Concerning Libertarianism: On the “Cynicism” of Libertarian Philosophy (Updated Version)

You may be thinking I just posted this the other day. But that post was not as well made as it should have been. So I made some changes. This is the updated and (hopefully) improved version.

One of the popular criticisms (and by criticism in this instance I mean denigration) of libertarianism these days seems to be that libertarianism is little more than cynicism. The implied idea being that libertarianism has no ideological footing or moral standing and therefore is just something snarky kooks use to pick on the poor ol’ government that is just trying to help people. Which is, of course, a fully erroneous idea. Libertarianism is, in fact, both moral and optimistic.

Yes, I said libertarianism is both moral and optimistic. Somewhere out there are some “progressive” liberals and some moralizing conservatives who are sputtering out objections, ready to insist that libertarianism is neither. So I will explain my statement.

An argument often thrown at libertarians is the “if you are against X government program that [supposedly] is intended to help people, then you must not believe in helping people” argument. The implied idea there being that since helping people is moral and since (supposedly) only X government program can really help people, then being against X government program is therefore to hold an amoral position against helping people. Another argument often used against libertarianism is the “if you think X should not be illegal then I guess you’re okay with murder” argument. The implied idea there is that since murder is immoral and illegal and since X is immoral and illegal, then saying X should not be illegal is therefore an amoral position against laws intended to protect people.

(You may have noticed that in the above examples I used both the words amoral and immoral. Despite how they are sometimes used, they do not have the same meaning. Just so we are clear on what these terms mean: amoral means lacking a moral code, and immoral means violating a moral code. [And just to be complete, unmoral or nonmoral means being neither moral or immoral.])

The most obvious problem with those kinds of anti-libertarian arguments is that they are nothing more than straw men arguments. A straw man argument, for those who are not aware, is to pretend to refute a position by instead attacking a counterfeited position, i.e. a position that may seem similar to the original but actually is not.

Being against massive government entitlement programs that are supposedly intended to help people does not mean libertarians are against helping people. In fact, libertarians generally view the government entitlement programs as doing people more harm than good. So the moral position for libertarians is then to oppose those massive government entitlement programs.

And forgotten in the liberal rush to defend government entitlement programs is another moral issue. Is forcibly taking money from one group of people to spend it on other people something that is moral? The libertarian answer is no.

So what about all those laws libertarians want to eliminate? We want certain laws eliminated generally because we believe those laws are unjust and cause more harm than good. Which is why we can be against drug prohibition laws and not against all laws. And the moral position is to be against unjust laws.

So yes, libertarianism is moral. To be more specific, libertarianism holds to the morality of individual liberty, and the idea that every person owns himself. While government may be said to be a moral means of protecting rights of individuals, it is not a moral means to control other people, to have a relative few people decide by what moral code everyone else must abide. In point of fact, using government for that end is itself immoral. This is why the men who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights used these documents to restrict not the general populace, but the power of the government.

And now to the other part of the statement I made at the beginning of this post. How is libertarianism optimistic? I will explain.

Another argument people sometimes try to use against libertarianism is to claim that libertarians ignore that human beings are social animals and that we all need other people to succeed in this world. That argument is completely ignorant and false.

In actuality, libertarianism not only recognizes that humans need other humans, it counts on it. It depends on it. Libertarianism says we human beings can and should choose to work together because by doing so we make not just ourselves better, but those with whom we interact. Inherent in libertarianism is the notion that human beings can do more when we work together in voluntary cooperation, and that protecting the liberty of the individual is the best way to allow that to occur.

This is such an optimistic idea that when people are not criticizing libertarianism as being cynical, they criticize it as being utopian.

Many people speak of the “common good” or the “good of society” when they speak on behalf of government policies intended to control this or that social issue. To oppose their preferred policies, they claim, is to stand in opposition to the public good. What they are ignoring is the position of libertarianism that protecting individual liberty for everyone is the common good. To the libertarian, protecting the liberty and the rights of individuals is both a moral and social good.

And that protection in turns creates an environment of freedom for individuals to interact voluntarily and produce both tangible and intangible good for each other and for society.

So yes, libertarianism is not cynical. It is not immoral. Just the opposite. Libertarianism is both moral and optimistic.

