June 19th, 2014

Libertarianism Does Not Mean “Live and Let Live”

Critics of libertarianism—and there are many—object to the supposed “selfishness” they believe is at the core of the political philosophy. It is common, in reviewing their complaints, to see libertarianism referred to as “live and let live mentality” or, synonymously, a laissez-faire approach. I intend to show that this characterization is misguided; libertarianism does not mean, and should not be interpreted as, a blanket “live and let live” attitude towards the actions and beliefs of others.

It is true that an anti-authoritarian undercurrent pervades libertarianism. This is an inevitable counter-cultural response to the rise of the authoritarian state. It is therefore not surprising that those who generally sympathize with or support the state’s presumption and actual exercise of authority would object to those who dissent. If government, as Tom Paine said, “even in its best state is but a necessary evil [and] in its worst state an intolerable one,” then it is generally evil—and evil should be opposed.

Libertarians see the injustice in the system and therefore want to distance themselves from it. This is basic human nature; where danger exists, a rational individual desires to keep a safe distance. Because the state claims absolute authority, and because absolute power corrupts absolutely, as a general rule libertarianism stands at odds with the status quo. But does this equate to an across-the-board laissez-faire lifestyle?

The reason why so many believe this to be true is because society is often conflated with government, and therefore opposition to a government action is construed by many to indicate opposition to the action itself. Libertarians, however, separate society from government, believing that voluntary actions and individual rights predate and therefore precede the state. As with most such issues, Frédéric Bastiat hit the nail on the head:

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

If a person is unable to divorce these two things in their mind, then it is expected that they will see libertarians as selfish isolationists who want to do whatever they want, and don’t care what anybody around them does. But this is simply not the case; libertarianism concerns itself only with the political realm and makes no commentary on issues that are purely societal, moral, or religious in nature. As Murray Rothbard explained:

The fact is that libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral, or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory, that is, the important subset of moral theory that deals with the proper role of violence in social life. Political theory deals with what is proper or improper for government to do, and government is distinguished from every other group in society as being the institution of organized violence. Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should be free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another. What a person does with his or her life is vital and important, but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism.

Herein lies the answer to the initial objection. Libertarians are outspoken opponents of the state’s use of violence—a position that is becoming increasingly popular as that violence is aggressively implemented, and fortunately, widely broadcast through social media. But this opposition, as Bastiat noted, should not be seen as general opposition to the underlying actions. Opposition to government education says nothing of whether religious private schools are better than secular ones, or whether homeschooling is optimal over unschooling. Opposition to free medical care for poor people is not synonymous with a desire for poor people to die from neglect. Opposition to government-owned recreation centers does not mean that libertarians hate swimming pools. And on and on.

The “live and let live” characterization chiefly comes into play on matters of self-harm, or, more generally, individual actions that do not immediately violate another person’s rights, but may in the aggregate, or over the long term, affect others in a variety of ways. This position is well summarized by one commentator as follows:

What libertarians miss is the responsibility we all must share  for the vigour or weakness of this middle layer, about which they simply have nothing to say, except “don’t harm me.” In other words, they have nothing to say about the many activities that, beyond their destructive effect on mere individuals, may as clearly be destructive of civil society itself, of our traditions, customs, community standards, social affections, and the traditional decencies of our commonly-held way of life. Indeed, if they do speak of such things it is usually to protest that these, too, are forms of moral oppression.

This writer is not correct. Libertarians do not all “miss” this responsibility—though, like conservatives and liberals and all the rest, there are plenty who do abdicate their responsibility. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that personally fulfilling a moral duty to help others is not the same thing as casting a vote to tax others to pay for government agents to help others on your behalf.) Libertarians do not have “nothing to say” about activities that harm an individual. Many of them have plenty to say—but the context in which the debate is framed, e.g. should the government punish this action or not, confines the libertarian discussion only to terms of state power. If it is accepted that the government should be involved, then the libertarian’s position will be one of objection.

But if the debate is open to alternative viewpoints, e.g. the government should not concern itself with this action, then the libertarian may, depending on his personal views, have a variety of things to say about it. Personally, I believe drugs are harmful. I believe abortion is awful. I believe pornography is destructive. I believe people should eat healthy. I believe consuming large amounts of entertainment is mind-numbing. I believe that not regularly reading books is a bad idea.

I, like many libertarians, have many, many things to say about nearly every aspect of life. But when asked what the libertarian viewpoint is on X, libertarians narrow their consideration only to the political realm, for libertarianism itself has no position otherwise. In this context, the libertarian line of thinking is, simply, should I condone the use of violence against an individual who does X? The answer, most often, is an extremely easy one—and one that is unsatisfactory to the authoritarians who prefer state coercion to enforce perceived societal ideals.

Libertarianism is the moral political philosophy, for it rejects violence as a means to these ends, and instead relies on persuasion and voluntary action to encourage the ideals that an individual has and desires others to also have. Libertarians, though we are generally united on political matters, are an extremely diverse group of people whose religious and societal opinions run the gamut. We would be content to have fierce debate about these ideas outside the political realm, but to the extent that the state presumes authority to enforce a single standard, we will dutifully line up in objection.

This is not so much “live and let live” as it is “don’t tase me, bro!

11 Responses to “Libertarianism Does Not Mean “Live and Let Live””

  1. terry
    June 19, 2014 at 5:05 pm #

    The attempt to isolate the political from the social is intellectual snake oil because our lives are not so isolated. Now if people all lived in disjoint places and were thus isolated from others than I could easily agree but what one person does has an effect on others and thus is why governments are formed. It is intellectual laziness to postulate such isolation instead of realizing that it it’s all on a gradient. The admission of this is implied when the author says that there are in fact areas suitable for a government to engage in violence regarding. So, at one end of the gradient there is a motion something like this: because your obesity is linked to many diseases and all of society pays for it, society has a right to modify your behavior. We have already done this with tobacco taxes etc. Libertarians are at the other end of the gradient but the motion that the political can be disenfranchised from the social is silly.

