Does Liberty Serve Selfishness?

Where I publish my columns there tends to be considerable sympathy for the idea that individual liberty is the primary public good'-protect it and the law has done its business. All the rest is mortar work.

I also read much correspondence addressed to me or to others who publish on these forums, including in the newspapers that run my columns, and one of the charges that is repeatedly leveled is that defenders of individual liberty are simple apologists for selfishness. Libertarianism, then, is dismissed as but the ideology that selfish people have devised to make it look like they have a robust political system, with ideals of justice and rights to bolster what amount to no more than rank selfish motives. (Sound a bit like bin Laden's rant!)

This is a charge that goes back very far in history. It came to full fruition in the works of Karl Marx, with his dismissal of thinkers like John Locke, Adam Smith, David Ricardo and others as ideologues, defenders of class interest. Free markets, Marx thought, did nothing more than make it possible for the rich to remain rich or get richer, while they exploited the poor.

Who in fact peddled exploitation could be ascertained quickly enough-'many of Marx's critics identified him, quite correctly, as the quintessential rationalizer of the use of political power and the man who pandered to human envy, first and foremost, despite weaving thousands of pages of obtuse prose that tried to come off as serious political economics. But Marx had many, many epigone and still has quite a few, including several writing for The New York Times and other mainstream American forums. And his legacy is well respected in our colleges and universities, where shielded from the realities of ordinary life'-tenure does that for some people ' many scholars remain loyal Marxists and neo-Marxists.

So the charge that defending the right to liberty is but a way to advance rank selfishness is not new. But like many such provocative charges, it needs to be answered and re-answered. And I have a very shocking answer to offer'-I think the charge is essentially right! The right to freedom does, among other things, secure for people the opportunity to seek to advance themselves'-in the arts, sciences, education, business, athletics, farming, travel and anything else that is peaceful. What selfishness amounts to in this charge is not complicated: When freedom reigns, we can all do what we decide to do instead of what others'-the king, the majority, the ruling elite, the party or the bureaucrats'-want us to do. Wanting to do one's own thing, to advance one's own causes, is deemed selfish by many, indeed. At times this is annoying'-for example, when young people, who aren't yet prepared to carry their own economic weight, insist that they want to have it their way even though they aren't going to pay for any of it. But when you grow up and do in time carry your own economic weight, then to insist that you want to be the judge of what your efforts should support, what your time should be spent on, who gets your money or other resources, well that kind of selfishness is exactly right. Because it also implies that whenever others insist that you devote your energies to causes they deem vital, they must convince you. That is what civilized conduct means'-not coercing people to serve purposes they haven't thought of but convincing them to do so.

So, yes, champions of individual liberty'-the rights to one's own life, one's own property, one's own pursuit of happiness'-do promote at least the possibility of a certain kind of selfishness and there should be no apology for this. We are adult human beings, after all, not children or wards of others and it is our business in life to figure out how we should live, to what we should devote ourselves. And it is only a polity of liberty that respects this fact about us. If one wishes to construe this as the promotion of selfishness, so be it. There is nothing wrong and everything right about taking charge of one's life and deciding in the service of what ends it should be guided. Anyone who complains about this, starting with Karl Marx, is demonstrating not some great love of humanity, not benevolence toward others, but base misanthropy.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.