Life, liberty, and property. That is generally the libertarian creed. However, it immediately raises the question of what to do when confronted with the fact that life, liberty, and property are often in mutually exclusive conflict?
I want to live and I want to do so with the ability to act freely, in whatever way that might manifest.
In fact, in exercising my freedom to act, I want to kill, rape, maim, and torture you.
The libertarian replies that you can’t. Those freedoms are not acceptable.
Okay, fine. We agree that unrestricted freedom is bad. The libertarian has just bought into the concept that liberty is good, not innately as an end, but as a means to an end. Liberty is instrumental. Insofar as liberty leads to positive consequences, it is worth protecting. Insofar as liberty leads to negative consequences, like the list of atrocities outlined above, it isn’t worth protecting.
Now that libertarians are on the same consequentialist spectrum as the rest of us, the question isn’t about liberty, but what promotes more or less positive consequences.
Does taxation inhibit the liberty of those taxed. Of course. So what? So do police as we just agreed above. Police inhibit my freedom to steal and murder.
The better question is does taxation and its infringement on individual liberty lead to a greater positive outcome in the same way that police do? Yes.
In what ways? Many ways, but for specifics we must consult the empirical data. Taxation spent on health and education benefits all of society. Empirical data supports this unequivocally. Does all health and education benefit society? Of course not. Pointing this out doesn’t make the libertarian the owner of unique insight any more than pointing out that all police and military spending doesn’t benefit society. We can take anything too far and that’s why constantly doing research, critically evaluating the results, and making informed decisions matters so much. We need to know, based on the data, when we’ve gone too far or not far enough.
Okay, fine. We agree health and education benefits society, but I’m still against redistribution from the rich to the poor. On what grounds? Liberty? We’ve established that isn’t a good reason. You have to point to negative empirical consequences. Please share them if you have them.
The empirical data that I’m aware of points in the opposite direction to the libertarian predilection. Redistribution actually has positive consequences. How so?
Liberty is primarily valuable for two important reasons: it lets individuals decide how to maximize their own happiness and it contributes to innovation, which is the prime cause of increased productive capacity and gives us more choice to exercise our decision-making faculty in the long run.
Is liberty the only driver of innovation? Of course not. Another key driver is a greater population capable of generating new ideas and innovations. Freedom to innovate as we like is key, but if only a tiny elite of wealthy have that freedom and are educated and healthy enough to pursue new ideas and innovations, we lose out on the potential of everyone not in the elite group. This is why so much productive capacity is unleashed when women are granted access to the workforce or migrants are allowed freer movement. Their ideas and potential can be actualized.
What is true of liberating women and migrants from oppressive laws is true of liberating the poor from oppressive poverty. If they are so poor that they are unable to attend school, get education, and stay healthy, we leave vast amounts of potential innovation on the table - innovation that would benefit all of society, including the wealthy.
Of course, redistribution can go too far. Just like spending on the police, military, health, and education as discussed above. That’s why empirical research is so useful. However, it does not take much research to firmly grasp that a person like Bill Gates, with a net worth of tens of billions will not have his liberty so drastically inhibited by redistribution that it will outweigh the benefits received by redistributing it to millions of poor. There is very little Bill Gates can’t do with “only” ten million dollars that he can do with 75 billion dollars. The same can’t be said for a person who goes from living on 2 dollars per day to 200 dollars per day. There is much more a person living on 200 dollars per day can do that one living on 2 dollars per day can't.
Well can’t he just give to charity? Of course, in fact, he does. Almost all of it. But that means he is choosing who and how to redistribute the money instead of the government that represents the society that helped and allowed him to generate his wealth. I actually agree with how he is redistributing it and would argue that our government use the money in the same way if they were to tax and redistribute it themselves.
However, he has made his tens of billions because he was born a citizen of the United States and has benefitted from the police, military, health, education and infrastructure he utilized in that country. Why should the people of the United States not have any democratic say in how his money is redistributed? Perhaps they would prefer that his tens of billions go to the poor in the United States or even more specifically to the poor of Washington where he resides?
Liberty is just a tool. It’s not an end. I believe it is our best tool with the most uses and leads to more benefits than any other single value. I am a liberal and believe that siding with liberty as a default is the best choice when we aren’t sure of possible outcomes. However, we often do have evidence and data on what leads to more positive consequences.
In treating liberty as innately good, libertarians are either acting hypocritically in denying that liberty is sometimes rightly inhibited for the greater good or they are genuinely ignorant of the fact that it can and should be inhibited in several circumstances because it’s not always the right tool for the job. Hypocrite or ignorant. Neither are labels I’d wish for myself and I hope libertarians won’t continue to deserver either title either.