Whenever faced with the opportunity to explain the benefits of the unfettered free market, the libertarian will often find himself cross-examined and required to explain how a political economic system of liberty will handle various societal ills and issues. One of these issues is disability and how disabled persons, inflicted with some kind of impairment that is (usually) no fault of their own, will be able to sustain a quality of life comparable to that of non-disabled persons. For the sake of brevity we will explore this issue here in relation to physical disabilities rather than mental.

The statist solution to disability is, typically, nothing short of rank egalitarianism. First of all, one must define a hypothetically “typical” able-bodied human being and the characteristics of that person. Anyone who does not meet this standard through either the absence of tissue (such as an arm or an organ) or damage to the same that impairs functionality to a significant degree is considered to be “disabled”. The state’s response to this, in addition to disability benefits funded by the taxpayer, is to forcibly require private providers of goods and societies to maintain equality of access for disabled citizens, including the installation of ramps, lifts, disabled spaces on transportation facilities, and so on. Tackling disability, therefore, is a plank of social justice, of redistribution not from the financially rich to the financially poor but from the physically wealthy to the physically deprived. Just like any other arm of the welfare state, one set of people is forced to fund remedies to problems that are borne by another so that the cost of disability is shifted from the disabled to the able-bodied.

A preliminary problem with this approach is defining precisely when a person will be considered to be “disabled” and which characteristics we are examining when we make such a definition. At the extreme, few people can run as close to as fast as Usain Bolt. Should we not consider Bolt and those of his calibre as able-bodied and the rest of us disabled? If Superman appeared on Earth today, wouldn’t we all appear to be chronically crippled in comparison? Shouldn’t Bolt or Superman be required to fund the rest of us with disability benefits? Clearly this would be ridiculous but when we attempt to make a similar judgment against the “typical” human being we see that we all have varying physical strengths and weaknesses compared to other people that make us either more or less suitable to certain pursuits. Indeed the very reason why we have the division of labour is because of these varying qualities, with weaknesses regarded simply as differences rather than disabilities. At what point does a weakness become a disability? While it may be possible in common parlance to state that a man without an arm is “disabled” whereas a person who has a fully functioning arm is “able-bodied”, determining a clear legal definition of disability for cases in between these two extremes will require at least a degree of arbitrariness. What, for example, should we make of a person who has an arm but cannot extend it fully in a particular direction? And if we are talking about typical characteristics, females are generally physically weaker than males – should we regard all females as “disabled” with all males required to subsidise them with disability benefits? Furthermore, simply because a person is disabled in one way does not rule out the possibility that he may excel beyond the capabilities of his able-bodied brethren in another that, in his eyes, more than makes up for any loss of functionality caused by the disability. What is also clear is that, for the most part, we have to consider a not only a “typical human” but also a “typical disability”. While any disability is capable of being “compensated” by tax-payer funded benefits, when it comes to forcing equality of access only disabilities suffered by a small but significant percentage of the population can be considered. The reason why there may be ramps and wide car park spacing for wheelchair users is because wheelchair users form such a minority. If, however, an individual suffered from a really unusual disability that could only be met through special accommodation unique to him is it likely that all businesses and public spaces in the entire country would be forced to cater for this? As with all statist solutions that lead to redistribution, defining the deserving beneficiary will always be haphazard, encompassing some of those whose ailment is little more than a minor irritation while leaving out in the cold those with significantly impacting impairments.

Leaving this consideration aside, however, and taking it as a given that we can define someone as “disabled”, the libertarian response to the statist solution must be that, however awful and debilitating one’s disability, no one possesses the right to shift the cost or the burden of that disability to another individual. Although it may not be the fault of a disabled person that he possesses a disability, neither is it the fault of anybody else and hence there can be no entitlement, enforced by the violent imposition of the state, to have other people fund a remedy or compensation. It will be the case, therefore, that disabled individuals may command lower earning power in the marketplace simply because their productivity is lower. However, this is no different from the fact that a slightly weaker man may have lower earning power than a slightly stronger man in the market for physical work; the difference between the slightly weaker man’s earning power and the disabled man’s earning power is one of degree rather than of kind. Why should the individual with the greater impairment acquire an entitlement to compensation whereas the individual with a lesser one must shoulder the burden alone? In any case, however, a physical disability does not automatically mean that a disabled individual can command lower earning power – if his mental faculties are intact then his productivity in mental tasks may exceed that of the physically able-bodied in physical tasks. Furthermore, a disabled person has no right to enforce private providers of goods and services to provide some kind of equal access to those goods and services – such as the installation of ramps, lifts, wide car parking spaces, etc. Precisely how much access a private provider grants to his goods and services is dependent upon whether the cost of doing so is less than the resulting revenue. Such questions are very broad as well as very narrow. Should, for example, the supplier set up a bricks and mortar store? If so, where should this store be sited? Should the supplier set up a website? Or would sales be maximised by sending individual salesmen round to every door with the very products in hand, ready for the purchasers there and then? All of these are questions of access. If a minority of customers with disabilities are significant enough to make increased access profitable then it will be provided, otherwise resources are diverted from ends which are more urgently desired by consumers. It is important to realise in this regard that shops, bars, restaurants and so on are not “public” premises; they are privately owned premises into which members of the public are invited to conduct trade. It is the owner’s prerogative which members of the public whom he chooses to serve – he cannot be forced to associate or disassociate with any particular customer, regardless of race, creed, or physical ability.

What, then, would be the position of disabled persons in the unhampered free market? Where a person’s earning power is markedly lower as a result of a disability, or where “access” is impeded by the same, we could suggest that private charity would exist to ameliorate the situation – something that is more likely in an economy where people are allowed to keep more of their money. Such charities could, for example, provide disability benefits to those who are disabled and fund the installation of facilities that improve accessibility. However, the essential difference between the free market and the welfare state is that the latter, in all of its guises, is preoccupied only with wealth distribution whereas the free market is the powerhouse of wealth creation. In the first place, it is only because capitalism and the free market has generated so much wealth that the existence of disabled persons in society can be funded. In impoverished past times, if a person could not work or only worked to a lesser ability than the able-bodied he may simply have starved to death, if he was not actively killed beforehand for being a burden on everyone else. Our advance in this regard is solely because even the lesser productivity of the physically disabled is, in the free market, able to afford them a comfortable standard of living, something that would continue along with increased wealth creation. Capital invested on behalf of the able-bodied is also capital invested on behalf of the disabled and the productivity of both is improved with economic growth. Second, it is not true that there would be no redistributive remedy under the free market. The whole purpose of insurance, for example, is to provide compensation for those catastrophic, but unlikely events that are no fault of the victim. Where physical disabilities are present from birth, for example, prospective parents could purchase medical insurance that will promise a certain pay out in the unfortunate event that their baby is born with a disability, compensating them for the additional costs of care and raising a disabled child. Similarly, insurance would cover the incidence of faultless accidents which leave you with a disability. It is of course the prerogative of each individual to purchase such insurance and it is entirely up to him whether he wishes to run the risk of being unfunded after an accident. But this is his choice and such a person cannot be forced to put his money towards an end that he does not deem suitably urgent enough for fulfilment. If, however, you do believe this is a valuable end then you will not left high and dry with the only option to die following an accident simply because the state is not there to lend you a crutch. Third, redistribution by the state to remedy a certain ill completely distorts the incentives that lead towards the occurrence of that ill. If one knows that a disability will be compensated by the state then, quite simply, it reduces the cost of being disabled. Disability with state compensation is relatively a more attractive proposition that disability with no such compensation. Therefore whatever steps could be taken by persons to reduce the incidence of disability will be taken to a lesser degree. Given that ability and disability is intricately linked to a person’s health overall, people will be less careful with their health; they will take more risks with their bodies; they will be involved in more accidents; indeed, even obesity is now, according to the European Court of Justice as of last month, defined as a disability – would anyone doubt that the level of obesity would be as high as it is without government funded healthcare programmes? Moreover, there will be less of an incentive for couples who possess a genetic risk of passing on a disability to a child to avoid giving birth to disabled children. There will, therefore, be more disabled children born. In short, if you confer upon people a right to be paid when they are disabled, you will, all else being equal, have more disability. Fourth, such distorted incentives also perpetuate the accommodation or compensation of physical disabilities ahead of attempting to find long term solutions that would result in their eradication. If the burden of disability is reduced it also reduces the impetus to find a cure. Disability is simply put up with instead of solved. With the free market, however, as the division of labour widens and more capital is accumulated it affords the wealth not only to increase specialist outlets and solutions that may cater specifically for disabled persons, but also it makes possible increased research and development into long term cures for physical disabilities. Imagine if a person without legs could grow new ones, or if a person who is deaf could resolve the problem simply by swallowing a pill? A truly wonderful world is not one where everybody is forced to compensate and accommodate disabled persons; it is one where we have the wealth and technology so that, to quote the prophet Isaiah, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped…the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing”. This is not to imply that there will be no attempt at achieving cures for disability under statist regimes; but with retarded wealth creation and distorted incentives the desire towards and capability of achieving it is greatly diminished. Moreover, with the free market, the point at which a person’s disability is considered a problem worth spending money finding a solution for is determined by disabled individuals and not the arbitrary decrees of the state. Let us therefore banish the statist accommodation and compensation of disability and unshackle the free market so that disabled persons, like everyone else, may enjoy not only an increased standard of living but the possibility of a complete cure for their afflictions.

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