Myth #1: Libertarians believe that each individual is an isolated, hermetically sealed atom, acting in a vacuum without influencing each other.
This is a common charge, but a highly puzzling one. In a lifetime of reading libertarian and classical liberal literature, I have not come across a single theorist or writer who holds anything like this position.
The only possible exception is the fanatical Max Stirner, a mid-19th-century German individualist who, however, has had minimal influence upon libertarianism in his time and since. Moreover, Stirner’s explicit “Might Makes Right” philosophy and his repudiation of all moral principles including individual rights as “spooks in the head,” scarcely qualifies him as a libertarian in any sense. Apart from Stirner, however, there is no body of opinion even remotely resembling this common indictment.
Libertarians are methodological and political individualists, to be sure. They believe that only individuals think, value, act, and choose. They believe that each individual has the right to own his own body, free of coercive interference. But no individualist denies that people are influencing each other all the time in their goals, values, pursuits and occupations.
As F.A. Hayek pointed out in his notable article, “The Non-Sequitur of the ‘Dependence Effect,’” John Kenneth Galbraith’s assault upon free-market economics in his best-selling The Affluent Society rested on this proposition: economics assumes that every individual arrives at his scale of values totally on his own, without being subject to influence by anyone else. On the contrary, as Hayek replied, everyone knows that most people do not originate their own values, but are influenced to adopt them by other people.
No individualist or libertarian denies that people influence each other all the time, and surely there is nothing wrong with this inevitable process. What libertarians are opposed to is not voluntary persuasion, but the coercive imposition of values by the use of force and police power. Libertarians are in no way opposed to the voluntary cooperation and collaboration between individuals: only to the compulsory pseudo-“cooperation” imposed by the state.
Myth #3: Libertarians do not believe in moral principles; they limit themselves to cost-benefit analysis on the assumption that man is always rational.
This myth is of course related to the preceding charge of hedonism, and some of it can be answered in the same way. There are indeed libertarians, particularly Chicago-school economists, who refuse to believe that liberty and individual rights are moral principles, and instead attempt to arrive at public policy by weighing alleged social costs and benefits.
In the first place, most libertarians are “subjectivists” in economics, that is, they believe that the utilities and costs of different individuals cannot be added or measured. Hence, the very concept of social costs and benefits is illegitimate. But, more importantly, most libertarians rest their case on moral principles, on a belief in the natural rights of every individual to his person or property. They therefore believe in the absolute immorality of aggressive violence, of invasion of those rights to person or property, regardless of which person or group commits such violence.
Far from being immoral, libertarians simply apply a universal human ethic to government in the same way as almost everyone would apply such an ethic to every other person or institution in society. In particular, as I have noted earlier, libertarianism as a political philosophy dealing with the proper role of violence takes the universal ethic that most of us hold toward violence and applies it fearlessly to government.
Libertarians make no exceptions to the golden rule and provide no moral loophole, no double standard, for government. That is, libertarians believe that murder is murder and does not become sanctified by reasons of state if committed by the government. We believe that theft is theft and does not become legitimated because organized robbers call their theft “taxation.” We believe that enslavement is enslavement even if the institution committing that act calls it “conscription.” In short, the key to libertarian theory is that it makes no exceptions in its universal ethic for government.
Hence, far from being indifferent or hostile to moral principles, libertarians fulfill them by being the only group willing to extend those principles across the board to government itself.
It is true that libertarians would allow each individual to choose his values and to act upon them, and would in short accord every person the right to be either moral or immoral as he saw fit. Libertarianism is strongly opposed to enforcing any moral creed on any person or group by the use of violence – except, of course, the moral prohibition against aggressive violence itself. But we must realize that no action can be considered virtuous unless it is undertaken freely, by a person’s voluntary consent.
As Frank Meyer pointed out:
Men cannot be forced to be free, nor can they even be forced to be virtuous. To a certain extent, it is true, they can be forced to act as though they were virtuous. But virtue is the fruit of well-used freedom. And no act to the degree that it is coerced can partake of virtue – or of vice.
If a person is forced by violence or the threat thereof to perform a certain action, then it can no longer be a moral choice on his part. The morality of an action can stem only from its being freely adopted; an action can scarcely be called moral if someone is compelled to perform it at gunpoint.
Compelling moral actions or outlawing immoral actions, therefore, cannot be said to foster the spread of morality or virtue. On the contrary, coercion atrophies morality for it takes away from the individual the freedom to be either moral or immoral, and therefore forcibly deprives people of the chance to be moral. Paradoxically, then, a compulsory morality robs us of the very opportunity to be moral.
