Why Libertarians Should Be Welfare Liberals

I came across a nice paper by John Simmons a while back on why libertarians should be actual consent theorists and decided that I could combine his argument with something derived from an argument I’ve got coming out in the American Philosophical Quarterly to show that libertarians (who accept the following assumptions) should be welfare liberals. I’ve got the link to a draft of the paper on my website (http://www.hss.cmu.edu/philosophy/hassoun/papers.php) but thought I’d post the argument here, just to see if any one has any thoughts on it. The assumptions that follow block some obvious objections.

1. Assumption: Libertarians agree that any existing states must be legitimate and some states should exist.
2. Assumption: Libertarians hold that for any existing states to be legitimate they must only exercise coercive force over (rights respecting) individuals to protect these individuals’ liberty.
3. From Simmons’ argument in “Consent theory for libertarians”: Libertarians should agree that for state to be legitimate, they must secure their subjects’ autonomous consent.
4. For states to secure their subjects autonomous consent, they must do what they can to enable their subjects to secure sufficient autonomy to autonomously consent to its rules.
5. To secure this autonomy most people (in all states) must be able to secure some minimal amount of healthcare, food, water, and shelter.
6. So, states must do what they can to enable most of their subjects to secure some minimal amount of healthcare, food, water, and shelter.
7. Implicit premise: If libertarians must agree that states must do what they can to enable most of their subjects to secure some minimal amount of healthcare, food, water, and shelter, they must be (some kind of) welfare liberals.
8. So libertarians should be (some kind of) welfare liberals.


Thanks, -Nicole

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12 Responses to Why Libertarians Should Be Welfare Liberals

  1. I’d like to reiterate that all comments on this blog must appear under the user’s full name. If I see a comment that does not appear under the user’s full name, I will edit it accordingly. Last night a comment appeared in this post, but since the user did not wish to have it posted under their full name, it was deleted. The purpose of this stipulation is to approximate discussion in normal academic forums as closely as possible, so all users must wear their “name tags” when they comment.

  2. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Just a quick note: If anyone did read the comment and would like to see my reply I would be happy to send it to them. Thanks, -Nicole

  3. Andrew Jason Cohen says:

    Reading just the post and not the whole article, I don’t see how the conclusion follows. Say I accept 6. What if it turns out that the best way for states to enable most of their subjects to secure some minimal amount of healthcare, food, water, and shelter is to allow a (largely) free market? In that case, the libertarian should be….well…. a libertarian (where in the latter case, I mean something like an advocate of a laissez faire economic system). I take it this is now a reasonably common libertarian view.

  4. Glenn Peoples says:

    I think the area this argument may start to get into trouble is here:

    “4) For states to secure their subjects autonomous consent, they must do what they can to enable their subjects to secure sufficient autonomy to autonomously consent to its rules.”

    The objection that may arise here is that this premise potentially equivocations between two notions of autonomy. When a libertarian says that a State must acquire the “autonomous” consent of subjects, they mean something like uncoerced or intellectually independent.

    But when premise four talks about enabling citizens to secure “autonomy,” it then becomes clear (reading the later premises) that this is not the same type of autonomy noted above, and this new use of the word “autonomy” refers to being suitably resourced with finances and basic goods. Since this is not what the libertarian means by “autonomy” in premise 3, the libertarian will accuse premise 4 of equivocation, and will maintain that the rest of the argument is therefore moot.

  5. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Here are a few thoughts on Andrew’s comment (which I address at more length in the paper):

    I think the crucial thing I say in the paper is that enabling is like being a lender of last resort. If no other entity enables those who can’t secure autonomy on their own to secure autonomy the state must fill the breech. Otherwise, the state is illegitimate. I think libertarians should agree that there are many people who lack autonomy and whom no one is helping or will help immediately. So, it follows from the argument that these peoples’ states are illegitimate and the only way that their states can be legitimate is if they enable these people to secure autonomy. So, the fourth premise should follow.

    If you do take a look at the relevant part of the paper on this, please do let me know if this doesn’t come out clearly. Thanks! -Nicole

    Regarding Glenn’s comment:

    I think I actually use a very minimal conception of autonomy consistently throughout the paper. People must just have the basic reasoning and planning abilities they need to freely consent to a state. As long as libertarians think people must be able to reason for contracts with them to be valid, I think the argument will fly. Of course, if this is the only kind of autonomy libertarians think is necessary for free consent, the welfare state that comes out of this argument is troublesomely minimal. If some libertarians believe a more robust kind of autonomy is necessary for free consent then they will be committed to a more robust welfare state. But I’m just trying to show that libertarians are committed to *some* kind of welfare state here.

    Thanks again! -Nicole

  6. Andrew Jason Cohen says:

    Nicole-I’ll try to take a look at the paper, but it may take a while.
    For now, I’ll say I’m unconvinced. I think I accept premise 4. And that there are “many people who lack autonomy and whom no one is helping or will help immediately” so that “these peoples’ states are illegitimate.” Indeed, I’d probably even accept that “the only way that their states can be legitimate is if they enable these people to secure autonomy.” A key question for me is “how does a state enable its people to secure autonomy?” This is really addressed in your Implicit Premise #7, but you there only say “some kind of” welfare liberalism follows. If this includes a libertarianism with a concern that markets exist in a way that people in the state are encouraged to have autonomy (perhaps because they have to decide what sorts of health care, education, etc, to buy), then I could agree. Put more clearly: as a libertarian I am genuinely concerned with the welfare of all individuals and believe autonomous persons live better lives then non-autonomous persons–and if that makes me “some kind” of welfare liberal, I am OK with that–but I believe that the best way to enable people to lead good and autonomous lives is to limit (all) accumulations of power and so think of myself as a libertarian (though possibly of a non-standard sort).

  7. Glenn Peoples says:

    Hi again Nicole.

    You’re right – the conception of autonomy that the libertarian believes that the state will seek to provide will depend on the level and type of autonomy that s/he believes is required for legitimate consent. From what I can tell (especially given the renunciation of state welfare that libertarians express), that conception is very minimal, so the label “Welfare Liberal” is probably not the right one to describe the way a libertarian would finish the argument. A “Welfare Liberal,” most readers would initially suppose, is one who endorses a level of state welfare that is considerably beyond “minimal.”

    In other words, if we self-consciously read the argument (and the word “autonomy in particular) in a non-equivocating way, there’s no reason to assume that a government’s securing autonomy for citizens has anything to do with providing welfare (in the sense of that word suggested by “Welfare Liberal”).

  8. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Hi Andrew,

    It would lovely if you can look at the paper, thanks!

    I guess for now all I can think to say is that I’d probably be happy if it all comes down to the empirical matter of whether a completely free market is really, literally the best/quickest way to enable everyone to secure sufficient autonomy. I guess it seems like that there will be *something* else that states can do to help people secure this autonomy (e.g. public hospitals etc.) which they’d then be obligated to do. Markets are usually toted for their efficiency, but efficiency is notoriously blind to distributive concerns. I’ve actually taken a hard look at some of the evidence about free trade and poverty and don’t think the case for completely unrestricted free trade even *reducing* poverty is strong. That paper “Free Trade, Poverty, and Inequality” is on my web site too if you’d like to take a look. (You may also be interested in my response to Glenn below).

    Hi Glenn,

    The point you make is fair enough. But, I think it would be pretty cool even if my argument can just convince libertarians that states have obligations to do some things besides provide security to their members. If libertarians only have to agree (modulo minimal empirical assumptions) that there should be public hospitals then I’ll be happy. I’ll have to try to make this clearer in the paper!

    Thanks! -Nicole

  9. Mark LeBar says:

    Nicole, I remain unconvinced as well, partly because I reject Simmon’s actual autonomous consent condition (if I understand it). But that’s his premise, and leaving that aside, I have some of the same concerns Andrew and Glenn do. One that specifically arises with your happiness about “going empirical” is that, once you start looking at the ways actual institutions operate, the incentives actually operating in them and on them are going to undermine, I believe, the natural appeal of legal institutions to plug gaps as “lenders of last resort.”

