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The Virtues of Libertarianism

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The principle that undergirds the libertarian philosophy is what is known as the nonaggression principle. It holds that people should be free to live their lives in any way they choose, making whatever choices they wish to make, but with one condition: that their conduct must be peaceful (and nonfraudulent).

Thus, libertarianism condemns any action that involves the initiation of force (or fraud) against other persons and their property. Examples of actions condemned by libertarians — and, for that matter, most everyone else — include murder, rape, robbery, theft, burglary, and any other action that involves the initiation of force against someone else.

There are many choices and actions, however, that are entirely peaceful in nature (i.e., that don’t involve the initiation of force) and that many people in society don’t approve of. It is this realm that distinguishes libertarians from nonlibertarians.

Nonlibertarians believe that it is entirely appropriate for the state to punish people for the exercise of what some consider wrongful choices, even if such choices are entirely peaceful and consensual in nature.

Libertarians believe, on the other hand, that the exercise of wrongful choices that are peaceful in nature should not be criminalized. Instead, a genuinely free society is one in which people are free to make whatever peaceful choices they want, even when — or especially when — the choices are not condoned or favored by most other people in society.

In fact, libertarianism holds that the true test of a free society is not whether people are free to do the right thing, the acceptable thing, the responsible thing, or the popular thing. The true test of a free society is whether people are free to do the wrong thing, the unacceptable thing, the irresponsible thing, or the unpopular thing — so long as their conduct is peaceful.

Consider adultery, an action that is condemned, on moral grounds, by people of religious faith. Should adultery be made illegal, as it has been in some U.S. states? Libertarians say no. Even if most people in society condemn adultery as sinful or immoral, libertarians hold that people have a right to choose to engage in it without being punished by the state.

Does that mean that libertarians approve of adultery on moral or ethical grounds? Of course not! It simply means that libertarians believe that people should be free to engage in any peaceful action, even when others consider it sinful, morally wrong, or irresponsible.

Not surprisingly, when people learn about libertarianism, some of them initially conclude that libertarianism is the same as libertinism. That is, since libertarians want to legalize such things as adultery, drug use, gambling, and prostitution, they think that libertarianism has an “anything goes” spirit to it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Suppose the libertarian owner of a retail store has a sign posted at the front door that says, “Shoes required of all customers.” Someone new to libertarianism might be tempted to say, “That’s not very libertarian.” He would be referring to the “anything goes” spirit that some people erroneously think undergirds the libertarian philosophy. He would be wrong. The libertarian owner’s action would be entirely consistent with libertarianism because it would be consistent with the nonaggression principle, in that the owner would be using his property in the manner he chooses without initiating force against others. By the same token, customers can either comply with the no-shoes directive or avoid the store entirely.

Consider drug laws. Libertarians ardently oppose drug laws and would legalize all drugs, not just marijuana. Why? Because we believe that people should be free to ingest anything they want and that it’s none of the state’s business what a person puts into his mouth.

Hearing this, the person who is first learning about libertarianism might be tempted to conclude that libertarianism, as a philosophy, necessarily endorses the use of drugs or the abuse of drugs.

Not so. Libertarianism, as a philosophy, simply holds that a person should be free to decide for himself whether to ingest drugs, but it makes no value judgment on the use of drugs themselves.

Libertarianism says to a person, “You have the right to decide for yourself how to live your life, so long as your conduct doesn’t involve the violent interference with the right of other people to do the same. Your actions might be considered by others to be sinful, immoral, unethical, irresponsible, self-destructive, dangerous, or harmful. That’s not for libertarians to decide. Libertarianism simply holds that you should be free to engage in such actions without the state’s being authorized to punish you for engaging in them.”

After all, wouldn’t it make for a strange philosophy if libertarianism instead stood for the following proposition: “Libertarianism holds that you should be free to make whatever peaceful choices you want … but if you make the wrong choices, libertarianism will condemn your choices or you”?

Moreover, were libertarianism to cross the nonaggression-principle line and become a philosophy that compelled a moral or ethical judgment on people’s choices in life, what would be the objective standard by which such choices would be judged? Would libertarianism judge drug use per se as being bad on the ground that it is degrading and destructive to individuals and their families? Yet, aren’t there people in life who ingest drugs for what they consider to be very valid reasons? Would libertarians have the task of examining the details of each person’s decision to ingest drugs and then making a value judgment accordingly? But isn’t the decision to ingest drugs an entirely subjective one? How could libertarianism, as a philosophy, possibly come up with an objective formula that would apply justly across the board for everyone?

The answer is that it couldn’t. Libertarian moral judgments on people’s individual choices to ingest drugs would end up being entirely ad hoc and arbitrary.

The principle is the same with respect to social structures in society. Consider education. Because libertarians favor a separation of school and state, proponents of homeschooling sometimes expect libertarians to endorse homeschooling as the best educational vehicle.

But libertarianism, as a philosophy, doesn’t compel the acceptance of any particular educational vehicle as being the best. Libertarianism simply stands for the proposition that people should be free to secure the education of their children in any way they deem fit, without the involvement of the government.

Thus, libertarians, as libertarians, do not involve themselves with embracing or supporting any particular educational vehicle. We simply hold that people should be free to decide whether to choose homeschooling, private schools, tutors, or any other educational vehicle that the free market brings into existence. We leave it to the free market — i.e., the peaceful, consensual acts of producers and consumers — to determine which educational vehicles are going to be the best for each individual child.

