Logic, Liberty and Reality


There is a principle in logic that goes like this: Once a contradiction has infected an argument, anything can follow. Another way of putting it is that once a viewpoint has contradictions in it, nothing reasonable can be expected from it except accidentally.

When one discusses politics, a charge frequently leveled is that one's views aren't realistic but too purist, too idealistic. Champions of all kinds of political ideas hear this but in America it is put to libertarians especially often. This is because libertarians undeniably advocate public policies that are very close to what the basic principles of the American political system would imply.

If one takes a look at the Declaration of Independence and just considers the ordinary meaning of its central claims, no other political system apart from libertarianism could reasonably come to mind. Unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness-'precisely what libertarianism affirms. For laws to be established so as to secure our rights'-that's another libertarian thesis. None of us may justly be deprived of life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness, period.

Libertarians do tweak this a bit when they make explicit something that is clearly implicit in this claim, namely, that we all have the right to private property. That's because without that right, there can be no effective right to life and liberty, let alone the pursuit of happiness. And the founders, especially the author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was quite aware of this.

Now those who complain that libertarians are not being realistic basically have in mind that unless one compromises on the basic principles of the Declaration, one is simply not in touch with political reality. Yet if those principles are actually sound, if we do have the rights Jefferson identified as ours by our very nature, then to compromise them would pretty much amount to breaching the application of logic to politics. If it is true that any human beings (not crucially incapacitated) has an unalienable right to his or her life or liberty or pursuit of happiness, then reasoning logically from this would imply that you, I, our neighbors and millions of others have these rights. And that means that violating them, even for wonderful and widely demanded purposes such as providing others with health care or education or art museums, is illogical. And by the rules of logical inference, once such a move is accepted, tolerated, and made part of public policy, what follows is a humongous mess in public affairs, that's what.

And that is just what we are witnessing now in the United States of America, as well as many other places. There is no consistent public policy anywhere, none to which political leaders swear any allegiance and none they bother to follow loyally. That's the trust of the beef about the absence of a coherent vision in political campaigning. And the courts, too, are all over the map, one day affirming individual rights, the next denying them in the myriad of cases on which they rule. Furthermore, taxation violates our right to liberty and property and government regulation is a blatant attack on due process, which requires that only those who have violated someone's rights may be burdened with fines or jail.

So when libertarians are told they are being unrealistic, not pragmatic enough'-which means not practical, not in line with reality'-what they are really being told is that they refuse to accept the mess that today amounts to practical politics. They are being told that they are aiming too high by insisting that politics, like personal life itself, ought to have integrity and not embrace contradictory ideas and policies.

No libertarian in his right mind believes that full consistency is easy or even very likely, just as none believes that full personal integrity is easy or very likely for people to achieve. But to accept that one ought to just cave in to the demands of deliberate compromise, that this is what the norm should be, is to promote meaninglessness and arbitrariness in public affairs.

The simple truth is that the sole hope for justice and decency in public life is to insist on practicing only what is consistent with fundamental principles based on human nature and the requirements of social existence. The mere fact that this isn't likely to be around the corner anytime soon, anywhere on the globe, or that it is very difficult to secure, does not change anything. By acquiescing to compromise, being 'realistic,' one simply throws in the towel and gives up on seeking any rhyme or reason in political matters.

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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.