The Big Policy Question Positive-Libertarians Can Answer

An earlier time's bad answer to the question "what to do with poor children?"

An earlier time’s bad answer to the question “what to do with poor children?”


The Week ran an article yesterday with a provocative title: “The Big Policy Question Libertarians Can’t Answer.” That question is apparently “What to do about poor children?”

The basic argument is this:

…that’s the libertarian dilemma: It’s morally difficult to refuse aid to children born into poverty, because they don’t fit the model that says poverty is the result of personal failure. A newborn living without adequate resources is just unlucky. But rather than saying that vulnerable people living in poverty deserve assistance, a few libertarians argue that such people simply shouldn’t exist.

This is doubly important when one considers the fact that children’s misfortune shines a particular light on the misfortune of others. Or, if children are due assistance because they can’t help their circumstances, then so, logically, are others who are similarly “blameless” when it comes to their poverty.

This taps into a poignant convergence of typically separate visions of economic justice: equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome. Big-L Libertarians tend to support a view of fairness that is grounded in equality of opportunity — no handouts or subsidies for the well-connected: an “even playing field”. Progressives, on the other hand, almost always cast economic justice in terms of equality of outcomes, seen nakedly in the phrase “distributive justice” — as if the economy were a meal cart handing out rations. The case of poor children straddles these lines in a powerful way. The outcome of poverty for parents — even if “gained” from a position of above-average opportunity (and therefore, “fairly”) — can have a negative effect on the opportunities of their offspring (which feels pretty “unfair”). Basically, it points to the reality of structural poverty.

This is why Milton Friedman and FA Hayek — supposed arch-right-wing, let-them-starve-in-the-streets-econo-wizards — both supported the idea of a minimum income or a negative income tax.

It has become pretty fashionable for progressive-leaning authors to bash straw-filled “Libertarians” — who apparently think poor people are always at fault for their situations, and who think that poor children just “shouldn’t exist.” The reality is that there are many shades of libertarian, and many of them — such as myself — care as much about positive liberty (power to reach one’s potential [opportunity]) as they do about negative liberty (freedom from restraint). The above example of the poor child shows how for the sake of the positive liberty and equality of opportunity of the child, we should guarantee a minimum income to the parent. There’s your libertarian answer to the question of “What to do about poor children?”, complete with Hayek and Friedman stamps of approval.

But we don’t do this. Instead of a minimum income, we have scores of different agencies and programs. And often these agencies wield their powers in violently harmful ways to children — all, of course, in attempts to solve that same policy question that libertarians supposedly can’t answer. As Sebastian recently detailed, poor families and their children often suffer harassment, imprisonment, or even sexual abuse from programs designed with the intent to help them.

We have this odd idea that if we just decide that the government will do something, that it will get done swiftly and perfectly. The truth is that there are massive gaps in any ‘policy question’ between design and implementation, and between intent and reality. A central task of libertarian politics is to point out these gaps, and to warn us about the dangers of our blindness towards them. Such is the strength of this blindness that, for example, the violent and expensive Drug War rages on despite having no clear effect on drug addiction rates in this country. In asking institutions based on power and the use of force to engage in “caring for children,” we should expect things to go incredibly, terribly wrong. As a victim of child services who described her experience to the Atlantic put it:

Ultimately, I found this ostensibly well-meaning system of child protection to be an exercise in often baseless finger-pointing, pitting neighbor against neighbor, family member against family member. As people vie for power and victory, it all becomes so much less about kids’ best interests and more about adults’ selfish interests. In criminalizing previously culturally normal activities, such as an unaccompanied child playing at a public park, we open the door for any unorthodox parental decision to be subjected to similar unfavorable scrutiny…

In many cases, the supposed cure turns into its own illness.

Exporting our neighborhood responsibility of “What to do about poor children” to a federal agency or even local law enforcement is not a clean transplant. As Sebastian said, government is “primed to punish,” not to nurture. Nurturing takes a society, not a state. We need more neighbors knocking on doors, not calling the cops to come knock them down. We can do what we can at the national level to try to provide better equality of opportunity through positive liberty guaranteed by minimum income, but actually ensuring the safety and health of real children must be on the shoulders of real communities.