I used to call myself a libertarian. I still believe that market forces are the best way to allocate non-essential resources. And I still believe that government should stay out of people’s personal business. But I now realize that libertarianism is based on a number of conceptual confusions.
Libertarianism holds out a laudable and seemingly reasonable ideal: a democratic meritocracy of free, rational, self-reliant individuals who take responsibility for their own problems, who cooperate with others based on mutual self-interest, and who expect nothing more than what they have earned. Grounding this ideal is one uncompromising principle: personal liberty. The government’s only role is the protection of that liberty. With that liberty assured, libertarianism presumes that rational, self-reliant individuals will always eventually come up with rational solutions to their shared problems. All that is required are free individuals who can recognize what is in their self-interest and a free market through which a solution can be implemented.
This insistence upon personal liberty ahead of all other considerations implies a strict moral neutrality about how one ought to live one’s life. As long as one is not hurting anyone or infringing upon anyone’s liberty, one ought to be free to do what one likes. This simple idea appeals to the great many of us who would describe themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. In one fell swoop, divisive social issues would be resolved in favor of leaving such matters up to the personal choice of individuals.
Unfortunately for libertarianism, the demand for personal liberty, by itself, cannot deliver on the theory’s conceptual, moral, and political promise. Most of the policy positions or social arrangements that libertarians actually defend depend upon something other than personal liberty, thereby undermining the principled clarity and intellectual neatness that libertarianism promises. Here are some problems that illustrate this tension.
Problem: Freedom is not just the absence of constraint
For the Libertarian, personal liberty is negative liberty — “freedom from” as opposed to “freedom to.” It is a freedom from restraint, regulation, and all forms of coercion. The problem is that this doesn’t add up to much of a life. If this negative sense of freedom were all there were to personal liberty, then we would only be truly free living alone in the wilderness, away from society with all its political, moral, and social constraints. But few would trade the opportunities afforded by human society for this “true freedom.” Most of us would prefer to accept some limits upon our personal liberty, even restraints to which we have not explicitly agreed, because with these restraints come opportunities. When we think clearly about our personal liberty, we quickly realize that it is not simply a negative, hands-off kind of freedom that we desire but a maximization of freedom, a maximization of opportunities with a minimum of constraints. In other words, what we really desire is a reasonable balance between opportunity and obligation. The problem with this revised notion of freedom, however, is that it can no longer play the role of one unbending principle against which all political problems must break. Instead, the maximization of freedom implies a pragmatic balancing of personal rights and community concerns. That sort of murky pragmatism runs counter to the principled clarity promised by libertarianism.
Problem: Personal liberty does not imply ownership
Libertarians often construe personal liberty in terms of self-ownership. Why do they do this? This rhetoric of self-ownership allows the libertarian to expand the notion of personal liberty to include property rights. Personal liberty is construed as the fundamental right, not simply to pursue our interests free from coercion, but to own and to dispose of property, particularly that piece of “property” that we hold most dear, our body.
This notion of self-ownership presumes a dualism that is a much disputed notion philosophically, a dualism between our bodies and whatever it is that we really are besides our bodies, be it a soul or spirit or ego or brain. The libertarian then must further assume that the relationship between this real self and one’s body is one of “ownership” thus making ownership and property not human-made notions but ontological facts built into the nature of human existence. I doubt that many libertarians are willing or able to make these sorts of dubious philosophical claims.
Anyway, most people can see that the notion of self-ownership is nonsense. We do not “own” ourselves. We do not “own” our bodies. We are ourselves. Once the question of property rights is unhitched from the fundamental primacy of personal liberty, the libertarian is obliged to give arguments about how and when private property is justified. Such arguments are certainly available, but they are not entailed by the principle of personal liberty alone.
