...precisely because the war of the wonks—not to mention the professors, pundits, columnists, political hacks, and intellectual hired guns—is never-ending, one can never rest assured that once a person has been persuaded that freedom works better, at least in regard to situation X, that person has been won over to libertarianism permanently. If a person has come over only because of evidence and argument adduced yesterday by a pro-freedom wonk, he may just as easily go back to his support for government intervention tomorrow on the basis of evidence and argument adduced by an anti-freedom wonk. As John Maynard Keynes once cleverly replied to someone who asked him about his fluctuating views, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” If libertarians choose to fight for freedom solely on consequentialist grounds, they will be at war forever. Although one may accept this prospect on the grounds that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” this kind of war is deeply discouraging, given that the anti-freedom forces with which libertarians must contend possess hundreds of times more troops and thousands of times more money for purchasing munitions.
In contrast, once the libertarian has persuaded someone that government interference is wrong, at least in a certain realm, if not across the board, there is a much smaller probability of that convert’s backsliding into his former support for government’s coercive measures against innocent people. Libertarianism grounded on the moral rock will prove much stronger and longer-lasting than libertarianism grounded on the shifting sands of consequentialist arguments, which of necessity are only as compelling as today’s arguments and evidence make them. Hence, if we desire to enlarge the libertarian ranks, we are well advised to make moral arguments at least a part of our efforts. It will not hurt, of course, to show people that freedom really does work better than state control. But to confine our efforts to wonkism dooms them to transitory success, at best.
That's Robert Higgs - author of Crisis and Leviathan - writing last week at The Beacon. The article is available in its entirety here.
I read Higgs' piece with great interest, as his intellectual progression from a libertarianism based on utilitarian arguments ("the greatest good for the greatest number") to one based on a defense of natural individual rights closely mirrors my own. Indeed, my first exposure to explicitly classical liberal - or, if you prefer, libertarian - philosophy was probably Milton Friedman's 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, which I read while in my mid-20s and which served as the first step on my path away from a milquetoast, Democratic Party view of politics and economics.
Coming at the ideas of classical liberalism through the "Friedman Door" meant that my earliest arguments for individual liberty - many of which you can probably find on this site if you dig into the archives of 2007 or 2008 - were premised on the idea that voluntary cooperation between free individuals will yield the best material outcome. And I still believe this to be the truth. But why is it true?
Having digested Friedman, I moved on to writers such as Locke, Jefferson, Rand, Machan and others whose defense of individual liberty rests on a foundation of deeper principle - specifically, the principle of non-aggression. In essence, this is the idea that no individual or group has the right to initiate violence (or the threat thereof) against other peaceful individuals. As Ayn Rand put it:
Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment.The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships—thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.The necessary consequence of man’s right to life is his right to self-defense. In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.
As said, then, I continue to argue that personal freedom will, over time, produce greater material abundance, but this argument merely begs the question of why this is so. The answer to this, as Rand, Adam Smith, and others have pointed out, is that when a person is compelled to act against his own rational self-interest, not only is he made worse off, society is also made poorer. By contrast, voluntary exchange is by its very nature wealth-creating. That's both a material and a moral matter, and there's no disentangling the two.
Moreover, as David Boaz writes, even utilitarians have a tendency to return to the idea of natural, inalienable rights when questions of right vs. wrong arise, even when the topic is not explicitly "economic:"
The classic formulation of utilitarianism is to take as a standard for ethics and political philosophy "the greatest good for the greatest number." That sounds unobjectionable, but it has some problems. How do we know what is good for millions of people? And what if the overwhelming majority in some society want something truly reprehensible—to expropriate the Russian kulaks, genitally mutilate teenage girls, or murder the Jews? Surely a utilitarian faced with the claim that the greatest number thought that such a policy would do the greatest good would fall back on some other principle—probably an innate sense that certain fundamental rights are self-evident.
Thus, while American abolitionists could certainly have made arguments against slavery on efficiency grounds (i.e. that voluntary cooperation will out-produce forced servitude), they won the day with a stronger and more important crusade against the immorality of slavery. The inefficiency of slavery is merely a product of its immorality, as the use of force by one person is nothing more than a short-circuiting of the victim's ability to act rationally.
I hope that my friends and colleagues who associate themselves with the conservative and Republican Party defense of individual liberty, free markets, and small government will read Higgs' piece and realize that until they begin to make a deeper moral case for their positions, they should not expect to make much headway with their intellectual opponents or the public at large.