|Montreal, November 8, 2003 / No 132
by Martin Masse
Libertarianism is not just an economic theory. It is also a philosophy for explaining and judging the course of human evolution, an ethics prescribing certain norms of human relationships, and a general attitude towards life. Being a libertarian involves nurturing a psychological stance which differs from those that define socialists, conservatives and various other types of collectivists.
For those who remain uneasy or confused when faced with conflicting philosophical or theoretical arguments, or who are not certain that what they believe in really has something to do with libertarianism, here are five essential libertarian attitudes. If you recognize yourself in each of them, congratulations, there are good chances that you are, deep in your heart, a libertarian. If you find them stupid, wrong or irrelevant, then you are still floundering in the ideological swamps where most of humanity has been bogged down for millennia.
If on the other hand you find them appealing but are forced to admit that old reflexes or pressure from your environment lead you to act in a contrary manner, do not despair! Like all coherent and demanding philosophies, libertarianism has to be nurtured to become meaningful in day-to-day life. This may mean reevaluating some cherished old beliefs or reorienting some aspects of your life. These attitudes are valuable not only because they are consistent with libertarian theory, but also because of their universal value as mental stances conducive to happiness and tranquility of mind.
1. Take full responsibility for one’s actions
One could hardly find a psychological attitude more representative of the spirit of libertarian individualism than this one. Libertarians firmly believe that however we may account for biological or other types or determinism, or for the influence of one’s childhood experiences and social environment, individuals are ultimately responsible for the choices they make and for the situations they find themselves in. They must bear the consequences, good or bad, and avoid shifting the blame unto others if they are not satisfied with their actions and their life. Notwithstanding temporary setbacks, whether they ultimately succeed or not in their endeavors is due first and foremost to their efforts, their good planning, their perseverance, their prudence and foresight. In short, individual freedom cannot be dissociated from individual responsibility.
On the contrary, those who, in their personal lives, tend to always feel victimized, to justify their misfortune by invoking outside forces or unforeseen situations, to fabricate excuses, to accuse "the system" for all their troubles, have all the characteristics of statist personalities. As we can observe with the various groups of professional whiners and losers who seem to make up what is nowadays called "civil society," this attitude naturally leads them to expect and demand from the rest of society financial help, special protections, compensation to right past wrongs, recognition of their particular status, privileges, etc. Because in their view individuals are as such barely responsible for anything, and because the state is the obvious embodiment of the abstract collective responsibility of all others towards them, it is no surprise that their frustrations come out as political claims. Instead of taking matters into their own hands and acting as free and responsible individuals, they become dependents of the state.
2. Reject collective abstractions
Libertarians are primarily interested in the individual and see him as the ultimate social reality. For them, "society" represents nothing in itself, it has meaning only insofar as it is a manifestation of individual characteristics and behaviors. This does not mean that culture, national identities, shared values and other collective phenomena are not relevant in people's lives. They are, but only because they answer a need felt by individuals to belong to something greater than themselves. They should not be viewed as objective entities to whose demands each person is expected to conform and into which he is supposed to merge his own individuality. In any case, everybody can be said to belong to interlocking and sometimes competing groups at various levels and no individual can be reduced to just a cog in a collective machine.
Libertarians are thus always skeptical when confronted with claims of a collectivist nature, and necessarily see in them the pursuit of individual interests by those who say they speak for the group. When a question with social or political import is raised, they do not really care to know what will be the consequences for "the nation," "women," "gays," "blacks," or any other group; they will be more interested to know how individuals who may have multilayered identities in a pluralistic world will be able to freely choose among various options without having to conform to a rigid collective pattern. What matters to them is how individuals perceive their situation and react to it, not the fact that they belong – or are categorized as belonging – to abstract collective identities. When it is time to accomplish something with the help of others, they understand the importance of incentives and mutual benefits in the successful pursuit of a collective project based on voluntary cooperation; they know that a "collective mobilization" brought about by rhetoric and an appeal to tribal feelings is essentially unstable and may even be dangerous.
