Libertarians frequently cite the work of F. A. Hayek (1899–1992), particularly his Constitution of Liberty (1960), as an intellectual source of their view. Hayek argues that the libertarian ideal of liberty requires "equality before the law" and "reward according to market value" but not "substantial equality" or "reward according to merit." Hayek further argues that the inequalities due to upbringing, inheritance, and education that are permitted by an ideal of liberty actually tend to benefit society as a whole. In basic accord with Hayek, early-twenty-first-century libertarians define "liberty" as "the state of being unconstrained by other persons from doing what one wants." This definition limits the scope of liberty in two ways. First not all constraints, whatever the source, count as restrictions on liberty; the constraints must come from other persons. For example, people who are constrained by natural forces from getting to the top of Mount Everest have not been deprived of liberty in this regard. Second the constraints must run counter to people's wants. Thus people who do not want to hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony do not have their liberty restricted when other people forbid its performance, even though the proscription does in fact constrain what the former are able to do.
Given this definition of liberty, libertarians go on to characterize their moral and political ideal as requiring that each person should have the greatest amount of liberty commensurate with the same liberty for all. From this ideal, libertarians claim that a number of more specific requirements, in particular a right to life, a right to freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and a right to property, can be derived.
The libertarian's right to life is not a right to receive from others the goods and resources necessary for preserving one's life; it is simply a right not to be killed. So understood, the right to life is not a right to receive welfare. In fact there are no welfare rights in the libertarian view. Accordingly the libertarian's understanding of the right to property is not a right to receive from others the goods and resources necessary for one's welfare, but rather a right to acquire goods and resources either by initial acquisition or by voluntary agreement.
By defending rights such as these, libertarians can support only a limited role for government. That role is simply to prevent and punish initial acts of coercion—the only wrongful actions in the libertarian view.
Libertarians do not deny that having sufficient goods and resources to meet basic nutritional needs and basic heath care needs is a good thing, but they do not believe that government has a duty to provide such goods and resources. Libertarians claim that some good things, such as the provision of welfare and health care to the needy, are requirements of charity rather than justice. Accordingly failure to make such provisions is neither blameworthy nor punishable.
A basic objection to the libertarian conception of justice is its claim that rights to life and property, as the libertarian understands these rights, derive from an ideal of liberty. Why should we think that an ideal of liberty requires a right to life and a right to property that excludes a right to welfare? A libertarian understanding of a right to property might well justify a rich person depriving a poor person of the liberty to acquire the goods and resources necessary for meeting the latter's basic nutritional needs. How then could we appeal to an ideal of liberty to justify such a deprivation of liberty? Surely we could not claim that such a deprivation is justified for the sake of preserving a rich person's freedom to use the goods and resources he or she possesses to meet luxury needs. By any neutral assessment, the liberty of the deserving poor not to be interfered with when taking from the surplus possessions of the rich what they require to meet their basic needs should have priority over the liberty of the rich not to be interfered with when using their surplus possessions to meet their luxury needs. But if this is the case, then a right to welfare, and possibly a right to equal opportunity as well, would be grounded in the libertarian ideal of liberty.
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