Just like liberals, conservatives, progressives, populists, and constitutionalists — but certainly not as bad — libertarians are not always consistent when it comes to libertarianism. In fact, what some libertarians propose is unlibertarian libertarianism.
Libertarianism is the philosophy that says that people should be free from individual, societal, or government interference to live their lives any way they desire, pursue their own happiness, accumulate wealth, assess their own risks, make their own choices, participate in any economic activity for their profit, engage in commerce with anyone who is willing to reciprocate, and spend the fruits of their labor as they see fit. As long as people don’t violate the personal or property rights of others, and as long as their actions are peaceful, their associations are voluntary, and their interactions are consensual, they should be free to live their lives without license, regulation, interference, or molestation by the government.
The creed of libertarianism is nonaggression: freedom from aggression and violence against person and property as long as one respects the person and property of others. The non-consensual initiation of aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong, even when done by government. The actions of government should be strictly limited to the protection of life, liberty, and property. The government should not transfer our wealth, tax us, force us to be charitable, or punish us for doing things that are not aggression, force, coercion, threat, or violence. Unfortunately, some libertarians maintain that there are cases where the government should do those things. They inconsistently espouse what can only be termed unlibertarian libertarianism.
The Section 8 housing-choice voucher program is the federal government’s program for assisting low-income families and the disabled to find and rent safe and affordable homes or apartments. Participants are free to choose the housing of their choice that meets the requirements of the program. Vouchers are issued by local public housing agencies (PHAs), which receive funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to administer the program. A housing subsidy is then paid directly to the landlord by the PHA in behalf of the participating individual or family. The participant pays the difference between the actual rent and the amount of the voucher.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, gives recipients of SNAP benefits a deposit on an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card each month that can be used for prepackaged food items of the recipients’ choice. It is basically a voucher for food. SNAP is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but is operated by the 50 states. Benefits differ by state. There is no limit to how long one can receive benefits as long as there are children in the household.
I don’t know of any libertarians who defend federal housing vouchers and food stamps in the name of housing choice and food choice. Yet, some libertarians inconsistently support educational vouchers in the name of “school choice” — which is code for government vouchers that allow parents to send their children to private schools of their choice, but at public expense.
Vouchers are a form of welfare, just like housing vouchers and food stamps, but also just like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and refundable tax credits. Vouchers are subsidies to private businesses. If vouchers were used for anything but education, they would be denounced as such. There is nothing special about the business of education that necessitates that the government be involved in it. Once government vouchers for education are deemed to be acceptable, no reasonable or logical argument can be made against the government’s providing vouchers for other services. Vouchers are not needed to give parents school choice. Parents in every school district in the United States have a variety of choices right now when it comes to their children’s education: parochial schools, Montessori schools, independent private schools, Jewish schools, Christian schools, Muslim schools, private tutors, home-schooling, on-line schooling. The fact that some parents don’t have the money to pay for their education choice doesn’t justify government education vouchers any more than their not having enough money to pay for their vacation choice justifies government travel vouchers.
Giving one group of Americans the choice of where to spend other Americans’ money to educate their children is immoral and unjust. There is nothing libertarian about government educational vouchers.
It is a maxim of libertarianism that taxation is theft. The libertarian view of taxes is not that taxes should be constitutional, fair, uniform, flat, apportioned equally, or even low. The libertarian view of the tax code is not that it should be short, simple, or efficient; or that it should help the poor, benefit the middle class, and be business-friendly while making the rich pay some arbitrary “fair share.” The libertarian view of taxes and the tax code is simply that they should not exist.
As explained by the Austrian economist Murray Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty (1982),
All other persons and groups in society (except for acknowledged and sporadic criminals such as thieves and bank robbers) obtain their income voluntarily: either by selling goods and services to the consuming public, or by voluntary gift (e.g., membership in a club or association, bequest, or inheritance). Only the State obtains its revenue by coercion, by threatening dire penalties should the income not be forthcoming….
It would be an instructive exercise for the skeptical reader to try to frame a definition of taxation which does not also include theft. Like the robber, the State demands money at the equivalent of gunpoint; if the taxpayer refuses to pay, his assets are seized by force, and if he should resist such depredation, he will be arrested or shot if he should continue to resist….
Rothbard concludes that “there can be no such thing as “fairness in taxation,” since “the concept of a ‘fair tax’ is therefore every bit as absurd as that of ‘fair theft.’” And as Old Rightist Frank Chodorov wrote in The Income Tax: Root of All Evil (1954), “There cannot be a good tax nor a just one; every tax rests its case on compulsion.”
