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There is a role for an Economic “Safety Net”
Conservatives often regard any community provided “safety net”  as either morally illegitimate or economically destructive. This lesson will examine why opposition to any safety net is the default Conservative position, and why some Conservatives don’t believe this is an either/or position, but rather support a community provided safety net under certain political and historical circumstances. […]

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December 31, 2020

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Conservatives often regard any community provided “safety net”  as either morally illegitimate or economically destructive.

This lesson will examine why opposition to any safety net is the default Conservative position, and why some Conservatives don’t believe this is an either/or position, but rather support a community provided safety net under certain political and historical circumstances.

This lesson will use an essay by Matt Zwolinski on “Libertarianism and the Welfare State” as the basis of this lesson.

Through a combination of intellectual history and philosophical argumentation, Zwolinski attempts to show that opposition to the welfare state is neither as universal nor as fundamental to libertarianism, which I conflate to “Conservatism,” as has generally been assumed.

Matt suggests moderate classical liberals and more radical libertarians can and have supported various forms of state-based welfare, though they generally differ both regarding their reasons for supporting redistribution, and regarding the kind of redistribution they favor.

“Libertarianism and the Welfare State”

forthcoming in Jason Brennan, Bas van der Vossen, and David Schmidtz, eds.,

The Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism


Matt Zwolinski Associate Professor of Philosophy

University of San Diego



1.  Introduction

Most libertarians regard the welfare state as morally illegitimate. For some, opposition to state-financed welfare is a matter of fundamental moral principle. “Taxation is theft,” they say, and so any redistributive measures that involve taxation are themselves a kind of theft, and therefore a violation of individual rights.1 Others base their opposition to the welfare state on more pragmatic considerations, holding that the problem with welfare is the effects it produces on taxpayers, recipients, and society as a whole. But whatever the source of their opposition, it is generally believed that opposition to the welfare state is an essential tenet of libertarianism – perhaps even the defining tenet that sets libertarianism apart from more mainstream liberal political theories like that of John Rawls.

We should be careful, however, in drawing generalizations about libertarianism as a whole on the basis of one or two salient examples. The libertarian intellectual tradition, I have argued elsewhere, is far more pluralistic than has generally been recognized.2 It is also far more progressive. And while opposition to the welfare state is indeed a common characteristic of libertarian thought, that opposition is neither as universal as is commonly supposed, nor as deeply rooted in a fundamental conflict of values with those who advocate state-based relief to the poor.

There are, in the first place, a significant number of prominent libertarian theorists who have supported some form of state-based welfare payments to the poor. The reasons offered in support of such advocacy have varied, but by and large tend to fall into one of two categories: restitution for past injustice, and relief for those who for one reason or another do not share in the general prosperity created by a market system.

Nevertheless, opposition to the welfare state is the position held by a majority of libertarian theorists, and it is easy to infer from this opposition that most libertarians must

1 See, for example, (Rothbard, 1973, pp. 29, 62-63). One of the earliest libertarian statements of this argument can be found in the work of the 19th century abolitionist and anarchist, Lysander Spooner. See (Spooner, 1870, pp. 182-183; 1886, pp. 192-193). Robert Nozick famously held that “taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor,” a somewhat different and more restricted claim (Nozick, 1974, p. 169). For an earlier version of that argument, see (Spencer, 1902, pp. 167-168).

2 (Zwolinski & Tomasi, 2016)


base their political philosophy on fundamentally different values than those held by advocates of the welfare state. Perhaps libertarians do not really care about the suffering of the poor. Perhaps, as closeted social Darwinists, they even welcome it. But the inference here is a mistake. Libertarians do not, in general, lack concern for the plight of the poor. In fact, if we are to take libertarians at their word, just the opposite is true – many of their policy proposals and fundamental political outlooks are motivated by a deep concern for the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.3 The distinctiveness of libertarians’ policy prescriptions is not due to any distinctiveness in the basic moral values to which they adhere, but rather to the heavy moral weight they assign to certain moral norms, and to their distinctive empirical beliefs regarding the relative efficacy of voluntary versus governmental approaches to poverty relief.

This paper will examine why opposition to the welfare state is the default libertarian position, and why some libertarians have deviated from this default in certain political and historical circumstances. The primary goal of this examination, of course, is to better understand the libertarian answer to questions about the legitimacy of state- based redistribution, which are interesting and important in their own right. But reflection on these specific questions, I suspect, will also lead us to more general insights about the relation between libertarianism and other non-libertarian liberal political philosophies. That relation has often been understood, at least by late 20th and early 21st century academic philosophers, in terms of the debate between John Rawls and Robert Nozick. And that debate has largely been reduced to a disagreement regarding the legitimacy of state-based transfers aimed at the realization of distributive justice.

But if the argument of this essay is correct, then opposition to the welfare state is neither as universal nor as fundamental to libertarianism as has generally been assumed. And that realization frees us up both to notice other distinctive elements of libertarian theory that may have previously been consigned to the background, and to recognize that there might be more commonalities between libertarianism and non-libertarian liberal theories than a narrow focus on Rawls and Nozick might have led us to believe.

This paper begins in section 2 by dispelling a few common misunderstandings about libertarian attitudes toward the welfare state. The libertarian opposition to the welfare state is not based on a disbelief in natural positive duties, nor on a callous social Darwinism. A moral concern for the poor and vulnerable has been an important and persistent theme in the libertarian intellectual tradition, but so too has a skepticism about state power, and an appreciation for voluntary, decentralized social action.