The opposite attitude instead conceives of human society as fundamentally composed of groups and subgroups, with individuals existing only inasmuch as they are members of specific groups. For those who see things this way, only the existence of the group has referential meaning, and they relate any and all aspects of their lives to the situation of the group or groups that they most identify with. It is up to the individual to adapt so that he conforms to the collective ideal as defined by the group elites, and not for the presumed characteristics of the group to be relativized so that they take into account all the diversity of the individuals that comprise it.
These people will act under the sway of collective pride and feelings of solidarity, their heart will beat faster when they will see flags and other symbols of collective identification. The goals that will motivate them most in life will be the political, legal or military victories of their tribe against the collective (class, gender, national, etc.) enemy. They will want everybody they identify as members of their tribe to take part in their crusade and will try to "raise the awareness" of those not convinced enough of the importance of the fight. The dissidents who prefer to remain neutral or even oppose the collective endeavor will be castigated as egotistic free-riders or traitors. In this perspective, the state, the concrete embodiment of "the nation’s will," the arbitrator of conflicts between groups, is evidently at the center of everything.
3. Tolerate other beliefs and ways of life
Libertarians are not moral relativists; they rank freedom as one of the most fundamental values and, as religious believers or supporters of particular philosophical schools, they profess other principles on issues related to moral conduct and the meaning of life. They nonetheless share this particular attitude: an acceptance of the diversity of opinion and beliefs and a refusal to use force to impose their own stances on others. For libertarians, an opinion, belief or particular behavior should be permitted so long as it does not infringe on others’ freedom and property. People should be allowed to do what they wish with their own body, with their property and in their relations with others, provided that they all do so on a voluntary basis. Drugs, prostitution or the veneration of little green creatures from other planets should in no way be forbidden. Nobody has the right to prevent somebody else to live as he wish if no harm is done to another person, even when an overwhelming majority of the population may disapprove of his conduct. Libertarians understand that people with vastly different beliefs, cultures and ways of life can still cooperate in peace. They don’t see this diversity as a threat to be fought but as an expression of the complexity and variety of human life, even when they personally disagree or find distasteful other people’s conduct.
Opposed to this are puritans, zealots, egalitarians, religious fanatics, extreme nationalists, and other exalted activists who will not rest until they have forced everybody to conform to their utopian collectivist schemes. For them, diversity is a threat to order, morality, equality and unity. There is no place in their world view for those who want to think or live differently. Tolerance should be extended, if at all, only "within certain limits" which are, of course, ultimately determined and enforced by governmental authorities.
Some will say that libertarians are in fact intolerant towards their ideological opponents, socialists and nationalists for example, and that they reject all points of view that diverge from the libertarian ideal. But this criticism does not stand. Libertarians do not want to have imposed on them other people’s values and goals, but they are perfectly willing to let all those who share these values and goals pursue them in peace. In a free society for example, communists could buy a plot of land, set up a commune, divide all their belongings equally, and voluntarily hand over 98% of their personal income to a local government that would plan their lives down to the most trivial details. They could try to show the world how truly blissful life in a real communist society can be and invite the rest of the world to join them – but not force them to do so. That’s what differentiates libertarians from supporters of collectivist ideologies: the latter always end up resorting to force and violence to impose their views.
Indeed, libertarian tolerance should be extended to everybody, including the intolerant, the narrow minded, the racist and the bigoted, as long as these respect the rights of others and use only legitimate means to attain their goals. To use a currently controversial example, libertarians – notwithstanding what they personally think of the morality of homosexuality – will evidently reject all persecution of homosexuals and official state discrimination on the basis of this characteristic. But they will also support the right to discriminate of those who, for religious of other reasons, don’t want to associate with homosexuals. Private discrimination – i.e., choosing not to interact with some people – is a perfectly legitimate choice of what to do with one’s own body and property which in no way infringes on the rights of the discriminated person, who can go elsewhere and interact with others. Gay activists who want to force people and corporations to accept them, do business with them, hire them or even subsidize them are not fighting for freedom; they are only trying to impose their values on everybody, using state coercion to do so.
4. See the human future with optimism
Libertarians have confidence in the inventiveness and the entrepreneurial qualities of human beings. They think that if we leave people free to act in their own interest in order to find solutions to the many challenges and problems they are facing, and if the right incentives are there, the great majority will do so in a productive and often ingenious manner. All periods in history that have resulted in progress have done so because individuals were free to accomplish their dreams and fulfil their desires without major impediments. When we observe human evolution since the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic about 10,000 years ago, we find that one permanent feature is the ability of members of our species to invent new ways of doing things and to overcome obstacles that nature and, it should be said, ignorance and stupidity on the part of other men, has put before them.
