Libertarianism’s Amorality

by Mark Wilson

Libertarianism, says Jeffrey Sachs, is beguiling in its amorality:

By taking an extreme view — that liberty alone is to be defended among all of society’s values — libertarians reach extreme conclusions. Suppose a rich man has a surfeit of food and a poor man living next door is starving to death. The libertarian says that the government has no moral right or political claim to tax the rich person in order to save the poor person. Perhaps the rich person should be generous and give charity to the neighbor, the libertarian might say (or might not), but there is nothing that the government should do. The moral value of saving the poor person’s life simply does not register when compared with the liberty of the rich person.

The Libertarian point of view reduces all people to numbers, and civilization to a spreadsheet. The correct outcome — indeed, the morally correct outcome — is no more than the solution to an equation. The only time people are humanized is when they can be used as caricatures. Take the Libertarian holy-books, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. In the latter, Elsworth Toohey is a comic villain a la James Bond who explicates his plans for reducing the world to a shambling mess of mediocrity. Mwahahaha! Taxes and regulations are put in place not to support those who do not prosper, or to ensure fair dealing, but out of explicit jealousy toward innovators and entrepreneurs. The rest of us are so upset that we can’t come up with good ideas that we use government to ensure that entrepreneurs can’t flaunt their abilities in our faces. (Then again, I wonder to what degree Libertarians actually believe this. Hopefully not many.)

Back in reality, rules are to be enforced even when the outcome of that enforcement defeats the purpose of having those rules in the first place. Libertarianism also ignores behind-the-scenes forces that generate inequality. It’s easy to argue that the disadvantaged should not be afforded help when you are unaware of all the advantages you were afforded. “Work and ye shall prosper” is a great mantra, provided you’re prosperous already or the beneficiary of policies that ensure your prosperity. This is not to suggest that people shouldn’t work in order to prosper. It is, however, to suggest that work is not the only factor that attends prosperity.