A friend asked me to define, explain, or defend libertarianism—I don’t recall which—and the following is what I wrote in response. My friend is a self-described socialist, but I suspect there is a libertarian inside him, yearning to be free.
1. Libertarianism, or classical liberalism, has been defended from the perspective of various fundamental ethical theories, e.g., utilitarianism, ethical egoism, social contract theory, Kantianism, etc. As you know from the Material Image my view is that morality has no ultimately objective ground, but is projected upon the social world by human beings who are adapted for social life. Ethical theory does not map a domain independent of human beings, but seeks to systematize our inchoate and perhaps somewhat incoherent innate moral sentiments, concepts, and judgments. Moral theory can never be definitive. There is no hope of a proof of the one best ethical theory, if for no other reason than that the boundaries between morality and other things, such as religion, purity codes, and etiquette are in the nature of things unclear.
Two things I take to be characteristic of morality. One is that moral reasons approach being decisive. If you have a moral reason to do something then, all things considered, that is probably what you have best reasons to do, what you ought to do. But I see no reason to conclude that this is necessarily or always the case. (I take it that only an untenable divine command theory of morality has that implication.) On full analysis moral reasons could be overridden by other concerns. Second, I take it that morality is essentially a matter of interpersonal relations, constraints on how we interact with other human beings (and with relevantly similar creatures.) Broader practical questions such as what sort of person do I have best reasons to try to be, what sort of life is most worth living, or what kind of society is best, on my view fall outside the purview of morality. No doubt, though, there are connections. The ethical theory on offer here, applied to politics, is a theory of the moral constraints on government.
My view, from which my libertarianism derives, is that the best way to articulate and systematize our evolved morality, the way to most effectively achieve a reflective equilibrium of theory and intuition, is to work out the implications of a fundamental principle of moral equality: no one by status or nature has the authority to do things to other persons without having the same done to him in response. This is just one possible route to a libertarian conclusion. However, it has what I regard as the virtue of building the political theory upon a minimalist moral foundation.
We have no right to do, with impunity, things to other persons that they prefer not to have done to them. We are subject to having the same kind of thing done to him in return. For example, people do not like being insulted and this is a good reason not to insult them, but if someone does insult someone then the person he has insulted may insult him in return. If we are competitors in the marketplace you may try to produce better and cheaper products than I can and thus put me out of business, but you cannot reasonably expect me not to try to do the same to you. If I refuse to cooperate with you, share with you, or help you, you may in return refuse to cooperate, share, or help. And so on: the natural moral equality of human beings calls for a regime of reciprocity: whatever you do to others, accept that you have no rational objection when they fail to grant you special privilege and respond in kind. Applied to politics the implication is that no one has the right to initiate violence, but that those who do are subject to violence in return.
2. No society has ever fully realized government in accord with this moral principle. But those of us with libertarian, classical liberal, convictions have a reasonable loyalty to the United States Constitution. It of course falls short of the libertarian ideal, but it is the best approximation that has been put into practice. Thus in American politics the libertarian is in significant ways a conservative, advocating for the Constitution against the relentless statist project of undermining it. Libertarianism places what may be unrealistically rigorous burdens of personal responsibility on individuals with respect to taking care of themselves and of one another, and to being the nonviolent enforcers of the moral law. Thus it is an idealization which grudgingly, but on occasion necessarily, compromises with morally bad behavior.
3. Legitimate government governs only with the consent of the governed. Here this means that a government has no moral authority to do things that individuals would not have on their own, in the absence of any government in a hypothetical state of nature. We have good reasons to avoid the state of nature and to delegate our moral authority to respond with violence to those who initiate violence to professionals, i.e., to public servants who act as our agents. We thus avoid what Locke called the “inconveniences” of the state of nature, i.e., the moral risk of being judges in our own cases. Libertarianism regards government officials as literally servants, not as rulers. It regards us as equal citizens, not subjects.
