Viewpoint: Is Liberty Enough?


A decade ago, in the embryonic stages of the current libertarian movement, economist Walter Grinder wrote an important but unfortunately neglected article for a short-lived libertarian magazine. The theme of the article was "Liberty and Checkers." Grinder was reacting against the tendency, at even that early date in the movement, to complain that liberty is not enough of an issue, that setting men and women free to try to attain their goals without the crippling burden of coercion is not exciting enough to motivate many people. That freedom is too "negative" a concept, and that it does not suffice for mankind: that people need ethical and aesthetic principles to guide their lives.

Grinder's bracing response was to remind the movement that liberty is our only political goal; that indeed there are other, important as well as unimportant, ethical and aesthetic principles and values that people need and will adopt, but that these are irrelevant to politics and to liberty. Picking a deliberately frivolous example to dramatize his point, he noted that he personally might greatly like (or dislike) checkers, that he might wish to participate in a "movement" to foster and cultivate checkers, but that this personal value has nothing to do with libertarianism and should never be confused with the latter goal. The great historian Lord Acton put it succinctly when he wrote that liberty "is the highest political goal"—political goal; not necessarily or probably the highest goal, period, for each individual.

This does not mean, of course, that Acton, Grinder, I, or any other libertarians are only interested, as persons, in freedom and that none of us has any personal moral principles or valuational goals. Obviously, we all do. But many of them do, and always will, differ and even clash, and that's a crucial point. In the most valuable part of his Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick pointed out that—in contrast to all other, coercively imposed, utopias—the "utopia" promised by libertarianism is unique in setting everyone free so that individuals and groups can try, if they wish, to attain their various and differing utopias voluntarily. My personal moral principles may be right and yours may be wrong, but in a libertarian society I have neither the right nor the power to force you to adopt or obey those principles.

Libertarianism, in short, is and must be solely a political position, a creed solving the problems posed by politics. If it strays into other areas, then it begins to violate its own principles, since it will then wish to impose other values than liberty or nonaggression upon peaceful individuals.

Yes, that means that libertarianism does not and cannot satisfy many people's hunger for an all-embracing creed that will set down the "correct line" on all aspects of life, from questions of hedonism or asceticism, monogamy or promiscuity, thrift or extravagance, sobriety or fun, rock or classical music, Hitchcock or Fellini, or, indeed, poker or checkers. Note what I am not saying: I am not saying that a correct line does not or could not exist. It may very well. But even if it does, it is irrelevant to politics and to libertarianism. Or, to put it another way, the only "correct line" on politics is liberty, and the only proper sphere of libertarianism is the political arena.

But with the libertarian movement growing rapidly, we once again hear the siren song from many quarters that liberty is not enough. The latest spokesman for this point of view is Milton Mueller, executive director of Students for a Libertarian Society, the major libertarian group on college campuses. Over the last several months, Mueller has made clear his impatience with "Old Deal" libertarians who confine themselves to advocating the free market and "chanting" the concept of privatizing industries now operated or controlled by the government.

If we try to make sense of Mueller's tangled lucubrations, his criticism of "Old Dealers" in a recent issue of SLS's Liberty seems to boil down to this: liberty is not exciting enough because it doesn't supply new and challenging cultural values and because it doesn't offer its own vision of what a libertarian future would look like.

What precisely are the outlines of Mueller's proferred New Deal for the movement? Here, he is quite hazy, but I strongly suspect that Mueller's proposed cultural values will not be mine. So then what? Whose values will the movement adopt, and whose will be shoved down whose throats by the power of political action?

Mueller's other criticism is that Old Dealers simply want to get the government off our backs and out of our lives and that we envision the future libertarian world as essentially the present one relieved of the incubus of the State. He, on the other hand, apparently wants to present a positive vision of a libertarian future that will be completely new and different. How different, he doesn't say. But he comes perilously close to conjuring up a New Libertarian Man (or Woman), a human nature transformed in some magical way by living in a libertarian society. Perhaps Mueller believes with Godwin that in the new libertarian society man will be immortal, or with Fourier that the rivers will run with lemonade instead of water, or with Trotsky that in the new paradise "the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."

For my part, I have no crystal ball to tell me what a libertarian world would look like. But if I had to guess, I would bet that, yes, it would look pretty much like the present one, but of course with the significant difference that the crippling incubus of State coercion would be off our backs. And yes, to cap my Old Deal sins, I have to make an even more damning admission: with the crucial exception of government coercion, I am indeed pretty happy with the world as it is. When some pompous cretin announced, "I accept the universe," Dr. Johnson's pungent comment was, "Egad, you'd better." And I very much suspect that when the new voices for "liberty is not enough" finally uncork their trumpet to lead us all to the New Deal Promised Land, I am going to say, in the immortal words of Samuel Goldwyn, "Kindly include me out." But the important point is that the overwhelming bulk of the American people will surely sing out the same sentiment loud and clear, and even more harshly—and therefore that it would be a tragedy if the libertarian movement should ever embrace the new New Deal.