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Libertarianism Does Not Mean “Live and Let Live”

Critics of libertarianism—and there are many—object to the supposed “selfishness” they believe is at the core of the political philosophy. It is common, in reviewing their complaints, to see libertarianism referred to as “live and live mentality” or, synonymously, a laissez-faire approach. I intend to show that this characterization is misguided; libertarianism does not mean, and should not be interpreted as, a blanket “live and let live” attitude towards the actions and beliefs of others.

It is true that an anti-authoritarian undercurrent pervades libertarianism. This is an inevitable counter-cultural response to the rise of the authoritarian state. It is therefore not surprising that those who generally sympathize with or support the state’s presumption and actual exercise of authority would object to those who dissent. If government, as Tom Paine said, “even in its best state is but a necessary evil [and] in its worst state an intolerable one,” then it is generally evil—and evil should be opposed.

Libertarians see the injustice in the system and therefore want to distance themselves from it. This is basic human nature; where danger exists, a rational individual desires to keep a safe distance. Because the state claims absolute authority, and because absolute power corrupts absolutely, as a general rule libertarianism stands at odds with the status quo. But does this equate to an across-the-board laissez-faire lifestyle?[amazon asin=159955934X&template=*lrc ad (right)]

The reason why so many believe this to be true is because society is often conflated with government, and therefore opposition to a government action is construed by many to indicate opposition to the action itself. Libertarians, however, separate society from government, believing that voluntary actions and individual rights predate and therefore precede the state. As with most such issues, Frédéric Bastiat hit the nail on the head:

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

If a person is unable to divorce these two things in their mind, then it is expected that they will see libertarians as selfish isolationists who want to do whatever they want, and don’t care what anybody around them does. But this is simply not the case; libertarianism concerns itself only with the political realm and makes no commentary on issues that are purely societal, moral, or religious in nature. As Murray Rothbard explained:

The fact is that libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral, or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory, that is, the important subset of moral theory that deals with the proper role of violence in social life. Political theory deals with what is proper or improper for government to do, and government is distinguished from every other group in society as being the institution of organized violence. Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should be free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another. What a person does with his or her life is vital and important, but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism.

Herein lies the answer to the initial objection. Libertarians are outspoken opponents of the state’s use of violence—a position that is becoming increasingly popular as that violence is aggressively implemented, and fortunately, widely broadcast through social media. But this opposition, as Bastiat noted, should not be seen as general opposition to the underlying actions. Opposition to government education says nothing of whether religious private schools are better than secular ones, or whether homeschooling is optimal over unschooling. Opposition to free medical care for poor people is not synonymous with a desire for poor people to die from neglect. Opposition to government-owned recreation centers does not mean that libertarians hate swimming pools. And on and on.

The “live and let live” characterization chiefly comes into play on matters of self-harm, or, more generally, individual actions that do not immediately violate another person’s rights, but may in the aggregate, or over the long term, affect others in a variety of ways. This position is well summarized by one commentator as follows:

What libertarians miss is the responsibility we all must share  for the vigour or weakness of this middle layer, about which they simply have nothing to say, except “don’t harm me.” In other words, they have nothing to say about the many activities that, beyond their destructive effect on mere individuals, may as clearly be destructive of civil society itself, of our traditions, customs, community standards, social affections, and the traditional decencies of our commonly-held way of life. Indeed, if they do speak of such things it is usually to protest that these, too, are forms of moral oppression.

This writer is not correct. Libertarians do not all “miss” this responsibility—though, like conservatives and liberals and all the rest, there are plenty who do abdicate their responsibility. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that personally fulfilling a moral duty to help others is not the same thing as casting a vote to tax others to pay for government agents to help others on your behalf.) Libertarians do not have “nothing to say” about activities that harm an individual. Many of them have plenty to say—but the context in which the debate is framed, e.g. should the government punish this action or not, confines the libertarian discussion only to terms of state power. If it is accepted that the government should be involved, then the libertarian’s position will be one of objection.

But if the debate is open to alternative viewpoints, e.g. the government should not concern itself with this action, then the libertarian may, depending on his personal views, have a variety of things to say about it. Personally, I believe drugs are harmful. I believe abortion is awful. I believe pornography is destructive. I believe people should eat healthy. I believe consuming large amounts of entertainment is mind-numbing. I believe that not regularly reading books is a bad idea.

I, like many libertarians, have many, many things to say about nearly every aspect of life. But when asked what the libertarian viewpoint is on X, libertarians narrow their consideration only to the political realm, for libertarianism itself has no position otherwise. In this context, the libertarian line of thinking is, simply, should I condone the use of violence against an individual who does X? The answer, most often, is an extremely easy one—and one that is unsatisfactory to the authoritarians who prefer state coercion to enforce perceived societal ideals.

Libertarianism is the moral political philosophy, for it rejects violence as a means to these ends, and instead relies on persuasion and voluntary action to encourage the ideals that an individual has and desires others to also have. Libertarians, though we are generally united on political matters, are an extremely diverse group of people whose religious and societal opinions run the gamut. We would be content to have fierce debate about these ideas outside the political realm, but to the extent that the state presumes authority to enforce a single standard, we will dutifully line up in objection.

This is not so much “live and let live” as it is “don’t tase me, bro!

Reprinted with permission from Connor Boyack.