Who do you think should take care of the weak and vulnerable people? For many people, the answer is an authoritarian government. They may not call it “authoritarian” or be consciously thinking of it that way. In the United States, as in many places with political elections, people have been trained to think that they are the government, but that, as Murray Rothbard clearly points out, is an illusion.
Some people may have conceded that they have no influence in governmental affairs, but still try to assume benevolent wisdom on the part of the government. Whether it be a confusion of giving god-like attributes to governmental authorities, or a sense of fatalism that those who claim power are by default sanctioned by a superior being, people often want to believe there are people of superior abilities who will take care of things. They want to believe that centrally planned bureaucracy can implement the help needed or desired. All the evidence indicates that it not only doesn’t, but by the nature of the bureaucracy such charity renders the recipient worse off than before. Once it is admitted that it is power seeking people trying to run things, it gets harder to maintain the illusion of benevolence.
I am using the designation “authoritarian” government to specify a government with power and sanction to use force when people under its control behave in unapproved ways. These behaviors could be anything from eating the wrong thing to not building your house by certain codes. I specifically leave out unapproved behaviors that everyone agrees are wrong, but the authoritative governments engage in themselves, such as murder and theft.
But it is very tempting to cede responsibility to someone who claims they will take care of difficult problems. Even if they abuse their power to put on a show of doing it. Unfortunately, the real result is that an even larger portion of the population is rendered vulnerable due to the inevitable corruption and inefficiency of such concentration of power. Not only does it become increasingly likely that such power will be used arbitrarily, but people lose opportunity and resources to take care of themselves. These are not just minor inconveniences in being able to do what would be done more or less anyway, but gaping holes in the fabric of the economy. The phenomena are no less because people block them out to get on with life.
It is from this understanding of the combined corruption and inadequacy of an authoritarian government (often referred to as “state” power) that any discussion of helping the weak and vulnerable in a free (possibly referred to as libertarian or classically liberal) society should start. A free society would be one in which the sovereignty of the individual would be recognized and practiced. Disagreements would be handled by cooperative arbitration, never involving force unless defense of life or property (the source of maintaining life) made it necessary.
Everyone knows there will always be some people who end up at the mercy of others. Differences in wealth, extremes of age, strategic information, or just raw physical strength will always give some people the upper hand. Unfortunately, some people will abuse this advantage. Then, the question becomes: When and how do we help the weaker person?
This is too often treated as a one dimensional question, but there are really at least 5 key elements to the dilemma.
- Defining who is weak and vulnerable, specifically to the point of a needing intervention.
- Defining abuse.
- Figuring out how to help.
- Evaluating outcomes of intervention.
- Maintaining humility and purity of purpose.
The theoretical scenarios that are usually discussed are unavoidably unrepresentative of real life, even if they are drawn from real life examples. The problem is that once the situation is condensed, it loses important unique characteristics. Without knowing those, it is like asking a doctor to diagnose and treat a patient he has never met and only knows a few words about. There may be principles to guide, but without the personal details and interaction, it is impossible to really know what to do. Similarly, there can be no cut and dry answer for how and when to intervene in other people’s lives.
Before going over the 5 points above in more depth, note that without an authoritarian government some problems are removed. There would be more freedom to help others. There would be no threats of violence if it isn’t done according to regulation. There would be no extra fees for licensing or qualifying. There would be no artificial age limits or categories limiting personal choices. Of course, the personal responsibility and commitment would be greater, but it would have a much higher potential for good results, too.
1. Defining who is weak and vulnerable – There is no way to get around this being a subjective and relative evaluation. Almost everyone is vulnerable to someone else. It becomes very important to know the situation as completely as possible. There is great risk in going by hearsay or by information of only one person involved. It is too easy to come to the wrong conclusions based on our own experiences or limited perspectives. The baby that seems to be starving may have a medical condition that complicates things. That child who claims a parent is mean may be selfish at home in ways not exhibited to the general public. Obviously people really do hurt each other, but it is important to be aware of hidden factors.
2. Defining abuse – It would be best if everyone admitted that relationships are not cookie-cutter. Families are units that defy social boundaries that are normal for non-family interactions. Marriages are unique blends of personalities and cultures. It is probably not going to be easy to decide unequivocally that a supposed abuse means an outsider has a moral basis to use force to stop it. Just because we don’t agree with a certain approach to relationships or family life does not make it dangerously abusive.
3. Figuring out how to help – This is really what it all comes down to. Should the vulnerable person be removed? Should counsel and assistance be offered to all involved? Should action be taken against a perpetrator? Should the vulnerable person be supported through the situation? Does anyone really want help? Can long term help be given and will it be accepted?
4. Evaluating outcomes of intervention – It may seem like an immediate need to pull someone out of the way of a harm, but then what? Have things accidentally been made worse? Has action been taken that will make it less likely they will make their own good choices in the future? Have they been robbed of an important learning experience for something they will inevitably have to learn to deal with? Has someone else been exposed to equal or greater harm because of the intervention? Surely, a risk must sometimes be taken in the moment, when our best moral judgement at the time has to be good enough, but it should be done with an understanding that there may be other consequences that we are going to be at least morally responsible for.
5. Maintaining humility and purity of purpose – A good dose of humility, and a conscious decision to not be taking action for our own honor can go a long way toward keeping our decisions about how to help others completely about making the best decision for them. It is fine to think we can be of assistance, due to advice or action, but if we are arrogant, we are more likely to blind ourselves to crucial details. This is distinct from a contract that has been arranged by individuals to arrange for help on their own behalf, which could be set up as an economic exchange.
Some people seem to think that deciding how to help the weak and vulnerable is the weakest link in libertarian thought. I suggest it is no more or less complicated than any decision about when to use force for our own defense. Or when to decide whether or not to do business with someone with whom there is major disagreement. There will never be any exact formula for any of these things. Each person will be left to make his or her own best moral judgement in the face of a specifically unique set of circumstances. However, with more individual freedom, there can be much more creativity in problem solving. That is always a good thing.