Libertarian ethics and its justification

André Hansson

Tillbaka till

The political and moral view that liberty ought to be the only concern of coercive social institutions now has the biggest following since the days John Stuart Mill. It is known today as Libertarianism and it seriously emerged in the 1970s, with the publication of Robert Nozick's Anarchy State and Utopia, as one the most pregnant ideas in post war history and has since become a major factor in politics, in academia and in the day to day life of many. In addition to the impact of Nozick, at the same time there began a most serious period of chronic fiscal problems for both the Soviet Union and the welfare states of the West-old truths were questioned by libertarians, about the state, economics, privacy, freedom and about politics. Is it right for the state to interfere with the life of its citizen's? Does planned economy, or indeed the notion of a 'mixed economy' as applied in the west, really produce the highest welfare? Liberty, whether personal or economic or some other kind, is central value of Libertarianism and it is this value that will be the subject of analysis in this mini-essay.

Libertarian ethics are often considered pure and simplistic in that it leaves no room for pragmatism. An individual is either free or unfree-there is no middle ground for politicians to meddle in, to make decisions, to govern, no place for the state etc. Many would even suggest it's a radical ideology, its devotees single-minded and uncompromising. But Libertarianism is often more complex than some say, and the reasoning behind it much more complex than a simplistic disdain of the state and of authority in general. In this essay we shall take closer look at this view of liberty as the pinnacle of all values, and two distinct ways of justifying it. These issues are rife with a complexity that cannot be fully covered here, but well enough sampled to put this view of simplicity at rest.
In fact, the attentive reader will notice that I've already hinted at this above. Revisit the two questions asked at the end of opening paragraph:

Is it right for the state to interfere with the life of its citizen's?

Does planned economy, or indeed the notion of a 'mixed economy' as applied in the west, really produce the highest welfare?

Libertarians often ask both questions, but in ways of justifying liberty as the eventual as the answer to both of them lie along two very different paths. The first question is answered in terms of rights-it will lead us down the path of deontological ethics, the second in terms of consequences-it will lead us down the path of teleological ethics.
It is the purpose of this essay to uncover some of the complexity of liberty as the central value of libertarian ethics by looking at how it is justified from both these perspectives.

We will first need a ground to stand on so at first we will attempt to define liberty itself. What is it, what is it not? Then a short exposé will follow on general deontological and teleological ethics.

What is liberty?
A lot of philosophical ink has been spilled in providing an answer to this question. There are two main ideas that are competing with each other in political philosophy. These are known as negative and positive freedom. The former is usually defined as being the absence of external constraints upon the willed actions of an individual (Robertson, 1993), i.e., nothing or no one prevents you from doing what you want to, with 'nothing' being of a particularly tricky nature as we shall see below. Positive freedom is said to concern the presence of such conditions as to actually be able to do the things an individual wills, i.e., an individual who is hungry and wants to eat is unfree in the absence of food (see Narveson, 2001; Robertson, 1993). Libertarianism subscribes to the former definition of liberty and rejects the latter as being freedom at all. We will here look closer at both this concepts to understand why this is so.

It is not the point of this section to definitely decide what is and what is not freedom, but rather to create an understanding of the libertarian concept of freedom, which will then be used in the analysis of deontological and teleological justifications of liberty.

So what is liberty then? I now will try to build a definition from the ground up, starting with fundamentals and moving up towards the debate over positive liberty and why it is rejected by libertarians. First, what is the subject of liberty; to whom shall we ascribe the quality of being free or unfree? It might seem a trivial question-it is living beings of course. But does it include all human beings? It is often suggested by libertarians and others that liberty applies to beings with a capacity for rational decision making which would arguably exclude for instance some human beings and all animals. It is a comfortable, usable, but problematic criterion. Rationality is a value and it can mean different things depending on what we ascribe to it. We will assume here a broad definition of rationality; persons are rational in the sense that they have the ability to make judgments and choices when faced with different possible actions. This should apply to most human beings, except perhaps persons with an extremely low IQ, or some mentally ill persons. Nor will it, as stated above, include animals, even though they obviously also may be free or unfree in some respect. These are exceptions that deserve attention, but can for our purpose in analyzing liberty under normal social circumstances be left out.

It's important to note here that the question of what is rationality is a different question than what is rational. The latter require that we ascribe some moral and political standard against which to judge actions, the former only that we define some process from which different actions can be discerned and valued. We have done that above and can move on.
In what kind of situation is it interesting to note if an (rational) individual is free or unfree? What is interesting with liberty is interferences of some kind. Consider the following statements:

a) I'm too short to develop an effective serve in the game of tennis. I am thus unfree to practice the game to the extent I would like.
b) My opponent prevents me from serving effectively in a game of tennis with the threat of violence if I do (presumably he'll lose the match if I do). I am thus unfree to practice the game to the extent that I like. (This has actually happened to me once as a kid!).

Both of these examples signify some sort of interference. In the first, my unfortunate shortness interferences with my game of tennis. It is an interference, but not one we're interested in here. We will call this a natural interference, as distinct from an intentional interference as part of an interaction with another human being, which would be the latter example. Hence, we're interested in interferences of a social kind. In the second example I am actively prevented by someone else from doing something that I want to do. The difference should be clear. If I want to fly I cannot claim to be unfree because I'm a human being, rather than a bird. I can claim to be unfree if I'm prevented by force by another individual from pursuing a flight with a hang glider.

It might seem ridiculous to point this out, but people claim to be unfree on the grounds of such interferences all the time. For example, A claiming to unfree to live the same life as B because A don't earn enough money to afford B's lifestyle, even though no one actually prevented A from making those choices in life that would afford him to do so. Or A claiming to be unfree to live the life A wants because A wasn't smart enough to earn the grades needed to be accepted into particular school A wanted to go to, or that A's parents didn't earn enough money to pay for the tuition etc etc. These individuals can perhaps claim something, but they cannot claim to be unfree in the sense that they are prevented from doing what they want to do. In the same manner, I cannot claim to unfree because of my shortness, and then in the name of freedom demand that the world provides me with orthopedic shoes that makes me taller. (This would be equivalent to claiming that individuals have a right to be a of certain height!)

This brings us into the vicinity of the concept of positive liberty. What is then, positive liberty? As defined in the beginning of this section positive liberty seems always to be about the presence of specific conditions for individual A to do thing X. Positive liberty, if we continue the example of my amateur tennis career, would be those extra centimeters that would make me taller and thus free to serve unreturnable boomers like Boris Becker. Or the orthopedic shoes. To have a court to practice on, a friend to play with, a racquet. These are all positive liberties. The absence of any of these would make someone who wants to play tennis unfree. So positive liberty seems to be material welfare more than anything else and we now see that the same principle as with the tennis player of course applies to more familiar political contexts, such as housing, social security, money. These might be called external conditions. But it need not be material welfare only-it can also be internal conditions, such as political savvy and rhetorical skills, or any other talent and abilities inherent to a person. Jan Narveson refers to these conditions as powers. The conditions, barring any external constraints, that enables A to do thing X are his powers. The height, the tennis court, the food, the housing are all an individual's powers that enables him to do what he wants.
But is this necessarily liberty?

Having powers is to have wealth, material or otherwise. And the identification of liberty with wealth is problematic. F.A Hayek notes that whether or not one is his own master and can follow his own choices is a different matter from whether or not one have many of few possibilities to choose from . Consider this quote from Hayek. "The courtier living in the lap of luxury but at the beck and call of his prince may be much less free than a poor peasant or artisan, less able to live his own life and to choose his opportunities […]." The peasant is his own master and choose freely from the, albeit limited, possibilities, but the courtier cannot. In this case positive liberty seems not to be liberty at all.
Further, the identification of liberty with wealth begs the conclusion that if people are to be free they must be provided with powers, with wealth. I'm not sure it's even possible to provide the internal conditions of talent and abilities, but it is possible to provide people with material wealth, and with a notion of positive liberty at hand, material wealth must be provided for a society to be a free one. But material wealth must be produced by someone-it cannot magically spring into existence from nothing. So, in a society that adheres to a notion positive liberty some would be obliged to produce powers for others whether they wanted to or not. If B needs powers x and y to do thing z, and powers x and y are of material nature, then A (or C, or D) must produce x and y for B to be free. Isn't that a complete disregard for A's liberty? He is no longer his own master because he cannot choose not to produce powers x and y. This has led some to question if positive liberty ever can be anything else than an oxymoron.

