Why Libertarians Shouldn’t Flinch From Serving Others

A few months ago, Senator Josh Hawley went on Dr. Jordan Peterson’s podcast to discuss “the conservative vision.” One line from their conversation jumped out at me: Hawley told Peterson, “What conservatives should be saying is, go and find somebody to serve.”

As a libertarian, I agree.

I want to be clear: state-sponsored charity is a contradiction in terms, and something we should all be leery of. If Hawley was speaking in his capacity as a state agent, or in order to promote a new bill around mandatory public service, that would be bad. Free the People editor Logan Albright explains why: “It’s the same kind of rhetoric that communists, fascists, and totalitarians have always used to preserve their own power while keeping the people quiet and complacent. We must, we are told, do our duty to society, even if it comes at the cost of our dreams, our ambitions, and our happiness.” A state agent trying to jawbone people into service, or—even worse—a law pushing mandatory national service, would be immoral. Mandatory public service wouldn’t be about serving our fellow human, but about serving the state. That’s only a good idea if you think the state’s ends are always noble, and we all know they aren’t.

State-mandated national service, like higher taxes to support the welfare state, is essentially virtue signaling. If Hawley were pushing a National Service bill, it wouldn’t be him doing the service—or at least, not only him. He would be seeking brownie points for exploiting other peoples’ labor: “Look how virtuous I am for putting you all to work serving the state.”

But I don’t think Hawley was speaking in his capacity as a state actor. He went on Peterson’s podcast as a private citizen, to discuss a conservative vision. In this context, “Go and find somebody to serve,” is just good advice.

First, serving others is inherently good. A lot of libertarians are content to rely on selfishness, and let the magic of the market transmute their selfishness into good results for their neighbor. And the market is magical. Writing in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith was right when he said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” But there are also people the market leaves behind: the widow and the orphan, the disabled man and the cancer survivor who’s too young to retire. These people need charity. We need to, “go and find somebody to serve,” in part because there are so many people who need our service.

Second, serving others is good for our souls. It’s a form of enlightened self-interest. I donate 10% of my working hours every week to a charity client, and it’s one of the most fulfilling things I do. I keep that appointment even when my schedule is hectic; partly to help him, and partly to help myself. According to an article published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, volunteering increases peoples’ happiness. It’s not just that happy people volunteer—if you’re feeling down, a good way to boost your mental health is to donate your time. Researchers found that, for the average middle-class person, volunteering made them about as happy as an extra $1,100 in their bank account would. Serving others by donating to charity is also a form of enlightened self-interest. According to a 2020 study published by the American Psychological Association, “712 students were randomly assigned to make a purchase for themselves or a stranger in need and then reported their happiness. As predicted, participants assigned to engage in prosocial (vs. personal) spending reported greater momentary happiness.”

The third reason that fellow libertarians should “find somebody to serve” is that it’s great PR. As I wrote for the Mises Institute:

“Libertarians are often accused of being selfish, but it’s harder for ideological opponents to lob that accusation at someone who just spent eight hours at a soup kitchen.

“Imagine that every libertarian decided to volunteer five hours per week helping the poor. Imagine that that groundswell of volunteerism showed up in the data, and a nonpartisan organization like Gallup ran the headline ‘Poll Shows Libertarians Volunteer More than Any Other Political Group.’ What could coverage like that do to help our public image?”

As libertarians, we’re on a mission to show mainstream Americans that (among other things) private charity can do a better job serving those in need than public welfare can. As such, we should all consider spending more of our time and money on charity in order to convince skeptics that this model of society can actually work.

Giving to charity isn’t just a moral pursuit in itself, it’s also essential if we want to convince more people that rolling back the welfare state is a viable option.

Josh Hawley is right. If we want to advance liberty and make our lives better at the same time, it’s time we, “go and find somebody to serve.”

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Julian Adorney

Julian Adorney is a writer and marketing consultant with the Foundation for Economic Education.

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