On Liberty—& License


Yes, individual liberty is a very fine thing, one of the very finest even. But order is also a very fine thing; and justice; and morality; and civility. All of these fine things have to be accommodated, one to another, in such a way as to "make sense" to the citizens of a society. —Irving Kristol, Public Interest, Winter 1971.

It is only on the basis of rational selfishness—on the basis of justice—that men can be fit to live together in a free, peaceful, prosperous, benevolent, rational society. —Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness.

With the publication in 1974 of Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the debate on rights and justice has assumed a public dimension and intensity resembling the reaction to Ayn Rand's first raids into the territory of established political philosophy. Again, the doctrines of compulsory altruism are challenged, and again, the rejoinders are convincing only to the converts.

The "liberal" establishment is faced with Nozick's quest for the minimal state, and the querist shocks the egalitarian by arguing that everyone is entitled to everything gained by a just process. "From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen" (p. 160). In Nozick's scheme of "entitlement" the government may not seize the property one has acquired justly—without violating anyone's Lockean rights—and it would have no authority to "redistribute" that which has been lawfully earned. Government would carry out its only proper function of providing security for life and liberty, peace and prosperity. To Nozick's book, Newsweek delivered the compliment: "at heart a shrewd defense of laissez-faire and a theoretical buttress for the growing libertarian movement" (March 31, 1975).

The liberal establishment's defense against Nozick has been porous thus far. Its advocates reel in embarrassment. George Kateb, writing for The American Scholar (Winter 1975/76) admits that he "could never win an argument" with Nozick or "tell him something he hadn't already thought of" and concedes that Nozick's "faculties of reasoning and imagination are rare; his learning is enormous and interconnected." What he is quite willing to do, nevertheless, is to attack his libertarian adversary—emotionally!

The issue is, of course, the welfare state and its unequivocal rejection by Nozick and other libertarians. For example, Nozick holds that no one may be compelled to support the (supposedly) needy. The liberal is, of course, not only convinced that "we are obliged to respond to suffering" but is prepared to send in the militia to have this alleged obligation enforced. On top of it all, Kateb, with his fellow intuitionist "liberals," simply asserts an obligation, adding explicitly that "it would be a mistake to believe that the assertion had to be backed up with reasons, that it needed philosophical justification."

With this refusal to establish an obligation, contemporary "liberalism" shows its utter moral bankruptcy, and with its proclamation that no proof is required, its philosophical poverty is confessed as well. A party hack in a totalitarian state could not have expressed better the individual's subjugation through irrational collective arbitrariness.

The liberal readily admits that what lies behind the present "liberal and leftist economic policies" is a passion—as Kateb puts it, the "passion…to remedy or alleviate or prevent the poverty, the misery of millions of people." With the likes of Adolf Hitler, who also worked by intuition and gut passion for the greater good of humanity, the liberal removes himself from the realm of rational political and moral discourse. And so his opposition to the libertarian's stance can become effective, not through persuasion, but only through brute force. He is thus not simply an adversary or even an opponent, but an enemy!

Irving Kristol is not known to be a liberal. Neither is Ernest van den Haag. Recently both were classified as "conservative libertarians" by Henry Hazlitt in Modern Age (Winter 1976). As is well known, such a classification is viewed as internally inconsistent by radical capitalists or libertarians such as Ayn Rand, Edith Efron, and Tibor Machan, who reject the very possibility of reconciling conservative and libertarian theory. Will the reception of Nozick's treatise by such thinkers as Kristol and van den Haag confirm or invalidate the radicals' contention?

In his review of Anarchy, State, and Utopia in National Review (July 4, 1975), van den Haag claims to share Nozick's preference for a State that restricts itself more and people less, and he joins Nozick in objecting to the "monstrously proliferating regulative, protective, and retributive powers the welfare state has assumed." He points out that an ever-decreasing proportion of the population produces a national product redistributed to or wasted by an ever-increasing proportion kept or occupied unproductively by the government, and he hopes that the trend is not inherent in democracy. To him, this hope appears to be dim in view of today's public delusion according to which everybody can live at everybody else's expense.

As have others after reading Anarchy, State, and Utopia, van den Haag would like nothing better than to agree with Nozick and his proposed minimal state. Yet—as others—he cannot. He does not accept Nozick's premises, in particular not the absolute and inviolable right to one's property—"rights are granted by governments, which also enforce them." He thinks Nozick's "theory of justice" inadequate; and the minimal state, although perhaps desirable, simply not possible.

Accepting the libertarian's contention that no man is entitled to what he has not earned, van den Haag wrestles with the contention's extended consequence: "Suppose parents bring children into the world, but cannot be brought to support them."

A fair supposition. Nor is van den Haag concerned merely with children whose parents are unknown or deceased. He explicitly refers to those whose parents "cannot be brought to support them." These children are not, in Nozick's system, entitled to anything that somebody else has earned or owns. They are, literally, orphans, fully dependent on voluntary charity. But what if voluntary charity should prove unable to support them? How would Nozick's minimal state, opposed on principle to "distributive justice" through coercive taxation, solve the children's dilemma—and its own?

