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Robert Baird: Liberals versus libertarians

Robert Baird: Liberals versus libertarians

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“My definition of social justice: I keep what I earn and you keep what you earn.”

This dramatic statement appeared in a recent Tribune-Herald piece by Cal Thomas, which included “taxation is robbery” in its subtitle. Thomas was quoting Walter Williams (1936-2020), one of his economic heroes.

Additional Williams judgments:

“No matter how worthy the cause, it is robbery, theft, and injustice to confiscate the property of one person and give it to another to whom it does not belong.”

“The moral tragedy that has befallen Americans is our belief that it is okay for government to forcibly use one American to serve the purposes of another.”

Such dramatic libertarian statements reminded me of the debate in philosophical circles during the latter part of the 20th century led by two Harvard professors. Giants in the world of social thought, they both died in 2002: the liberal John Rawls (1921-2002) and the libertarian Robert Nozick (1938-2002).

Their dispute focused on the legitimate purpose of the political state, of government. Philosophers typically explore this issue by imagining the transition from a state of nature where life is lived without government to life governed by laws. This imagined transition is often called a social contract, a pact by which individuals move from a state of nature into political society.

What would justify such a move? Why would individuals move from a situation where one was absolutely free to a situation where one was constrained by laws?

In fact, that the political state is needed is not particularly controversial. Everyone agrees: For protection from criminals within and adversaries without, law enforcement and the military are necessary. Well, almost everyone agrees. There have been some philosophical defenders of anarchy (no governing laws whatsoever), but they have been rare.

The genuine debate is not over whether there should be government, but over the extent of that government, over the degree to which our lives should be governed and the extent to which taxes should be levied to support such governing.

The libertarian argues for a minimal state; the liberal for a more extensive state, one concerned more broadly for the welfare of its citizens.

Nozick, hero of radical conservatives, was a minimal state guy. Government should be limited to protecting individuals from external aggression and internally from such violations as assaults, theft and fraud. For Nozick and his extremely conservative companions, a more extensive state violates peoples’ rights not to be forced to do things they don’t want to do, such as paying taxes for anything other than support of law enforcement and the military. The quotations approvingly attributed to Walter Williams by Cal Thomas certainly suggest that Williams and Thomas are in Nozick’s camp.

Contrary to Williams, John Rawls would argue that the moral tragedy that has befallen Americans is to live in a country as wealthy as we are and allow some citizens to go without adequate food, clothing, shelter, education and medial care.

Since my sentiments fall into the liberal camp, I often ask myself: how can one persuasively argue for Rawls over Nozick? How can one successfully defend the liberal, welfare state, over the libertarian, minimal state point of view?

Three possibilities come to mind.

One might appeal to a religious sentiment associated with all the world’s major religions: we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper. But the religious argument for an extensive role of government in providing food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care is not appealing to everyone, so let’s put that argument aside.

A second kind of argument for an extensive state supported by taxes might be persuasive in light of the disastrous winter storm we Texans have just experienced. Indeed, when disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, or pandemics hit, a minimal state supported by minimal taxes will hardly do. In these situations we call on such agencies as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and look to the government for direct financial assistance to those who are hurting. We also look to government regulators to ensure that private providers of services who are strongly and appropriately concerned about profits are meeting certain safety guidelines. Who wants to board an airplane not federally inspected?

And are we not appalled by the attitude of the mayor of the West Texas town of Colorado City recently quoted by Bill Whitaker in his Tribune-Herald column? “No one,” argued Mayor Boyd — clearly a very, very minimal state advocate — “no one owes you or your family anything; nor is it the local government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this! The city and county ... owe you NOTHING.” If you are without water or power, figure it out on your own, he argued.

But let me turn to a third argument for a more liberal state, an argument that gets at a mistaken underlying assumption of the libertarian mindset.

Social justice: my keeping what I earn and you keeping what you earn. That is hardly social justice because what we earn is never simply what we earn. What we earn is in part a result of the family into which we were born, a family we did not choose, much less earn. What we earn is in part a result of the mind and body we have, not earnings but gifts. And what we earn is in part a result of the structures — educational programs, physical infrastructures, financial arrangements and health systems — that that we neither envisioned nor built. Not earnings but the gifts of others who did envision and who did build.

At the admonition of some of my conservative friends and as the actual gift subscription from one of them, I have begun reading the Wall Street Journal. Columnist Peggy Noonan, writing about the recent death of Rush Limbaugh, noted that Limbaugh has always implied that he had to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, that “he’d had to scrap his way up.” She adds, “but the radio show where he got his start was co-owned by his father.” And beyond family ownership, consider all of the social structures, many of them political, that even make radio broadcasting possible.

What a gift so much of life is! We do not pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And much of the helpful lifting we receive is a result of how life has been politically organized. Reflecting on that can be persuasive in thinking about what form of government we should favor. A minimal state will not do.

Robert Baird is emeritus professor of philosophy at Baylor University.

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