Sunday, February 12, 2006

Cue Card Libertarianism - Need

A cannibalistic concept of need permeates the entire range of anti-freedom philosophies: the view of need as a claim. “I need food and sustenance,” this view states, “therefore you are obliged to be it, provide me with it, or give me the wherewithal to purchase it.” “I need resources,” says this view, “and this need gives me a claim over others that they must fulfil. Somehow.”

It is this view of need as a claim over others that underlies the whole Welfare State -- in a phrase: it is the ethic of the moocher, and the world-view of moral cannibalism. “Since I cannot be sure that you will meet my needs voluntarily,” says the moocher, “the state on my behalf, must force you to.” The moocher in cahoots with the looter – what could be more ingenious.

Uncomfortable with the crudity of it when so accurately formulated, the philosophical purveyors of this concept disguise it by repairing to a mysterious ‘social contract’ to which we are all supposedly unwitting signatories. Its political purveyors take for granted that voters regard need as a claim, just as they do themselves, and pitch policies to the satisfaction of the needs of one group at the expense of all others. The instrument by which such policies are implemented, now that literal cannibalism is no longer socially acceptable, is, of course, compulsory taxation.

“This is the history of governments – one man does something which is to bind another. A man who cannot be acquainted with me, taxes me; looking at me from afar ordains that a part of my labour shall go to this or that whimsical end - not as I, but as he happens to fancy. Behold the consequence. Of all debts, men are least willing to pay the taxes.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

The most derisory example of this view of need, taken to its logical extreme, was probably voiced by Hitler when he promised that the Third Reich would provide husbands for all spinsters.

The wrongness of treating need as a claim is that it overlooks the fact that human beings are free agents. This view, which today is all-pervasive, succeeds in tying the non-needy to the needy, with the chains of enslavement hidden by government sleight of hand. It replaces the genuine right to satisfy one’s needs through one’s own efforts and by voluntary interaction with others, with the bogus ‘right’ to have one’s needs met by others with no effort of one’s own, and without those others having any choice in the matter.

In the field of ethics, this view -- which we may truly call altruism in action -- replaces consent with demands; in the field of politics it replaces right with need; in the field of human endeavour it punishes the productive, and rewards the unproductive. The result is that one begins to see others as a threat, rather than as the boon they should be in a free society in which none are parasitic on any other.

In a free society such a travesty would be laughed out of court. The needs of those genuinely unable to meet them through their own efforts would be met by voluntary charity, in ways much more innovative, effective and generous than coercively-funded state bureaucracies could begin to contemplate – not as a matter of grudging obligation, but as a matter of genuine benevolence.

This is part of a continuing series explaining the concepts and terms used by libertarians, originally published in The Free Radical in 1993. The 'Introduction' to the series is here. The series as it develops can be found here.

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