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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Don’t Leave Me Alone

Where there's freedom there's mutual aid.

One sentiment commonly expressed by libertarians is the desire to just be “left alone.”  This is often meant politically: “If people would just leave each other alone, the world would be a much better place,” or “I just want to be left alone to do what I want.”  And in country of almost $4 trillion in federal spending, TSA agents who feel free to molest six-year-olds at the airport, and food busybodies who next might come after my precious Buffalo wings, it’s hard not to sympathize at some level.  After all, I have been known to hang a Gadsden flag in my office in protest against the ever-encroaching State.

Still, when our case for freedom appears to morph into a case for being left alone generally, I think libertarians are making both a substantive and rhetorical mistake that we might come to regret.  This  is part of a more general problem that James Peron called “Me Libertarianism” in a terrific recent blog entry: Libertarianism can too easily turn inward and become a case for freedom for me void of any sign of concern about the freedom of people who are not like me.  Peron makes a compelling argument that libertarianism should be far more concerned with the freedom of historically oppressed peoples, while deemphasizing the freedom relating to our own personal preferences.

I think he’s right, and I want to offer a complementary argument against the “leave me alone” rhetoric.  Put simply, I do not want to be left alone, nor do I think that the ideal libertarian world is one in which we all leave each other alone.  I would much rather live in a world where my extended family, friends, and community do not leave me alone in my time of need, but instead feel some sort of commitment to help me.  In turn, I hope they would not wish to be left alone, but rather would gladly accept my assistance if the tables were turned.  A world in which we all leave each other alone seems more dystopian than utopian, even if it is also a world in which we are all free in the way libertarians wish.

Good End, Bad Means

For me, one of the compelling arguments for freedom is that it enables us to discover new, creative, and more effective ways to care for each other.  The problem with government welfare programs is not that the presumed intention to help people in need is a bad thing; it’s that the means is inappropriate to the end.  Such programs are inherently impersonal and bureaucratic, and they inevitably end up as vehicles for those who run and work for them rather than for those in genuine need.

The desire to be left alone by these bureaucracies is understandable, but the reason is not that trying to help others is wrong or that a world in which we are all left alone is right. The reasons is that only free and responsible individuals can effectively help those who need it.  As with so many other aspects of a free society, the best outcomes emerge when the people with local knowledge and the strongest incentives to succeed take on the task at hand.  Rather than the distant bureaucracies of the State, it is houses of worship, ethnic or kin groups, extended families, and circles of friends that are in the best position to realize when someone is in need and to know best how to help.

Mutual Aid

Before the federal welfare state, this is precisely how most Americans got help in times of need, as historian David Beito documents in his wonderful book From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State.  These decentralized and often subtle systems worked quite well, and also provided a way for Jim Crow-era African Americans to develop their own networks of assistance outside the dominant racist structures.  The relative freedom of that era with respect to mutual aid led to just the sorts of creatively effective solutions one would expect of a social discovery process.

When libertarians adopt “leave us alone” rhetoric, they reinforce the negative stereotype of a selfish person unconcerned with the less fortunate.  That’s no way to win people to the freedom philosophy.  Libertarians who want to be left alone will soon find themselves very much alone in the intellectual and political wilderness, having forgone an opportunity to be seen on the side of concern for our fellow human beings.

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.