It is furthermore particularly grotesque to place the guardianship of morality in the hands of the state apparatus – that is, none other than the organization of policemen, guards, and soldiers. Placing the state in charge of moral principles is equivalent to putting the proverbial fox in charge of the chicken coop.
Whatever else we may say about them, the wielders of organized violence in society have never been distinguished by their high moral tone or by the precision with which they uphold moral principle.
Myth #5: Libertarians are utopians who believe that all people are good, and that therefore state control is not necessary.
Conservatives tend to add that since human nature is either partially or wholly evil, strong state regulation is therefore necessary for society.
This is a very common belief about libertarians, yet it is difficult to know the source of this misconception. Rousseau, the locus classicus of the idea that man is good but is corrupted by his institutions, was scarcely a libertarian. Apart from the romantic writings of a few anarcho-communists, whom I would not consider libertarians in any case, I know of no libertarian or classical liberal writers who have held this view.
On the contrary, most libertarian writers hold that man is a mixture of good and evil and therefore that it is important for social institutions to encourage the good and discourage the bad. The state is the only social institution which is able to extract its income and wealth by coercion; all others must obtain revenue either by selling a product or service to customers or by receiving voluntary gifts. And the state is the only institution which can use the revenue from this organized theft to presume to control and regulate people’s lives and property. Hence, the institution of the state establishes a socially legitimatized and sanctified channel for bad people to do bad things, to commit regularized theft and to wield dictatorial power.
Statism therefore encourages the bad, or at least the criminal elements of human nature. As Frank H. Knight trenchantly put it: “The probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tenderhearted person would get the job of whipping master in a slave plantation.”
A free society, by not establishing such a legitimated channel for theft and tyranny, discourages the criminal tendencies of human nature and encourages the peaceful and the voluntary. Liberty and the free market discourage aggression and compulsion, and encourage the harmony and mutual benefit of voluntary interpersonal exchanges, economic, social, and cultural.
Since a system of liberty would encourage the voluntary and discourage the criminal, and would remove the only legitimated channel for crime and aggression, we could expect that a free society would indeed suffer less from violent crime and aggression than we do now, though there is no warrant for assuming that they would disappear completely. That is not utopianism, but a common-sense implication of the change in what is considered socially legitimate, and in the reward-and-penalty structure in society.
We can approach our thesis from another angle. If all men were good and none had criminal tendencies, then there would indeed be no need for a state, as conservatives concede. But if on the other hand all men were evil, then the case for the state is just as shaky, since why should anyone assume that those men who form the government and obtain all the guns and the power to coerce others, should be magically exempt from the badness of all the other persons outside the government?
Tom Paine, a classical libertarian often considered to be naïvely optimistic about human nature, rebutted the conservative evil-human-nature argument for a strong state as follows: “If all human nature be corrupt, it is needless to strengthen the corruption by establishing a succession of kings, who be they ever so base, are still to be obeyed…” Paine added that “NO man since the fall hath ever been equal to the trust of being given power over all.”
And as the libertarian F.A. Harper once wrote:
Still using the same principle that political rulership should be employed to the extent of the evil in man, we would then have a society in which complete political rulership of all the affairs of everybody would be called for…. One man would rule all. But who would serve as the dictator? However he were to be selected and affixed to the political throne, he would surely be a totally evil person, since all men are evil. And this society would then be ruled by a totally evil dictator possessed of total political power. And how, in the name of logic, could anything short of total evil be its consequence? How could it be better than having no political rulership at all in that society?
Finally, since, as we have seen, men are actually a mixture of good and evil, a regime of liberty serves to encourage the good and discourage the bad, at least in the sense that the voluntary and mutually beneficial are good and the criminal is bad. In no theory of human nature, then, whether it be goodness, badness, or a mixture of the two, can statism be justified.
In the course of denying the notion that he is a conservative, the classical liberal F.A. Hayek pointed out: “The main merit of individualism [which Adam Smith and his contemporaries advocated] is that it is a system under which bad men can do least harm. It is a social system which does not depend for its functioning on our finding good men for running it, or on all men becoming better than they now are, but which makes use of men in all their given variety and complexity…”
It is important to note what differentiates libertarians from utopians in the pejorative sense. Libertarianism does not set out to remold human nature. One of socialism’s major goals is to create, which in practice means by totalitarian methods, a New Socialist Man, an individual whose major goal will be to work diligently and altruistically for the collective.
Libertarianism is a political philosophy which says: Given any existent human nature, liberty is the only moral and the most effective political system.
Obviously, libertarianism – as well as any other social system – will work better the more individuals are peaceful and the less they are criminal or aggressive. And libertarians, along with most other people, would like to attain a world where more individuals are “good” and fewer are criminals. But this is not the doctrine of libertarianism per se, which says that whatever the mix of man’s nature may be at any given time, liberty is best.