When discussing liberty, we are bound to encounter that strange strand of political thought often called “libertarianism.” It is usually associated with the political right and the distrust of taxation and other government intervention into the economic realm. In reality, America has fostered an almost universal libertarian spirit and if we want to talk about wings of politics, both left and right have breathed it in.
Libertarianism could be thought of as “soft individualism.” It is not strict Randian Objectivism that exults in the pure expression of the individual will with no restrictions. Libertarians like to talk about rights and harm. As long as we are not harming someone else, we have a right to act in our interest; a sort of mutually agreed individualism that depends on social consensus.
But of course this where things get sticky because no one actually sees this through. Objectivism is a more consistent philosophy and thus much easier to oppose. Libertarianism, tainted as it is by the natural human tendency to believe in a universal moral/ethical code, is never pure. To be uncharacteristically pragmatic, pure libertarianism, pace Locke, just can’t work. We can not each have only our own interest in mind; we can’t each have our own morality or else there is no morality. Humans have an innate instinct for justice and without a universal code of conduct, there would be no justice, no accountability. Perhaps to a hardened objectivist, this is just something we have to accept. There is no crime if each person is supposed to follow his own will. In the end, the strong will survive and the weak will be overcome. Finally humanity will achieve perfection through strength.
Of course to most people besides eugenicists like Ayn Rand, Margaret Sanger, and Adolf Hitler, this view is abhorent; no less to libertarians. In order to avoid the objectivist mistake, libertarians decide to make distinctions: There are some areas in which a moral code is appropriate in order to make human society more humane. However, the other areas are to be left alone so that we can properly go about expressing our God-given liberty.
On the right, a moral code is imposed in the area of sexuality. The thinking is that as long people obey the rules about sex, all other things, especially economic considerations, will work themselves out. On the left, a moral code is imposed in the area of finance. Not all uses of money are equal and the government must regulate business so as to avoid corruption. However, we must let people have their liberty in the area of sexuality. At least these are the perceptions and they explain why there is such bitter partisanship in American politics.
These are the perceptions, but not the realities. As the inconsistencies of both “sides” are revealed to their adherents, they are soon abandoned to the universal American creed: consent. As long as two or more people who are legally able to consent consent to an activity, the activity is acceptable. With this creed comes convoluted and ever-changing rules about what indicates consent and who is legally able to consent. This libertarianism requires a universal code governing it so that we don’t slip into abusive individualism where coercion and might make right.
This is the great inconsistency in libertarian thinking. If we try to act as individuals for our own interests and seeking after happiness without interference, we will soon encounter people whether in opposition to our pursuits or else as potential cooperators for a mutual interest. The fact that we must deal with other humans means that we need a system of justice and accountability if we do not wish to go down the path of pure individualism. Thus, we get the strange and unsettling conflict at universities between freedom of personal expression and…freedom of personal expression. This culture of conflict is, in fact, unsustainable. One or the other “freedom” will be squashed in deference to the other, but instead of one side squashing the other, it is an authority, whether the government or the administration of a university, that must be utilized to enforce justice.
We can not escape from the fact that human justice is ultimately social and communal in nature. It demands that we care not just about ourselves but about how the actions of the members of the community affect the community and everyone in it. When we try to fight against this by embracing some sort of libertarian justice, we find ourselves unable to follow through.
Yet instead of turning toward a consistent moral justice that treats each human as a moral agent with social obligations and an eternal and spiritual purpose or toward pure individualism, we instead decide to wallow in our confusion and inconsistency. We think it will foster equality and freedom, but in fact it is deepening the divide between us and can only lead to violence and tyranny.