The Pauper Principle

Jeffrey Sachs wrote what bugs him about libertarianism.  Here’s one passage:

Suppose a rich man has a surfeit of food and a poor man living next door is starving to death. The libertarian says that the government has no moral right or political claim to tax the rich person in order to save the poor person. Perhaps the rich person should be generous and give charity to the neighbor, the libertarian might say (or might not), but there is nothing that the government should do. The moral value of saving the poor person’s life simply does not register when compared with the liberty of the rich person.

While I find this to be an unimaginative and simplistic false choice, I’ll play along.

I’m assuming Sachs believes it is moral for the government to tax the rich person to “save” the poor person.  In other words, it’s moral to force the rich person to do something.

The question I have for Sachs is whether he also thinks it’s moral to force the poor person to do something? For example, can the government force the poor person to give two hours of his labor to the rich person in exchange for receiving the tax?

Keep in mind, the poor person would not have a choice in the matter, just like the rich person.  The poor person wouldn’t be able choose not to work in order to not receive the tax.  The poor person would be forced to work and to receive the tax, just like the rich person would be forced to give up some of the proceeds from his work effort.

Is that moral?  Why or why not?

How do you know?

In his book, The New Road to Serfdom, Daniel Hannan quotes Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (don’t ask):

The National Health Service is the closest thing the English have to a religion…  This made it quite extraordinarily difficult to reform.

I thought this was a nice observation.  In this post, I claimed that we are ruled by poor logic because the logic used to justify many of the things we are forced to support through government is poor.

But, maybe it’s not even poor logic.  Rather, it’s religion.

How much of what we believe is religion?  I’d say just about everything where you can’t point to evidence and sound reasons for why you believe it.

I see no problem when religious people say they believe in God because they just know.  That’s the whole point of their religion: to believe in something that doesn’t have proof.  That’s why it’s also called faith.

And, as long as they don’t force their faith on others, we’re all good.  In our country, they are free to practice their own faith without government interference.  And, as individuals we are generally very tolerant of other faiths, as well.

But I do have a problem when people want to force their religions on everyone by government action and are unwilling and/or unable to tell us why they believe what they do. That’s the same as enacting a zealous government religion.

Examples of zealous government religions include:

College education is good, government must make sure everyone can go.


Green energy is good.  Government must invest in it and develop it.


Healthcare is good, we must provide it through government.

Why do I call these zealous religions?

One reason I call these religions is because when I ask folks why they believe these things, so often the answer sounds a lot like religion. 

I just know I’m right.

They may be right, but I don’t find “I just know…” the least bit convincing.  How do you know?  That’s what I’m interested in.

Anyone who wants to force me to support their religion through the government ought to provide me a better answer than “I just know.”  I’d like an answer that I can better evaluate and truth test.

For those unwilling and unable to provide such an answer, their default position on matters that require forcing others to do something ought to be not forcing others to do something, at least until they can clearly explain why they they think they are right.

That seems reasonable to me. 

My guess is that they would expect the same from me.  For example, if I wanted to enact a new tax to build a nationwide network of bicycle trails, my guess is that they would be skeptical and want me to give them better reasoning than, “I just know it’s a good thing”. 

I call these zealous religions because of how they respond to non-believers.  When you point out to a believer that you do not share their belief and why, they often demonize you. 

I often hear responses to non-believers like:

You just don’t want poor people to have a chance at a college education!


You just want to protect the big oil companies!


You’d rather the sick and elderly go without medical treatment and die!

And, they don’t care if you tell them that these accusations are false.   This is usually where the exchange ends, on false grounds, in order to protect their religious beliefs.

The final reason I consider these beliefs to be religious is how the believers respond when you ask what if they are wrong?  What if the very beliefs they support, and want to force on others, actually have negative consequences, many of which are opposite of their desired result.

Here again, their answer sounds like that of a religious person.  I often hear something like:

Well, I would probably still support it, because at least, I feel like my intentions were in the right place.  At least I can say I tried.

This sounds a lot like Pascal’s wager.  French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, suggested that even if the existence of God could not be proven, a rational person would choose to believe because there’s potentially a lot to be gained and not much to lose.

A form of Pascal’s wager does drive a lot of political beliefs.  Most folks have much to gain by supporting nice-sounding beliefs (like avoiding being demonized for suggesting alternatives and a ticket into the ‘I care’ club), and not much to lose, because few of them pay or notice the direct costs of their beliefs.

libertarians are made, not born

Of the very limited sample size of libertarians that I know, it seems all held some other form of ideology in the past and came to a libertarian position by way of reason.

If reason is the primary path to libertarianism, that might explain its relative obscurity (not meant to be funny).

For example, other ideologies seem to be passed down from generation to generation as effectively as religion and are intimately linked with other human associations and affinities like religion, movie stardom, status signaling (“I’m for the poor” as if others aren’t), unions and such.

I think other political ideologies are similar to religions because many that hold those ideologies seem to accept whatever it is their ideology stands for without questioning whether it actually works or not.

Libertarians have none of that going for them.

Perhaps this is what Bryan Caplan meant in this blog post on EconLog, where he ranks libertarian economists as the most productive folks to have conversations with.  Libertarian non-economists ranked third.

I think there’s a reason for this.  Of all the folks I have discussions with, libertarians are the most likely to consider that they might be wrong and are open exploring the rationale of the opposing argument for its merits or demerits.  Discussions with these types of folks can be extremely productive.

I’ve also noticed libertarians aren’t as married to their biases.  They don’t always stop when they find the answer they’re looking for.  They seem to be good at continuing to pick at something until they uncover the root-cause.

Of course, I could be wrong.