Libertarianism is not a new ideology, nor is it limited to the United States. In recent years, however, it has experienced resurgence in popularity. Once upon a time, I believed its concepts to be a practical direction for society, but some fatal flaws that have since soured me to its reasonability. At first glance it can be an attractive idea even if idealistic. It finds its roots with the Philosophes (notably Hobbes, Locke and Paine) who in turn inspired the foundation of the United States’ government. In recent years Friedman, Nozick, Hayek and (my least favorite) Rand have all breathed new life into these concepts contributing to its current popularity.
“Side constraints upon action reflect the underlying Kantian principle that individuals are ends and not merely means; they cannot be sacrificed or used for the achieving of other ends without their consent…. reflect the fact of our separate existences. They reflect the fact that no moral balancing act can take place among us.” – Robert Nozick
As the name implies liberty is Libertarianism’s overriding principle taken primarily from the Natural Rights established by John Locke; Life, Liberty and Property. An individual’s personal liberty holds the highest urgency of moral good and therefore ought not to be interfered with without their consent. The other two rights are as inviolate but ultimately the justification will point to an encroachment on liberty. “If you impair my property you take away my liberty to dispose of it as I see fit” and so on. In philosophic terms these rights are expressed negatively. “Negative rights” in that they are right only insofar as they ought not to be taken or interfered with (hence “negative”). Taxing wages and using it to benefit another, even the desperately needy “takes away” a wage-earners natural right to use his property and is therefore unjust. Compelling an individual to work without her consent (slavery) “takes away” her right to decide whether or not she will work and therefore is unjust. Not that Libertarians don’t accept the concept of “positive rights” which we normally refer to as “entitlements” and “obligations” so long as individuals consent. If Tommy agrees to clean Suzy’s house for 500.00 a week Tommy is entitled to 500.00 a week and Suzy is entitled to a clean house. At the same time Suzy is obligated to pay Tommy 500.00 and Tommy is obligated to clean Suzy’s house. Tommy and Suzy have no other obligations towards each other and are entitled to nothing from each other beyond what they both agree to so in the general sense no positive rights exist. No default obligations or entitlements exist; only hypothetical obligations or entitlements based upon consent. This is an important distinction because if natural rights were expressed positively in a general sense, if the right to life for example, being a thing all human beings were entitled to then it would be necessary to ensure that each person have access to the minimum property necessary to secure their life. But in the negative, as they are typically expressed by libertarians, a person’s right to life only protects them from another taking it- it does not entitle them to it. A libertarian would never approve a natural right as an entitlement since at some point you would have to reallocate property in order to ensure minimum standards of life, liberty and property, so we’re left with only negative general rights.
To the libertarian negative rights of the individual are absolute- under no circumstances should a person’s life, liberty, or property be interfered with even for (or maybe especially) the benefit of another unless and only unless that particular individual agrees. Charity is okay. Taxes are not okay. This supreme concept rejects even democracy (much in the same way Rawls did) because it could result in damage to an individual’s right to their life, liberty, or property or indeed any collective decision or distributive justice. For the libertarian the only justification necessary to morally oppose anything is whether or not it damages individual liberty.
So what’s wrong with that? As Nozick paraphrases Kant “we are ends and not means” and I think in principle we would all agree. We all want to live our lives as we see fit free from any others’ interferences. How can anyone disagree with that? Because couching natural rights in negative general terms actually curtails liberty, for one. I’ll say it again, Libertarian principles interfere with liberty. Now of course, the Libertarians out there are sputtering but it just isn’t possible to have a general negative right to liberty without impairing the liberty of another. The very existence of others destroys that potential. Suppose I have the means to take your property and I want to? One person, or the other will necessarily have their liberty curtailed. One person’s liberty will have to subordinate to another- period. Competition does not allow any other outcome. Not every human interaction will occur by mutual contract. I’m not saying that we are all murderous, raping pillagers but without obligations and entitlements EVERYONE has their liberty impaired without their consent. The easiest practical example comes from the aftermath of our own Civil War when Southern slave owners were compelled to release their slaves. They fought a war to prevent just such an occurrence and it’s hard to find a more perfect example of non-consent than that! For many slave owners this resulted in hardship, but their rights were subordinated to their slaves. Put another way the slave owners were obligated to release the slaves because it was a morally necessary act. The slaves had a positive right to freedom in that they were entitled to it EVEN at the expense of the Southern slave owners and without their consent. The libertarian will present that there is no justification for interfering with another’s liberty without their consent, but it only takes a moment’s thought to realize that simply isn’t true. Now the tap dancing begins. A libertarian will simply say that the case of freeing the slaves was special since the slaves’ freedom was restricted by the slave owners it was only just that the slave owners’ freedoms be restricted in releasing them. But this is where the construction collapses. If we assume that people have a negative right to freedom but admit there are constraints that override them (such as restricting the freedom of another) there is no reason to believe that there aren’t other reasons to restrict the freedom of another, for another. In other words you can’t have your cake and eat it too if you accept that it is necessary to curtail the freedom of one who has curtailed the freedom of another then why can’t you impair individual freedom in other ways as well? Why should we prefer freeing the slaves over welfare? In both cases an individual’s freedom and property are affected without their consent for the benefit of others. Why shouldn’t someone’s right to be a billionaire be limited by taxes that help free those from wage slavery? Or if person A and person B need water to live why shouldn’t person C be restricted from an exclusive contract to provide water ONLY to person A? Or how about this, why should persons X enforce a contract between persons A and B? Maybe you two agreed but it has nothing to do with me. The concept of perfect freedom is a ruse; if everyone is perfectly free, nobody is.