4. All government action, explicitly or implicitly presupposes the threat of physical violence. There is no government without law and no law without the threat of forcibly imposed punishment. Therefore the question of the moral limits of state power is the question of the moral limits on the use of violence. It is never morally permissible to initiate the use of such force; it is permissible only in response to its initiation. The principle of moral equality implies that no one has the right to introduce violent coercion as a means to influence the behavior of other persons and that whoever does is properly subject to the same in response. Other forms of behavior, however morally deplorable, do not involve the initiation of violent coercion into human relations and thus are not the proper concern of government.
5. The theory construes the morally permitted reciprocity categorically: coercion in response to coercion, failure to help for failure to help, insult for insult, violence only in response to violence, and so on. Why this, rather than calculating the consequences, the amount of harm done? We know, after all, that harm inflicted nonviolently can be greater than harm due to violence. Marvin loves Sally and proposes marriage but he is rejected. This breaks his heart, causing months of sadness and depression. Fred, Sally’s fiancé, learns of Marvin’s proposal and punches him in the nose. In Marvin’s reasonable estimation the violence done him by Fred is nowhere near as bad as the suffering Sally inflicted on him by her refusal. Nonetheless, it is Fred, not Sally, who is properly subject to violent retaliation. Fred, not Sally, ought to be subject to legal sanctions despite her having done the greater harm. Or: businessman Jones, a fierce competitor, puts businessman Smith out of business, offering the market better and cheaper products than Smith’s. This drives Smith to bankruptcy and personal ruin. On the present account, whatever sanctions against Jones are permissible, they include nothing violent; government has no legitimate interest in the matter. Suppose instead that one night Jones breaks into the office of Smith’s firm and steals $100. This is far less harmful than the destructive competition in which he engaged, but it alone warrants a violent response, the involvement of the state.
No formal constraint prevents articulating our innate morality by a weighing of harms done, rather than in categorical terms. The warrant for the categorical scheme is that it is the only one that sustains a framework that can keep the peace and make civil society possible. A world in which violent responses to nonviolently inflicted harms are permitted is an incipient state of nature, where perceived harms readily lead to the initiation of violence, which inspires violence in return, and so on, to escalating cycles of retaliation and war without end. The categorical, in contrast to the consequential, conception of moral equality and reciprocity has the virtue of being a natural, but consciously contrived, extension of the blind operation of natural selection that made peaceable social life, and with it human flourishing, possible. (The reciprocity equality requires is more fine-grained than my examples make explicit: Marvin has no right to kill Fred for punching him in the nose, and so on.)
6. It’s worth noting that among the Left’s prolific evasions and obfuscations is the blurring of the distinction between coercion, understood as violent, and the various other ways in which someone can be “forced” to do something. For example, when an individual, making the best deal he can, accepts a job at low wages and with bad working conditions, he can reasonably report that he was forced by circumstances to accept a less than ideal position, even though it is at the same time his best option. From this those on the Left infer that the employer has forced the individual into the unfavorable situation, and that this in turn justifies using force against him – but now violent coercion in the form of law – to ensure that he provides a higher wage and better working conditions (or, to the prospective employee’s detriment, not to employ him at all.) Even if the prospective employer has taken unfair advantage of him, he has done no violence to the person to whom he offered a lousy job and thus on the current theory is not properly subject to violence for what he is done. He may well be in the wrong, callous and greedy. Perhaps he could easily pay better wages and provide better working conditions. If so he may well be properly subject to any number of nonviolent social sanctions, e.g., boycotts of his products or services, denunciations in the public square, individuals refusing to associate with him, etc. Or [as the friend for whom I wrote this suggests] the exploited workers can form a union and threaten to walk out. The imposition of such sanctions is facilitated by the openness of the liberal society, where information flows freely and helps police antisocial human behavior. (This contrasts with illiberal polities where the scope of government power is expansive and it is worth the rich employer’s money to corrupt the state to protect himself.)
