“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun,” said the wisest man who ever lived in the book of Ecclesiastes. Although King Solomon wasn’t writing about libertarianism, what he wrote certainly applies to critics of libertarianism.
While doing some unrelated research on the history of conservatism, I noticed that conservatives, beginning in the 1960s (Frank S. Meyer, M. Stanton Evans, Russell Kirk, L. Brent Bozell, Robert Nisbet, William F. Buckley, and other writers in National Review), used much of the same rhetoric and sometimes even the same talking points in pointing out the problems they perceived with libertarianism.
In Frank S. Meyer’s edited symposium What is Conservatism? (1964), M. Stanton Evans writes,
The libertarian, or classical liberal, characteristically denies the existence of a God-centered moral order, to which man should subordinate his will and reason. Alleging human freedom as the single moral imperative, he otherwise is a thoroughgoing relativist, pragmatist, and materialist. He puts considerable emphasis on economics. Man and his satisfactions, the libertarian maintains, are themselves the source of value — and other values cannot be imposed from without. Because the free economy best serves man and best supplies his material needs, it is moral. It works.
The libertarian, or classical liberal, affirms the natural goodness, or, in the more scientistic forms, the non-evil of human nature. He views government as the source of evil, the unfettered individual as the source of good. He has considerable faith in “progress” as the natural creation of free men and tends to believe that material success and moral virtue are closely akin, if not identical. For all of these reasons, he
concludes that government should let people alone to employ their natural goodness. In his extreme form, the modern-day libertarian is a philosophical anarchist, a free-enterprise Utopian.
Elsewhere he speaks of “the libertarian’s commitment to freedom at virtue’s expense,” the libertarian “attack on traditional values,” the libertarian demand “that all other considerations, including the structure of traditional values, yield to the task” of confronting the “terrible challenge” of “the power of the state increasing by leaps and bounds, while the power of the individual correspondingly diminishes,” and the libertarian’s “moral relativism” and rejection of “objective standards of right and wrong.” Evans believes that the libertarian “imperatives of individual freedom cannot be reconciled with the Christian conception of the individual as flawed in mind and will, with its demand for individual subordination to an objective, nonsecular order.”
Writing in Modern Age in 1980, Robert Nisbet says of libertarians,
For libertarians individual freedom, in almost every conceivable domain, is the highest of all social values — irrespective of what forms and levels of moral, aesthetic, and spiritual debasement may prove to be the unintended consequences of such freedom.
Libertarians, on the other hand, appear to see social and moral authority and despotic political power as elements of a single spectrum, as an unbroken continuity. If, their argument goes, we are to be spared Leviathan we must challenge any and all forms of authority, including those which are inseparable from the social bond.
Libertarians seem to me to give less and less recognition to the very substantial difference between the coercions of, say, family, school, and local community and those of the centralized bureaucratic state.
And writing toward the latter end of his career, conservative godfather Russell Kirk, who had put conservatism on the map with his 1953 book, The Conservative Mind: Roots of American Order, pulled no punches in his assessment of libertarians:
The perennial libertarian, like Satan, can bear no authority temporal or spiritual.
The typical libertarian of our day delights in eccentricity including, often, sexual eccentricity.
The representative libertarian of this decade is humorless, intolerant, self-righteous, badly schooled, and dull.
Libertarians (like anarchists and Marxists) generally believe that human nature is good, though damaged by certain social institutions.
The libertarian does not venerate ancient beliefs and customs, or the natural world, or his country, or the immortal spark in his fellow men.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century.
Tony Greco, writing for the “Democratic site” Daily Kos, argues that “libertarian values are repellent” because “libertarianism celebrates greed and selfishness.” Their “hearts bleed for the rich and successful, not for the underprivileged.” Although they are not “actively hostile toward or contemptuous of the poor,” they “don’t much care about them.” Libertarianism is “intellectually myopic” because libertarians “understand freedom almost exclusively in terms of freedom from government, not recognizing that unfettered capitalism — the libertarians’ beloved free market economy — can be as great a threat to freedom as government action.” Libertarianism is “utopian” because “the minimal government society that libertarians envision doesn’t exist anywhere in the industrial or post-industrial world, and never has, for good reason.” Libertarianism is “politically hopeless” because libertarians are “hobbled by their principled consistency.”
Conservative writer William Bowen takes a different approach:
Libertarians assume that the primary means to judge human behavior is rationality.
Libertarianism is a haunt for atheists and skeptics.
Libertarians assume that freedom is the premier political value to which all other political values are subordinate. If people are basically good, then they should be free from all constraints, except those constraints imposed by the state to protect all of us from the oppressive acts of others. In this respect, the thinking of the libertarian is little different from the thinking of the socialist who assumes that equality is the premier political value, or the fascist who assumes the same about the exaltation of the nation-state.
Libertarians think they can manufacture liberty by reducing the size of government and telling people that “you can do whatever you want to do so long as you don’t hurt anyone else while doing it.”
Libertarians pave the road to tyranny by asserting that we can have freedom without moral obligation to God or others. Several have tried to find a moral haven in utilitarianism, a long-ago rejected moral framework. The more the libertine asserts a freedom apart from moral excellence, the more he tightens the natural chains that bind such men.
