A Subtle Distinction

Recently Jeffrey Tucker wrote an excellent piece for The Freeman describing what he perceives to be a schism in the libertarian movement between “brutalism” and “humanitarianism”. While I find myself leaning more in the direction of what he describes as humanitarian, I have to admit to feeling some pull toward the brutalist side of the argument. Perhaps it’s a bit over-simplistic of me, but I truly do believe that part of the essential nature of liberty is the liberty to be an asshole.

What I believe is missing from Mr. Tucker’s argument is something else that libertarians believe very strongly in: the power of markets. Markets both in goods and in ideas. Both have a place in bringing people together and tempering the worst impulses of humanity. The desire for more and better goods and a higher quality of life for ourselves and our families drives many toward civility, particularly as they mingle with others they otherwise might not be exposed to and find they are not so different from themselves. Those who cannot be led by this carrot can be chased by the stick of ostracism; they will not be forced to conform, but others will not conform to them, and they will find the world can be a difficult place for the man without a community.

Is there a chance that people will exercise en masse the “right to disassociate” as Mr. Tucker phrases it? Absolutely. But I believe there are two viable counter-arguments to that: the positive one is to point out that in doing so they deny themselves the benefits of the free market and specialization, which, having seen what others are gaining thereby, they are likely to want again for themselves. The negative but still undeniably true answer is that, short of coercion to the contrary, people do this anyway. Cliques, sects, factions, parties, cults, denominations, splinter groups – whatever they choose to call themselves, by legal means or not, formally or informally, people are constantly setting themselves off from others, erecting borders around themselves so as to define quite clearly whether you are one of “us” or one of “them”. A humanistic philosophy won’t change that.

Ultimately I suppose I differ from Mr. Tucker in one key way, which is this: his humanistic approach lists out all the benefits that human society as a whole, and the individuals who comprise it, reap from liberty, and sees that as the reason liberty is a value. I see humans, each individually, as the highest value in themselves, and as such I cannot conceive of any course but liberty to guide them. It is a subtle distinction, but an important one.