What do you think of someone who espouses the principle of nonaggression but lives off the fruits of aggression? How moral is it to oppose political power while benefiting from political power? Is it contradictory to write, lecture, and actively protest government intervention while at the same time making an income from the taxes other people pay?
I’ve spent my entire academic career on the faculty of one state-funded university or another, a major part of whose revenue has come from taxation. I understand the virtue of unhampered markets and I’ve asked myself these questions many times.
I was a student of the Austrian economist Hans Sennholz, who used to tell me with pride that none of his income came from government redistribution. (He taught at an institution, Grove City College, famous for refusing all government money.) So I’m sure he would have qualms with the way I’ve made my living, and it has troubled me. A reader recently wrote me a heartfelt letter expressing the same deep, personal concern, putting the issue starkly: “Am I being a hypocrite?”
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “hypocrisy” as “simulation of virtue or goodness; dissimulation, pretense; acting of a part.” Is it hypocrisy then to argue against legal privilege while at the same time living off legal privilege?
A simple case
For simplicity, let’s take an extreme case. Say that I lived in a system in which the majority of people were slaves (that is, forced to serve under the threat of aggression) to a privileged minority. If I were a member of the slave majority, would I be a hypocrite to challenge the status quo and publicly argue for change, even though my livelihood comes off the backs of other slaves? I don’t think so. Nor do I think I would be a hypocrite were I to do this as a member of the privileged class. Evidently, there were abolitionists in the American South who manumitted their slaves before the Civil War.
Our situation in the United States today is less extreme, but it’s similar enough to reach the same conclusion: benefiting from the forced transfer of others’ wealth does not in itself cast a moral pall over our opposition to redistribution. (A separate but related point is that arguments are valid or not independent of the person who voices them. While we might suspect, say, a person’s motives we should still subject her arguments to reason and evidence rather than dismissing them or saying: “Consider the source!”)
What my friends say
I’m proud to count some of the smartest and most respected libertarians among my friends. I posed the question of whether a libertarian like me who works for a tax-funded university is a hypocrite. Here I paraphrase their responses, which I believe apply to most people who work for the government (subject to the qualifications mentioned, below) and certainly to those of us who use the physical and legal infrastructures provided by the state — for example, roads, parks, courts, and property protection.
One colleague wasn’t convinced that it makes you a hypocrite to benefit from a corrupt system, especially if you are committed to opposing what you believe is wrong about that system in whatever capacity you can, so long as you don’t participate in actions that make the problem worse. For instance, the decision to take a job at a state school does not affect whether that job or the state school system exists. It was hard for this colleague to see how taking that job makes things worse — especially if you use the position to teach students why you have reservations about it. She pointed out that holding such a job is very different from lobbying for more state schools or opposing competing options or cost-saving measures.
Another colleague argued that if a government-provided service is morally legitimate and would likely be provided if there were no government — the fire department, for example, as well as schools — then it’s not hypocritical to benefit from it. What’s bad about government-provided services, he said, is their coercively enforced monopolism, not the activities per se.
Drawing the line
So at what point does one become a hypocrite? Arguing against legal privilege in public while scheming in private to get it would be hypocritical, but more generally, libertarian hypocrisy lies simply in acting in such a way as to promote more rather than less government intervention on net.
Here are more responses.
One friend draws the line at advocating policies that would benefit him in a way contrary to his limited-government principles. For example, he would be a hypocrite were he to advocate privatizing other industries but leaving higher education in the public sector. He believes you’re perfectly well entitled to seek employment in a system that you’re forced to support through taxation. Likewise for riding Amtrak, visiting subsidized museums, and so on.
In addition, he marvels at people who say that if you benefit from government-provided goods, you have no right to criticize them. His counterexample is the case where all medical services are public and private medical practice is outlawed. He asks whether anyone would actually believe that a critic of such a system has no right to see a doctor. If so, then every coercive act by government that excludes private providers also chokes off dissent.
But not so fast!
The problem for me with these thoughtful responses is that in real life it’s hard to tell whether the way you earn a living would have been provided voluntarily in the absence of government intervention.
I agree that if we knew that the free market would have created, say, one million jobs in higher education and I held one of those positions under public education, then probably I’m not a hypocrite. But what if taxpayers fund one million and one jobs and I’m hired for that additional job? Or if taxpayers fund 10 million jobs — nine million more than a free society would have provided — and I hold one of those?
I also think there are some professions that are highly problematic from a libertarian perspective. That is, depending on what you see as the proper role of government, or on whether you believe government has any role whatsoever in a free society, some jobs may not even exist.
I’m pretty sure that there would be charitable organizations in a free society, but does that make it okay to hold a job administering Temporary Assistance to Needy Families? I’m also pretty sure that even in a society without government (that is, without a monopoly over the initiation of aggression), there would still be a need for effective governance, but does that mean that a politician, even a libertarian-leaning one, is morally neutral? If you believe government should provide national defense, does that mean anyone working for a voluntary army, an American soldier in Afghanistan perhaps, could also be a nonhypocritical libertarian? How about an engineer designing weapons or a contractor who bids to produce them?
I do think there’s a line somewhere, at least a fuzzy one, separating the ways a card-carrying libertarian can and can’t earn a living without being a hypocrite, and that in some cases it’s clear which side you are on. But I’m also troubled that as government grows, that line gets harder and harder to see.
Note: Murray Rothbard’s “Living in a State-Run World” and Ayn Rand’s “Government Grants and Scholarships” also address this topic. While I don’t necessarily endorse their treatments, there is some overlap with what I say, and those seeking answers to the questions I pose here may find them helpful.
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