Considerations such as these ground a number a pragmatic concerns about the efficacy and morality of the welfare state. Section 3 examines more principled libertarian arguments against the welfare state, the primary focus of which is the coercive nature of the taxation that is used to finance it. Some of these arguments, we will see, rest upon philosophically controversial and implausible premises. But it is possible to ground a relatively radical libertarian conclusion about tax-financed welfare on the basis of relatively commonsense moral premises, and the section concludes with an examination of one important version of such an argument. Finally, section 4 looks at the reasons why some libertarians have supported a certain form of welfare state. As we will see, both the reasoning employed and the kind of welfare that is justified varies between what I identify

3 (Zwolinski & Tomasi, 2016, chapter 5)


as the two main branches of libertarian theory. Classical liberals, when they support any welfare state at all, tend to support a moderate form of welfare aimed at providing relief to the very poor in order to ensure that all members of society share to at least some extent in the general prosperity of a free society. Strict libertarians, on the other hand, generally support state welfare only as a mechanism for making restitution for past injustice. But while their rationale is theoretically narrow, it is potentially quite radical. In a world where historical injustice is ubiquitous, the strict libertarian approach has the potential to yield a stronger case for redistribution than many alternative theories. Section 5 concludes with reflections on the differences, real and imaginary, between libertarian and other forms of liberal political theories.


2.  What Libertarians Don’t Believe About Welfare

Libertarian opposition to welfare is typically quite radical. For the most part, libertarians do not merely advocate reducing the overall size of the welfare state, or imposing new restrictions on who can qualify, or on how long they can receive benefits without going back to work. Instead, libertarians argue that the welfare state should be eliminated, and replaced by a system of purely private charity and voluntary mutual aid.

It seems natural to suppose that such a radical conclusion must draw for its support on equally radical, and implausible, moral premises. It is sometimes claimed, for instance, that the reason libertarians deny the legitimacy of the welfare state that they deny the existence of any positive moral duties.4 The only duty people have, on this view, is the duty to respect the negative rights of others to be free from aggression against their person or property. And this is a duty we can fulfill simply by sitting still and doing nothing at all. Beyond that, we have no duties that require us to take any positive steps to promote the welfare or freedom of others.

While there are a few libertarians who hold this view, it is nevertheless a relatively uncommon position.5 Libertarians do believe that it is wrong to coercively compel people to promote the welfare of others. But to deny that we may legitimately coerce people into performing their natural positive duties is one thing; to deny that we have any such duties at all is quite another. The most common libertarian position is that our natural positive duties are imperfect duties of beneficence, the performance of which is properly left to the discretion and voluntary choice of each individual.

Even taking this into account, however, the libertarian position still strikes some as hard-hearted. After all, if libertarians really cared about the welfare of the poor, why wouldn’t they want the state to provide whatever assistance it can? Might it not be the case that libertarians oppose the welfare state precisely because it would help the poor? Are libertarians really “social Darwinists” who believe, with Herbert Spencer, that the poor

4 See, for example, (LaFollette, 1978)

5 Among contemporary libertarians, Ayn Rand is the most well-known advocate of “ethical egoism,” a view which commits her to denying the existence of any basic positive duties (that is, positive duties that are not ultimately grounded in the agent’s own self-interest). Such thoroughgoing egoism, however, is relatively uncommon in the libertarian intellectual tradition. Prior to that, the most prominent example is to be found in the writings of Benjamin Tucker and his circle of “Boston Anarchists,” many of whom were deeply influenced by the egoist writings of Max Stirner. See (Tucker, 2005) and, for a discussion, (McElroy, 2003).


are “nature’s failures,” who, “if they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die”?6

The charge of social Darwinism still surfaces from time to time.7 But the general consensus among scholars is that even in the specific case of Herbert Spencer, where it might most plausibly be thought to apply, it fails.8 When it is extended to cover not just Spencer but libertarians as a whole, the charge is not merely false, but grotesquely false. Many of libertarians’ most distinctive policy positions – their opposition to occupational licensure, their hatred of war, their championing of free migration – are advocated by libertarians precisely on the grounds they will benefit the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.9 State power, libertarians believe, is routinely used to benefit the powerful and the politically well-connected at the expense of the weak.10 And even when state power is used with the intention of benefiting the poor, those good intentions often fail to produce beneficial effects. Legislators and bureaucrats generally lack the knowledge to accurately predict the effects of the interventions on complex social systems, and as a result the unintended (and often unwanted) consequences of their policies often wind up dwarfing the intended ones.11 In the context of the welfare state, the most obvious and relevant example of this phenomenon is the problem of moral hazard. By providing a safety net that ameliorates the suffering associated with poverty, governments might inadvertently discourage people from taking the steps necessary to get themselves out of poverty. By taking responsibility as a society for the poor, we might inadvertently discourage them from taking responsibility for themselves.12

Libertarians favor voluntary, decentralized solutions to the problem of poverty not because they are social Darwinists but because they believe those solutions are more effective than state-based alternatives.13 Free markets generate economic growth, and that growth has done more than any government program ever possibly could to eliminate poverty and the suffering associated with it.14 Voluntary networks of mutual aid can provide relief to individuals who have fallen on hard times, and perhaps more importantly, can do so without undermining self-respect since they are based on longstanding relationships of reciprocity among equals.15 And while individual charities might sometimes fail or become too administratively bloated to perform their role effectively, the overall system of private charities is one that encourages innovation, provides immediate feedback in the form of increased or diminished contributions, and allows for the kind of experimentation and learning that helps the system to become more effective over time.



