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Economic Freedom


Fraser Forum

February 2002

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Accepting Government Subsidies

by Walter Block

Should a libertarian who opposes government intervention in the economy, subsidies to business, welfare, rent control, socialized medicine, Crown Corporations, etc. (in a word, socialism) yet avail himself of the "benefits" of these programs?

No. This would be unwise, at least on pragmatic grounds, since political, economic, and philosophical illiterates (Vancouver Sun editorial of December 15, 2001, "Irony, dollars and principle") will accuse you of "hypocrisy."

But what about as a matter of principle? Then yes. For there is nothing in the free enterprise ethic which precludes such a choice. The capitalist system is strictly one of voluntarism; no one may initiate force against those not themselves guilty of such uncivilized behaviour. All of these government initiatives, in contrast, are coercive: they compel innocent people to finance programs that they would either eschew entirely were they free to choose, or would purchase instead on the free market. True, in a democracy, economic interventionism is supported by the electorate. But for the libertarian, this is just tyranny of the majority. Hitler, after all, came to power through the ballot box; yet this certainly gives no imprimatur to what he did. If the majority desire socialist programs, let them do this on their own account. Why force the minority to take part?

When people are forced to pay for socialized medicine against their will, it is as if the money for this purpose were being stolen from them. If they avail themselves of this program by seeing a statist doctor, they are only getting back what was taken from them by force. If a publisher such as Ted Byfield of Alberta Report and B.C. Report magazine (the subject of the Vancouver Sun's ire) is compelled to pay taxes, part of which go to subsidize magazines, again, the same principle applies: this is but the return of stolen funds. But more. Even a Martian (who never paid any taxes whatsoever) could arrive on earth and still be justified in using government programs. They are predicated upon stolen money after all, and the worst possible result would be for the thieves to keep their ill-gotten gains. (The best scenario would be for the Martian, like Ragnar Danneskjold in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged to return this stolen money to the long-suffering taxpayer).

Suppose all pizza parlors were required to pay a special "oven tax" whereupon Ottawa then gave ("free of charge") to all members of this industry an oven in which to bake pies. If the Byfield family restaurant, purveyor of "arch-conservative" pizzas, refused to accept this government "benefit" they would put themselves at a severe competitive disadvantage vis a vis all their competitors who went along with the game. Is this what the Vancouver Sun wants? The bankruptcy of Byfield publishing? Then why not say so?

Critics of this perspective, such as the Vancouver Sun editorial writers, would say to libertarians: "Aha, you oppose milk and egg marketing boards? Therefore, do not eat eggs nor drink milk. You oppose socialized medicine? Then, lest you be considered a hypocrite, do not consult a doctor when sick. You favour privatization of roads and highways? This means you must sit at home and not venture out onto the public streets. You think Canada Post ought to be privatized? This requires you not to mail letters. You don't like paying payroll taxes? Then quit your job.

These editorialists do not understand the most basic premise of the free market philosophy: voluntarism. Imagine if they were writing under the old USSR economic system. What a field day they would have had, then, at the expense of any libertarians suffering under the yoke of Communism. Since the Soviets commandeered virtually the entire economy, they could have hurled the charge of hypocrisy to anyone who opposed even the slightest aspect of this evil system—and wanted to remain alive. Too bad, from their perspective, that the present Canadian government has not Sovietized the entire economy. Then, according to their lights, adamant libertarians would be forced to die off.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once said that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. Well, neither is the libertarian philosophy, despite the efforts of some to paint adherents of this view into that corner.


Walter Block, Ph.D., is Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics, Loyola University, New Orleans.

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