When a Libertarian is making their case they usually frame it from the view of individual rights. They argue that individuals have certain rights, such as property rights and the freedom to choose. They reject any attempt by the government to force people to do what they otherwise wouldn’t have done. So a libertarian would argue that helping the poor is fine, but the government shouldn’t force people to do so. On its own grounds this is a plausible stance with a certain degree of logic behind it. However, it only holds so long as you view matters from an individual rights point of view. If you concede that we have responsibilities towards the rest of society, then the libertarian argument crumbles.
Humans are social animals and we define ourselves as part of groups. People define themselves by their nationality, religion (or lack of it), occupation, age, sex, race, hometown, political party, sports activities, hobbies and a wide range of social activities. Libertarians fail by viewing people solely in a vacuum as opposed to part of a community. We are not only individuals; we also exist as part of a society. Focusing on individual pursuits on wealth is not enough; people only use money as a means to an end, namely happiness and joy. Studies find that it is the sense of community spirit that greatly affects our sense of wellbeing, which is why increases in a country’s wealth may make its people less happy if it disrupts the community. Simply saying everyone should mind their own business is not enough, society is interconnected so that my life and wellbeing is connected to my co-workers and my happiness is linked to those of my friends and neighbours.
People view themselves as part of a society with corresponding duties and responsibilities. These often compel people to do things that are not in their direct individual interest, but beneficial to the group as a whole. People go to the time and effort of following political events and voting, even though each individual effort is too small to affect the overall outcome. People pick up litter that isn’t theirs and clean up land that does not belong to them, not because they have a financial incentive, but because they view themselves as part of a larger society. People support their local community by volunteering their time or buying from local businesses even if they are more expensive. In fact nationalism makes people willing to do a lot of things that cost them as individuals while only society as a whole gains. People do things for their nation that no libertarian worldview can explain.
Libertarians speak a lot about rights, but not about responsibility. In their world, you have the right to your money, the right to choose where you work and live and government action is a violation of these rights. However, if you instead people as citizens of a society then you must acknowledge that they have responsibilities as well as rights. We have responsibilities to the poor, the sick, the elderly, the disabled and children and we must use government to help them, even at a cost to ourselves. This world view (let’s call it communal), which is just as plausible as the libertarian view, leads to radically different conclusions. The first leads to one with minimal government intervention with everything being done by individuals and the market. The second leads to an activist government engaging with society and intervening in the market.
Some examples should suffice. A libertarian may complain about taxes used for government healthcare. To them this is the government forcing them to give up their hard earned cash to spend on something they do not want. They view it as a violation of their liberty and claim individuals should chose themselves how much they do or do not contribute towards healthcare in proportion to how much they value it. The communal view is that society has responsibilities towards the sick and must care for them. Note how the debate revolves around completely different views of the same issue. A supporter of the communal view may agree with the libertarian about disliking having to give up their money to help others and may prefer to keep it themselves. However, they believe that we have to help others and that the needs of the society sometimes outweigh the needs of the individual. A libertarian may see a dying man on the street and think nothing of it; however a communal believes they are compelled to give assistance.
Now I can imagine libertarians recoiling in horror. Did he really just say that? Society outweighing being more important than individuals? Isn’t that what Stalin and Hitler believed? What sort of Communist is this Nielsen? Let me explain. I am not an extremist and am not a 100% communal person. I believe we need a balance between the needs of society and individuals and that danger lies at either extreme. Hence I would follow a course of moderation and practicality based on the issue at hand. I find the libertarian policy of one-size-fits-all, same-solution-to-every-problem, all-or-nothing viewpoint very frustrating. Just because one government policy didn’t work doesn’t mean we should abolish it or abolish all government policies. This is the damaging kind of extremism we must avoid.
Let me continue. A libertarian would argue for private education where consumers could choose the school that best suits their preferences and none would be forced to go to a school they opposed. A communal view is that society requires an educated population in order to function as a peaceful, law abiding democracy with a well functioning market. Thus education is seen as socially good and something to be encouraged or even made compulsory. Likewise, it may be view that society may best prosper where its people are on a relatively equal level, rather than vastly divided. Therefore mandatory public education may be instituted to promote equality and a cohesive society.
This can be applied to all issues, such as pollution where all of society suffers and only the polluting individual gains. There is little incentive for an individual to donate even a large amount of money to charity, because they are too small to seriously change the underlying problem. Whereas if everyone in society contributes even a minuscule amount, they can completely eliminate the problem. The problem with merely individual action is that no one wants to be the only one to pay and therefore no one pays. Subsidised electricity and heating is supported because people believe that no member of society should be forced to shiver in the dark. It is mandatory to pay taxes towards pensions because we, as a society, have decided that taking care of the elderly is a priority for us.
Libertarians can on occasion sound persuasive when seen from their viewpoint. But once you move away from a solely individual view and towards a broader societal viewpoint, it no longer holds sway. If we are citizens of a group, then we have duties towards our fellow citizens. If are not just individuals but also members of society then we have responsibilities as well as rights. It is for this reason that libertarianism has remained confined to the fringes and never caught on in Europe where communal feeling is much stronger. It is not enough to speak of I, there is also We.