6 (Spencer, 1995, pp. 339-340)

7 See, for example, (Fleischacker, 2004, p. 86).

8 See (Bannister, 1979; Leonard, 2009; Weinstein, 1998; Zwolinski, 2015).

9 See (Zwolinski & Tomasi, 2016, chapters 4 and 7).

10 (Tullock, Tollison, & Rowley, 1988)

11 See (Schuck, 2015; Tullock, 2002)

12 See (Schmidtz & Goodin, 1998).

13 See (Palmer, 2012)

14 See, for a discussion of economic growth in the context of the libertarian approach to poverty, (Brennan, 2012, pp. 142-143)

15 See, for a historical discussion, (Beito, 1999)



3.  Moral Arguments Against the Welfare State

Many libertarians such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Richard Epstein take a pragmatic, pluralistic, and relatively consequence-sensitive approach to politics, and therefore tend to emphasize the kinds of considerations described in the previous section in their critique of the welfare state. This branch of libertarianism is sometimes known as “classical liberalism,” in order to emphasize its intellectual debt to earlier figures such as David Hume and Adam Smith, and also to distinguish it from the other major branch of the libertarian family.

That other branch, which I have elsewhere described as “strict libertarianism,” is one that takes a more rationalistic and/or deontological approach to political morality.16 Within this branch we find a different approach to the issue of welfare – one that derives more from basic moral principles than pragmatic considerations, and that is more radical and uncompromising in its recommendations. For libertarians in this camp, such as Murray Rothbard and Robert Nozick, the problem with welfare is not so much what the government is spending its money on, but how the government is obtaining that money in the first place. It is because welfare is financed through taxation, and because taxation is based upon the threat of force, that these libertarians object to it. When government looks to taxpayers to finance the welfare state, it does not merely ask for money, it demands it. If taxpayers refuse that demand, they might at first be faced with nothing more but a firm letter. But if they try to ignore that letter, or the people in business suits who show up at their door, eventually the people in suits will be replaced by people with guns. And the people with guns will not be ignored.

For Nozick, the taxation that is necessary to finance such redistribution is a violation of our basic moral rights. To take from Peter in order to give to Paul is to treat Peter as a mere means, and thereby to run afoul of the Kantian moral imperative that requires us to treat each person as an end in himself.17 So long as Peter acquired his possessions in a just manner, he is entitled to his holdings no matter how great the inequality between him and Paul, and no matter how great Paul’s need.18 Respecting Peter as a separate person requires us to acknowledge that his ownership of his person and property establish moral side-constraints on what we may permissibly do to him in order to advance our own good, to advance what we believe to be his good, or to advance the good of society as a whole. To take even a small portion of his property without his consent is a violation of a basic side constraint against aggression, and therefore absolutely impermissible.19


16 See (Zwolinski & Tomasi, 2016, chapter 1). For more on the distinction between classical liberalism and strict libertarianism, see (Barry, 1986; Mack & Gaus, 2004; Zwolinski, 2008a).

17 See (Nozick, 1974, pp. 28-35)

18 (Nozick, 1974, pp. 150-152)

19 Nozick waffles a bit on the absolutism of libertarian side constraints. Within at least a certain range, those side-constraints appear to be insensitive to cost-benefit analysis. Thus, Nozick writes that the libertarian tradition “holds that stealing a penny or a pin or anything else from someone violates his rights. [It] does not select a threshold measure of harm as a lower limit” (Nozick, 1974, p. 75). At the same time, Nozick is open to the possibility that side-constraints might give way in cases where respecting them would doom us to “catastrophic moral horror” (Nozick, 1974, p. 30).


Rothbard arrives at the same conclusion via a somewhat different route. Like Nozick, Rothbard believes that taxation is a violation of basic moral principles. But for Rothbard, those principles are self-ownership and non-aggression.20 The principle of self- ownership states that each individual is morally entitled to absolute control over her own body and labor. Following Locke, Rothbard argues that an individual’s basic property in her own person serves as a foundation for the legitimate acquisition of property rights in external resources like land, trees, and minerals.21 Through original appropriation and trade, individuals can come to have legitimate property rights in a wide range of natural resources and artifacts. And since those property rights are ultimately rooted in individual self-ownership, any violation of those rights is ultimately an act of aggression against the person who holds those rights, and is therefore absolutely morally impermissible.22

Both Nozickian side-constraints and Rothbardian self-ownership are philosophically problematic. First, their absolute or near-absolute prohibitions on interfering with other people’s property strike many as intuitively implausible. Couldn’t a very small instance of aggression be justified if it would yield extremely large benefits for other innocent persons? Or, in the case of paternalistic interferences, the victim herself?23 Second, and more problematically, neither Rothbard nor Nozick provide much in the way of compelling argument in support of these strong prohibitions. Nozick’s argument for libertarian side-constraints is much more suggestive than conclusory, and the argument that Rothbard gives us, while more fully developed, is obviously and deeply flawed.24

Fortunately for libertarians, their moral critique of the welfare state need not rest upon such controversial foundations. After all, both Nozick’s and Rothbard’s philosophical accounts are, in the end, merely attempts to formalize and refine a few basic intuitions about morality. And those basic intuitions, it turns out, are far less controversial than the philosophical systems designed to systematize them.

One need not be a libertarian, for instance, to believe that it is at least generally wrong for one individual to take another person’s legitimately acquired property by force or threat of force. That is not a controversial philosophical position. It is, instead, simply a part of moral commonsense, one of the data points against which moral theories ought to be judged. A moral theory that failed to include a prohibition on theft might not deserve to be dismissed out of hand, but we would rightly expect the theory to provide some very weighty reasons to justify that omission, or to have some very appealing features to counterbalance it.25


20 (Rothbard, 2006, pp. 27, 33)

21 (Rothbard, 2006, pp. 36-45)

22 Unlike Nozick, Rothbard is explicit and unequivocal regarding the absolutism of the prohibition against aggression. See (Rothbard, 2006, pp. 23, 29).

23 For one argument along these lines, see (Arneson, 1991).

24 For a sympathetic but critical assessment of Nozick’s argument, see (Zwolinski, 2008b). On Rothbard, see (Eabrasu, 2012; Zwolinski, 2016).

