Okay, so let’s look at it like this, then.
There are three siblings: Jack, Bobby, and Suzie. Their mom tells them that they can’t go outside to play until all three of their rooms are clean. She wants to reward the individual as well as the group, however, so if, say, Jack is done but Bobby and Suzie haven’t finished, Jack can watch TV. But Bobby’s room is bigger than his brother’s and sister’s, so it will take him longer. What is the most efficient way for the siblings to go outside as soon as possible?
This is the kind of logic problem kids are presented with when the concept of logic itself (not to mention cooperation) is first introduced to them, and the answer is obvious: all three help to clean the biggest room (Bobby’s) together first, and then work as a group on the other two. And yet the answer doesn’t seem so obvious in today’s political atmosphere. A friend of mine recently informed me that she had finally read up on politics after years of just calling herself a Republican, and decided that, actually, her views were much more Libertarian.
“Why?” I asked. “Libertarianism isn’t that much better.”
“Because I think everyone should be allowed to help themselves, instead of relying on everyone else to help them.”
And that’s the argument you hear from a lot of average-citizens-turned-Libertarians lately, now that the Affordable Care Act has kicked in and we’ve been made to understand that it doesn’t work unless seven million young people sign up for it. But why, these young people ask, with a copy of Atlas Shrugged under their arm and a Vote Ron Paul sticker on their car. Why should I be made to give a hand to someone else? I didn’t do anything, and nobody helped me.
The answer has everything to do with the rudimentary logic problem above. Logistically, there’s zero question what will get those kids out of the house: cooperation, and a unified effort to assist the sibling with the largest burden—or in the case of the problem, the most space to clean.
In reality, the logic problem is not (necessarily) so cut-and-dry. If the siblings are analogous to various class systems, I can already hear (and have heard, on the news and in the paper and from pretty much everything Paul Ryan has ever said) the modern Libertarian protesting. Let’s say the modern Libertarian is Jack, the minority citizen under the poverty line is Bobby, and the middle class, average American is Suzie. Jack could very easily argue, and he’d have a point, that if he cleans his own room, then he’s done his fair share. Each child should be responsible only for his or her own space. Once his room is clean, Jack is done with his responsibilities—he is under no obligation to help Bobby out. Further strengthening his point is the mother’s decision to reward the individual for just this kind of behavior: Jack’s incentive to help Bobby, if not simply out of the goodness of his heart, might have been to get out of the house sooner, but since Mom has let him watch TV while he waits, he’s happy to accept the short-term reward.
Of course, the obvious counter-argument to Jack’s everyone-should-clean-their-own-rooms argument would be to point out that Bobby’s room is much larger, and so to designate the responsibility only of one room per child tips the scales unevenly so that Bobby has to clean a larger space. And Jack could easily counter-counter argue that Bobby’s larger mess is not his (Jack’s) own personal fault; he didn’t do anything to mess the room up, and it wasn’t his decision to give Bobby the bigger room when they were infants. So why should Jack have anything to do with Bobby’s having to get out of the mess? Everyone should help themselves, rather than rely on others, Jack surmises, and kicks off his shoes and watches TV until the other two finish cleaning.
This seems reasonable, from Jack’s point of view, and you can even kind of understand his complaints, from a fairness perspective. True, he didn’t do anything to deserve having to clean more than just his own room.
But neither did Bobby. Bobby was given the larger room arbitrarily, based on some innocuous choice on moving day, and now for the rest of his life, Bobby has to live with a larger space to clean by no choice of his own. Minority citizens and those born under the poverty line, likewise, have done nothing to deserve their station in life; they’ve simply been denied access, have no inherited wealth, and are fighting a losing battle against the concepts of Power and Privilege.
And the real problem here, in the end, turns out to be not Jack but Suzie, our third party, who would have gladly pitched in to help Bobby clean, until she sees Jack not doing anything. She was down to help Bobby if it would help her to get outside sooner, but now she’s in Bobby’s room, helping Bobby pick up his toys, and she can hear the TV blaring from Jack’s adjacent bedroom and she’s thinking, ‘You know, that show sounds really funny. And how come Jack gets to be the only selfish one? This is taking 1.5 times as long without his help. Fuck this.’ And then she goes back to her room to watch TV, and now the job takes three times as long.
In other words, selfishness breeds selfishness. When one person decides that everyone is selfish, so I might as well just look out only for myself as well, that has an effect on everyone else in the community. If someone cuts you off in traffic and you deal with that by deciding you’ll be a more aggressive driver from now on, then the next person you cut off will do the same, and so on and so on. But if you get cut off and realize how much it sucks to get cut off, and so decide instead to let as many people go ahead of you as possible next time, then that kindness might multiply itself.
Suzie can decide that, despite Jack’s selfishness (because, despite all of his seemingly reasonable arguments, it is nothing more than plain old selfishness, the kind that we try to get kids not to inherit by giving them logic problems in third grade), she can help to alleviate Bobby’s burden and give him a hand, and the kids will be able to go outside sooner, even if it would have been even sooner than that with Jack’s help.
What Libertarians are against is government intervention, or so they say—or, to stick to the analogy, they don’t want Mom to mandate that everyone helps Bobby first, that the kids should be able to make up their own minds. But I think that argument is just a canard, smoke and mirrors to disguise the fact that what they really want is to not help anyone else, that they’re totally convinced Bobby made his own mess and deserves to sit around in it, that they have the smaller space to clean not because of random room assignments but because they’ve earned it, that the universal goal of going outside to play is not worth the hassle, and not so much more appealing than the short-term reward of TV that they’re willing to clean a room that isn’t theirs.