Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Problem with Libertarianism

Libertarianism is based on the idea of negative liberty: that no individual should suffer coercion; all should be free to do as they will so long as it does not interfere with others. This is a deeply appealing philosophy for many.

The problem is, this philosophy ignores human nature. Libertarianism depends on everyone being responsible, or at least confining the ill effects of their poor choices to themselves, and that’s exactly where it breaks down. People’s poor choices, especially in a modern technological society, can affect others. Individuals do not need government, but societies do, because not all citizens are responsible.

Society enacts laws to codify and enforce generally agreed social values (values such as: don’t kill your neighbor, don’t steal, don’t cheat). A legitimately sovereign government, at the whim of the governed, is trusted to fairly and equitably enforce those codified values precisely because not every individual is ethically upright and responsible. Sadly, some governments do not have this legitimacy and achieve power through force or farce. Another possibility is that even in a legitimately sovereign government, the governed and the government individually or both forget that the government rules at the whim of the governed. This is when government over-reaches and begins enacting laws beyond what should rightfully be their writ to enforce those generally agreed social values of not killing, stealing, or cheating.

The proper role of government should be to ensure wide-ranging individual rights, even the right to be personally irresponsible, while protecting the individual from the irresponsibility or malice of others. This is the delicate balance that a free society must try to strike between liberty and security: the more you have of one, very often the less you have of the other–think of it like cash and insurance: you spend one to purchase the other. Yet the notion exists that as a society buys more of this ‘insurance’ they become more dependant on the government, and that over dependancy is a very bad thing. Despite this, people still find it desireable, even necessary, to give up some liberty for the smooth functioning of a society.

Libertarianism is a fine ideal, but like all ideals that fail to acknowledge human nature, it is doomed to failure as a governing and organizing philosophy unless it allows itself to be tempered by the realities of the nature of the very people it would speak for. The breathtaking ability of people to allow their individual irresponsibility to harm others and personal selfishness should never be underestimated.


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