Van den Haag is neither facetious nor polemical. A recently published book provides the challenge, namely The Children of the Counterculture. The children in question are the offspring of "drop outs" of the 1960's. They often live in "communes," rural and urban, and in religious communities, without traditional family patterns. Many are neglected or even tormented, continually upset or seriously disturbed. They live in filth, many are undernourished, and most are without any formal education. "Schools" run by the Hare Krishna sect are rough and tailored to suit objectively irrational whims. According to New York Times reviewer Margot Hentoff, not known to be proestablishment, "what most of the communities have in common is that the children are treated badly by any contemporary humane standard—if not by the standards of pre-modern European rural Slums."

In his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill thinks it established beyond question that parents have the duty to see that their children are properly schooled. He demands that children be tested every year and that the parents be fined if the child fails to meet certain standards (if the parents are unable to pay the fine, they will be sentenced to varying periods of forced labor). Yet in the same essay Mill states that he cannot see any reason or justification for any given society to impose its own civilization on another society.

Would our present culture with its emphasis on compulsory schooling be justified—according to Mill—to impose on the "counterculture" its view and practice of enforced compulsory education?

Strangely enough, Nozick's bibliography makes no mention of John Stuart Mill at all. It must be expected that Nozick would strongly disagree with Mill's advocacy of compulsory proper schooling and that he would just as strongly agree with Mill's objection to intervention. His minimal state would have no business in the classroom, as it would have no business interfering with and intervening in anybody's family life.

Could the "counterculture" then count on being left alone by the minimal state? While its parents clearly need not fear the minimal state's intervention in the field of schooling, they also need not expect aid from it, be it called "welfare" or "guaranteed income." Which—after an unavoidable detour—leads us back to Ernest van den Haag's question: "Suppose parents bring children into the world, but cannot be brought to support them?

How, indeed, would Nozick's minimal state reconcile its refusal to intervene with its prime—if not only—duty to protect the rights to life and liberty when life and liberty are in jeopardy? Would the minimal state stand by idly when parents cannot be persuaded to support their children? Van den Haag concludes from Nozick's treatise that Nozick would let the children starve rather than coerce people to support them. Although preferring, like Nozick, voluntary charity, van den Haag would do the reverse: coerce people to support the children rather than let them starve.

Which of the two, then, can claim with the greatest degree of plausibility that his respective ideal society is "just?" Which may label with the most convincing justification his ideal society "moral?"

The concept of justice occupies a key position in all of today's social and political philosophies and "philosophies." In Canada the "Just Society" is the present government's declared official ideal, with the distributive theories of John Kenneth Galbraith as its base. Further to the east, in the growing empire of world socialism between Havana and Hanoi, atrocities are committed daily in the name of justice. The very concept has been usurped the world over by collectivist systems of thought and society. It has been diluted and polluted to the point of meaninglessness. At the same time, the terms "morality" and "moral" have vanished from circulation.

Attempting to rescue morality from oblivion and to reintroduce the proper meaning of justice, libertarian thinkers, with their emphasis on the individual's rights and on the nonexistence of the collective's rights, are fighting a rear guard action. Advocates of "liberal capitalism" are no allies, for their distinction between "economic justice," "social justice," and "moral justice" in their proposed free-market society contains the admission, among other admissions and omissions, that "social justice" is not congruent with "moral justice." Furthermore, liberal capitalists leave wide powers to the State ("social justice") and to the Church ("moral justice"). Their "justice" has a principle in one field only, in the economic field of the "free market." Yet there is the surprising claim made by "liberal capitalists" that their free-market society does not wish to present itself as a "just society." (See, for example, John K. Jessup writing in the Winter 1971 Public Interest.)

Radical libertarian thinkers, in rejecting the authority of both State and Church, in not conceding to either the "right" to grant rights, are left with the task of defining both the origin and justification of rights considered by them basic and inviolable—in particular the "right to life" and, derived from it, the "right to property." They find it relatively easy to refute, as either amoral or technocratic, the notion that "rights are granted by governments, which also enforce them." But they have not succeeded so far—in spite of impressive breakthroughs—in convincing the intellectual public of the allegedly sacrosanct nature of the individual's rights. As shown in van den Haag's reaction to Nozick's minimal state, there are serious nonlibertarian thinkers unable to comprehend moral and logical justification for letting children—whose parents cannot be brought to support them—starve (thus not protecting the children's right to life) in the name of the inviolable right to life and property.

The rift between the radical libertarian Nozick and the nonlibertarian van den Haag goes even deeper. While Nozick declares the individual's right to life and property to be natural rights, van den Haag, with his "rights are granted by governments," denies that natural rights exist at all. The denial downgrades individual rights—and with them, individual liberty—to privileges granted and, if need be, revoked by government, the State. It does not seem likely that this rift could ever be bridged. There is nothing libertarian in Ernest van den Haag's thinking.

