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The Morality of Libertarianism


Libertarianism is a political philosophy that says that people should be free from government interference to live their life any way they desire and engage in any economic activity they choose as long as their actions are peaceful and consensual and they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others. It is that simple. Violence is justified only in defense of person or property against violence. Nonaggression — that is the libertarian creed. And that is the essence of libertarianism. One’s lifestyle has nothing to do with it.

Liberal and conservative smears of libertarianism are legion. Libertarians are said to be naive, utopian, idealistic, materialistic, and nihilistic. They disdain religion and reject tradition. They are disciples of Rousseau. They are too individualistic. They have nostalgia for a fictional past. They have no compassion for the poor. They don’t believe in social justice. They are weak on national security. They are pacifists and isolationists. Libertarianism aspires, like Marxism, to reduce social life to economics. It treats children like adults. It believes that man is inherently good. “Libertarianism,” according to conservative Jonah Goldberg, “is an ideology best suited for young folks. It compellingly tells kids everything they want to be told.” Libertarians “fetishize change, assuming it to be always and everywhere good.”

But above all, liberals and conservatives like to characterize libertarians as libertines and hedonists who celebrate alternative life-styles and don’t believe in moral principles or absolutes. The trump card they play has two sides: libertarians are all moral relativists and libertarianism is immoral.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Libertarianism celebrates things such as individual liberty, private property, peaceful activity, voluntary interaction, laissez faire, personal freedom, financial privacy, individual responsibility, free enterprise, free markets, free speech, free thought, and a free society. There is nothing inherently immoral about any of those things.

There are two things generally cited by opponents of libertarianism to “prove” that libertarianism is immoral: the attitude of libertarians toward prostitution and their stand on drug use. Those are always the two sticking points, not because libertarians promote, endorse, defend, or practice them, but because they don’t believe the government should interfere with the voluntary, private, peaceful activity of consenting adults.

Regarding prostitution, libertarians reason that it if it is legal for a woman to provide free sexual services as often as she wants and to as many people as she wants, then it shouldn’t be illegal for her to charge for performing the same services. Especially since someone’s indirectly paying for sex by paying for dinner and a movie is not a crime.

Regarding drug use, libertarians reason that it makes no sense for the government to wage war on illegal drugs, when tobacco, alcohol, and prescription drugs kill far more people every year. Tobacco use costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars every year in medical costs and lost productivity and causes hundreds of thousands of premature deaths every year from heart disease, stroke, cancer, and smoking-related diseases. Alcohol is also one of the leading causes of premature deaths in the United States. Alcohol abuse is a factor in many drownings; suicides; fires; violent crimes; child-abuse cases; sex crimes; and home, pedestrian, car, and boating accidents. More than 100,000 people die every year from drugs prescribed and administered by physicians. More than two million Americans a year have in-hospital adverse drug reactions. And thousands of people die every year from reactions to aspirin.

But the main reasons libertarians have their attitude toward prostitution and drug use are simply that vices are not crimes and that every crime needs to have a victim. That doesn’t mean that libertarians don’t think the practices are immoral. It just means that they believe that it is not the proper function of government to arrest people for them or seek to limit them.

The vice list used against libertarians used to also regularly include gambling and pornography, but since now almost every state has a lottery, there are casinos scattered all across the country, pornography is available for sale on newsstands, and porn is freely available on the Internet, libertarianism’s detractors don’t much mention those two vices anymore. And how can they? All the gambling and pornography viewing that takes place cannot be laid solely at the feet of libertarians any more than soliciting prostitutes and taking illegal drugs can. No political ideology has a monopoly on vice and bad habits.

Lifestyle libertarians

Some of the criticism of libertarianism is deserved: a small, but vocal, minority of libertarians have unfortunately given liberals and conservatives the impression that libertarianism is a social attitude or lifestyle.

Those libertarians say or imply that libertarians should celebrate change for change’s sake; live an alternative lifestyle; partake of illegal drugs; embrace the feminist movement; support abortion on demand; defend same-sex marriage; celebrate hedonism, licentiousness, and libertinism even if they don’t live that way; do something illegal; view pornography; own a gun; enjoy a particular kind of art; have a particular musical taste; and celebrate diversity for diversity’s sake.

And, at the same time, they also say or imply that libertarians should reject organized religion, not work for a large corporation, not be socially conservative, disdain tradition, and never discriminate.

