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Published May 04, 2012 in Persuasion by Sharon Harris
Many objections or concerns that people have about some libertarian proposals boil down to one issue: concern about the poor and disadvantaged.
* One of the major objections to private education is that, without government schools, the poor might not have access to quality schools. Many people know that the private sector can provide quality education that most people could afford. And they’re frustrated by the wretched education the government education monopoly foists upon so many kids. But they are afraid that ending government involvement in education will leave the poor and needy stranded.
* Many people support government control of healthcare and insurance out of concern for the poor. Many of them agree that private provision of these services would work fine for those who are well off. But they fear for the poor and needy.
* People fear abolishing welfare because they worry that people who genuinely need help won’t find enough help from the private sector.
* People may understand how roads and highways can be provided effectively by the market, but they worry that possible charges for their use might become too expensive for the poor.
This is true of many more issues. Those who feel this way are often good, idealistic and compassionate people -- the kinds of people we want to be libertarians.
If you sense that this is your listeners’ main concern, you can allay that concern -- and win your listener to your side -- with an answer along the lines below.
Let’s take the example of education. Say something like this.
“If I understand you correctly, you don’t object to the idea of private education per se. And you agree with me that the private sector could provide as good, or probably far better, education than the government schools currently provide. You also agree that those who are doing well in our society could afford to pay for quality education. But you’re concerned that the poor, the jobless and the disadvantaged might not be able to afford it, and would thus be without decent educational opportunities if the government didn’t offer education. Is that correct?”
If he answers yes, then first congratulate him for his compassion. “I’m glad to hear that you’re concerned about the poor and needy. That’s great.”
You can use the Ransberger Pivot (discussed here and here to let him know you’re a good person who shares his concern: “And I strongly share that concern. Like you, I want to live in a world where every child, rich or poor, has the opportunity to have a world-class education. That’s why I favor private education -- because I believe it is the only way the poor will have that opportunity.”
And now shift the issue from education to the true issue: poverty.
“What you’re really concerned about, then, is not whether private education can work. You’re talking about the problem of poverty. Your concern is a subset of the broader question of how do we help the poor. How do we eliminate, or at least drastically reduce, poverty?”
You then go on to answer the real question. You tell how the poor would be vastly better served by a libertarian society. You may already have your own short answer to this. If you don’t, I urge you to develop one, because this is a serious concern for many people. For many, it’s a deal-killer for libertarianism.
Here are a couple of suggestions to get you started. The great libertarian communicator Harry Browne, in arguing for abolition of the income tax, pointed out that ending that tax would unleash “the biggest boost in prosperity that America has ever seen. There will be a job for everyone who can work and charity for everyone who can't.” Unemployment would virtually disappear, and charities and scholarships would be flooded with donations. The poor would have great opportunities and access to immediate aid.
Dr. Mary Ruwart has also answered this question a number of different ways, on a number of topics. Her short answers to questions about poverty are archived and searchable here.
You can also use the example of how many goods and services in relatively unregulated areas of our economy have dropped dramatically in price, thanks to market competition. Computers, Internet service, phones, and many other items once aimed only at the wealthy are now cheap and commonly used by the poor. Chain restaurants have brought the costs of prepared food and clean facilities down to an affordable level. Ending government monopolies in areas like education, medicine and insurance would do the same.
You should craft your own short answer to this question, and memorize it. You can make your argument stronger, of course, by knowing facts about the particular area your questioner is interested in. The list at the start of this article offers examples every libertarian can expect to be quizzed on. So be prepared.
The advantages of getting to the heart of the poverty question are:
1. You have identified and clarified your listeners’ real concern.
2. You have a useful and persuasive answer for questions on a variety of issues.
3. You can establish yourself as a caring person who shares your listeners' concern about the poor.
4. You may be able to inspire someone to embrace libertarianism because it offers the best way to combat poverty.
One extra tip. A friend of mine says one of the main things that sparked his interest in libertarianism was that libertarianism seemed to take the question of poverty seriously and offered practical ways to lessen or eliminate poverty, something neither the left or the right seemed to do.
If that is one of your major interests in libertarianism, you should say so. It further cements the bond between you and your listener.
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