Libertarians frequently have to deal with the contention that they really just hate poor people. Whether you happen to be a libertarian or not, you’ve no doubt seen this argument. Why don’t libertarians support the minimum wage? Why, they must just hate poor people. Why don’t they support rent control? Yep, they hate poor people. Why don’t they support more public education spending? They must just not care about equal opportunity–which is to say, once more, they hate poor people.
It’s not a productive response, but it is a convenient one. Obviously, it is much easier to assume someone who disagrees with you is evil and stupid, than it is to assume they actually share many of your same values and just have an honest and considered opinion of their own. The first path cuts off the possibility of discussion; the second all but requires it.
The reality is that many libertarians really do care about the issues of poverty and social mobility. It might not be their primary issue (for instance, foreign policy would take precedent for me), but it’s definitely there. It’s why a substantial number of the posts on this blog deal with economic issues, often with an eye towards explaining how superficially appealing policies tend to ultimately harm the middle class and the poor the most.
In other words, the libertarian opposition to a given regulation generally isn’t formed out of indifference or contempt for those in poverty. Rather, it stems from a different understanding of economics and a consideration of the long-term as well as the short-term effects. And it is this approach that often leads us to conclude that even the most well-intentioned policies can sabotage the very people they attempt to help.
I was reminded of all this recently when I read an article by libertarian news personality John Stossel. In the article, he describes his improbable lunch, and impromptu debate, with none other than Hillary Clinton while they were both on vacation in the Caribbean.
The topic at hand was a local issue regarding a group of immigrant workers who had decided to live in cheap, crowded shipping containers to save money. On one side of the debate–Hillary’s side–people advocated for regulations that would outlaw such living arrangements in favor of housing that met higher standards. On the other were libertarians like Stossel, arguing that outlawing cheap living arrangements might prevent immigrants from being able to afford any place to live at all.
It’s a fun read, and it highlights one of the needless tensions that seems to exist between leftists and many libertarians. At least on the issue of poverty, we all want the same thing. The question is not whether anyone cares; the question is which ideas are the most likely to actually help. The sooner we understand this, the better.
Stossel’s article is available here: