Yes, I said illogical. Libertarians pride themselves on being logical, and they can sometimes come off as being a bit snobbish and patronizing. (That is obviously an extremely subjective judgment, but every time I read an article or listen to Rand Paul, I get the feeling I’m being talked down to.) And, I suppose, within the limits of their ideology, often they are logical.
Because of this sense of certainty, they often give off and the outwardly appearance of high logic and reason, Libertarianism can be very subjective. Briefly, this is what sucks people in: Libertarians have an unobjectionable belief in and adherence to freedom. Who can argue with freedom? I won’t. I love being freedom to write these words. I love it that you can disagree with me, and we can still be friends (although, I’ll let you know right now; I’m right and you’re wrong.) Libertarianism takes this belief in freedom and makes it the central assumption of their philosophy.
Libertarians believe in individual freedom, individual rights to private property and their right to do as they wish with their property, the individual rights to believe what they want, the individual right to trade what they have freely. Libertarians tend to be big believers in laissez-faire capitalism and tiny government. They also tend to be against government social programs financed by taxes because that causes those with money (rich people) to be forced to surrender their money to support those without money (poor people). For Libertarians, it is not helping others that is at issue here, it’s being forced to do so, being forced to surrender your money through taxes to give to people you may not wish to help. Doing this is a limit on individual freedom. Which is true, it is.
As far as it goes, within the limits of the philosophy, Libertarianism is logical. And that is a big part of its appeal and why many people get drawn to it. It’s such an appealing argument.
It is also a very limited argument with a big problem. The big problem goes back to its central assumption of the right to have freedom. Yes, everyone should have freedom, but the problem is in making that your only assumption. In fact, to assume freedom is the only fundamental assumption you need to make, is itself a big assumption. I will argue it is the wrong assumption. Freedom matters, but so does, say, security. And so does, importantly, having a slice of the economic pie. Being free is great, but having food, shelter, some fun stuff like a T.V. and the freedom from living in fear of gangs and bullies is also great.
I wish life was so neat and tidy that if we only focused on providing maximum personal freedom for everyone, then everything else would fall into place in the best possible way. But life does not work that way. In fact, a world with maximum freedom, with little or no government, would be a world of chaos, gangs, warlords, murder, rape, poverty, hunger, and many other bad things.
Individual freedom is important, but so is a well-ordered society. We are, it is true, individuals, but we are also, it is equally true, a society. Both are important. And this is where Libertarians become illogical. They see one side of the coin and completely ignore the other side. They see rightly as individuals we need the freedom to express our individualities, but they do not see or just ignore we are also an interdependent society. We depend on each other.
This great truth is as frustrating as Libertarianism (a great untruth) is seductive. Libertarianism gives an answer everyone wants and that is easy to understand. It appeals, to be blunt, to our selfishness (which the great Libertarian Ayn Rand was very proud of). But the real truth–that we must balance both the individual and the social–is frustrating because doing so requires tradeoffs. Nobody likes to make tradeoffs, but doing so is necessary for having both freedoms and a well-ordered society.
Luckily, the tradeoffs are not one to one tradeoffs. For example, you cannot exercise your free speech just anywhere you want to, but there are always places where you can have your say. I cannot walk into any random church, push the preacher aside and start reading this post. But I can post it for anyone to read on my website. I can practice, or not, almost any religious belief I wish, but I cannot harm or sacrifice anyone in the process. There are limits to my freedoms, but I still have lots of freedom.
Perhaps the bigger political issues are social programs. Should some rich person have to pay for a poor man’s lunch? The emphasis should be placed on the “have to.” In having to do this, the rich man is required to give up some of his freedom to do as he pleases with what he has earned. This is, in truth, a limit on that person’s freedom. But that rich man, even if he is a rag to riches story, did not become rich by only his own efforts. No one does. To become rich requires the support of a whole society. The rich man is interdependent on the society he lives in. He requires society, not only for his customers, but also for his security and for his resources. The rich man deserves a profit and rewards for creating a successful business. He deserves acknowledgement from society for creating a business that is providing something others need. But he could not have created his business or his riches without a society, so he should be required to give something back. He needs a well ordered society just as much as the rest of us.
The question is how much freedom must we give up, and how much should the rich be required to give back to the society making those riches possible. There is no simple rule to decide this, and that is why the truth is frustrating.
I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs. -Frederick Douglass, Former slave, abolitionist, editor, and orator (1817-1895)