Needful Things

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Viviane at TPM Cafe marvels, a bit awestruck, at the lapidary perfection of Rep. Rush Holt's pronouncement that "The essential role of government is to provide for its citizens in their time of need." She adds:

I'm amazed at the simplicity and the forcefulness of the concep--we have governments in order to help citizens in their time of need! That's the basic principle; everything else is policy details. I suspect we can agree on the principle, even if we disagree on the implementation of it.

"Simplicity and forcefulness" is one way to put it. "Vacuity" is another. As the post makes pretty clear, anything government does might, trivially, be characterized as a response to a need—for dispute resolution, domestic security, healthcare, or, presumably, the need to have your nose wiped when you've got a sniffle. Whatever "unifying" power this principle might have is a function of its meaninglessness: What counts as a "need"? Which is government responsible for? (Does anyone think it's literally any and all?) What if putative needs conflict? (One cute but basically apt definition of economics, after all, is the allocation of finite resources to infinite human wants and needs.) What sort of help should it provide and how? These aren't policy details to be hashed out at the margins; they're the whole content of an otherwise empty principle. One might add: a dangerously empty principle, since it leaves the scope of government pretty much unlimited.

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  1. Is there ever a time of no-need?

  2. I need a beer.

  3. Whenever I make the suggestion that the reponsibility to help others in their time of need remains a controversial point, Phil and/or fyodor fly into a rage, and type furious rants about how I'm slandering libertarians, who care about their fellow man just as much as any liberal.

    Since they go on for some length, roughly half the time, a randroid or other right libertarian manages to get a "my money's mine, why should I care about people who don't want to work" comment in before their comments post.

    So no, Julian, I'm not buying it. I've seen plenty of Democratic lefties who just absolutely refuse to believe that anyone in the Progressive Student Union could really be a communist, and I think this is your version.

  4. I suspect we can agree on the principle

    Er, no.

  5. I hope Holt isn't gonna bogart that doobie, I need some too....

  6. joe,

    Government enforced societal responsibility is the objection. A person may object to Government handouts and believe it is their duty to help others in a time of need. They may also believe that everyone else should feel this way, but yet not approve of a Government that mandates they must feel this way.

  7. "Whenever I make the suggestion that the reponsibility to help others in their time of need remains a controversial point, Phil and/or fyodor fly into a rage, and type furious rants about how I'm slandering libertarians, who care about their fellow man just as much as any liberal."

    What you are seeing from the harsh folks is partially Randian knee-jerkism, and partly an attempt to express a very complicated emotion from a position of defense. Libertarians spend a lot of time fighting the 'selfish' label. Randians respond that there is nothing wrong with being selfish and that's that. The truth, at least from my perspective, is that the position is more complicated.

    Need does not and can not impose altruistic moral obligations on a free person. So, when you suggest that there is a responsibility to do something because others need something from you, I don't know exactly what you mean. Iraqis need something. Africans need something. The moral case is not that clear to most libertarians.

    The idea that libertarians don't care as much as other people is similarly complicated. Many libertarians argue what they argue for precisely the reason that they believe the greatest benefit will arise from liberty. Others believe that liberty is the greatest good, and that stepping on it to salve short term pain is unwise. Too, there are those who operate from principles alone, who argue that each of us helps to the extent it makes us feel good - including the bleeding heart liberal.

  8. MP,

    Save your keystrokes. Were joe capable of understanding the difference, he would have done so by now.

  9. I have always depending on the kindness of strangers.

  10. depended

  11. People out there need new organs (livers, corneas, etc). Everyone with two kidneys report to a govt health clinic to have their 'excess' one forcibly removed and given to someone who needs it.

    Anyone need bone marrow that I can forcibly remove from someone else for you, if you vote for me?

  12. "Government enforced societal responsibility is the objection." That's one objection, MP. It certainly doesn't seem to be RC Dean's only objection.

  13. Jason Ligon,

    "Need does not and can not impose altruistic moral obligations on a free person."

    If being free involves shedding my soul like that, I'll pass.

  14. If being free involves shedding my soul like that, I'll pass.

    Joe, if you have to be forced by the government to give, it's unlikely you've got much of a soul in the first place.

  15. Joe,
    I think that's a little more complicated than it first appears. As a libertarian, I recognize two distinct categories of obligation: obligations that are moral in nature and obligations that should be enforced by the law. For example: I believe you have mentioned before that you are Catholic. As a Catholic, I believe you have certain moral obligations defined by church doctrine, such as the obligation not to divorce (or remarry afterward), not to use contraception, etc. These are certainly obligations according to your faith, and there are certain reasons related to your personal faith that lead you to fulfill these obligations or not. However, I do not think that you or anyone else would argue that they are matters which should be enforced by force of law, or that they are not really obligations because no government is making sure that you live up to them. I would not argue that moral and ethical obligations such as charity do not exist- they do. However, they should not be a matter of law, and people should not be coerced into fulfilling them. If I interpret your position correctly, you seem to be saying that in order for a moral obligation to exist, it must be enforceable by force of law. I, and many other libertarians I know (some of whom are Christian and some of whom are not) would disagree. We do not live in an ethical vacuum with the idea that we should do nothing for other people. Rather, we have many moral and ethical obligations, but only a few obligations that involve questions of what the law should be.

  16. While I respect Rep. Holt for being a 5-time Jeopardy Champion, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that his pithy statement is a bit too close to "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need" for my tastes.

  17. "If being free involves shedding my soul like that, I'll pass."

    But you ignore the needy all the time, as do we all. You do not sacrifice yourself to bare subsistence and give unto the needy, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

    I do think there is more to my statement than what you are reading - namely the altruistic part and the complications around need. An altruistic society is a suicidal one, and need can't be the right measure.

    To me, the obligation we have is to act to reduce misery in the aggregate. Such a moral standard is compatible with libertarian notions of achievement whereas demands of altruism are not. Sacrifice from everyone means misery for everyone.

  18. Do they lack any logical understanding of the consequences of one's actions? Do they even think before they write? Do they even realize the history of those who thought this way before? Who is going to create resouces to fulfill this "need"? Who defines what one "needs"? . . .

    Just proves one thing. That yes - One person may know nothing as an individual. But put Two or more together, and the sum will equal less than nothing.

  19. Ayup - simple and elegant and wrong. Do people like Holt or Viviane ever stop to consider the effects of the policies they endorse? If the role of government is to give stuff to those in need, then it becomes more profitable to need than to do. Besides which, how do they propose to ensure that help will only go to those who really "need" it? If they don't trust our current government to do the right thing, why would they trust any other government not to decide, say, "Halliburton NEEDS another $100B contract"?

  20. "Joe, if you have to be forced by the government to give, it's unlikely you've got much of a soul in the first place."

    I don't, mediageek. I'm not the one making the argument that we have no obligation to other people. But, sadly, there really are people like RC Dean. We need the government to make the cheap bastards cough up.

    Lisa Marie, "If I interpret your position correctly, you seem to be saying that in order for a moral obligation to exist, it must be enforceable by force of law." You misread me - I do not believe that ALL moral obligations should be enforced by law. There are moral obligations that are not legal obligations (like getting your mother something for her birthday), there are legal obligations that are not moral obligations (like certain types of record keeping), and there are obligations that are both moral and legal.

    Also, I am quite aware that there are libertarians who recognize their obligations to the rest of the world. My point is, there is also a strong strain among you who do not, and there seems be a great deal of denial about that fact.

    Jason, I don't disagree at all with your comment at 9:30, except insofar as it attaches to a sloppy "market exchange is the only sufficient and the only necessary force for benefitting humanity."

  21. Which is to say, Jason, that the massive imbalance between one's obligations and one's capacity is 1) a constant and irrefutable existential crisis, and 2) the primary reason why collective action to benefit the needy is an ethical mandate.

  22. joe,

    Where we'll have to agree to disagree is that I don't believe that humans have an inherent moral obligation that they must help others in their time of need. Although I may not like it when someone chooses to never be charitable, I abhor the notion of forcing them to be charitable.

    I also don't live in denial that many libertarians adopt a Randian "Virtue of Selfishness" position whereby they feel it is morally wrong to ever be charitable. I think that to never be charitable misinterprets the intent of Objectivist philosophy, but c'est la vie.

  23. Objectivism Blows hard. While I agree with a number of the positions it holds, it sucks for the same reason all other fundamentalist religions and pseudo-religions like Communism suck, because of the blind faith and Lemming-like personality it inculcates in its followers. It takes some good ideas from Libertarianism and all the worst elements of a cult and puts them together to make something that is jsut weird. I'd think real open-minded libertarians would do well to just disassociate ourselves totally from those who want to make our political ideas into a religion.

  24. We need the government to make the cheap bastards cough up.

    Why? By what right do you or anyone else have the power to redistribute the hard-won resources of others?

    As MP said, I think this is an agree-to-disagree situation, but I have yet to hear a rational argument for why people should be forced, ostensibly at gunpoint, to give up some of their resources.

    And even among the most rational utilitarians, I have never seen them delinate a stopping point. At what point have we made the "cheap bastards" cough up too much?

  25. And that should read "delineate." Blah.

  26. You know, you can get away with saying things like that because people are, quite naturally, pretty blown away by the magnitude of a Katrina-type disaster. But, honestly, what it amounts to is a lot of people dying, losing loved ones, losing property, and losing jobs. These are all legitimate concerns, but there's no way the government can provide for everyone who goes through even one of those things, so what it ends up with is the government taking care of you in your time of (well-publicized) need.

  27. One might add: a dangerously empty principle, since it leaves the scope of government pretty much unlimited.

    Well, Julian, that seems to be pretty much the point.

  28. "Why? By what right do you or anyone else have the power to redistribute the hard-won resources of others?"

    Based on the most ancient of social contracts, that between rich and poor: the rich make sure the poor aren't living lives of misery, and the poor don't string them up by their own intestines.

    "I have yet to hear a rational argument for why people should be forced, ostensibly at gunpoint, to give up some of their resources." Because Person A having enough food to give to her kids is more important than Person B having the leather seats in his Jaguar.

    "At what point have we made the "cheap bastards" cough up too much?" As with everything related to money, we look at it on utilitarian grounds: inequality is justified to the extent that it benefits the people at the bottom. Which is quite a ways short of levelling, I'd like to add.

  29. Joe, so what you're saying is that might makes right?

  30. "As with everything related to money, we look at it on utilitarian grounds: inequality is justified to the extent that it benefits the people at the bottom. Which is quite a ways short of levelling, I'd like to add."

    Inequality doesn't matter at all. One of those areas where we will just disagree is Rawlsian utility. Misery in the the aggregate is a phrase carefully chosen to indicate that the people on the bottom are not the only relevant people. If I put on the veil of ignorance, I would prefer to live in a place of dynamism to a place where I could be ensured middle class.

  31. As for the cheap bastards, a personally felt obligation is not in any way projectable onto the Scrooge's of the world. You can view with disdain in the same way you may view habitual destructive drug abuse with disdain, but even if we can agree on a moral standard that makes Scrooge McDuck an ass hole, moral judgements are a private affair.

    Another of those areas where we will disagree is around the idea of societal obligations - that entity referred to when people say 'we have an obligation to help the needy'. The assertion of a collective will causes more problems than it solves from an ethical standpoint.

  32. I'm amazed at the simplicity and the forcefulness of the concept--we have governments in order to help citizens in their time of need!

    From the US Declaration of Independence: "...that in order to protect these rights governments are formed among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

    That's the basic principle; everything else is policy details. I suspect we can agree on the principle, even if we disagree on the implementation of it.

    But there's the rub. Folks who feel an obligation to help citizens in time of need tend to reserve the responsibility to determine what those needs are. Thus we have disagreements between those who, for instance, feel obligated to make sure everyone uses contraception and those who feel obligated to make sure use of contraception is prohibited.

    Joe: I'm not the one making the argument that we have no obligation to other people. But, sadly, there really are people like RC Dean. We need the government to make the cheap bastards cough up.

    Really? As I wade through Katrina articles I keep hearing relief agencies say they've been overwhelmed with donations. And the government response to offers of assistance in myriad forms has been a universal, "Go away. We don't want any help."

    In this case in particular the government has "served peoples needs" by shoving M-16s up their nose, confiscating whatever resources they had to handle their own needs, forcing them into government-run and poorly-organized refugee camps, and prohibiting them from setting up communications. Thanks but no thanks.

    Also, I am quite aware that there are libertarians who recognize their obligations to the rest of the world. My point is, there is also a strong strain among you who do not, and there seems be a great deal of denial about that fact.

    What obligations do I as an individual have to "the rest of the world?" Should I have spent the last forty years checking on the levees in New Orleans to make sure they were maintained? Was there anyone living in New Orleans concerned whether the flash-flood warning system on the Upper Guadalupe river was working?

    Or would it make a whole lot more sense for the folks who opened their doors and looked up at the tops of the levees to worry about them, while I spent my time bugging the (local) Upper Guadalupe River Authority?

    Which is to say, Jason, that the massive imbalance between one's obligations and one's capacity is 1) a constant and irrefutable existential crisis, and 2) the primary reason why collective action to benefit the needy is an ethical mandate.

    • Yes, the need in the world is orders of magnitude greater than I am individually capable of dealing with. Particularly since the most effective way to alleviate most of that need is to discontinue the government policies causing it.
    • It is absolutely correct that collective action is necessary when need is widespread. It is not evident that the collective action requires government control. Volunteer agencies such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army have a much better record to responding to survivor's real needs than FEMA.

    "I have yet to hear a rational argument for why people should be forced, ostensibly at gunpoint, to give up some of their resources."
    Because Person A having enough food to give to her kids is more important than Person B having the leather seats in his Jaguar.

    Not if Person A lacks food because she no longer has her job making leather seats for Jaguars.

  33. Nicely put, Larry.

  34. Nicely put, Larry.

    I would like to add: Hear, hear! And bravo.

  35. Eric and Stevo, you realize you're just saying that coz you're cheap bastards like RC Dean.

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