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TGIF: The Inherently Humble Libertarian


You would think that the advocates of a philosophy of political economy that embraces spontaneous social order, bottom-up rule-making based on peaceful voluntary exchange, and even competing polycentric law at least at some level would be safe from the charge of conceit. How conceited can someone be who forswears compelling other people to live in certain ways, expressing a willingness — no, an eagerness — to leave that to peaceful cooperation among free individuals? Making the “knowledge problem” a centerpiece of one’s worldview is hardly the mark of arrogance. Quite the contrary.

Yet critics of the libertarian philosophy throw the charge of know-it-allness at its exponents all the time. (A sample is here.) It’s the go-to criticism. When counterarguments fail, accuse the libertarian of hubris.

I’m talking about substance, not style. Regrettably, someone could display arrogance while insisting that neither he nor anyone else could possibly know enough to plan other people’s lives. However off-putting that style, it does not change the fact that the position embodies a fundamental humility. There are inherent limits to any individual’s knowledge, and therefore government social engineering, which requires the use of aggressive force, must fail.

To put it succinctly, libertarianism has humility baked in at the most fundamental level.

Humility is not to be conflated with radical doubt, however. One can be humble while also believing it is possible to know things. And some things, including the nature and market implications of human action, can be known conceptually. One can know, for example, that intelligently planning an economy or even a particular market is beyond anyone’s, including one’s own, capacities. The same can be said of more modest schemes to modify market outcomes through government intervention. One can acknowledge the limits of reason à la Hayek without being a skeptic or rejecting reason as impotent. (Don’t all skeptics make covert knowledge claims?) After all, it is reason that discovers its own limits.

Some libertarians and classical liberals have tried to defend liberty on the grounds that we can’t really know anything, but this is a nonstarter. For example, Milton Friedman, in his 1991 Liberty article, “Say ‘No’ to Intolerance” (PDF), wrote,

I have no right to coerce someone else, because I cannot be sure that I am right and he is wrong. If we see someone doing something wrong, someone starting to sin (to use a theological term) let alone just make a simple mistake, how do we justify not initiating coercion? Are we not sinning if we don’t stop him?… How do I justify letting him sin? I believe that the … answer is, can I be sure he’s sinning? Can I be sure that I am right and he is wrong? That I know what sin is?

Strangely, this implies that if we could know right from wrong, we would be justified in interfering with people’s nonaggressive conduct. Only ignorance protects freedom. Yet am I not allowed to stop a murderer because “I cannot be sure that I am right [about the nature of murder] and he is wrong”? Skepticism, in other words, cannot get us to the nonaggression obligation. (On Friedman’s dubious argument that conceptual certainty breeds intolerance and conflict, see Roderick Long’s lecture video.)

We can know things, important things, that do get us to the nonaggression obligation. Among the things we can know is that no individual or group of individuals can successfully plan an economy or society in the interests of all, or intelligently alter the outcomes of free social cooperation, because in principle they cannot have access to all that is now known or will be discovered by the people they intend to move about like so many chess pieces. That, of course, is an allusion to Adam Smith’s insight about the “man of system” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

So who, at the deepest level, is full of conceit? Those who respect individual liberty, understanding that free association, like the justice on which it is based, has good consequences, or those who call on the state to interfere violently with free association because they presume to know which outcomes are superior to those they imagine will emerge through peaceful cooperation.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.