The Conscience of a Libertarian: Respect Others’ Choices

I’d like to share an observation I made this week: libertarians spend so much time defending their rights and the rights of others that they rarely engage in discussions about what they find truly valuable.

Consistent libertarians (i.e. anarcho-capitalists) are particularly adept at identifying weaknesses in policy proposals which rely on the threat or application of force. All that needs to be done is reduce any ostensibly complex problem to one of property rights, show that coercion necessarily infringes upon somebody’s right to their bodies or property and what generally remains is either enslavement, expropriation of property, or both. (Of course, inexplicably, most people are rarely convinced by a logically consistent counter-argument, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day!)

Awash with politicians and voters convinced that no problem can be solved if it doesn’t involve the iron fist of government, libertarians are the flotsam in the storm of violence that threatens to incrementally reduce our liberty. Thus, those of us with the fortitude to stay afloat are caught fighting waves of statism — from both the left and the right. Libertarians are so often on the defensive that they very rarely take the time to describe their own morality and, I argue, opponents tend to carelessly paint them with a very broad brush.

Take, for instance, the health care debate that has been raging in the United States. The left would like all Americans to have access to affordable health care when they need it. That, by itself, is an admirable goal; one that nobody is likely to disagree with. The question is: how will it be achieved? The proposals floating around in Congress (HR 3200, for example) would mandate that individuals purchase a health insurance plan that is pre-approved by the federal government. If somebody is unable to purchase such a plan, one will be provided for them, subsidized by citizens who can pay. No supporter of liberty could ever support a plan that includes either of these mandates! Republican politicians, fortunately, largely oppose this plan. However, their unprincipled defense may end up damaging their case more than it helps. How else can you reconcile their opposition of the Democrats’ plan with their introduction of the Seniors’ Health Care Bill of Rights? Republican voters don’t quite understand either, as evidenced by calls at town hall meetings to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.”

Thus, if liberty is to be defended at all, it must be done by a libertarian. My favorite, straight-forward defense against government intervention in the health care market comes from Maria Martins:

“Medical care is not a right. Medical care is a service provided by doctors and others to individuals who want to purchase it. A patient presents to the doctor with a request for care. The fact that the patient has a serious condition – even a life threatening one – does not entitle him, as his right, to the services of the doctor. To claim that he does means that doctors and others who provide these services have no rights, or that society can deliberately ignore these rights for the “greater good”. […] If the exercise of a patient’s so-called “right” to healthcare imposes obligations on taxpayers to pay for it and healthcare practitioners to provide it, then it is not a right, but an attempt to enslave one part of the population for the benefit of another part. In reality, these types of so-called “rights” are offered to groups of Americans by politicians in exchange for votes. Claims on humanitarian concerns are merely a fig leaf over a naked power grab by the state.”

Maria presents a well-stated, principled argument that addresses the fundamental point. The “right” to health care is incompatible with the “right” of other individuals to make their own decisions regarding their time and property. We can have one or the other, but we cannot have both. Libertarians’ defining feature is that they invariably and steadfastly support the rights of individuals to make their own decisions about their time and property.

Which brings me, finally, to my observation: libertarians are often unfairly targeted as being selfish individuals, insensitive to those in need, apologists for profiteering CEOs and various other accusations. I’d like to try to dispel that myth while putting the common libertarian “anti-government” arguments in perspective.

From a libertarian/anarcho-capitalist perspective, the only purpose of government is to enforce (via threat or application of aggression) certain kinds of behavior on the population that at least some fraction is not willing to adopt voluntarily. As Stephan Kinsella explains, to justify the existence of government,

“…[one] must maintain either: (a) aggression is justified; or (b) [states] do not necessarily employ aggression. Proposition (b) is plainly false. [Even minimal states] always tax their citizens, which is a form of aggression. They always outlaw competing defense agencies, which also amounts to aggression.”

One must either (i) justify the use of aggression; or (ii) abolish government. Statists of all colors accept (i) to various degrees (including minarchists, democrats, republicans, socialists and totalitarians), whereas anarcho-capitalists accept (ii). Therefore, the principled approach is to contract the power and reach of government at every opportunity until, finally, it is abolished.

Whether or not government can ever, in practice, actually be abolished does not alter the fact that its existence cannot be justified. Stephan Kinsella offers the following analogy:

“Conservatives and libertarians all agree that private crime (murder, robbery, rape) is unjustified, and “should” not occur. Yet no matter how good most men become, there will always be at least some small element who will resort to crime. Crime will always be with us. Yet we still condemn crime and work to reduce it. […] The view that the state is unjustified is a normative or ethical position. The fact that not enough people are willing to respect their neighbors’ rights to allow anarchy to emerge, i.e., the fact that enough people (erroneously) support the legitimacy of the state to permit it to exist, does not mean that the state, and its aggression, are justified.”

Thus, an anti-government mentality is a necessary part of any libertarians’ morality. However, it would be simplistic and incorrect to surmise that libertarians are selfish individualists, etc. Mary Ruwart does a remarkable job of explaining the nature of libertarian morality in her book “Healing Our World”:

“Trying to control or manipulate those close to us creates resentment and anger. Attempting to control others in our city, state, nation, and world is just as destructive to the universal love we want the world to manifest. Forcing people to be more “unselfish” creates animosity instead of good will. Trying to control selfish others is a cure worse than the disease. We reap as we sow. In trying to control others, we find ourselves controlled. […] We attempt to bend our neighbors to our will, sincere in our belief that we are benevolently protecting the world from their folly and short-sightedness. […] In fighting for our dream without awareness, we become the instruments of its destruction.”

As Mary’s description suggests, libertarians possess very specific ideas about what kinds of things or activity ought to be highly valued. Many of these ideas do overlap with non-libertarians and libertarians do respectably disagree amongst themselves. The only universal feature of all libertarians, their defining characteristic, is that none of them enforce their morality on others. Their vision, instead, is to educate and persuade, often by leading through example. Unfortunately, the specific ideas that uniquely determine individual libertarians often remain unexpressed because they are inundated by proposals that seek to subjugate various portions of the population rather than encourage voluntary action.

I’ll use myself as an example. In the anarcho-capitalist society that I advocate, the land currently under the jurisdiction of the US National Park Service would be auctioned off to private parties or open to homesteading. It would be false to conclude that I prefer the destruction of these virgin lands in favor of, say, a gigantic retail store with plenty of paved parking spaces for consumers. On the contrary, I value these areas very highly and some of the memories that I treasure most exist because of what I’ve experienced there. I would be devastated to see these areas deforested or vast acreage paved over. My neighbors may or may not value these lands for the same reason and it would be immoral for me to enforce my will upon them (or vice versa). Were these lands to become open to private ownership, I am prepared to participate in their preservation through private investment. For example, if entrepreneurs undervalue or neglect the potential for tourism profits that some of these areas offer, private citizens could pool their resources and purchase large tracts of land solely for the shared enjoyment that it would provide.

Here’s another example. There would be no public school system in the anarcho-capitalist society. This may sound quite alarming to people who currently depend on that system. (While I believe that the free market can provide much better alternatives, that is beyond the scope of this article and I intend to return to this topic at a later date.) For the time being, let’s assume that not everyone is completely satisfied by their level of formal instruction under this arrangement. Education, of both myself and my neighbors, is something that I value very highly. If I concluded that the supply of formal instruction offered on the market was lacking, I would be quite willing to volunteer my time and contribute my expertise in the areas for which I am qualified. I might encourage my colleagues to do the same and, perhaps, involve myself in part of a larger venture whose goal is to expand coverage where it is needed most. I might also enjoy making educational material more widely available. (This process would be greatly accelerated with the abolishment of intellectual property laws, which I intend to discuss later.)

The point is that everybody has a different value scale, including individual libertarians (who value many things in addition to shrinking and abolishing governments). Whatever our value scale, it ought not to be forced upon others. We can educate, learn, and lead by example, but we should always remember to respect the choices that others make regarding their person and property. Some people may never be convinced to donate their time or money toward a cause we think is admirable, no matter how persuasive our case may be. Even for those that “greedily” consume all the wealth they generate for themselves, no harm is done; so long as wealth is obtained through voluntary exchange, all parties mutually benefit. (If not, then at least one of the parties would refuse the exchange!) We are so fortunate that the free market, which tends to produce so many wonderful products, channels the energy of even the most “greedy” individuals toward the satisfaction of the needs of others. Thus, we don’t need to decide between market efficiency on the one hand and individual freedom on the other; we get both!

I want to end with a discussion about my ideological transformation from leftism (I’m a former supporter of Ralph Nader and the Green Party) to libertarianism. My personal valuations have not changed — I still enjoy excursions into the pristine wilderness; I still empathize with those who are disadvantaged in various ways (health problems, poverty, disabled, war refugees, the unemployed), etc. What has changed is the way in which I aim to solve these problems. I refuse to initiate the use of force as a means to achieve any solution that I support. As a leftist, I advocated using aggression to impose my will on the entire country. As a result, I felt a great hostility toward anybody whose goals were in opposition to my own. It was a zero sum game: their political victory was the reason for my political defeat. Now that aggression is no longer an option, my hostility has largely subsided and in its place there is patience, compassion and a desire to educate. What amazes me is this: the realization of anarcho-capitalism strikes me as significantly less likely than, say, the agenda of the Green Party; nevertheless, under libertarian thought, I’ve never felt freer.


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3 Responses to “The Conscience of a Libertarian: Respect Others’ Choices”

  1. Kathie Costello Says:

    Very intersting article….. being healthcare myself……I do appreciate the views of Maria Martins. I feel health care is also not a right but an option purchased. Anybody can go to a doctor or hospital for care (well or sick) and be treated with payment out-of-pocket. The insurance part is an option purchased thru yourself or part of a benefit thru employment. This is not much different as life or fire insurance on your home. As for those who are not able get viable employement (and I do not mean those not willing to seek employment) I have no answers.

  2. The Conscience of a Libertarian: Respect Others’ Choices Says:

    […] The Conscience of a Libertarian: Respect Others’ Choices […]

  3. Norbert Says:

    A very good article. Read it first @
    You are right on target in IMHO. Keep up the good work.

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