There, I said it. Kick me out of the club, or whatever, I guess. But I do not think that supporting national social programs is at all at odds with libertarian principles: after all the right to life is the first thing in the list in the declaration of independence. Life cannot be mere existence—it is the right to actually live rather than just survive.
I’ll explain further how I think this whole thing ought to be structured, but I’ll begin with a story:
Many opponents of social programs (“entitlements”) claim that they encourage moral hazard—that by giving them to people we are encouraging them to be lazy and live off the government. That by giving people basic subsistence, we encourage irresponsibility. I doubt if anyone really clamoring to live on the average $130/month for food, but for the moment let’s pretend that someone is on food stamps because they are irresponsible and lazy: perhaps that is true some of the time.
So, just for a second, pretend that you have a family member who is irresponsible with money—most of you won’t have to pretend as every family has got one. Now this family member may be an alcoholic, may be irresponsible, etc, but would you really tell them “No, I’m not going to buy you food so you have to starve on the streets.” Certainly you wouldn’t give them a bunch of money, but I don’t think that you would let them starve and freeze on the streets—that would be heartless. Sure, the person is irresponsible, but despite their irresponsibility you would still have compassion for them (or at least I would hope that you would).
So should we as a country. We as a society have done pretty well—well enough that we shouldn’t see our fellow citizens starving and dying on the streets. Yes, some of them may be drug addicts etc., but out of our compassion, we should still provide them with a basic subsistence.
But what about the masses out there that cannot provide for themselves through no fault of their own? People with disabilities that cannot work, homeless veterans that have war-related mental illness? Certainly we can do better than this, and it is certainly not a moral hazard for as part of the cost of compassion to provide these people with a place to live, healthcare, and food. I don’t think that we should let these people live “high on the hog” as they say where I’m from, but certainly we can do better for our poor than the Swede’s do for their prisoners?
Now, I know that there are those of you out there who are going to say “We can’t afford it!” I challenge that statement. There is plenty of federal waste elsewhere, such as eliminating the "use it or lose it" form of budgeting. Or maybe we could, you know, stop trying to be the world’s policemen and close down some of the 900 military bases we have in 130 different countries. I bet we could find some money somewhere to cover our social obligations and cut the budget if we really tried and prioritized.
First off, we need to rethink through how Social Security is administered: why are people who don’t need it getting social security? (They will respond “Well, I paid into it, I should get something out of it”) This view is looking at Social Security in entirely the wrong way—it is not a pension program nor should it be—they should rename the program the “let’s not let people eat cat foot” program—that is what it is designed to do. I would pay a social security tax (which could be smaller if not everyone expected to get something out of it) so that people can have a basic subsistence if they can’t otherwise.
The trick is to find the right amount to provide a livable situation but not to incentivize people into just relying on it for retirement—not that I really think people look forward to trying to live on $1200/month (hell, my rent is more than that). But make it a program that is livable—so that we don’t have to have old or poor people suffering on the streets. People will still want to live better—and will continue to work hard to live better and not live on Social Security.
Additionally, we need to wrap all social programs into social security: make medicare, welfare, etc all part of the social security program—because all of these programs provide security for those that have had bad luck or for whatever reason—those members of our society that cannot or have been unable to take care of themselves. The social security program should be a soft cushion for those that fall on hard times—providing all of the basics of modern life (food, shelter, health care). Social Security should be nothing more than a welfare program—that provides the basics of modern life: food, shelter, health care. I don’t think that my individual liberty will suffer because of it.
Lastly, and I know this will be controversial—we need universal single-payer healthcare. I’m not saying we need to have a government take-over of the health care system, but again we should all pay into a system that provides an adequate minimum level of care for all. People who want to and can afford to should be able to purchase private coverage for better care, as I’m sure many would. But it is not moral hazard to let people die from curable diseases—it is a moral travesty.
Listen, I believe in individual liberty and minding my own business as much as the next libertarian. I hate paying taxes as does every American. But I know that if I saw my taxes doing something good—rather than force democracy on a people who don’t want it—I would feel better about paying them.
I also think the free market is great—but I’m not blind. I know that a free market that will never work to it’s theoretical best will always have holes—and I do believe that it is the role of government to protect people from falling through the holes of the free market.
*Oliver Richards is a J.D. Candidate at New York University School of Law, class of 2015.