Whether any of those things is right, wrong, moral, immoral, good, or bad is irrelevant. Libertarians who say or imply them are improperly expanding libertarianism beyond its core nonaggression principle. Libertarianism has nothing to do with anyone’s lifestyle, tastes, vices, sex life, traditions, religion, aesthetics, sensibilities, outlook, or cultural norms. An individual libertarian might be a moral relativist — as might an individual liberal or conservative — but libertarianism as a political philosophy cannot be said to be immoral.

That being said, libertarianism, even narrowly defined, does not oppose the educational efforts, debate, argumentation, media campaigns, organized boycotts, social ostracism, or other nonviolent, noncoercive methods of persuasion of others — libertarians or otherwise — to effect changes in their public and private behavior. It is liberals and conservatives who advocate government aggression and violence against peaceful people’s person or property to achieve some desired end.

Is it moral?

Although they accuse libertarians of being moral relativists, it is liberals and conservatives alike who support the immoral actions of government.

  • Is it moral to charge someone with the commission of a crime when there is no victim?
  • Is it moral to force some Americans to pay for the health care of other Americans?
  • Is it moral to make someone get a license or permission from the government before he can open a business?
  • Is it moral to treat vices as crimes?
  • Is it moral to incarcerate anyone but violent criminals?
  • Is it moral to commit someone to an institution against his will?
  • Is it moral to send a soldier to fight an unnecessary and unjust war?
  • Is it moral to force people to pay for the education of other people’s children?
  • Is it moral to arrest, fine, or imprison someone for using drugs, when alcohol is readily available?
  • Is it moral to take money from people without their consent and give it away to foreign governments?
  • Is it moral to charge someone with the commission of a crime when no one’s personal or property rights are violated?
  • Is it moral for one person to live at the expense of another?
  • Is it moral to criminalize marijuana, when tobacco kills tens of thousands every year?
  • Is it moral for an immoral government to legislate morality?
  • Is it moral to take money from some people and redistribute it to others?
  • Is it moral to initiate force against someone who hasn’t himself initiated force against another?
  • Is it moral to demand that “the poor” have a right to the earnings of “the rich”?
  • Is it moral to lock someone in a cage for years for possessing a plant the government doesn’t approve of?
  • Is it moral to sentence someone to life in prison for a drug “crime,” when rapists don’t serve that long?
  • Is it moral to force people to contribute to a retirement program?
  • Is it moral to force people to be charitable?

I think the answers are obvious.

Is it immoral?

Conservatives and liberals have it backwards; it is violating the tenets of libertarianism that is immoral.

  • Is it immoral to let someone keep the fruits of his labor?
  • Is it immoral to let someone live and let live?
  • Is it immoral for charity, relief, and philanthropy to be voluntary activities?
  • Is it immoral to let Americans spend their money however they choose?
  • Is it immoral to permit buyers and sellers to freely exchange with each other for mutual gain?
  • Is it immoral to allow people to engage in commerce with whomever they choose?
  • Is it immoral to let every individual be free to pursue happiness in his own way?
  • Is it immoral to believe that the initiation of force to achieve a political, or other goal, is wrong?
  • Is it immoral to believe that acts of theft and violence are still wrong when committed by government?
  • Is it immoral to allow people to live their lives any way they choose as long as their conduct is peaceful?
  • Is it immoral for the government to just leave people alone who are not threatening or aggressing against the person or property of others?
  • Is it immoral to allow people to participate in any activity with anyone else as long as their behavior is consensual?
  • Is it immoral to want everyone — including government — to live by the nonaggression principle?
  • Is it immoral to allow people to engage in any economic enterprise or activity of their choosing without getting permission from the government?
  • Is it immoral for people to just mind their own business?
  • Is it immoral to allow people to associate or not associate with whomever they choose as long as their associations are mutually voluntary?
  • Is it immoral to want the government to stay out of people’s bedrooms?
  • Is it immoral to allow people to accumulate wealth as long as they don’t defraud anyone?
  • Is it immoral to allow people to do business or not do business with whomever they choose?
  • Is it immoral to let someone do what he wants with his own property?
  • Is it immoral to want to live in a free society?

Again, I think the answers are obvious.

It is liberalism and conservatism that have a morality problem, not libertarianism. It is liberals and conservatives who support the immoral actions of government and demonize genuinely moral impulses. “Libertarians,” as economist Robert Higgs has said, “should never concede the moral high ground to those who insist on coercively interfering with freedom.”

This article was originally published in the October 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.

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