25 To borrow some terminology from Mark Timmons, a theory which denied the wrongness of theft would thereby suffer a sever defect in terms of internal support, one which would have to be made up for by some compensating strength in explanatory power, determinacy, or one of the other standards by which we judge the adequacy of moral theories. See (Timmons, 2002, pp. 12-16).


However, the commonsense prohibition on the forceful appropriation of other people’s property is not absolute. Yes, it is generally wrong to take other people’s property without their consent. But suppose that a hiker lost in the snowy woods comes upon an uninhabited cabin. May he permissibly break in to avail himself of the food and shelter he needs to survive?26 Or suppose, to modify a famous philosophical thought experiment, that in order to save five innocent people from being crushed by a runaway trolley, one must pull a lever to divert the trolley onto another track where it will crush someone else’s new car. May he permissibly act so as to save the five, even though doing so entails the destruction of someone else’s property?27 The commonsense answer to both of these questions (and to a host of similar questions) is, I think, “yes.” But that answer is incompatible with a prohibition on the forceful appropriation of other people’s property, at least if we understand that prohibition as absolute in its strength.28

Moral commonsense thus supports a strong presumption against violating the property rights of others, but it is a presumption that can be overridden by sufficiently weighty considerations on the other side. This might sound like good news for defenders of the welfare state, since it means that the coercive redistribution involved in state-based welfare is not necessarily impermissible, as a matter of fundamental moral principle. But, in another respect, it is good news for the libertarian too. For it means that she is no longer faced with the seemingly impossible task of justifying an absolute prohibition on redistribution. Instead, her task is the much more philosophically modest one. She need only show that standard arguments on behalf of the welfare state fail to overcome the presumption against coercion implicit in moral common sense.

This is the approach taken by Michael Huemer in his recent book, The Problem of Political Authority. There, Huemer approaches the debate over the welfare state from a perspective that is both libertarian and explicitly committed to an intuitionist moral framework.29 His argument begins by conceding that it is not always wrong to use coercion in order to provide aid to the needy. We can easily imagine hypothetical scenarios in which such coercion seems at least permissible, and perhaps even obligatory. For example, consider a modified version of Peter Singer’s famous “Drowning Toddler” thought experiment.30

Coercive Bystander: A child is drowning in a shallow pond. If no one helps her quickly, she will die. There is a man standing near you who could easily wade in and save the child. Doing so would not be physically dangerous, but it would ruin the man’s clothes and so he refuses to help. No one else is around who can

26 This example is borrowed from (Feinberg, 1978, p. 102).

27 A modification, of course, of Philippa Foot’s famous example first introduced in (Foot, 1967).

28 It might seem that someone who endorses an absolute prohibition on the forceful appropriation of others’ property could nevertheless answer “yes” to these questions, so long as he or she insisted that the person who violates the property right pays full compensation to the victim for the damage done. But making this move actually requires a significant weakening of property rights, in effect converting them from rights protected by a property rule to rights protected by a mere liability rule. Such a conversion allows some individuals to effectively force others to sell their property whether they want to or not, and at a price that might be significantly lower than what they could have obtained in a voluntary market. See, for a discussion of this issue applied to Nozick’s argument in Part I of his Anarchy, State, and Utopia, (Mack, 2011, p. 108).

29 See (Huemer, 2012, pp. 14-17). For a more through defense of this approach, see (Huemer, 2005).

30 The original source for this experiment is (Singer, 1972), but see also (Singer, 2009) for updated versions of the example and an extended discussion.


help, and because of a physical disability you are unable to save the child yourself. You do, however, have a gun that you could use to threaten the man standing next to you. Would it be morally permissible for you to threaten the man with violence in order to induce him to save the child?31

Huemer is willing to grant that the answer to this question is “yes.” And that might seem to be enough to clinch the case for the welfare state. People living in poverty are like the child drowning in the shallow pond. Taxpayers are like the man standing next to the pond who could easily help but refuses to do so. And the government is the other bystander who lacks the resources to help himself, but wields the power to coerce those who are capable of helping into doing so. If the bystander is justified in using coercion in order to save the drowning child, then so too is the government justified in using coercion to save citizens “drowning” in poverty.

Unfortunately for defenders of the welfare state, this conclusion cannot be gotten so easily. For there are several morally relevant differences between Coercive Bystander and the reality of the welfare state. To illustrate just one of these differences, Huemer asks us to consider yet another modified version of the same example. In this modification, all the details are the same except that you aren’t at all sure whether coercing the man standing next to you will actually result in the child being saved. Perhaps the child is already too far gone, or perhaps the man standing next to you is an incompetent rescuer. For whatever reason, there is a possibility that even if you use your gun to threaten the man, the child will still die. Indeed, it’s even realistically possible that the bystander will inadvertently knock more children into the pond in his futile attempt to save the one. He does look rather clumsy…

In this second modified example, which Huemer calls Incompetent Bystander, it is no longer clear that coercing the bystander in order to save the child is a morally permissible thing for you to do.32 In philosophical thought experiments, it is easy to assume such uncertainty away and simply stipulate that our actions will achieve all (and only) the desired results. But in the real world, things are rarely so clear, and this lack of clarity is morally relevant. In the real world of the welfare state, there are ample grounds for worrying that the welfare state might not be as effective as we hope, and indeed that it might sometimes even be counterproductive, exacerbating the very problem it was designed to solve.33

The point about uncertainty is relevant, of course, for those inclined to analyze moral problems in consequentialist terms. If the justification of the welfare state depends on the expected utility of its policies, then the more uncertain we are regarding the outcomes of those policies, the greater the epistemic discount we must apply to the utility of the outcomes for which we hope, and the less weight they will have in justifying those policies.

