It is a bit misleading to describe this post as “The Libertarian Criticism of Social Justice,” as the libertarian argument itself actually makes no case for or against social justice per se, only the use of governmental power to promote social justice. The libertarian criticism posits that individual freedom is the highest priority in this as well as all other social issues, and that government activity in social justice amounts to coercion regarding the individual’s private property. As a matter of public ideology, it ignores virtually all other moral concerns.
Frankly, the argument is compelling. Much of the animus behind the Revolutionary War was the desire among the revolutionaries for the freedom to make economic and moral decisions. That urge for freedom has remained a huge part of the national character. Moreover, the most fundamental principle of the Gospel is similarly that of free will (2 Nephi 2:27). It is that free will (or “free agency” in the parlance of Mormon culture) for which we battled in Heaven, according to LDS theology, and which we expect from our governments (D&C 134:1-5).
But the libertarian argument is not the sole word on governance. There are other concerns to balance. While we respect the freedom of individuals regarding their private property, we also recognize that we have entered into a social contract in choosing to unite as a nation, a compact in which we have surrendered some of that freedom for the greater good. We all provide from our private property for the defense of the entire nation, whether or not our individual communities or homes may or may not threatened. We provide for public infrastructure at all levels of government, regardless of whether we ourselves will personally be accessing those particular roads, rails, public transit, water systems, trash collection, etc, because it benefits the community and nation as a whole. We provide for emergency services whether or not we ourselves expect to need them. Again and again, we seem to have found it acceptable to surrender a portion of our private property for, as referred to in the Preamble and Section 8 of Article 1 of the Constitution, the “general welfare.”
Does social justice promote the general welfare? History shows that disease ferments within the homeless and impoverished community, eventually breaking out to ravage the mainstream society. The greater the disparity of wealth within a society, the more likely crime and civil unrest will rise. The general welfare is threatened when large segments of the population are underserved. Not only do we have a moral imperative to promote social compassion, but it is just as much a part of the public interest and within the scope of government, at whatever level, to promote social justice as it is to promote the defense or functional infrastructure.
The libertarian perspective insists that private efforts are inherently more efficient and effective than government efforts in virtually all areas. For them, social justice is no exception—indeed, for them it may be the most brazen example of this maxim. One acquaintance of mine once suggested, in denouncing the principle of government social spending, that the people instead needed to again stretch their charity muscles if they want to help the poor, because government shouldn’t be involved and couldn’t perform as well as we as private citizens could, were we to again take up the cause.
Theoretically, it may be so. But I prefer to look at practical reality than the theory. And in reality, there is no evidence that “the people” the U.S. have never advanced social justice as well as the government welfare system which had its birth in the New Deal and was further developed during the liberal programs in following decades. I do not suggest that there was no charitable work prior to the liberal welfare programs of the prior century. At the turn of the last century and in the years leading up to and opening the Great Depression, there were various religious charities, mutual aid societies, and individuals attempting to alleviate the problems of rampant poverty. Those efforts were valiant and noble. But for every person they fed, many hundreds went hungry. For every one educated or housed, scores were left illiterate and homeless. People by the thousands died of disease brought on by their living conditions in the slums, even disease treatable by the medicinal practices of the day, despite the best efforts of conscientious doctors and organizations striving to provide care for those who could not pay.
Government welfare programs have hardly been perfect either. There are far too many who slip through the cracks. But government welfare has provided for the basic necessities to a far greater proportion of the population than the combined efforts, however heroic, of the various private entities ever did. Even the LDS church welfare program, as vast and impressive as it is, could not step into the breach were government social programs to be eradicated.
Opponents of social programs, including several people commenting on this blog, have accused liberals of shifting their responsibility for personal action in social justice causes onto government essentially shirking their obligations. Of course, they have no evidence for this specious charge. Liberals across the country are contributing time and money to help solve the social ills that plague our nation. We believe strongly in grassroots mobilization and personal participation. To claim that liberals do not engage in charitable activities is as ignorant and disingenuous as for us to claim that conservatives do not participate in charitable work. We simply recognize that government action is also valid and apparently crucial (judging from historical observation) to maintaining a minimum standard of social justice when government works alongside private social efforts.
Though their argument itself has merit, I am troubled by the fact that the public ideology of those who uphold the libertarian position is so limited in scope. ideology is more than just politics; it is how a person views life. While their stand on government social justice actions is ethical, their public ideology ignores the needs of social justice. For example, I respect many of the positions of libertarian Ron Paul, and while I certainly do not agree with all of them, I do believe he is a highly principled man and politician—something of which neither major party has enough. I greatly admire that in his private profession, he has been willing to make a number of sacrifices to help serve the less fortunate. But his private deeds are not enough; the advocacy of public figures among the libertarian cause is necessary for their public ideology to be complete. Those who object to government solutions must then advocate private actions, or their ideology is hollow. To my knowledge, neither he nor other libertarian enthusiasts like the late Harry Browne, nor the Cato institute, nor the Libertarian party, nor the Republican “small government” pretender, nor any other prominent libertarian voice makes private mobilization against social ills a primary part of their ideological agenda. I do not see them imploring their listeners to make social compassion and charity a high priority in life. I hear none among those who use the libertarian criticism of (government) social justice saying “Government is not the best solution for lifting up the downtrodden. How sad that we failed to address those concerns through private action, so that those concerned about the poor felt they had no recourse but to seek government action to solve the problem! We can do better. Here is a plan by which we can through private means better provide adequate health-care / housing / education / nutrition /etc. If we all work together, if everyone sacrifices and makes this a priority, we will be able to see the blight of poverty reduced further than ever before, and no longer need those government efforts! ”
No, at best I hear those bearing the libertarian criticism mention as a footnote to their denunciations of government that we should be charitable as individuals (important but insufficient); and at worst, they display an idolatry of the market, promoting the free-market fundamentalist falsehood that an unhindered market will somehow magically eradicate poverty.
Because I recognize the inherent logic and virtue of the libertarian criticism, I agree with the need to try minimize the involvement of government as much as possible while ensuring social justice is sufficiently addressed. And, as I have said before, I acknowledge the need to minimize the abuse of the programs—while insisting that if we should err, we must err on the side of mercy. I will avidly lend my personal effort to helping the poor and promote private efforts to attack the causes and results of poverty. I don’t believe many liberals would disagree with those propositions. But until the naysayers provide practical solutions by which the private sector can better tend to any given social justice issue than the government, I will stridently defend government redress of social justice.