Unfortunately, some libertarians are inconsistently focused on a specific tax plan instead of taxation itself. They feel that there can be a good tax and that there should be a fair tax. There are a number of tax-reform plans that such libertarians might support.
Some libertarians favor the FairTax. This is a consumption tax that would completely replace not only the current income-tax system, but payroll taxes as well. The FairTax is a national retail sales tax on the final sale of all new goods and services — from cars, houses, prescription drugs, and food to heart surgery, funerals, rent, and haircuts. Other libertarians prefer some form of a flat tax. These are all just modified versions of the current income-tax system. Under a flat tax, everyone’s income is taxed at the same rate. Most flat-tax plans also eliminate many tax deductions and credits. Neither tax plan is true to its name, and neither one is an incremental step toward lower overall taxes. Both are fraught with problems and contradictions, and both are revenue-neutral plans that would fund the federal government at the same obscene level that it is now.
Some libertarians are singularly focused on making the tax code simpler, shorter, and fairer by eliminating loopholes, deductions, and credits. They have the strange idea that letting Americans keep more of their money is a “subsidy.” Other libertarians support a negative income tax, whereby people receive a “refund” of taxes that they never paid in the form of refundable tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Refundable tax credits are the ultimate form of welfare because they are payments made in cash instead of payments made to third parties or deposited on an EBT card. Libertarians who support refundable tax credits are inconsistently supporting the redistribution of wealth.
Tax increases of any kind or amount, tax reform that is revenue-neutral, tax-base broadening, replacement of one tax with another, tax-shifting from one group of taxpayers to another, and tax-deduction and tax-credit phase-outs, reductions, or eliminations are not libertarian. There is nothing libertarian about making the tax code shorter and simpler or making tax rates flatter and fairer.
Social Security’s Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) program provides monthly benefits to retired workers, families of retired workers, and survivors of deceased workers. Social Security’s Disability Insurance (DI) program provides monthly benefits to disabled workers and families of disabled workers. Although Americans don’t have to accept Social Security benefits, they have to, under penalty of law, fund the system with payroll tax deductions.
Social Security is funded by a 12.4 percent payroll tax (split equally between employers and employees) on the first $132,900 of an employee’s income. Self-employed persons pay the full 12.4 percent, but receive a deduction toward their income tax equal to 50 percent of the amount of the Social Security tax they pay. One must pay Social Security taxes for a minimum of 40 quarters to be eligible for benefits, which are based on the average of a worker’s 35 highest years of earnings, adjusted for inflation. For those born after 1959, the retirement age to receive full benefits is 67.
Social Security is unsustainable and on the verge of insolvency, as even the Social Security Board of Trustees acknowledges. Numerous proposals have been put forward over the years to “save” or “fix” Social Security. They include raising the retirement age, raising the Social Security tax rate, reducing or eliminating cost-of-living increases, increasing or eliminating the payroll tax cap, reducing benefits, or means-testing recipients.
But even though Social Security is an intergenerational wealth-redistribution scheme that has been a welfare program for the elderly from the very beginning, some libertarians still believe that it needs to be fixed or reformed instead of eliminated. Although they claim to be opposed root and branch to socialism, these libertarians inconsistently believe that Social Security should be saved for future generations — even though it relies on the force of the state to take money from one person and transfer it to another. Social Security is immoral because it is immoral for the government to take money from those who work and give it to those who don’t.
The preferred fix of some libertarians for Social Security is some form of privatization. In some privatization plans, contributions from employers and employees would be collected by a public agency and then invested in one or more of a limited number of private investments chosen by employees. In other plans, banks, insurance companies, and other investment companies would compete with each other to attract workers’ contributions. One libertarian puts it this way: “Instead of the government taking a portion of your paycheck, it would mandate that you invest it privately in a business that manages pension funds. Then, it would be up to you to decide where your savings goes and what is done with it.”
There is one basic problem with all Social Security privatization plans: they all privatize coercion. The federal government still forces people to save for retirement. Once it is granted that the federal government should be able to force people to save for retirement, then no reasonable or logical objection can be raised to the federal government’s forcing people to save for a down payment on a house, unforeseen medical expenses, a new car, or a college education for their children. But even if the forced saving was limited to saving for retirement, it would still constitute a grave violation of libertarian principles. One of the tenets of libertarianism is that everyone has the right to keep the fruits of his labor and decide for himself what to do with his money. There are no free-market solutions to fix Social Security. There is nothing libertarian about privatizing, reforming, fixing, or saving Social Security.
