The Two Libertariansisms

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There are two varieties of libertarian theory current today. The difference between the two libertarianisms lies in their reason for advocating liberty. The libertarian moralist advocates liberty because he believes liberty is the condition that results from men acting under the moral law of nonaggression. The libertarian consequentialist advocates liberty because he believes liberty is the optimal arrangement for human society, a way of life under which human beings thrive.

Libertarian Moralism and Consequentialism

Libertarian moralism is typified by Ayn Rand: “There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action – which means: the freedom·to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life.”

To the moralist, recognition of others’ property is inherent to recognition of their right to life: “The right to life is the source of all rights – and the right to property its only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life,” Rand wrote.

The leading advocate of this moralistic theory of liberty today is Murray Rothbard, whose defense of natural rights in “For a New Liberty” seems almost to be cribbed from Rand: “The nature of man is such that each individual person must in order to act, choose his own ends and employ his own means in order to attain them. . . . Since men can think, feel, evaluate, and

Perhaps libertarians are aware of the theoretical weakness of their position and are anxious to hide it from the light of day.


act only as individuals, it becomes vitally necessary for each man’s survival and prosperity that he be free to learn, choose, develop his faculties, and act upon his knowledge of value. This is the necessary path of human nature; to interfere with and cripple this process by using violence goes profoundly against what is necessary by man’s nature for his life and prosperity. Violent interference with a man’s learning and choices is therefore profoundly ‘antihuman’; it violates the natural law of man’s needs.”

Ludwig von Mises, on the other hand, typifies the consequentialist libertarianism. For him, liberty is valued because it enables men to optimize their wealth and happiness. He described his political philosophy thus: “Liberalism is a doctrine directed entirely towards the conduct of men in this world. In the last analysis, it has nothing else in view than the advancement of their outward, material welfare.”s

Property is just as important to Mises as it is to Rand. “The program of liberalism … if condensed to a single word, would have to read: property.”6 But Mises values property for its consequences: “In seeking to demonstrate the social function and necessity of private ownership of the means of production and of the concomitant inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, we are at the same time providing proof of the moral justification of private property.”7

For the consequentialist, property is good because it maximizes human well being. For the moralist, property is good because it is in harmony with fundamental moral principles.

Nonsense on Stilts?

As developed by Rand, Rothbard, and’ others, moralistic libertarianism claims to provide its adherents with a logically compelling, objective moral theory. This morality has implications for all men in their social behavior.

Libertarian moralism can be understood as the belief that it is always wrong to initiate the use of physical force .against another human being. When Rand first states this moral imperative she writes it in ALL CAPITAL letters, and for good reason. Rothbard concurs, “The central axiom of the libertarian creed “is nonaggression against anyone’s person or property.” It is this “nonaggression axiom” that implies the positions that distinguish libertarian moralism from other political beliefs. The universal opposition to taxes, to conscription, and ultimately to the institution of the state is the immediate consequence of this proposition.

The ultimate meaning of the nonaggression axiom is: all men have an obligation to refrain from using force or fraud against the life or property of another. This obligation cannot have its origin in contract, for the validity of contract depends on the validity of the nonaggression axiom itself. From what else can an obligation be derived?

For the libertarian moralist, the nonaggression axiom is a consequence of the position that men possess inalienable rights. It was Rand who first formulated the nonaggression axiom, and she formulated it as a corollary to the right to life: ”A right cannot be violated except by physical force. One man cannot deprive another of his life, nor enslave him, nor forbid him to pursue his happiness, except by using force against him…. Therefore we can draw a clear-cut division between the rights of one man and those of another. It is an objective decision – not subject to differences of opinion, nor to majority decision, nor to the arbitrary decree of society. NO MAN HAS THE RIGHT TO INITIATE THE USE OF PHYSICAL FORCE AGAINST ANOTHER MAN.”

The first problem with this theory is the derivation of the nonaggression axiom from the notion of inalienable rights. Even if one grants that nature or objective morality confers certain inalienable rights on all men, one can argue that the nonaggression axiom does not follow. For example, nature or objective morality could sanction two individuals to try to possess the same piece of property, in which case one or the other would either have to initiate the use of force or simply abandon the property whose pursuit has been sanctioned.

In response to this sort of thinking, the libertarian moralist has generally proposed that objective morality can never sanction such a conflict because, as Rand argues, “there are no conflicts of interest among rational men.” This universal has not satisfied the critics, who have spent considerable energy contriving hypothetical situations, some realistic, others fanciful, in which the interests of rational men conflict. These critics generally argue along the following lines: “Suppose you are on a ship which sinks. You and another rational man come upon a lifeboat, which only has room for one person. Both of you are on the verge of exhaustion. Is this not a genuine conflict of interest between rational men?”