What about people who refuse to help others in need, including the poor and even their very own parents? Again, libertarianism holds that that is what freedom is all about — each person’s right to decide for himself how he is going to live his life. Thus, if a person becomes a millionaire in the marketplace and decides that he doesn’t want to give one penny to his aging or ill parents or to the poor and disadvantaged or to his local church, libertarianism holds that that is what genuine freedom is all about: the right to make peaceful choices even when — or especially when — the choices do not comport with the moral or ethical values of others.

Thus, libertarians don’t say to people, “You should be free to do what you want with your own money, but if you don’t donate some of it to the poor or use some of it to help your elderly or aging parents, you are a bad, uncaring, self-centered, selfish person.” Instead, libertarians simply say to people, “You should be free to decide for yourself what to do with your own money and the state cannot legitimately force you to be a good, caring, compassionate person. What you do with your money is your business.”

What about people who exercise their freedom in such a way as to treat others in a disrespectful, degrading, or humiliating manner? Discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, or sex comes to mind.

Again, when it comes to libertarianism, freedom entails the right to make choices that others might find despicable, insulting, degrading, or nasty. If people are not free to engage in despicable or nasty conduct that is entirely peaceful in nature, then they cannot truly be considered free.

Consider the Internet, where people post all sorts of things that reflect deep racial, religious, and sex-based bigotry. There are few people, including statists, who would want to make such conduct illegal. They embrace Voltaire’s principle: I find what you are saying despicable, but I will defend your right to say it.

That’s the principle that libertarians apply across the board for all peaceful conduct, not just what people say or write.

Does what a person says, writes, or does with respect to racial, religious, or sex-based bigotry compel a libertarian to condemn such a person or to condemn his actions? Of course not! Libertarianism, again, is based on the notion that people should be free to make whatever choices they want in their lives, so long as their conduct is peaceful. It is not a philosophy that is based on judging people on their mindsets or judging the morality of their actions.

That’s because libertarianism, or individualism, is based on the principle that Thomas Jefferson enunciated in the Declaration of Independence: that every individual has been endowed with the natural, God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and that those are rights which no one, and certainly no government, can legitimately interfere with or infringe upon.

Libertarianism is grounded not in a moral or ethical duty to treat others kindly, courteously, respectfully, or in accordance with the Golden Rule or even to treat one’s self in a responsible, loving manner. It is instead grounded in liberty — the right of people to make such choices for themselves, one way or the other, so long as their conduct is peaceful.

Freedom necessarily involves the right to grow, mature, and develop. That growth process is best accomplished through the widest ambit of freedom of choice when it comes to peaceful behavior, including all the choices that people in society consider to be wrongheaded. People can learn to grow, mature, and develop themselves in positive ways even when others are viewing them or treating them in negative ways. That’s what self-esteem is all about — the psychological mindset that enables a person to be indifferent to how others are viewing him or treating him.

Does this mean that libertarians are precluded from making their own personal value judgments on how a person should live his life? Of course not! It just means that when they do make such value judgments, they are not doing so under the philosophy of libertarianism but rather as Christians, people who believe in the Golden Rule, or people who live according to some other moral or ethical code.

In a libertarian society, one can easily imagine an Anti-Discrimination League being formed, whose mission would be to teach people why bigotry is morally wrong and even to expose and boycott commercial establishments that discriminate against others on the basis of race, color, creed, or sex. In other words, the league would be discriminating against discriminators. One can easily imagine libertarians who are concerned about bigotry in society joining such a league.

One can easily imagine a Temperance League forming in a free society. Its mission would be to preach the evils of booze and other drugs, just as some Americans did during the early 19th century. Seeing how alcoholism and drug addiction have degraded and ruined so many individuals, there might well be many libertarians joining the Temperance League.

There might be the Anti-Adultery League for those people concerned about the destructive effect that adultery has on individuals and on family life.

There almost certainly would be the Anti-Prostitution League, given that under libertarian principles, prostitution, as a purely consensual act, would no longer be a criminal offense.

I would think that there would be an Anti-Gambling League, which would show people the deleterious effect that a gambling addiction has on an individual and his family.

There might also be an Anti-Socialist League to counteract the efforts of the statists in society to return America to a statist system. One would expect to find lots of libertarians in this league, given how destructive socialism is to liberty, individualism, and prosperity.

There might even be an Anti-Buttinski League, composed of people who advocate that people stop butting into other people’s lives and just mind their own business.

As a matter of fact, these types of voluntary organizations were popping up all over the United States in the nineteenth century, before the advent of the modern-day welfare-state and regulatory state.

There is nothing within the libertarian philosophy that would compel membership in any of these leagues or, for that matter, that compels people to make value judgments on the peaceful choices that people are making in society. If libertarians declined to join such leagues or if they fail to praise or condemn the particular choices that people are making, they would not be violating the principles or philosophy of libertarianism.

That’s because libertarianism and individualism are based simply on the principle that each person should be free to pursue happiness in his own way, even when the choices are being made are harmful, insulting, degrading, destructive, or irresponsible — so long as the person’s conduct is peaceful.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.