Column on Anti-Libertarian Point Refuted

Anti-Libertarian Point Refuted

Tibor R. Machan

The English Marxist political philosopher Ted Honderich asks us to imagine a perfectly just society, constituted according to libertarian principles. Then he asks, rhetorically, whether it is possible that there exist starving people in such a society? (Sure, that might be so but that’s true of any society and much less likely in a free one.) So Honderich then continues: "[I]n this perfectly just society they have no claim to food, no moral right to it. No one and nothing does wrong in letting them starve to death. There is no obligation in this society, on the state or anything else, to save them from starving to death. It is not true of anyone that he or she ought to have helped them. This is vicious."(p.44)

Here we have a blatantly misleading assessment of a free society as well as men and women in such a society. Yes, Honderich is right that no one has an enforceable claim on other people providing food for them. There is in such a country no legal right to be supported except by parents of their children. That’s correct.

But first, to backtrack a bit, libertarians do not usually claim that a society with a libertarian political system is "perfectly just." Only Socrates has laid such claim to a society, namely the imaginary one in his Republic. What libertarians claim is that their legal order secures political and criminal justice better than do alternatives. With libertarian principles in its constitution, such a system has a better chance at resolving conflicts justly than do others.

Now to Honderich’s charge: In a society with such a system of law it is quite often morally wrong for many who know of such a case to fail to provide help. (If, however, they had more vital goals to pursue, say attending to their children’s medical needs, this wouldn’t be so.) Lack of generosity, compassion, or support for those who deserve it would be morally wrong. Indeed, it could well be true of many that they ought to help anyone in such dire straits and very wrong for them not to do so. What the libertarian is convinced of is that no such help may be coerced from anyone, that government, in particular, has no moral authority to mandate the help, to use its power to make some people help others. Government exists to secure our rights, not to make us morally good, whether as this is understood by modern liberals or by modern conservatives.

This is something very different from the claim that no one ought to help those in dire straits, quite the opposite. Where there is no unjust, coercive welfare state, it is the citizenry’s responsibility to reach our and help when people are suffering through no fault of their own.

Would there be such people in a free country? Of course. To begin with, the near-free countries around the globe, such as the USA, are also the most generous when, for example, tsunamis or earthquakes occur! The people give freely, without having to be made to do so. Then, also, if the administrators of a welfare state could find the extra resources to help the needy, why couldn’t the citizenry itself do this? After all, supposedly the welfare state is representative of its citizenry–it would be implementing policies of which the citizenry approves. So the same motives that may induce them to forge the welfare state would also induce them to be generous. The only difference would be that there would be no coercion involved.

By the way, Professor Honderich is also one of the most avid hard determinists in contemporary philosophical circles, so talk by him of what people ought to do and not do is entirely superfluous. He cannot mean it, not if he is convinced that que sera, que sera, what will be will be. Only men and women with free will could be implored to do anything they aren’t doing, including to provide help to the poor. There is no morality without freedom to choose. At most one can talk about prodding or encouraging certain kinds of behavior but since the behavior isn’t chosen by the agents, it has no moral significance.

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