As libertarians go, I'm close-ish to a "left libertarian"; among other things, I think there's a role for government in guaranteeing a decent life for the needy, and intervening to right environmental problems that stem from unpriced negative externalities.

So what's different from liberalism? To the extent that the problems of the poor are inadequate money, I think that we should solve this problem by . . . giving them money. Not giving them food, shelter, or health care; just giving them money, and letting them decide what they want to buy. If they want to eat cornmeal mush for a month while watching cable television, let 'em. I think the government's job is to make sure people have the ingredients of a decent life, not to tell them what that decent life is.

(Health care is complicated, because there's a free rider problem and some pretty huge cost variance; I'll deal with that in a different post. But as a principle, I want to make sure that people can afford the stuff I think constitutes the bare minimum of a decent existence; I do not want to march them down to the store and make sure they buy it.)

Will the poor make bad decisions? Yup. Most poor people have already made a lot of bad decisions about things like schooling and childbearing; they'll probably make more. But they're not children; they're adults. It is not the government's job to make sure that they make good decisions. If someone is so impaired that they need the government deciding what kind of consumer goods they should buy, then they certainly shouldn't live on their own, much less vote; they should be placed in a group home or an institution where they can be properly supervised.

It's not as if poor people are the only kind of people who make bad decisions . . . I could regale you with some personal horror stories, starting with majoring in English, and moving on through the belly button ring to last night's attempt, while working late in an office near no restaurants, to substitute 14 flaxseed oil capsules for dinner. But had a government official stepped in to tell me that I really shouldn't waste years of my life on a guy who wasn't any good for me . . . well, shotguns are illegal everywhere I've lived, but that's the proper response to any government that fannies about dispensing such advice.

The government is really very good at distributing cash, with only the normal deadweight loss attendant on taxation. But it is an abysmal dispenser of advice on how to live your life, which is why the Declaration of Independance promises not happiness, but only the space to pursue same. I'm very open to arguments that private charity can't cover the cash needs of the poor, but I'll pit a private institution against the government in the "better living through social work" game any day of the week, and twice on the last day of the month.

Obviously, I'm against most forms of government help for adults, but is there anything as creepy as the notion that the government is supposed to improve you? If I want to be improved, I'll take on the project myself, thank you very much, and I extend people who are short of cash the respect of believing that they are probably much like myself in this regard. Either help them, or don't; there are valid arguments on both sides. But don't badger them to death.

These nannying arguments always make me think of one particularly bitter New York night, seeing a woman in a fur coat sweep past a homeless man braving the subzero weather in a sweatshirt. Figuring that no matter what he had done to himself or others, he didn't deserve to be left out on a night like this, I gave him five bucks on my way into the deli. Therein, the fur-coat lady said to me "He'll just spend it on drugs, you know."

It is one of the few times that I, whose middle name is "L'esprit d'escalier", have ever managed to muster a snappy comeback line on time. "I hope so," I responded, "because personally, if I were out there tonight, I would want some serious drugs."

In the case of kids, I'm game for a little more supervision; I'm happy to mandate vouchers for schooling and health care to make sure that they get some of each, and I'm willing to make those contingent on meeting some basic set of criteria. (Don't get too excited, liberals; I'm talking "Teaches reading, math, and a science class that includes evolution", not "Employs only union teachers with education degrees and a ream of useless certifications".) But I am left cold by the notion that we have to keep poor parents from having any say in the lives of their kids. If the kids are that badly off, pull them out of the home (indeed, adoption by more affluent families is the only broad remedy that is actually demonstrably effective at improving the lives of poor children, a remedy whose effectiveness is matched only by its utter repugnance).

If you are not going to do this, and thank God we aren't, do them and their parents the service of believing that even poorer, darker skinned people with a variety of social and economic problems love their kids every bit as much as you love yours--and certainly a lot more than you love theirs.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to