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Selfish activism for liberty

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.

21 comments to Selfish activism for liberty

  • I do not share the Randian’s objection to self-sacrificing behaviour, far from it, but it is remarkable how often campaigning for justice and good do not require a net self-sacrifice.

    In other words, I agree with your description of the payoffs and satisfactions of putting a bit of work in to campaign for the immediate benefit of others – even though I don’t have the goal of being selfish in the Randian sense.

    To be honest, I think the lines of reasoning that people produce to explain away their own niceness as being really selfishness are often not exactly untrue, but contrived and artificial.

    But there is a lot to think about.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Libertarian theory needs to be as firmly linked to the physical sciences as we can make it! For instance, we support trade, not taxes, because of the law of Action and reaction. The Libertarian version would be that for every transactional value, there is an exchange of equal value going the other way.
    Since rocket science derives from such physical laws, perhaps we should say that Libertarian economics IS rocket science!

  • Stan

    Part of me is very glad I majored in Poli-Sci, otherwise I don’t think I would have become a libertarian; at least not to the extent I have nor realized the satisfaction from the sheer consistency (among other things) of this ideology. To this day, I feel that libertarianism defines me.

    Which may be unfortunate, as it has won me few friends. And that degree is pretty much worthless.

  • anomdebus

    The claim being rebutted isn’t that libertarians do no pure altruistic things (because few if any reach that level), but they are only interested in their own self-interest and no one else’s.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    anomdebus, it is true he does rebut the idea that libertarians don’t care about others’ self-interest. My point is that a person who focused on his/her own self interest would also understand that to be rationally self interested required a world where freedom is expanding. So it is rationally selfish to lobby for things, if you see what I mean.

  • To turn it around a little bit, isn’t it ironic that so many of the people who consider themselves altruists so approvingly quote Martin Niemoeller. (Refresher: Niemoeller was a German theologian who was sent to Dachau during the war. The famous quotation, which you’ve all heard even if you didn’t know the source, goes something like “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Finally they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.” Something along those lines.) Niemoeller’s argument is precisely the self-interested (in the long view) argument for political involvement that Jonathan Pearce is advancing: defending the liberties of others helps to secure the guarantee of one’s own liberty. Point being that since I hear this quoted approvingly by so many “altruists,” I can only assume that their own political engagement is largely self-interested in the “rational self-interest” sense. I get really, really tired of being told that my motives are immoral by people who evidently share those motives.

  • Which may be unfortunate, as it has won me few friends.

    I find it difficult to believe, Stan – unless you refer specifically to the university circle?

  • Julius Blumfeld

    “Libertarian version would be that for every transactional value, there is an exchange of equal value going the other way.”


  • Value is subjective by definition.

  • ManikMonkee

    “we are all callous brutes who would rather walk by the other side of the road”

    Seriously has anyone ever been bought a drink by a socialist/fascist? They are the stingiest people on the planet.

    Conservatives and libertarians always get a round in!

  • Rob

    It is ironic that to act in you and your families economic self interest is selfish or greedy when to appropriate someone elses property by force and distribute it or claim that which has been taken is seen as benevolent.

    Sometimes I think Freedom loving intellectuals fall into the trap of accepting the terms and defnitions of debate. This leads to the “greed is good” mentality, when in reality to save and invest in you and your families future and by definition in the financial future of many others is not greedy it is mutually beneficial to all in society.

  • John B

    Very true, Manik

  • John B

    Yes indeed.

    The writer is in fact attacking the reason, the logical underpinning of libertarianism in the guise of supporting it.
    Very clever. Or stupid.

    The selfishness referred to is not based on reality. As has been pointed out above.
    He is referring to the pursuit of short goals that are as destructive, self-defeating and untrue as maxing out your credit card and expecting to have plenty.

    I suppose it is only human fallibility to get stuck there, but one does need to progress.

  • Sam Duncan

    I do not share the Randian’s objection to self-sacrificing behaviour, far from it, but it is remarkable how often campaigning for justice and good do not require a net self-sacrifice.

    Actually, that’s always been my understanding of Rand’s take on it. If someone asks you to do something that requires genuine, net self-sacrifice, it’s probably not a good thing, and in fact when you examine “altruistic” behaviour, you find that it rarely happens. (Of course, Rand would say it’s never a good thing, and I share your wariness of that.)

  • Assuming, of course, that altruistic deeds defendingthe freedoms of others actually makes a blind bit of differenc.
    In the real world, of course, freedoms are rapidly going down the pandespite the best efforts of many, many people. Therefore, if there is no possibility of their altruism actually succeeding and bringing about the expansion in liberty they selfishly desire- are they not acting unselfishly?

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Whilst value is subjective, differing from person to person, if both sides agree that a deal should be done, then neither side loses in any trade- money goes one way, and goods of equal subjective value go the other way. Isn’t that like action and reaction?
    And does anyone else think that Hank Rearden is a bit of an altruist? In that final family scene at the mansion, didn’t he want his family to act altruistically? “If you had told me to run, i would have forgiven everything.” That is, run away and don’t think of his family should have been the advice from the family- pure altruism!

  • Laird

    I think you misunderstood that scene, Nuke. It’s not that Reardon would have “run” if the family told him to do so, it’s that such a statement would have demonstrated that they recognized and accepted that he had no duty to sacrifice himself for them. You seem to think that for the family to say “don’t sacrifice yourself for us” is altruism on their part. That’s a very strange definition of “altruism”; certainly it’s not Rand’s.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    But isn’t that altruistic advice? Altruism involves seeking the welfare of others (according to my dictionary). Telling Hank to go would be seeking Hank’s welfare. What other advice would an altruist give in such circumstances?

  • Laird

    Since we’re discussing Rand here, you have to use her definition of “altruism”.

    Here’s (part of) her definition: “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.” Thus, telling Hank to go would not be “seeking [his] welfare”; it would an express repudiation of the creed of altruism, an acknowledgement that they have no moral claim on him (and, conversely, he on them). And because of that he could have “forgiven everything”, since they would have finally “seen the light” and come around to share his moral sense.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Ok, by her definition, Reardan is not an altruist. where can I get a Rand or Objectivist dictionary to replace my Oxford English?

  • Laird

    I gave you a link.