Tuesday, 8 March 2011

I don't think I'm a heartless bastard

One of the most frequent accusations levelled against libertarians in general and me in particular is that we're selfish, heartless bastards who only want to keep all our money for ourselves and everyone else should just get to fuck and starve.

I find this a particularly confusing charge, because these people inevitably argue in favour of tax as a way of making "society" better, always ignoring the fact that the poorest lose the greatest margin of their incremental income to tax. In other words, the very mechanism that they are advocating as the way to help the needy is the the exact mechanism that hurts the needy the most.

In other words, not paying taxes is the single biggest "benefit" we can give to people who are earning money on the breadline. When you're earning a hundred grand a year, paying an extra three grand or getting an three of grand a year means very little. When you're earning £1000 a month, getting a extra £250 a month is HUGE.

So yes, I would be getting more money, but the incremental benefit to me is not nearly as much to me as it is to someone who is poor. How does this make me heartless?

My biggest problem with tax is actually how it is spent. If every penny of it was spent on providing severely disabled people or the homeless or the genuinely needy with care, it would be very fair indeed to describe me as a heartless bastard if I moaned about that. But the fact of the matter is that in a very, very efficient government department, only 50p in every pound actually reaches the mythical front line. It is not uncommon for only 10p in the pound to actually reach the front line.

So, a couple of things that government does really, really wrong, that don't benefit society:

PFI: Everybody will be aware of the Private Finance Initiative, or PFI. This is a scam whereby the government pays over the odds to have services badly delivered by greedy corporate business. There is an additional bonus for the government : PFI activity can be held off the balance sheet. This means that the government can pretend that it doesn't owe as much money as it does. PFI is not the government taking our money and paying someone to have a non-job, this is the government taking our money and funnelling it straight into a business's bank account. How does this benefit anyone?

War: I have no problem with a vigorous defence of the homeland, but countless billions have been poured into utterly pointless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No benefit has been served to the UK. And even if you accept that Iraqis and Afghanis are somehow better off, what about the extraordinary and continued cost in human life that is being paid there?

Foreign Aid: Foreign Aid is actually very rarely anything of the kind. Most of it just winds up funding various UK businesses to deliver arbitrary "services" somewhere else in the world. Most of these are, of course, ludicrously overcharged, but crucially, very little of this money actually winds up benefiting the needy abroad.

"OK, but what about the truly destitute, the homeless, the severely disabled?" Are you saying that if the other 99.5% of society wasn't threatened with the deprivation of its liberty*, not one single person would care enough to try and resolve this? Really? I mean, sure, not every one of the 99.5% in question would care, but I'm damn sure that enough people would care to sort it out.

And further, a complete lack of regulation would also make it easier for people to care and to act on their care. Got a severely-disabled person in your community? Grab a bucket and go collecting. No registering with the charities commission. No permissions to get. No health and safety hi-viz jacket required.

"Oh, but charity isn't enough and it isn't organised enough." Sure, but even with the massive state apparatus that we have now, people slip through the cracks. Do we really need to pay for everything that we currently do, to have the failures that we currently have? Is it heartless of me to say that we could still have that 0.1% of people slip through the cracks for less money? And that the remaining 99.9% of people might all be slightly happier through being wealthier? At what point do we have to justify the decrease in wealth for 99.9% of society for the 0.1% (or whatever it is) that are going to fall through the cracks whether we have a massive state or not?

In fact, I'd argue that having actual, individual people caring about other individual people would make it less likely that people would fall through the cracks than they do now, because some bureaucrat is more interested in some spurious centralised target than caring about actual, individual people.

Look at Baby P -- a massive state organisation exists specifically for situations like that. Yet Baby P was still murdered. Nobody was really accountable for it. This was after all the "lessons were learned" from Victoria Climbie as well.

Another objection I have to the state is the question of how the state should spend its (our) money. Pragmatically, I don't really have a problem with the state funding (say) basic healthcare. The problem is, my definition of basic healthcare is not the same as the next guy. Or the one next to him. And what the state delivers is also not aligned with anyone's definition of basic health care. So, everybody pays (whether they use it or not) and nobody gets what they want. So, rather than try to deliver a state that will make everyone happy (which is impossible to achieve) it's entirely simpler to argue instead that we don't need the state.

Is it heartless of me to believe that people will do the right thing, will care for those is need, without the threat of a jail sentence? I've travelled in Africa where there really is genuine poverty, not the notional "child poverty" crap that we have in the UK, but frightening, depressing, terrifying poverty. And yet those people, who have nothing, manage to take care of their disabled, their dispossessed, their even-more-unfortunates somehow. I cannot for the life of me see why other people would be any different.

"Ah yes, but we're selfish and have a different culture." Sure we do, but the truth of it is that it's in your selfish interest to care and contribute to your community, because without the safety net of a blind, money-spending state, your community is what is going to have to take care of you if things go wrong for you. It is just another case of rational self-interest making the world better for everyone.