The violence that constitutes the force of law has an efficacy that nonviolent sanctions of bad behavior does not. It is always a possibility that nonviolent social sanctions are not adequate to preventing it. However, it would be a mistake to suppose that the fact that some sanction is necessary to prevent some wrongdoing implies that it is morally permissible. There is no guarantee that there are always morally permissible means to prevent moral wrongdoing. However, libertarians typically believe that non-libertarians mistakenly discount the efficacy of private sanctions in influencing human behavior, especially when government has not broken out of its moral constraints.
7. Libertarianism is diffident toward democracy: There are situations where a group of persons must reach a collective decision about something, and sometimes a majority vote is the best way to do so. However, democratic procedures make nothing morally permissible which would not otherwise be morally permissible. If there are 10 people in a population and nine of them decide to initiate violence against the tenth the fact that this is the majority inclination does not make it right for them to do so. Overall, what makes a government legitimate is whether it is constrained by moral principle, doing nothing other than what individuals would have a right to do on their own, i.e., initiating violence only in response to violence, not its being elected by a majority of those it governs. Better a libertarian hereditary monarch than a democratic government that violates human rights. Better the highly constrained democracy of a constitutional republic, like the United States, than a pure democracy.
8. Liberalism (libertarianism) traditionally regards theft and fraud as forms of coercion properly subject to the force of law, despite the fact that they do not involve overt violence or any explicit threat thereof. If, e.g., a cybercriminal sends someone an email, deceiving him into sending him money for some fictive purpose, unlike the mugger who by threat of violence coerces his victim into handing over the money, he neither does, nor threatens, violence. However, he does something to his victims that, were they aware of it, he could not have done without the threat of violence, a threat to which his victim would have been justified in responding in kind.
The liberal state is limited to protecting the rights of its citizens not to be subject to initiated violence. Nothing beyond this is legitimate. It is not the proper role of government to see to the general well-being of its citizens. They, individually or collectively, can see to their own well-being and safety. The use of violence in response to violence is the unique right we reasonably employ others to enforce because doing so is necessary to exit the state of nature.
9. In contrast to ancient and medieval conceptions of the state, in which good and wise rulers discern the good for human beings and use the force of law to regiment human behavior in accord with it, liberalism conceives the state as properly neutral among competing conceptions of the good and thus indifferent to each individual’s pursuit of the good as he conceives it, so long as in doing so he avoids violating the rights of others. (Total neutrality is not a possibility: if someone’s conception of the good life involves violating others’ rights, then it is his bad luck that his government must interfere in his pursuit of it.)
These rights are, of course, construed negatively. An individual has, e.g., a right to life, but this is a negative right not to be killed by other persons (unless he unjustifiably kills or threatens to kill); it is not a positive right to be supplied with whatever he needs to be alive. If a government recognizes a variety of positive rights, it is a near certainty that it will be impossible to satisfy all of them, and that it will be in the position of adjudicating among competing claims, so that whether one’s (so-called) right is honored depends on the whim of the rulers. If there is a positive right to life, and insufficient resources to keep two citizens alive, government must decide who lives and who dies. Positive rights, in contrast to negative rights, do not constrain the actions of the state. It is possible simultaneously to respect, i.e., not violate, any number of negative rights. The state respects any number of citizens’ negative right not to be unjustly killed simply by not unjustly killing them.
Because the state’s proper function is to protect citizens from having their rights violated by others, no paternalistic legislation is justifiable. Government is one’s employee, not one’s parent, tutor, or custodian. If someone’s conception of the good life involves activities likely to cause self-harm, this is of no concern to his government, although it may well be a proper concern of his fellow citizens who devise morally permissible means to dissuade him. Similarly, as in the case of the stingy employer above, government has no proper concern with forcing individuals to help those in need, but those who fail to may well be subject to nonviolent social sanctions.
10. Finally, we can note that the theory is a form of pacifism. It is always morally wrong to initiate violence. This contrasts with an absolute version of pacifism which proscribes any resort to violence, even to defend the innocent against those who initiate violence. And it contrasts with the incoherent doctrine commonly known as pacifism, i.e., the view that violence against foreigners in war is wrong, but that its use domestically, as in legislating on behalf of favored welfare projects, or to improve society on some criterion, is permissible or even obligatory.