A Shot at Libertarianism

I have always had a special sympathy for libertarianism. I strongly adhere to the fundamental notion that the government should leave people alone. I’m not so enthusiastic about their adamant opposition to taxation, and I strongly reject some of the wilder positions of the Libertarian Party. And I think Ayn Rand was way wrong. Nevertheless, I’ve always held some of the basic precepts in some esteem.

However, this morning I had a realization that strikes to the very core of libertarian beliefs. I was in the local public library (a rare event for me, as my own library is superior) and I noticed a little plaque noting that this room of the library had been underwritten by the local Rotary Club. That’s nice, I thought. And then I asked myself, “What motivates people to do something like this?” We generally label such actions “altruism” or “idealism” or “philanthropy”. But these are individual traits. The Rotary Club is a grouping of people who share a common ideal of helping society. And that’s when a new idea struck me – an idea about a different way of thinking about people and society.

Let’s start by thinking of it as “a different kind of patriotism”. We usually think of patriotism in almost military terms: are you willing to die for your country? Do you support its wars? Do you refrain from committing treason? The answers to these questions define patriotism as it is commonly thought of. So let’s take that idea and shift the meaning. Instead of “love of one’s country”, what about “love of one’s society”? The difference may seem like a quibble, but the Rotary Club’s benevolent act is not well-described as patriotic. We might call it “charity”, but that term is more often applied to individuals: you give money to a needy person. I’m talking about doing good for society in general.

So let’s list some actions that aren’t perfectly characterized as patriotic or charitable, but are nevertheless done for the good of society at large. These would include giving money to public institutions such as libraries, schools, hospitals, and arts societies, or volunteering to help with any of the same. They would also include making minor sacrifices for the good of society, such as buying a smaller car with better gas mileage or going to the extra trouble to recycle garbage rather than trash it. It also includes refraining from petty crimes such as littering or honking one’s horn excessively. These are all acts with no explicit beneficiary; they are done for the good of society in general.

I think that the closest term to use for this virtue is “public spirit”.

My next point is that public spirit is not just a nice thing – it’s absolutely crucial to the survival of society. It’s not that we’re all going to die if the Rotary Club stops making donations to libraries, or Western Civilization will collapse if you toss that burger wrapper out the car window. It’s that public spirit is the social glue that holds society together. When I was in the library, nobody watched me to be sure I wasn’t stealing any books – everybody has enough public spirit to refrain from stealing from libraries. That saves money. I don’t carry a gun because I know that all the people in my community are too public-spirited to threaten each other. I don’t have bars on my windows or heavy-duty locks on my doors, and what little public art we have is never – or at least, rarely – vandalized.

Think of the billions of business transactions taking place every day. How many of those transactions are nailed down with tight security? Not many; it would be too expensive to enforce absolute security in all transactions. Economists call such issues “friction”. If there’s too much friction, the whole machine grinds to a halt. When I purchase some bolts at the hardware store, the clerk takes my word for their price. It would take an extra 30 seconds to verify – 30 seconds that is saved because she trusts me. If I wanted to, I could probably shoplift all sorts of stuff – but neither I nor my fellow citizens do that because we’re too public-spirited. American taxpayers are, in general, some of the most upstanding taxpayers in the world – there’s less tax cheating here than anywhere else. That’s public spirit, too.

And here’s where we get back to libertarianism. It is at its core a profoundly anti-communitarian philosophy. The libertarian exalts the individual over the community. I understand the philosophical basis for this exaltation of the individual. But I point out that this philosophy is fundamentally antithetical to the notion of public spirit.

At this point the libertarian will object that he has nothing against public spirit; if somebody wants to be be public-spirited, they should be free to do so. But the libertarian insists – at the most fundamental level – that he should also be free to NOT be public-spirited. One man’s public spirit imposes no moral obligation on any other man to be similarly public spirited.

But this notion undermines the very notion of public spirit. In a perfectly libertarian world, any person is free to be public-spirited – but the person who is NOT public-spirited is perfectly within his rights and deserving of just as much esteem as the public-spirited one. There is no moral onus attached to being selfish. And if selfishness is exalted (as it is in libertarianism), then public spirit withers.

What’s the difference between life in a big city and life in a small town? Well, there’s a lot more crime in the big city, and there’s a much higher cost for security. There are a lot more bars on windows and locks on doors and security cameras in the big city than in the small town. And why is this? I argue that it’s because the big city is more libertarian than the small town. In the big city, there is anonymity: small acts both public-spirited and selfish go unnoticed. In a small town, you never know if the person next to you isn’t your neighbor. You’re more morally accountable in a small town than in a big city, and that’s what makes people more public-spirited in small towns than in big cities. And that, in turn, is what makes life in small towns more efficient, more livable, and ultimately happier, than life in big cities.

We need more public spirit among our citizens, not less. We need people to be less selfish and more responsible to society at large. Libertarians would take us in the opposite direction. That is why I sadly conclude that libertarianism is fundamentally wrong.

Update, September 12th, 2013
Szymon Piotr Pańczyk sent me an email responding to this essay in which he pointed out that there is nothing intrinsically selfish about libertarianism. After giving it much thought, I decided that he is right, but we need to differentiate two very different kinds of libertarianism.

First-person Libertarianism
This form of libertarianism is best expressed as “I want my freedoms”. The focus is on the self, and this is the form of libertarianism that is most common in the USA and the form that I condemn for its selfishness. It’s most obvious among the gun nuts. They’re not as much desirous of other people having guns as they are desirous of themselves having guns. The fact that most of the gun lobby consists of gun owners reveals the intrinsic selfishness of this movement. 

Another expression of first-person libertarianism is tax policy. These people have just one battle-cry: “Cut my taxes!” They have no interest in discussing cost-benefit ratios of government spending programs; their only concern is their own tax bill. If you point out to them that their $1 of tax will generate $5 in benefits to society, they don’t care; they complain about the $1 and ignore the $5.

Third-person Libertarianism
This is the form of libertarianism whose existence I overlooked. Its clearest manifestation would be a man espousing abortion rights for women. He is not doing so for himself (most of the time); he truly is motivated by what is best for other people. Such a libertarian can still hold onto some of the beliefs of the first-person libertarians, but he’ll be consistent about it. He might decide that gun ownership has net positive value to society and thereby support gun rights. But he should probably also support legalization of marijuana and other drugs. A third-person libertarian support gay rights, flag-burning, and a host of other social policies despised by many of the first-person libertarians. 

There are in fact a goodly number of third-person libertarians, but American politics seems dominated by the first-person libertarians. Consider, for examples, the policy preferences of Mr. Rand Paul, a senator from Kentucky and considered the leading light of libertarianism in Congress. Mr. Paul would like to get the government out of education and devolve the responsibility for educating children directly to the parents. What happens to poor parents, he does not say. His environmental policy is basically anti-environmental: he wants to eliminate regulations regarding pollution. This would be a windfall for energy companies and a health disaster for citizens. He wants to end Obamacare. In an interesting twist, he doesn’t seem to extend his libertarian views to foreign citizens: he wants to get tough on illegal immigrants. And he also withholds his libertarian views from women desiring abortions. This is first-person libertarianism, “liberty for me”, not “liberty for everyone”.