What Libertarians Get Wrong About Human Nature

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Libertarianism has long been the bold, vigorous cousin of conservatism. Defined by a zealous individualism, libertarianism’s philosophy of “live and let live” has appealed to many. It isn’t hard to see its attraction. After all, the libertarian creed offers a tidy solution to the question of what one’s thinks is acceptable or not in the realm of society — if it doesn’t pertain to you as an individual, then your opinion is wonderfully irrelevant. It’s a tight, crystalline philosophy that elevates liberty, embraces the individual, and directs skepticism towards the state.

Let me be clear: The essential precepts of libertarianism such as free markets, limited government, voluntary association, non-interventionism, personal responsibility, and the like are enormously exemplary ideas. These principles are cherished because they have a good track record of producing not only economic prosperity for the society but also dignity for the individual.

Nevertheless, some aspects of its ideological purity make it unworkable as a realistic (or even desired) model of governance. Its unwavering religion of individualism can commit the error of brushing aside the social institutions necessary for a thriving society. Its calculation of liberty as the mere absence of government can neglect to consider the legitimate role it (government) actually has in maintaining it. The truth is, libertarianism has much to applaud, but perhaps there’s a reason that a libertarian never gets elected to office. Though impressively ideologically cohesive, the libertarian creed lacks a certain human touch. Its incompleteness is derived from its inability to integrate some of the inescapable facts of the human condition that necessitate a delicate balancing act between societal structure and total freedom.

One of the limitations of the libertarian philosophy is its distinctly (and arguably, solely) economic focus at the expense of loosely-grouped “societal concerns”. For the libertarian, such concentration is exacted on economic liberty because to dabble in “societal concerns” has immoral connotations attached to it. For the libertarian, if the state were to exert any kind of distinguishable influence on society this should be roundly treated as sin.

Thus, to use an example from conservatism: To promote so-called “family values” would be perceived as undue overstepping of the ritual freedom of the individual to choose how they want to live. The government should be hands-off when it comes to matters of society, libertarians postulate. It is not their business! In addition, libertarians tend to voice skepticism towards the concept of “promoting a general welfare”. This constitutional clause, they would surely argue, arises naturally from each individual making the choices that they think are best. And through an Invisible-Hand-esque process, the ideal society is cobbled together, organized piece by individual piece.

After all, isn’t this the underlying supposition being made? That if government did nothing but allow freedom and adopt a stance of neutrality towards any and all matters of society, that society would find itself divinely ordered? It’s a bit of a romanticized notion on par with the equilibrium models that the abstract world of high finance is fond of using. Libertarianism as a political philosophy is almost entirely underpinned by free-market theory because its logic is inherently economic in nature. You might ask, so what’s wrong with that? Well, if a political philosophy derives its logic solely from an economic theory, it would suggest that humans are solely transactional. And there’s a problem with that.

The libertarian logic tends to assume that if you get economic liberty squared away, society will automatically be on the road to total optimization (to borrow a term from economics). This could be partially true if we were truly rational maximizers, but we’re not. Or, if it were true we derived meaning from economic optimization, say. But that’s frustratingly not the case either. We’re individuals with souls that derive value from the institutions and social networks that make up our human experience — that act as society’s building blocks.

Libertarian’s exclusive focus on liberty — as the fountain out of which everything else good and true will flow — is not only false but inadequate as a societal prescription. Liberty is magnificently great and noble, but it isn’t a panacea. Consider the current murmurings in our culture about societal decay — the repeated remarks that we’ve lost our moorings or that we’re increasingly isolated and unfulfilled in life. These are legitimate concerns and they appear to be corroborated by various studies on rising rates of mental illness, declining rates of religiosity, and surges in political polarization, to name a few. Libertarians don’t usually address vague issues of “societal decay”, because well, it’s “none of their business” — they’re ideologically opposed to getting their hands dirty with that question.

Conservatives are less resistant to such a prompt and might bring up the importance of things like virtue, beauty, community, truth, responsibility, and wisdom to sustaining the human soul. These are things that libertarians, in their narrow view of government’s proper purview don’t address. And so, the question warrants being asked: We talk a lot about societal decay in our day and age. Could this be amended, do you think, by the libertarian solution of slathering more liberty on everything? Interjecting more freedom? I’m skeptical.

It’s not a lack of liberty that causes societies’ ills in a lot of cases; it is moreso what is being done with that liberty that is the problem.

Libertarians don’t always consider how societies get their values other than supposing that maybe they arise out of a spare economic framework, which is a dubious explanation to put forth. You don’t get meaning out of markets. And it’d be wrong to reduce human life down to a transactional model.

Consider marriage. Does it abide by the ritualistic libertarian idea of economically-maximized self-interest? Not necessarily. In its contractual binding, it demands sacrifice. It can be emotionally messy and challenging. But nevertheless, marriage persists in Western societies as a union born chiefly of love. Love, you could say, is an ideal that is basic to human nature. Curiously, however, it doesn’t appear to mesh well with the abstract ideas of cold, economic logic that almost completely swallow libertarianism. This is a purposefully blunt thought experiment, because it’s obviously not the case that libertarians have anything against marriage. But in their rejection of deliberately upholding something like the institution of marriage (as the conservative might) they are implicitly discounting the grave importance of the basic units of society that give us purpose and belonging and an avenue to channel our nobler instincts.

