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TGIF: I Can’t Help That I’m a Libertarian

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It’s not easy being a libertarian. I am not looking for sympathy when I say that. I just mean to point out that rejecting the conventional wisdom on virtually (do I really need this adverb?) every political question, current and historical, can be wearying. Life could be so much simpler if it were otherwise. No doubt about that. I really don’t like conflict, especially when it can quickly turn personal, as it so often does. (I embrace the advice that one can disagree without being disagreeable.) But for a libertarian, disagreement with most people is not an option. We can’t help it.

Strictly speaking, reason doesn’t permit us to choose our beliefs. If you follow the steps of an algebraic problem and see why X=4, do you have a choice about whether to believe that X=4? Of course not. To see the validity of the steps that yield the solution X=4 is to believe that X=4. Belief is not a separate step.

If you grasp that an inference logically follows from factual premises and self-evident axioms, can you really elect to disbelieve it? I don’t see how. If you look outside and see it is raining, are you free to decide whether to believe it is raining? Not really.

Free will operates at the level of choosing whether or not to honestly seek out and consider relevant evidence and arguments — not in accepting the conclusion that follows from that evidence and those arguments. (This is not to deny that two reasonable people can draw different conclusions from the same evidence and argument. Further evidence-seeking and argument are the means to resolving the disagreement — plus good faith on both sides.)

Once a conclusion is seen, the story is not over. Intellectual confidence and humility can coexist in a person. Believing in the soundness of an argument should not keep one from being open to reconsideration and even disconfirmation. (Confirmation bias is a bane of humanity.) Any honest libertarian checks his premises and inferences routinely and is open to the possibility that he has hitherto overlooked something important. Critics notwithstanding, the libertarian philosophy is not dogma or revealed truth. Nor is it something received from an authority. It’s a discipline. I think this is what Leonard Read meant when he said that studying liberty is a life-long project. It is never finished. But note that this intellectual process requires freedom, although I am not saying that the entire case for a fully libertarian society can be spun from the fact that thinking (or discourse) requires freedom.

So I maintain that I, like other freedom advocates I know, can’t help but be a libertarian. My understanding of what it means to be human, of the conditions under which reason-bearing, language-using social animals can flourish, of the nature of violence, and of the essence of the state all lead me to conclude that individuals should be free of aggression, essentially the initiation of physical force. And that means all persons should be unmolested as they peacefully go about their lives, formulating plans and aspirations, justly acquiring possessions (for we are not ghosts but material beings in a world of scarcity), and engaging in voluntary cooperation — such as trade — with other persons. Sound theory and historical episodes tell me that this is practical as well as “moral,” though as one who is inspired by the ancient Greeks, I believe the moral is the practical.

As I say, being a libertarian (this is not limited to libertarians) means frequent disagreement with the people around you, most of whom take the political landscape for granted as though it were a natural and eternal feature of life. Younger libertarians may revel in this conflict. They may even enjoy political nonconformity for its own sake. But as many of us get older, this aspect of being a libertarian also gets old. I, for one, would rather not be in perpetual conflict with the rest of the world. I’d love nothing more than complete harmony with my neighbors and family.

But what can I do? For obvious reasons, expressing views I don’t hold is out of the question.

I could take the path of least resistance and keep quiet about what’s going on in the world. Sometimes that has great appeal. But then I think about the injustice inflicted on the victims of systematic, mechanized, and legal aggression (random street crime is bad enough). I think, “I wouldn’t want to be in their place” — but  then I recall that as a taxpayer and as one otherwise subject to state aggression, I am in their place, if to a lesser extent. I think of how people are kept poor (or poorer) and miserable by the most common forms of political imposition, and how insult is added to injury by telling the victims it’s really for their own good.

Whether were are talking immigration control, occupational licensing, or any of the myriad other interventions devised by the political class and its “private-sector” patrons, the havoc wreaked on individual lives and free associations is incalculable. The same goes for the misnamed drug war — it’s a war on people, not drugs — and other disruptions of private, consensual conduct that the government sees as intolerable vices. Anything like full restitution to all the victims would be impossible. The perpetrators will get away, as they usually have, scot-free.

And then there’s war. How does one stand by in silence when one is forced by the tax collector to underwrite aggression around the world against the poorest individuals imaginable? Innocent people — so many children — are killed and maimed, their homes and communities shattered, with the bombs, bullets, mortar shells, tanks, airplanes, helicopter gunships, and drones paid for by you and me through a government that claims to act in our names — while lying as a matter of course.

Who can know these things and not speak out — no matter how wearying that may be?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.