Why libertarians (sometimes) give me hives

Jacob Sullum is up in arms that some guy suggested donating money to clean-water charities in the third world instead of drinking expensive bottled water. Now, Sullum’s a smart guy, and I like a lot of what he writes. But I think he’s getting into libertarian knee-jerk territory here.

Just as hardcore progressives run the risk of attributing every possible negative circumstance on the cynical machinations of The Man, libertarians have a tendency, if they are not careful, to start reaching protectively for their wallets and yelling “keep your filthy socialist hands off my-” whenever they hear someone talking about charity. And there is good reason for this; we are fed up with hearing well-meaning philanthropic initiatives proposed without any consideration of economic realities, the rights of the potential contributors, or whether it will actually benefit the recipients in the long term. And then being castigated as selfish grasping jerks when we try to bring these concerns up.

But not all charity is anti-liberty. Frankly, I think we should be singing the praises of voluntary charity every chance we get. In that mythical libertarian utopia, that would be the only kind of charity that remained; it behooves us to prove that it can be effective. (I’m not talking to the Objectivists here; I understand they take a different view of charity, although I could be mistaken).

My response to the post was this:

Sure, it could have been anything. But why not water? It’s a nice memory-jogger: see a bottle of water, think about lack of safe water in Africa, toss some money in the poor-box instead.

I agree that it’s silly to guilt us for paying for fancy bottled water when someone, somewhere in the world is thirsty; but come on. Maybe if libertarians didn’t reflexively pooh-pooh every philanthropic scheme that comes along, we wouldn’t have such a reputation as miserly dog-eat-dog bastards.

As a matter of fact, why doesn’t some enterprising young freedom-lover start a bottled-water company which sends part of the profits to third-world water development? Hip, overpriced refreshment and liberal guilt-abatement in one convenient capitalist package. It would be a hit! And it would certainly be more constructive than yelling “OMG ch4r1ty i5 4 st00p1d l4m3rs” whenever someone suggests an idea for VOLUNTARILY helping the poor.

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  1. Seems like…

    a couple of others were also responding along your vein of thought…

    And I have to say.. one of the other responders also seemed to make the point that the argument made was not made alongeconomic lines but rather along moral.. which does make a difference I believe…

    Now.. before you even bring it up.. I know that morality and economics do share a crossover region.. and how money is spent can have a moral impact etc etc..

    But, I’m sure you will agree that not ALL moral decisions need to be based on economic arguments and vice versa–e.g. we do not necessarily base all of our private household mores/rules/behavior on economic considerations alone…

    anyway.. I have to say that the big problem that I have with most libertarians is exactly that they do not have the moral foundation that you appear to have–i.e. that they often use the “rules of free market capitalism” as a way of justifying/hiding their general lack of concern with anyone else but themselves…

    In other words–Ayn Rand libertarians piss me off–whereas I’m actually quite sympathetic to the Hippie versions…

    okay.. Commie Pinko liberal signing off..

    1. Re: Seems like…

      On the other hand, a lot of times a practical hippie libertarian can come off sounding like an Ayn Rand libertarian to an uninformed listener. I’m not sure where the burden lies in sorting out he misunderstanding. E.g. digging deeper, I might argue against sending money to certain, or all, third-world NGOs promoting water development (not saying I am, just that I might, after further research). I might do this based on studies that show where that money really goes. But in the wrong set of ears, it would just sound like I’m trying to duck out of my moral responsibility.

    2. Re: Seems like…

      I agree with some of the other posters that the way the author of that article couched his article was wrong. There is simply no solid ground on which to base guilt-inducing statements like “we in the west clearly have more than we need, therefore…”. Defining needs is an inescapable intellectual morass (food and shelter and medical care? but what about emotional needs? and what do we really *need* to be happy? etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum…)

      On the other hand, I think it’s a perfectly valid proposal that he makes. And personally, I DO find the money people spend on bottled water absurd.

      Final analysis: bleeding-heart liberal writer: 0. Libertarian attack dogs: 0.

  2. I’d much rather buy them filtered water than condoms, but I still don’t want my tax money doing either. But you’re exactly right about the perception of voluntary vs. government mandated charity. I usually hit it from the other side. I make a comment about what I don’t think the government should be doing (i.e. against welfare) and liberals just assume that I OMGHATEPEOPLE or that I’m trying to keep the poor down. I’m not, I’d just rather have money in the bank that I can give to a charity which will actually use it to help people than taken by the government who will use it to fund beurocracy and then maybe a little will trickle down to those in need.

  3. As a matter of fact, why doesn’t some enterprising young freedom-lover start a bottled-water company which sends part of the profits to third-world water development?

    it’s already happened here in Germany. i don’t remember which company… and come to think of it, i think it might be a beer company; but that’s an advertising campaign here, that a portion of the profits go to provide clean water to Africa.
    BUT, unlike America, 3rd world concerns are a big national topic here, without economic questions, and secondly, bottled water is the norm. not just for hipsters. they can’t understand preferring to drink water from the tap.
    so it’s even MORE convenient. “you buy water (or beer) anyway – buy from us and you help others.” good system, by my estimates.

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