinced by Peter Singer’s Drowning Toddler example that we do have a moral obligation to help others in certain emergency situations where we are able to provide aid at relatively little risk or cost. I even think that such obligations are, at least in some cases, enforceable obligations. Suppose you and I are standing at the edge of a shallow pond, watching a toddler drown. If I am physically unable to perform the rescue myself, and you are simply unwilling to do it on your own, I think I would be justified in threatening you with physical force in order to compel you to perform the rescue yourself. Yes, force is morally bad. But in this case, the alternative is morally much, much worse.

How, then, can I agree with CLI? If we have enforceable obligations to rescue drowning toddlers, couldn’t we argue that the welfare state is justified as a way of compelling the rescue of those persons (including children) who are “drowning” in poverty?

I don’t think so. And though it’s a bit removed from the main argument of his book, I think Michael Huemer makes a pretty compelling case for CLI in chapter 7 of The Problem of Political Authority .

Consider a variation of the Drowning Toddler case, which Huemer labels the “Incompetent Bystander” case:

There is a drowning child whom you are unable to help directly, but you can coerce a reluctant bystander into taking action. This time, however, assume that even if you coerce the bystander into entering the pond to pull the child out, it is unclear whether the child will actually be saved… Second, assume that there is a fair chance that, on his way to trying to save the drowning child, the bystander will accidentally knock one or more other children into the pond who will then drown. You find it difficult to assess these probabilities, so it is quite unclear to you whether the net expected benefit of forcing the bystander to ‘help’ is positive or negative.

Would it be permissible for you to coerce the bystander in this case? Huemer says “No” and I agree. But of course, it is perfectly reasonable to have precisely the same sorts of concerns about the welfare state as we do about the Incompetent Bystander. It’s not clear that the welfare state really succeeds in “rescuing” the poor, and it’s not implausible that the moral hazards it creates actually contribute to that problem, on net. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But Huemer’s point isn’t just the straightforward consequentialist one that the welfare state doesn’t work. It’s the more subtle point that the strong presumption against coercion can only be overridden if we can be reasonably confident that coercion is actually effective and necessary in preventing the evil we’re trying to prevent. You might be allowed to coerce X to prevent a serious evil from befalling Y. But you’d better be pretty damn sure that the coercion is actually going to make things better for Y, and not worse.

But wait, there’s more. Are those who benefit from American welfare programs really analogous to “drowning children” in the first place? Huemer identifies several reasons for thinking that they are not.

First, while poverty in the United States can be awful, but vanishingly few Americans are in any serious danger of dying from it. By global standards, the American poor are still among the wealthiest people on the planet. If anyone is drowning in poverty, it’s the poor in the developing world, who really do die from it.

Second, saving a drowning toddler is an one‐​time intervention, whereas fighting poverty (whether global or local) requires an ongoing program of coercion. As I wrote elsewhere:

It’s reasonable to think that people have a moral obligation (even an enforceable one) to save any drowning children they come across because the expected cost this obligation imposes on any given individual is vanishingly low, while the expected social benefits are high. If, however, we held that people had the same obligation to rescue starving children abroad as they do to rescue drowning toddlers in ponds, then the costs to individuals would be immense. We can live a rich, normal life being fully committed to rescuing every single drowning child who crosses our path. A commitment to rescue every starving child in the world, in contrast, would consume our life.

Finally, it’s relatively easy to solve the problem of the Drowning Child. In contrast, solving the problem of poverty is almost certainly impossible. The most we can hope for is that we will alleviate it.

All in all, Huemer concludes, helping the poor with a welfare state is less like the Drowning Toddler case than it what he calls the “Charity Mugging” case:

You have started a charity to provide monetary assistance to the poor. To collect the needed funds, you take to mugging people on the street.

Even if you think we have an obligation to rescue the drowning toddler, indeed, even if you think we’d be justified in coercing someone else to rescue the drowning toddler, you’re unlikely to think that the action described in Charity Mugging is morally permissible. But isn’t that a closer parallel to our actual welfare state? Like the welfare state, and unlike the Drowning Toddler case, it attempts to alleviate (rather than solve) a problem of relative poverty (rather than a life‐​threatening emergency) through an ongoing program of coercion (rather than a one‐​time intervention).

So, if your behavior Charity Mugging is morally impermissible, why isn’t the same true of the American welfare state?

As my regular readers will be aware, I’m not convinced that all forms of welfare are unjustifiable–and certainly not they they are equally unjustifiable. All else being equal, a welfare system that is cheaper and more effective is more justifiable than a welfare system that is an ineffective, expensive mess. I also think, like Huemer, that coercive redistribution to benefit the truly desperate global poor would be more justifiable than redistribution aimed at helping relatively wealthy Americans.

But if what I’ve argued here is correct, then the libertarian challenge to the welfare state is even stronger than it is typically assumed to be. For that challenge does not depend, as it is usually thought to, on the controversial assumptions embedded in NPD and NAP. All that is required to make the case is a presumption against coercion, and a reasonable doubt as to the efficacy of the welfare state in achieving its stated aims. Those are premises that most reasonable people should be able to sign on to. And thus, the libertarian case against the welfare state is really just the result of the consistent application of moral common sense.

  1. My qualification here is deliberate. If the views of such libertarians as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek are to be taken as representative, the provision of a modest social safety net is compatible with at least some forms of libertarianism.