Neither Left Nor Right: Of Liberty And Libertarians

I have always taken it as a good thing that libertarians are detested by both the left and the right. To me it is proof positive that we libertarians are in the right. After all, both the left and the right are fundamentally the same — authoritarian statists who wish to use the force of government to make society in their own images and to compel others to live in ways that they approve of. And let’s be honest, both the left and the right do truly hate us and whatever we may ostensibly have in common with either — say free markets with the right and human rights with the left (of course neither really supports either except in qualified and conditional ways) — what they find detestable about us involves fundamental differences which can never be overcome as long as they remain “left” and “right,” as long as they remain wedded to that dialectic.

I’ll be honest, at this point in my life I find political philosophy to be tiresome or maybe I have just become tired and lazy. Beyond considering the merits of minarchism versus anarchism I don’t like to go much into any of it anymore. Debates about the implications of the privatization of this particular thing versus government control of that seem to me pointless. From my perspective, if you believe you own your own life, if you believe in liberty, there is nothing to debate. You are never going to convince anyone who doesn’t believe in or understand liberty in a meaningful way to come over to your side. At best, the arguments will all be utilitarian in nature and both sides are going to make counter arguments which are often essentially meaningless — what if this scenario occurred or what would happen in that particular circumstance.

Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoy watching YouTubes of my libertarian heroes — most associated with Lew’s site and Mises and way too many to mention. And, of course, the great Dr. Paul — but when I see a libertarian debate a statist of whatever stripe the futility of it is tiring. It is as though they are talking different languages. It is particularly trying when I see what we often refer to as a “beltway libertarian” (think Cato, Reason) debating a main stream “progressive” or a main stream “conservative.” The feeling I get is that they are pretending at disagreeing, both of them really committed to never changing anything fundamentally.

The bottom line is that I have been troubled by the inability of libertarians in general to make any substantial inroads into the minds and hearts and thinking of most Americans, which is fairly ironic when you consider that the values on which this country was founded and the values continually espoused when speaking reverently about this country are distinctly libertarian values. Funny how they sound so foreign and unfathomable (and dangerous), except in the abstract, to so many devoted Americans. It’s fine to talk about dedication to liberty, but it’s something else altogether to actually consider living by the principles of liberty. It strikes me that whenever libertarians and those who are suspicious of libertarians talk they invariably talk past each other. It strikes me that our approach as libertarians has been off the mark. We are never going to win by talking principles and philosophy. The only way we are going to reach those who cannot hear us now is to show them what they are missing and what they are losing by being afraid to seriously consider liberty and the kind of world they could inhabit by embracing the principles of liberty.

Also invariably critics on the left accuse libertarians of being “selfish” and “greedy” and being for rich people and against ordinary people. This charge is so far off the mark and beside the point it is almost impossible to respond to. It’s like accusing a computer of being short. It has nothing to do with what a computer is. But we get stuck in those kinds of arguments. For me, the best or at least most effective argument for libertarianism is that it is the one approach to governance that has the greatest hope of producing a humane society. The problem is to find a way to explain to people why that is so. “Progressives” like to consider themselves humane and singular in their concern for their fellow man. I don’t doubt the good intentions of those who consider themselves progressive (although, given the history of mankind you would have be somewhat dim to believe collectivism of any sort can lead to anything except misery and misery primarily for the most vulnerable and unconnected), but they seem not to be able to see the implications and unintended consequences of their philosophy.

Moreover, they tend to be primarily concerned with how they feel about their supposed altruism rather than the actual consequences of their initiatives. There are multitudes of examples of the way good intentions and supposedly progressive legislation has led to the suffering of those it is intended to help. This current recession/depression is a typical example, due in large part to the “ownership society” initiative which was intended to put anybody who wanted into a home of their own. It sounded good, but where are so many of those people now? How many of those people who could not pay their mortgages with their teaser rates are now on the street and have nothing?

This new healthcare plan will almost certainly lead to the same sort of thing. How many small businesses will go under or not be started at all and how many other businesses will cut back, all of which leading to job losses for those who need jobs the most? Again, the most vulnerable will end up suffering for the good intentions of those who think they know best how to arrange society. And then there is the current hysteria over global warming — sorry, climate change. How many of those who can least afford it will suffer the consequences of programs like cap and trade or carbon taxes? The list is really endless.