Problem: Not all constraint is the same
It is not possible to construe all political situations in terms of personal liberty and coercion. Consider, for example, the differences between the “coercion” of parents over their children and the coercion of the master over the slave. Consider, as well, the “liberty” demanded by the petulant child, the “liberty” demanded by the libertarian who declares himself to be a “slave” because he is forced to pay taxes, and then the liberty demanded by an actual slave. There is no way, on the basis of a singular principle of personal liberty, to distinguish, morally or politically, between these different demands for freedom. Such distinctions can, of course, be made. A reasonable community accepts some abrogation of personal liberty in certain circumstances, including abrogations to which the individual has not consented. But for the strict libertarian, seeking to encapsulate everything in one uncompromising principle, these are all morally equivalent demands.
Problem: Cost-effective government is not the same as minimal government
Just as the libertarian finds it difficult to justify parental authority, so she also finds it difficult to limit governmental authority. According to libertarian theory, the only legitimate authority that the state has over non-consenting individuals is the protection of liberty and the collection of taxes to pay for that protection. But why can’t the state use this same justification in other ways? For example, why not invest in communities (say, through education or social programs) to reduce the threat to our personal liberty (say, through lack of opportunities or crime)? If the protection of liberty can be achieved with more cost effectiveness by way of progressive social programs than by way of policing alone, on what basis would the libertarian oppose such programs?
The libertarian notion of self-responsibility presumes that we are always capable of maximizing self-interest, regardless of our circumstances or upbringing. Investing in communities, so it is said, only fosters dependence upon state handouts. However, the thoughtful individual recognizes that one’s upbringing and environment shapes, at least to some extent, one’s opportunity and ability to act in one’s long-term self-interest. Recognizing that fact does not excuse the individual from her legal or moral responsibility, but it does mean that there is no logical reason for refusing to invest in communities if that investment “maximizes liberty” at a lower cost than does policing.
Problem: Not all government intervention is authoritarian
Another reason that libertarians resist social programs is that they see politics as a stark choice between free individuals rationally pursuing their self-interest, and an authoritarian state. Social programs in particular are thought to lead to “socialism” which somehow leads to dictatorship. There is no question that libertarians are correct to warn us about the dangers of government power. But the ideological myopia of the libertarian renders her unable to see the vast intermediate area, consisting of governments around the world implementing a wide range of social programs without succumbing to authoritarianism.
Problem: Social programs do not violate personal liberty
Many libertarians will still resist the idea of investing in social programs on what can only be described as moral grounds. One will often hear the libertarian declare that no one should get something for nothing. Note, however, that this is a moral stricture that is in no way entailed by the libertarian demand for personal liberty. The only concern of the state ought to be the most cost effective protection of our personal liberty.
The libertarian delusion: A society of free-wheeling, self-reliant individuals
As noted earlier, individuals can only maximize their opportunities — and thus their freedom — in communities. However, contrary to a central assumption of libertarianism, we are not individuals who choose to live in communities only out of self-interest. Rather, we are fundamentally interdependent social animals, whose identity as self-responsible citizens depends upon, and is only possible because of, community. At every stage of both our personal history, and our collective evolutionary history, we are thoroughly dependent upon family, community, and society. Only at one unique stage in our lives, and only recently in our history, does our social dependence seem less obvious — when we are young and healthy and have enough resources at our disposal to strike out on our own. Libertarians would take this short moment of (illusory) independence and design a political system around it.
But we are interdependent social animals who identify with families and social groups, feel loyalty to and make sacrifices for those groups, prefer to live and work in groups rather than alone, seek the approval and respect of others, and naturally feel empathy toward others, all of which override simple calculations of self-interest. In fact, human activity has little to do with a rational calculation of self-interest at all. The decisions and actions of normal humans are always filtered through emotional and social considerations.
Recognizing the essential importance of social institutions and communities means that politics must remain a complex and frustrating trade-off between personal rights, personal obligations, and community needs. It can never be as simplistic and one-dimensional as the libertarian would have it. That is why I am no longer a libertarian.