Libertarianism – in a coarse telling – is political philosophy that places primacy on individual freedom over all other values. As such, it’s often placed in contrast to traditional political notions that advocate some limits to freedom, such as liberalism (economic regulation, but personal freedom) and conservatism (personal regulation, but economic freedom).
It’s not the most popular political orientation; a 2006 PEW study found only 9% of Americans polled fell in to the libertarian category compared to 18% liberal and 15% conservative. However, libertarianism appears to be particularly popular amongst those who are wealthy and well educated.
It’s also popular amongst economists, for libertarianism is quite compatible with some of the key assumptions that underlie modern day free market economics: such as that behaviour is driven by self-interested rational agents. For these agents, interference in their behaviour restricts their ability to pursue their own preferences. From this point of view, the only role of the government ought to be to enforce property rights, manage contracts and provide a few true public goods, like defence, roads and basic infrastructure. Everything else is left to individuals to figure out for themselves, according to their free will.
Libertarianism can seem an appealing philosophy from a purely rational perspective. Why have a government interfere with my life, telling me what I should and shouldn’t want – or can and can’t do? As long as I don’t interfere with the ability of others to pursue their personal goals and preferences, I should be free to pursue my own ends unhindered. And, furthermore, in doing so, we can advance the ends of all individuals care of the magic of the invisible hand.
However, there’s a chink in libertarianism’s armour. In fact, there are two.
First is the assumptions it makes about human psychology – such as that we are capable of understanding and articulating our preferences and that we’re able to act upon them rationally, i.e. that we’re Homo economicus.
In fact, the truth is quite different. Preferences are often obscure. There are long term and short term preferences. Imagined and real. Needs and wants. And often the preferences we articulate are not in accordance to the things that actually benefit us or make us happy.
Often our decisions cause us – and others – harm. And in retrospect, we often regret many of our decisions and wish someone had encouraged us to do otherwise. Or our decisions are manipulated, either by other individuals, or by the environment at large. Or, most sinisterly, by those with vested interests, such as politicians or companies trying to encourage you to buy their product, whether you need it or not.
Libertarianism is rather unforgiving of behaviour that leads to self-harm, yet many of us have strong desires to prevent others from causing themselves harm, even if that means limiting their freedom – such as the freedom to gamble away all their money or the freedom for companies to advertise sweet and fatty foods to children.
Then there’s the second chink: libertarianism makes for an unstable society.
Common habits, customs and traditions – as well as common moral values – bind a community together and encourage cooperation. A highly libertarian society, with a vast diversity of values and customs, is a fractured society, without the bonds of common culture except those that emerge in pockets as people of similar preferences gather together (and, I’d suggest, establish rules of behaviour, which limit personal freedom).
Certainly, the market can enable high levels of cooperation in terms of production, but a strongly libertarian market is largely unregulated. That can lead to great inequities emerging, and that can also destabilise the society.
Or take a personal practice like polygany – the taking of multiple wives. Libertarians would hesitate to regulate such a behaviour, yet polygany can also destabilise society. A deficit of potential mates increases levels of male competition for status, often leading to violent conflict.
Consider many of the limits on freedom advocated by liberals and conservatives. They come at the issue from different directions, but they’re both trying to achieve the same end: bind communities together and encourage cooperation.
Liberals do this by limiting the ability of some to gain disproportionate power over the group and exploiting that power for their own ends. They also attempt to lift up the most disadvantaged, bringing more people in to the pool of cooperators rather than letting them drop off the edge. Liberals are less interested in the effort one puts in as the results that come out.
Conservatives, on the other hand, seek to regulate personal freedoms – customs, habits, practices etc. Taboos are common, with behaviours steered towards a common ground. This also binds communities together through like beliefs, traditions and prohibitions.
Food taboos in religion are like this. They might start as health initiatives, but they rapidly become instruments of conformity. And a highly conforming community is more likely to trust each other and cooperate.
Libertarians – at least extreme libertarians – sacrifice the egalitarianism of liberalism and the social binding of conservatism for hyper-individuality.
Libertarianism is an appealing idea if you hold human agency and freedom above all else. However, it has its weaknesses. Freedom is certainly worth having, but at what cost?