In my local paper a letter writer, apparently eager to besmirch Ayn Rand – which many have tried in vain – had this to say: "Rand's libertarianism has an underlying philosophy that says that if you are not particularly smart, ambitious, disciplined or wealthy, and you become homeless, hungry, financially ruined and suffer from premature illness or death, then that is entirely your fault." (April 25, Local p. 5)
Neither Ayn Rand nor libertarianism says any of this. What they both do say is that if you are in such a state, you by no stretch of the imagination have the authority to deprive others of their resources. You can ask, of course. And surely that is correct.
Even a person in the greatest of need has no warrant for stealing from others. What such a person most definitely is fully justified in doing is to request help from others which, in America especially, millions provide at little urging – just consider the help that they provide when something like Katrina or a tsunami strikes, and all the charitable contributions they send to the casualties of various similar mishaps. They do this far more than citizens of any other country.
Nor do Rand and libertarians hold that everything the letter writer lists is one's fault, quite the contrary. Many mishaps people experience, because of illness and natural disasters, are clearly not their and (most often) anyone else's fault. Bad things do happen, be it to good or bad people.
What Rand and libertarians have believed, on pretty good grounds, is that when improvements are needed in people's lives, relying on confiscating other people's belongings and coercing them to do work to provide assistance are flawed and morally wrong remedies. Instead, voluntary cooperation is both the most ethical and the most effective way to go.
This idea is by no means odd. In broad terms it is recognized that countries whose laws protect their citizens against coercion – violent criminals, intrusive or meddling governments – are in better shape than those ruled by strong rulers who impose their idea of what is good for everyone not by convincing citizens of what they believe is right but by imposing their will on them. Be this in small matters or large ones, history is replete with lessons about how coercive force between human beings is an ill advised way to handle problems.
In one area, especially, this has proven to be true for the last few centuries. Ever since Adam Smith published his path-breaking book The Wealth of Nations in 1776, it has been understood by quite a few political economists that prosperity is best pursued in peaceful ways. Voluntary economic relations among people are what is now referred to a win-win situation, whereas coercive economic relations are primarily zero-sum games, meaning when one party gains the other loses. In most of human history, sadly, this latter is how wealth has been obtained and many still advocate the approach even today. This is in part because in a mostly free market system – there has never been a fully free market anywhere, unfortunately – those seeking to have their needs and wants met, from gaining groceries to major medical treatments, have been able to find nearly exactly what they have in mind, suiting their particular, individual needs and wants instead of some general benefit that governments prescribe for everyone, something that always suffers from government's ignorance of what it is that can benefit individual human beings. This may be one reason boosters of government involvement in our lives – in other words, statists – tend to speak mostly of the public interest or the public good or the common welfare since these are so indeterminate, too vague that no one can check out just exactly what they come to in practice.
Aside from all this, there is also the less well known greater generosity found in free societies than in those with top-down government regimentation of nearly everything in people's lives. But this isn't government "generosity," involving robbing Peter so as to hand some of the loot to Paul. It is voluntary charity and philanthropy so it is likely to be far more efficient than what the government does when it sets out to "help" people, including the poor, indigent, hapless, or unfortunate among us. (It isn't help when one doesn't dig into one's own pockets or bank accounts but those of other people and hands these to those in need of help. Moreover the welfare state didn't emerge because private help was not forthcoming.)
Ayn Rand and libertarians have supported all voluntary contributions to the people the letter writer listed, provided those people aren't set on robbing others to support their goals or urging the government to do so. Rand, in particular, did believe that focusing too intently on the needy is a mistake. After all, even the needy are much better off if the productive among us are championed. And how are the needy ever going to gain from rich bashing, by denigrating and discouraging those who create the resources from which they might benefit?