Libertarianism on Trial


Liberalism at Wits' End, by Stephen L. Newman, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 184 pp., $19.95

The modern state, with its ever-expanding range of activities, is increasingly under attack. Much of the attack has been diffuse, in the form of tax protests or reactions to specific policies. But discontent has also given rise to a body of critical thought—libertarianism—that offers a coherent critique of the modern state. Libertarian theorists have argued that government ought to be either strictly limited to the protection of individual freedom or even abolished altogether.

In Liberalism at Wits' End, Stephen L. Newman claims to study seriously the libertarian revolt against the modern state. After examining some of the works of Murray Rothbard, John Hospers, Tibor Machan, and Friedrich Hayek—theorists who have attempted to justify libertarian individual rights—he concludes that libertarianism is nothing less than liberalism "at wits' end."

By liberalism, Newman means the view of man and the state developed by 17th-century political theorists, particularly Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. For these theorists, man is basically a hedonistic animal, driven by his passions and motivated by the pursuit of pleasure. The state is a product of convention, or a hypothetical "social contract," devised by humans to serve certain ends.

In Newman's view, in contrast, the state is an integral, essential part of human society. Thus he argues that libertarianism exaggerates the most serious defect of this liberal tradition—namely, the failure to develop an adequate concept of politics. By denying a role for state action beyond that of protecting individual rights, libertarianism accepts "the Lockean fantasy in which the state of nature comes true and historical politics is banished forever." The social and political nature of man is thus ignored and made subservient to a bourgeois individualism that treats economic self-interest as the motivating force behind human action. Says Newman:

The libertarian approach to individualism, which merges personal and property rights, suits perfectly the modern consumer society, where "you are what you own." Moreover, it reflects a concept of the self and of self-fulfillment already widespread in the United States. The pursuit of happiness has become the pursuit of pleasure.

Accordingly, Newman believes that libertarianism is guilty of what 19th-century political theorist John Stuart Mill accused his contemporary Jeremy Bentham of doing: treating the business part of human affairs as the whole.

Newman claims that libertarianism has taken Lockean principles of individual rights that had a point in a certain historical context—asserting the rights of property in order to discredit aristocratic privilege—and tried to extend them to our time. Yet our world is not Locke's, and Newman counters that government power is hardly more threatening now than the economic power of large corporations.

Moreover, he believes that the libertarian defense of the individual's right to keep what is his is in conflict with the promotion of individual autonomy. Freedom to act and choose one's actions independently requires that the state limit property rights so that the have-nots might be provided with the capacity to be in charge of their lives.

Newman thus recommends that liberalism move away from an "irrational Lockeanism" that subordinates a person's capacity for action to property rights. Instead, liberals should develop criteria for state action that admit the existence of "public" interest apart from the sum of private, individual interests.

To follow this recommendation, liberals should take their lights from the classical republican tradition and the ancient Greek polis. In this tradition, involvement of the public authority in citizens' affairs is regarded as necessary for the development of each citizen's moral well-being. Political action is necessary in order to develop a person's capacity for action—what Newman calls positive liberty. "Freedom of this sort is the prerequisite to citizenship. It requires that we define a social space in which private interests (and the interests of privacy) are subordinate to the common interest in equal liberty." With a return to this view of politics, Newman believes, a notion of the public good can be accepted and the first step taken by liberalism in developing an adequate concept of politics.

The libertarian attack on the modern state, suggests Newman, is a response to what Theodore Lowi has called "interest group liberalism." While conceding that something must be done, Newman concludes that libertarianism "leads only further from the political alternatives needed to rescue the liberal tradition from itself." Is Newman right?

