The moral physician: heal thyself.
The moral compass of libertarianism is not a hard one to grasp, albeit sometimes quite difficult to implement.
Libertarianism is a moral philosophy that tells us the minimum standards we must use in our dealings with others. It tells us how we must treat others. It binds us to non-coercive, voluntary, interactions where the rights and wishes of others are respected, even if we don’t approve of them. So libertarianism is first and foremost a personal philosophy before it is a political one.
What makes libertarianism unique is that it argues that in the realm of politics the State, and its various agents and employees, are bound by the same moral principles as everyone else. That is, the State must also act in non-coercive, voluntary ways and respect the rights and wishes of others. I know it is more nuanced than this brief explanation but this does cover the basics.
Libertarians spend a lot of time passing judgment on the State for its violations of the rights and wishes of people. And that is right and proper to do. When the State violates the life, liberty or property of people it is acting immorally, from a libertarian perspective. Remember, we libertarians say that the State does not have exemptions to the moral codes that determine how we treat others.
When the State actively violates individual rights libertarians rightfully condemn the State and speak out against it. We ought to hold the feet of the politicians and bureaucrats to the fire when they act in this manner—for instance in the disgusting TSA “pat downs” that were implemented. It has been said that if anyone else treated others the way the TSA does, they would be sex offenders facing prison. Members of the government should not be exempt from those moral principles. Either they apply to all of us, or they apply to none of us. We are all equally human and thus bound by the same moral code.
But it is not the State that I want to criticize today, but some so-called libertarians. In fact, I would argue that these people are not, and cannot be libertarians, no matter how much they sound like libertarians. I am not talking about conservatives, like Wayne Root or Bob Barr, who pretend to be libertarians. I am talking about individuals who, when it comes to the State, are about as purely libertarian as one can be.
How is it possible for someone who is 100% libertarian on political issues to NOT be a libertarian?
What people tend to forget is that the political theory of libertarians is the application of personal libertarian morality. Libertarianism has two components: the personal and the political. The libertarian argues that the moral code that binds the person, also binds the political process. But the reverse is equally true. The moral code that binds the political process binds the person.
An individual who claims to be a libertarian politically, but murders or rapes, is NO libertarian. They may not be transgressing the rights of others politically, but they are transgressing the rights of others personally. That the individual violates libertarian principles in their personal life is sufficient to say that they are not libertarian in the most important sense: whether or not they respect the rights of others politically.
Libertarianism that is only relegated to the political sphere is a cheap imitation of the real thing. It is cheap because most libertarians are not part of the State and thus don’t have the opportunity to easily use State power to violate the life, liberty or property of others. I am not a politician, so it is amazingly simple for me to be a political libertarian. But, when it comes to personal interactions with others, it is quite possible to violate libertarian principles. As individuals we find DO have the power to violate the rights of others, even if we don’t have that power politically.
Given that reality, the only meaningful way to determine if someone is libertarian is whether or not they respects the rights of others in their personal interactions. It is what they do in life, and not what they say about politics, that is the final judge in this matter. It is the walk, not the talk, that is important. Of course if they held political power than they would be judged on that matter as well.
A “libertarian” who wants to cure the world of its ills, but who engages in deception, lies, fraud, theft, etc., is simply not a libertarian in reality. And, it is the reality of how they live, not their rhetoric, that is important.
Some years ago I worked for a “financial analyst” who I discovered was a con man. He was defrauding people in various ways. I was horrified, partly because of what he was doing, and partly because it was a very well paying position that offered me a company car and similar perks. I and another staff member discussed what was going on and we both resigned our positions. It was a good thing we did, shortly afterwards the con man was arrested and eventually went on to serve some years in a federal prison. Rightfully so in my view.
He, however, claimed to be a libertarian. He sounded libertarian. He donated funds to libertarian causes. But he was defrauding people out of their money. When we first raised some concerns about this man, within libertarian circles, a very well known libertarian came rushing to his defense. The main reason was that they were allies in some minor debate within libertarian circles. This famed libertarian dismissed the fraudulent activities of my ex-employer and argued that his personal life didn’t matter.
The other employee, who left when I did, responded to this prominent libertarian by saying: “If taxation is theft, then surely theft is theft.” The prominent libertarian seemed to think that only the political mattered and the personal didn’t. So, apparently this idea that libertarians apply the same moral code to the State, that they do to individuals, was a fraud. At least for this well-known libertarian it was. He didn’t do that at all. He had a moral code for the State that said, “thou shalt not steal” but didn’t apply that code to individuals.
But, as I said earlier, the moral code of libertarianism goes both ways. You can’t say the State is bound by the same moral code as individuals, and then turn around and say this moral code doesn’t bind individuals. That is inconsistent and irrational. It makes libertarianism a joke.
Libertarians, as individuals, must NOT violate the life, liberty or property of others. People who talk libertarianism for politics, but live dishonestly at the personal level, are NOT libertarians. They may joke and say: “Don’t steal the government doesn’t like competition.” But they are stealing while demanding the State doesn’t? It appears that they are the criminals who don’t like competition. And that's no joke.
A “libertarian” who is dishonest in negotiations, or perhaps covers up the criminal actions of another person, has violated the basic moral principles of the code they claim to follow. A “libertarian” who does that is a fraud, no matter how rosy their rhetoric or sweet their smile. Libertarian groups that deceive their donors are equally criminal and outside the libertarian camp.
Libertarianism is NOT just a political philosophy. It is a moral code that applies first to the individual, and then applies to the State as well. Before libertarians try to cure the society around them they had been make sure they are in good shape themselves. The slogan, “Physician, heal thyself” applies to libertarians as well.
Leonard Read, the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, used to talk a lot about how libertarians should first reform themselves, before reforming the world. I have come to appreciate that advice more and more every day.
There are, in this world, some very humble people, who know little about politics but who are actually very, very libertarian in their moral code. And because they have nothing to do with politics they are also libertarian politically, even if they don’t understand the principles or values. At the same time there are well known libertarians who have no moral compass of their own, or a very shattered one. They lie, they steal, they defraud, or they may simply just help cover up the crimes ,and become accomplices after the fact. It doesn’t matter how many libertarian essays they write, how many lectures they give, or how many meetings they attend. They are as far away from libertarianism as the politicians they condemn. The politician does not respect others in the public sphere and these libertarians don’t respect others in the private sphere. Both violate the rights of others and one is not a libertarian if one does that.
Since libertarianism is a moral code that applies to the personal and the political, neither of them are libertarian. In some ways these fraudulent libertarians are even worse than the political classes they attack. The professional politicians rarely pretend to hold the moral values that underpin libertarianism. They don’t argue that the moral code that binds individuals also binds the State. If anything, they explicitly deny that premise. But these libertarians do say that the State is bound by the same moral code that applies to individuals, while they individually violate that code. Add to their list of sins a good dose of hypocrisy as well.
How you vote, or what principles you hold politically are not the ultimate standard by which you libertarianism is judged. How you live personally is!