Rothbard on the “Freedom-to-Starve” Argument

For a free version of Man, Economy, and State by Rothbard, visit this link.

Our example of the “worst possible case” enables us to analyze one of the most popular objections to the free society: that “it leaves people free to starve.” First, from the fact that this objection is so widespread, we can easily conclude that there will be enough charitable people in the society to present these unfortunates with gifts. There is, however, a more fundamental refutation. It is that the “freedom-to-starve” argument rests on a basic confusion of “freedom” with “abundance of exchangeable goods.” The two must be kept conceptually distinct. Freedom is meaningfully definable only as absence of interpersonal restrictions. Robinson Crusoe on the desert island is absolutely free, since there is no other person to hinder him. But he is not necessarily living an abundant life; indeed, he is likely to be constantly on the verge of starvation. Whether or not man lives at the level of poverty or abundance depends upon the success that he and his ancestors have had in grappling with nature and in transforming naturally given resources into capital goods and consumers’ goods. The two problems, therefore, are logically separate. Crusoe is absolutely free, yet starving, while it is certainly possible, though not likely, for a given person at a given instant to be a slave while being kept in riches by his master. Yet there is an important connection between the two, for we have seen that a free market tends to lead to abundance for all of its participants, and we shall see below that violent intervention in the market and a hegemonic society tend to lead to general poverty. That a person is “free to starve” is therefore not a condemnation of the free market, but a simple fact of nature: every child comes into the world without capital or resources of his own. On the contrary, as we shall see further below, it is the free market in a free society that furnishes the only instrument to reduce or eliminate poverty and provide abundance. – Man, Economy, and State, p. 339-340

In the one of the 2012 Republican presidential debates, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul a hypothetical question about a man who chooses to be uninsured. If he ends up in a horrible accident and has to go to the hospital, who should pay for it? Should society just let this man die?

Rothbard’s response to the “freedom-to-starve” argument is applicable here as well. Considering Blitzer’s objection is so common, we would expect there to be plenty of people willing to pay for this man’s hospitalization absent government coercion!

But also note the fundamental confusion Blitzer displays of libertarianism when he asks his question (I realize this question per se does not expose a misunderstanding of libertarianism, but I believe it is implied. Even if Blitzer happens to have a sound grasp of libertarian theory, I believe this is a common confusion so it is worth clearing up regardless). It’s not libertarianism that says whether people should or shouldn’t allow the man to die. Libertarianism is a philosophy that argues that every individual has rights and it is a transgression against these rights to force one man to pay to pay another man’s health care costs. However, “should people let him die?” is a question unanswered by libertarianism. This is a moral question for individuals and society to answer, whether or not the society is a libertarian, Stateless society or a society with a State.

So let me answer Blitzer with my own opinion. No, society should not let this man die. However, it should be noted that a society with the general affluence free markets bring will be better able to take care of him. Without government interference, not only will the price of health care likely be lower but so will the price of insurance. And questions such as the one Blitzer brought up will become trivial.


Posted on January 15, 2013, in Economics, Ethics, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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