Voluntarism—sometimes called philanthropy or charity—is the donation of money, goods, and time either to those in need or an otherwise worthy cause.

A question that confronts every society and every political philosophy concerns our obligations to the poor and unfortunate and how we are to extend them help. Probably the most common answer involves an appeal to government to supply them welfare benefits and other entitlements financed through taxation. But free‐​market advocates maintain that coercing people to assist others is wrong, both pragmatically and in that it violates others’ rights. Instead, they appeal to private organizations to provide the necessities for those in need.

Pragmatically, free‐​market advocates argue that a taxed and regulated society is less prosperous with less upward mobility and thereby experiences poverty; the redistribution of wealth can be a strong disincentive for people to earn and so increases the number of people who need help. Moreover, people who are taxed to underwrite the costs of welfare are less likely to give voluntarily. The rise of the welfare state is commonly viewed as the turning point at which the large‐​scale philanthropy that marked 19th‐​century society disappeared. If government services were removed, free‐​market advocates maintain that people would be far more likely to voluntarily contribute to charity and other community causes and in larger amounts. As evidence, they point to the wide variety of private organizations that currently exist even in competition with free—that is, government—assistance.

Those who defend the free market further maintain that, regardless of whether government best provides for the poor, coercing such assistance violates individual rights. As Robert Nozick phrased it, no one has “an enforceable right”—that is, a legal claim—to assistance from another. Even a drowning man should not be able to legally compel aid from people on the shore. Rendering assistance may be a moral duty, but this notion should not be taken as equivalent to a legal duty. In many instances, acting within your rights may be immoral. For example, lying to a friend does not violate rights, but by most standards is immoral. Equally, indifference to human suffering does not violate rights, but may be immoral. Concluding that an action is moral or immoral does not automatically translate into a call for the state to either require or punish that action. Indeed, to demand that all moral duties become legal obligations would so constrict our lives as to deprive us of all freedom.

Thus, although free‐​market advocates agree that caring for the needy is both proper and necessary, they hold on pragmatic, ethical, and rights‐​based grounds that these decisions are ultimately private and must rest with each individual and his or her conscience.

Further Readings

Machan, Tibor. “Does Libertarianism Imply the Welfare State?” Res Publica 3 no. 2 (1997): 131–148.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Rand, Ayn. “Government Financing in a Free Society.” The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Signet Books, 1964.

Wendy McElroy
Originally published