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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/7832/is-the-starving-man-free/

Is the Starving Man Free?

February 26, 2008 by

Modern “liberals” who advocate the view that government should provide us with the necessities or alleged necessities of life rarely appreciate that this assistance rests on a system of mass robbery and enslavement that is highly inimical to their professed belief in liberty. In fact, the advocates of such policies present them in quite the opposite light, as enhancing our liberty.

This contention rests on the conceptual claim that liberty requires certain of our most basic needs to be satisfied, if necessary by the actions of others. Adherents of this view assert that “the starving man is not free.” FULL ARTICLE

{ 28 comments }

TLWP Sam February 26, 2008 at 9:39 am

A poor person will find plenty of willing charitable organisation? Back in the 1800s and the days of the charity providers there was a notion to do with the ‘deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor’. The ‘deserving poor’ were those who were geniumely hard done by and needed help to get back on track. The ‘undeserving poor’ were those who were capable of finding work but were too lazy and preferred to freeload off others’ goodwill. I thought it was interesting to hear in those days it presumed those who were ‘undeserving’ probably amounted to some 90% of the poor/’poor’.

Paul Marks February 26, 2008 at 9:42 am

“Positive Liberty” used to mean reason controlling the passions – so that (according to this view) even a slave could be free – and the most mighty ruler a slave to his base instincts.

However, over a long period of time the view has grown up that freedom is the freedom to have and do things – to have food, clothing, housing (etc).

“There is no freedom if you have starved to death” being the starting point for this argument.

It is wrong on two levels.

Firstly the sort of economic polices such “freedom from want” people support actually REDUCE the long term living standards of the poor – more government spending and regulations undermine, not help, them over time.

But it is wrong on a more basic level.

A man who is starving to death is still a free man.

There may be no economic policy (bigger government or smaller government) that can save him – he may be the victim of some freak act of nature.

But he is still free – he is not under the threat of violence.

“But what use is his freedom to him if he is dying?”.

That is to shift position.

Freedom may not be “useful” it may not provide a comfortable life – but it is still freedom.

After all it is only in recent decades that technology has made it even POSSIBLE (under any economic policy) for most people to have a comfortable life – “free of basic wants”.

Are we to say that the vast majority of people who lived before the modern period not only “were not free” but “could not be free”.

No – because freedom and a nice life are different things.

Brooks Imperial February 26, 2008 at 10:15 am

As for rights, Mr. O’Neill and the libertarian position are sound. And the economics also support them.

Still, representative legislatures built the welfare state not as a matter of rights or economics, they did so out of compassion. Compassion expressed through state coercion selectively favors some and penalizes others, however, there is a measure of consent in the process, at least to the extent any representative body faithfully represents citizens.

So what do you say to those who admit the state is a lousy mechanism for taking care of those less fortunate, but who basically accept, assent to, the system for the sake of compassion? You have to admit, the welfare state liberates taxpayers from having to administer charity and get personally involved with those less fortunate. A lot of people like that separation. Even though it doesn’t work very well, even though it spawns negative consequences, even though it appropriates money from the productive sector, they still accept it.

Paul February 26, 2008 at 10:20 am

The word “entitlement” has become associated with welfare payments, and many other forms of government payments. The recipients’ attitudes about their alleged “entitlements” are far different from yesteryear’s “public assistance” recipient’s.
I believe that the welfare state’s purpose has morphed, in part, into a method to aid in the suppression of violence. Government’s do not want a repeat of the urban violence of the late 1960′s.
The current President’s “compassionate conservative” approach is just a reflection of how far the U.S. government has taken us down the road of being our “keeper.”

Brooks Imperial February 26, 2008 at 10:49 am

Welfare and social services administration are closely coupled to law enforcement. Social services and law enforcement are two sides of the same coin of state police power.

This collaboration raises thorny constitutional issues because it blurs the line between criminal and civil justice. Police powers are subject to criminal statutes and limitations while social services powers follow more civil standards. The reasoning for lowering the threshold for social services intervention is due to the weakness of citizens who often fall within the social services orbit – children, aged, disabled, etc. When you put a cop and a social worker in collaboration in situ, however, 4th Am protections can go right out the window.

