All Commentary
Wednesday, February 16, 2011

But Where Do You Stand?

“I am a libertarian.” These are the words of Leonard E. Read, from his 1956 Freeman article “Neither Left Nor Right.”1 Read was prompted to write this short article when, after one of his lectures, an observer pointed out, “Why, you are neither left nor right!” Many years after Read heard these very apt words, this still remains a common observation.

Today, libertarianism is assumed to be some corky and crazy minority. This is unfortunate. As Read correctly points out, libertarianism is neither “left” nor “right”. The libertarian is indeed very different from the liberal on the “left” and conservative on the “right.” Some on the “right” are starting to notice and revolt against the similarities. As Kevin McCullough of Fox News recently said in an article,

“Libertarians and Conservatives are as different as Libertarians and Liberals. The truth is libertarians are the worst form of political affiliation in the nation. Combining the desire of economic greed, with the amoral desire to promote any behavior regardless of its cost to our culture is a stark departure from the intent of the Founding Fathers.”

Mr. McCullough’s words attempt to disparage the libertarian view through the use of language meant to leave the reader no other option but to agree with him. In reality, a libertarian is an individualist who is uncompromisingly anti-authoritarian. He believes in the freedom of all individuals or as John Stuart Mill once said, “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

The “desire of economic greed” is simply the belief in the free market. Greed, or self-interest to use a more apt word, is ever present in human nature. What matters is how it is channeled. The free market allows individuals pursuing their own self-interest to enrich themselves only by enriching others first. Adam Smith called this the “invisible hand”. This is contingent upon a system of protected private property rights, where individuals, who own themselves, are free to own and exchange property. To stifle this system, by the use of force, means to stifle human creativity which would certainly sets us on a path to poverty.

As for “the amoral desire to promote any behavior regardless of its cost to our culture,” Mr. McCullough is simply twisting words in a way that is meant to leave the reader in shock. In reality he has distorted the true view. He mainly points to the examples of libertarian support for drug legalization and gay marriage. It is true libertarians support these policies. But, to not support them is inconsistent with the belief in individual liberty. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

This does not mean, however, that the libertarian must approve of and promote the use of drugs or gay marriage. He may personally disapprove of one or both. He is free to do so, just as any individual is. There is no desire amongst libertarians to promote “amoral” behavior. What he actually promotes is the freedom for all individuals to make their own choice. Besides, culture is a form of spontaneous order and cannot be controlled at a gunpoint. Attempting to do so is essentially central planning.

  • Nicholas Snow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in the Department of Economics, and previously a Senior Lecturer at The Ohio State University Economics Department. His research focuses on the political economy of prohibition.