Intellectual Cod-Liver Oil

Dave Killion — February 6, 2012

Just as we must eat our vegetables if we wish to grow up big and strong, so must we face criticism if we are to be certain of our position. Our latest opportunity to do so arrived recently at the Huffington Post via Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who wishes to point out some “Libertarian Illusions” –

Libertarianism is the single-minded defense of liberty. Many young people flock to libertarianism out of the thrill of defending such a valiant cause. They also like the moral freedom that libertarianism seems to offer: it’s okay to follow one’s one desires, even to embrace selfishness and self-interest, as long as it doesn’t directly harm someone else.

Yet the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values. Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable — all are to take a back seat.

The more libertarian critics I read, the more I recognize that you cannot learn libertarianism from them. What Sachs misunderstands (or misrepresents) is that libertarians do not “hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes“. We hold that WE should never sacrifice the individual liberty of OTHERS in the pursuit of other values or causes. Which is a perfectly decent and civil position that must be ignored by those who, like Sachs, wish to collect sacrificial offerings for their own purposes.

Unpleasant as it may be, make sure you read the whole thing and find all the distortions, exaggerations, and fabrications for yourself. When you’ve finished, take a little more time to read the responses from Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek, Steve Horwitz at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, and Trevor Burrus at the Cato Institute. You’ll be a better person for your efforts.

Comments

Antony Zegers says

Ha ha, and your old friends, the rich man and his starving neighbor, also made their obligatory appearance.

As the other respondent say, most libertarians are in favour of values like compassion, civic responsibility, and so on. They just think that these values are best achieved through voluntary cooperation, and without using force.

He also, like Kymlicka, brings up Nozick. I’m more familiar with the Austrian/Rothbardian strain of libertarianism, but maybe it would be good to study Nozick, it seems that many mainstream intellectuals see him a “Mr Libertarian”.

— February 6, 2012

Todd Kuipers says

Hey Dave – this one is a keeper:
“We hold that WE should never sacrifice the individual liberty of OTHERS in the pursuit of other values or causes.”
I know this, but you put it into a sentence where I was still carrying a paragraph in my head. Thanks much.

— February 7, 2012

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