For many progressives it all seems to be about how they feel about themselves and the sense of self-righteousness that their “generosity” affords them. Of course, self-righteousness is hardly the domain of the left. Having lived through the reign of terror of the “religious right” and their devotion to their belief that they are God’s true representatives on earth, well, it was scary stuff. The left thinks they are on the side of the angels and the right thinks God is on their side. Libertarians don’t presume that they can divine the intentions of the almighty beyond the fundamental belief that we are all created equal and are endowed by our creator (whatever “creator” means to you) with certain inalienable rights.

The central libertarian principle is the principle of nonaggression. Taken to its logical conclusions it pretty much covers everything that is the cause of so much consternation in the life of our society. You would think that no one could possibly have a problem with this principle, but many people do. In order for the nonaggression principle to mean anything you have to believe you own yourself and, by extension, that you own the fruits of your endeavors. For any statist/collectivist self-ownership is conditional. In other words, you only own yourself to the extent society says you own yourself which is really the same as saying you don’t own yourself at all. You can make the decisions about your life that society/the state says you can make. Ultimately and inescapably, in the statist’s view, society/the state owns everything and anything you own, including yourself — you only own conditionally.

If you follow that logic then society cannot aggress against you since they own you. They cannot aggress against your property, since it is really society’s property. It is amazing to me how many are comfortable with this perspective on things. Without self-ownership the nonaggression principle means nothing. It may be that people don’t generally recognize how they are owned by society/the state and unless they are personally and painfully inconvenienced by their lifetime indenturement or their serfdom. Until it is your property being appropriated by the state by eminent domain and until it is you who is prevented from finding relief from your illness by laws dictating what substances you may or may not ingest into your own body you can continue to pretend to yourself that you are sovereign over your own existence. You can argue until you are blue in the face that conscription and income tax are both forms of slavery and are unjust in their conception, but until people feel it in their gut, they won’t get it. It’s just the price we pay for being “free.”

If you ask virtually any American if they are free the vast majority will tell you yes, this in spite of the multitude of ways we are not free. Most Germans thought they were free under Hitler. You are free only to the extent the government and society does not want anything from you beyond what you are already willing and ready to give and if you were to decide you were not willing and ready to give those things you already do, you would quickly see how free you are not. My argument and the argument of most libertarians is that personal, individual liberty over all aspects of our lives is the only way to achieve all the legitimate, defensible desires of both the right and the left. It is the rational hope for ever having a humane society with liberty and justice for all and the only way for both the right and the left to ever get the things they claim matter to them is to risk embracing liberty in all aspects of life.

This is what we are not communicating to those who oppose us. What they don’t see is that we want all of the things that they legitimately want, but we actually have a way to achieve it. If you want social justice, it is only liberty that can give it to you. If you want prosperity and opportunity and sustainability, if you want equality (in a legitimate sense), if you want peace and commerce and goodwill between men, liberty is the best hope for achieving those things. Libertarians are also often accused of being utopian and that for real liberty to work we must all be men of goodwill and compassion. This is exactly wrong. It is those who think they can fashion society to fit some ideal they imagine who are utopian. Libertarianism is the only political philosophy which actually takes into account the fallibility and corruptibility of man by recognizing that the last thing we should do is give men power over the lives of other men. If man cannot be trusted to govern their own lives as the left and right believe, then how can they possibly be entrusted with the power to govern the lives of others? They like to believe that the best and the brightest will gravitate toward positions of authority over others. Talk about utopian. The message we need to get across that we have not is that it is liberty with all its implications — for each of us individually, for commerce and enterprise and for everything else — that is the best hope for the kinds of society both the left and right dream of. A society where all men can live in peace and prosper and pursue happiness and find social justice and equal opportunity and learn to love his fellow man. There is a reason why that ubiquitous Ron Paul Revolution sign had the word love highlighted in it. If you really love your fellow man set him free to chart his own course and to follow his own dreams instead of some dream the collective has dreamed for him. Set people free to be everything they can be and the human race can achieve things we can now only dream of.

Doug Carkuff

January 4, 2010