Liberty as a moral principle


Unlike Sam, I am a natural rights libertarian. I believe that each of us enjoys the fundamental right of self-ownership, not because it is granted by government, or because it is god-given, but simply because we are human. From that flows the non-aggression principle: no one may initiate or threaten force, or employ fraud, against the person or property of anyone else.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think liberty is utility maximizing. Of course free markets produce better outcomes than unfree ones. And of course free societies are happier and more peaceful than unfree ones. Nor does my natural-rights stance mean I reject the consequentialist argument that the protection of the individual has largely become established and embedded in our institutions because it works, rather than because of broad acceptance of self-ownership as a moral principle.

What it does mean is that I think the promotion of liberty should rest on moral arguments as well as on empirical ones. The libertarian movement does itself a grave disservice if it focuses solely on things like efficiency and growth maximization. We end up looking like heartless bean counters, forever attacking someone else’s idea of compassion. And that’s not what liberty is about. Liberty is an inspiring, exciting, and – yes – deeply moral ideal. We shouldn’t be afraid to say so.

P.S. I also think that people are far less persuaded by empirical evidence than is commonly assumed. It doesn’t really seem to matter how much havoc government intervention causes, or how little success the welfare state has, so long as people think it was ‘the right thing to do’. As long as society is dominated by an anti-individualist ethic, freedom is going to get short shrift, and libertarians are going to be fighting a losing battle.