The Party of
(No) Principle

The Libertarian Party's disintegrated
and misintigrated philosophy of liberty

By Etan Heller

The libertarian movement is not exactly the easiest thing to define. The conception of libertarianism held by most people with mainstream political beliefs usually consists of specific policy positions or overly-generalized characterizations of the movement’s attitude: “They’re against any taxes.” “They hate the government.” “They want to legalize drugs.” Within the movement, these points, as well as their underlying ethos, are points of pride for any self-described libertarian or anarchist. Most libertarians one meets hold a certain intellectual self-confidence. The movement in general exudes an aura of ideological security. Why is this? What gives this diverse movement such intellectual self-assurance?

            One can easily attain the answer to this question in conversation with almost any libertarian, or by reading any “liberty-oriented” media or literature: the foundation for such self-assurance is the belief that libertarianism is the principled political movement, one that identifies ethical concepts, such as non-aggression and natural rights, and defends them beyond the level of compromise that is embodied by mixed-economy advocates and mainstream political parties, and blindly endorsed by American conservative, liberal, and moderate voters. The Libertarian Party, although by no means the standard-bearer for all, or even most, libertarians, proudly advertises itself as “The Party of Principle.” Any self-described libertarian, Party-supporter or not, would identify with this label. The libertarian movement, diverse though it is, is bolstered by confidence in its ethics, asserting the free market as good and coercion as bad. From this fortress of moral certainty, it attacks statism, denouncing the evil of oppressive governments, of state controls of any kind, extolling the virtues of freedom and the evils of slavery to the state.

            I used to be a libertarian. Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t have a change of heart. I did not become a communist, realize that I disagreed with the ethics of economic or social freedom, give in to doubt, or join the two-party system. In fact, I still agree with the ethos of libertarianism. I no longer describe myself as a libertarian because I realized that most libertarians have no valid philosophical justification for the ethics of liberty. This is a problem with the movement itself since it leaves its ethics undefined, allowing its adherents to be either ignorant of the necessary justifications of ethics, or to justify their ethical system with subjective whims and non-logical assumptions. In essence, “non-aggression” and “rights” are axioms for most libertarians. They take these concepts as givens and move on to consequentialist economic arguments, ignoring the primary to these arguments, the validation of ethical theory. There are two major ways in which this philosophical problem manifests itself within the mainstream of the libertarian movement (I will not address extreme variants such as “libertarian-socialists”): the non-integration, or disintegration, of ethics, in which the libertarian has made no attempt to integrate his ethics into a more complete philosophical system, and the misintegration of ethics, in which the libertarian has integrated his ethics into an invalid philosophical system.

            First we must deal with the total absence of a valid ethical basis that is prevalent in the libertarian movement. Many libertarians can mouth platitudes about “freedom”, “liberty”, “slavery”, and “rights”, but cannot justify these concepts, and sometimes cannot even define them.  In essence, these disintegrated libertarians have skipped the first steps of philosophy, metaphysics (an understanding of reality) and epistemology (an understanding of knowledge). Both are needed to form a valid ethical system. 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). If one holds any ethical beliefs, they should have some basis in metaphysics and epistemology, or else their ethical derivatives are arbitrary – they’ve seemingly appeared from nowhere, and have been accepted consciously or subconsciously with no validation and no supporting premises. The supposed “is-ought” gap, the view that metaphysical truth, the facts of reality, cannot inform one ethically, ignores that a human being must take the facts of his own physical nature and the nature of his environment into account when deciding what action to take. This decision is always an ethical decision, because it involves the “ought” necessitated by choice. Naturally, if one detaches ethics from choice, one will arrive at the conclusion that ethics need no basis in reality. Yet this assumption is mistaken; in order for life to achieve its teleological end–self-preservation–man must make decisions based on the objective facts of reality, and therefore requires an objective code of ethics based on metaphysical truths to inform these decisions, if he is to survive and flourish. The disintegrated libertarian does not recognize the need to identify metaphysical facts before forming ethical opinions. Out of ignorance or a mistaken acceptance of the “is-ought” gap, the disintegrated libertarian denies or ignores philosophical context and takes ethics as an unexplained primary.

This problem is present in many libertarian publications and in the Libertarian Party itself. Reason Magazine is one of the most well-known libertarian publications, a bastion of economic research and anti-regulation advocacy. Its slogan is “Free Minds and Free Markets”, and its Web site states that it plays an important advocacy role “by making a principled case for liberty and individual choice in all areas of human activity.” Yet no articles are written from the ethical viewpoint, and no philosophical rationale is given for “liberty and individual choice”. The magazine generally publishes economic articles and anti-state, pro-individual cultural pieces about current events, motivated by ethics that it apparently sees no need to justify, clarify, or talk about.

