Column by Paul Bonneau.
Exclusive to STR
One of the Strike The Root guest editors linked to an article a few days back, Steve Horwitz’ "Don’t Leave Me Alone". This was an opportunity for a little personal edification. One question that arose was, “What is a libertarian?”
Apparently the answer is, “Who the Hell knows?” In other words, it has become almost as mushy a term as “liberal” or “conservative.” There’s apparently no single, defining characteristic for “libertarian.”
And what about me? I’m certainly not a consequentialist; I subscribe to NAP. But I can’t be deontological because I don’t believe in rights. I’m like that rattlesnake in the Gadsden Flag, who doesn’t know anything at all about rights. He’s just going to bite anyone who treads on him, who doesn’t have the sense to leave him alone. Guess I’m not a libertarian, but an anarchist--although anarchists are just as divided as libertarians! Ah, humans are funny, aren’t they?
Anyway, thanks for the philosophical diversion, Steve. But going on, does even a consequentialist like Steve necessarily need to have a problem with “Leave Me Alone”?
His article misses the mark almost entirely. It’s hard to see how he gets from “leave me alone” to “let’s live in a cave and to Hell with everyone else”, but he manages it, somehow. Of course “leave me alone” does not mean anything like that; it means certain others (mainly, government employees but including other criminals such as free lance types) should go away. It’s not that interaction with all others is unwelcome, but only interaction with aggressive others. Yes, Steve, even deontological libertarians can have friends, and can support and even receive charity. If you wanted to pick an argument with Objectivists, you should have called them out specifically.
He also has a problem with maintaining appearances: “When libertarians adopt ‘leave us alone’ rhetoric, they reinforce the negative stereotype of a selfish person unconcerned with the less fortunate.” Well, see, that’s the thing about principles. One cleaves to them even if that is unpopular with the masses, or with propagandists. Otherwise they are not principles!
I think the problem he perceives is mostly in his own head, though. Yeah, propagandists might attempt to pin the “selfish” label on libertarians, but why should we care about that? At least we’re not being ignored by the state, as we were years ago. At least we are a thorn in their sides, something they have to address. That’s progress!
No, “leave me alone” is not anything we should be ashamed of, nor is it unfortunate PR for libertarianism. It’s the central thing! (Except for consequentialists, where it is just the means to their utilitarian end--but it is still that!) It’s “leave me alone, I leave you alone.” It’s almost identical to freedom; at least it is awfully hard to imagine freedom without it.
Not only that--it’s directly connected to true tolerance, the highest civic virtue. It’s the only way we can sell at least our own freedom to the masses, even if they want none of it themselves. No person wants to step on that rattlesnake, whatever his political philosophy may be. Better yet, the very same thing, “leave me alone,” is also the only way to their own political end, as well. If they wanna be commies, all they have to do is to say “leave me alone,” and we and others who adopt that saying will do so. Everyone gets what he wants. That would seem to be a pretty good sales tactic, rather than the PR problem that Steve Horwitz worries about.
How is freedom even possible without “leave me alone”? But then, maybe freedom does not really interest Steve. There’s no shortage of consequentialists, after all. Even history’s worst dictators were consequentialists--they didn’t (I assume) think of themselves as evil bastards, but instead that their program was humanity’s salvation.
In the end, morals may be as ephemeral as utilitarian arguments, since each person has his own set of them. But somehow I find it hard to trust folks like Steve, even when (at the moment) he is making some kind of argument for freedom. I suppose it’s just because of comments such as the one he made below his article: “Yes, if coercion actually did improve the lives of poor folks, or if socialism really did bring us a world in which we were all better off and lived wonderful lives, I would support them.” Oh, boy, another world improver; just what we need!
But then, that is really no problem. All I have to do is to say to Steve and his consequentialist buddies, “Leave Me Alone!”