Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The fundamentally positive view of libertarians

Watching the debate tonight, it struck me (as it has many other libertarians over the years) how fundamentally pessimistic a view both Progressives and Conservatives take of human nature. Libertarians, on the other hand, seem to have a fundementally optimistic view of human nature.

Put simply, the reason why libertarians have such faith in markets (both in the sense of traditionally defined markets, and the analogous markets that arise with liberal personal freedoms) is that they trust individual people to do the right thing more often than not.

Progressives and Conservatives on the other hand often claim to have trust in people to do the right thing. In practice, however, they don't trust people to do what is right, since they fundamentally believe people should be required to act in a way that the leading Progressive or Conservative of the moment thinks is right.

The knock on libertarians, of course, is usually that libertarianism amounts to nothing more than selfish arrogance. To an extent, of course, it is true that libertarianism justifies selfishness;however, the libertarian definition of selfishness is very different from the more popular understanding of the word, since libertarianism rests on the premise of doing no harm to others. There is of course, nothing arrogant about permitting other people to live their lives as they wish. Moreover, libertarianism fundamentally trusts that individuals will frequently act in a selfless manner on their own; the areas in which they act selflessly will, according to market principles, be the areas in which the greatest demand for selfless action exists.

If you ask me, then, it is far more arrogant and selfish to attempt to impose one set of priorities for selfless action on the rest of the population, believing that your one set of priorities should take precedence over any other possible set of priorities a taxpayer may have.

The hypothetical I like to use is that of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In this hypothetical, Bill and Melinda earn $10 billion one year, pre-tax. They then give $9.99 billion to the Foundation, which promptly disburses the money to various worthwhile causes and individuals throughout the world, and particularly in the Third World. As a result of this donation, the Gates' owe far more money in taxes than they actually kept after their donations. My question to both Progressives and Conservatives then becomes: is the government in this situation justified in throwing them into prison for tax evasion? Why or why not?

I know the above hypothetical is rather unrealistic; however, it is theoretically possible, and it is intended to be extreme so as to drive my point home more clearly.