Rand’s response to the better contrived of these situations is that they are emergencies, and that normal rules do not apply, and men should act appropriately for the emergency: “An emergency is an unchosen, unexpected event, limited in time, that creates conditions under which human survival is impossible…. In an emergency situation, men’s primary goal is to combat the disaster, escape the danger and restore normal conditions. . . . By ‘normal’ conditions, I mean metaphysically normal, normal in the nature of things, and appropriate to human existence. . . . The fact is that we do not live in lifeboats ~ and that a lifeboat is not the place on which to base one’s metaphysics.”

The problem with this definition is that it destroys the universality of the nonaggression axiom: if one dispenses with observing the nonaggression axiom in any situation in which conditions “appropriate to human existence” do not prevail, as a practical matter one may dispense with it whenever one doesn’t like his circumstances. One should always obey the nonaggression axiom, it is argued, except in emergencies. What is to keep an individual from declaring a personal state of emergency whenever it seems expeditious to initiate the use of force?

But more importantl~ in granting the validity of certain emergencies (however limited and tightly defined) the libertarian moralists have given up on the universality of the non- aggression axiom. To the question, “When is it legitimate to initiate the use of force against others?” the libertarian moral- ist answers, “Never! Unless, of course, you really need to initiate force …”

In challenging the sensibleness and universality of the nonaggression axiom, the critics are not getting to the heart of the matter. For practically every libertarian moralist, the non- aggression axiom is the logical consequence of the inalienable rights of the individual. Whether or not the nonaggression axiom can be formulated in a reasonable and universal way is clearly secondary to the issue of whether inalienable rights exist; if the concept of inalienable rights is not rational, the formulation and defense of the nonaggression axiom is an irrelevant intellectual exercise.

Just what are these “natural rights” or “moral rights” upon which the nonaggression axiom is based? Perhaps natural rights can be understood in the same way as legal rights: just as one’s legal rights are those rights conferred by law, so natural rights are rights conferred by nature or by objective morality.

At first inspection, there is much to be said for this understanding of rights. The notion of legal rights is widely understood and makes perfect sense. We all speak fluently of legal rights in a variety of contexts: rights to manufacture a certain item, rights to use exclusively a certain piece of proper~ rights to produce a certain play, etc. Legal rights are the products of declarations by the state that it will defend an individual’s taking certain actions against other individuals who

The obligation to refrain from using force or fraud cannot have its origin in contract, for the validity of contract depends on the validity of the nonaggression axiom itself.


might interfere. When one says, “I have a legal right to do this,” one means “the state will defend me against anyone’s preventing my doing this.”

Can we understand natural or moral rights in this same fashion? Perhaps we can understand natural rights to be rights conferred by nature, rather than the state; and moral rights to be rights conferred by morality. Just as it is meaningful to say that a trespasser is violating one’s legal rights (i.e., is invading the property that the state guarantees one’s exclusive control of), so we can argue that the trespasser violates moral law or natural law.

Alas, neither natural rights nor moral rights can be understood by this analogy. When we talk about legal rights we necessarily talk about the ability of the state to enforce them.

The curious thing about libertarian consequentialism is that even libertarian moralists grant the truth of its arguments.


When we talk about natural or moral right, do we imagine that nature or morality mobilizes some kind of police power to enforce these rights? Of course not. Legal rights are nugatory unless people enforce them.

In “Textbook of Americanism,” Rand defines a right as “a sanction of independent action.” But this definition has a problem. The word sanction is a bit obscure: in some cases sanction is a synonym for”support, encouragement, approval”; in others, sanction is a synonym for “provision of law that secures obedience.”

If Rand means sanction in the sense of “support, encouragement, approval,” her notion of rights will obviously not result in anything akin to the nonaggression axiom. At most it might imply lack of support, discouragement or disapproval of initiated force – not the prohibition of initiated force.

On the other hand, if Rand means sanction in the sense of “provision securing obedience,” her definition has the same problem as rights understood by legal analogy have: obedience must be secured by an agent. For a sanction to have meaning in this sense, it must be enforced, and this enforcement requires an agent (e.g. the state). Neither nature nor morality is an enforcer.

If natural or moral rights are not to be understood by analogy with legal rights, or as sanctions, then how are they to be understood? What is the “stuff” of rights? What are rights made of?

Some 17 years after publication of her definition of rights as “sanctions” Rand offered another definition.· Perhaps she recognized some of the problems of considering rights to be a particular type of sanction. In her essay “Man’s Rights” she defines a right as “a moral principle defining and sanctioning

. a man’s freedom of action in a social context.” But this definition is hardly any improvement: even when defining rights as a particular type of “principle,” Rand cannot avoid the concept of sanction (and all its concomitant problems).

In· view of the murkiness of the concept of inalienable rights, it is not surprising that supporting arguments often depend on outright obfuscation rather than logic. Rand’s argument in “Atlas Shrugged” is typical:

“Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on this earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempt to negate man’s rights is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.”

This may be powerful as rhetoric, but it is no argument at all. By repeating the term right five times in italics and once otherwise, Rand may create a parallel in some readers’ minds. But certainly right as a synonym for “morally proper” and right as a synonym for”sanction” are two different terms, and she has failed to demonstrate how any objective moral sanction against initiation of force.follows from the moral propriety of taking certain actions.

The concept of rights makes perfect sense in a legal context. But legal rights are always alienable: they are enjoyed as a product of the state, and cease to exist when the state defining them ceases to exist. In the end, inalienable rights theory fails because it appears entirely chimerical.

Somehow, the various arguments for absolute natural rights seem to most people to be a bit like the actions of a three-card-monte artist: it is impressive ·to watch, and you seem be following it, but you know the artist is a skilled manipulator and in the end you aren’t really surprised that you have been fooled.

It is this chimerical nature of natural rights theory that causes it to lead to the absurd consequences that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. If natural rights theory makes no .sense at its foundation, should we be surprised that it leads to silly consequences? If the concept of inalienable rights is nonsense, then the consequences are indeed, to use Bentham’s delightful phrase, nonsense on stilts.

In my previous essays in Liberty I demonstrated that the libertarian moralist must logically defend political institutions and laws that he knows are destructive to human

To the question, “When is it legitimate to initiate the use of force against others? ” the libertarian moralist answers, “Never! Unless, of course, you really need to initiate force. “


prosperity, liberty, and life provided that such institutions and laws have their origin in contract, and that libertarian moralism ultimately implies either that (a) a good person cannot use any government services whatsoever, including such benign services as the post office or government roads; or that (b) a good person can use virtually any government service whatever, including the use of the police to take the property of his neighbors for his own benefit.

These are, of course, patently absurd propositions. The fact that these· patently absurd propositions are the logical consequences of libertarian moralist theory is not an argu-

One should always obey the nonaggression axiom, it is argued, except in emergencies. What is to keep an individual from declaring a personal state of emergency whenever it seems expeditious to initiate the use of force?

ment against that theory. If the theory is objectively true, then the fault lies in our notion of absurdity. Any valid attack on it must challenge its logical antecedents: either the propositions that underlie it or the specific argument by which it is defended.

I have discussed some of the problems that exist in the development of that theory, but I have not systematically attacked it. Such an attack is beyond the scope of this paper, for it would be required to address each variation of the derivation of the moralistic libertarian position. I have, however, indicated the problems exhibited by most formulations of the moralistic libertarian position.

The Road to Slavery?

Consequentialist libertarianism provides its adherents with· a cohesive, rational approach to political theory. As developed by its leading theorists (e.g. Mises, Hayek, Donisthorpe) it provides the intellectual tools to understand human action. Because the consequentialist libertarian has developed a systematic way to study human interaction, he can make public policy recommendations, even in the context of the real world.

The curious thing about libertarian consequentialism is that even libertarian moralists grant the truth of its arguments. Indeed, one of the leading libertarian moralists, Murray Rothbard, by training an economist, is happy to defend. the truth of the core belief of consequentialist libertarianism – that a free society is far more productive and conducive to human happiness than an unfree society.

The moralist critics take two lines of attack against con- consequentialism. On a theoretical level, they argue that consequentialism is wrong because. it denies the propriety of an objective moral theory, inalienable rights and the universal prohibition against aggression. The other moralist criticism of the consequentialist position has nothing to do with its truth or falsity. It is that consequentialism fails to inspire moral fervor. This criticism grows out of its ability and willingness to make policy recommendations within the context of a nonlibertarian society; somehow this requires that the consequentialist abandon the moral high ground. The utilitarian … will rarely adopt a principle as an absolute and consistent yardstick to apply to the varied concrete situations of the real world,” writes Murray Rothbard. “To say that a utilitarian cannot be I trusted’ to maintain libertarian principle in every specific application may sound harsh, but it puts the case fairly.”