I can guess some folks out there are now ready to move to the next arrow in their anti-libertarian quiver, the old “sure it sounds good, but the real world does not work that way” attack. I could refute that too, but I will let a couple of passages from articles by Ronald Bailey at reason.com do that for me. The first is from an article titled “Seven Surprising Truths about the World”.

In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx thundered that the bourgeoisie and the markets that allow them to prosper “left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ ” In other words, markets destroy fellow-feeling, turning human beings into cold, cruel calculators. But recent research on how 15 small-scale societies play certain canonical economic games suggests that simply isn’t so.

The societies investigated by the economists and anthropologists organized as the MacArthur Foundation’s Norms and Preferences Network ranged from hunter-gatherers to slash-and-burn horticulturalists on five continents. To probe these societies’ attitudes toward sharing and fairness, the researchers had their members play several games. One of these is called the Ultimatum Game. In it, researchers provisionally allot a divisible pie ($10, say) to one player. This player, the “proposer,” offers a portion of the pie to the second subject, the “responder.” The responder, who knows both the offer and the total amount of the pie, chooses to either accept or reject the offer. If the responder accepts, he or she gets the amount offered and the proposer gets the remainder. If the responder rejects the offer, neither player receives anything.

Rationally speaking, one might expect that the proposer would offer as little as possible ($1, say) and that the responder would never reject an offer because, after all, one dollar is better than nothing. Yet in hundreds of experiments in nearly two dozen countries, subjects rarely act in that purely self-interested way. In modern societies, the most frequent amount offered by proposers is 50 percent, and responders commonly reject offers under a third. After examining a number of different explanations, most researchers have concluded that those choices are based on the players’ sense of what is fair. Since these experiments are usually conducted using western undergraduates, the Preference Network researchers wondered if the results would hold true across societies.

The experimenters offered participants the equivalent of a day or two’s wages in their societies. The researchers found that the average offers from proposers ranged from a low of 26 percent to a high of 58 percent and that the most frequent offers ranged from 15 percent to 50 percent. Some groups, such as the Machiguenga and Quichua in South America and the Hadza in Africa, offered around 25 percent of the pie. The most frequent offer from the Machiguenga proposers was 15 percent. Only one Machiguenga responder rejected such a low offer.

Societies like the Machiguenga and Hadza, which deal with few outsiders and are not economically dependent on people other than close kin, turn out to be the stingiest players. The Orma in Africa and the Achuar in South America, who are more integrated into markets, tend to play more like the western undergraduates. “The higher the degree of market integration and the higher the payoffs of cooperation, the greater the level of prosociality found in experimental games,” the researchers found.

Herbert Gintis, co-director of the Preference Network team, speculates that markets bring strangers into contact on a regular basis, encouraging people to develop more concern for others beyond their family and immediate neighbors. Instead of parochialism, being integrated into markets encourages a spirit of ecumenism. “Extensive market interactions may accustom individuals to the idea that interactions with strangers may be mutually beneficial,” the researchers theorize. “By contrast, those who do not customarily deal with strangers in mutually advantageous ways may be more likely to treat anonymous interactions as hostile, threatening, or occasions for opportunistic pursuit of self-interest.”

Markets teach participants the habits of cooperation, trust, and fairness. Based on his research, Gintis argues that history traces humanity’s ascent from tribal selfishness to more cosmopolitan liberality. “Market societies give rise to more egalitarianism and movements toward democracy, civil liberties, and civil rights,” Gintis argues. “Market societies and democratic societies are practically co-extensive.” And they are more generous too.

The second is much shorter and from an article titled “The Science of Libertarian Morality”.

I find [University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan] Haidt’s account of the birth of libertarian morality fairly convincing. But as a social psychologist, Haidt fails to discuss what is probably the most important and intriguing fact about libertarian morality. It changed history by enabling at least a portion of humanity to escape our natural state of abject poverty. Libertarian morality, by rising above and rejecting primitive moralities embodied in the universalist collectivism of left-liberals and the tribalist collectivism of conservatives, made the rule of law, freedom of speech, religious tolerance, and modern prosperity possible. Liberals and conservatives may love people more than do libertarians, but love of liberty is what leads to true moral and economic progress.

Which leads me back to the question I occasionally ask here. If you’re not libertarian, why aren’t you?
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The first version of this post was poorly made. So I remade it. Sort of like a mad scientist seeing his creation is flawed and then remaking it to be better and stronger than before. Muah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Wait, what was I talking about? Oh yes. Sorry. I got carried away there.

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