But Huemer’s point is not merely a consequentialist one. Even a deontologist, and certainly a commonsense intuitionist, can hold that there are certain consequentially-

31 This is my own embellished version of the scenario presented in (Huemer, 2012, p. 149).

32 (Huemer, 2012, p. 149)

33 This, of course, was a large part of the famous critique put forward by Charles Murray in (Charles A. Murray, 1994).


specified “thresholds” beyond which the normal prohibitions on certain forms of conduct no longer apply. It might be wrong to punch strangers in the nose no matter how much you happen to enjoy it, but if for some bizarre reason the fate of the world hinges upon your doing so, then all bets are off.34 For similar reasons, we might hold that the prohibition against coercion only gives way in those cases where we can be reasonably confident that the coercion we are considering is both necessary and effective in preventing some grave evil. The justification of coercion, we might plausibly think, demands a higher burden of proof than a mere preponderance of the evidence (i.e. a net positive result of a cost-benefit analysis).

Of course, there are a number of other morally relevant differences between Coercive Bystander and real-world efforts to aid the poor through the institution of government. Pulling a toddler out of a pond, to take only the most obvious difference, is a one-time affair. Undertaking the obligation to rescue a child in a situation like that consumes us in the moment, but it need not consume our lives. Moreover, the only consequences we need to worry about in that scenario are those that are immediate and visible.

The welfare state, in contrast, is an ongoing policy, the mission of which is by its nature one that can never be completely fulfilled. No matter how many individuals we rescue from the suffering of poverty, there will always be more.35 And because the project is an ongoing one, we must take seriously the concern that the things we do now to rescue those currently in poverty might make it more likely that other people will get stuck in the trap of poverty in the future.36 How our attempts to solve this problem might create other problems in the future is a dynamic problem that static philosophical thought experiments like Coercive Bystander can easily blind us to. But in the real world, where people are constantly adapting their behavior in response to changes in the rules of the game, it is a problem that we absolutely must take seriously.37

A further difference between the thought experiment and the real world of the welfare state has to do with the urgency of the need that we are seeking to relieve. In Coercive Bystander, the child is faced with immediate death. Much of the suffering that the modern welfare state seeks to relieve, in contrast, is far less urgent. It is one thing to say that coercion is justified in order to save a person’s life from imminent danger; it is another to say that it is justified in order to make a person’s life more comfortable, or to provide them with job training or educational opportunities or health care that improves their long-term prospects for well-being.

Indeed, Huemer goes on to note, it might be especially problematic to devote the resources obtained by coercion to the alleviation of this kind of suffering when we could

34 For a discussion of “threshold deontology,” see (Moore, 1997, chapter 17).

35 See (Schmidtz, 2000).

36 For example, many poverty relief programs are means-tested, meaning that they only provide relief to people whose income falls below a certain threshold. But this means that someone who earns an income that is just below the threshold has a very strong disincentive to take a new job, or work more hours, if doing so means that their income will thereby exceed the threshold and cause them to lose their benefit. “Welfare cliffs” can thus discourage the poor from doing the one thing that is most likely to help them escape from poverty in a long-term, sustainable way. See (Congressional Budget Office, 2012).

37 See, for discussion of this problem, (Schmidtz, 2000).


arguably be doing much more to relieve suffering that is far more urgent. There are still far too many places in the world where to be poor really is like drowning in a pond – the danger of imminent death (often from dehydration or malnutrition) is real, and the costs of preventing that death are low. “If the government is to institute coercive aid programs at all,” Huemer argues, “it surely must direct its efforts toward people whose lives are in grave danger yet who could be saved at minimal cost rather than toward people with much less urgent needs that are much more expensive to address.”38


4.  Libertarians For the Welfare State

  1. Classical Liberal Arguments

Virtually all libertarians are deeply opposed to the sort of expansive, expensive, and intrusive welfare states currently in existence in American and most of the Western world. And, indeed, many libertarians are opposed to the idea of any welfare state at all, no matter how small or efficiently run it might be. But not all libertarians are hostile to the idea of state-run welfare as such. Indeed, a number of important libertarians have, in both historical and contemporary contexts, given their qualified endorsement to some form of welfare state. And in doing so, they have provided arguments that raise deep and important questions for the application of libertarian theory to the real world.

For some libertarians, the argument for welfare is grounded in a simple positive duty to relieve others from extreme suffering when we can afford to do so without suffering serious deprivation ourselves. As we noted earlier, it is commonly assumed that libertarians deny the existence of positive duties. But this assumption, we saw, is mistaken. Libertarians generally believe that positive duties may not be coercively enforced. But even that belief is not universally shared.

John Locke, for instance, is widely regarded as the father of contemporary natural rights libertarianism, and his account of natural rights in general, and property rights in particular, was frequently and favorably cited by contemporary libertarians like Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Nozick.39 But Locke himself explicitly rejected the strict prohibition of coercive redistribution. In his First Treatise, Locke wrote that one in pressing need has a right to the surplus property of his fellow men, at least so much as to keep him out of “extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise.”40 Nor did Locke regard such relief as a mere private virtue, to be aspired to and encouraged but never coerced by law. Indeed, in 1697, Locke himself wrote a proposal to reform the English poor laws.41 Today that proposal draws attention mostly for its seemingly draconian impositions of work on the able-bodied poor and its imposition of whippings and impressment upon those caught begging outside of their home parish. But for our

38 (Huemer, 2012, p. 153)

39 See (Nozick, 1974, pp. 9-11, 174-182; Rand, 1963, p. 19; Rothbard, 2006, pp. 37-40)

40 “God the Lord and Father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it…As [48] justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise.” Locke, First Treatise (I, 42).

41 (Locke, 1997)


purposes, what is perhaps most significant is the fact that Locke never questions at all the assumption that government acts permissibly in coercively taxing some in order to assist those who are genuinely unable to support themselves.42 The legitimacy of state redistribution is simply taken as a given.

