Freedom and the
Absence of Arbitrary

By Alastair Cleve


The commonest complaint from the objectivists is that the libertarian has no philosophy: that his approach is too haphazard and lacks unity. The commonest complaint from the neo-conservative is that the libertarian is hedonistic and pays too little attention to what binds us together as a nation. The commonest complaint from the leftist is that the libertarian ignores empirical economic realities and their subsequent power imbalances, which result in an unfair society. Despite these critiques, however, libertarianism is a uniquely unified philosophy: one that rests on a very simple maxim, the absence of arbitrary force.

These individuals often charge libertarians with subscribing to an incomplete philosophy: libertarians, they believe, pursue their own desires without regard to any larger principle. The particular focus of this review will be on the Objectivist complaint, as elucidated by Etan Heller in “The Party of (No) Principle” (Winter 2010). The Objectivist complaint primarily charges the libertarian with incoherency. The libertarian fails to describe a consistent, philosophical approach that accounts for when the government is and is not justified to act. However, through the course of this critique, it will become clear that libertarianism is enormously consistent. Rather than being, as Heller puts it, a disintegrated philosophy, libertarianism is rooted in natural rights philosophy and based on the simple maxim of the absence of arbitrary force.

Heller argues that libertarians lack a philosophy: their exuberance for what they want has led them astray of justifying why it is good that they should get what they want. Heller writes: “One must have an account of what ‘is’ (the nature of the world and of the human mind) to form an opinion of what ‘ought’ to be (ethics).” Libertarians acknowledge that man is driven to self-perpetuation—we might consider this a metaphysical law in libertarian thought—and that he will sacrifice all societally-accrued morality to achieve that end. Libertarians want to harness that selfish capacity; they do not want to tyrannize the population but to allow it to develop. Libertarians accept that there are good reasons to leave the State of Nature but that that departure does not recognize a complete abdication of self-sovereignty. As John Stuart Mill wrote: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

Thus, libertarianism is the ultimate philosophy of individualism. Libertarianism recognizes that individuals are ends in themselves. Objectivists attempt to connect a philosophy of individual rights to a philosophy of ethical egoism, thereby suggesting that the only opposition to socialism is greed and selfishness. The problem, as the libertarian philosopher Michael Huemer pointed out, is that individual rights and ethical egoism are incompatible, such that “I cannot hold my own well-being as the only end in itself, and simultaneously say that I recognize other persons as ends in themselves too.” In order to get around this, the objectivist must justify that “the right action is always the selfish action” and that “it is impossible to benefit from violating someone else’s rights.” Otherwise, Objectivism suffers from a contradiction: that my own well-being is the ultimate end but that I may use other individuals to achieve my own well-being despite the fact that other individuals are also ends. The libertarian, as Huemer pointed out, subscribes to a more consistent defense of individual rights. “The more straightforward interpretation of the individualist premise” to which libertarians subscribe “is that I must recognize other individuals as ends in themselves, not mere means to my ends.”

The grandfather of liberalism, which is the ancestor to modern American libertarianism, was John Locke. Locke’s greatest contribution to political philosophy was his attack on arbitrary government. It was hardly reasonable, he suggested, that we leave the State of Nature with the intention of achieving the blessings of liberty so that they could be seized upon the will of the monarch. No man is inherently better than another, nor is there any such thing as the Platonic philosopher-kings. Such thought belongs to atavistic conceptions of Augustinian hierarchy. And it was with this mindset that a group of very learned men sat down and declared their separation from one of the most arbitrary governments of the nineteenth century. As Roger Pilon, of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, pointed out: “We institute government, the Declaration says, to secure our rights—our natural rights and the rights we create as we live our lives. But the powers government may need to do that must be derived from our consent if they are to be just. Government is thus twice limited: by its end, which any of us would have a right to pursue were there no government; and by its means, which require our consent.”

Libertarians have axiomatized the notion that all men are created equal and that mettlesome preferences violate this axiom. Happiness for each man is different. A society which dares to tell each man what he should want, how he should want it, and when he should want it violates this axiom. As Isaiah Berlin pointed out in his inaugural speech at Oxford in 1958, “This monstrous impersonation, which consists in equating what X would choose if he were something he is not, or at least not yet, with what X actually seeks and chooses, is at the heart of all the political theories of self-realisation.” Therefore, the reason for the libertarian’s econocentrism is partly explained by his insistence of the price system’s morality. The second that an artificial bureaucracy attempts to dismantle the price system represents a great philosophical usurpation, for it requires that that bureaucracy know what each person wants and how he should want it. That subjectivity amounts to arbitrariness, and arbitrariness is unjustifiable. Moreover, the libertarian objects to paternalistic protections based on the perceived objective needs of the population. Each man is different, and the attempt to make different men the same robs them of their right to make a choice, which is the ultimate act of self-sovereignty.