Universal basic income
The United States has about eighty means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, utility subsidies, medical care, and social services to poor, disabled, and lower-income Americans on the basis of the beneficiary’s income and assets. And some welfare programs are not even means-tested. The elderly have Social Security and Medicare. The disabled have Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Pregnant women and new mothers have Healthy Start and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Low-income students have Pell Grants and all students have access to federal student loans. Farmers have farm subsidies. Children from low-income families have school-breakfast and -lunch programs. The unemployed have unemployment compensation and access to free federal job-training programs. The poor have Medicaid, food stamps, Section 8 housing vouchers, TANF, energy assistance, subsidized phone service, community health centers, public housing, family-planning programs, and refundable tax credits. All parents — rich and poor alike — can send their children to public schools at no cost.
All of these welfare programs are clearly illegitimate and unconstitutional functions of the federal government. They are socialistic, they are collectivist, they foster dependency on the government, they are income-transfer programs, they are social-engineering schemes, they shift responsibility from the individual to society and from families to the state, they contribute to class warfare, and they crowd out genuine charity.
Yet some libertarians, instead of calling for all of these welfare programs to be eliminated, advocate reforming the system by simply giving “those who need help unrestricted cash grants that they can spend how they see fit,” as one libertarian wrote at a prominent libertarian blog. Other libertarians are not so blunt. They favor a universal basic income or a guaranteed minimum income as a replacement for the current welfare state. They think it would be more efficient to simply scrap the whole welfare system and instead write the poor a check or give them money on an EBT card like food stamps. But not only that. Most basic-income-guarantee proposals would give an unconditional monthly grant of income to every American regardless of his financial condition or ability to work. This can be justified on “libertarian principles” because the state wouldn’t claim to know best how people should live their lives and try to micro-manage human behavior. It would cut out many government programs and bureaucrats. And it gives money to everyone, but then lets the free market work.
There is just one glaring problem. A universal basic income is still the redistribution of wealth. The federal government has no money to give out without first confiscating it from the paychecks, pockets, and purses of American taxpayers. Forced charity is always unjust. It is coercion, not charity. All charity should be private and voluntary. Every individual has a natural and moral right to decide if and when he wants to help others. There is nothing libertarian about a universal basic income.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to discriminate against someone “on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.” All of the states have similar prohibitions; however, some of them include sexual orientation as well — most notably Colorado. It was there that a Christian baker who held the religious conviction that marriage was the union between one man and one woman was accused by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission of discriminating against a homosexual couple because he refused to bake them a cake for their wedding reception. The Colorado Court of Appeals eventually agreed with the Commission. However, after making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, that decision was reversed because “the Commission’s actions here violated the Free Exercise Clause.” However, the Court’s decision was narrowly focused. Not all acts of religious discrimination are legal throughout the United States — but they should be.
The libertarian position on discrimination is pretty straightforward: Since discrimination — against anyone, on any basis, and for any reason — is not aggression, force, coercion, threat, or violence, the government should never prohibit it, seek to prevent it, or punish anyone for doing it. Discrimination is a crime in search of a victim. By their very nature, the natural rights of freedom of assembly, freedom of association, free enterprise, and freedom of contract include the right to discriminate. Discrimination is an essential part of property rights. In a free society, there is no right to service.
But even the most recent Libertarian Party candidate for president was confused about discrimination. Although he maintained that people should be allowed to discriminate for a variety of reasons, he singled out religious discrimination as something that should not be allowed. In fact, he not only declared that bakers should be forced to bake wedding cakes for homosexual couples, but that Jewish bakers should be forced by the government to bake wedding cakes for Nazis.
That, of course, doesn’t mean that all acts of discrimination are equal, necessary, or justified. It just means that, as far as the law is concerned, it is irrelevant whether an act of discrimination is based on stereotypes, false assumptions, or prejudices; it is immaterial whether an act of discrimination is due to racism, sex discrimination, or religion; and it is beside the point whether an act of discrimination is unreasonable, illogical, or irrational. There is nothing libertarian about anti-discrimination laws.
Unlike liberalism and conservatism, libertarianism is a consistent philosophy. The fact that some individual libertarians are inconsistent in what they affirm as libertarianism does not negate that. Libertarianism is not monolithic. There is room in libertarianism for differences of opinion. But if libertarians are to have any impact on liberals and conservatives, they must be securely grounded in the fundamentals of libertarianism and consistent in their presentation of libertarianism. There is nothing libertarian about vouchers, tax reform, Social Security, a universal basic income, anti-discrimination laws, or any number of other things that can only be described as unlibertarian libertarianism.
This article was originally published in the December 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.