Some libertarians have gone even further in setting out a case for state redistribution. For these libertarians, the crucial moral premises needed to defend the welfare state are normative individualism and mutual benefit. Normative individualism refers to the basic moral belief that only individuals matter from a moral point of view, and that every individual matters. We must seek to justify our social practices and our legal institutions, these libertarians hold, on the basis of how those practices and institutions affect the individuals subject to them – not on how they affect “races” or “nations” or “classes.” Practices that violate the rights of some individuals cannot be justified on the grounds that they make other individuals better off.43 In order for a social practice to be legitimate, then, it must be mutually beneficial, that is, it must be in the interest of all those who are subject to it.

In general, libertarians believe, the institutions of private property and the free market are in everyone’s best interest. Such institutions provide individuals with considerable freedom to live their lives as they see fit, and generate tremendous wealth and opportunities for all, including and perhaps even especially society’s poorest and most vulnerable members.

Still, there are inevitably some members of society who do not benefit from the general freedom and prosperity created by libertarian institutions. For libertarians who accept some version of normative individualism, such individuals cannot simply be written off. If the institutions of property and the market are to be justified to all individuals, then something must be done to ensure that those who fall through the cracks are not left behind. Much of that work, libertarians believe, can be accomplished by citizens acting individually and in voluntary associations outside the institutions of the state. Charity and mutual aid can go a long ways toward ensuring that the benefits of material progress are shared by all. But a social safety net provided by government might be necessary as a measure of last resort.

Thus, Loren Lomasky, who defends classical liberal institutions as ones that generally enable individuals to pursue the projects that give their lives meaning, notes that

If a person is otherwise unable to secure that which is necessary for his ability to live as a project pursuer, then he has a rightful claim to provision by others who have a surplus beyond what they require to live as project pursuers. In that strictly limited but crucial respect, basic rights extend beyond liberty rights to welfare rights.44

A similar line of reasoning can be found in the broadly Rawlsian classical liberalism of

42 The same is true of Adam Smith, who nowhere in his Wealth of Nations discusses the issue of government redistribution for the relief of poverty, despite the deep concern for the well-being of the working poor that he evinces throughout that work. See (Fleischacker, 2004; Viner, 1927)

43 The idea of normative individualism is thus tightly connected to Nozick’s idea of respect for the separateness of persons. See the discussion in section 3, above.

44 (Lomasky, 1987, p. 126)


Gerald Gaus, who argues that while the coercion involved in a socialist or heavily redistributive economy cannot be justified to “all rational and reflective persons seeking to live under impartial principles of justice,” neither can an economy with no redistribution be justified, at least given modest assumptions about the nature, reasonableness, and intensity of people’s preferences.45

Even Friedrich Hayek, who famously dismissed the idea of social justice as a “mirage,” seemed to take it almost for granted that

the assurance of a certain minimum income for everyone, or a sort of floor beyond which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself, appears not only to be a wholly legitimate protection against a risk common to all, but a necessary part of the Great Society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into which he was born.46

What Hayek found objectionable about social justice was the idea that society ought to endeavor to ensure that each individual’s income is fully in accord with his standards of merit, desert, or fairness. But Hayek’s point in raising the idea of a “minimum income” was to differentiate it from what he regarded as the misguided ideal of social justice, and to argue that a modest social safety net could and should be defended on solidly liberal grounds. We should reject the idea that government should be involved in the minute regulation of prices and incomes in different sectors of the economy – such matters exceed the severely limited informational capacity of the state and should be left to the freely functioning market to determine. But the provision of a social safety net requires no hubristic tinkering with the price system; it is the sort of goal that can be achieved through a general rule, predictable in its effects and equally applicable to all.

Still, even if classical liberalism is not incompatible with the welfare state as such, it does impose severe restrictions on the kind of welfare state that is to be justified. A classical liberal welfare state will aim, in the first place, at guaranteeing to each individual an income sufficient to meet their basic needs.47 But it will certainly not aim at maximizing the welfare or resources of the least well-off, nor will it aim at equalizing the wealth, welfare, opportunities of different individuals in society.48 In terms of its overall goal, then, the classical liberal welfare state will be relatively modest.

In terms of form, too, the classical liberal welfare state will be distinctive. One of key distinguishing ideas of libertarianism is an appreciation of the power of spontaneous orders.49 But some forms of social welfare can be more spontaneous than others. In his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman first laid out his case for a “Negative Income Tax,” a policy that would essentially implement Hayek’s goal of a “certain minimum income for everyone” by issuing government payments to everyone whose income fell below a certain level. Friedman saw this policy as justified as a legitimate measure to achieve the goal of poverty alleviation, especially since purely private charitable activity


45 See, for a discussion, (Gaus, 2010).

46 (Hayek, 1979, p. 55)

47 Classical liberals will tend, that is, to be sufficientarians rather than egalitarians. See (Frankfurt, 1987). 48 Compare with the far more demanding theories of (Rawls, 1971; Temkin, 1993; Van Parijs, 1995). 49 See, for discussion, (Barry, 1982)


might be subject to kind of “free rider” problem – a form of market failure.50 But he also recognized that, unlike many other forms of government aid, a cash grant allows individuals to make their own decisions about what to do with that money. And rather than aiming at a certain definite outcome for its recipients – better health, access to education, etc. – a basic income allows individuals to choose their own goals, and their own paths to those goals.51

Friedman’s proposal drew considerable political support, and came tantalizingly close to becoming law. In the end, however, Friedman’s proposal morphed (much to his displeasure) into the Earned Income Tax Credit, a policy which requires beneficiary to be employed and thus provides no benefits at all to those who cannot find work, and which supplements already existing welfare programs rather than replacing them.52 Still, the idea of a relatively simple policy that addresses the problem of poverty through universal cash grants is one that has considerable appeal among some contemporary libertarians.