Libertarians adopt a straightforward rationale for the emergence of liberty by stating that it arises principally from the elimination of government. In contrast, the conservative outlook is a bit more conditional, preferring instead to preserve the social institutions that make liberty possible. The logic goes something like this: if you strengthen the institution of the American family, you are protecting against state tyranny due to the fact that the family unit itself is a buffer against state intervention.

Conservatism seeks to channel human society to nobler aims by protecting it from imperfect human nature on one front and by protecting it from an encroaching government on the other. Critically, libertarianism does not share in this dual-protection theory and is apt, instead, to hold a somewhat misguided, purist belief that human nature is corrupted by government and thus, to whittle it down will result in a reciprocal unleashing of ever-larger doses of human greatness.

It is often presumed that America had its origins in libertarianism but this isn’t a very legitimate assessment. The Founding Fathers were heavily preoccupied with notions such as thrift, honesty, virtue and honor. While limited government remained a matter of supreme importance to them, they weren’t naïve about the simultaneous importance of erecting certain societal standards. What’s interesting about the libertarian creed is that it fundamentally cannot mesh with this idea of societal standards. This is because zapping the government of the possession of any overarching influence is of paramount importance. What then arises is a pruned state apparatus with no moral conscience. This isn’t, I would argue, what the Founding Fathers had in mind. They wanted a principled government, after all.

If humans really were mostly individualistic and we mostly acted like self-sufficient little ecosystems, this would make things far easier for the libertarian and his philosophy. The trouble with libertarianism is that it’s almost too hard-edged a theory. Its clipped-short solutions sound unnervingly easy for what are actually complex problems. For example, it throws morality out the window as a concept that the government should be at all concerned with. But, in reality, what the government can do to preserve and promote morality of the common good is a worthwhile cause. It is this absolutist idea that libertarians cling to that any shred of “state influence” can augur an avalanche into totalitarianism that demands less immediate condemnation. Government should have a personality, so to speak. Because, again, you don’t want it to be large, but you do want it to be principled.

At the heart of libertarianism is a paradox: By avoiding the promotion of strong social institutions such as communities, families, and churches which conservatives typically champion, its adherents are implicitly inviting the state to rush in to occupy this empty space. Historical observation reveals that in the absence of alternative societal fixtures, an excess of politics is always around the corner, ready to fill a vacuum. Like the scientific properties of a gas, politics has an uncanny ability to reach to all edges of society if nothing else suitably meaningful is put in its place. This is why conservatives argue for the protection of the community, the family, and the church. This trinity of social institutions helpfully slices a divide between the government and the people.

Isn’t this what libertarians want, after all? To be as untouched by the State as possible? Of course, they might argue that being reduced to an individualistic essence is what humans really want and so, they shouldn’t have an intrinsic need for these social institutions. But the sterility of this idea is apparent when one considers the enduring realities of tribalism, war, and religion and what they all have in common — a deep human desire to be part of a collective and to derive meaning from these memberships. There’s no point in contesting whether this is good or bad — it simply is. The best we can hope for, then, is social groups that channel our good instincts and promote virtues such as kindness and charity rather than serving as outlets for moral depravity or human destructiveness.

One of libertarianism’s most unspoken obstacles is actually its optimism about human nature. This optimism isn’t bad per se, it just makes the philosophy itself a little unworkable on a large scale. It’s actually pretty useful to look at the personality profile of libertarians themselves concerning this purportedly misguided optimism. Libertarians, for instance, are more likely to rely on their rational faculties than to resort to emotional judgement. They have an inclination towards dispassionate self-evaluation and do indeed display a preference for supplanting other moral standards with the glorified ideal of liberty.

Libertarians are, on the whole, pretty good people! However, they can make the fatal error of assuming that others are just as rational, honest, and individualistic. But that, I’m sorry to say, is one heck of a precedent to put on society. Truthfully, if the majority of humans shared the mindset and personality of the typical libertarian, their model would enjoy far more feasibility. Libertarianism itself requires a firmly embedded social contract of self-discipline and personal responsibility. This is the only prescription for its workability.

Otherwise, freedom, absent of all “societal guardrails” will be needlessly abused. You might think that the libertarian has no stake in what another person chooses to do with their freedom. But if too many people are absent of a moral standard or self-accountability and are handed boundless freedom on a platter, the end result might not be so pretty.

There is a reason libertarianism lives on in pages and texts but never finds itself on the national stage. There is much to appreciate about its many honorable ideals, but its underlying logic has too many snags. Its ideological rigidity and incompleteness bar it from being translatable to a workable political model and its preconditions can prove too challenging. Above all else, the relationship between government and human nature is — and forever will be — an enduring and delicate balancing act of enormously vital proportions.

Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between. laurennreiff@gmail.com

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