I am not entirely happy about an article, which is fine as far as it goes in defending libertarians from the idea that we are all callous brutes who would rather walk by the other side of the road, so to speak. I agree that that is wrong. Of course, there are one or two so-called libertarians who might not give a damn about anyone else but themselves, and they are happily avoided. In my experience, however, the vast majority of libertarians are not just right-thinking, they are fine individuals: generous, creative and benevolent to their fellows. But this is a rationally selfish thing. Think about it: if you believe freedom is a good thing because of the wealth and opportunities that it leads to, you will realise pretty fast that it is inconsistent to want freedom for yourself but not for anyone else. Not just inconsistent, but dumb.
However, for all that the article does make that sort of point, citing fine groups such as the Institute for Justice, the article is somewhat spoiled by this rather silly paragraph:
“There are a lot of libertarians working on issues that could be construed as self-interested – lowering taxes is the obvious example. There are even some hard core Ayn Rand sycophants who embrace little more than themselves. Find that repugnant? Have at ‘em! But you’re just misinformed if you think that libertarians as a whole care for nothing more than their self-interest. Countless libertarians are working to advance the freedom and fair-treatment of people other than themselves. Often they do so more consistently than some of the liberals who sneer at them.”
He’s making a fairly basic mistake here. The pursuit of rational, long term self interest – the words “rational” and “long-term” are crucial – is totally congruent with spending time and money to support the genuine freedoms of others. After all, as any Rand “sycophant” would argue, if we do not defend freedoms with a bit of effort, and go into bat to defend causes that are important, even if they are unpopular, or appear weird, then they will find themselves in a very lonely place if their own freedoms are attacked. A genuinely selfish person, who holds his own life and flourishing as his ultimate value and cultivates the virtues to achieve it fully (reason, independence, honesty, pride, productiveness, justice and integrity), will want to see freedom expand. The cost of spending a bit of time lobbying, arguing and campaigning is, for such a person, outweighed by the long term benefits. The individual benefits if the total sum of liberty is increased, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. For the Rand “sycophant”, the real stupidity would be to ignore the wider world and its problems. By the same token, libertarians understand the Law of Unintended Consequences: a lot of supposedly “altruistic” government interventions, for example (I use the word altruist in the usual, not Randian sense) make many real or imaginary problems far worse (examples: the War on Drugs, Prohibition, state education, etc).
One example of “selfish activism” might illustrate the point. For a long time I have been going along to events hosted by FOREST, the UK-based pressure group that defends the rights of people to smoke in privately owned places such as pubs. I don’t smoke, in fact I dislike the stink of tobacco and ask people not to spark up in my apartment. But I defend the libertarian line on smoking because I realise that if such freedoms get eroded without protest, then things I want to do could be banned next. For similar reasons, I’ll defend the right of people to publish hateful remarks (so long as they don’t demand I have to republish them), or practice non-conventional lifestyles I might abhor (so long it is consensual), and so on. For me, the long-term payoff – more freedom – is the point. I don’t see campaigning for justice or freedom as intrinsically good. It is much more important than that – it benefits me.
Another way of putting it is that life is not a zero-sum game. I obviously cannot spend all my time trying to defend freedoms or other issues; I have my own business and personal life and various interests to pursue. (My golf swing needs a lot of attention). But if I can, by my advocacy of hopefully good ideas and opposition to bad ones, make the world a marginally better place for myself and others, then I cannot think of a more truly selfish objective than that. In other words, I am not a classical liberal because it is an unchosen duty. I enjoy it and see the benefits.
And let’s not forget, another reason why libertarians defend the causes they do is that, despite the odd glitch, we get to meet some excellent people and make good friends. Some of my greatest mates are those I have encountered through such networks.