Libertarianism and Social Interaction

Via David Henderson, I came upon this essay by John Edward Terrell in the New York Times criticizing libertarians and Tea Party types for favoring individualism.  What a morass of confusion!

To begin with, Terrell conflates (1) the appropriateness of respecting individual rights, (2) the moral question, how we should act, and (3) the psychological question, how we are likely to act.  He seems to believe that libertarians believe that we should have absolute individual rights, that it is moral to be selfish, and that we are likely to be so.

These are old mistakes, but it is sad how often libertarianism is rejected for these mistaken reasons.

1. First, it is true that libertarians believe that people should have individual rights, but it is not because our actions have no effect on other people. Libertarians recognize that we are interconnected and argue that our mode of interaction should not be through coercion but through voluntary associations.  Social interactions work better through voluntary associations.

Goods and services are better provided through a competitive market than through monopoly government provision.  Similarly, in a free society, as de Tocqueville saw, people form voluntary associations to serve community ends and these associations generally work better than government does through coercion.    

Even if Terrell disagrees about whether private or government organization works better, the point is that he misunderstands the other side’s argument.

2. Nor do libertarians believe that humans should always be selfish. There are a range of views, but most libertarians believe that it is morally valuable to contribute resources and services to other people. Charitable organizations are one of those Tocquevillian voluntary associations.  Many libertarians note that large government welfare states crowd out charitable behavior – look at Europe.  Thus, if one wants other regarding people, one should be against a welfare state.

3. Finally, forcing other people to contribute to our moral goals is hardly the stuff of charity. Giving one’s own time and money is altruistic. Forcing others to give to our goals – whether it turns out to be justified or not – is not charitable.  It is the exercise of power.