I agree that suppression of violence is a primary goal of welfare services. As for 60′s violence being the cause, I disagree. 60′s permissive behaviors such as drug abuse and divorce have had widespread negative consequences on some of the most vulnerable people – children and aged – and states stepped in for their sake.

fusgerm February 26, 2008 at 11:39 am

Is the starving man free? I take it that we are not talking about PHYSICAL freedom here. Not even the man with a full stomach has untrammelled PHYSICAL freedom – the freedom to appear anywhere in the universe at any time. Even if anyone did enjoy such a freedom, then no one else could, any more than an irresistible force could co-exist with an immoveable object.

O’Neill, then, is talking about another kind of freedom, namely freedom from unjust constraint. He equates a “free society” with “a society that does not condone government coercion”, and of course in that sense a starving man is free whether he can fill his stomach or not. Actually, the definition is not broad enough. I could be tied up by a robber. To be “free from coercion” is to be free from ANY violation of life, liberty, or property.

O’Neill’s main point is one that both he and Ayn Rand have made quite well: that freedom from coercion is incompatible with the obligation to feed a starving man. Either we are free, or we are slaves to the men we have to feed – or to the state which forces us to feed them.

Inquisitor February 26, 2008 at 11:43 am

Any form of positive ‘freedom’ that is predicated on a negation of negative freedom is pure nonsense. Negative freedom should be seen as a necessary condition for it. With that in mind, markets tend to boost positive freedom as well. But it is sheer self-contradictory nonsense to define freedom solely in terms of ‘freedom to’, IOW ‘freedom to have someone provide it for me’.

fundamentalist February 26, 2008 at 12:16 pm

Brooks Imperial: “Still, representative legislatures built the welfare state not as a matter of rights or economics, they did so out of compassion.”

That’s the way socialists frame the argument: socialism is compassionate; capitalism lacks compassion. But no one can know the true motives of people. Capitalists may be far more compassionate than socialists. Only God knows. That socialists claim compassion as their motive means nothing.

Real compassion means that you give to someone out of your own resources. Socialism means you take someone else’s resources and give them away. A few studies have shown that cold-hearted conservatives give far more time and money to charities than do “liberals.” One stated that 80% of all donations of time and money to charities comes from cold-blooded conservatives. Giving away another person’s money to soothe one’s conscience is closer to envy than compassion.

One of the main differences between socialists and capitalists is that socialists care more about motives than outcomes, while capitalists care more about outcomes than motives. Cuba is a great example. Socialists worship Castro because he had pure motives and they don’t care how many people he murdered or how deeply into poverty he plunged the Cuban people.

A more equitable way to view the argument is to see both sides as desiring to end poverty, just through different means. Socialists want to take from the rich and give to the poor. Capitalists want to empower the poor to escape poverty through work.

IMHO February 26, 2008 at 1:24 pm

The definition of poverty has changed dramatically over the years. At one point in time it meant that you were just about to lose the roof over your head, and you were accepting food from your family and friends.

Now, when a person claims to be impoverished, what they’re frequently saying is that they don’t have the same things everyone else has. I know of people who complain that they hate the conditions under which they live and say that they can’t make ends meet; yet they somehow manage to take vacations, belong to a gym, have a cell phone, purchase botique bottled water, wine and cartons of cigarettes. Their meals generally consist of take-out. They’ll even go with their friends to dinner and a show.

What doesn’t seem to occur to them is that if they were to cut back on their lifestyle, they’d have more money for better living conditions. Or they might have money left over for college courses so they could work towards getting a better job. Instead, the government expects the taxpayer to take up the slack by paying for this person’s education and giving them money for housing and food stamps.

I remember the day I saw a woman use food stamps to buy Hagen Daz ice cream. As I left the store, I saw her getting into a very nice, late-model car. It doesn’t take rocket science to know that there’s something seriously wrong with the system.

I don’t know if this was off topic, but it felt good to get this off my chest.

Brooks Imperial February 26, 2008 at 1:27 pm

Fundamentalist: Realists want to improve things from the point they exist, not from the point they ought to exist.

