What Libertarianism is Not

[Thoughts on Liberty editor Gina Luttrell contributed to this post]

Libertarianism is a pretty broad term. With a few exceptions, we try not to be the cool kids at the lunch table who have a laundry list of things you have to be to sit with us. As long as you believe that people are better off the less government there is, you’re welcome to come and squabble with us.

However, sometimes being so inclusive can lead to some misunderstandings. People sometimes advocate ideas that are not incompatible with libertarianism but at the same time don’t constitute libertarianism. They promote these values and people assume that these things are what libertarianism is.

Yesterday, after reading  an article about Libertarian Science Fiction stories, I  scrolled down to the comments where I read this little gem (I’ll paraphrase): “It’s nice to have a list of books to avoid. Libertarianism is, without question, the most selfish form of political philosophy one can hold….everything about libertarianism comes down to, “what’s best for me?” How can I be safe, how can I best profit. Freedom without responsibility. ”

Far be it for me to get upset by a random comment on the internet, but this sentiment is something that I see so often that it disturbs me.

Libertarianism is not selfishness

Yes, some libertarians are very selfish (though whether this is a bad thing or not is up for debate). However, selfishness does not constitute libertarianism.

I think most people recognize that it is impossible to be truly independent, to live in the world without interacting or needing anyone else. Human beings are interdependent, meaning we all rely on each other to survive in addition to being able to function on certain levels as individuals.

In fact, one of the most famous essays among libertarians is about this very phenomenon. Leonard Reed wrote an essay in 1958 called “I, Pencil” that succinctly summarizes human interdependence (it is now also in video form!). The thrust of the essay is that no single person on the face of this planet is capable of making something as simple as a pencil, yet it is something we use and rely on heavily in our lives. We need each other.

Libertariansm promotes the dissolution of barriers between the various forms of industry responsible in, say, making a pencil, so that specialization and mutually beneficial cooperation can function to do what it is best at: getting people things that they need and that improve their lives. Voluntary cooperation is the crux of an efficient economy and an enhanced standard of living.

This is a very utilitarian argument. Other libertarians come to the principle of voluntary exchange by simply saying that no person has the right to make you do something that you don’t want to do. This is the foundational moral principle of many principles from all other political philosophies (no one has the right to force you to not be gay, to force you to have a particular religion or none at all, etc.). The difference is that libertarians are consistent with this principle even when it gives us things that we personally may not like. This doesn’t make us selfish; it makes us committed to the principles that we have and many people share with us.

Libertarianism is not recklessness

The second part of that comment, and a complaint I hear a lot, is that libertarians want freedom without responsibility.

Again, it goes without saying: some libertarians are reckless. All people have the capacity for this. However, the difference between libertarianism as a political philosophy is that reckless people can’t shift the responsibility for their actions on other people.

In a world without government protections, the producer is directly responsible to her consumers: cattle farmers would be on the hook if they sold hamburgers made of tainted meat, a fashion designer would quickly lose business if her clothing was poorly made or didn’t align with the fashions of the day, and anyone who doesn’t want to help provide education in his community will soon live in a place where no one has the ability to help him be successful.

However, with regulations and government protections, the people who pay the price for businesses’ mistakes aren’t the businesses and individuals themselves but rather the taxpayers whose government bails them out.

Being free necessitates responsibility, because you are responsible for your wellbeing and you are the one who will have to face the consequences of your actions. Those who wish to help you do so only at their own desire, not by force.

Libertarianism isn’t itself radical selfishness or irresponsible libertinism. It’s just a philosophy that says that people are better at governing their own lives than a government is, and that the more central authorities try and muck with things, the messier things tend to get.

I promise. It really is that simple.