Randy and Libby Discuss Libertarianism

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revised date: March 5, 2007

Further Reading on Libertarianism

Common Misunderstandings Concerning Libertarianism (basic)
Libertarian Ethics (basic)

Dramatis Personae

Randy, the libertarian:
The basic standard of what is permissible and impermissible is non-interference rights (to life, liberty, and property). Randy is named after the philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand.

Libby, the egalitarian liberal:
Everybody has basic human rights, including a mix of non-interference rights, political participation rights, and some social and economic rights to assistance from society. Libby has been influenced by writings of the political philosopher John Rawls.

Dialogue on Libertarianism

L. Let me get this straight, you believe in individual rights but not the right to have food to eat, to have a roof over one's head, etc.

R. Rights as I understand them are a person's rights to be free from the interference of other persons and the government, as long as she does not interfere with their rights.

L. Then, for you, an individual's rights are part of a package, in which she has a right if and only if she respects similar rights of others.

R. You could put it that way.

L. But nobody has a right to eat.

R. You have a right to eat food that belongs to you, or food that somebody else who fully owns the food freely gives to you. You have a right to food that you grow, in your own garden, from seeds you harvested from your own previous crops or from seeds you bought from persons who freely sold them to you.

L. Let me see. I have a right to whatever I have received from somebody else by voluntary transfer from that other person.

R. Yes, provided that person already had a right to it and did not steal it or otherwise get it by force.

L. You can inherit things from your parents or friends.

R. Others can give you things, providing both the giving and the receiving is voluntary. Then you have a right to it.

L. But suppose nobody will give me anything. Must I starve?

R. You can get a job, for Pete's sake, and earn money to buy what you need.

L. Provided somebody else who has money to pay my wages wants to hire me, right?

R. Right.

L. And he's not likely to hire me unless he gets something out of it, say, wants to use my skills and trusts my reliability as a worker.

R. True. He's not morally required to sacrifice himself for you. And in a libertarian society, he would not be legally required to sacrifice himself for you.

L. Then if I don't have the skills that are in demand, I may not get hired.

R. Yes.

L. And I am back starving.

R. There's always charity.

L. But doesn't charity, on your scheme, require willingness on people's part to give up part of what they take to be their possessions?

R. Right, charity cannot be compelled.

L. Do you mean it should not be compelled by the government?

R. Yes.

L. Do you also mean there is no moral duty to give charity, and that anybody who gives charity is going beyond the call of duty?

R. Yes, there is no moral duty to give charity. That's the libertarian position.

L. Let me see if I understand. You think there is a right to life, but not a right to receive anything that might support your life if you do not start out with it.

There is a right to liberty, but not a right to move through a space that is privately owned by somebody else (unless you have received his permission to be there).

There is a right to property but only a right to possessions given to you by others, either through gift or inheritance, or as payment of some kind.

R. Yes.

L. So all your rights are negative rights, or non-interference rights, they are not rights positively to anything.

R. They are not positive rights. They are not welfare rights.

L. They are also not rights to the means to increase one's own capabilities, like a right to education that might make it possible for one to earn a living practicing a profession one wasn't born knowing.

R. They are not rights to means to increase your capabilities. If you want education, you can pay for it.

L. You don't endorse public support for education, do you?

R. No, it always involves people who don't pay taxes, or don't pay very high taxes, benefiting from the contributions of those who do.

L. Tell me, Randy, what about kids? Don't we have an obligation to make sure that kids don't starve? After all, it's not their fault that they do not yet have the skills to make it in a complex economy.

R. Libertarianism is a political philosophy primarily aimed at adults.

L. Surely you must have given thought to the effects it would have on kids.

R. Our main concern has been to stop you liberals from taxing the hard-earned wealth of creative people, of entrepreneurs.

L. You mean their hard-earned or not-so-hard-earned inherited wealth.

R. Well, somebody worked hard to earn it.

L. Sometimes people just get lucky and have a skill and something else to sell that fetches big bucks at the time.

R. Sometimes, but at least if they have held onto for a while they have shown they're not spendthrifts or wastrels.

L. Back to kids. Haven't you got anything to say about our responsibility for kids?

R. People who have kids ought to make sure they get enough to eat and health care and education. If they don't, then, well, tough luck for the kids.

L. You think it's not somebody else's problem if a kid's parents get killed or injured and cannot work.

R. There's always charity.

L. But on your view it's triply voluntary, no laws requiring taxation to benefit the needy and no laws requiring that you give to charity and not even a moral duty to give to charity.

R. Hey, we don't promise that nobody will ever fall through the cracks. And there's a reason for that. Any system that gets set up to ensure that nobody falls through the cracks is likely to create a state that's too powerful. It will end up oppressing everybody, except the people in charge.

L. I've noticed that libertarians rarely talk about corporations. Corporations are private entities that are often as powerful as all but the most powerful governments. Corporations operate for the most part under the radar of libertarian critique. By operating in the private economy, they seem to follow the libertarian rules. But in fact they dominate the social landscape and exercise far more power than most individuals.

R. Our focus is on individuals and government. Corporations are merely legal instruments that individuals use to pursue their private ends.

L. We could dispute that some other time.