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TGIF: One Moral Standard for All

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Libertarians make a self-defeating mistake in assuming that their fundamental principles differ radically from most other people’s principles. Think how much easier it would be to bring others to the libertarian position if we realized that they already agree with us in substantial ways.

What am I talking about? It’s quite simple. Libertarians believe that the initiation of force is wrong. So do the overwhelming majority of nonlibertarians. They, too, think it is wrong to commit offenses against person and property. I don’t believe they abstain merely because they fear the consequences (retaliation, prosecution, fines, jail, lack of economic growth). They abstain because they sense deep down that it is wrong, unjust, improper. In other words, even if they never articulate it, they believe that other individuals are ends in themselves and not merely means to other people’s the ends. They believe in the dignity of individuals. As a result, they perceive and respect the moral space around others. (This doesn’t mean they are consistent, but when they are not, at least they feel compelled to rationalize.)

That’s the starting point of the libertarian philosophy, at least as I see it. (I am not a calculating consequentialist, or utilitarian, but neither am I a rule-worshiping deontologist. Rather, I am comfortable with the Greek approach to morality, eudaimonism, which, as Roderick Long writes, “means that virtues like prudence and benevolence play a role in determining the content of justice, but also — via a process of mutual adjustment — that justice plays a role in determining the content of virtues like prudence and benevolence.” In this view, justice, or respect for rights, like the other virtues, is a constitutive, or internal, means (rather than an instrumental means) to the ultimate end of all action, flourishing, or the good life.)

Libertarians differ from others in that they apply the same moral standard to all people’s conduct. Others have a double standard, the live-and-let-live standard for “private” individuals and another, conflicting one for government personnel. All we have to do is get people to see this and all will be well.

Okay, I’m oversimplifying a bit. But if I’m close to right, you’ll have to admit that the libertarian’s job now looks much more manageable. Socrates would walk through the agora in Athens pointing out to people that they unwittingly held contradictory moral positions. By asking them probing questions, he nudged them into adjusting their views until they were brought into harmony, with the nobler of their views holding sway. (Does this mean that agoraphobia began as a fear of being accosted by a Greek philosopher in a public place?) This harmonization is known as reflective equilibrium, though Long emphasizes the activity, reflective equilibration, rather than the end state.

So it remains only for libertarians to engage in a series of thought experiments to win others over to their position. For example, if I would properly be recognized as an armed robber were I to threaten my neighbors into giving me a percentage of their incomes so that I might feed the hungry, house the homeless, and provide pensions for the retired, why aren’t government officials similarly recognized? If I can’t legally impose mandates on people, as the Affordable Care Act does, why can Barack Obama and members of Congress do so? If I can’t forcibly forbid you to use marijuana or heroin or cocaine, why can DEA agents do it?

Those officials are human beings. You are a human being. I am a human being. So we must have the same basic rights. Therefore, what you and I may not do, they may not do. The burden of rebuttal is now on those who reject the libertarian position.

Undoubtedly the nonlibertarian will respond that government officials were duly elected by the people according to the Constitution, or hired by those so elected. Thus they may do what is prohibited to you and me. This reply is inadequate. If you and I admittedly have no right to tax and regulate others, how could we delegate a nonexistent right to someone else through an election? Obviously, we can’t. (Frédéric Bastiat pointed this out in The Law.)

That’s the nub of the libertarian philosophy right there. No one has the right to treat people merely as means — no matter how noble the end. No one. The implication is that if you want someone’s cooperation, you must use persuasion (such as offering to engage in a mutually beneficial exchange), not force. That principle must be applicable to all human beings on pain of contradiction.

This argument should have particular appeal for advocates of equality — for what better embodies their ideal than the libertarian principle, which establishes the most fundamental equality of all persons? I don’t mean equality of outcome, equality of income, equality of opportunity, equality under the law, or equality of freedom. I mean something more basic: what Long calls equality of authority. You can find it in John Locke (Second Treatise of Government, chapter 2, §6):

Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.… And, being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorise us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses.

“Unless it be to do justice on an offender,” Locke continued, no one may “take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”

Long traces out a key implication of this idea: “Lockean equality involves not merely equality before legislators, judges, and police, but, far more crucially, equality with legislators, judges, and police.”

One moral standard for all, no exceptions, no privileges. That’s a fitting summation of the libertarian philosophy. The good news is that most people are more than halfway there.

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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.