An Associated Press article published a few days ago reported on disagreements among libertarians over what, if anything, the government may properly do about the coronavirus pandemic. My purpose here is not to comment on the quotes from the various libertarians. I prefer to focus on just one sentence by the author, Hillel Italie.
It’s this one: “Libertarian principles of self-reliance and minimal government have been around for centuries.”
Only the part I emphasized — the reference to self-reliance — interests me today.
At first, that term may seen unexceptional — even to many libertarians — in an article about libertarianism. A term like self-reliance (along with rugged individualism) is often associated with the libertarian philosophy, again, even by many libertarians. But is that term really pertinent? Or is it misleading and subversive of public understanding? I say the latter.
It’s certainly true that libertarians believe that people should not rely on the government because government is force (to recall the quote erroneously attributed to George Washington). But by what reasoning does one equate eschewing reliance on the state with self-reliance? Is there nothing else but the self to rely on? Society perhaps? It’s hardly a novel idea. It’s especially not novel among libertarians.
Are libertarians against insurance for their lives, homes, automobiles, and medical needs? I don’t think so. What’s insurance? It’s a large number of people, mostly strangers, pooling their resources in case of a long-shot catastrophic event that would bankrupt any one of the individuals. Insurance is the opposite of self-reliance, but it’s perfectly libertarian.
Are libertarians against voluntary associations for fellowship and other nonmaterial values? I don’t think so.
Is the symbol of libertarianism the hermit, Randy Weaver, or Ted Kaczynski sans letter bombs? Again, I don’t think so.
Can advocates of a political philosophy who spend so much time, ink, and electrons praising free markets, global free trade, specialization, and the division of labor hold self-reliance as a core aspiration? Can the people often described by their opponents as “Adam Smith fundamentalists” be regarded as worshipers of self-reliance. No way! The Wealth of Nations is a paean to social cooperation. Libertarian hero Ludwig von Mises, author of Human Action, nearly called his magnum opus Social Cooperation. That’s the second-most-used phrase in the very long book. What’s the most-used phrase? Division of labor, another way to say “social cooperation.”
I suspect that the term self-reliance actually works as a subtle smear of libertarians. It’s a way to portray them as churlish, “selfish,” antisocial. But as we can see, no grounds exist for that portrayal. When Simon and Garfunkel sang, “I am a rock; I am an island,” they were singing no libertarian anthem — not by a long shot. (Sorry, Neil Diamond, neither was “Solitary Man.”)
Libertarians are in no way advocates of — gotta love this one — atomistic individualism. Rather, they are, as I suggested long ago, better described as champions of molecular individualism. They form associations for all kinds of reasons. (Alexis Tocqueville noticed this feature of early America’s rather libertarian masses.) Even the non-Aristotelians among libertarians agree that human beings are social animals, which means that the individual’s best shot at flourishing is in a society — as a long as it’s a free society, of course.
When libertarians themselves are confused about this matter, they undercut their own case. I have often heard libertarians condemn the welfare state because it discourages self-reliance. I’ve even heard libertarians demonize people who accept food stamps and Medicaid or Social Security benefits.
But that’s not the problem with the welfare state, or the social safety net. The problem is with the armed tax collector, not the recipients.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a social safety net. It’s telling that when people are free to do so, they set up their own voluntary safety nets.
Before the growth of the national welfare state in the United States, working-class and middle-class Americans hedged against the risky, uncertain future by joining mutual-aid societies, also know as fraternal societies, lodges, and in England, friendly societies. These were not only sources of fellowship; they were also voluntary welfare organizations built on the insurance principle. (They were mostly member-owned societies, rather than for-profit companies.)
In the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century, working men and women joined these societies, among other reasons, to obtain various insurance benefits. They paid in when they were healthy and working, and drew benefits when they were not. Societies also paid funeral benefits so that families were not left with large debts when the breadwinner died. Some organizations even kept doctors under contract to provide affordable primary care to their members and families. (The state-linked medical societies did not like this “unfair” competition that lowered their incomes.)
Importantly, the societies were competitive and often part of nationwide networks: they boasted of their superior benefits in order to attract and retain members. Moreover, blacks and other minorities responded to racial and ethnic discrimination by forming their own — successful — societies. (See David Beito’s history, From Mutual Aid to Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967. Also see my video.)
The libertarian case against the welfare state, then, is not that it undermines self-reliance. It’s that the state is 1) coercive and 2) bound to provide an inferior product because it’s a monopoly with captive customers (taxpayers).
Quite possibly, a libertarian may say he has something else in mind by the term self-reliance. He might mean that he thinks for himself. Fair enough. People ought to think for themselves, though even here we must issue a caveat. F. A. Hayek taught us that even someone who thinks for himself benefits by relying on knowledge that other people possess. Society — the market specifically — extends our intellects by enabling us to act on knowledge of which we would otherwise be ignorant. (Prices are carriers of such knowledge.) Yes, we each must sift through what we learn from others, but we could not flourish without that input.
Going back further than Hayek, Aristotle noted that much of what we can reasonably be said to know includes second-hand “reputable beliefs” picked up from society. I’m comfortable in saying I know the earth is spherical, but I could not confirm that personally. To be sure, which of these beliefs are accepted as reasonable is up to each individual; the proof of the pudding will be in the acting. (See Roderick T. Long’s liberating Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand.)
Thus for a variety of reasons, self-reliance is no part of the libertarian vision. It’s time we corrected the record.