Libertarian-splaining to the Poor

Kevin Carson
Libertarian-splaining to the Poor

In a video produced by the Future of Freedom Foundation (“The Libertarian Angle: Do Libertarians Really Hate the Poor?“), Jacob Hornberger and Richard Ebeling obviously intend a smashing, unanswerable rejoinder to the left-wing stereotype of right-libertarians as “pot-smoking Republicans” who hate the poor. Sadly, it only reaffirms that stereotype. It’s exactly what left-wing critics of libertarianism have — unfortunately — come to expect. It’s the kind of by-the-numbers “how libertarians want to help the poor” argument that any parodist at The Onion could satirize effortlessly — and probably has.

Every single item in their discussion is on the same general theme: making the rich even richer or otherwise empowering them so they can help the poor. Of course they tip their hat to the existence of some “corporatism” in the Gilded Age, but go on to treat it as a marginal phenomenon in a system that was mostly laissez-faire. Indeed the defining characteristics that made the Gilded Age “laissez-faire” were 1) the lack of welfare for the poor (with the unfortunate exception of Civil War pensions), and 2) the ability of the super-rich to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth.

In a tired replay of Republican “job creators” rhetoric, Ebeling and Hornberger argue that the best way to help the poor is to encourage the rich to amass huge piles of capital so that they can afford to hire lots of poor folks. And if the rich got rich enough they could also afford to give more to charity! One shining example of how the “free market” helped the poor in the Gilded Age — I kid you not — was that some plutocrats donated money to build giant churches where the poor could “worship God in their own ways.”

The same theme is repeated — over and over and over — to the point of nausea, from beginning to end of this interview. Business interests and the rich are the drivers of economic progress and prosperity. If you want to help the poor, let the rich accumulate enough capital to create jobs, and give to charity. Give the capitalists the ability to create full employment by allowing them to pay labor as little as it’s worth! Hornberger and Ebeling focus entirely on all the ways that the interventionist state ostensibly helps the poor by redistributing income downwards in the form of welfare, minimum wages and such, and the unintended consequences that actually hurt the poor.

Individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker once said of Herbert Spencer that “amid his multitudinous illustrations … of the evils of legislation, he in every instance cites some law passed, ostensibly at least, to protect labor, alleviate suffering, or promote the people’s welfare…” The more things change… Entirely missing from this discussion is the primary, upward form of income redistribution from poor to rich, through structural intervention to reduce the bargaining power of labor and increase the monopoly returns on accumulated property — a redistribution which dwarfs, many times over, compensatory downward forms of redistribution through the welfare state. Missing are the fundamental ways the state has been in structural alliance with capital — not just some hand-waving at “crony capitalism” and “corporatism” — since the beginning of capitalism five or six hundred years ago.

Throughout the entire thing, I kept expecting one of them to repeat the old chestnut from George Frederick Baer: “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for… by the Christian men of property to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the Country.” I’m at a loss as to how this video differs significantly from any garden variety post-WWII “The Wonders of Our Free Enterprise System” propaganda film put out by the National Association of Manufacturers. There is absolutely nothing in here that would cause any left-wing critic of libertarianism to say anything but “Yep — about what I expected.”

It’s this kind of reflexive apologetic for business interests and the rich on the libertarian right that left-libertarianism arose to counter in the first place.


  1. The equation is, in fact. very simple.

    Excessive concentration of wealth will lead inevitably and ineluctably to oligarchy. In turn this will just as inevitably … perhaps almost necessarily … lead to corruption, abuse and oppression. It will also lead to cartel, oligopoly and monopoly.

    The individual and social interest can only be reconciled when political and economic power (is there any sensible point of demarcation between the two?), and highly fragmented, devolved and localised. In any event a proper Smithean ‘free market’ can only function in such a situation.

    If we had a proper system of referendum on demand, probably somewhere along Swiss lines, then people would be perfectly correct in strictly limiting the size and reach of any institution.

  2. A free market should be open to everyone and not just a few. The one thing Mrs Thatcher got right was to encourage free market and competition for all. Sadly, this has transformed to crony capitalism under Blair, Brown and now Cameron.

    A free market is the only way we can stop the welfare state and encourage people to look after themselves financially.

  3. Wow, “structural intervention to reduce the bargaining power of labor” doing A LOT of work in this piece. This coming from the same Kevin Carson who believes that every job in the U.S, for example, should be subject to a 7 billion person competition, and that any objection is racism. (Carson rarely misses an opportunity to call somebody a racist.) Wouldn’t that, you know, lower the wages? Wouldn’t that guarantee paying labour as little as it is worth?

    The “super-rich” hiring lots of poor people is bad, unless it’s good.

    Inequality is bad, therefore import as much of it as possible.

    Wealth….. is bad? If obtained unjustly, of course, but with a strong hint of animus against the wealthy for just being wealthy. (The left-libertarians secretly believe that all wealth i.e all inequality will disappear when the competition is made fair, and this thrills them.)

    The “income” of the poor is distributed upwards to the rich, somehow. Within the U.S you understand, Carson doesn’t consider the world’s bottom billion to be “the poor,” just Americans who earn whatever he earns.

    Hornberger rarely gets beyond slogans, though, it’s true. The exemplar of “vulgar libertarianism”.

    • Kevin Carson has become something of a leftist in recent years, and I find some of his writing less interesting than used to be the case. Even so, he does have a valuable perspective that I , for one, might not have seen without his early writings. We do not live in a free market, and we should not automatically defend actual outcomes as if they were as ethically pure as they would be in a free market.

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