Why I’m a Libertarian

In a previous post I noted that libertarian ideas seem to be frequently misunderstood, that libertarians are sometimes labeled selfish, materialistic, and uncaring. In this post I hope to show that a libertarian worldview can come from a more virtuous principle: humility. Note that the title of this post is not “why you should be a libertarian.” I doubt it will convince anybody that is not already highly sympathetic to libertarian ideas, but I hope it can show that that (at least some) libertarians have good intentions. That I may be wrong, but I’m not evil.

A widely cited joke about Ayn Rand’s famous novel Atlas Shrugged goes something like this (I believe the original source was John Rogers here):

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

It’s a good joke, but I worry that many outside of libertarian circles take its message a bit too seriously. Libertarians live in a fantasy world where everyone shares our ideals and we never think about real issues, about real people. And it is perhaps unfortunate that Rand’s view, one which believes in an objectively correct morality, that aims to tell you that there is a right way to live and she knows it, has been associated so closely with libertarian thought more broadly.

I’m a libertarian because I don’t believe there’s a correct way to live.

Family is the most important part of my life. Others might place a higher weight on different relationships, with their friends, their students, their coworkers. Some may find their strongest bond comes from a higher being, so they let religion or spirituality take precedence over earthly concerns. Another priority could be helping those they don’t know, simply because they are less fortunate or in need of help. Devotion to their jobs, to their hobbies, to the pursuit of knowledge, to any other activity that they find fulfilling – each can also drive a person’s behavior. And of course, pure material pleasures occupy a place on everybody’s scale of value. All of these considerations play a part in deciding the actions that lead to a life worth living.

I’m a libertarian because I don’t want to tell you what’s most important.

A Harvard educated liberal from Massachusetts wants to convince you to support abortion because a woman has a right to her own body. An evangelical Christian from Texas says that killing a fetus is no different than killing a child. Neither can be proven right or wrong. Each wants to impose their values on the other. Drugs are immoral. Alcohol is immoral. Gay marriage is immoral. I disagree and I’ll try to convince anyone that believes otherwise to join my side. But I’ll respect your right to believe what you want as long as you recognize mine.

A person’s moral worth is determined by how much they produce for society. No, it’s determined by what percentage of their wealth they give to charity. Or maybe it’s how much they do for their family. How devout they are in their prayers. Everyone lives by a different code. How comfortable are you in saying that your code is the right one?

I’m a libertarian because you have as much right to your values as I have to mine.

In the 2012 Republican primary debates, the moderators asked Ron Paul if a libertarian society would let a person without insurance die (for the record, he said no). It seems like an easy question – of course we can’t let them die. Let’s ask a harder question. A cancer patient has six months to live. They can extend their life for an additional 5 years, but the procedure costs $5 million in addition to a significant amount of time from doctors who could be working on helping others. They don’t have insurance. Should they be allowed to die? What if they can only extend their life 6 months? 1 day? Where do we draw the line? And who draws it?

Global warming is real. It’s almost certainly caused by humans. It could very well cause catastrophic changes in the future. Our use of fossil fuels could be the source of substantial problems for future generations. But if we stopped using fossil fuels now, we definitely cause substantial problems for the current generation. How can we determine which is worse? How do we weigh the life of an individual against the lives of their descendants?

I’m a libertarian because everything is a tradeoff and I can’t value the costs and benefits.

We all want equality of opportunity. It’s a nice slogan. What does it mean? Some say it means education should be free for everyone – that it’s a basic human right. How much? What kind? Who pays? Some people excel in a standard classroom setup. They love to learn, they can sit down with a book and study. Others can’t. And that’s ok. To think that we can create equality of opportunity by placing everybody in the exact same environment may be pure in its intention, but it’s incredibly dangerous in its execution. We weren’t all created equal and that’s a great thing. Our differences are not something to be squashed out, but embraced.

I’m a libertarian because everybody has different strengths and weaknesses, because everybody has different needs.

Markets always fail. The conditions of perfect competition laid out in a standard economics textbook never hold in reality. Every firm has some monopoly power. Every good causes some externality. Collective action problems, public goods, asymmetric information – all pervasive issues that throw a wrench into the workings of a perfectly competitive economy. Couldn’t a government fix some of these problems? Doesn’t a planner have the ability to take a big picture approach and do what’s best for society instead of what’s best for each individual? It’s possible, but where does the knowledge come from? Where do we set the prices for the monopolist? How high is the optimal tax to prevent the externality? Can we design a mechanism to improve upon the free market outcome? Even in an economic model where everybody has identical preferences and production technologies are fixed the answers are not always clear. In the real world – good luck.

Someone made you king of the world. You want to make it better. So you call in teams of experts, the best from every field. You build supercomputers capable of running an unimaginable number of calculations every second. A coordinated, planned society led by the brightest minds available – how could the chaotic workings of the free market stand any chance? But soon you realize that even the simplest questions – like how much toilet paper to produce – turn out to be nearly impossible to answer. So you give up on your unified plan and try to just fix a few obvious problems. And yet each leak sealed opens up several more – the experts and their fancy computers do their best to predict people’s behavior, but there is simply too much left unknown. Without an overarching plan the ad hoc solutions continue to multiply and the end result is a convoluted, bureaucratic mess.

I’m a libertarian because knowledge is dispersed and I can’t think of a better way of collecting it than through the market process.

Liberty is not magic. It’s not a solution to any of the problems I’ve touched on above. But that’s exactly the point. When the questions facing society are this challenging it would be incredibly arrogant to assume that any one mind or group of minds could divine an appropriate solution. A society of liberty sidesteps these questions entirely. It allows individuals – with their unique perspectives and values, with their knowledge of their own specific time and place – to attempt to find solutions for their own much smaller problems. Most of these attempts fail, but a free market rewards those that work, letting the best rise to the top, creating a better world for all.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe individuals making decisions for themselves results in outcomes that are worse for everybody. Maybe governments are better at weighing the total costs and benefits to society than individuals acting on their own. Maybe a coordinated plan can figure out better answers to the questions facing our society than the spontaneous order of a free market. Maybe. And I’m happy to have those debates. But never say that I haven’t thought about these issues. Never say that I’m not worried about poverty, or the environment, or the thousands of other important problems that affect this world every day. Never question my intentions.

And never say that I’m a libertarian because I don’t care.

I’m a libertarian because I don’t know.


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