Charles Murray, for instance, has recently called for replacing the welfare state with a “basic income” that would provide $10,000 to all adult citizens, regardless of income or willingness to work, but subject to a progressive tax for those whose total income exceeded $25,000.53 Such a system, Murray argues, would not only be more effective in fighting poverty, but would do so while simultaneously moving in the libertarian direction of smaller, less invasive, and less costly government.54


  1. Strict Libertarian Arguments

Because they take a relatively absolutist position on the stringency of property rights, strict libertarians might seem to have a harder time justifying the kind of coercive redistribution involved in the welfare state than their classical liberal brethren.

There is, however, one important respect in which the very absolutism of the strict libertarian theory makes it more open to recognizing welfare rights as legitimate claims of justice.55 The libertarian theory of distributive justice is, as Robert Nozick famously described it, a historical one. This means that libertarians believe that the justice of a given set of holdings depends entirely on how those holdings came about. “Whatever arises from a just situation by just steps is itself just,” wrote Nozick.56 But the flip side of this claim is just as important – those distributions of resources that arose from unjust steps are themselves unjust. Thus if A were to hold a piece of property that he stole from B (or that he bought from someone who stole it from B), justice and respect for property rights would demand rectification – i.e. redistribution.

In the limited context of relatively recent and local injustices, this principle seems innocent enough. Of course car thieves should be forced to give back their ill-gotten cars

50 (Friedman, 1962, pp. 191-192)

51 A basic income is still a form of coercive, government-run welfare, and thus not fully “spontaneous.” But, to borrow from Charles’ Johnson’s analysis of that concept, it is more spontaneous than most forms of welfare in the sense of being more polycentric and emergent. See (Johnson, 2013).

52 For an entertaining legislative history of the EITC, see (Moynihan, 1973).

53 (Charles A Murray, 2006)

54 See also (Zwolinski, 2014)

55 For a defense of the comparative claim, see (Long, 2010).

56 (Nozick, 1974, p. 151)


to the people from whom they stole them. But if we broaden the context to include not just physically and temporally local injustices but more remote ones as well, the radical implications of the libertarian principle quickly become manifest. After all, who among us can say with confidence that the property we claim as our own is not tainted with injustice, if we trace its origins far enough back into the distant past? Herbert Spencer, himself a strict libertarian but a fierce critic of the Lockean theory of property, put the point succinctly:

It can never be pretended that the existing titles to such property are legitimate. Should any one think so, let him look in the chronicles. Violence, fraud, the prerogative of force, the claims of superior cunning—these are the sources to which those titles may be traced.57

The fact that the injustice occurred long ago in the past is irrelevant for the strict libertarian. “How long does it take for what was originally a wrong to grow into a right?,” asks Spencer. “At what rate per annum do invalid claims become valid?” Nor was Spencer the only libertarian to make this point. The 19th century American libertarian and abolitionist Lysander Spooner advocated the violent revolution of the Irish peasantry against their landlords on precisely these grounds. Their lands, he argued, were unjustly taken by the violence, and

No lapse of time can cure this defect in the original title. Every successive holder not only indorses all the robberies of all his predecessors, but he commits a new one himself by withholding the lands, either from the original and true owners, or from those who, but for those robberies, would have been their legitimate heirs and assigns.58

Injustices that occurred in the distant past can be difficult to rectify. But just as the strict libertarian denies that practical considerations can count in favor of redistributive policies that violate the requirements of justice, so too she holds that such considerations cannot count against redistribution that is required by justice.59

Most libertarians do not go as far as Spooner in advocating violent revolution as the remedy for historical injustice. But several important libertarians have advocated more moderate, but still coercive, measures. Nozick, for example, flirted with the idea that “patterned principles of justice” might be justified as rough approximations of what full compensation to the victims of past injustice would require.

[L]acking much historical information, and assuming (1) that victims of injustice generally do worse than they otherwise would and (2) that those from the least well-off group in the society have the highest probabilities of being the (descendants of) victims of the most serious injustice who are owed compensation

57 (Spencer, 1995, p. 104)

58 (Spooner, 1880, p. 126)

59 That said, the epistemic and practical difficulties involved are enormous. As Auberon Herbert put it in the context of a 19th century debate on the legitimacy of property in land: “[I]f land was taken from Saxon by Norman, it had been previously taken by Saxon from Briton, and by Briton from the long-headed

race … [A]ncient history therefore … gives no true title for another taking of the land, since it discloses no true previous title existing anywhere. If property has been stolen, and restitution has to be made, you must be able to show the person from whom it has been stolen, and to whom it is to be restored.” Auberon Herbert, “Reply,” in (Levy, 1890, p. 70).


by those who benefited from the injustices (assumed to be those better off, though sometimes the perpetrators will be others in the worst-off group), then a rough rule of thumb for rectifying injustices might seem to be the following: organize society so as to maximize the position of whatever group ends up least well-off in the society.60

On similar grounds, the alleged “social Darwinist” Herbert Spencer argued in 1893 that the English Poor Law might be justifiable as a means of compensating laborers for the appropriation of the land and labor that they suffered under feudalism, and the loss of the limited right to the produce of the soil that fell with the abolition of the feudal system.61

For Nozick, the injustice of the current distribution of resources is significant, but contingent. It is significant because it means that it undermines the prima facie legitimacy of that distribution from the standpoint of justice. But it is contingent because the distribution didn’t have to be unjust. There were morally legitimate paths open to individuals to appropriate resources, and to trade and bequeath them to others. The problem isn’t property as such – or even the unequal distribution of property. It is the way the particular present distribution happened to come about.

