A Quick Thought: Libertarianism

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

While I was taking a break from working on lesson plans I happened to catch a bit of an interview with Bob Barr, the presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, on NPR.  What caught my interest was Barr's views regarding social welfare programs or his view that all federal and state run programs intended to aid the poor should be abolished.

Now, I must admit I have a pretty strong libertarian streak, albeit my brand of libertarian might best be labeled social libertarianism or left libertarianism.  That is, I really think that the government should have no role in legislating morality.   It strikes me that no one should have the power to say how a person ought to live their life except for in cases where people wish to cause harm to others.  I do think there is some role in preventing property and violent crime for the government but otherwise, I figure people should get to do pretty much whatever they want and the consequences of their actions should be social rather than legislative ones.  However, I would grant that there is a role for gov't in administering social programs (indeed, I think that the administration of social programs should be the primary role for gov't).

That said, what I really don't agree with is this notion that the government only has a role in terms of security.  It strikes me that the libertarian's suggestion that addressing the concerns and need of the poor should be a regional or a private matter is one that is awfully wrong-headed.

This is for several reasons.  First, if one thinks that the responsibility for caring for the poor within our society is a regional one, one assumes that all the regions within the US are equally well equipped to manage and fund social programs (and social programs here includes education, unemployment insurance, provision of healthcare, funding research, retirement insurance, etc.).  However, such is not the case, there are a great number of regions within the US that are particularly economically depressed, without some for of resource redistribution from the state or federal level, such regions could not maintain adequate social programs.

Second, many social programs require stable funding over time.  Private sources of funding do not come with even the weak guarantees that federal or state funding has.  Private grants for the most part are one-time or short term.  That isn't a system that can fund education, healthcare, or programs of that sort which require stable funding from year to year.

Third, I think that if the responsibility of maintaining adequate social programs were left up to regional or private organizations/individuals one would lose efficiency.  There would be a great deal of replication/redundancy of labor.  Regional programs would require far more people being involved in managing and organizing resource redistribution.  Now granted, it's not like the current federal government is all that efficient nor all that capable of responding to the needs of those less financially fortunate.

However, further weakening the federal gov't will only hurt rather than help the situation.  Consider for instance the case of Hurricane Katrina.  Without the late and arguably inadequate response of the federal gov't, the situation would have been much worse.  Further, in the case of Katrina private and regional help arrived quite quickly but they were simply unable to deal with the scale of the problem.  Without federally funded programs, the death toll of Hurricane Katrina would have been far worse than it was.

So while libertarianism does have some appeal to me, I really don't think the ideas voiced by folks like Bob Barr have much merit at all.


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