I’m currently considering rejoining Libertarianism. Or rather, my attorneys are in negotiations with the gods of Libertarianism to determine the terms and conditions of my potential adherence to that ideology. As an apostate, I’m under a certain bit of suspicion, but Libertarianism still seems relatively friendly, especially since it concerns itself entirely with what I do rather than what I think. “Believe what you will; only obey” is not exactly my favorite rallying cry, but during uncertain times, it’s one I can get behind.
What the libertarian gods would consider ideal is to recruit me as a principled libertarian, one whose commitment to libertarianism is grounded not in mere self-interest but in higher feelings like compassionate humanitarianism or belief in the absolute and eternal truth of libertarianism. You see, self-interest is a finicky thing, especially since short-run self-interest often conflicts with libertarianism. This fact is what explains the relative weakness of libertarianism in politics and why so many people choose to be statists—people who’ve traded their souls for filthy lucre—rather than libertarians.
Consider the following scenario: a man has worked as a plumber for much of his life and is pretty good at his job. He makes a decent living, enough to support himself and his family. Additionally, he lives and works under a system of rules established by a government, one of those rules being a restriction on who can come into the country and settle there. This government is ostensibly democratic, allowing its subjects to express their opinions on matters of public concern and taking those opinions into account when formulating plans of action, but while our plumber friend regularly attends town hall meetings, has never taken a serious interest in politics.
Until, that is, a movement springs up to loosen immigration restrictions. Proponents claim that plumbing repair costs too much on account of a small domestic supply of plumbers, while there are numerous would-be plumbers outside the country who are forbidden to immigrate. Lowering the cost of plumbing, they say, will improve everyone’s standard of living by freeing up resources currently tied up in the plumbing sector. Advocates produce detailed forecasts of economic conditions proving their case.
Our plumber friend takes note of this proposal since it affects him personally. He examines the forecasts and finds that not only will his income shrink on account of falling prices for his services, but the general increase in living standards will not make up for this loss. On top of this, his daughter has recently come down with a serious illness, and his wife is already working in order to cover her medical costs. Even assuming generous family and friends, the plumber calculates that he will not be able to keep his house; he will have to move out of his neighborhood to one with more crime, fewer amenities, and worse schools for his children. In short, the plumber and his family will suffer greatly if the new immigration proposal is carried out.
The prayer of the principled Libertarian, “The MARKET giveth, and the MARKET taketh away; blessed be the name of the MARKET,” is a little hard to swallow.
Note that what is at issue is not the effects of the immigration proposal, whether it really would improve people’s lives in general or not, nor whether the plumber’s calculations are correct. What is at issue is what our friend does at the next town hall meeting when the proposal is brought up for discussion: does he keep quiet or stand and raise objection? Libertarianism commands the former; his dedication to his family commands the latter; which loyalty commands precedence?
This conflict is not merely between deontology and consequentialism; Libertarianism has arguments in both categories. If one takes a consequentialist approach, we have one moral code which demands a man do everything he reasonably can to look after his family and one which expects him to put the good of everyone except his family first. Deontologically, libertarianism demands a stronger loyalty from a man than that which he gives his family. The gods of libertarianism are jealous gods.
It’s an easy thing to say that you’re willing to make sacrifices for the sake of your principles; indeed, your principles don’t amount to much if you aren’t willing to sacrifice for them. It is quite another thing, however, to say that you will sacrifice the good of others for the sake of your principles. Still, when people come into conflict, someone’s pursuit of happiness must be thwarted. When hundreds of young men in the street start eying dozens of women, should we prioritize the good of many or of the few? There is no set of principles that will not require you to sacrifice someone’s good for another’s sake. The question is “Whom are you willing to sacrifice?”
Hold up. I just got a message from my attorneys. They want me to stop talking about “Who does what to whom.” Apparently the libertarian gods are disturbed by this way of speaking, so in order for negotiations to proceed, I need to make some adjustments. Libertarianism only accepts as Whos and Whoms “someone” and “someone else.” We cannot allow our judgment of an action to be influenced by the identity of the acting or acted-upon person. Plural and collective singular nouns are licit only as shorthand descriptions of concrete instances.
So let’s now consider the recent attacks in Germany and elsewhere. Libertarianism condemns these attacks because it condemns all sexual assault. So far so good, but what should be done in response to these attacks? I hope the gods won’t mind if I lapse briefly and ask what the government should do and what private citizens should do.
Private citizens should arm themselves, travel in groups at night, and form mutual-protection organizations. They may also move to gated communities, hire private defense organizations to guard them, and actively exclude from their communities groups prone to criminal activity or whose presence would otherwise be disruptive.
The government, on the other hand, should do the exact opposite. The police are already over-militarized and need to downsize; armed thugs roaming the streets at night is what we want to avoid; and the less the government inserts itself into the lives of its subjects the better. The government absolutely must not build walls around its territory, establish surveillance programs, or put restrictions on immigration. All of these measures might be wise when taken by private individuals, but when the government does them, they become oppressive and tyrannical.
Bzzzt. It’s my attorneys again. The gods of libertarianism are calling off the negotiations. They don’t seem to think I’m taking this matter seriously; something about my tone puts them off. I must protest this injustice: anyone who proclaims that they are diligently plotting to take over the world and leave me alone as long as I follow all of their rules to the letter is worth taking seriously, especially on grave matters of public controversy. Some people just can’t take a joke, I guess.
When the government is unjustly out to get you, libertarianism is quite attractive. But unless you’re an atom, principled libertarianism is not for you. Like all Grand Philosophical Systems, libertarianism will keep you on track so long as you stick to certain paths but lead you astray when you go into territory for which it was not designed. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, cousins, even friends must all cast aside their personal ties whenever their ideology calls. If you must have a god, be sure to choose one which places next after himself family and people.