On Libertarianism, Part III

Editor’s note: this is the third and final post in a three-part series on the basics of libertarianism and why it appeals to me. Links for previous posts: Part I; Part II.

freedom

In part II of this series I discussed pragmatic reasons for supporting libertarianism:  the limits of human knowledge and reason, the skewed incentives of government programs, the frequent misalignment of policy goals and outcomes, etc.

My limited study of history and public policy has lead me to firmly believe in such a practical support of libertarianism for those reasons. At the same time, while perhaps a source of initial interest in the philosophy, they no longer are central to my beliefs. Said another way: if I were to be somehow objectively proven wrong on all of those ideas, I would still be a libertarian.

Before proceeding further, it is probably necessary to emphasize that the nature of this post is entirely personal and preference-based. These are the ideas that I have come to, and while I feel extremely strongly about them, I do not claim they are definitively “right”. One’s political philosophy is the object of selective reasoning and balancing of various (often contradictory) concerns.

Of such concerns, I have an overriding preference for individual freedom. Practical effects of a law (say, its impact on poverty) are far less important to me than its effect on citizens’ rights.

For me, freedom has inherent value in of itself. (Here, famous libertarian economist F.A. Hayek would probably disagree.) It isn’t good simply because it drives innovation or helps economies grow (which it does); rather, freedom is worth pursuing and protecting entirely outside of any practical benefits it may provide. 

Why is this?

FREEDOM AND MORALITY

“Freedom is an implicit moral value, because the concepts of good and evil have no moral meaning in the absence of choice.” –William Niskanen, “Reflections of a Political Economist”

“Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind. Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins” –Ayn Rand, “Atlas Shrugged”

Human morality cannot exist without freedom. No deed can be considered good or bad when done against one’s will.

For example, paying taxes, some of which ultimately make their way to needy people, is not charity. While it might involve me writing a check and a poor person receiving the funds, it is a transaction that would not occur absent a threat of coercion. If I don’t pay my taxes, men with guns will ultimately come to my house, force me to pay up, or throw me in a prison cell against my will.

If you believe, as I do, that human life is about more than just the maximization of individual happiness; if you believe that there is right and wrong, and that acting according to our own moral compasses is an important part of living, then limiting the scope of moral choices man can make by definition lessens his humanity. Acting according to our consciences is what makes us human.

If the scope of government control were small, and if the areas of our lives that it controlled were limited, this wouldn’t be a serious problem. Not everything we do has a moral component; the usurpation of a tiny portion of our decisions would be little cause for trifle.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. In “Crisis And Leviathan”, Robert Higgs notes that “Virtually nothing remains untouched by the myriad influences of government expenditure, taxation, and regulation, not to mention the government’s direct participation in economic activities.” It determines what we can watch on TV, how we spend 40+ percent of our income, the types of speech we can engage in, what we can put in our bodies, who we can engage in consensual contracts with, how we care for our sick, how we school our kids, who we fight, and who we kill.

Massive government intervention has rendered a significant portion of our lives amoral, sapping away our very humanity. A libertarian approach to governance would not allow this.

THE PRIMACY OF NATURAL RIGHTS

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” -Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence

“Thus, since the freedom of speech, the development of personality, the right to worship or not to worship, the right to use technologically contemporary means for self-defense, the right to be left alone, and the right to own and use property all stem from our humanity, the government simply is without authority to regulate human behavior in these areas, no matter what powers it purports to give to itself and no matter what crises may occur.” –Judge Andrew Napolitano

Natural rights theory stipulates that there are certain areas that, because they were not given to us by man, cannot be taken away by man. Your right to think freely was given either by your Creator or nature itself (depending on whether or not you believe in God). Politicians who seek to control these areas are taking something that is not theirs to take. In doing so they violate either the law of God or the law of the land.

Jefferson paraphrased John Locke (who, in turn, was drawing from the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas) in our founding document to set crucial limiting principles for government. Without natural rights theory, there really wouldn’t have been a reason for American independence. What Jefferson knew-and what politicians today forget-is that the protection of these fundamental rights is an end, the end, the means for which is the American polity.

We organized a country to protect man’s natural rights from outside coercion; politicians today seek to coerce men to achieve their own ends. This is completely backwards.

Libertarianism recognizes that some state is necessary, but that no state actions, regardless of whatever faux emergency bureaucrats clamor about, may interfere with these rights.

CONCLUSION

To a progressive, the line between moral and political philosophy is extremely blurred, bordering on the nonexistent. It makes sense, then, that even a well-intentioned progressive can find a libertarian to be apathetic and uncaring. Government is their mechanism for action and compassion. A political theory that would rob said mechanism of its power to do good may reasonably seem evil. And indeed, unaccompanied by a proper moral philosophy, libertarianism is a terrible way of doing things. A moral individual cannot reasonably claim that poor people aren’t worthy of assistance, or that children should go uneducated. Which is why any small-government type who fancies themselves to be a decent person must have an accompanying moral philosophy underpinned by empathy, selflessness, and generosity. –Brian Ruddock

That is the first time I’ve ever quoted myself, and it feels terrible. But such a clarification, I felt, was necessary after writing 3,000 words about why government shouldn’t be responsible for doing a whole host of things we’d consider good.

Progressives today seem to have a monopoly on the mantle of “compassionate” because they seek legislation that ostensibly helps people. But such help comes at a massive cost in actual dollars, missed opportunities in the private sector, and wasted freedoms. They seek to help some people at the expense of others. The efficacy of such help is questionable at best; the morality of it is unquestionably lacking.

I have chosen libertarianism as my overarching political philosophy not because I don’t want to help people, but because I want to do so on my own terms and according to my own conscience. Politicians love spending other people’s money on worthy causes; it gives them a feeling of satisfaction without the accompanying self-sacrifice. This is morally abhorrent.

Instead, I advocate for a philosophy that protects our freedoms no matter who is in office and what crises transpire. Libertarianism puts the onus for morality where it belongs: on the individual.

I’ll close with perhaps my favorite quote from the late, legendary sci-fi author Robert Heinlein:

“I am free no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.” -“The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”

EPILOGUE

In over 3,000 words I have barely scratched the surface of libertarianism. For those interested in more info, I recommend the following starters:

-Books: “Crisis and Leviathan” (Robert Higgs), “On Liberty” (John Stuart Mill), “Capitalism And Freedom” (Milton Friedman), “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” (Robert Heinlein)

-Blogs: Libertarianism.org, Reason, Cato At Liberty, Cafe Hayek

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