All Commentary
Thursday, March 22, 2012

Hating the State and Loving Liberty

Which one to emphasize?

Libertarians have a number of public relations problems. Some are the result of people not understanding our ideas. Others, however, are our own fault: We sometimes fail to express our ideas clearly or attractively. In particular, we have a habit of emphasizing what we’re against rather than what we’re for.

It’s the difference between coming across as “hating the State” and as “loving liberty.” I’m not suggesting that people who talk about how much they hate the State really don’t love liberty. Nor am I suggesting that those who talk about loving liberty are too easy on all the bad stuff the State does. What I do want to argue is that in many cases libertarian ideas are better presented as forwarding liberty rather than as opposing the harm government can cause.

As one example, consider how some libertarians talk about business regulation, especially occupational licensure. If all we do is to talk about how such regulations are the product of nanny-state busybodies, or elected officials trying to get reelected by lining their pockets with special-interest donations, we come across only as hating the State. Again, any of those descriptions might be true in any particular case, so my claim is not that they aren’t accurate, but that they aren’t always the best, or at least the only, way to persuade people.

Restricting Dreams

Instead, why not talk about how regulations and licensing laws restrict the liberty of average citizens to live out their dreams in meaningful ways? Running one’s own business is not just “economic behavior.” It is part of what the philosopher Loren Lomasky means when he talks about how liberty enables us to be “project builders,” creating meaning in our lives. For many, especially members of groups that historically have been deprived of such opportunity, creating and running a business is a source of immense pride and accomplishment, inseparable from the broader goals of one’s life. We should focus on the importance of that liberty, not just the damage done by the State.

We might also talk about the ways in which businesses in freer markets effectively serve their consumers rather than meeting the preferences of politicians and regulators. By providing consumers with more variety, higher quality, and lower prices, businesses in more competitive, less regulated markets make it that much easier for their customers to create and execute their life projects. The liberty that producers gain when government lets them alone enables the rest of us to exercise our liberty in powerful and meaningful ways. Simply shifting our rhetoric from the negatives of the State to the positives of liberty might persuade people that we, rather than just being complainers, have a vision of a better society.

Rhetoric aside, two substantive points are worth mentioning with respect to the difference between hating the State and loving liberty. First, as I have argued before, in the world of the second best that we actually inhabit, sometimes State action can advance liberty by ensuring equality before the law. Given the existence of the State, it has an obligation to treat its citizens equally, and this notion is very much part of the classical-liberal tradition. To the extent that one “hates the State,” one might overlook or react with reflexive negativity to the ways in which States can extend rights to those who have been denied them.

Private Coercion

More important, if we are too focused on hating the State, we might overlook or downplay all kinds of private activity that restricts liberty. Yes, the State has a monopoly on legitimate coercion, but coercion takes place in many other contexts as well, such as domestic violence. Beyond coercion, there’s privately expressed racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism that, even when nonviolent, can impinge on people’s pursuit of their life projects.

To be a libertarian is to love liberty first and foremost. The State is certainly the major obstacle to our freedom, but it is not the only one. The more we talk about loving liberty, the more we will recognize impediments to liberty in all of its forms, and the more likely we are to persuade others who claim to love liberty but perhaps don’t see all its implications.

  • 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.