Liberal Guilt-Assuaging as a Public Good

This post on Crooked Timber illustrates why I have such a love-hate relationship with that blog. On the love side, their posters are smart folks who lay out their premises explicitly and honestly, and debate those who disagree in clear terms without invective. On the hate side, sometimes those premises are just horrifying.

Ignore the comments section of the post, which quickly degenerates into a bunch of strawman-bashing and point-scoring, and focus on what Bertram is actually saying. He argues for tax-funded foreign aid on the grounds that

(a) people have a positive moral obligation to help others who are suffering (even if the prospective helpers did nothing to create or exacerbate the sufferers' pain)

(b) the state should enforce this obligation at least in part because doing so would fix a public good problem-- as he puts it, "a collective project of preventing serious harm would not be undermined by free-riders and curmudgeons."

But what is the public good being provided here? It's not the direct material benefit provided to those who are helped by charitable aid. That benefit is, in itself, both rivalrous and excludable; it goes only to those whom givers (or their proxy agencies) choose as recipients, and it's certainly a scarce resource.

No, the public good in this situation is the assuaging of liberal guilt. When you give to some charitable organization and thereby fractionally increase the extent to which the world's poor and suffering are aided, you assuage (again fractionally) not only your own moral disquiet but the moral disquiet of all other concerned do-gooders. You can't stop them from feeling better because of the aid you provided; whether they also give or not, they derive emotional benefit from your efforts.

And Bertram thinks that this public good problem is sufficiently urgent to justify mass State coercion. Which leaves me, I have to say, pretty much speechless. I mean, there are respectable arguments, consistent with classical liberalism in the broadest sense, for State provision of quite a few material public goods: not just the standard minarchist ones of national defense and public order, but also certain types of environmental protection, communicable disease prevention, and some infrastructure. As an anarchist, I ultimately reject these arguments or at most accept them for the short term only. Nonetheless I can sympathize with their proponents and have illuminating, mutually beneficial discussions with them.

But the notion that taxes should be levied so that everyone can feel better about the starving children in Africa? You can point out how arrogant, how presumptuous, how illiberal this is. You can point out that it would give the majority the right to use dissenters as the tools of their own moral intuitions-- to enslave them to a particular vision of altruistic obligation. Yet somehow this seems insufficient.

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