George Gaskell February 26, 2008 at 1:30 pm

Is the Starving Man Free?

Not if he lives in the United States, he’s not.

Jake February 26, 2008 at 1:35 pm

Handouts promotes laziness of the abled, and buys votes for the person doing the handouts.

Robin Hood for President!!!

Bruce Koerber February 26, 2008 at 1:48 pm

‘Starving’ implies that there is a want. It is part of the human operating system that humans have wants and in essence these wants include higher ideals that are absent in animals.

Is a satisfied (fully fed) human being free just because the lower wants are fulfilled? Maybe to a cow that is the ultimate freedom but a starving questful human is infinitely more free than a nourished prisoner of self.

‘Intellectuals’ who start with the premise that humans are just glorified animals will always have difficulty understanding liberty.

fundamentalist February 26, 2008 at 2:20 pm

Brooks Imperial: “Realists want to improve things from the point they exist, not from the point they ought to exist.”

Very good point! Also, I don’t think we should let socialists (I refuse to call them liberals and perpetuate the deception) get away with assuming their motive is compassion just because they claim it is. Self-deception is part of human nature. Very few people will attribute bad motives to themselves. If we judge socialists by their actions, and not their self-reported motives, then it’s clear that they don’t act in a manner consistent with compassion as a motive, otherwise they would give of their own resources and not someone else’s.

I lived in Morocco for a few months and observed beggars wandering through the coffee shops, several per hour. Some would get money from everyone in the shop and others would be completely ignored. I asked a Moroccan about that and he told me that people give freely to the elderly, handicapped, and women with children. But men of working age and ability usually got nothing, unless a stupid American was in the coffee shop.

cowboypriest February 26, 2008 at 2:40 pm

A simple way to respond to “Is the starving man free?” would be, “Is the man compelled to feed another free?” No. But the truth is, he who would compel one man to feed another hates both men’s freedom. Actually, I’ve concluded that most men hate every man’s freedom but their own.

josh m February 27, 2008 at 8:05 am

I think a common theme of socialists is the perverse idea that society advances through forced redistribution.

Their reasoning works something like this: take stuff from people who have a lot—now, they won’t “really” miss it too much since, for them, the stuff has a low marginal utility—and transfer it to those who have far less—for whom the resources have a high marginal utility, so they value it far greater than the rich person from whom it was taken.

Voila, you’ve created more value in society than there was before the redistribution.

They don’t accept that the force required to carry out the scheme negates any “value” created; they’ll argue that the poor person values their (ill-gotten) gain higher than the rich person feels the loss—”they won’t miss it; they were just going to buy some junk they don’t really need anyway—now, the poor person really needs it”…” etc, etc.

Pointing out the immorality involved merely makes the argument a legitimate choice between morality and utilitarianism—and they simply side with the latter.

What’s the most effective argument against this?

David C February 27, 2008 at 8:20 am

Josh said
I think a common theme of socialists is the perverse idea that society advances through forced redistribution.

Their reasoning works something like this: take stuff from people who have a lot—now, they won’t “really” miss it too much since, for them, the stuff has a low marginal utility—and transfer it to those who have far less—for whom the resources have a high marginal utility, so they value it far greater than the rich person from whom it was taken.

Voila, you’ve created more value in society than there was before the redistribution.

They don’t accept that the force required to carry out the scheme negates any “value” created; they’ll argue that the poor person values their (ill-gotten) gain higher than the rich person feels the loss—”they won’t miss it; they were just going to buy some junk they don’t really need anyway—now, the poor person really needs it”…” etc, etc.

Pointing out the immorality involved merely makes the argument a legitimate choice between morality and utilitarianism—and they simply side with the latter.

What’s the most effective argument against this?

Despite the clear and articulate thesis embodied in Austrian thought, Im afraid there isn’t one that will convince any socialist

This is akin to the other interminable argument, the one between evolutionary science and creationism: the very frame of reference of the creationist makes him impervious to any standard of science , empiricism, or even logic.

IN the same way, you simply cant make a socialist understand the fundamental impossibility of ( objectively) comparing (subjective) assessments of value, ( or cost, or risk) across more than one individual human being.

