A Thing I Do Not Understand about Libertarians
An attempt to restore balance to the Force. Annotated for readers’ benefit.
Imagine that it were arbitrarily easy to grant extensive positive rights to everyone in society.
That is, we’ve reached the post-scarcity future: Food, clothing, medical care, and all other basic economic needs are satisfied just about instantly by friendly nanobots. In their abundant spare time, the nanobots clean the environment while eating carbon dioxide and pooping rainbows.
Now comes the government, which declares that not only is this something to be happy about (and of course it is!), but also that people have a right to these things.
Libertarians: Is that so, in your view?
Even if you’re not a rights-talking libertarian, would there still be any reason to connect “work” and “bread,” if “bread” could be had as easily as air? And if so, how would you re-connect work and bread, if not by initiating physical force?
Of course there would still be good reasons to work if you wanted to perform music or produce a play or whatever, but necessity simply doesn’t compel it, not in any case whatsoever. You would be doing those things only because you found them rewarding at some point way high up on the Maslow pyramid. Which making art very often is.
Perhaps libertarians wouldn’t want to compel people to perform needless work, which would be ideologically awkward as well as pretty obviously immoral. But what would we think of people who did absolutely nothing but consume free stuff for the rest of their lives? Would we look down on them?
If your answer is “yes,” then why is it yes? (Careful, utilitarians, when you critique these obvious winners!)
If your answer is “no,” then what about today? Of course, today it’s not arbitrarily easy to grant extensive positive rights to everyone. But it is arbitrarily easy to grant extensive positive rights to a very small number of very unfortunate people. Such people can be provided for, and some rather strong claims can be sustained in their favor, and even the ostensibly necessary takings can almost be made voluntary.
Now – what if the post-scarcity future doesn’t come overnight? What if, instead, advanced technology just gradually comes to provide for more and more people, through its own autonomous working, and through the entirely voluntary actions of the rest of us?
I submit that this is already happening. It seems then that the libertarian ideology is precommitted to condemning something wonderful. And worse, it’s precommitted to condemning something that it claims to love in many other contexts. Where regular people (and, at times, libertarians) see a cybernetic meadow, libertarians at other times may see only moochers and freeloaders.
Isn’t that a rather gigantic problem? That your ideology may not only suffer from plausibility decay, but also that it appears clearly to break down right now, at least for a few?
 I am aware that the distinction between positive and negative rights may very plausibly be denied altogether. Assume for purposes of this post that under ordinary conditions it cannot be. If you cannot, then this post is not for you. Your work here is done, and I advise you to pour yourself a nice cup of coffee or another pint of beer, as the hour and your predilections may indicate.
 I am aware that this is implausible. It’s a thought experiment, and I make no predictions whatsoever about the far future in this post. To be excruciatingly clear, I do not claim that the time will come when libertarianism is nonsensical. I claim that the time already has come on certain margins, regardless of what it ever does in the future, at least as regards certain of the stronger ethical claims known to be associated with the ideology, like Nozick’s idea of rights as side constraints. That is to say, I suspect that “libertarianism with a few possibly quite noble exceptions” is a much more convincing ideology than whole-hog libertarianism. Not that we’ve ever come terribly close to either.
 I am aware that pooping rainbows is anatomically doubtful.
 I am aware that happiness is subjective, and that this state of affairs will make some people less happy.
 Metaphorical bread, of course. I am also aware that man cannot live on bread alone. Not even, or particularly, on metaphorical bread alone.
 The literature on Abraham Maslow is extensive. For purposes of this post, I am frankly, completely, and totally uninterested in it. Honestly, Karl Marx had already grasped everything that is worth pondering in this context, but Maslow is the appropriate cypher nonetheless: Invoking Marx would probably confuse in other and even less helpful ways.
 Lotteries et cetera. I am aware that this is not at all how our current welfare state operates. Currently, and when compared to this very unusual approach, we vastly overprovide. Worse, our takings and rearrangings ultimately have very little effect when compared to institutional reforms, say, like these, which enrich far beyond the ability of raw nature, or direct state action, to provide.
Also, people do notice when they pay their taxes, and they do mind it, at least to a not entirely trivial extent. And many benefits go to people who are by any reasonable standard not poor or unfortunate at all.
 I am aware that Richard Brautigan was an oddball, and that he may have had in mind a future society very different from anything I’ve ever proposed, whether seriously or otherwise. And whether or not he was really being serious here is of basically no importance anyway, I’d argue. So there.