It is not heartless to believe in the benefits of self-interest. Self-interest and caring for your own is a fundamental part of any society, it is apparent in all social animals. It does not exclude caring for others. It is folly to pretend self-interest doesn't exist, or to try and crush it under some sort of loftier "common good" ideal. It makes far more sense to let our natural behaviour work for the benefit of all of us.

I don't believe that the absence of a government would cause people to stop caring. Just as now, different people care about different things at different levels. But the absence or presence of a government has no bearing on that, and overall, people will still care just as much as they did before. In fact, I think that people would care more, because they wouldn't have the sop of "I gave at the tax office".

I don't believe that the state achieves no good for society. It would be difficult to do as many things as the state does and not get at least something right. But I don't believe that we need to pay extortion money to a bloated, overbearing, bullying thug to achieve those good things and many more beside. I also believe that we can achieve all of this more efficiently, allowing more resources to go into useful things that will cause humanity to progress and develop faster.

I believe that not having a state will not cause society to descend into Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. The overwhelming majority of us do not require a gun to our head to get along fine.

And I really don't see how any of the above makes me a heartless bastard.

* It fucks me off when I point out that the state's extortion with the menace of depriving of your liberty would be illegal if an individual behaved like that, I invariably get accused of being over-dramatic. But how is it over-dramatic? If I threatened to lock you in a 6'x4' cell for 7 years for not paying me half of your earnings, you would call me an extortionist, wouldn't you? How is it suddenly sanctified because the state is doing it?


Ἕκτωρ said...

Hear hear! If more people thought through it in a rational manner like this and for a second questioned what the state was up to then we might live in a better world. But unforutnatley it seems that everyone has grown up accepting it as normal and worse than that beneficial.

Vladimir said...

Good post... sounds like you've recently been dealing with a few self-righteous people.

But having money is now a sort of sin. If you've got money then you or your family must have cheated somehow, so "logically" you can't be expected to contribute to Society without the threat of imprisonment. You have, after all, already taken more than your "fair" share - clearly you will continue to do so unless forced.

Interesting the self-righteous Decent People say that "prison doesn't work" when applied to blue-collar criminals - burglars, muggers, etc., but simultaneously believe that prison does work when applied to people who work for a living. It's quite contradictory: the white collar criminal steals because he is just evil and greedy, whereas the blue collar criminal steals because he is an innocent victim of the rich.

John W said...

The problem I see here Obo is that libertarians have a set of assumptions which are not necessarily borne out by facts or experience.

The assumption here is that, by removing state influence from our lives (social, economic, personal) people will naturally gravitate toward more sociable, altruistic behaviour and a new sense of social solidarity would be born. Unfortunately the last time the state was 'rolled back', in the 80's, people were found to be far less sociable and charitable than at first assumed. We were exposed as a society of atomised, mistrustful individuals all summed up in the immortal words of an old colleague of mine: "love thy neighbour? Nah, fuck thy neighbour"!

Now any sensible lefty like myself will admit the state is not the panacea for all society's ills and is more often than not a barrier to a culture of social solidarity, personal liberty and responsibility. But these ideas don't just pop out of thin air.

Let's put it this way - if you want a million flowers (or 60 million) to bloom in a libertarian society you've got to plant the seeds first. You can't assume they're already in the ground.

Uncle Marvo said...


Now what are you going to do about it?

JuliaM said...

Superb post!

microdave said...

"Oh, but charity isn't enough and it isn't organised enough."

On the contrary, "charities" in this country are very well organised. I done some trawling around the web as a result of various blog posts, and have been horrified at how interwoven most of them are. They even have their own government department specifically to dish out taxpayers money.

I've downloaded accounts and it quickly becomes difficult to see who's paying who, as they all seem to grant each other money.

Whilst I agree that this is an excellent post, John W does have a point in as much as you really need to start with a blank sheet for libertarianism to work. Our society is too fucked up to expect everyone to suddenly get along nicely with each other...

I am Stan said...

Excellent post Obo,

Freed from the state beast, ways of generating wealth, caring for yourself your family, friends and neighbours is limited only by your own imagination and effort.

Bobski said...

@John W

Saying that the 80's was libertarianism's chance to work is nonsense. Yeah, economic liberty increased somewhat but social liberty didn't and neither did political liberty (granted, there was some issues of political manoeuvring in that).

As a nation, we have had ~120 years of increasing State interference in our lives. People have become used to the 'benevolent', 'caring' state, they aren't going to reorder society to fill the void overnight. It is a typical instance of damage being very quick to do, very slow to undo.

Talk to most libertarians and most of them will telling you that you can't change things overnight.

sixtypoundsaweekcleaner said...

You actually have conversations with lefties? Saints be praised!

I could never have a conversation with my Looney Leftie ex. He was so indoctrinated, so convinced that he was 'on the side of the angels', that I was unable to get a word in edgeways. Well not without braining him one first...

Michael Fowke said...

"One of the most frequent accusations levelled against libertarians in general and me in particular is that we're selfish, heartless bastards who only want to keep all our money for ourselves and everyone else should just get to fuck and starve."

Even though I feel I have a lot of Libertarian qualities, this is my biggest reservation about Libertarianism. The money that any of us earn cannot be earned in a vacuum. We make money by interacting with society. So maybe we should be taxed for the good of society, because money-making is impossible without society.