For other libertarians, however, the problem that stands in need in rectification is even more fundamental. For Thomas Paine, Henry George, and even Herbert Spencer (circa 1851), the basic injustice was private ownership of the earth as such.62 For one individual to claim a plot of land as his own, and thereby to claim the right to exclude all others from using it without his permission, was to violate of the rights of others. For Paine, private property in land was a violation of the equal right of all to its free use, and the primary cause of contemporary poverty.63 For George, ownership of land was flatly incompatible with individuals’ morally basic ownership of their persons and their labor.64 And for Spencer, it was a violation of the fundamental law of equal freedom, and carried with it the risk that non-landowners would be subject to whims of “the lords of the soil.”65

Libertarians who believe that private property in land is unjust face two alternatives. On the one hand, they might seek to abolish private property altogether and return it to its common state. That way of proceeding, however, would generate tremendous practical difficulties and fierce opposition from landholders. It would also involve giving up the great gains in efficiency that private property makes possible, and opening the door to tragedies of the commons on a massive scale.66

For these reasons, most libertarians opted for a second approach – one that involved leaving the existing distribution of property titles intact, but confiscating through taxation an amount equal to the unimproved value of the land – the so-called ground

60 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 231.

61 Spencer, Principles of Ethics, vol. 2, p. 394.

62 Herbert Spencer is often thought have changed his mind on the legitimacy of private property rights in land, moving from a broadly “left-libertarian” perspective in 1851 to a more “right-libertarian” perspective by the time the second edition of Social Statics was published in 1892. See, for discussion, (Taylor, 1992, pp. 246-253).

63 (Paine, 2007)

64 (George, 1886, p. 300)

65 (Spencer, 1995, pp. 102, 104)

66 See (Schmidtz, 1994)


rent. This “Single Tax,” as George famously called it, could then be used to compensate those who were deprived of their natural freedom to the use of the earth. And since the tax was on only the unimproved value of the land, it could be administered without any violation of individuals’ moral rights to the fruits of their labor.

How much of a difference the imposition of such a tax would make in the welfare of the poor depends, of course, on a number of factors, including especially the proportion of the actual market value of land that can properly be attributed to the raw value of the land itself. George believed that the proceeds of his Single Tax would be sufficient to eliminate most poverty from the face of the earth. But even if, as seems likely, he overstated his case, the fact that a sizeable transfer of wealth can find justification on even strict libertarian grounds is both theoretically and practically significant.


5.  Conclusion

Not all libertarians are fundamentally opposed to the welfare state. And when they are, it is not because they hold radically different values from non-libertarian liberals. It is because, as a normative matter, libertarians assign a different weight to moral rights of private property than other liberals and, as an empirical matter, libertarians have a greater confidence in voluntary approaches to poverty relief, and a greater skepticism about governmental ones. Most libertarians view poverty relief as an important goal. But it is goal that they believe ought to be addressed primarily through economic growth, voluntary charity, and mutual aid. State-based welfare aimed at poverty relief should be, at most, a policy of last resort.

This might seem to leave a large gap between libertarians and non-libertarian liberals. But that gap is more apparent than real, a product of the contingent way that libertarian ideas happened to develop over the last half of the twentieth century. Among academic philosophers, libertarianism is known mostly through the work of Robert Nozick, and Nozick’s work is known mostly for its criticism of the left-liberal theory of John Rawls. But the fact that Nozick took pains to emphasize the difference between his theory and Rawls’ should not blind us to the great degree of overlap between them. Both Rawls’ theory and Nozick’s are, after all, genuinely liberal, individualistic theories that are in principle compatible with a broadly capitalist mode of economic organization. In these respects, at least, they are more similar to each other than they are to socialist or communitarian political theories.

Even the remaining philosophical differences between Rawls and Nozick regarding, for instance, the extent of the state’s duties to the least well-off, are not necessarily as politically significant as they might appear. In the real world of politics, as opposed to the academic world of political theory, states simply don’t devote a lot of resources or attention to action on behalf of the poor. By far the largest items in the federal budget of the United States, for example – military expenditures, Social Security, and Medicare – have little to do with poverty relief per se.67 And, indeed, much of what the state does do in

67 Rhetorically, both Medicare and Social Security are often justified as providing assistance to those who are unable to provide for themselves. But in both cases, the criterion for eligibility is age, not income. Both programs thus transfer a significant to percentage of their resources to individuals who are not poor, and do nothing to help most individuals who are poor.


terms of its redistributive efforts is regressive rather than progressive, transferring wealth and opportunities from the poor, and toward the middle class.68

Thus, it is a mistake to think of the limits libertarians wish to put on the state primarily in terms of the welfare state. We do not live in a Rawlsian world, separated from a Nozickian one merely by the existence of a few poverty relief programs.69 Instead, we live in a world in which states imposes licensing requirements on a host of occupations, making it difficult for the poor to support themselves through honest work.70 It is a world in which most states impose severe restrictions on immigration, thus restricting the world’s poor from moving to nations with better economic opportunities to support themselves and their families.71 And it is a world in which the state’s police, driven by a combination of racism and institutional pressures, are enabled by the war on drugs and a host of petty restrictions to single out the poor and the marginalized for the very worst sorts of coercion of which states are capable.72 Eliminating these programs might not be a distinctively libertarian goal, but it is an important libertarian goal, and one that many libertarians believe would make a tremendous positive difference in the lives of the poor.

The differences between libertarians and non-libertarian liberals on the issue of state relief to the poor are real. But we should not overstate those differences, nor should we overstate their real-world political significance. Opposition to state-based welfare might be a common characteristic of libertarian thought, but it neither as universal or defining a characteristic has generally been assumed.


Recommend Readings

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Gaus, G. F. (2010). Coercion, Ownership, and the Redistributive State: Justificatory Liberalism’s Classical Tilt. Social Philosophy and Policy, 27(1), 233-275.

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69 My thanks to Jacob Levy for this point.

70 See (Sandefur, 2003)

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