Libertarianism is NOT “Every Man for Himself”

Are libertarians greedy? Do we not care about our fellow human beings? Do we have a zero-sum mentality; i.e., do we think somebody has to lose in order for someone to win? What’s your experience?

The other day (actually, it was almost four years ago – this has been in my drafts folder a long time) I happened upon a critique of libertarianism that is all too common – and all too wrong:

I could support Libertarians except for one viewpoint that nearly all of you seem to share which is, by my belief system, fundamentally flawed — and it’s a belief that is central to Libertarianism itself.

It is summed up as “people always should do what’s good for them” and is used to justify the free-est of free markets.

A good analogy is that, if I were to just do what is good for me, I might walk in to a store with a gun and a sledge hammer, shoot the clerk in the head, smash the cash register and take all the money.

Then, I would run.

That, in a nutshell, is the over-arching “principle” of Libertarianism: every man/woman for themself [sic].

We are currently seeing in the economy the results of greed run wild with nearly no regulation of financial markets.

I know you won’t like this posting, so it is likely you’ll just vote it down. It’s easier than considering that the proper role of government includes at least some regulation and some fostering of good will toward our fellow citizens. #

1. People should do what’s good for them.

I say it like this: “People should do whatever they think is best for them, as long as they don’t hurt other people.” And is this really controversial? I don’t think so. The controversial part comes in when people get confused about what is good for them.

2. This is used to justify free markets.

I suspect what he means is fascist markets; i.e., that way of doing business where governments charter corporations and collude with them to create and sustain a privileged class that plays a zero-sum game. But libertarianism is against government collusion with business.

3. It’s good for you to steal from and hurt others.

Let’s set aside the risk of being hurt, captured or killed while committing these crimes. Forget about the possibility of being imprisoned for many years. Disregard the non-aggression principle that prohibits such actions and which is central to libertarianism.

Consider for a moment the kind of violence you have to do to yourself before you can even hurt another person. Do your own thought experiment. Which of your own dearly-held principles and emotional obstacles would you have to overcome before you could actually hurt another person? How does the idea make you feel? The idea of hurting others makes me feel terrible, even if done by accident. Could this possibly be good for you?!

I encourage you to watch the 78-minute documentary The Ground Truth: The Human Cost of War where you’ll see firsthand just what impact committing violence has on returning US soldiers. The most surprising part for me is that they were less harmed by the violence done to them and more by the violence they themselves committed.

4. Government should regulate and foster good will among citizens.

Libertarianism doesn’t necessarily dispute this claim. At the very least, however, many schools of thought propose only voluntary government (an admittedly generous expansion of the definition of ‘government’). This can take the form of community boards, homeowners’ associations, non-profit organizations, chambers of commerce and mutual aid societies.

Contradict the Stereotype

How can we definitively dispel this notion of libertarians being greedy, self-serving and lacking in empathy? I have a few suggestions.

  • Stop focusing on economics.
    Mises, Hayek, Hazlitt and Rothbard are a few of the most revered libertarian thinkers. They’re all economists. Are there any widely respected libertarian writers who aren’t economists or don’t primarily focus on wealth production?
  • Detach from the conservatives.
    The libertarian identity has become intertwined with conservatives. Conservative politicians are often found talking the libertarian talk. When they get into office though, they don’t walk the walk. The conservatives, who do indeed cut a more social-Darwinian figure, are giving us a bad name. We need to actively distinguish ourselves from them.
  • Disown the Randian glorification of the business executive.
    There is a Randian current that flows through libertarian thought. Produce wealth. Glory to the most productive individuals! (There goes economics again.) But big business is using government to maintain their privilege and quash competition – a distinctly anti-libertarian practice. Forget about Rand.
  • Create liberty activism projects to help other people.

    Some examples that come to mind include: the Free Keene community kitchen food drives and volunteering, Food not Bombs, the Basket Brigade, mutual aid for fellow activists and the general public, independent projects to help folks in the third world (I’m working on one right now), especially those under threat from first-world multi-national corporations.

Photo credit: Marcin Wichary. Photo license.

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