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Two Views of Libertarianism

There exists much confusion in the political sphere about libertarianism. Conservatives often mischaracterize it as discounting human nature and disdaining morality at the same time that liberals depict it as grossly naïve and overly utopian.

One can read what some opponents of libertarianism say about it and then what some proponents of libertarianism say about it and conclude that there is no way that both groups could possibly be talking about the same thing.

Exhibit A is Tony Greco, writing for the Daily Kos the essay “Four Reasons to Reject Libertarianism.”

Greco argues that there are “four broad reasons why progressives should firmly reject” libertarianism:

1. Libertarian values are repellent – Libertarianism celebrates greed and selfishness.

2. Libertarianism is intellectually myopic – Libertarians cherish freedom above all, but their concept of freedom is constricted and myopic.

3. Libertarianism is utopian – An active state is a universal feature of advanced societies.

4. Libertarianism is politically hopeless – You might well agree with me on the three preceding points but still feel that libertarianism has to be reckoned with politically.

Exhibit B is Jacob Hornberger, writing for the Future of Freedom Foundation the essay “The Glory of Libertarianism.”

Hornberger argues that libertarianism is glorious for these four reasons:

For one, it is founded on the principle of genuine freedom — a society in which people are free to live their lives the way they want, so long as their conduct is peaceful. What could be more glorious than that?

Second, libertarianism is founded on solid moral and religious principles, the protection of free will being the best example. Another one is its recognition of the wrongfulness of stealing, even when it’s done by people acting collectively through the government and even when the thief uses the money to help others in need.

Third, in the economic realm, libertarianism is the only system that raises people’s standard of living, especially those at the bottom of the economic ladder. That’s because many people who are accumulating wealth inevitably save some of that wealth, which is then available as capital, which enables business owners to purchase better tools and equipment, which in turn make their workers more productive, which then leads to higher real wage rates.

Fourth, a society in which people have the widest possible ambit for free will and freedom of choice will be one that nurtures, develops, and encourages such important traits as compassion, caring, and responsibility.

According to Greco, libertarians don’t care much about the poor. They “are simply not much bothered by social and economic inequality.” Their “hearts bleed for the rich and successful, not for the underprivileged.” Libertarians “understand freedom almost exclusively in terms of freedom from government.” They don’t recognize that “unfettered capitalism” and the “free market economy” can be “as great a threat to freedom as government action.” They refuse to recognize that “government action is necessary to mitigate the oppression inflicted by markets.” The minimal government society that libertarians envision “doesn’t exist anywhere in the industrial or post-industrial world, and never has.” Libertarianism “is as distant from real world possibilities as traditional socialism, and should be taken no more seriously.” Libertarians can never achieve mass appeal because they are “hobbled by their principled consistency.” Politically, they have “an elitist economic program plus some sensible proposals”

According to Hornberger, libertarians “strive to convert our country into one that Franklin preferred, one where liberty dwells.” Liberal and conservative statists think they live in a free country because “they define freedom in a totally different way than we libertarians do.” They define freedom as “the extent to which the federal government takes care of people with welfare” or “the extent to which the U.S. military and the CIA police the world.” Libertarians think just the opposite. Freedom “is defined by the absence of government paternalism and the absence of a vast military empire and national-security state apparatus.” Freedom for libertarians entails the right to “engage in any peaceful behavior whatsoever, no matter how irresponsible, dangerous, or self-destructive,” to “make choices, for better or for worse, so long as they don’t involve the initiation of force against someone else,” to “engage in any occupation without seeking permission of the government,” to “engage in economic transactions with anyone anywhere in the world without government interference, regulation, or control,” and to “accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth and the right to decide what to do with it.” Yes, libertarianism necessarily entails free markets, but rather than oppression-inflicting, free markets “are nothing more than sellers and consumers peacefully interacting with each other for mutual gain.”

So, whose view of libertarianism is correct?

I think someone has a tremendous misconception of just what libertarianism is, and it is not Jacob Hornberger.

As libertarianism’s greatest theorist, Murray Rothbard, explains:

Libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral, or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory, that is, the important subset of moral theory that deals with the proper role of violence in social life. Political theory deals with what is proper or improper for government to do, and government is distinguished from every other group in society as being the institution of organized violence. Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should be free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another. What a person does with his or her life is vital and important, but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism.

Do libertarians celebrate greed and selfishness? Some no doubt do. Do libertarians not care for the poor? Some no doubt do not. Are libertarians not bothered by social and economic inequality? Some no doubt are not. Are libertarians not concerned about the underprivileged? Some no doubt are not. But this has nothing to do with libertarianism. One can be a liberal, a progressive, a moderate, or a conservative and celebrate greed and selfishness, not care for the poor, not be bothered by social and economic inequality, and not be concerned about the underprivileged. And not caring for the poor, not being bothered by social and economic inequality, and not being concerned about the underprivileged does not involve committing violence against anyone. Greco’s solutions to righting what he perceives as the wrongs in society all involve aggression against person and property.

Libertarianism celebrates liberty, property, peace, laissez faire, anything that’s peaceful, individual responsibility, free markets, free thought, a free society, and the absence of government attempts to do violence to these things in the name of social justice, correcting inequality, or promoting fairness.

Libertarianism is glorious indeed.

Originally posted on LewRockwell.com on February 26, 2013.