Politics

Libertarians and Blame for Misfortune

| by The Volokh Conspiracy

By Ilya Somin

In a post commenting on the controversy generated by our earlier exchange (see here and here), Sandy Levinson writes:

It is obvious that contemporary libertarians are prone to blame individuals for most (even if .... not all) things that befall them; political liberals are far more likely to offer structuralist explanations that have the consequence of exempting individuals from “responsibility” for much of their fate. 

I don’t think this is correct. One of the central tenets of libertarianism is that many bad things that befall individuals are caused by excessive government intervention. I gave several examples of such in my last two posts, and of course libertarian scholars have catalogued many more.

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Once government has caused harm or injustice, it is natural to want government to compensate the victims. However, libertarians are more wary than liberals of large-scale government programs rationalized by the need to compensate for government’s own injustices. Unfortunately, using “government” to compensate the victims almost always actually requires forcing taxpayers to do so. And most of them are also innocent of inflicting the original injustice. Thus, using government to correct its “own” injustices usually involves creating new and sometimes even greater injustices. 

Moreover, a program intended to compensate the victims of a specific government-inflicted injustice often gets “captured” by interest groups and gets diverted away from its original purposes. For example, affirmative action was originally instituted to compensate African-Americans for the horrible government-inflicted injustices of slavery and segregation, a worthy objective that I have great sympathy for. Over time, however, various other groups have become beneficiaries of the system under the “diversity” rationale, often in ways that undercut the original objective. I don’t categorically rule out the option of using government programs to alleviate government-created injustices. But any such efforts must take due account of 1) the harm to innocent taxpayers, and 2) the possible perversion of the resulting program by interest group politics. For these reasons, I prefer compensatory measures that involve a one-time payment that is difficult to divert and does not establish an ongoing bureaucracy or class of interest group beneficiaries. The 1988 bill compensating Japanese-Americans unjustly interned during World War II is a good example (though I think the payments were probably too low).

There is also nothing unlibertarian in recognizing that many people suffer simply as a result of bad luck. A person who can’t get a well-paying job because his IQ is very low for genetic reasons surely can’t be blamed for that. Few libertarians would disagree. But the fact that a misfortune is not the fault of the victim does not necessarily mean that government should intervene to “fix” it. After all, the misfortune also is not the fault of the taxpayers who would be forced to pay for the resulting program. Moreover, giving government broad authority to correct misfortunes caused by bad luck leads to all the standard pathologies of big government that I summarized here.

In sum, the big disagreement between libertarians and liberals is not over whether individuals often suffer misfortunes that aren’t their fault (though there is sometimes a dispute over the degree of individual fault in particular cases). It is rather over the justice, efficacy, and potential negative side-effects of government action.