The Libertarian Party, as well, provides only vague ethical concepts as the moral foundation of its platform. Its Web site states that the “moral principle of self-ownership” is behind its political assertions, and it describes the “Libertarian way” as “caring”, “tolerant”, “free,” and “independent”. Again, these notions are left without foundation, stated as morally self-evident, as impassable ethical towers that can be ostensibly justified or else intuitively accepted. In the same way, Ron Paul libertarians see the Constitution as some sort of ultimate defining document, with no need to go beyond it and validate the ideas in it beyond the assertion that “freedom is good”. By themselves, these are not philosophically-integrated principles. The Libertarian Party has no right to call itself “the Party of Principle” if it sees no reason to validate its ethical precepts with the necessary philosophical premises.

In these cases, and in many more on the individual level, libertarian ethics are assumed to be self-evident. This is precisely the mistake of the disintegrated libertarian; ethics are never self-evident and must be shown to be based on a rational, logical view of reality and humanity. The alternative is to accept some sort of ethical intuitionism, where the individual intuits the correct moral precepts, or else gains it from social consensus. This mystical theory of innate, self-evident ethics leads to many contradictions, and does not account for the wide range of contradicting moral codes held by different people – it gives no way to judge with ethical “intuition” is correct, as intuition itself is the source of ethics. If many libertarians implicitly or, even worse, explicitly accept this method (as well-known libertarian/anarchist Michael Huemer does), and do not embrace philosophical justification, their views are philosophically equal to any other view that they might not agree with. Without valid philosophical justification, there is no valid ethical argument. It makes no difference if you advocate the antithesis of evil, of statism, of oppression. If you cannot justify your ethics beyond claims like “Freedom is good” and “Aggression is evil”, then you’ve chosen your ethical system the same way that many anti-libertarians have – without thinking. If you’ve divined your ethics by some sort of moral intuition, by emotion, or by any way connected to “feeling” that it’s the right way to go, then you’ve ceded any philosophical validity your viewpoint has, and abandoned the logical primaries to skip to an arbitrary ethical system.

Another philosophical problem with disintegration in the libertarian movement is that its adherents generally only discuss ethics in terms of politics. Politics is one branch of ethics, ethics applied to the organization of society, ethics in a social context. If political ethics is the only ethics you hold explicitly, then your ethics cannot inform you in any non-political context. Even if the disintegrated libertarian ignores the fact that he has no metaphysical and epistemological basis for his ethics, he still does not have an ethical system that can help him in any practical situation he encounters; only when he enters the voting booth will his ethics inform his actions. Outside of the political sphere, only a ghost of his political ethics (perhaps an individualistic, pacific, or anti-authoritarian attitude) can be a moral guide to his non-political actions, and a weak, undefined one, at that. Why is the viewpoint that morality only applies when a government is formed accepted as rational? Ethics arise out of the existence of the concept of free will – for every “could” there is a “should.” This is applicable on the individual level, in the context of society or not. To only ask ethical questions when it comes to politics is a refusal to consistently apply a philosophical concept with universal implications.

This brings us to the second type of philosophical flaw I’ve encountered in the libertarian movement: the misintegrated libertarian, who has a philosophical basis for his or her ethical system that is incomplete or illogical. The three types of misintegrated libertarians are: religious libertarians, post-modern libertarians, and consequentialist libertarians. Many pro-liberty Enlightenment thinkers, such as John Locke and Frederic 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. While these men were geniuses and certainly advanced pro-liberty ideas intellectually, they ultimately relied on a supernatural being whose existence cannot be rationally proved as the source of man’s need to be free. Many secular libertarians today will quite understandably tell you to read Locke or Bastiat when you ask them to justify the concept of rights. However, a full philosophical integration of these concepts needs a rational, valid metaphysical and epistemological understanding, based not on God, an unproven, transcendent entity, but rather based on man as an existing being.

The post-modern libertarian is perhaps the most difficult misintegration to pin down. Because the dominant philosophy in modern culture is post-modernism (or relativism), many libertarians have implicitly accepted relativist philosophical premises as a validation of the libertarian political theory. The post-modern libertarian will insist that morality is “subjective”, that every ethical belief is valid and true relative to the person asserting it, and that therefore nobody should force anybody to do anything they don’t want to do. In this way, they justify non-aggression by rejecting any objective morality, ignoring the connection between ethics and metaphysics, between “is” and “ought”. Relativism is a flawed philosophy by itself, and when combined with libertarianism, creates a plain contradiction: if every opinion about morality is equally valid and true, and no absolute moral truths exist, how can one assert that aggression is wrong? Is this not an absolute claim about morality, an ethical statement? In reality, a truly post-modern libertarian is a contradiction in terms, in that libertarianism does indeed hold (however unjustified) objective ethical standards, while post-modernism, or relativism, or subjectivism (however you want to label it) rejects objective ethics altogether. This is the worst case of the misintegrated libertarian. He has probably unknowingly absorbed invalid metaphysical and epistemological premises which are evident in his subjectivist assumptions about ethics, and these assumptions actually contradict the political philosophy he is espousing.

