Why Libertarianism is Different

recent article of mine concerning the libertarian approach towards rights over land was written in response to the raising of the topic on a discussion forum. A separate, recent thread on the same forum has brought up another interesting discussion concerning the nature of libertarianism itself. I will attempt to address this in full here.

The specific question posed by the original poster of the thread was whether libertarianism amounted to a “step towards collectivism” for the reason that, in a free society, everyone would have to adhere to a small, but nevertheless universal set of common rules (specifically to the non-aggression principle).

Framed in this manner, an affirmative answer to this question would be ridiculous. The fact that people may adhere to the same set of social rules has nothing to do with whether a given society might be described as “collectivist” on the one hand or as “individualistic” on the other. “No one should murder or rape another” is a norm which applies to every individual, but it is pretty obvious that I wouldn’t be goose-stepping towards authoritarianism by pointing it out.

Indeed, once we consider norms such as these, we realise that every social order requires adherence to at least some common rules. Thus, if one was to follow the view set out by the original poster, the only possible order which could not be described as even remotely collectivist is the complete, atomised existence of every individual – i.e. no social order at all. Such absence of any societal anchors would condemn a person either to the life of a hermit or, more likely, to the disintegration of society into the law of the jungle: an orgy of mass thievery in which each individual seeks to wrest whatever he can get from anyone else, with no attempt whatsoever at establishing any kind of long term relations.

Clearly, however, social order has always been the empirically relevant form of human interaction. As such, concepts utilised by social thinkers to categorise the different ways in which humans can relate to each other are likely to refer to distinctions within this overall arch of social relations. They are unlikely to pertain to the much more basic gulf between order and no-order.

This is precisely the case when it comes to the difference between “individualism” and “collectivism”. Properly understood, collectivism refers to a political system in which individuals are forced to adhere to certain, positive values, ostensibly for the benefit of “society” or “the public”, but in practice for the benefit of some individuals/groups at the expense of everyone else. While obedience of these rules may result in something resembling a peaceful order, such rules and values as the regime demands are a net burden to each individual – i.e., the sacrifice of having to adhere to them does not result in something more highly valued in return.

For example, the state may enact a law demanding that every citizen refrains from drinking alcohol on a Sunday. Such an edict may be justified by the need to improve the temperance and piety of “the nation” for the “common good”; but it is clear that the only demonstrated benefits accrue to those specific individuals eager to see a culture of reduced inebriation. If everyone else expected to benefit, they would have refrained from alcohol consumption voluntarily.

In a free (or “individualistic”) society, having to abide by common rules may be an irritation for the individual at a given, particular instance. But in contrast to the stipulations of a collectivist regime, such rules are a net benefit to each individual, because here, the initial cost of having to abide by a rule is very much rewarded. The prosperity of our individual lives from our own perspective is utterly dependent upon social co-operation under the division of labour. However, social co-operation is unable to flourish without our adherence to at least some generally accepted rules, morals and values; if a given set of mores is successful in facilitating this co-operation, then they are, too, a benefit to each of us in turn.

For example, it is a benefit to me as an individual that no one, including myself, should be allowed to steal; for if this norm was disregarded, then social co-operation, the division of labour and capital accumulation would be far less advanced than they presently are. If that was the case, then I, and everyone else, would suffer from a drastically reduced standard of living. But norms that are not legally enforceable are just as important. If I want people to form mutually beneficial relationships with me, and to help me accomplish my goals, it is to my personal benefit that I make outward displays of politeness and kindness, adhering to a basic code of manners. Who, for instance, is going to offer me a job if I am persistently rude and obnoxious?

The only people to whom any such societal rules will prove to be a net burden are criminals and sociopaths. However, even these people – unless they are truly irrational, insane or otherwise blinded by some anti-human “vision” – are likely to exempt only themselves from societal mores. A thief may well want to steal a car, for instance, but the car itself cannot be produced without an extensive division of labour. Such division of labour, in turn, is reliant upon the willingness of the majority of people to conform to social rules. If everyone was thieving, looting and plundering, the entire apparatus of economic production would break down: nobody would have any cars, television sets, or smart phones – there would be nothing much worth stealing at all. Thus, even thieves hoping to profit from others are unlikely to support the blanket, or uniform abolition of rules that facilitate social co-operation.

In any case, however, as I explained recently, it is a mistake to assume that the main benefit of private property rights in a free society is to deter people from committing criminal acts; in fact, those who are motivated in that regard are likely to be so few in number that they will amount to little more than a minor irritation in the social order as a whole. Rather, the real benefit of adhering to such rights is the avoidance and resolution of conflicts between people who want to co-operate (or otherwise maintain peaceful relations) with each other. After all, we cannot engage in any kind of trade or exchange unless we are first agreed on what is yours and what is mine.

In short, simply because everyone has to adhere to the same rules does not mean that the collective is taking primacy over the individual.

That aside, this discussion does raise a wider, interesting point: are we libertarians as guilty as any other set of political philosophers in wanting the whole of humanity to adhere to the same set of common rules? Are we “enforcing” some kind of “vision” or “world-view” which we think is important onto everyone else? Why should people value liberty at all? Freedom has certainly flourished in the West on the basis of Christian ethics and Enlightenment thinking, but can we be so sure that it is suitable for other cultures and traditions?

As we shall see, however, to think in this way is to completely misunderstand how libertarianism differs from other political theories, especially those that argue in favour of a strong state.

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