I suppose you will say we can still have society without the state, but I don't have great faith in the human race. We will end up with a Max Max situation.

The best solution is a very small state with low taxes.

Michael Fowke said...

That should be "Mad Max".

pa_broon74 said...

All eyes on Greece, apparently they're fucked financially. The rich never paid any tax because they could afford to avoid it. Now the poorer are pissed of about that and not paying either.

Mad Max: Beyond the Acropolis anyone?


superioranalyst said...

Good post Obo - enjoyed it. I read somewhere that the public sector employed one million more after Labour's 13 years. Strange but I don't recall any moment in the previous 48 years of my life when I thought: "What we need is loads more public sector workers to provide services I can't even think of." So I would say that more government is the ultimate illustration of the law of diminishing returns. My message to government is "get out of my face", as my elder daughter used to say when I was on her case.

Sue Marsh said...

Are there any developed societies that have no state?
Were times just dandy when there was no or little state?
Did philanthropy cover all our needs?
And if you don't care about any of the things you discuss why are you pleading for snivelling leftie approval? Nay, begging, grovelling even.
"Am I heartless, am I? Don't think that I am, pleeeeaaasse."
Clowny will just have to decide for himself. Called a conscience that is.

dangph said...

Clown, the logic is simple. As everyone knows, lefties are more intelligent and more compassionate than anyone else. That is axiomatic to lefty logic. Now, since you are in the wrong tribe, anything you have to say, no matter how well reasoned it may be, will therefore be stupid and bad. So yes, you are a heartless bastard.

Just Woke Up said...

I was going to write a long and intelligent post extolling the very real virtues of Libertarianism over the current failed political model. No need. I can sum it up briefly. All you lefties and righties and fucking lib dems and whatever - the mess we are in is your mess. You created this. Not me or anyone I know. You did this to me and mine. You suckle at the teet of the EUSSR. You undermine my Laws protecting me from totalitarian sociopaths. You encourage politicos to tax me to the point of breaking, to support your 5 year plans and wars in fucking terror. You demand that I pay my hard earned cash so that the NHS can give beer to alkies, drugs to junkies, anything to medical tourists, and everything translated in 27 languages. You think we get value from our council tax. You say nothing while our public purse is subject to widespread fraud. Our 'democracy' is nothing of the kind. You voted fuckwits to run the show. I didn't.

I rest my case. Hang your heads in fucking shame, or continue to live in denial....cunts!

kitler said...

I dont care if society falls apart without government. It can rebuild itself like it has done for all time. However if I am happy for my taxes to pay for one thing then its the safekeeping of nuclear weapons. I dont see the benefit of them being in private hands.

Danny said...

felt paragraphs 12-19 read like the synopsis for the 'eastenders' pilot wrote by chomsky - but in a parallel dimension, obviously, ---

but like to imagine what did survive his first draft (all details of which channeled thru the powers of bbc warlocks via ouija board) is the fact none of the "residents of albert square" ever mention politics.

Michael Fowke said...

@Danny - Eh?

Anonymous said...

Your faith in society/humanity is truely remarkable, also not sure you knowledge of Africa is quite right...try living there!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Now look at Westminster. Some homeless people are being fed by some charitable Christian people, and Westminster council say it has to stop. Is this a)because the state/council are not in control? b)it is because it is Christians and not a multi something whatever doing it? c)it encourages homeless people in Westminster?

Kingbingo said...

Theory and evidence both suggest
that standards would be better than in state-directed education systems – especially
for the poor. This is not a recipe for perfection. The problem is that the pursuit of
perfection and an intolerance of risk and diversity have led to a situation where
state provision for the poor – the very people the state system was designed
to help – is particularly bad.

Kingbingo said...

I've been called heartless, many times when I suggest removing the state provision of a particular good or service. People simply cannot believe that if the state is not providing say heathcare for the poor that anyone ever would.

Yet when I point out that the state makes no effort to provide food for the poor, yet they are unable to show me all the poor dying of starvation.

I ask them if they really think that another version of Greggs or Tescos would not be providing healthcare to the poor if the states crushing monopoly was removed. But of course, they simply do not want to hear the argument. Its easier to call me heartless than it is to think outside a lifetimes brainwashing from the State/BBC.

sewa mobil said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

Anonymous said...

"Yet when I point out that the state makes no effort to provide food for the poor, yet they are unable to show me all the poor dying of starvation"

I'm not so sure this statement is true. Surely in many cases the benefit system is providing food, shelter ect?

simran said...

been here after a long time. excellent post, Obo.

girl interrupted

low resolution fox said...

There is always a good reason for something obscure and confusing.

Foreign aid? Why would a government go out and pay obscure 3rd world countries which is incredibly corrupt.

Well, if british defence companies continually used to get in trouble for bribing individuals. If you wanted to "clean up" this practice, you would set up a "free aid" process where they could receive the money legally, then corrupt themselves to pieces and we wouldn't be to blame.

Simple, effective and just about moral no?