A Debate for Libertarians

An interesting debate came up amidst fellow libertarians while at a seminar hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies surrounding the reasons why liberty seems preferable. Though outside the mainstream discussion of politics, libertarians do not all think exactly alike — even though a unified message might produce a more persuasive argument for our cause. Most people with whom I discuss the ideas of liberty are often surprised when I tell them about the spectrum of philosophies that fall under the umbrella of libertarianism, as enumerated by David Hart. 

The debate centered on whether freedoms and liberties are a means to an ends, or ends unto themselves. In other words, do we espouse the ideas of freedom because we believe it produces the best economic outcomes, as someone like Mises would point out? Or do we believe in freedoms because there is actual value to living free, outside purely economic reasons? Though advocating similar policy prescriptions, this philosophical debate is one among libertarians that may be very important in the larger fight against statism.

Personally, I think there is actual value and virtue in living in a free society, separate from the economic benefits derived. While I can see the economic benefits themselves, I can also see societies, particularly in the developed world, that prosper economically (see Nordic countries in particular) that would not pass a litmus test of freedom and liberty we avow. These countries have largely socialized economies, with high tax rates and welfare programs, but are economically stable and prosperous. Given the choice, however, I would prefer to live in a society that did not have these social systems because I put a large value on living free from such constraints.

Imagine the extreme hypothetical:  if fascism, or communism, or the highest degree of authoritarianism produced economically preferable outcomes, would we wish to live in that society? The simple answer based on my logic is “no.” I would not wish to live in a society that only produced the highest rates of GDP while infringing upon my daily activities and/or personal rights. If one were to say “yes,” it seems a modest jump to justifying slavery, as those in the past did, on the logic that a country could prosper if only some of its people were conscripted to work for the sake of the nation, rather than themselves.

While extreme hypotheticals often stretch the boundaries of reality and don’t typically prove much, this hypothetical is actually beneficial to my discussion because it teases out what we value. In a choice between countries that is not as extreme as choosing between free-market capitalism and social communism, I choose a system different from much of Europe (and increasingly the United States) in which economic freedoms coincide with personal freedoms. I do so because economic prosperity in monetary terms is not the only form of prosperity or happiness.

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