    The operation of those institutions will amount to a sort of public subsidization of the needs they meet, and what we know is that, when you subsidize something, you get more of it. That means that way of meeting needs will ensure that there are more people needing such institutions. That’s a powerful empirical concern that the requirements for “autonomy” are going to expand to cover the provision of ever-enlarging institutional ambitions. (How many self-effacing public welfare institutions can you think of? How many can you think of that expand radically beyond their initial charter?)

    I suppose my point is that the empirical move is certainly going to make things complex, and perhaps swamp the philosophical force of the argument.

  10. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your reply (and sorry for the delay – I’ve been traveling)! I guess I actually find the debate about the theoretical consistency of the libertarian position to be pretty interesting on its own even if for empirical reasons a minimal state turns out to be the best we can do. I don’t, however, believe that it is. I think the claim that “when you subsidize something, you get more of it” is probably too strong to be true. Maybe that is generally true, but I guess it isn’t even clear to me how a state would be subsidizing poverty by (e.g.) having public hospitals. Maybe you are subsidizing hospitals and so would have more of those, which although perhaps inefficient (?) at some point wouldn’t clearly lead to move poverty. Perhaps the rich would just be less well off.

    Finally, I should just re-emphasize the minimality of the necessary empirical assumption. For my argument to go through, it just needs to be the case that there is *something* a state can do to help people secure autonomy beyond providing police and military forces. So, I guess that to escape the argument, what the libertarian would need to show is that there is literally
    nothing that a state can do to help people secure autonomy besides providing security.

  11. Mark LeBar says:

    What you get by providing public hospitals is a greater consumption of medical services, supplies, etc. You might think that is a good thing if you think the level of such consumption without subsidy is loweer than in some sense it ought to be (e.g. requirements of justice in the meeting of needs). The present point is not that more consumption is always or necessarily bad; it’s the empirical point (which so far as I can see is about as robust as any social-scientific generalization can be) that subsiding something generates more of it. It is a lowering of costs, and, in general, that means more will be consumed.

    I was actually thinking of a stronger, (mostly) non-empirical objection to the argument, however. I take the Simmons premise to be that actual consent is necessary for legitimacy. This condition is really strong; probably strong enough to ensure that there is never any legitimate government, since people can dissent for any of a variety of reasons or caprices. So it probably ensures that no arrangement is sufficient to generate the necessary consent.

    In this particular case the fact that some prescribed level of welfare provision will be mandated will always prompt dissent. Whatever that level is (call it L), some will feel it is to low, others too high.

    Nor does it help to conceive of the argument as for a necessary condition either. What the Simmons claims establishes as the normative benchmark is actual empirical consent, and I don’t know of any reason to think that the requisite welfare provisions would have any such potency.

    Of course, we could amend Simmons’ principle to reflect only consent or disseent on rational grounds, or the like, but then we’ve given up on the very consent condition that is supposed to be doing the work in favor of some normative standard which legitimates consent, which is a very different kind of argument. We’d be back to considering the rationality or rightness or suchlike of the requirement on welfare goods, rather than people’s consent to such requirements. It seems to me you are trying to clear a normative hurdle by appeal to psychological grounds, and that’s not a trick that’s likely to work.

  12. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Hi Marc,

    Sorry for the delay and thanks for your comments. I think I understand what you are after but it would be great if you could explain what you mean by: “What the Simmons claims establishes as the normative benchmark is actual empirical consent, and I don’t know of any reason to think that the requisite welfare provisions would have any such potency.” Is it just that having a welfare state wouldn’t suffice to secure everyone’s consent? If so, I completely agree. I talk a lot at the end of the paper about the actual consent theory Simmons argues libertarians must accept and suggest that it is much more plausible than one might initially think (even though some will not consent to any state). This is important because if Simmons is right and actual consent theory is implausible, one could take this as a reason to reject libertarianism straightaway (without even considering my argument). I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do but if you do happen to take a look at that part of the paper and have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

    Thanks again! -Nicole

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