Life Boat Ethics

Dave Killion — February 2, 2012

Imagine someone in dire, imminent danger – a man starving to death.

Imagine that the starving man has no means of saving himself whatsoever.

Imagine that there is someone who not only has the means to rescue the starving man, but is very well endowed with those means – a rich man.

Imagine that that particular rich man, and only that particular rich man, can rescue the starving man.

Imagine that the rich man knows that, AND knows that everyone else knows it, too.

Now imagine that the rich man doesn’t help…

Personally, I find this requires more imagination than I possess, yet I see this sort of argument put forward time and again as either a defence of redistributionism or a criticism of libertarianism. In fact, it pops up frequently in the book club’s current selection “Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction” –

It is unfair for the naturally disadvantaged to starve just because they have nothing to offer others in free exchange…”

“Due to these undeserved differences in natural talents, some people will flourish while others starve.”

“Notice, moreover, that capitalism passes that test even though the propertyless are dependent for their survival on those with property wanting to buy their labour, and even though some people starve because no one does want to buy their labour.”

A good libertarian knows that even naturally disadvantaged individuals, being self-owning, always possess some level of time, strength, knowledge, experience, wits, and many other traits that can be offered in free exchange. A good economist understands comparative advantage, and how it means that even the drastically disadvantaged have something to offer in exchange. A good historian knows that the only time anyone starved because no one wanted to buy their labour was when the state had either wrecked the economy through war or intervention.

And if redistributionists weren’t either duped or trying to dupe us, they wouldn’t rely on such improbable scenarios to defend the immoral takings of one person’s property in order to give it to some one else.




Antony Zegers says

Well said Dave.

I must admit I’m finding the reading quite frustrating, it’s hard to get through a paragraph without multiple objections springing up. I wonder whether the author is being willfully ignorant, or really doesn’t understand economics.

On the other hand, this reading is making me more confident in the defensibility of libertarian ideas. If these are the best counterarguments that opponents can come up with, they are easily refuted.

— February 2, 2012

Leave a Comment

Disclaimer: The articles and opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Libertarian Book Club.