The Bogeyman of Libertarian 'Atomism'

The Bogeyman of Libertarian 'Atomism'

by Dmitry Chernikov <mailto:dmitry_chernikov@…>

One of the most ridiculous charges leveled at libertarianism is that it allegedly assumes that people are "atoms" - that they that are perfectly autonomous, self-sufficient, and would prefer to leave society as much as to remain in it. This charge can be pressed both against the ideology of liberty and against methodological individualism as a scientific technique. Here I want to focus on the former.

David Friedman writes in his The Machinery of Freedom <> that one can get what one wants from another person through one of the following three ways: force, trade, or love. The bond that is thereby formed will be hegemonic, contractual, or that of charity. Or we can divide human relationships into personal/impersonal (P/IP) and voluntary/involuntary (V/IV) and notice that we find IP and IV in the relation between a subject and the modern state, IP and V in all manner of business interactions among strangers, and P and V within families and friendships. Or, if you'd like to look at it from the point of view of the Christian religion, both individuals and the world itself progress from slaves motivated by fear to mercenaries motivated by gain to children of God whose greatest motive is love of the highest good. With that I think the pattern should be clear.

The thing about libertarianism to remember is that it is supremely unconcerned with love or charity as such. Insofar as the arguments that support it are utilitarian, disinterested benevolence is assumed, because under this moral doctrine one is supposed to maximize happiness over the entire world or, at least, some portion of it and must therefore care for the entire world. But our ideology has no commandments. It does not say "Love thy neighbor." It does not say, "Do works of mercy." The third way, that of love, is far beyond its competence. What it does do, however, is elevate human beings from the first way which is slavery to the second way which is self-interest. Libertarianism therefore uplifts mankind, if not into a mystical ecstasy, then at least into the dignity of a free servant. No longer are there masters and slaves but only equal parties who benefit from exchanges together. In the free market no one needs to bow to anyone in order to receive his due. Libertarianism does not say: Take these personal loving relationships and "commercialize" them. It says: Let my people go. For example, it is the socialists from Plato onward who have wanted to destroy the family. Libertarianism would simply advocate giving women the same rights with respect to disposing of property that men possess. A regime of liberty is fully compatible with the institution of monogamous family; in fact, it reinforces it.

Furthermore, fostering charity directly is beyond the competence of any science and any political ideology. Libertarianism is not alone in this regard. Yet even here it influences things, because, as I have stressed a number of times before, in a free society there is a long-term harmony of interests. So it is much easier to love your fellow man if his existence and actions bring a benefit to you rather than serve as an obstacle to your goals. Given liberty, people are settled into a system of social cooperation that permits all of them, through mutual self-interested assistance, to satisfy their sometimes vastly different desires at the same time. Further, without the division of labor human beings would always have been enemies of one another, fighting like savages for scarce resources. Yet it is the free market in which division of labor fully manifests itself. As Mises writes, "In a hypothetical world in which the division of labor would not increase productivity, there would not be any society. There would not be any sentiments of benevolence and good will."

Libertarianism promotes what may be termed conservation of charity. It assigns charity a role in life in which it can be most useful. It does not require heroic sacrifices from people when the same effect can be achieved via a mutually beneficial trade. It reduces the number of times when one must appeal to higher ideals or exemplary or praiseworthy behavior in order to get something done. As economist Dwight R. Lee writes in his paper "Economics with Romance," "Economists emphasize the advantage of economizing on virtue by the establishment of incentives that motivate good conduct with a minimum amount of noble human traits." He tells the following remarkable story:

In the early 1800s many prisoners were being shipped from England to Australia. The British government contracted with ship captains to provide the transportation, and paid them a specified amount per prisoner. Unfortunately, the survival rate of prisoners was only about 50 percent. This death rate was almost entirely the result of overcrowding and poor treatment, and it prompted many moralizing appeals in favor of more humane treatment. But the moralizing appeals had no effect. The survival rate remained about 50 percent. Finally an economist, Edwin Chadwick (1862), struck an effective blow for decent treatment of prisoners by accepting that ship captains were economic men and recommending a change in incentives. Instead of paying the captains for the number of prisoners who walked onto ships in England, Chadwick recommended paying for the number who walked off the ships in Australia. The change was made, and the survival rate jumped immediately to 98.5 percent.

Now classical liberalism (and its more modern and sophisticated version libertarianism), Mises writes,

seeks to give men only one thing, the peaceful, undisturbed development of material well-being for all, in order thereby to shield them from the external causes of pain and suffering as far as it lies within the power of social institutions to do so at all.