This doesn’t mean natural or other types of disasters don’t happen – we’ve seen enough political, economic and military catastrophes in the 20th century to know otherwise. It means we should be confident that people will be able to cope with any type of challenge when the appropriate setting – that is, a free society where property rights are protected – is present. Capitalism has already vastly improved our life and the quality of our environment over the past couple of centuries. There is no reason not to expect more wonders in the future if conditions are right.
Unlike libertarians, reactionaries of the left and right, misanthropes and congenital pessimists believe that the more human beings are free, the more likely it is they will cause trouble and bring about chaos. For them, progress that comes about because of individual choice and initiative is a menace; stagnation – or at any rate a measured and controlled type of progress – is preferable and must be imposed from above, because the fragile equilibrium that has allowed civilization to survive until now runs the risks of being undone with every innovation.
New technologies and consumer products, new ideas and fashions, too fast economic growth: these are inevitably seen as threatening the social order or the sustainability of life on our planet. For these pessimists, there is always a catastrophe on the horizon, be it the 2000 bug (remember this one?), global warming, overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, SUVs, transgenic plants, job-killing technologies, globalization, and what not. Any one of these could topple civilization over, which is reason enough to stop all types of experimentation and get back to the simplified, more "natural" way of life of our ancestors. Of course, in this perspective, the judges of what is permissible change, the ones who have the mandate to put a stop to uncontrollable innovation, repress innovators and prevent anticipated catastrophes from happening, in short the guarantors of our survival, are always the elites that control the state apparatus.
5. Aim at a constant improvement over the long term rather than immediate perfection
Libertarians conceive of life as an uninterrupted series of challenges and adaptations in a world that is perpetually changing. They do not believe that it is possible to reach a state of utopia, to live in a perfect world, like Marx’s classless society, where all would be equal and all needs and wishes could be fulfilled without conflict. Even in a society founded on libertarian principles, there would always be change and problems, conflicts and catastrophes; the major difference being that individuals would then be better equipped to face them and would do so in a more harmonious way.
Libertarians can thus generally be described as realistic and pragmatic in the way they face life’s challenges. They are reconciled with the world as it is and although they of course want to see change for the better, that are not constantly in a state of despondency because we live in an imperfect world where we find ignorance, poverty, pollution, and various other deplorable situations. They believe that only the long-term fruits of individual effort, learning and creativity – provided the political context allows them to flourish – will enable us to make the world a better place to live. There are no shortcuts, no magical solutions that would resolve everything at once.
For those alienated from life, every hour of the day is on the contrary a constant source of psychological suffering. Their whole outlook on the world is dominated by the sense of unease that they experience at the sight of its imperfections. They practice "consciousness raising" on a systematic basis, and their goal is to feel concern for all the disadvantaged groups of people (and, often, of animals and plants too), that they can learn about. They hate to admit that there are no immediate solutions to all the problems in the universe. As we hear it all the time from the mouth of activists, the situation is "unacceptable" and we must "intervene without delay."
They deplore what they see as the "indifference to the suffering of the world" of those who don’t feel concerned, are more preoccupied with their own lives or don’t want to get involved in the same causes. Although they claim to have a long-term perspective on problems and be preoccupied with the coming generations and the future of our planet, their proposals all come down to one quick-fix solution or another, focused on the state and its power to force everybody to follow their lead. For them, only some kind of political, social or economic upheaval could set the world aright and bring progress – and incidentally also free them from this unbearable psychological burden.
To conclude, these are essential psychological and philosophical stances for those who wish to live according to the libertarian ideal, even though this ideal is far from being realized at the political level. More complex theoretical arguments on the workings of the market economy or the logic of state expansion certainly remain crucial in political and economic debates; but they will never have as much impact, for a great number of people who don’t want to be bothered (with reason!) with politics and who care little for these debates, as the intuitive feeling that one can live wisely and morally when one follows these general libertarian principles.
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