TAMPA, October 26, 2012 – Many people think of libertarianism as a subset of conservatism, but that’s not true. Libertarianism and conservatism are completely separate philosophies with distinct and separate philosophical traditions. The philosophical differences result in very different positions on issues, from domestic to foreign policy. Their differences on the welfare state provide a perfect example.
Most Americans believe that President Obama and the liberals believe in wealth redistribution and that Republicans/conservatives are against it. That just doesn’t line up with the facts.
While Republicans make general statements against the welfare state, they actually support 95% of the actual spending. A key plank of the Romney/Ryan campaign is “preserving and protecting Social Security and Medicare.” That’s more than half of welfare spending alone. They also support government subsidization of housing, agriculture, energy and other “job-creating” programs. They are willing to support corporate welfare if they believe it will be good for the overall economy.
The only criticisms Republicans generally make are for social safety nets like TANF. This illustrates a key difference between conservatives and libertarians on welfare.
Libertarians object to the welfare state on this basis: Any taxes collected from citizens are collected under a threat of violence. You pay or you get kidnapped at best, killed resisting at worst. Therefore, libertarians object to using the taxing power to take money from one person or group and give it to another. When individuals do this, it is called “armed robbery.” For libertarians, it is no different when the government does it. It is the crime itself that libertarians object to.
Conservatives see it differently. They don’t object to the crime itself. Rather, they formulate their positions based upon who will receive the benefits. Redistribution to certain types of people is acceptable, to others it is not. That is why they will excoriate the “welfare queen,” whose impact upon the budget is minimal, while fully supporting Social Security and Medicare, which will eventually bankrupt the entire government.
Conservatives see beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare as people who deserve the benefits of the programs. They have generally held jobs for most of their lives in order to qualify, exhibiting the protestant work ethic. They are more likely to be typical families whose lifestyles do not offend conservative sensibilities. They are more likely to have served in the military. They have worked hard and paid into the programs. They are now entitled to the benefits.
Similarly, conservatives will support corporate welfare if they believe that it will result in job creation or some other economic boon. They will also support bailouts in times of economic crisis to save the wealthy elite, believing that this is what is best for the economy as a whole. Ultimately, their worldview is a collectivist one. If it is good for the empire, the individual’s rights must be sacrificed.
Libertarians approach the issue differently. They object to any redistribution at all, but that doesn’t mean they don’t prioritize. Libertarians start with corporate welfare as the easiest to eliminate. They do not believe that stealing can ever be good for the economy as a whole or create real jobs. Billionaires can get by most easily without subsidies, so that’s an easy win.
Next on the priority list are Social Security and Medicare. These programs redistribute over $1.5 trillion per year, or 167 times more than subsidies for the “welfare queen.” Libertarians don’t believe the beneficiaries are entitled to the programs because they worked hard. Working hard is admirable, but it doesn’t entitle you to other people’s money. Other people have to agree to give you their money for your work for you to be entitled to it. That’s why I can’t force people to buy my book just because I worked hard on it.
Libertarians also disagree that beneficiaries are entitled because they paid into the programs. The fact that Generation A stole from Generation B does not give Generation B a right to steal from Generation C.
These programs are another easy win for libertarians. Contrary to the hysterical rhetoric that accompanies any discussion of even cutting them, eliminating them entirely will not result in elderly people living in cardboard boxes. Will it be inconvenient for those who haven’t saved enough for retirement? Will some children have to help out their parents? Certainly, but inconvenience trumps institutionalized armed theft.
Most importantly, libertarians face reality. These programs are going away anyway. They have tens of trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities. Like all forms of socialism, they are unsustainable. Libertarians suggest phasing out of them gracefully, rather than waiting for the inevitable crisis. We all know how the government handles crises.
For libertarians, programs for the poor are the very last programs to go, for two reasons. First, they have the least financial impact. You stop trillions from being stolen before you stop billions from being stolen. Many of these programs aren’t even a billion aggregately.
Secondly, some of the beneficiaries really do need these programs under present circumstances. Libertarians don’t believe that their need justifies committing a crime against someone else. However, they do recognize that other government plunder and intervention helps create the conditions whereby these people cannot support themselves or be aided by voluntary charity. Only when the government stops plundering trillions for billionaires and average Americans is it appropriate to look at the much smaller amount expropriated for the poor.
If you’re a conservative who is frustrated that Republicans never cut the welfare state, then perhaps you’re not a conservative at all. Perhaps you’re a libertarian. Either way, you’ll have to do something different this election if you want a different result. The libertarians have a presidential candidate named Gary Johnson. Considering the Republican Party’s record, what do you have to lose?
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.