Are libertarians heartless corporate shills?


The leftist reaction to libertarian ideas is fairly predictable – they tend to assume that assume anyone advocating them is either (a) in the pay of big corporations or (b) utterly indifferent to human suffering. Or both.

The big corporations point is, of course, completely fatuous. Big corporations generally like big government. They like the ways taxes and regulations insulate them from competition. They like they having politicians and diplomats promote their interests overseas. And they like the way taxpayer-funded infrastructure increases their economies of scale. Trust me: if you follow big corporate money through the political process, you’ll find that almost none of it goes to libertarians.

The compassion point is similarly baseless. Quite honestly, I don’t think that, on an individual level, libertarians are any more or less empathic than the population at large. Indeed, many libertarians are motivated precisely by a deep concern for the disadvantaged, and the myriad ways state failure diminishes their lives. Others are driven by a deeply held belief that freedom is an essential precondition for human dignity and individual flourishing. To accuse libertarians of atomistic nihilism is to misunderstand what their philosophy is all about.

That said, I do think there are three distinctions you can draw between the left’s idea of empathy and that of libertarians. Firstly, libertarians do not believe empathy justifies any policy, regardless of the consequences. The left, by contrast, often uses policy to display its social conscience – it doesn’t seem to matter what the outcomes of various government programmes are, so long as the motivation is to help people.

Secondly, libertarians think compassion is something which individuals display and act on in relation to other individuals. They don’t want compassion to be nationalized or institutionalized. If you care, it’s your job to do something. Leftists typically prefer to force their feelings on everyone through the redistributive state.

Thirdly, most libertarians think that their compassion is something to be earned. It is not something you owe to everyone irrespective of their qualities or virtues: there are those who deserve your sympathy, and those that don’t. Leftists tend to think that compassion should be indiscriminate: after all, we’re all just victims of societal circumstance, aren’t we? The libertarian worldview, by contrast, emphasizes individual responsibility.

Hayek famously refused to accuse his opponents of anything other than intellectual error: “we ought to remain aware that our opponents are often high-minded idealists whose harmful teachings are inspired by very noble ideals.” Leftists ought to come to a similar realization: libertarians are not bad people, just because they disagree with them.