And most recently, progressive David Masciotra wrote a piece for Salon about his brief experiment with libertarianism, which he termed a “more dangerous vice” than “narcotics” and “kinky sexual practices.” Writes Masciotra,
Libertarian ideology became briefly attractive, because I had sensed that the left was growing too moralistic in its articulation of policy proposal. My aversion to Puritanism in all forms led me to believe that any set of political principles that purports to allow everyone to run wild, without interference from law enforcement or any other official regulator of human behavior, is desirable….
My sobriety from libertarianism did not result from a dramatic rock bottom moment, merely an awakening back into the reality I had earlier accepted; a fresh, but familiar realization that individuals myopically pursuing their own interests have no solution to ecological catastrophe, thousands dying for lack of health insurance, lethal disparities in the public education system, and the unending terror and devastation of racism.
Liberals and conservatives alike are guilty of many misconceptions about libertarianism. In short, depending on which day of the week it is, libertarians are naïve, utopian, eccentric, idealistic, selfish, materialistic, and nihilistic. They are inimical to organized religion and disdain tradition. They are too individualistic. They reverence progress and fetishize change. They are ignorant of human nature. They have no compassion for the poor. They don’t believe in social justice. They don’t hold traditional values. They reduce everything to economics. Above all, liberals and conservatives characterize libertarians as libertines and hedonists who celebrate alternative life-styles and don’t believe in moral principles or absolutes.
Critics of libertarianism have built themselves quite a straw man. But they have managed to do it only by treating libertarianism as a moral instead of a political philosophy, believing that virtuous action should be compelled, confounding libertarianism with libertinism, and grossly mischaracterizing libertarianism.
Before going any further, we must answer a fundamental question: What is libertarianism? Libertarianism is the philosophy that says that people should be free from individual, societal, or government interference to live their lives any way they desire, pursue their own happiness, accumulate wealth, assess their own risks, make their own choices, participate in any economic activity for their profit, engage in commerce with anyone who is willing to reciprocate, and spend the fruits of their labor as they see fit. As long as people don’t violate the personal or property rights of others, and as long as their actions are peaceful, their associations are voluntary, and their interactions are consensual, they should be free to live their lives without license, regulation, interference, or molestation by the government.
Libertarianism says that when government goes beyond basic defense, judicial, and policing activities, then it inevitably and invariably aggresses against person and property.
Libertarianism says that every crime must have a tangible and identifiable victim with real harm and measurable damages.
Libertarianism says that vices are not crimes. They may be bad habits, poor judgments, risky behaviors, or dangerous activities, but that doesn’t mean that they should be crimes.
Libertarianism says that there is no such thing as nebulous crimes against nature, society, the greater good, the public interest, or the state.
Libertarianism says that government should never arrest, fine, imprison, or otherwise punish anyone for engaging in entirely private, peaceful, voluntary, or consensual actions that do not amount to aggression, force, coercion, threat, or violence against the person or property of others.
Libertarianism says that government should not regulate, oversee, or prohibit commercial activity between willing buyers and willing sellers.
Libertarianism says that the nonconsensual initiation of aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong, even when done by government.
Libertarianism says that as long as a man doesn’t infringe upon the liberty of others by committing, or threatening to commit, acts of fraud, theft, aggression, or violence against their person or property, the government should leave him alone.
To better understand what libertarianism is, we might also look at what it isn’t. Libertarianism is not a social attitude or an alternative lifestyle. Libertarianism is not some particular school of aesthetics. Libertarianism is not free markets and limited government. Libertarianism is not fiscal conservatism combined with social liberalism. Libertarianism is not privatization of government functions. Libertarianism is not “dog eat dog.” Libertarianism is not “every man for himself.” Libertarianism is not “survival of the fittest.” Libertarianism is not rebellion or nihilism. Libertarianism is not “unfettered capitalism.” Libertarianism is not antinomianism or anarchy. Libertarianism is not indifference. Libertarianism is not atheism, agnosticism, or materialism. And libertarianism is not hedonism, licentiousness, or libertinism.
Libertarianism does not seek to answer philosophical and religious questions about Original Sin, the depravity of man, human nature, the image of God in man, or the inherent goodness or evil of man. As a political philosophy, libertarianism says nothing about culture, mores, virtue, tradition, morality, values, or ethics. Libertarianism takes no position on whether one should or shouldn’t discriminate, work for a large corporation, attend church, use profanity, commit adultery, boycott a company, eat red meat, buy organic produce, smoke marijuana, wear a seatbelt, read the
Bible, or own a gun. That doesn’t mean that libertarians don’t think that some of these practices are immoral. It just means that they believe that it is not the proper function of government to interfere with the voluntary, private, peaceful activity of consenting adults. But yet the myth persists: libertarianism is an immoral philosophy.
