I can’t exactly say why, but I’m following samizdata. I don’t really agree with them, because they are slightly too fundamentalist libertarian for my taste. On the other hand, they are not outrageous enough to provide the entertainment I used to get from Jesus.de, for example, before they kicked me out. Still, one of the main reasons might be the hope that I might one day find the occasion to write a post like this one, demonstrating that my criticism is not limited to people whom I fundamentally disagree with.
Rob Fisher writes
Doing the rounds on Facebook is a story about a cancer patient told by the Department of Work and Pensions that she contributed to her illness and therefore does not qualify for some amount of welfare payment. One commenter points out that she probably broke some rule, such as drinking too much or not going to some medical appointment or other. Debate ensues about whether such rules are fair.
A government department can not know exactly how ill a certain individual feels today, and it will not visit you to find out why you did not attend an appointment. [...] so it must make rules, write letters and feed forms into computers.
It is much better to look not to the state for help, but to one’s friends and neighbours. [...] If you want to look after the poor and the chronically ill, be a libertarian: take the money and the power away from the heartless state and leave it in the hands of people who care.
And this is, I’m sorry to say, almost exactly the kind of position I’m routinely criticised for and to which I sadly will no longer be able to respond to with something along the lines of “Who wants this? Show me an example! I don’t know anyone who remotely seriously would claim this kind of” Well, to be quite honest, I couldn’t have said that, anyway, because this is not the first time I’ve read this, but whatever, this is the occasion I choose to make my stand. Here goes:
No. I call bullshit. We don’t get this easy way out. It doesn’t work. As a society, we can’t just rely on this unfounded conviction that every person has a friend of a neighbour or a relative who cares enough about him to personally take on the responsibility to provide the help this person might need one day when he or she gets into trouble. Just typing this out makes me grimace in frustration that anyone would seriously propose this as a solution.
To be fair: I’m not sure Rob means it quite so simply. He might not really think that everyone should look to individual other persons for help and trust he’ll find someone to provide it. He might think, like I do, that we don’t need the threat of violence to force people to help each other, but that we can establish reliable voluntary systems based on the realisation that we all need help from time to time and that it makes sense for a society to provide ways of getting its members back on their feet whenever they stumble, and not just leave the lying on the ground and march over them.
But if he does, I think his argument doesn’t work any more, because any such system, to be reliable and not just a matter of luck and knowing the right people who care enough about me to sacrifice significant parts of their own time and money in my interest, needs rules. And it needs exactly the same kind of rules that a government-based non-voluntary system needs. And it will not work better just by virtue of being voluntary. The only advantage it will have by virtue of being voluntary is no longer being based on force and the threat of violence, which, in my book, is more than sufficient to make it desirable. But the rest will not come automatically. There would need to be rules, just as there are rules now, and all we can hope for is that we will be able to make better rules, on a more rational basis, than our system does now, so we will truly enable those members of our society in need of help (which are ALL OF US) instead of degrading them and making them feel dependent and useless.
So, yes, the state does not care about you. It can’t, because it’s an abstract principle. But no, I don’t care about you, either, but I still understand that it is necessary for a functional society to provide help to you if you need it, and that we have to find a way of offering it (mostly) to those who do and not making it too easy to abuse for those who don’t. This challenge is easy to state but very very difficult to overcome, and we will not be able to shirk it by just claiming that everyone has parents or a brother or a friend who will certainly know what to do, and of course be willing to do it.
Bullshit. Just try asking your brothers and friends and neighbours for help when moving, and see how readily they make sacrifices for you. Furthermore, you might notice that poor people, as a rule, have poor friends and neighbors who can’t even afford to make great sacrifices for them. The system we have now is stupid and unethical, and it doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean no system at all would work better. What we need is a better system. A system that does not depend upon anyone caring for me personally, but upon rationally crafted rules.
There is a difference between a society without rulers, and a society without rules. As libertarians, we strive for the former, but not for the latter, and since no one else seems to understand this important disctinction, we should make sure that at least we ourselves do.