Freedom: Because It Works or Because It’s Right?

Libertarians divide into two broad classes: those who espouse a free society because it gives better results than an unfree society, and those who espouse a free society because they believe that it is wrong to deny or suppress a person’s right to be free (unless, of course, that person is suppressing the equal right of others to be free). “Consequentialists versus deontologists” is the oft-encountered labeling of this difference. It is unfortunate that so much energy has been devoted to infighting between these two groups.

I first embraced libertarianism on utilitarian or consequentialist grounds related to my training as an economist. I was convinced that a free society—certainly in the long run, if not at every moment—would be healthier, wealthier, and happier than an unfree society. From economic theory and economic history, I came to understand the horrendous failures of the centrally planned economies in the USSR, China, and other countries. This understanding struck me as an adequate basis for anyone’s embrace of libertarianism.

Lacking a solid background in philosophy, I did not spend much time thinking about the moral case for libertarianism, at least in the early stages of my journey. Yet no one really needed to persuade me that people by nature deserve to be free, that each person possesses a natural right to control his own life insofar as the exercise of that right does not conflict with other people’s exercise of the same right. So, when I was first asked—more than twenty years ago as a panelist at a libertarian conference—whether I was a consequentialist or a deontologist in my libertarianism, I answered that I was both:  I believed that people ought to respect other people’s right to be free of aggression (the initiation of violence or the threat of violence) and that if everyone behaved in this way, people would attain the best possible social and economic outcomes for the whole society.

Over time, I found myself making moral arguments for libertarianism more and more frequently. In some ways, I was simply expressing the grounds for my outrage against one coercive evil or another of which I became aware. Yet I never surrendered my belief that a free society works better than an unfree society along many social and economic dimensions. I was also persuaded by the great rule-utilitarian Leland Yeager that in the deepest possible sense, we must all be consequentialists. No one of good will can cling to the rule “fiat justitia ruat caelum” (let justice be done though the heavens fall) all the way down. If the most committed libertarian deontologist knew for certain that adherence to every critical element of libertarianism would entail, say, the utter destruction of the human race, even he would have to relent and to rest his decision on the consequences of a no-exceptions adherence to a normally binding moral rule.

Fortunately, this dilemma is one we do not face in reality. Indeed, almost always, if not always, we can follow the rule of perfect freedom and rest assured that not only will doing so not cause destructive outcomes, but it will actually conduce to the realization of the most constructive feasible outcomes.

In any event, after the more recent decades of my libertarian journey, I am now struck by a different aspect of this longstanding debate, which has to do with our strategy for winning people over to libertarianism. Strategy 1 is to persuade them that freedom works, that a free society will be richer and otherwise better off than an unfree society; that a free market will, as it were, cause the trains to run on time better than a government bureaucracy will do so. Strategy 2 is to persuade people that no one, not even a government functionary, has a just right to interfere with innocent people’s freedom of action; that none of us was born with a saddle on his back to accommodate someone else’s riding him.

In our world, so many people have been confused or misled by faulty claims about morality and justice that most libertarians, especially in the think tanks and other organizations that carry much of the burden of education about libertarianism, concentrate their efforts on pursuing Strategy 1 as effectively as possible. Hence, they produce policy studies galore, each showing how the government has fouled up a market or another situation by its ostensibly well-intentioned laws and regulations. Of course, the 98 percent or more of society (especially in its political aspect) that in one way or another opposes perfect freedom responds with policy studies of its own, each showing why an alleged “market failure,” “social injustice,” or other problem warrants the government’s interference with people’s freedom of action and each promising to remedy the perceived evils.  Anyone who pays attention to policy debates is familiar with the ensuing, never-ending war of the wonks. I myself have done a fair amount of such work, so I am not condemning it. As one continues to expose the defects of anti-freedom arguments and the failures of government efforts to “solve” a host of problems, one hopes that someone will be persuaded and become willing to give freedom a chance.

Nevertheless, precisely because the war of the wonks—not to mention the professors, pundits, columnists, political hacks, and intellectual hired guns—is never-ending, one can never rest assured that once a person has been persuaded that freedom works better, at least in regard to situation X, that person has been won over to libertarianism permanently. If a person has come over only because of evidence and argument adduced yesterday by a pro-freedom wonk, he may just as easily go back to his support for government intervention tomorrow on the basis of evidence and argument adduced by an anti-freedom wonk. As John Maynard Keynes once cleverly replied to someone who asked him about his fluctuating views, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” If libertarians choose to fight for freedom solely on consequentialist grounds, they will be at war forever. Although one may accept this prospect on the grounds that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” this kind of war is deeply discouraging, given that the anti-freedom forces with which libertarians must contend possess hundreds of times more troops and thousands of times more money for purchasing munitions.

In contrast, once the libertarian has persuaded someone that government interference is wrong, at least in a certain realm, if not across the board, there is a much smaller probability of that convert’s backsliding into his former support for government’s coercive measures against innocent people. Libertarianism grounded on the moral rock will prove much stronger and longer-lasting than libertarianism grounded on the shifting sands of consequentialist arguments, which of necessity are only as compelling as today’s arguments and evidence make them. Hence, if we desire to enlarge the libertarian ranks, we are well advised to make moral arguments at least a part of our efforts. It will not hurt, of course, to show people that freedom really does work better than state control. But to confine our efforts to wonkism dooms them to transitory success, at best.

If we are ever to attain a free society, we must persuade a great many of our fellows that it is simply wrong for any individuals or groups, by violence or the threat thereof, to impose their demands on others who have committed no crime and violated no one’s just rights, and that it is just as wrong for the persons who compose the state to do so as it is for you and me. In the past, the great victories for liberty flowed from precisely such an approach—for example, in the anti-slavery campaign, in the fight against the Corn Laws (which restricted Great Britain’s free trade in grains), and in the struggle to abolish legal restrictions on women’s rights to work, own property, and otherwise conduct themselves as freely as men. At the very least, libertarians should never concede the moral high ground to those who insist on coercively interfering with freedom: the burden of proof should always rest on those who seek to bring violence to bear against innocent people, not on those of us who want simply to be left alone to live our lives as we think best, always respecting the same right for others.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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