The situation worsens when we inspect the limitations imposed by a negative right to freedom compared to a positive right to freedom and discover the former’s effect can often be GREATER. For example, simply forcing owners to provide minimum wages for their slaves, or taxing their owners to compensate them for their education and healthcare would have been far less impacting than freeing them outright, but redistribution of wealth infringes on the slave owner’s freedom so even though the effect is less a libertarian can’t allow it. There is simply no way that a negative concept of freedom can result in the Libertarian concept of freedom since it poses limitations in even greater magnitude than a positive concept of freedom. This is the two-edged sword.
I’ve heard many objections to this criticism of the negative right to liberty but ultimately they degrade into an ad-hoc fallacy as one by one they are addressed. First, the weakest objection is that individuals’ consent is implied. Back to the slaveowners again, by virtue of some unexpressed social contract their actions against their slaves tacitly provided consent for their rights to be subverted to their slaves. The libertarian will fall back on consent and explain that consent need not be express but can be implied by action. The thing about implied or tacit consent is that neither mean “unconscious” an implied agreement can always be expressed simply by asking “did you agree to free your slaves because it was wrong”? What do you think the most common answer would have been? The libertarian may agree that murder or theft ought not be allowed and individuals should be compelled not to do either, but is it reasonable to assume that every individual agrees to that constraint? If we ask every murderer if they agreed not to murder what would the answer be? Isn’t this, again the very collectivist rule-making that negative liberty rebels against? Isn’t this the distributed justice Rawls discusses? So we arrive at the same circle we came to before that if we can circumvent express consent to establish rules for bidding, stealing and killing why shouldn’t we to allow taxation, etc?
Another objection might be that I have the libertarian concept of freedom all wrong. I’m taking liberty descriptively when in fact, I should be taking it normatively and they may have a point. I think it’s fair to assume that we generally consider liberty in a normative sense, that is, as an ideal and not an absolute. They will say we don’t mean you are LITERALLY entitled to freedom from interferences for any and all actions. Obviously you don’t have the right to pour poison in the water supply or to steal a car just because you have the means and will to. We ought to prohibit unjust actions, right? Of course, but based on what now? If we don’t describe liberty first then how do we determine just from unjust? Isn’t this putting the horse before the cart? If we approach liberty from this point of view we can’t know if something restricts it UNTIL we know that it’s unjust (and let’s not forget that restricting someone’s liberty is ITSELF unjust). Put differently we could only allow an individual to use his property as he saw fit ONLY if we knew that he would see fit to use it justly. Another circle.
But my favorite objection by far is “well, we know that everyone can’t have perfect liberty, we just want the individual to have maximum equal liberty” and that doesn’t sound too bad either, right? Okay, but the maximum degree of liberty is absolute and (I think Hobbes will agree here) that the maximum amount of liberty is once again, anarchy. If everyone is free, nobody is. One could disagree with this and state that in anarchy although everyone has absolute freedom it is not EQUAL in the sense that some would have the means and will to deny freedom to others. Okay but now you’re back to restricting liberty because apparently “too much is bad”; now liberty fails as an absolute good. This points us to a tangent with the objection to a literal interpretation of liberty since obviously not all liberty is just. So we have now created two qualities of liberty. Liberty-x and Liberty-y where we should prefer one over the other- but then again, what makes the just liberty-x just? Something extraneous to liberty itself I presume. So we’ve denegrated the supremacy of liberty (because clearly there is something that must be added to it to make it the just sort). Then again, requiring that everyone have equal liberty is a problem in itself. I can envision only two alternatives to accomplish that; an absolute communism or an Orwellian police state. Neither is particularly appealing to the concept of liberty.
All of that said, I’m not preaching for bigger government or socialism. I’m far, far from a liberal or for that matter a conservative. Liberty is certainly a very big concern today and for good reason. We have allowed businesses behind the facade of government to strip them away. But simply giving up and saying “you know, do what you want” isn’t the solution either. Some problems require new solutions, even liberal ones. Some problems are still best solved conservatively- but ideal as it sounds Libertarianism is not a rational solution. The solution is GOOD government versus bad government not more versus less government.