Unity, writing at Liberal Conspiracy, has written a pretty cool interpretation of the difference between liberals/libertarians and conservatives, mainly in response to the debate sparked by John Elledge’s post there a couple of weeks ago. He’s linked to my own response, for which I’m grateful, and pointed out some angles to the question that I, never having read Edmund Burke, hadn’t considered.
Nevertheless, as usual, there are still some commenters at LC who don’t get it, Will (no. 45) in particular displaying a total want of thoughtfulness. There’s the usual conjunction of libertarians and hippies (though strangely a comparison rather than contrast):
Libertarians are not a bad lot on the whole – much as hippies are fine and dandy until they want you to join their lifestyle and you see it really isn’t for you.
Accusations of self-absorption:
I just see them as a set of people who just want the world to revolve around them and fuck anyone else.
And weird misrepresentation of a libertarian position:
…a Libertarian is a person who would have the mindset of small towns folk who believe in local farmers and purveyors of goods who live locally.
I don’t know many libertarians who have that mindset, I must say, especially since the whole ‘buy local’ view is much more openly held by what we might call green progressives rather than supporters of the free market, which is what most libertarians tend to be. Or maybe I’ve misunderstood, and this is just a drawn-out way of calling libertarians parochial.
Whatever the case, Will is a fool, and a rude one, given that he manages to call Tim Worstall, one of my personal heroes, a fucker and a twat in the space of two sentences. I can only hope that’s an inside joke.
So let’s lay to rest, once and for all, this ‘libertarians want the world to revolve around them and fuck everyone else’ crap.*
Yes – libertarians are self-centred. I’ve said it, it’s true, amen brother. Of course we are concerned with the self. The self is the only entity over which we do have and should have control. A libertarian is not concerned with others, because it is not for us to say what is good for others, or what others should and shouldn’t do. Our comprehension of others is determined by how those others affect the self. A libertarian refrains from affecting others in ways he would not himself want to be affected. A libertarian respects others who hold this same principle, because he knows they too have selves with which they are concerned.
Is that selfish? Yes. Is it wrong? No, because the self is always the first point of reference. First, not only. I’m afraid there is no getting around that, however much others might wish there were. It is impossible to act without reference to the self.
Libertarians, in the main, have no objection to helping others, or directing their concern toward others, as long as it is done voluntarily, in the absence of third-party coercion. Libertarians give to charity, they help homeless people on the street, they advocate policies that they truly believe will be to others’ benefit. But they do not want to do any of those things because someone has forced them to, and they do not want to do it at a cost to the self. Why is that so wrong?
I would even go so far as to suggest that the goal of libertarian action and policy, the ultimate goal, is for the satisfaction of the world’s people to rise. There are as many varieties of ‘satisfaction’ as there are people, so people must be free to pursue their version as they see fit, provided they do not employ coercion or fraud to do so (if they did, of course, net satisfaction would not increase).
What libertarians object to, as Will doesn’t seem to understand, is that currently we have a system of what I might call, in my less objective moments, third-party slavery. For example:
Person A has resources. Person C does not. In a libertarian world, they would both be free to work out an exchange that is mutually beneficial. Person C might choose to help Person A increase his resources in exchange for some of that increase. Or Person C might choose to trade unrelated labour in exchange for resources. Thus is Person C’s situation improved, and Person A’s situation is improved, and there is a bond of mutual benefit between them.
Now let’s consider what actually happens. Person A has resources. Person C does not. Person B compels person A, under threat of harm or imprisonment, to give him some of those resources, which he then turns over to Person C. Person A does not know Person C, or the particular circumstances of his need. He only knows Person B, who has extorted from him his resources, ostensibly for the good of someone else. Person C does not know Person A, or anything about how those resources were acquired or intended to be used. He only knows Person B, who has given him a handout for which he did not give any benefit in return and for which his only qualification was that he needed it.
And not all of the resources have made it to Person C, because Person B has creamed a bit off the top to recompense him for the labour of extorting and handing out.
Person A does not hate Person C, or look down upon him for lacking resources. Person C does not hate Person A, because he does not even know him.
But it is in the interest of Person B that his two victims should hate each other, lest they realise that he is the one perpetrating the true evil, that of stealing from one and infantilising the other. He wants Person A to believe that Person C is a shiftless layabout, a useless human being whose utter lack of ability should be punished, not rewarded with free resources. He wants Person C to believe that Person A is an exploiter, a monopolist, who would keep all the resources for himself and let everyone else rot.
And somehow, in this world, Person B has achieved this. There are those who hate the feckless, because it is in their name that resources are extorted from the productive. And there are those who hate the productive, because they have to be forced to share their resources with those who have none.
Libertarians? We hate Person B. Call it the state, the welfare system, socialism, whatever – we hate whatever third party is interfering, to the detriment of Persons A and C, in what could otherwise be a peaceful and mutually beneficial exchange. Person B robs us all of our freedom and our dignity by imposing his ‘selfless’ concern for others into a relationship that would be much better conducted by the interested parties themselves.
And this hatred isn’t limited to economic exchanges. We hate anyone who would interfere in any way with mutually beneficial, voluntary relationships between human beings.
That’s what libertarian selfishness is. I think it’s a virtue. There’s nothing to me more abhorrent than the ‘selfless’ man who demands that I injure myself for the sake of someone else and then calls me an asshole when I say I’d rather not. As the Devil’s Kitchen has pointed out today, it’s war. But it’s not Person A against Person C; it’s all of us, together, against Person B.
*This insult usually manifests in outraged cries of ‘Solipsist!’ Libertarians are not solipsists in the (accurate) philosophical sense. We believe that things other than our own minds exist. Quite obviously, in fact, since we believe there are entities outside of the self that would impose their will on us. This view is logically inconsistent with solipsism. QED.