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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Don’t Tread On Others

Libertarianism and self-restraint.

Recently on Facebook someone posted an image of the famous Gadsden flag:  the yellow banner with a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike. Instead of the famous “Don’t Tread On Me,” however, the poster had substituted: “Don’t Tread On Others.”

Both are warnings, but whereas “Don’t Tread On Me” is clearly directed at someone other than the “Me,” the poster clearly meant to aim “Don’t Tread On Others” at herself.  (It could also be aimed at you of course, but I don’t think that was the intent because then the substituted slogan would lose all its oomph.)  I like this alternative version a lot.

Antisocial Libertarianism?

I realize there’s an historical reason for “Don’t Tread On Me.”  But many today — both defenders and detractors of libertarianism — believe it captures the essence of the philosophy.  They may have a point, but they’re also missing something important.

My sense is that many, including people who call themselves libertarians, associate libertarianism with “rugged individualism.”  Again, they’re not wrong to do so but it’s a mistake to think that it ends there.

Not long ago Sheldon Richman said on this website that the free-market philosophy central to libertarianism is about social cooperation just as much as it is about individualism.  He wrote:

I understand the value of the terms “individualism,” “self-reliance,” and “independence,” but we should realize that they can easily lead to undesirable caricatures. Let’s not encourage anyone to think that the libertarian ideal is Ted Kaczynski minus the mail bombs.

Being a libertarian means different things to different people and it does accommodate those who just want to be left alone – by everyone.  But there’s nothing inherently antisocial about libertarianism.

You may prefer “Don’t Tread On Me” depending on your mood or particular circumstances.  There’s nothing inconsistent about liking both versions.  But I do think there’s an important difference between them.

There is a threat in the “Me” version:  Don’t tread on me . . . or else.  Don’t violate my rights . . . or else.  Don’t try to take something from me without my permission . . . or else . . . or else you will get it with both fangs, buddy!  Attack me at your peril!  You don’t want to be my enemy!

It is defensive, protective, threatening.  Those aren’t qualities that I particularly like, even when I’ve felt I had to adopt them, and I wouldn’t want to live my life by them.  By themselves they do not promote social cooperation.

Pro-social Libertarianism

“Don’t Tread On Others” is a warning aimed at oneself and places the locus of control in one’s own hands.  Its demands self-restraint.  It is pro-social.  It is considerate, almost compassionate.  It is a creed that I can live by, and it promotes social cooperation and civil society.

Each of us lives in a politico-economic system that uses political power to redistribute wealth.  In the sphere of freedom that remains, a libertarian tries to avoid expanding that power and even to shrink it.  I confess that my “best” is not as good as the “best” of some others.

As I’ve said before, I work for the state of New York as an economics professor.  I believe I offer a service that would be provided even in a completely free society.  Still, my salary comes from taxes and I benefit from many other things that taxpayers, today and in the future, should not be forced to give me.  I know it’s wrong to use violence to take from others what doesn’t belong to me, and I work toward a world in which I won’t have to tread on others so that I can live the way I want to.  And I know that to get there I have to be vigilant toward myself.

Leonard E. Read, the founder of FEE, taught us that the only way to truly change the world is first to change oneself; that liberty begins in one’s heart and that it’s ultimately fruitless to try to force others to behave as one wishes they would.  Threatening to retaliate has its place in a free society – we should be free to defend ourselves in proportion to the aggression – but civil society, social cooperation, takes so much more.  It takes discipline, self-restraint, and I believe also the wish to live happily and in harmony among our fellows.

“Don’t Tread On Others” goes to the heart of what it means to be a libertarian: the commitment to refrain from initiating violence.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.