            Another type of misintegrated libertarian is the consequentialist libertarian. These libertarians will argue that that what is morally good is whatever works, whatever creates the most material wealth or produces the most for the most people. This free market utilitarianism gets rid of rights altogether and says, “The free market works better than a mixed economy, and much better than a communist planned economy, so it must be the best system, and therefore is the most moral.” This pragmatist argument supposes that a system’s consequences decide its morality, not the other way around. Many libertarians are attracted to this argument because they see the economics of libertarianism as the best way to persuade non-libertarians of the virtues of the free market. Indeed, one can find consequentialist libertarians in many places in libertarian culture. At a recent conference of the national libertarian student group, Students for Liberty, here at the University of Chicago, the keynote speaker, Chicago economist Peter Leeson, challenged deontological libertarians in his speech, and moral arguments in general. He said that it is better to be a consequentialist, because results matter and that’s how you persuade people.

For these utilitarian libertarians, the consequences are the standard by which one judges a social system, yet those who hold this viewpoint, in the libertarian context, usually give no account of how to judge the consequences themselves. In other words, such an argument leaves no way to determine which consequences are good – no actual ethical standard is presented. Consequentialist libertarians might assume that prosperity is the ultimate good, but there are others who instead value equality as the best consequence. If one subscribes to consequentialist libertarianism, there is no standard by which to judge which of these consequences is the right one. Furthermore, this philosophical basis leaves the means unaccounted for, as the ends justify the means in every situation. In reality, there should be no dichotomy between judgment of the means and the ends, as both are essential parts of an action. An ethical system should be applicable to all situations, and involve the entire context of the situation, not just one part of it. The utilitarian case for laissez-faire capitalism does not provide such rigorous applicability, and is therefore easily susceptible to any ideology with an argument for its specific target-consequence. Only a defense which has its morality as primary should be admitted as a valid ethical defense of capitalism.

            An interesting thing about consequentialism is that it can influence those libertarians who still assert some objective moral standard for their political philosophy. One can see this in the fact that Reason Magazine, although it states that it exists on moral premises, focuses on publishing economic articles, implying that these economic observations validate its unexplained moral premises. Although the editors of the magazine recognize that libertarianism requires a moral basis, the view that economic arguments are more important to the libertarian movement is implicit in what they choose to publish. Many individual libertarians also hold some unjustified ethical principle about coercion, but when speaking with a non-libertarian, or debating a statist, they will almost exclusively resort to economic arguments. Many libertarians believe that laissez-faire capitalism is the most moral system, yet cannot argue from the moral standpoint, only the economic. Why is that? Because they know that their belief in the morality of their political philosophy is shaky and, to some extent, ungrounded.

            The central problem with the movement, a problem with American politics in general, is that people tend to view politics as a primary, thus destroying any chance of philosophical integration. Misintegration occurs, in most cases, because of a lack of explicit philosophy (as with the rampant implicit acceptance of relativism among libertarians). If libertarians were more aware of the role philosophy plays in forming political viewpoints, and in the inherent connection between morality and politics, those who hold no philosophical justification would perhaps seek out comprehensive premises, and those who hold flawed, usually unconscious philosophical justifications would recognize the contradictions within their implicit premises. Libertarians would do good to eliminate the disintegrated and misintegrated elements of the movement and not preserve them in the name of “intellectual diversity,” a euphemism for relativistic inconsistency. A political philosophy that accepts disparate viewpoints will never achieve much, as it sabotages itself by crippling its own unity, by allowing inconsistency to be its defining characteristic, and by promoting internal contradictions as signs of its “diversity.” Libertarians must recognize that the system they have been advocating for, free-market capitalism, is a moral system, the moral system, and not sacrifice this philosophically-valid claim because economic arguments are easier or because we can convert more people by accepting welfare-ethics, as many prominent libertarians have suggested. Where there is an asserted dichotomy between the moral and the practical, the moral system will never be achieved. Only through consistent and valid premises can a movement advance its ideas in a meaningful way.

The scattershot, disagreement-prone libertarian movement of today will never achieve much if its proponents continue to accept this mode of operation as valid. This is not just a strategic diagnosis, but a philosophical one; only consistent, valid philosophical ideas can lead to a consistent, valid practical system. 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.

Today’s political system has lost that focus on explicit ethics as a prerequisite to governmental theory, and certainly does not recognize philosophy as connected to politics, except as a flourish in superficial rhetoric. As such, politics is a philosophical branch isolated from philosophy. If the Libertarian Party, and libertarians in general, wish to portray themselves as authentically, intellectually “principled,” they should abandon the lazy, anti-philosophical, destructive paradigm so pervasive in mainstream American politics, and focus on validating ideas with rational philosophical context. Until then, the movement will continue to be as aimless and ineffective as the two-party system has been, and “The Party of Principle” will continue to be an empty rhetorical bromide.