The major, popular justification for a powerful state, beyond protection and courts, is welfare, yet the cost of government welfare is becoming too high, and the effects of dependency too debilitating. In my previous post regarding libertarianism and limited government, I wrote about voluntary benevolence, but didn't expand on it, though I have in much earlier posts, so I will here, since one of the questions in the comments section was about a safety net in a libertarian society with a limited government.
Saying I believe in voluntary benevolence and that a private safety net is possible doesn't merely rest on a religious-type faith. I base my belief on the fact that voluntary benevolence is already a reality. There are plenty of philanthropists who give lots and lots of money to worthy causes. There are private associations which do good work -- but, this is just a small effort compared to what I think could happen if private assistance was the only safety net.
Contrary to how some people may perceive the message, this is not anti-government. Government has an important role to play in national defense, policing the streets and maintaining a rational court system. If government concentrated all its efforts on these responsibilites, our country would be much better off. Limited government doesn't mean weak government. Our government can be the best at what it does, protect our nation against foreign threat, provide safety without becoming a police state, and assure that violations of rights and laws are prosecuted rationally according to the rule of law. There is much improvement needed in these areas, and the efforts should be well supported.
Any other responsibilities given to the government should be based on broad public consensus, but the limitations placed on government should be clear and inviolable.
It’s not so important to outline the specifics of how private assistance would work, because the nature of the free market works against central planning and social engineering. This is not a cop-out, because it’s easy to imagine associations arising which offer the same type of assistance which government offers, only in the private realm -- the assistance would be provided voluntarily rather than through coercive methods of taxation anf regulation. Private assistance would have several other advantages – one being that there would be competition, so that no monopoly grows arrogant and lazy – another advantage is that with a freer, less regulated society, private assistance could develop innovative methods which help prevent dependence. Government is prone to become static in its operations and reluctant to try creative, experimental methods – through a dynamic approach to assistance, associations can adjust to their failures and quickly discover what works. Private assistance would be motivated to produce results because, likely, there would be boards overseeing the operations to make sure they are being run efficiently and effectively.
One criticism I’ve heard leveled against private assistance is that donations would be down in recessions and there is no guarantee that assistance would continue in a down market. Well, if private assistance is part of an overall effort to limit government and remove unnecessary burdens from enterprise, then most likely the economy is going to be doing much better, but even if we do have down times, there is no reason to think that recessions won't hurt government welfare programs just the same if they are overloaded and tax revenues are falling. We are getting close to seeing this now as government runs out of money and the debt grows larger. I suspect assistance will be safer in private hands in an economy not crippled by central control.
Assistance also doesn’t need to be a one way deal where those providing the assistance are continuously funneling money to the needy – there can be assistance tied to pay-back arrangements – there can be insurance arrangements where assistance entities are collecting premiums and investing money to help offset the pay-outs – there can be lotteries – entertainment fund-raisers. The point is that once private assistance begins in earnest, there could be different, creative ways it manifests itself in the market. I think most citizens would respond positively to the challenge. The best associations would likely develop education/marketing campaigns which inspire people to give and participate – being a part of the effort could be a source of pride, and people who are not giving could begin to feel as if they are shirking a responsibility. Social pressures would surely mount for everyone to be involved and to help in any way possible. The whole effort could cause a society-wide awakening to the social problems now hidden by the assumption that government is taking care of it all.
By getting society involved in providing assistance to the needy and the temporarily down and out, we would be drawing from the vast and powerful resources available in this nation. The accumulative effect could be astonishing to those who now think the only way to help people is to force others to give money and depend on government to redistribute it. That's a nice way to avoid responsibility, but it's a poor way for a nation to evolve morally. I'm not saying there is natural "duty" for everyone in the nation to give to the needy, but I think most people now understand that a stable society is good for everyone, and it's better to provide help voluntarily than through government coercion, which muddies the efforts with political motivations -- plus it's immoral to confiscate peoples' money.
Voluntary benevolence is a reality, and with society controlling the assistance and participating directly, we commit free moral acts -- this builds character and it brings the problems of society forward so that all can understand the needs more deeply. We have blamed capitalism long enough -- it's capitalism which will fuel the solution. Not statist capitalism, but the capitalism of classic liberalism. In the society I imagine, the money saved by abolishing corporate welfare and favoritism showered on companies like Goldman Sachs and GE will be in the hands of the people to better use to create a society that's strong, healthy and compassionate -- yet, a society that expects those who can join to take the opportunity of a helping hand in order to come out of poverty and hard times, not sit and wait on government to take care of everything indefinitely. For those who are seriously disabled and can't help themselves -- how many among us would allow them to suffer? A libertarian-minded society could set the stage for this change.