  2. Anne
    June 19, 2014 at 5:43 pm #

    In a libertarian society, Terry, “all of society” would not pay for the costs associated with someone’s obesity. The person would need to cover those costs themselves, or they would look to the charity of their families or NPOs. Likewise, “tobacco taxes, etc” would not exist.

  3. Jack
    June 19, 2014 at 5:57 pm #

    The author of this article makes many good points. One of the aspects of Libertarianism that drew me in is that most of my fellow Ls are of high moral character and among the most responsible folks I have met. The simple recognition that people will do what is right and just most of the time, without a violent government enforcer, is an epiphany that allowed me to find my political home.
    When I see people write or talk about how we need central government to “save” us from ourselves I am frustrated. Clearly there are numerous and obvious solutions to each and every problem a voluntary society might encounter.
    Of course statists would disagree without considering the possibility. Freedom is scary, but it need not be.

  4. James
    June 19, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    Lol at terry, what an objection. Your paternalistic ideals have thwarted libertarians everywhere. What could we do without socialized healthcare?! Oh wait, buy your own. That was easy.

  5. Greg
    June 19, 2014 at 7:40 pm #

    Way to enforce the argument, Terry

  6. Thomas Mrak
    June 19, 2014 at 10:49 pm #

    People do not want freedom. With freedom comes responsibility for your thoughts and action. Neither is easy. You can’t blame someone else when something doesn’t work, even if it wasn’t directly your fault.

    This fear and sense of entitlement is the main reason people are able to real over others so easily and why the divide between the richest and the poorest grows larger.

    Corrupt government and Crony Capitalism are only the symptoms of a people who have given up Liberty for false security and comfort.

    The USSR and Nazi Germany fell to similar mindset, and the fear for myself and others is that America itself, once the beacon of hope in a Sea of Nanny Statism, will collapse under the weight of decades of “mine” at the expense of the Rights of others.

  7. Eric C
    June 20, 2014 at 10:45 am #

    Please read (or re-read) the article, terry.

  8. Clumpy
    June 24, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

    Ideally, yes, Connor describes a form of libertarianism which is inherently no more or less concerned with social problems, inequality of opportunity, and poverty than any other population, but which merely opposes governmental action to address those problems. But in practice, we’re all aware, presiding “libertarian” voices are so often co-opted by the mainstream American Right, and this infiltration is so complete so as to make libertarian political figures often fairly indistinguishable from the far-Right figures on the Tea Party, who generally oppose only those aspects of government which confer minor relative cost to them (personal tax rates), while looking the other way on pork spending, militarism and hegemony, civil rights and liberties, and any nanny state intrusions which don’t involve nutrition.

    I know libertarians who are some of the most socially-conscious people I know, and I maintain an idealized version of the movement in my head as something which allows for conscience and the elevation of spontaneous human order over more coercive systems. At the same time, the movement also attracts an absolutely disproportionate share of hardcore racists, conspiracy kooks, people who think they understood economics because they can interpret a supply-and-demand graph, straight-up big government Republicans in sheep’s clothing, and people who believe that any mention of social problems is by definition a diversionary tactic concocted by minority whiners without the skills and motivation to be born into the middle class like they were. It’s silly for more reasoned and socially conscious libertarians as a whole to ignore the overwhelming input of these groups and not to attempt to improve the movement from within, and the nuts, bigots, and barely-restrained maniacs with unwarranted victim complexes a half-mile wide keep libertarianism from finding a substantial audience outside the usual stereotypical twentysomething middle-class white males. It isn’t just people outside libertarianism who confuse government not being ideal to address something with that thing not being worth thinking about.

  9. Agressless
    June 25, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    Clumpy, you are correct and your comment proves it. It also illustrates the point that we must be diligent about identifying these people and call them out. But you cannot help it when a bad or wrongheaded person supports your ideas. It doesn’t mean that your ideas are wrong. Mark Chapman’s fantasy about Jodie Foster did not reflect on Jodie Foster. David Duke’s supporting Ron Paul does not reflect on Ron Paul’s politics.

  10. Renee Haag
    June 27, 2014 at 7:42 pm #

    I quote F. Bastiat, from the presented article: “Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.” It is unfortunate that this quote was included by Connor Boyack. Bastiat’s premises are ridiculous (in that particular paragraph), and not worthy of consideration. He promulgates inherently false connections between socialist philosophy and his own misconstrued ideas regarding socialism. He does not even attempt to validate his outrageous proclamation that socialists—if opposed to one type of construct—are therefore opposed to all related constructs.

  11. Brenna Rogers
    October 15, 2014 at 11:23 pm #

    Thank you for this informative article.
    Lord of the Flies is a book that would have you believe the world functions through violence- that government structure is the only thing that holds us back from man’s nature. The gaggle of young boys unacquainted with their own moral compasses are governed by the rules imposed on them by a society- those rules that are there to protect them. But left to stand alone without parental guidance, they quickly crumble into animals only looking out for their own interests. A very bleak idea indeed.
    I believe that government structure can, in the process of trying to protect you, make you blind from exactly what you are being protected from, which seems to me just as dangerous as the idea proposed in this novel.

    The ideas brought forth by libertarian are attractive to me, because they suggest that people CAN choose reason over savagery without controlling governments, which is the exact opposite of the idea in Lord of the Flies. I’d rather believe people can choose to be self-aware and make correct decisions without threat of violence, but maybe I’m just in la-la land.

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