“The more the state ‘plans,’” wrote the Friedrich Hayek, “the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.” Just because a society attempts to remove the price system does not mean that budget constraints disappear or that resources become infinite. A second metaphysical reality for libertarians is that resources are finite and that those resources must be allocated. What is the most justified method of resource allocation? Libertarians respond that each man deserves what he can contractually receive and that anything below this is theft and that anything above this is charity. Often, what a man can contractually receive is what he can receive in monetary compensation in an open market. And if that market should be competitive—as is often the case—that man will likely receive compensation according to his marginal product of labor.

In rather grandiose language, Heller writes: “Many pro-liberty Enlightenment thinkers, such as John Locke and Frédéric Bastiat, were early misintegrated libertarians because they believed in natural rights—rights to life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness—and even went to great lengths to philosophically validate them, yet ultimately justified the rights of the individual as gifts from God, or described rights less directly as divinely justified.” Natural rights are a philosophical result of the libertarian’s conception of the State of the Nature: they are those rights that are irrefutable—they are the bedrock of libertarian thought. They are the rights that society cannot justifiably impede, for they allow the individual to pursue his individual good. And insofar as that is true, the libertarian can confidently say that murder is not a natural right, whereas property is.

Furthermore, the claim that libertarians are moral relativists hardly survives serious investigation. Moral relativism is an act of intellectual lethargy, for it deceives the individual’s intellectual resources by leading him down a path of non-discrimination in moral sentiments. As Allan Bloom pointed out, moral relativism is hardly compatible with the traditional conception of inalienable natural rights that have been the nucleus of American constitutionalism. The philosophy of non-aggression—of letting individuals decide what is in their best interest—is not morally relativistic. It is morally definite, for it is philosophically derived: men, believes the libertarian, achieve their best when left to their own devices, provided that they do not harm others in the process, which would amount to a betrayal of contract law. “Genius breathes freely in an atmosphere of freedom,” wrote John Stuart Mill. What Mill was advocating, and what libertarians advocate, is an ethical society tolerant of unethical behavior. It was beneficial, believed Mill, that society should have ethical norms that re-enforced behavior that produced positive externalities, such as marriage. This, however, did not confer a right to suppress unethical behavior, infidelity in this example. Since each man is his own sovereign, each man has the right to make an unethical decision, but that decision does not need to be upheld as a virtue by the community. Tolerance for unusual behavior allows for a dynamic society, and a dynamic society awakens human creativity—what Mill called genius.

The consequentialism that Heller decries is not libertarianism per se but an application of it. In the areas where government is philosophically justified to act, consequentialism is employed, for—as the libertarian sees it—if the government must act, we should try to minimize the externalities of that action, such as deadweight loss resulting from disincentives. To be sure, libertarians do use consequentialist arguments to buttress their natural-rights philosophy; however, it is important that the latter not be confused with the former. Though the libertarian will inform you that the legislated expansion of health care insurance will not likely decrease disincentives to cost-conscious healthcare consumption and therefore will result in upwards pressure on prices, his fundamental objection to such legislation comes from his disgust for government mandates in areas for which government is not justified to act. To force someone to purchase insurance is to strip him of his sovereignty.

To review, libertarianism has all the components of a robust philosophy. Man leaves the State of Nature. He contracts a government with his peers. Though he sacrifices the privileges of the State of Nature, he maintains his natural rights. The maxim of non-arbitrary force is derived from the axioms that we are all allowed to pursue our own destiny and that all men are created equal. Combined with the metaphysical laws that man is driven to self-perpetuation and that resources are finite, government is justified to act in those areas which violate man’s natural rights, for, if it failed to do so, government would violate its contractual obligations.

Despite his nice language, Heller betrays himself in the end: “The founding of the United States demonstrated this, to a certain extent—the philosophical ideals of the Enlightenment, although not perfect, were concretized politically because of the rational nature of the philosophy, and because the men who held them held them explicitly and consistently.” Libertarians are but the modern recipients of that robust American tradition—the tradition of the individual. And if the founding of the United States represented a great philosophical achievement, it can hardly be maintained that libertarians are principle-less, especially considering that their philosophy is metaphysically identical to that of the early American patriots. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government.” And neither is the libertarian.