Economics/Class Relations

Welfare Rights for Libertarians

By Kevin Vallier

Libertarians have often opposed what philosophers sometimes call welfare rights, or rights to various goods and serves that promote or safeguard human well-being. These include rights to healthcare and education. Libertarians don’t like welfare rights because they appear to give some the moral permission to force others to provide them with goods and services. So welfare rights seem like they permit the subjugation of some to others. This is understandable, but I think it rests on a rather narrow conception of welfare rights. Let me explain.

I’ll begin by recommending that we follow (severely underrated) libertarian political philosopher Loren Lomasky’s distinction between classical liberalism and welfare or egalitarian liberalism. He argues in his (totally great) Persons, Rights, and the Moral Communitythat it is a mistake to think that classical liberalism is responsive to a narrower set of interests than welfare liberals, as if classical liberals only cared about liberty, whereas welfare liberals care about both liberty and need:

It is mistaken to say that one version is responsive to a narrow array of interests while the other ascribes moral weight to a much wider range of interests. The difference is almost not at all with regard to which interests merit moral protection but rather the manner in which moral protection is afforded. Classical liberalism recognizes right to conditions necessary for the attainment of valued items, while welfare liberalism is concerned to bring about sufficient conditions for their attainment (91).

In other words, both classical and welfare liberals affirm a right to welfare, but offer different interpretations of it. Classical liberals think persons have a right to employment, in that government should remove restrictions on seeking employment. In contrast, welfare liberals think the right to employment requires that the government provide jobs to persons directly. This is not a disagreement about whether there are welfare rights, but rather the form they take.

You might think that the best description of liberty rights makes welfare rights of the sort Lomasky describes superfluous. I disagree. I think that liberty rights alone cannot adequately explain the indignation and outrage we experience when someone is denied access to a good. When we become indignant at price controls, we are not merely upset that liberty is restricted. We are upset because personswere denied welfare. They had a right to secure welfare for themselves, so the violation of the welfare right is wrong on top of the violation of the liberty right.

A similar case is the libertarian indignation at restrictions on organ sales. The problem is not merely that liberty is restricted but rather that people will be denied vital organs, a critical aspect of their welfare.

So libertarians should acknowledge welfare rights of the Lomaskyan sort, if for no other reason than to adequately explain our moral judgments and affects.

I suspect some libertarians will resist my recommendation on grounds of parsimony. Why not think there is simply one ur-right on which all others are based, such as a right of self-ownership? But to my mind, no matter how we cut it, we can’t reduce all rights to one right and capture the relevant sense of violation we postulate the right to explain.

I can’t end without noting that Roderick Long has argued that libertarians think there is fundamentally only one right “the right not to be aggressed against” such that “all further rights are simply applications of, rather than supplements to, this basic right.” While the paper defending this position is subtle and thoughtful, I just don’t think the idea of aggression has enough independent moral content to serve as a ground for all other rights. Aggression is an already moralized idea, and we need a rights-based explanation to account for this moral content.

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