No—or at least, not necessarily so. Justifying Lockean rights requires neither accepting state-of-nature theory nor denying the social and political nature of man. Certainly it does not require accepting that the pursuit of happiness is nothing but the pursuit of pleasure. In fact, the central problem with Newman's analysis of such libertarian theorists as Tibor Machan, author of Human Rights and Human Liberties, is that it fails to appreciate the profoundly Aristotelian character of Machan's account of human nature and goodness, in which happiness is inextricably linked to the distinctively human capacity to reason. Machan does not (nor does Rothbard, for that matter) interpret human happiness or well-being along hedonistic lines or explain human action in terms of economic self-interest. Nor does Machan attempt to deny the importance of living and working with other human beings. It is just plain false to accuse libertarianism of necessarily ignoring the social and political character of man.

Besides failing to deal adequately with the philosophical foundations from which a libertarian theorist like Machan operates, Newman makes some serious scholarly omissions. The work of Eric Mack, a libertarian who makes his living as a professor of philosophy, is ignored. Important articles by Mack written during the '70s—"How to Derive Ethical Egoism," "Egoism and Rights," and "Egoism and Rights Revisited"—are not mentioned or discussed. Also, Reading Nozick (1981), edited by Jeffrey Paul, which includes Mack's "How to Derive Libertarian Rights," together with important articles by others, is never discussed, nor is the collection of essays by different libertarian theorists, The Libertarian Reader (1982), edited by Machan. Since the issues involved in justifying Lockean rights are difficult and complex, it is irresponsible of Newman not to have acquainted himself with the range of libertarian theory.

Another reason for the difficulties in Newman's analysis of libertarianism is his tendency to see it as just a 20th-century version of classical liberalism, which is often perceived as lacking any concept of moral goodness and human nature. This may be true for some libertarian theorists. But for others, particularly those influenced by the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand and who approach many of the issues from the Aristotelian tradition, the justification for Lockean rights is based on a robust conception of human nature and moral goodness. Human autonomy is regarded as a power that one, unless disabled, already possesses and not something that must be provided by the actions of others.

So the central moral question is whether the individual human being will exercise his or her autonomy so as to attain well-being. And the central political question is whether there will be a legal system that protects all individual human beings in living their lives in accord with their judgments. The classical liberal tradition was never too clear about the nature of human autonomy and how it served as the foundation for liberty. It is this ambiguity that Newman trades upon in calling for equal positive liberty for all citizens.

This ambiguity regarding the nature of human autonomy is also the basis for Newman's assertion that autonomy and property rights conflict. But in claiming that people are not autonomous unless they have the wherewithal to live a fulfilling life, Newman is simplistically equating human autonomy with human wellbeing. He even misconstrues what someone like Machan understands human well-being to be. Human well-being, or flourishing, does not consist in having all of one's needs satisfied; rather, it consists in individual persons satisfying their own needs. Living according to one's own choices is an inherent and vital feature of human flourishing. Protecting the liberty of all persons to live in accord with their choices is the political prerequisite for the attainment of this ultimate end.

Newman believes that libertarianism cannot assist liberalism in developing an adequate concept of politics and cannot make a place for public good. In part, he believes this because he erroneously assumes that libertarianism must hold a hedonistic and atomistic view of man and society. He also assumes that the political character of human nature requires a role for state action beyond protecting Lockean individual rights.

Yet it is not at all obvious that the political character of human nature demands this. As Fred Miller, Jr., another libertarian theorist ignored by Newman, made clear over a decade ago in an article in Reason Papers, the Greek term polis was used to mean either "a community, a complex set of human relationships, voluntary as well as coercive, personal as well as public," or "an association of citizens in a constitution." So, acknowledging an important role for the Greek polis in human development does not necessarily imply a role for the state.

Finally, it is not at all clear that libertarians cannot embrace a notion of the public good—or, at least, the political common good. If the human good is understood in terms of principles covering a wide variety of concretes, and if it is true that individual human beings must apply these principles to the particular goals and problems of their lives, then as Ayn Rand has noted, the common good "lies not in what men do when they are free, but in the fact that they are free."

The libertarian response to the modern state deserves to be seriously examined. But the searching and extensive criticism of a truly outstanding study is yet to be trained upon libertarianism.

Douglas B. Rasmussen teaches philosophy at St. John's University and is the coeditor of The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand (University of Illinois Press, 1984).