Even if one concedes that consequentialism’s theory is rational, logical, and scientifically sound, it does a poor job of advancing liberty. “Who in hell would join a radical minority movement, and commit him- or herself for life to social obloquy and a marginal existence, for the sake of 200/0 more bathtubs or 15% more candy bars? Who will man the barricades, either physically or spiritually, for more peanuts or Pepsi?” asks Murray Rothbard. “Look at all the radical or revolutionary movements of the 20th century, whether they be Communist or fascist or Khomeiniite. Did they struggle and move mountains for a few more goods and services, for what we used to call ‘bathtub economics’? Hell no, they moved mountains and made history out of a deep moral passion and would not be denied. What moves men and women and changes history is ideology, moral values, deep beliefs and principles.”18 This criticism is clearly ad hominem: it portrays the consequentialist as coldly making calculations in exclusively material terms, assuming that consequentialists do not ever consider valuing anything outside the money nexus.

Is Synthesis Possible?

Given the theoretical divergences between libertarian moralists and consequentialists, it is surprising that the two groups get along so well. Most radical political or religious groups fragment over matters of far less importance to their central beliefs. Given the fervor of many advocates of both moralism and consequentialism, one might expect the libertarian movement to be split into irreconcilably bitter, hostile factions over the matter.

In actual fact, aside from an occasional argument in an academic journal or other obscure place, the issue is hardly noticeable. What accounts for this peculiar phenomenon?

One might be tempted to think that the absence of acrimony over the issue is the product of people’s rationality and good manners. But libertarians have long shown a willingness to argue over points far less significant. Battles over the presidential nominations of the Libertarian Party, for example, often move members to tears; the nomination of David Bergland in 1984 touched off a mass exodus of many long- time party activists, including most of those who had managed the 1980 presidential campaign.

A more cynical hypothesis is that libertarians are aware of the theoretical weakness of their position and are anxious to hide it from the light of day. There may be some truth to this, I suppose, though most libertarians’ willingness to consider and accept so radical and unpopular a view as libertarianism indicates that they are open to peculiar ideas and willing to stand on their own judgment.

There is, I believe, a better explanation for the remarkable lack of controversy on the issue. I am convinced that most libertarians have little interest in the controversy because they find elements of both beliefs within themselves.

This hypothesis first occurred to me almost a decade ago after a conversation with a friend, a fairly prominent libertarian. On a lark, I asked him if he would consent to my interviewing him about his beliefs as though I was a nonlibertarian journalist. He consented and the game was on.

“Why do you advocate freedom?” I asked.

“Because men have moral rights to life, liberty and property,” he replied. He was confident, almost brash.

As I questioned him further, leading him along the same critical lines of thought about rights theory that I summarized above, his demeanor gradually changed. His air of certainty receded; he grew defensive. After an hour or so, he admitted with a little exasperation that he was quite aware of the problems in rights theory. In fact, he went on, he did not believe that rights theory was defendable. “It’s just that I think everyone should be free. The world would be a far better place if all men were free.”

He had admitted that rights theory is wrong, and that consequentialism is right. What an extraordinary turn of events, I thought. My friend advocated moralism only because he thought it more rigorous, more respectable, more defensible. His advocacy of libertarianism was moralistic; his defense of libertarianism was consequentialist. Perhaps other advocates of rights are actually closet consequentialists.

A few days later, I was involved in a similar discussion with another natural rights advocate. But he could see where my line of thinking was leading. He cut me short and took the lead. Before long he was asking me questions like the following: Would you violate another man’s rights if doing so had little risk and would likely mean substantial wealth for you?

I shall not bore you with details … Suffice it to say that within a few minutes I admitted I would not steal under such circumstances, and that in an important sense, I was a libertarian because libertarianism seemed morally right, though I could not rigorously defend that morality.

It occurred to me that I wasn’t much different from my moralist friend. Just as he had a moralist ideological offense but a consequentialist defense, I had a consequentialist offense, but could not dispense with my own moral sensibilities. Both of us had psychologically synthesized our beliefs.

We agreed that the consequentialist position made good sense and neither of us could dispense with our own moral views. He considered the moralist element of his thinking to be more acceptable to others, so his offense was moralist, but deep in his secret heart, he realized that the moralist argument was lacking.

I remain convinced that the moralism of inalienable rights and the non-aggression axiom is just plain wrong: its derivation is fallacious and its logical consequences sometimes silly. But I have not dispensed with morality altogether.

So I suggest before we conclude that the two libertarianisms are mutually exclusive that we reflect on their psychological compatibility and consider the possibility of philosophical synthesis. Perhaps we should consider the two libertarianisms to be two aspects of the same belief, or different emphases of the same basic belief. If libertarianism is a proper theory there is no reason to doubt that it is both morally right and eminently practical.

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