If you do succeed in making any socialist really understand this in his own mind, he will immediately cease to be a socialist.

Michael A. Clem February 27, 2008 at 5:57 pm

…this welfare state established by modern “liberals” does nothing to reconcile the contradiction between freedom from men and freedom from nature — it merely sacrifices the former in an attempt to obtain the latter.
Exactly–and what is so “compassionate” about giving OTHER people’s money away?

Jock March 3, 2008 at 6:02 am

My response is here. It doesn’t seem to have shown up as a trackback.

jeffrey March 3, 2008 at 9:07 am

We don’t have trackbacks enabled. I’ve never been impressed that they are comprehensive, and we have enough problem with comment spam without dealing with trackback spam.

Jock March 3, 2008 at 10:46 am

Ditto – I tried hard late last year to make something comprehensive on my Drupal setup but when I put it on my live server it didn’t work. So I understand!

Jason March 3, 2008 at 12:20 pm

This is probably the best single article covering the fallacy of modern liberalism I’ve ever read. Good work.

Ben O'Neill March 4, 2008 at 11:07 pm

Hi everyone,

Thanks for your comments on my article. I am glad so many of you enjoyed it. This one was more popular than I had anticipated.

Brooks Imperial: You ask what I would say to those who see the welfare state as compassionate but ineffective. I think the primary point to make (which is a point made by many others on this web log) is that there is nothing compassionate about spending other people’s money, particularly when they are relieved of this money by force. The fact that government welfare is often viewed as compassionate rests on the conflation of genuine charity with forced redistributions predicated on acts of robbery.

You also state that “…the welfare state liberates taxpayers from having to administer charity and get personally involved with those less fortunate” (emphasis added). Firstly, I do not regard a person as having to administer charity at all — involuntary charity is an oxymoron, and a pernicious one at that. Thus, I do not regard the welfare state as “liberating” anyone from charitable administration. Moreover, private charities already provide the function of administering charitable donations. They offer their donors a service which rarely requires any personal involvement beyond the donation. If anything, there is a far greater administrative burden imposed by government (tax returns, etc.) than by private charities.

I agree with the comments by Fundamentalist regarding the alleged compassion of many socialists (which I would also apply to many advocates of the welfare state). The alleged compassion of these people, based solely on self-reported motives, should be fiercely questioned in light of the actual results of their policies. If people continually advocate policies which lead to the opposite results from what they allege they are trying to achieve, and yet their enthusiasm for these policies is not dampened, then it is senseless to continue to believe that they mean well.

Thanks again everyone.

purplearcanist May 7, 2008 at 5:53 pm

You have nailed the single thing that my father keeps harping on about when he tries to say that libertarianism is wrong and socialism/government interventionism is right. Great article!

What about this? He poses questions such as, “If a rich person hoarded his wealth while 100 people are starving, is it okay?” How should I an

fundamentalist May 8, 2008 at 8:26 am

Purplearcanist: “”If a rich person hoarded his wealth while 100 people are starving, is it okay?”
His question is similar to “Have you quit beating your wife?” The assumptions behind it are wrong.
The straight answer is no, that would not be morally acceptable behavior. But the important question is how did the rich man hoard his wealth while 100 people starved? Your father seems to assume that such a situation is the natural result of capitalism, when in reality it is the natural result of socialism. History should have taught him that. As far as we know, no one died of starvation in free market economies in the 20th century, except possibly in Europe during the wars. But we know for a fact that tens of millions, possibly 50 million, died of starvation in the socialist countries of the USSR, China, Vietnam, and North Korea.
In a capitalist, free market economy, one rich man and 100 starving people would be virtually impossible. In the first place, the rich man wouldn’t stash his wealth under a mattress. He would invest it in businesses so that he could earn a good return on it. Those businesses would hire workers and pay them salaries. Very few poor people would exist because unemployment is largely a result of state intervention in the market.

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unbound August 4, 2008 at 12:54 pm

fundamentalist – thank you for the wonderfully naive point of view. I haven’t laughed this hard in a very long time.

cowboypriest December 8, 2009 at 6:08 pm

Notice that unbound cannot present an argument. Is that nervous laughter, unbound?

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