Jeremy Gardner (@), a friend and pioneer in Bitcoinland, posed a wonderfully-written “Libertarian Challenge” several days ago. The objective was to convince someone to match his $1,000 donation to Unsung, an innovative new philanthropic platform for more effectively feeding the homeless, launched by non other than Bitcoin’s own boy, Jason King.
If the donation was matched, Jeremy promised to change his voter registration from Democrat to Libertarian, and vote for Gary Johnson in the fall. Regardless of one’s opinion on voting, it’s a genuine gesture.
As a self-described “libertarian Marxist,” Jeremy has long been torn between what he sees as two valuable social optics, that of liberty, and that of “social responsibility” (a euphemism for forced servitude). Jeremy’s affection for the Non-Aggression Principle is challenged by his concern that “people are greedy” and thus, if not forced to help, won’t. Society, suffering a dearth of compassion, will wither. That is his concern. That is why Jeremy appends the Marxist suffix to his ideological label, and why he enthusiastically Feels the Bern, despite understanding and agreeing with many of the tenets of liberty.
“If libertarianism is to work, without society breaking down into anarchy, there’s a necessary precondition: a strong commitment to private charity.” – Jeremy Gardner
(Let’s forgive his improper use of the term “anarchy” here… he means a violent Hobbsian state of nature, rather than the proper meaning of anarchy, which is merely “sovereign equality” – no man ruling over another.)
So, two interesting questions are posed:
A) Is a strong commitment to private charity required for libertarianism to “work”?
B) Would that commitment exist in a world without institutionalized coercion?
On Point A, it should first be noted that the State does a dismal job of helping the needy, today. The bar is low. Leftists often wail about the prevalence of poverty and destitution, and yet seem to miss the fact that the State has largely been responsible for fixing that problem, ever since the Progressive era began in the early 20th century.
Government spending on welfare increases every year, and yet the problem isn’t dissipating. More people than ever are currently on food stamps. School spending per pupil has increased 3x since 1970 and yet scores are flat or down slightly. The inability of the State to alleviate poverty or improve education is no different than its inability to stop drug use, or “spread democracy” at the point of a gun … when a monopoly service provider is in charge, who would expect the service to improve?
Poverty and charity are serious issues that affect the lives of millions (billions) of people. This is why the State should stay out of it; charity is too important.
To answer Point A then, it appears even a “moderate commitment” to private charity would surpass the status quo of State-managed kindness. And let’s remember that it’s not just about “how much is spent,” but more importantly how it is spent. Marketplaces do a good (though imperfect) job of allocating resources where they are working, and withdrawing them where not. The State, on the other hand, doubles down on every failure by demanding more money. War on drugs failed last year? Why, it merely needed a bigger budget! Test scores aren’t up? More money is needed! Poverty hasn’t dropped? Bigger budgets for every program!
Thus even if charity in a libertarian world was lower in a dollar amount, it may well have a greater impact. Again, the bar is pretty low, is it not?
But would even a moderate commitment to private charity exist in a libertarian world? Well, this could be argued back and forth by zealous keyboard warriors, forever. Without significantly reducing the role of the State, it’s impossible to know how behavior in society would change. Importantly, though, there are two factors which I believe seriously reduce one’s interest in charity today.
1) Half of the wealth of productive individuals, on net, is stolen from them by the State
2) There is a sense that “the government is taking care of it.”
Should I help the poor? Well, there are already 92 Federal Agencies working on it (maybe we need 93?), not to mention all the state-level programs. And even if it’d be good to help, I’m not feeling particularly generous after that last check to the IRS. Half my productive output is being stolen from me… should further contribution be necessary? This, I believe, is a very common sentiment in peoples’ minds, even if not conscious.
“I have not been convinced that humans are inherently generous enough to fulfill such a massive societal burden without coercion.” – Jeremy Gardner
My feeling, and I’ll admit I don’t have proof, is that in a world where people kept vastly more of their own earnings, and in which it wasn’t assumed that Big Brother would take care of us, good people (and I think most people are good) would likely be more generous; more interested in philanthropic pursuits. Would they spend $900 billion per year fighting poverty? Probably not. Would they spend more than today? Yes. And would that amount be more effective than the $900 billion spent per year by the government? I think so.
The goal should not be “how much can be spent on fighting poverty,” but rather, “to what extent can poverty be reduced?” Given that the poverty rate has remained between 12%-14% of the population since Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” began, despite ever increasing anti-poverty budgets, what kind of person continues to advocate further government involvement?
And since charity is absolutely needed, if we didn’t all imagine the State was “handling it,” I believe norms would emerge such that the responsibility of caring for the poor would fall further upon us as civil society, not government. A stronger stigma would develop against those who were completely ungiving. Indeed, I would be the first one to encourage such stigma; for charity is important.
Jeremy worries about greed, however. He believe people are greedy, and thus just won’t be interested in helping each other.
Humans are complicated, and this view of humans as “greedy” is too myopic. Humans are often greedy, yes. I myself am greedy. I am very materially well off, and yet I want more. I don’t imagine there is any income level at which that tendency goes away (indeed almost all Americans are in the top global 1%… yet they want ever more!) But while I am greedy, it is not the sum of my character. I am not only greedy, I also care deeply about the state of the world and about other people. I care about my family, and friends, and the people that I know and that they know. I care about principles and progress. I want to help others; greed does not detract from that, but runs in parallel.
This is why capitalism and philanthropy are complementary phenomena, not competitive. It’s no coincidence that the wealthiest individuals often donate inordinate sums (and those who don’t – well, that capital is still generally used in productive pursuits, despite a couple yachts on the side). Similarly, it’s no coincidence that the wealthiest countries tend to have the greatest preponderance of philanthropy. My some measures, the US is the wealthiest country in the world, and its populace is the most giving (tied, interestingly, with Myanmar due to the prevalence of Buddhists).
From my own experience, it seems clear that the coercive State crowds out organic social development, replacing spontaneous civil society with mandates enforced at the point of a gun. The realm of philanthropy is but one example.
Just as a State involved in banking crowds out private monetary innovation, and a State involved in education crowds out a dynamic competitive schools, so too does a State involved in charity distort social giving, replacing sincere generosity with centrally-planed servitude. It is not how good humans should engage with each other.
We should absolutely be “socially responsible.” I just don’t understand what theft and coercion have to do with social responsibility.
But back to Jeremy’s Challenge…
The reason I liked his challenge so much (despite his excellent writing) was that it demonstrates voluntary, emergent social pressure to help others. Jeremy presented a compelling reason to contribute, and the cause is, by any metric, a noble and well-executed one. There is little reason for people not to contribute to the Unsung crowdfund, and Jeremy is calling people out and encouraging them to do so, not via the State, but by their own moral consciousness.
It is, after all, moral consciousness, not violence, which leads good people to help others.
Thank you Jeremy for the challenge.
I will meet your challenge, and go a little beyond. You challenged someone to donate $1,000. I have now donated $2,000 in Bitcoin. Further, I’ve published this blog post, and will be encouraging everyone I know to contribute to the project.
To anyone out there reading this, let’s meet Jeremy’s challenge. Unsung deserves funding, let’s fund it, privately.
Please donate via the methods at the bottom of Jeremy’s post: