Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Libertarians and Charity

   One area where libertarians (and a lot of conservatives can be included in this discussion as there tends to be a fair amount of overlap in this area) really upset me is in the area of charity. They often act like they are caring, compassionate people. However, their arguments tend to suggest otherwise. The general Libertarian position is that individual people should decide where to donate their money and that government should stay out of the process. An example to the right is from Penn Jillette (who I will refer to on a first-name basis, as that seems to be how he likes to be addressed). This particular statement is a bit more aggressive than typical Libertarian sentiments, but it should help give you an idea what such arguments are like. I'll go into Penn's particular argument later, but for now I'll cover the problems with the general arguments.

They provide anecdotes to prove their point.

   Libertarians like Penn often like to give examples of people (they often include themselves) or organizations that do good charitable work. These are known as anecdotes. The problem with this is that anecdotes can never prove a position. I once saw anecdotes compared to manure. The analogy said it doesn't matter how high you stack manure, it's still a pile of shit. Another slick saying is "The plural of 'anecdote' is not 'evidence.'" In case you didn't learn this in high school math classes (or you have forgotten), there is a very similar concept in mathematical proofs. "Enumerating many confirmatory cases," which is what anecdotes are, does not work to prove an axiom. On the flip side, it only takes one case to disprove an axiom. On that, I can give anecdotes that go against the Libertarian ideas. I am one who thinks it is a good idea to give to charity (though I will admit I only donate a lousy 1-2% or so of my income), so I can even use myself as an example. If I were to be taxed less, I likely would not much more to charity but rather spend more on myself. But there are worse examples. I have friends who I am sure donate less than I do. One even told me, when I was trying to encourage him to give, that he donates to single mothers. By that he meant strippers. In other words, he had no interest in giving to charity. As Penn is attributed as saying, "If we are compassionate" (emphasis mine), but what if we're not?

   I hope this begins to demonstrate the problem with anecdotes. Another way to look at it is that it often leads to confirmation bias. In other words, they give examples that confirm their beliefs while ignoring those that disconfirm. What would be more useful are statistics. Statistics attempt to determine the attitude or behavior of a large group based on a small sample of that group, but, most importantly, statistics are supposed to avoid confirmation bias. For that reason, I'd like to see libertarians provide statistics rather than anecdotes. This also brings me to my next point...

They don't bother to discuss effectiveness of individual charity vs. government assistance.

   All too often, libertarians will just argue that government shouldn't be involved in charity work. They don't ever seem to be interested as to the effectiveness of government. Unfortunately, I think they try to play off of pessimistic views toward government—views that government is incompetent and that individuals can do better without having to prove it*.

   One such example of a libertarian simply saying government should not be involved is one I've briefly alluded to in the past. That is of Ron Paul claiming that Social Security is unconstitutional. Yet, I've never seen Paul suggest we have debate or even encourage debate as to whether or not it should be constitutional. No, he declares it unconstitutional and essentially leaves it at that. Oh, and, of course, has likewise suggests that individuals and/or communities are supposed to take care of the elderly with no discussion of how effective the two methods are.

   In the case of the Penn Jillette quote, he talks about how it's not compassionate to have the government handle things or claiming government "forces" people to do things, by which I assume is a euphemism for "requires people to pay taxes." Nothing in this discusses effectiveness. I suspect the reason for this leads me to my next point...

* This is, ultimately, I think the big problem libertarians have—they don't actually have any arguments to persuade people to their way of thinking. Instead, they are just preaching to the choir. In other words, the only people who find such ideas impressive are those who already have that mindset.

They seem to be worried more about personal gratification than doing the most good.

   The quote I provided that is attributed to Penn is a good example of this. He says, "You get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right." So what? Let's just say hypothetically for a moment that the government is much more effective at helping the hungry, poor, etc. than organizations funded through individual charity. If you truly cared about helping people, what would you promote? Government or individual charity? I would hope you realize that the correct answer is "Government." Would it really matter if you get no "moral credit"? I hope the obvious answer is "No." Yet, libertarians, in general, seem to find credit to be more important.

   And this, perhaps by far, is the part about charity that libertarians piss me off the most. If government can take care of people more than personal charity, then government is the moral way to go because taking care of people should be more important than an individual receiving "moral credit." Worse, there are negative implications to setting moral credit as the top priority. If moral credit is the primary goal, then seeing an end to a need for charity falls of the goal list completely. The reason for this is fairly simple: In order to receive moral credit, one must give to charity; but, in order to give to charity, there needs to be a charity in which to give. And, of course, for there to be a charity, there has to be a need for charity. So libertarians need the need for charity. I have a problem with this. Correction: I have a moral objection to this!

   There are more potential moral problems in regards to why one would have moral credit as a high priority, but I'll go into that more when I address Penn's quote in more detail. For now, I'd like to go on to my last point...

They imply that charity has to be supplied one way or another (by government or by an individual), but not both

   With the way libertarians deliver their message, they give me the feeling that they see charity with an "one way or the other, but not both" approach. Why not both? (Which is what we currently have, of course!) Why can't we have at least some government effort so that friends like mine who's sense of compassion only reaches as far as "supporting single mothers" have to contribute and those who are generous (or "compassionate") can still find charities to satisfy their need for moral credit. And if libertarians are genuinely compassionate, why would this be a problem?

Implications and more on Penn Jillette's quote

   With all of this, there are some potential negative implications one can derive when thinking thoroughly about Libertarian arguments.
  1. Libertarians aren't truly as compassionate as they insinuate.

       I have no issue with Penn suggesting that compassionate people will provide help, but what is with these claims about "government using guns"? The first problem with this is that government is not using guns. This, again, must be referring to the idea that government requires people to pay taxes, but it is quite shameful for someone who appears to consider himself part of the skeptical community to use such a charged appeal to emotions. From what I've discussed earlier, I would be more than willing to give money to the government if that is the more effective method for helping people. All the government would have to do is ask; they don't even need to "force" me to at gunpoint. I'm willing to give them the money because I am compassionate.

       Which brings me to this idea Penn gives for what it means to be compassionate. I disagree with him. He says, "Helping poor and suffering people yourself is compassion." I might say much the same, except I would drop out the word "yourself." I find compassion to come from seeing the desired end being achieved. Yet Penn seems to think it comes through the means. Let's actually take a moment to see how the word is defined in a dictionary: "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering." Based on this definition, if I am compassionate, and government giving people money will alleviate suffering, how is it wrong to vote for government to do so? It would seem Penn is using some definition of the word that does not match this dictionary definition.

       In which case, I must correct myself. Perhaps libertarians are compassionate! ...They just use some meaning of the word that differs from what most people use. This leads to equivocation issues. With the definition I use, which is pretty much aligned with the dictionary definition, the means don't matter much—at least not in the terms of "compassion"—as long as the goal is achieved. (Obviously the means matter to some extent; I don't want to see, for example, the alleviation of suffering at the expense of the suffering of others. That would make no sense. But then that wouldn't see the end goal achieved, either! I find this is a case where the ends do justify the means, because any means that would cause suffering would not achieve the ends. Oh, and I would not call rich people having to pay more in taxes "suffering," which libertarians like Penn might.)

       And I must say I suspect Penn understands this, which is why he uses the emotionally charged language he does toward government. He wants to give the impression that using the means of government causes others to suffer and the way in which they suffer is through supposedly being held at gunpoint and being bullied. He has to give the impression that he is truly suffering as opposed to just being a whiny crybaby. If I'm right about this suspicion, I would then speculate that Penn is deliberately lying to make his case. As I said before, I would be willing to give the government money if they can do an effective job of alleviating suffering. They are not holding me at gunpoint or bullying me. I only can think of two groups that would view the government as a bully. (And if anyone thinks of a third group, please let me know. I don't want to be committing a false dichotomy.) The first group is people who are not compassionate, which brings us back to the start of this point. As they have no interest in alleviating suffering, they won't want to see their money used for such tasks. The second group is people who have a distrust of government, or, at the very least, a belief that government is incompetent. I suppose I'm hopeful that libertarians fall in that later group more often than the former; yet, I find myself pessimistic.

       Lastly, I recently saw Susan Jacoby claim on "UP w/ Chris Hayes" (starting at time mark 18:10) that "the Ayn Rand people give the least of anybody." She is likely talking about secular libertarians* here. Now, since she said this on TV, I don't know what her source is for this information. It would not surprise me the least if it were true. But that means many Libertarians apparently fall in that first group mentioned in the last paragraph. (Jacoby had also said that religious conservatives give more than religious Liberals; it is unclear, without knowing her source, where the religious libertarians fall.)

    * Yes, yes! I realize that not all libertarians agree with Ayn Rand. I'm generalizing and I suspect Jacoby may have been doing the same. UPDATE: I forgot that Penn Jillette described Ayn Rand's objectivism using terms such as "whack job" and "nut". So while it would seem Penn has many beliefs similar to objectivism, he may not agree with taking such beliefs to such an extreme.
    UPDATE: Or, perhaps Penn was actually making fun of himself. I have seen it claimed that Penn & Teller "used to carry a dogeared copy of Atlas Shrugged around on tour." /UPDATE

  2. Libertarians are more concerned with power, control, and self-gratification.

       I've already touched on this idea about self-gratification with the way libertarians seem to be concerned with receiving "moral credit," but I find it worth repeating. Why do libertarians care? If the goal is to see the alleviation of suffering, why is who gets the credit important? I unfortunately suspect the reason is many libertarians are selfish.

       Also, one argument I hear libertarians use when one suggests to them that government should do more to alleviate suffering is that they disagree because they want to spend their money how they see fit. This bring me first to the idea of power and control. Much like the idea of needing moral credit, such arguments suggest the libertarian prioritizes having a say in (this is even more likely the case if a church and religious proselytizing is involved) over effectiveness of charity. As before, I have a moral objection to this as I think libertarians have such priorities backwards. If you are really compassionate, helping others should tend to come before self (I hope it is obvious one should not donate oneself into poverty—that would defeat the purpose). Also note that the argument isn't "I think government is too incompetent to do such work." This is the argument I would expect if libertarians fell into that second category I presented in the last point. Unfortunately, it makes me suspect even more that many libertarians are not very compassionate.

   On that, I have a challenge to offer to any libertarian reading this post. Please demonstrate to me that you are a charitable, compassionate person. I am now taking part in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Light the Night walk. As of this posting, I have a widget in my right sidebar. Please help me raise money for my goal of $500. After that, please also add a comment to this post indicating that you are a libertarian who is compassionate. Now, as I've made clear that anecdotes don't count as evidence, such donations won't help me by into libertarian arguments. But at least it may ease some of the bitter feelings I hold toward libertarians. If that is worth enough to you, please give! I have also gone about trying to set a precedent by donating myself. Currently I am short on money and could only donate $25, but I plan on putting in another $100 within a couple of weeks. I would hope compassionate Libertarians can at least match that $25 amount.
UPDATE: $500 goal has been reached when including offline donations. But please contribute anyway! /UPDATE

UPDATE: I found the source of the quote from my earlier post. It appears to be a response to his interview with Piers Morgan back around August of last year, which is actually the interview from which I based some of my thoughts of Penn in that post, particularly with how he used anecdotal evidence during that interview. (I actually posted the first part of that interview on this blog. The video I embedded is apparently no longer available, but the links to other videos still work.)

   The odd part of this piece is that Penn also says, "What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist — I don't know. If I don't know, I don't believe." I agree that works for atheism because atheism is the null hypothesis, but how does that work for libertarianism? What's the null hypothesis in political theory? Is he seriously trying to suggest that libertarianism is the null hypothesis?!? But more importantly, how does someone who doesn't know get by saying this: "Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness." It sounds like he "knows" more than he initially claims. Based on this and things he said for the Reason Rally, I have noticed that Penn has seemingly contradictory views when it comes to politics. (Particularly, in the video for the Reason Rally, he says it is atheists we are truly moral because "we are doing good because it is good and we are doing right because it is right and not for reward or punishment." Yet, in the quote above, he is concerned with moral credit, which would be a reward. Granted, not an afterlife in heaven for eternity, but a reward nonetheless.) To be blunt, I suspect his libertarian position is more based on a dogmatic distrust for government than a reason-based conclusion. /UPDATE

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