Do Libertarians Promote “A Freedom Indistinguishable From Selfishness”?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 14, 2011

Michael Gerson says “yes,” but on this one, I think I am going to go with Ilya Somin, whose commentary on this issue is excellent:

In reality, however, libertarianism often requires unselfish behavior. Libertarians routinely condemn politicians who advocate statist policies in order to expand their power or ensure their reelection, bureaucrats who seek to increase the authority and funding of their agencies, businessmen who lobby for government subsidies and handouts, politically influential developers who use the power of eminent domain to acquire property that they covet, law enforcement officials who support the War on Drugs because it increases their funding, public employees unions who support big government in part because it increases their pay, and much other self-interested behavior. The fact that all of these groups are motivated, at least in part, by self-interest doesn’t prevent libertarians from denouncing them. That’s because libertarianism is a theory of the appropriate role of government in society, not a theory that judges the morality of human behavior based on whether or not people are acting out of self-interest.

To be sure, libertarianism does appeal to self-interest in the sense that libertarians believe that the vast majority of people would be better off in a libertarian society than under any realistically feasible alternative. In this, however, libertarianism is no different from most other ideologies. Advocates of liberalism, conservatism, and socialism also contend that their preferred policies would benefit the majority of society.

Obviously, some people may support libertarianism because they think it will promote their self-interest to do so. But that too does not differentiate it from many other ideologies. Plenty of people support liberalism or conservatism for similar reasons. Consider the aforementioned politicians, bureaucrats, public employees unions, drug warriors, and rent-seeking businessmen. Are all of them purely altruistic? Self-interested advocacy of government intervention is no less selfish than self-interested support for libertarianism.

Another common formulation of the “libertarianism is selfishness” argument is the claim that libertarians are narrow “individualists” who deny the importance of social cooperation. In reality, however, libertarian thinkers from John Locke to F.A. Hayek and beyond have repeatedly stressed the importance of voluntary social cooperation, which they argue is superior to state-mandated coercion. As Hayek (probably the most influential libertarian thinker of the last 100 years) put it:

[T]rue individualism affirms the value of the family and all the common efforts of the small community and group . . . [and] believes in local autonomy and voluntary associations . . [I]ndeed, its case rest largely on the contention that much for which the coercive action of the state is usually invoked can be done better by voluntary collaboration.

Perhaps Gerson and other critics mean to suggest not that libertarianism justifies any and all selfish behavior but merely that its supporters are disproportionately selfish people. Even if that is true, it says nothing about the validity of libertarianism. Selfish people can make good arguments and altruistic people can make bad ones. Lots of people endorsed communism and Nazism out of altruistic motivations, for example. Moreover, the fact that selfish people disproportionately believe in a given ideology does not prove that the ideology itself is just a justification for selfishness.

Note where Somin points out that free market supporters donate more of a percentage of their incomes to charity than do non-free market supporters, “even after controlling for both income levels and a wide range of demographic background variables,” a finding that belies the claim that libertarians–and for that matter, small-government conservatives–are somehow more selfish than the average Joe.

  • Ron M.

    Its now consistent for libertarians to support two trillion dollar wars in the Middle East?  You sure like to expand labels.  Those that like to spend a trillion dollars a year on the military are libertarians and those that have consistently write Islamists were responsible for 9/11 are Truthers.

    You are blowing my mind, man.

    • Bryan Pick

      It’s comforting to know that, at last, there’s one true authority on which foreign policy is impossible for a libertarian to support.  Let’s start kicking heretics out of our powerful club!

    • Pejman Yousefzadeh

      Our would-be resident Chomskyite believes he has the authority to decide just how valid my political beliefs are, without even knowing the entirety of them. And he likes trying to hijack threads as well. This makes him a troll. It also makes him gone.

Previous post:

Next post: