In the midst of the swirl of political invective, opinions, lies, and myths polluting the air in this election year, I was recently an innocent bystander while several Libertarians of greater or lesser degree argued over what Libertarianism really is. I was interested because, first, I'm mostly accustomed to hearing just the insults and outrage hurled between Democrats and Republicans and, second, I noted that some of the major points raised by some Libertarians were not unique to them. They sounded surprisingly close to things I hear on the air, in waiting rooms, even at church. And not from people who call themselves Libertarians.
While Libertarians apparently have as many variations of belief among themselves as do members of other political groups, the ones I was exposed to seemed to generally agree on one fundamental idea: Government should be limited in its functions to just those things that must be done and that citizens cannot do for themselves, leaving us free to live our lives with minimal interference. How far to carry this position varied widely from one individual to another.
One thing that most of the group seemed to agree on, and the argument echoing what I've heard locally, was that government should not be involved in charity. One member quoted at length from comments of a comedian, writer, atheist, and Libertarian guru, Penn Jillette, who said, "People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we're compassionate we'll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint."
I learned that the allusion to the government doing things at gunpoint referred to taxing citizens, with the unspoken threat of force, and then using part of the tax money to provide for other citizens who "need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered." The contention was that charity should only come directly from those of us who are fortunate enough to have, giving to those who are unfortunate enough to have not.
Odd how neat philosophical arguments can sound when uncontaminated by reality. And the reality is that Americans give somewhere between three percent and seven percent of income to charity. Charity including museums, cathedrals, cancer research, and dozens of other worthy causes you can name. Oh, yeah, and a little bit of it to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless.
It would really be great if we were all generous enough, organized enough, and determined enough to somehow band together and successfully care for all those among us who are in need and unable to fulfill their own needs. To the best of my knowledge, no country on earth has yet found a way to accomplish this. For us to figure it out and get up to speed may take a few more centuries.
In the meantime, while we cling to our philosophical position, a lot of children will starve, people will die for lack of basic medical care, and there will be untold pain and suffering. But at least we won't have the government interfering in our lives, taking our money and spending it on the poor. After all, isn't that GASP socialism? Or something?
When people insist, in the name of personal freedom and allegiance to a dry political principle that government should not involve itself in relief work, but should let a system of personal charity attempt to care for "the least of these," I always remember one of my favorite comments on such short-sightedness. When FDR's opponents argued against his programs to help the poor, insisting that, if left alone, the economy would right itself in the long run, Roosevelt's relief administrator, Harry Hopkins, gave an answer still true today. "People don't eat in the long run," Hopkins said. "They eat every day."
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."