Notice the words "material" and "external." Is liberalism therefore "materialistic"? Nonsense, says Mises, and his defense is twofold. First, he argues that liberalism is no different from any other political ideology in the sense that all of them promise their adherents material prosperity. Their ends are the same, but the means for the attainment of those ends advocated by different people and parties are different. And liberalism is the only ideology that actually succeeds in getting the immense majority what they want, given that "people prefer life to death, health to sickness, nourishment to starvation, abundance to poverty."

Secondly: The liberals do not disdain the intellectual and spiritual aspirations of man. On the contrary. They are prompted by a passionate ardor for intellectual and moral perfection, for wisdom and for aesthetic excellence. But their view of these high and noble things is far from the crude representations of their adversaries. They do not share the naïve opinion that any system of social organization can directly succeed in encouraging philosophical or scientific thinking, in producing masterpieces of art and literature and in rendering the masses more enlightened. They realize that all that society can achieve in these fields is to provide an environment which does not put insurmountable obstacles in the way of the genius and makes the common man free enough from material concerns to become interested in things other than mere breadwinning. In their opinion the foremost social means of making man more human is to fight poverty. Wisdom and science and the arts thrive better in a world of affluence than among needy peoples.

He concludes:

He who disdains the fall in infant mortality and the gradual disappearance of famines and plagues may cast the first stone upon the materialism of the economists.

My mother recently had her house painted, and one of the contractors told her that one of the motivations for his work was that he liked to make people happy. Now there's a purpose in life, a life of charity, of deriving pleasure from constantly making things better. How can mere economic realities help with that? Well, for one, liberty can ensure (1) that there are houses to be painted, (2) that there are available a wide variety of high-quality paints of every conceivable color and the tools the painter needs for his work, (3) that painters have to compete with each other and thereby not give in to the sin of sloth, (4) that there is constant innovation (such that other people can enjoy making the painters' work easier, as in the market all people cooperate for mutual advantage), and finally (5) that people are sufficiently rich that keeping one's house beautiful is a desire that can be satisfied. (I mean, come on, if you are so poor that you live in a hole in the ground, the aesthetics of home environment cannot be your most pressing concern.)

Adam Smith observes that "The progressive state is really the cheerful and hearty state of all the different orders of society. The stationary is dull; the declining melancholy." Constant improvement, not just for oneself but for one's neighbors, brings hope and encouragement. That one's children will be richer than the parents makes the latter hopeful and optimistic. On the other hand, watching society dissolve in a war or depression can cause serious despair. So progress made possible only by capitalism lifts people's spirits and is therefore good.

It is not clear that building a modest cathedral with small means is more meritorious than building a grand cathedral with more ample means. It is written that

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything - all she had to live on." (Mk 12:41-44)

But be that as it may, the stuff that people build today is, in fact, better than what they built a thousand years ago. Today's cathedrals and symphonies and theorems are more beautiful and more numerous than they were in the past. The people who make them may not necessarily be more virtuous or accomplished than their ancestors, but still I see no reason not to credit liberty and capitalism with making the world itself objectively more beautiful, ordered, and perfect.

Lastly, consider a book like Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica <> . When it was written, it was available only to a few scholars. Today it is on the Internet in no less than two places. You want happiness? Check it out and see what the great doctor says you need in order to attain it. It is now only a few clicks away. Despite Al Gore's protestations to the contrary, it is the market and economic freedom that have made the Web the wonder of the world that it is today. Can we say therefore that the market is a soul-saving device? And that, as a corollary, it fosters charity?

A final note. Libertarianism can be described in the following four ways:

1. It is an extension of private morality into the public realm, ultimately collapsing the latter into the former. It says: If theft and extortion is wicked, then so are taxes and inflation and coercive welfare. (E.g., liberality may be a virtue and a moral duty but it is not a legal obligation.) If murder is unjust, then so is aggressive war. If slavery is wrong, then so is the draft.

2. Through conferring upon individuals great liberty of action, it unleashes their creativity. Libertarianism therefore is a progress-inducing technology. It says: give people liberty and you will see them achieve great things.

3. Libertarianism fulfills all the standard precepts of utilitarianism. It says: liberty is linked to prosperity and fast economic progress, and lack of liberty is linked to poverty and stagnation.

4. Liberty is an essential condition for the flourishing of each individual. It is only under freedom that one can develop his talents and actualize his potential. It says: without liberty no personal growth is possible.

None of these assume or entail atomistic individuals. On the contrary, libertarianism is a vision of a prosperous and constantly improving society of free people who interact with each other in their private lives voluntarily and in numerous ways. This society is bound together by contract and love, and in it established yet unjust hegemony is reduced to a minimum or eliminated entirely.

October 6, 2006

Dmitry Chernikov [send him mail <mailto:dmitry_chernikov@…> ] is a graduate student in philosophy at Kent State University. See his website <> .

Copyright © 2006

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