Ethical Dilemma: Motorcycle Helmets: Libertarianism
Should the government enforce safety on actions that only affects the individual who chooses that action?
Utilitarians think that the right thing to do is whatever produces the greatest amount of happiness. Libertarians disagree. They think that we must never violate anyone’s rights—even if doing so would increase overall happiness.
According to libertarians, the greatest threat to individual rights comes from the government. You should be able to drive without a seat belt if you want. The government has no business giving you a ticket. That’s unacceptably paternalist. And if you want to use drugs or engage in deviant sexual practices, you should be free to do so, provided you don’t violate anyone else’s rights in the process. The government has no business passing moralistic legislation. It shouldn’t tell you how to live your life. Most importantly, the government should never tax for redistributive purposes. Redistributive taxation is theft. Taking your earnings and giving it to other people is like forcing you to work for those people. Libertarians say it’s almost like slavery. Libertarians make strong claims. But are they right about rights?
Utilitarians think that the right thing to do is whatever produces the greatest amount of happiness. Libertarians disagree. They think that we must never violate anyone’s “rights”—even if doing so would increase overall happiness.
According to libertarians, the greatest threat to individual rights comes from the government. Libertarians think that many kinds of laws violate people’s rights. Whenever the government prohibits a self-endangering activity—like driving without a seat belt—it is being unacceptably paternalist. Whenever the government prohibits deviant but harmless behavior—like nonstandard sexual practices—it is being oppressive. Whenever the government taxes people for redistributive purposes, it is stealing from them and forcing them to work for the benefit of other people.
A good way to kick-start a discussion about libertarianism is to examine what libertarians say about redistributive taxation.
Distributive Patterns and Liberty
Robert Nozick, a libertarian philosopher, has three arguments against redistribution. The first argument observes that government tends to redistribute wealth according to some pattern. For example, it tends to tax rich people and spend money on poor people, so that there is more equality in the distribution of income, wealth, and other resources. But, Nozick believes, it is not possible to maintain a pattern like equality without restricting people’s liberty.
Suppose everyone in the United States had the same amount of money, and we all gave 25 cents to Michael Jordan in exchange for the pleasure of watching him play basketball. Then Jordan would have much more money than everybody else, and there would no longer be a pattern of equality. To restore the pattern, the government would have to take the money we gave to Jordan and give it back to each of us. And to maintain the pattern, it looks like the government would have to permanently forbid us from doing what we want with the money we have.
According to Nozick, this thought-experiment shows that all taxation for redistributive purposes is unjust. But is that right?
Redistributive Taxation and Forced Labor
Nozick objects to patterns like equality for a second reason. Maintaining a pattern requires taking a richer person’s earnings and giving them to a poorer person. But, thinks Nozick, taking the earnings of two hours of labor from the rich person is like taking two hours from the rich person. It is like forcing the rich person to work for two hours for the benefit of the poor person. Therefore, says Nozick, redistributive taxation is like forced labor. Is Nozick right?
Justice and What Really Happened
Nozick’s third argument against redistribution says that redistribution is incompatible with an “historical” view of justice. If something was originally acquired justly, and later transferred justly, then Nozick thinks it is now owned justly—and neither the government nor anyone else should be allowed to take it away.