Why does liberty matter? It’s a fair question because, after all, not everyone thinks it matters very much, perhaps beyond some very basic point. If that’s an overstatement, we can safely say that for many people on the left and right, liberty is a lower priority than it is for libertarians and classical liberals. Most pundits and politicians, even most anti-war types, have plans for how to spend your money.
What can we libertarians say? We have lots to say. It’s a multifront operation. Some libertarians press the case in terms of moral consequentialism, either utilitarian or egoist. Others take a duty-oriented, or deontological, route, stressing a rule-boundedness that may look like a rights theory. (Rule-consequentialism, as opposed to act-consequentialism, ends up looking like this.)
A third approach is eudaimonia, or virtue ethics, which has been inherited from the ancient Greeks, for example in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. In this approach, consequences are not irrelevant — in fact, they are baked into the conception of features (virtues) that tend toward the perfection of the individual person as a rational social being. In brief, respecting other people as ends in themselves is integral to respecting oneself. I like this approach.
The problem with persuading others about all this is that proof is difficult. It’s not like mathematics or physics. Aristotle wrote that the quality of proof in one area of knowledge, say, mathematics, is not to be expected in other areas, say, ethics. You have to play the hand that reality has dealt.
Modern libertarians have been debating among themselves the proper foundation of the freedom philosophy for decades. I can recall a libertarian scholars conference nearly 50 years ago when Murray Rothbard and historian friends expressed frustration over yet another panel of philosophers arguing the fine details of their respective approaches. The philosophical debate is important, but it’s easy to get lost in the weeds. Does it matter to the public? Most nonlibertarians are not philosophers or interested in philosophy.
Leaving all that aside (and to people more qualified than I am), what can libertarians say to regular people? The general public often takes positions and attitudes based on cultural and media signals, but that doesn’t mean we should not try to win regular people over directly, say, through the internet. Lots of opinion-makers have an incentive to ignore us.
To make our case, I want to start by saying that we know one thing clearly: each individual’s life is important to him or her. People care about themselves. Each cares about other people too, but those others are important to the one doing the caring. Far from ruling out regard for others, properly conceived self-interest requires regard for others. It’s self-evident. We’re social beings. We flourish partly through all sorts of instrumental and constitutive relationships with others.
Each person generally wants life to be long and satisfying. We can call that flourishing. Life is a project, and it consists of many sub-projects. We are not ghosts. Projects require material things: a place to live and work, nourishment, tools, products, and so on. In a word, possessions. If people are to flourish they need to know that their possessions are secure. They need rights, including property rights, to define zones in which they can act free of compulsion. Our nature requires it, so they are natural rights.
We can sum all this up with the term self-ownership, to which no coherent alternative exists. The American abolitionists called slave masters “manstealers.” How apt. In 1864 Lincoln wrote in a letter that “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” (I know about Lincoln’s faults.) Here’s the logical corollary to that truth: if self-ownership is not right, nothing is right. That’s the libertarian philosophy in concentrated form.
Does knowing this solve all social problems? Of course not. Exactly when conduct begins to become aggression can’t always be decided in an armchair. Boundaries can be fuzzy; social conventions will emerge. Life is about grappling with problems. (Sowell says there are no solutions, only trade-offs.) Context matters. So peaceful dispute-resolution will always be necessary, preferably not provided by a coercive government. That doesn’t keep self-ownership from being a strong and reasonable guide to grappling with interpersonal problems. On the contrary, it justifies a presumption of liberty.
Critics will ask about the blameless who have little, who wonder where their next meal will come from, and how they will get education or medical attention. Fair question, and we have answers. The primary one is that free people in a free market produce great abundance and variety, which they are eager to sell or rent to others. (Even the hampered market has done this to a great extent for a couple of hundred years.) The West’s move toward markets brought the first mass production, which did not always please the aristocracy.
Moreover, the governmental causes of the worst times in history — from war to domestic mass murder to depression — can be readily demonstrated. They were not the product of freedom, which common sense tells you is the right way for rational social beings to live.
While these times seem unfriendly to the freedom philosophy, it’s possible that this philosophy will eventually delight the people fed up with the woke progressives, national conservatives, and neoconservatives. Maybe time is on freedom’s side.