There has been much liberal gloating recently about the hypocrisy of various libertarian leaders who benefit from government programs that they oppose. Ayn Rand and Ron Paul have both come under harsh criticism for accepting Social Security and Medicare benefits. This sniping has raised an interesting question: When is it legitimate for limited-government advocates to accept government assistance, and when is it hypocritical? The answer depends on one’s position on said government policy and whether one is in a realistic position to refuse that policy’s benefits.
Earlier this summer, I heard an employee of the libertarian Charles Koch Institute field a question about the purported hypocrisy of Koch Industries’ acceptance of government subsidies. She replied that while both she and the Koch brothers sincerely oppose such subsidies, accepting them was a lesser evil than refusing them. The subsidies are offered to all of the conglomerate’s competitors, as well, she pointed out. Turning down those subsidies on principle could conceivably bring about Koch Industries’ eventual bankruptcy, due to the huge market advantages the company’s competitors would then enjoy. In that event, far fewer resources would be available with which to spread the libertarian gospel.
I actually found this particular rationale convincing, because in that context, refusing government assistance could pose an existential threat to a company. The cause of freedom would thus have had one fewer effective defenders, while its detractors would have been left sitting pretty. It’s better to accept the subsidies for now, avert commercial collapse, and live to continue the fight to end such corporate welfare in toto in the long run. That interest outweighs the self-contradiction of accepting benefits that the company’s owners oppose.
Mind you, even if Koch Industries didn’t play benefactor to so many libertarian causes, my conclusion would still stand. Industrial subsidies have very different ramifications than other forms of government assistance, due to the dynamics of market competition. Accepting that statist help is legitimate in cases where refusing it could put a firm out of business entirely.
As I mentioned to some fellow Institute for Justice interns when we had this argument recently, there are other government services that libertarians can use without shame. It isn’t necessarily hypocritical for us to use public roads and sidewalks, for instance, since avoiding them completely would require staying home 24/7. Eating food made from ingredients cultivated with government handouts is also fair, since — given the pervasiveness of such subsidized materials in the American food chain — the alternative would be starvation.
Collecting entitlement program benefits, however, is a different story, at least for those who find such programs unjust and advocate their abolition. No one who posits that people should either look after their own health care and retirement needs or rely on private charity has any business accepting government assistance in those fields. This is because critics of Medicare and Social Security can freely refuse to accept any money from them; those benefits are not shoved down their throats. Nor would they risk bankruptcy or some other calamity if they steered clear of those entitlement programs. If they can take care of themselves as they urge others to do, they should.
The most common rebuttal to this argument is that as long as people are forcibly taxed to pay for these programs, they are entitled to part of the spoils. Color me unconvinced. Though this cynicism is understandable coming from people who have fruitlessly struggled against statism for ages, it still pales next to our need to win hearts and minds. The more we avoidably betray our own principles, the harder it is to convince our fellow citizens that those principles are worth following.
Scoffers should consider how genuinely needy entitlement program beneficiaries will perceive those who advocate cutting them off while unabashedly feeding at the same government trough. The political optics of such double standards are atrocious. How are we to persuade others to adopt libertarian ideas if we don’t apply them — even when it is feasible for us to do so?
If even those who most loudly proclaim the ideals of freedom and responsibility don’t walk that talk, many observers will reject those ideals. At best, they will quite understandably conclude that however laudable those principles might sound in theory, they simply won’t work in practice. This will only make it that much harder for us to achieve the reforms we seek. If we don’t prove that our values work, no one will.
It should be noted that on an intellectual level, hypocrisy by itself doesn’t discredit anyone’s principles or positions in substance. As the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg once noted, no one would dismiss the notion that “all men are created equal” simply because the man who most memorably expressed that principle, Thomas Jefferson, also owned slaves. Failing to live up to one’s ideals doesn’t vitiate the ideals themselves. Accusations of hypocrisy are therefore best understood as ad hominem criticisms — however well-deserved they may be — rather than substantive arguments.
Nonetheless, practicing what one preaches is a virtue, one that any respectable and honorable person should exhibit. We libertarians are no exceptions to that rule. Nor can our movement, of all movements, afford to be portrayed as disingenuous or dishonest. We already struggle to dispel the misconception that small-government sentiment is merely greed and selfishness in disguise, not to mention countless other myths about liberty. A reputation for being full of it is the last thing we need.