When Libertarianism Hurts
“This is a free country,” was his terse response.
This all unfolded recently at my local public library, while I was quietly working on some writing projects. Around the corner of the room another patron started up a loud, profanity-laced phone call.
No longer able to concentrate and firm in my conviction that this was not the appropriate venue for such a call to be held, I calmly approached the man to inform him of my grievance and offer the radical suggestion that he should, in fact, take the call outside.
“Who are you to tell me what to do,” he bristled, “this is a free country.”
No, this is not a free country. This is a public library. You do not have the right to be an asshole to those around you. At least that’s what I had wanted to say to him, but lacking quick wit and impulsive retorts, I merely reminded him that he ought to be respectful to the other patrons. This diffused the situation, but I was left fuming over his cavalier attitude.
‘This is a free country:’ the battle cry of the libertarians. Who are you to tell me how to live. Leave me alone and let me do what I want.
It’s all evocative of talk we hear in America quite frequently. Ours is a nation that highly values its liberty. The very founding of our country, in fact, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence, was built upon the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But of those unalienable rights, liberty has become the most proudly flaunted, not to mention the most fashionable. Think of all the t-shirts and Americana tchotchke you’ve seen emblazoned with eagles, red, white, and blue with the big word ‘FREEDOM’ written in bold capital letters. Liberty, understandably, is a quite attractive value.
Liberty indeed has been a vitally important core founding principle of America, and the resulting American psyche of being able to choose one’s own destiny factors greatly into our national pride and identity. However, there becomes a problem when liberty is touted above all other American values, such that even other rights enshrined in the constitution including justice, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare take a backseat to liberty. When this occurs, we lose sight of the reality of America as a nation. For, contrary to Americanized myth, we are not a country composed of rugged individuals best left to our own devices. We are instead a multitudinous society comprised of a diverse cross-section of humanity struggling to live out all the founding values of our nation. Though the founding fathers valued liberty, they themselves also came together to practice the compromise of their desires in order to form a more powerful nation capable of generating more of the common good for more of its citizens. We cannot operate for the greatest general welfare of all citizens of this country with an unabashed ‘leave me the fuck alone’ mentality. We need to transcend the simplistic thought of this being a free country—as in free of obligations to other people—and realize that it takes more than just liberty of conscious to promote other American values like fairness, equality, and protection of the minority. It takes a collective effort of knowing the limits to your freedoms and practicing the extent of your responsibilities.
The classic litmus test for the limits of liberty is that your rights end where my rights begin. Your rights to swing your fists freely end where my nose begins. Your right to speak freely ends where disorderly conduct begins. There are inherent limits to our liberty in this country, and that is designed for the better of society as a whole. But beyond basic limits to freedom, there is a certain respect and civility in public life that libertarian ideals don’t aspire to. The live-and-let-live philosophy makes little impetus to improve society for us all. The belief that everyone left to their own devices would make an ideal society ignores the systemic and structural inequality we have in America, let alone doesn’t compel us to become better citizens of our country.
The English philosopher Alain de Botton makes an observation that Western political theory prizes liberty as the ‘supreme political value,’ and that libertarian ideals have infiltrated all political parties, not just the namesake Libertarian Party. In his book Religion for Atheists, de Botton explains how libertarian thought, in political life, seeks to cast no moral judgment on citizens and offers no vision as to how best to live together; in other words, that the greater welfare of the group is not a sufficient warrant to necessitate interference from the state upon the individual. The libertarian ideal, de Botton argues, is that moral behavior is a question for the conscious of the individual alone and should not be subject to judgment from a committee of governmental regulators. In America, any moralistic push of the state is viewed as paternalistic at best (nanny state), and suspect of a devious agenda at worst (fascism). But the downside of all this liberty is that we no longer know how to handle ourselves properly with all of our freedom. We often find ourselves in want of some moral guidance for how best to live our lives in relation to others. Here, de Botton argues, is where civil governments can take a cue from religions and not be afraid of being seen as paternalistic, but instead work to foster qualities, like harmony and forgiveness, which often run counter to our basic human nature. In a pluralistic society, it would take just a little nudging from the civil government to get us to behave on our best behavior.
Let’s think about how libertarian ideology can be harmful in this analogy:
A large group of individuals are traveling on a massive ship. They don’t all know each other, yet they share the same vessel. One day, the travelers begin to notice that the ship has started to list to one side, that is has started taking on water. They employ a sudden search to find the source of the leak in order to save the ship. Upon searching the lower decks, they find a stateroom that is the source of the water. They pry open the door to find a man standing over a hole in the boat. The man yells aggressively at the others who have found him: “I paid for this stateroom. I can do whatever I want to it!”
America, it could be said, is a giant ship, the home to a diverse multitude of people. As citizens of this country, we cannot do absolutely whatever we please and still expect to form a prosperous and civil society. There are limits to our freedom put in place to promote the common welfare, just as there are civic duties that it is our obligation to uphold for that same welfare. We are all in this together. The libertarian philosophy, unfortunately, often blinds itself to this interdependence to others in society.
Though we must value our liberty as Americans, we must also exercise that liberty with constraint. The freedom of speech does not give one the right to falsely yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theatre. The right to bear arms as part of a ‘well-regulated militia’ does not imply that there should be no restrictions on civilian firearms. The norms for behaving properly in this country have been developed as practical limits on our freedom in order to promote a compatible society of diverse people. Once we can embrace the fact that indeed our liberty is not the sole virtue of our American society, we can move on to creating a better government. For, even in the text of The Declaration of Independence, with its intended purpose of severing ties with the English Crown, the abolishment of government altogether for the sake of increased liberty was not an end in itself. Rather, the alteration and re-institution of government mentioned was expressly intended to protect the rights and welfare of the people—not just for the sake of increasing personal liberty alone.