It is actually just the opposite. As libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard has explained,
Compelling moral actions or outlawing immoral actions, therefore, cannot be said to foster the spread of morality or virtue. On the contrary, coercion atrophies morality, for it takes away from the individual the freedom to be either moral or immoral, and therefore forcibly deprives people of the chance to be moral. Paradoxically, then, a compulsory morality robs us of the very opportunity to be moral.
What libertarians are opposed to is not voluntary persuasion, but the coercive imposition of values by the use of force and police power. Libertarians are in no way opposed to the voluntary cooperation and collaboration between individuals: only to the compulsory pseudo-“cooperation” imposed by the state.
Rothbard sees a free society as what “discourages the criminal tendencies of human nature and encourages the peaceful and the voluntary.” Indeed,
The only genuine order among men proceeds out of free and voluntary interaction: a lasting order that emerges out of liberty rather than by suppressing it….
Elsewhere he writes,
… Liberty and the free market discourage aggression and compulsion, and encourage the harmony and mutual benefit of voluntary interpersonal exchanges, economic, social, and cultural….
[Since men] are actually a mixture of good and evil, a regime of liberty serves to encourage the good and discourage the bad, at least in the sense that the voluntary and mutually beneficial are good and the criminal is bad.
Libertarianism does not oppose private educational efforts, media campaigns, or other nonviolent, noncoercive methods of persuasion of individuals or groups to effect changes in the public or private behavior of others. What it opposes
is state coercion to achieve those ends.
Libertarianism is said to be immoral because of its viewpoint on the drug war. Libertarianism says that there should be no laws at any level of government for any reason regarding the buying, selling, growing, processing, transporting, importing, exporting, manufacturing, advertising, using, possessing, or trafficking of any drug. Why? Because it is none of the government’s business what a man desires to swallow, snort, inject, smoke, or otherwise ingest into his mouth, nose, veins, or lungs. The war on drugs is a war on freedom.
Libertarianism is said to be immoral because of its viewpoint on gambling. Libertarianism says that there should be no laws that regulate, restrict, or prohibit any form of gambling. Why? Because it is none of the government’s business how people choose to invest, spend, or waste their money.
Libertarianism is said to be immoral because of its viewpoint on gun control. Libertarianism says that there should be no gun control laws whatsoever. Why? Because guns don’t kill; people do. Every American has the natural right to possess any weapon on his own property or the property of anyone else that allows such weapons.
Libertarianism is said to be immoral because of its viewpoint on prostitution. Libertarianism says that there should be no laws against paying for, or receiving money for, sex. Why? Because the government should not be concerned with any activity that takes place on private property between consenting adults that doesn’t violate the rights of others. Why should it be illegal to charge for a service that you can legally give away for free?
Libertarianism is said to be immoral because of its viewpoint on welfare. Libertarianism says that all government welfare programs are illegitimate and should be abolished. Why? Because it is not the job of government to fight poverty, have a safety net, subsidize anyone, feed the hungry, or provide job training. And because the government has no money of its own, all welfare programs are simply just wealth-redistribution schemes under the guise of charity. Libertarians cherish the individual liberty, private property, personal responsibility, and free society that allow the charitable actions of philanthropists, humanitarian institutions, and religious organizations to flourish.
Libertarianism is said to be immoral because of its viewpoint on price gouging. Libertarianism says that there should be no laws that limit how high businesses can raise prices because of a natural disaster. Why? Because the government should not interfere in any way with any transaction between a willing seller and a willing buyer. Once it is accepted that the government has the authority, knowledge, and competence to establish arbitrary price ceilings because of a natural disaster, no reasonable or logical argument can be made against the government’s setting prices during ordinary times.
Libertarianism is said to be immoral because of its viewpoint on health care. Libertarianism says that Medicare and Medicaid are illegitimate and should be eliminated. Why? Because health care is not a right. No American should be forced to pay for the health care of any other American.
Libertarianism is said to be immoral because of its viewpoint on usury laws. Libertarianism says that there should be no laws that limit the rate of interest that can be charged on a loan. Why? Because the government should not interfere in any way with any transaction between a willing lender and a willing borrower.
Libertarianism is said to be immoral because of its viewpoint on the minimum wage. Libertarianism says that there should be no minimum-wage laws. Why? Because minimum-wage laws violate freedom of contract. The government should not interfere in any way with the employer/employee relationship.
Libertarianism is said to be immoral because of its viewpoint on discrimination. Libertarianism says that since discrimination — against anyone, on any basis, and for any reason — is not aggression, force, or violence, the government should never prohibit it, seek to prevent it, or punish anyone for doing it. Why? Because to outlaw discrimination is to outlaw freedom of association, property rights, and freedom of thought.
It is not the business of government to protect people from, or prevent people from engaging in, bad habits, risky behavior, harmful substances, unhealthy choices, dangerous activities, poor decisions, addictive actions, immoral conduct, or ruinous vice. Legislation will never change human nature. Government intervention in society is the antithesis of freedom.
Government has no business trying to make people virtuous or selectively criminalizing certain acts that are not virtuous. Although they often accuse libertarians of being moral relativists, it is liberals and conservatives alike who advocate government aggression and violence against peaceful people’s person or property to achieve some desired end. “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 August 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.