Saturday, September 03, 2005

My Libertarian Response to a Natural Disaster

As an avowed Libertarian, people often ask me the "tough" questions, such as "would I give a starving child a muffin if it would save his/her life and wouldn't cost me anything?" These type of questions are meant to show me that my beliefs in personal responsibility and anti-altruism are so ridiculous and morally reprehensible that I should renounce my entire belief structure in favor of a more "compassionate" or "progressive" philosophy. Because I know that arguing with people who pose such questions to me is essentially useless (they aren't going to convince me of my error any more than I am going to convince them of my sincerity), I just nod and walk away. The real answer (at least for me) is that being a libertarian is not a day-to-day philosophy of life. Just as most Marxists would happily win the lottery and buy a new Rolls-Royce, I can, without any internal philosophical turmoil, donate blood or buy a cup of coffee for the neighborhood panhandler on a cold, winter night. Howard Roark might be an idealized model, but he is also an impossibility in the contemporary world of compromise and coexistence.
Why does this matter at all when faced with the horrendous realities of a natural disaster? It matters because I, as a semi-affluent student, feel some small measure of "guilt" (call it a Nietzschean conscience, or a Judeo-Christian inspired moral responsibility) if I do not donate some of my time and money to the relief effort. This guilt is at constant loggerheads with my philosophical stance of libertarianism. I imagine that many other libertarians feel the same conflict and, although I can speak for no one other than myself, I thought I might offer the solution which has provided me a measure of personal satisfaction.
While I do not normally believe in "charity" in the sense of tithing or giving monies to random groups with political agendas or moral missions, this is because many of those groups seek to assist individuals who have, in some way, brought themselves into a difficult situation or are merely seeking a way out of adversity without trying to work for their way out. I believe in neither a "hand out" or a "hand up."
Natural disasters, on the other hand, provide an entirely different set of circumstances. The individuals affected by the tragedy did nothing to bring their family to dire straits, and the doctrines of Social Darwinism should not apply. Certainly, the argument can be made that they knew that they were living in an area that would potentially be flooded, or that they did not heed the warnings of the weather service, or that they did not take adequate safety precautions to protect against the possibility of such a tragedy. However, these arguments fail when applied to the greater category of natural disasters. There is a reason insurance companies characterize certain things as "acts of god" - there is no way to protect against such circumstances. A tidal wave could destroy Los Angeles or New York as surely as it did Thailand and Bangladesh, and an earthquake could destroy Atlanta or Minneapolis as surely as it did Iran or San Fransisco. Tornadoes, lightning storms or hurricanes are unpredictable and tragic - we should never blame the victims for their "unpreparedness."
I will donate money to the Red Cross, or some other humanitarian organization. I will do this not out of any "duty" to help my fellow man, or any responsibility I might have (as I do not recognize any such duty, nor would I condemn anyone who decided against giving money or aid in this, or any similar, situation). I am doing this because I believe that when people are stricken by forces outside of their control and beyond their ability to prevent, it is no vice to attempt to help them. It may not be a virtue, either, but each person should make their own decision. For me, in this moment, I will give, and I will be happy to do so.

5 comments:

Casey said...

I don't think your stance on the natural disaster and giving to charity is at all in conflict with libertarian beliefs.

You say at the end of your post: "I am doing this because I believe that when people are stricken by forces outside of their control and beyond their ability to prevent, it is no vice to attempt to help them. It may not be a virtue, either, but each person should make their own decision. For me, in this moment, I will give, and I will be happy to do so."

The libertarian belief is that you are free to do WHATEVER YOU WANT with your money and time. If that means giving to charities such as the Red Cross, you have not contradicted yourself at all by being a charity-giving libertarian. So say that to the next person who asks you about whether or not you would help out a starving child. It's all about choice. Plus, living by a set of morals and imposing those morals on others are two TOTALLY different things.

Adam Scavone said...

This is where it's necessary to differentiate libertarianism from objectivism.

From the libertarian side, you and Casey summed it up.

From the objectivist side ("What would Ayn Rand say?!"), your "guilt" might be characterized as a subscription to the widely and deeply held superstitious belief that giving while demanding nothing back is a superior form of improving situations than trading value for value.

That's a tough argument to make at a time like this, and not exactly empirically verified or verifiable.

Trust your instincts.

MottyJr said...

To tag along to casey's point. I think that the key thing to keep in mind is the aversion to coercion. I for one believe that the development of non-coercive structures for charity is quite virtuous and has the added advantage of softening the demands for coercive means (read taxation). I also believe that charity and association strengthen the social bonds critical to the ordered functioning of a free society. I might believethat without such bonds, without such associations, without a due regard for ones fellow man the tendency to disorder might be too great. I also believe that freedom flourishes best in an ordered society even if the state is not essential to this ordering. I suspect that I'm not the only libertarian who holds these views. So do not feel guilty, in fact be proud.

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helot said...

I think it's lame that you think society should only provide aid to those out of guilt. You enjoy your freedoms because of another persons sacrifice, but you are unwilling to sacrifice of yourself unless there is some other selfish agenda attached. Liberatarianism is convenient until it becomes inconvenient. When you actually have to face the tough questions and can't so you walk away. There are dozens of questions, real questions I could pose to you which would make you have to think about your political stance, but if you are not willing to be challenged or even challenge yourself to be open minded, then you are the one who has an argument that is "essentially useless".