Libertarian Civics Lesson #438
Tibor R. Machan
It is customary, sadly, for critics of a viewpoint to distort it, caricature it, besmirch it and the like--or at least to mention only aspects of it that could turn out to be untoward some human interests. So, of course, with libertarianism which is the most radical, novel political idea around--in contrast to the relentlessly statist ideas and practices that have dominated human political history. So you will hear that libertarians are crass individualist, mindless egotists, anti-social, atomistic, and the like. And while one can find one or two such people among those calling themselves libertarian, the charge is largely bogus. Every viewpoint has its least palatable versions and some will go the distance of affirming it, if only out of frustration and spite. (Professor Walter Block, an economist at Loyola University of New Orleans, did this with his book Defending the Undefendable ) in which, for example, he championed littering on public roads as a kind of civil disobedience!)
The charge that libertarianism is anti-social, etc., is palpably false. The thing about that irks many people is that social relations within a prospective libertarian country would all have to be voluntary, never coerced. (One famous scholar who finds this very annoying is Professor Michael J. Sandel, so much so that his recently published, Justice, What is the Right Thing to do? [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009], based on his very popular PBS TV and Harvard University lectures by that same term, begins with a frontal attack on libertarianism [a la the late Robert Nozick].) Sandel’s central complaint is that libertarianism doesn’t acknowledge that everyone has unchosen obligations to society. The famous American and classical liberal idea that government must be consented to by the governed is tossed aside for this reactionary idea that when you are born you are already legally ensnared in innumerable duties to others which, of course, government is authorized to extract from you. The idea, most forcefully defended by the French father of sociology, Auguste Comte, is a ruse and used mostly to make people into serfs, subject them to involuntary servitude, however noble sounding the sentiments behind it.
In any case, I just have a small example to present in which the claim that libertarians are anti-social, un-neighborly is shown to be false. I have a deck on which I spend a good deal of time. My neighbor’s roof is nearly even with it so that when his fireplace is used, the smoke is often sent to where I sit. And it can get a bit annoying even while there is that nice rustic smell to it which I actually like. (Who knows what it is doing to my lungs!)
If I were terribly sensitive to the smoke, I would just go to my neighbor and request that the smoke be redirected or contained. (Economists call it a negative externality if it does indeed cause damage and sometimes worry that such externalities may not always be internalizable, contained, in other words.) My other neighbor has done exactly this when he found my stereo blasting too loudly in the middle of the night--gave me a call and asked me to turn it down, which I did, of course. Similar mini-altercations occur across my neighborhood and, of course, throughout the world and once it is clear who is in charge of the realms being affected, they are managed with no fuss in I would assume 90% cases. Only small minded folks fail to cope with them, or ignorant ones or ones who have a gripe against a neighbor to start with.
If, however, one experiences such minor incursions on public places, the situation changes. The old tragedy of the commons arises for no one knows who is in charge and whose desires should be honored. Some head honcho needs to be selected and the hope will spread that this individual or committee will make a fair determination of just how much annoyance everyone must accept for the sake of the community (it is always said). And no end of grumbling comes from this arrangement. No one tends to like the outcome since everyone thinks his or her share of burdens is too great and benefits too little. As Aristotle noted some 3000 years ago:
“That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few." (Politics, 1262a30-37)
So stop it already about how anti-social the free society would be. Quite the contrary is true.