This is more less where we arrive at the classic liberal axiom that every individual have a delimited sphere of action, such that he may do what he wants, unless he infringes upon the sphere of action of others. The only permissible interference is that of another's sphere of action, which may not be violated. This is the concept of liberty that libertarians adhere to and it is this concept that we now look at from both a deontological and teleological perspective.

Deontology and Teleology - the basics
Two main perspectives in any discussion about ethics are those of deontology and teleology. The former focuses actions themselves, the latter upon the consequences of actions. Both wants to answer the same question: what actions are good and what are not? We find both strands in libertarianism. Deontological ethics in libertarianism takes the shape of certain rights inherent to being human, such as the right to property. These rights are often considered universal in it's reach and nature. Actions are judged against the background of a certain right, regardless of it's consequences, an action in violation of a right is always wrong, a non-violation of an action is always right. Libertarian deontological ethics are today mostly connected to Robert Nozick, but it should be noted that most of his reasoning emanates from past thinkers, such as John Locke. With teleological ethics, on the other hand, it is a valuation of the consequences of a particular action that is the subject of study. The most common variant of teleological ethics is utilitarianism as expressed by Jeremy Bentham. Not surprisingly libertarian teleological ethics have a solid base in economic theory of which utility theory is a major part. Below we shall take a look at the common elements when justifying liberty in both perspectives starting with the deontological.

Deontological justification of liberty
According to most libertarian thinkers, humans, as moral agents, have certain natural rights, i.e., rights that exist prior to government and social organization. Governments exist to protect these rights, not to 'give them to us'. Individuals have, libertarians argue, as part of being human, the right to ownership of their own body and mind, abilities, talents and may do with it what they want. They also have a right to material property-mixing labor with a material entity (such as land) gives an individual the right to ownership of such material entity and the fruits produced thereof. Usually libertarians use a broad definition of the right to property to include not only material possessions like land, which is what many tend to think about, but also your body, abilities, talents, the fruits of your labor etc. In a sense there is only one right and that is the right to property.

Liberty then, is protected by concepts of rights. The spheres of action mentioned earlier are guarantied by the right to do as one pleases with the property one owns as long as the rights of other to do the same isn't violated. These rights protect what political philosophers call negative liberty and are often referred to as negative rights. The case for rights as protection of liberty reflects the arguments of among others John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Herbert Spencer and more modern political thinkers such as the aforementioned Robert Nozick, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and Jan Narveson.

The concept of positive liberty is also mirrored in a theory of rights. To add further depth to libertarian rights let us take a short look at these.
Not surprisingly they are often referred to as positive rights, but also, and more fittingly, to welfare rights or entitlements rights. Positive rights, as may be evident by the previous discussion about liberty, concerns rights to powers, or wealth of some kind. It is the concept that individuals have a right not only to do as they please with the property they own (and has acquired in a mutual and voluntary exchange with another individual or by original acquisition of previously not owned property), but to such things as work, housing, medical care. The UN's list of Human Rights are full of such rights as the right to work and housing. Sometimes, positive rights are justified with something called the moral theory of human need, which is based on the positive liberty argument.

As mentioned above, wealth (powers) has to be produced by human beings, and if some wealth is a right then it's production must be mandatory. Some individuals must be forced to produce it to the benefit of others. As noted in the previous discussion this would violate the negative rights of an individual. Also, having wealth, as we concluded, does not necessarily mean that you are free to dispense with such wealth in the way you whish (see Hayek quote above). It follows that if positive liberty is not liberty at all, as concluded above, then positive rights cannot be used to protect liberty, and from this it must follow that any government redistribution of resources (redistribution of powers or wealth) constitutes a violation of individual rights. This is not to say, though, that state redistribution is unjustified all the time, by any standard-only that it cannot be justified in the name of liberty.

Teleological Libertarianism
Some libertarian, particularly economist libertarians, rejects rights as basis for a free society. They instead argue from the conclusions of specific policy and the beneficial consequences following them. This utilitarian ethical position proposes that 'the greatest good for the greatest number' is the standard to which all actions should be measured. This, according to libertarians with utilitarian convictions, will be achieved with what is mostly referred to as 'laissez-faire' economic policies, i.e., a market economy with no interventions from the state. Not only is, for instance, taxation and redistribution of resources a violation of rights, they are also detrimental to the functions of an economy, leading to shortages, reduced economic growth and finally poverty.

Consider the following example of a simple tax on consumption goods (see any good textbook on economic theory). Adding a tax to a good will make the good more expensive to buy. This will have several effects. Less people will afford the good outright, others will deem it too expensive even if they can afford it. The purchasing power of consumers is reduced. Demand for the good drops (if the demand is, as economists say, elastic). This will reduce the profits of firms selling the good, i.e., less capital will be available for expansions. This translates into a reduction of employment opportunities, which translates into a further reduction of purchasing power for consumers. From here the chain starts again.

It is true that if government takes the revenues of that tax and gives it to a certain group within some redistribution program their purchasing power is increased, but as stated above, others will have their purchasing power reduced. The economy gains nothing, perhaps there's even a net loss. Instead libertarians claim that society will gain more from free exchange on free markets, and from this exchange a beneficial social order will emerge (often referred to as spontaneous order).

This example far from exhausts the economic arguments for laissez-faire economics, but still it exemplifies much of the thoughts of teleological libertarianism. It should be noted that not all arguments are of economic nature. Hayek argues that planned economy and excessive taxation and redistribution will eventually lead to tyranny-whatever the intentions behind such policy, he says, the consequences will be coercion. It is coercive because government knowledge is inescapably limited-it cannot know all the needs and preferences of each and every individual in society and thus any systematic attempt to regulate the lives and activities of individuals will be oppressive and an attack on their freedom (Hayek, 1976:44; Held, 1996).
These are some of the principle arguments in both deontological and teleological defenses of liberty as the most important social value. This concludes this exposé.

In this mini-essay we have analyzed liberty as the value at the heart of libertarianism. The analysis consisted of a closer look at the value of liberty itself to determine what it is, and what it is not. The central debate about liberty is that of 'negative' versus 'positive' liberty and we could draw conclusions as to why libertarians adhere to the first, and reject the latter. We also took a closer look at the two main strands as to the justification of libertarian ethics, that of the deontology, i.e., adherence to a set of natural rights inherent to human beings, and that teleology, i.e., liberty as a result of the consequences it brings forth.

Some book recommendations:

Rand, Ayn, 1957. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Signet.

Bentham, Jeremy, 1994. "The Principle of Utility", p. 306-312 in Singer, Peter (ed.), Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Boaz, David, 1997. Libertarianism - A Primer. New York: The Free Press

Dahl, Robert. A, 1991. Modern Political Analysis. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall

Hayek, Friedrich. A, 1960. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: Chicago University Press

Hayek, Friedrich. A, 1994[1944]. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: Chicago University Press

Held, David, 1996. Models of Democracy. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Locke, John, 1960. Two Treaties of Government. New York: New American Library

Locke, John, 1994. "Our Rights in the State of Nature", p. 249-253 in Singer, Peter (ed.), Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Nareveson, Jan, 2001. The Libertarian Idea. Peterborough: Broadview Press

Nozick, Robert, 1974. Anarchy, State and Utopia. United States of America: Basic Books.

Ross, D.W., 1930. The Right and the Good. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Rawls, John. 1972. A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Nozick, Robert, 2001. Invariances - The Structure of the Objective World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Mill, John, Stuart, 1987, Utilitarianism and other Essays. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics

Friedman, Milton, 1962. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Friedman, Milton, 1990. Free to Choose: a personal statement. New York: Harvest

Berlin, Isaiah, 1958. Two concepts of liberty : an inaugural lecture, delivered before the university of Oxford on 31 October 1958. Oxford: Oxford University press