Thoughts on James Sterba’s “Liberty and Welfare” (Print Version)
by Gennady Stolyarov II*
Le Québécois Libre, May
15, 2012, No 300.

In “Liberty and Welfare” (2007), James P. Sterba of the University of Notre Dame makes an argument that a libertarian society, grounded in the principle of classical enlightened egoism, would be consistent with a government-organized system of welfare, or redistribution of wealth from wealthier to poorer members of the society. There are some areas where I am in agreement with Sterba’s premises, and some areas of difference.

Sterba’s argument, essentially, is that enlightened self-interest renders it legitimate for a person to take the property of another in certain “conflict situations” – cases where doing so would save that person’s life (or not doing so would endanger that person’s life).  I acknowledge that there may be cases where it is legitimate to violate the property right of another in order to save one’s life – but only to the extent actually necessary to save one’s life and only if proper compensation is made afterward. For instance, suppose Person X is ejected from a burning airplane onto the vast estate of Person Y, a wealthy landowner with plenty of fruit orchards. Person Y is an absentee landowner, and is not able to give permission, and it would take Person X several days on foot to leave Person Y’s land. In my view, Person X can legitimately eat some of Person Y’s fruit so as to survive his journey. However, the proper course of action after Person X has returned to his normal life would be for him to contact Person Y and ask whether Person Y desires to be compensated for the fruit that was taken. There is, at that point, a likelihood that Person Y would be generous and overlook the incident, recognizing Person X’s need to survive. But, if this does not happen, Person X could offer Person Y a reasonable payment for the fruit. It is unlikely that Person Y would, for instance, turn down a payment that is several times the fruit’s market value.

As the loss of life is irreversible, while loss of many kinds of property can be undone through adequate compensation, in true emergency situations, it may be justified for someone else’s property to be put to use in truly saving an individual’s life. But this can only be carried out if confined to true emergencies, if done with minimal interference, and if adequate reparations are made afterward.

That being said, what I am referring to are true emergency situations – which are, by definition, acute events that subside after the cause of the emergency has passed. An ongoing situation where one person or a group of people appropriate the belongings of others without the consent of those others is not a justifiable position within a truly free society. Sterba’s paper borders on implying that there exists some group right for “the poor” to expropriate “the rich” without regard for the circumstances of specific individuals having either of these designations or for whether individuals called “the poor” could, in fact, manage to survive without such expropriation. If there is a way not to take another’s property without his consent and to still preserve human life, then that is the course of action that should be pursued.

Ultimately, Sterba’s argument leads to the support of some manner of redistributionist welfare system. Such a system may indeed be justified in an unfree or semi-free society, where artificial political privileges result in a non-meritocratic distribution of wealth – and where, for instance, inefficient and customer-unfriendly firms can achieve market dominance or incompetent individuals can come to control vast resources. The overall level of wealth in such societies is lower compared to a libertarian society, and there may be many “worthy poor” in such societies, who are poor for none of their fault and despite earnest efforts at improving their position. Indeed, the United States at present, with its massive levels of involuntary unemployment resulting from an economic bubble inflated by the Federal Reserve, could be considered to exist in such conditions. Thinkers such as Sheldon Richman have argued that, in such situations, welfare systems can be seen as secondary or “band-aid” interventions to mask or mitigate some of the harmful effects of the primary interventions (e.g., corporate subsidies, barriers to entry into markets, and laws that limit innovation and progress). While the secondary interventions bring their own unintended negative consequences, a national government that only practiced the primary interventions (which benefit and enrich a favored and politically connected elite) would be much worse in its effects. But the only aspects of the secondary interventions that might be justified are those aspects that would undo some of the harms of the primary interventions and more closely approximate a meritocratic, individualistic, market-driven outcome.

I contrast “band-aid” welfare measures in a mixed economy – which could be justified – with redistribution of wealth by a government in an otherwise libertarian society – which would not be justified. Such redistribution of wealth would infringe on the justly earned property of numerous individuals, simply because they belong to some arbitrarily designated category (e.g., “the rich” – as defined by some artificial threshold). In a libertarian society, occasional emergencies might arise whereby one or a few people might legitimately avail themselves of the property of another, but only if they compensate the owner fairly afterward. But, by definition, such emergency treatment cannot apply across the board and as a systematic, ongoing matter. Furthermore, unlike the emergency treatment I described, a welfare system by definition redistributes wealth from some people to others, and does not compensate the people whose wealth has been redistributed. In a fully libertarian society, where all wealth is acquired based on the principles of merit and consent, such redistribution would be unjustified and harmful. It would, further, be unnecessary, as practically all people would be massively more prosperous than the majority of people are in today’s Western societies.

* Gennady Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist and philosophical essayist, and is Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He lives in Carson City, Nevada.