It should be recognized by now that the libertarian movement cannot expect support or even mere understanding from the conservative right or left. To both, as van den Haag explains, communal bonds, while they might have developed through tradition and history, "must be fostered and protected by governments and by coercive institutions." Both recommend that the fostering of common values and communal bonds requires the prohibition of consensual individual actions judged inconsistent with these values. Individual liberty is tolerated as long as it does not interfere with or even threaten the "common good."

Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia proposes that individual liberty is justice in that it enables the individual to develop freely and according to his talents and ambition. He who possesses no talent and no ambition, and who will develop neither, will be left by the wayside of the minimal state. If voluntary charity does not take care of him, he will perish. Inequality is just, and this "just society" might even be called a politically "moral society." But can it also be considered a civil society, a civilization?

Nozick does not answer this, for the question does not occur to him. The omission—or is it a lack of moral imagination?—might well be the most serious flaw in the thinking of many a libertarian who does not integrate into his system of liberty considerations of " virtue and civility. Enter Irving Kristol and his proposed accommodations.

There can be no doubt today that "individual liberty!" as the radical libertarian's sole intellectual or philosophical battlecry—supremely exemplified in Walter Block's recent book Defending the Undefendable—will not suffice. This is especially true now, after society has been burnt by the concept's severe abuse during the Yippie and Hippie fanfare of the late sixties and early seventies. Neither Abbie Hoffman ("Revolution for the hell of it!") nor Charlie Manson's "family" have instilled in the worried citizen a confidence in the pure, unfounded insistence on "individuality" and "liberty." A libertarian movement aiming to be taken seriously must disassociate itself from the "counterculture," as well as from those who have a pure faith in liberty but nothing else; it must clearly state its reasons for the disassociation, namely paucity of any serious concern with virtue and civility.

Individual liberty is no end, no virtue, in itself. It is the supreme political principle, but that requires demonstration. This demonstration is impossible without a moral foundation, which too many of the better-known supporters of the free society explicitly disclaim. They are, however, ill-advised to exclude from their theory of the free society the concepts of morality, justice, and civility. As philosophical ideals and practical commitments, these qualities make for a social order acceptable to serious seekers after an alternative to today's growing State with its ill-disguised disregard for such considerations and its constantly growing enchantment with power.

Although Kristol has, on occasion, advocated authoritarian State activities, it is not clear what he really desires when he calls for all "of these fine things"—liberty, justice, morality, and civility—to be accommodated one to another in such a way as to "make sense" to the citizens. He is, here, not at all far from Ayn Rand's advocacy of a rational society based upon rational selfishness, that is, justice. It was Kristol who pointed out at, of all places, a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society that "liberal capitalism" fails to see today's nihilism as its prime enemy. "Our capitalists," he added "promote the ethos of the New Left for only one reason: They cannot think of any reason why they should not."

This seems to characterize enough libertarians as well, who in their eagerness to make political friends and allies are often willing to discard or compromise the absolutely indispensable philosophical substance of their political theory. While Nozick, for example, does not explicitly reject moral considerations and apologizes in his book for leaving a gap in his theory yearning to be filled with a sound ethics, he certainly seems to embrace some of the amoralism of some of the libertarian movement when he explicitly allows for the equal propriety of every and all life styles that would, of course, be allowed in his minimal state. Moreover, having become the most prominent advocate of libertarianism, if only because of the timing and situation of his brilliant work, Nozick's neglect of calling attention to values other than liberty gives the appearance—as often noted by his reviewers, left and right—that no such concern exists within the ranks of those who insist on the absolute, uncompromising protection and preservation of individual rights in a human community.

Simultaneously with Nozick's book, another treatise on rights and liberty was published in the United States. Clearly libertarian in tone and intention, it argues that "as a condition of a political community, liberty makes possible the choice to take on tasks, to act by one's judgment, to cooperate or compete with others in various endeavors.…That freedom, on its own, is only a condition of something valuable arising from what will be done. It is not itself the good to be done." Unfortunately this point, made by Tibor Machan in his Human Rights and Human Liberties, is neglected by many of the prominent and illustrious names in the libertarian movement.

The left has confessed to its philosophical and political bankruptcy, but if libertarians continue to neglect the features of good life besides liberty, they might miss the boat to the philosophical and political leadership of America. With the potentially robust moral theory of rational selfishness advocated by Rand, Machan, Mack and others not taken so seriously by the Kristols and van den Haags, the conservative and liberal worries about the quality of the libertarian human community could be allayed, at least if rational solutions will be considered by these challengers. Without the clear moral answers, however, these worries are justifiable and may spell the rejection of this otherwise worthwhile movement.

Joachim Maitre teaches German at McGill University in Montreal. He was West Germany's attache to the 1976 Olympics and is currently at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, working on a project on politics and the Olympics.