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.

By George Donnelly

I'm building a tribe of radical libertarians to voluntarize the world by 2064. Join me.

14 replies on “Libertarianism is NOT “Every Man for Himself””

Very true George. Yet another great article from you, one that I’ll definitely be posting to several forums and social networks I frequent

Good ideas. Maybe we also need to be more “brand” conscious. Christian charities may be a good model. Christians are no more generous than non-Christians, but their symbols and brand names are on everything.

 Great idea, Jim. Tho I think we should strike the word ‘charity’ from our vocabulary. It’s the glib conservative answer that the left hates. And, instead of a charity model where people with privilege and power let the scraps trickle down from on high, I like a mutual model better where we form organizations in which members help each other mutually and with some approximate level of equality.

George, I think you really need to think about the kinds of values that the system libertarians propagate would eventually promote: that is, a free market would most likely create an extremely competitive *culture* where people would be far more interested in strong-arming each other than working together. In a free market, competition between firms would be very intense and risks would be much higher, and every piece of currency not in my pocket will be in the pocket of my competitors. If that’s the case, why would I give that money to charity as opposed to spending it on more advertising?

Regardless as to what libertarians *say* they believe, the system they want to implement will certainly result in values and cultural norms being morphed, and probably not into something desirable.

Julia,  If you have ever started a business, you might realize that the joy is not in hurting the competition, but the joy of being in control of your own life & having customers come to YOU instead of the other guy.  Everybody wins.

Julia, thanks for your comment. I don’t see my mission here as engineering a certain outcome. I see it as liberating people so that each individual is free to discover his or her most ideal life – and then to go after it.

And let the chips fall where they may.

Why do people give money to charity right now instead of spending it on more xbox games, dinners out, prettier cars or more advertising? I speculate that humans are wired for cooperation and empathy. Many if not all of us have evolved to be that way. So it gives most of us great pleasure to cooperate with and help our fellow man. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Libertarianism (in the sense of anarchism) is not about implementing a system. It is about enabling each person to implement their own system for their own life. I can’t imagine anything better.

Julia I think you really need to think about the kinds of values that the system statists propagate do eventually promote: that is, a government always creates a parasitic *culture* where people are far more interested in using violence – both political and “freelance” – to get what they want instead of working together. In statism the use of violence is always a viable alternative to productive cooperation, as long as one can successfully agitate for the men with official titles and costumes to do the dirty work. The risk that state violence will be used by competitors incentivizes lobbying arms races, while the depletion of capital in order to serve politically connected private interests and state largesse along with the attitude that “the government will take care of it” ensures that very little is left over in any social strata for charitable giving. When the government confiscates a third to a half of my income to redistribute to its cronies or spend on mass murder abroad under the banner of “common good” I have no surplus left over to spend caring for others, as is in my nature as a human being.

Regardless of what statists *say* they believe, the system they implement always results in the concentration of wealth and its reflection, poverty. It often distorts cultural and ethical norms in order to justify violence committed by agents of the state which, whether it is theft, kidnapping, imprisonment, or murder is *never* desirable, nor is it a means to produce peace and prosperity.

I don’t promote the libertarian “brand”, I just promote my own ideas. But I do happen to agree with what you said here, as usual. I think it’s impossible to completely forget about economics since it’s really the study of human action and human ecology, but putting less emphasis on the finance and business parts and more emphasis on the ethics and fundamental humanity of libertarianism does drive the point home. I find that many non-libertarian thinkers are rooted in pragmatic, outcome-based ethics, and take libertarian economic arguments as a justification of the outcome of state capitalism rather than a logical conclusion of a core principle of humanity, decency, respect and non-violence. It is impossible to turn pragmatic thinking on its head by arguing the conclusions rather than the core principles because it puts you into a pragmatist’s home turf. If there’s anything to be gained through debate and argumentation (and I doubt there is), it must be on forcing a statist to admit the evil in their means rather than their ends.

Thanks for your thoughts.

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