Libertarians are often attacked for their laissez-faire posture concerning real and perceived human problems. Many people–whether left, right, or libertarian–falsely equate laissez-faire with not caring; with a sense of moral apathy and blindness.
The right tends to see libertarians as morally bereft libertines whereas the left brands libertarians as selfish and antisocial kooks. And unfortunately, some libertarians themselves play into these caricatures, as they take much too literally the question, “who am I to judge?”
Either way, those among us who love liberty are accused of being or are called upon to be nihilistic: the idea being that because libertarians are against the institutionalized predation and monopolized privilege of the State, because they are for political freedom, then they must be against any standards, rules, morality, or community whatsoever.
This could not be further from the truth.
In general, the libertarian worldview is a positive and productive philosophy based upon a moral worldview; an ideology anchored in human freedom. The libertarian calls for peaceful cooperation and flourishing between fellow human beings.
He tells his fellows, “human beings should not prey upon other human beings.” He advises them, “engage in production, trade, and charity for the sake of prosperity and peace.” He holds a deep-seated conviction that the individuality of each person is the engine of society and that each individual has the potential to achieve happiness and share that happiness with others freely.
And I venture if you were ever to sit down for coffee or whiskey with a liberty lover, he would tell you with a gleam in his eye that a profound respect for life, liberty, and property rights is the keystone for emancipating human beings from the exploitation that has plagued humanity for most of its history.
All this being said, libertarians are not nihilists or moral relativists by definition.
Libertarians are all for standards, rules, morality, and community; as long as they are freely chosen. This is not because of some arbitrary or peculiar penchant for personal liberty; rather, the libertarian contends voluntary standards are superior to imposed diktats because standards, rules, morality, and community are predicated on individual consent, e.g. a morality that has not been freely chosen is no morality at all; if imposed through aggressive coercion, it is a form of subjugation.
Take a case of two libertarians and their conflicting moral codes; one libertarian may be a devout, practicing member of the Roman Catholic Church, while another libertarian may be an atheist and secular humanist. These two may not agree on much and certainly not on, say, the morality of human sexuality; maybe one believes in practicing monogamous sex in marriage, while the other prefers polyamorous relationships. Where both parties do agree as libertarians is this: their sexual lives are theirs to discover, experience, and fulfill freely. Free to practice their moral visions and free to criticize the other person’s vision and practices. They agree: there is no need for the imposition of the State to advance one point of view against the other. And once this space of freedom has been agreed upon, criticism and debate become even more worthwhile and necessary.
This is because the libertarian sees the State, and its ruling caste, as a great burden on society’s future development. And ironically, the modern State’s “compassionate” and “pragmatic” attempts to propagate virtue, wealth, and equality through programs of centralized coercion and privilege have actually eroded virtue, diminished wealth, and promoted vast inequality.
In other words, it is the State itself that marches us towards moral blindness and nihilism. It makes morality a set of marching orders rather than a matter of choice to be made by an independent mind.
Thus, I contend we have made ourselves victims to this dilemma of nihilism in two ways: (1) by ceding our personal moral responsibility and liberty to the State and (2) by damning personal moral responsibility and liberty from the get go as a mythical impossibility, thus necessitating the imposition of the State.
To illustrate the point in a small way, consider the virtue of charity. Though some may claim “we” are being responsible by having the State impose systems such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and a multitude of other “safety net” programs, I suggest that such programs pervert the virtue of charity. In taking up the cause, the State transforms this personal, explicit, and voluntary responsibility into a general, vague, and outright coercive duty, thus hammering this natural “plowshare” into a sword to be wielded by those with state power.
This is no superfluous point, for in thinking about charity as personal responsibility, one posits a society of born-free individuals who are equal under the law; they must help one another through voluntary aid and association. On the contrary, in thinking about charity as general, coercive duty, one posits a society of rulers and subjects: rulers who need to instill in their subjects a “sense of virtue” by violently imposing whatever duties the State deems desirable.
Now, extrapolate beyond mere charity, and see that we have ceded many of the most precious responsibilities of a free people: money, banking, education, healthcare, etc.
We have a vicious cycle of nihilism that cuts both ways and pervades our lives in ways beyond immediate comprehension. In foolishly commissioning the State to carry out our moral responsibilities, we have rendered moral responsibility nearly meaningless, or the other way around, by claiming an individual moral responsibility an impossibility from the get go, we are left clamoring for the necessity of the State; of a central pan to impose virtue upon us.
The question is: how do we escape this trap?
Stop ceding power to the State and its political animals. Put positively: take personal, moral responsibility. Do not simply rely on the question “who am I to judge?” The only person who can ever judge is you. If not you, it will be someone else.
And once you do judge, once you hold in your mind a moral vision and zeal, begin building a future of, by, and for human freedom through education, innovation, industry, art, politics and resistance; not by calling upon the law to enforce your moral vision.