Libertarianism doesn’t have a lot to say about the good life. It doesn’t tell me whether I should give to charity, whether I should save a drowning child, whether I should be a loving husband, or whether I should devote myself to uplifting intellectual pursuits instead of squandering my life watching TV and eating bonbons. Is an unexamined life still worth living? Libertarianism doesn’t say.

At least not much. I’m referring to libertarianism as one thing, but there are a lot of libertarianisms. I’ve never read Ayn Rand but those who claim to, and are critical of her, say that she advocates a life of selfishness or self-centeredness. Maybe that means, for her, the good life is looking our for number one? (Maybe this more charitable and better-informed account serves her better. I don’t know, but I trust its author.)

Rand’s not the only libertarian. As with Rand, I’ve never read Rawls, either. But my understanding is that his libertarianism rests on a notion of fairness: what would we have the world look like if we didn’t know beforehand what privileges we’d be born into? Others (Murali, if you’re reading, I’m thinking of you) can clarify how I misunderstand Rawls, but it seems to me he advocates something like a golden rule. In that sense, the good life is doing–or advocating for, or building society along the lines of–how you would be done by.

A better example, because I’ve actually read some of his stuff, is Jason Kuznicki. He has urged us, for instance, “to refuse to be ruled–and refuse to rule.” By that standard, maybe the good life is a studied and reflective humility. Even if I’m misrepresenting him, I think it’s a good lesson at any rate. A thousand flowers can bloom, as the cliché says. Or to paraphrase James Hanley (I forget the cite), a strongly libertarians society has more room for traditionalist Hutterites than a strongly Hutterite society would have for just about anyone else.

Still, libertarianism does its best work as a naysayer. It has a lot to say against the excessive uses of state power and about the costs of even the best intended programs. Liberals and conservatives and anyone else who wishes to use the state for any purpose had better heed libertarians’ critique against coercion and for expanding choices. Some fringe elements notwithstanding, most members of team liberal or team conservative value individual autonomy.

Even as a naysayer, libertarianism offers a clue to the good life. Its advocates seem to have a faith in human resilience if only the fetters of coercion be removed. Along the lines of what James Willard Hurst argued 50 years ago in a different context, many people await the “release of energy” that can move them to ever expanding choices, opportunities, and prosperity. There’s a good here, and the good is in removing impediments to finding the good.

But nagging questions remain. Prosperity and abundance count for a lot, but can there be too much? We’ll all die eventually anyway. The fear of death disturbs me even now.

And while still alive, how to deal with all the complexity life offers? Local communities and autonomous agents have a way of forming their own complex and sometimes restricting rules and obligations. While these can be chalked to the outcomes of market exchanges or daily micro-compromises and while a strongly libertarian society widens the opportunities for exit, they still impose ought’s and should’s on those who don’t choose exit or for whom exit is still too costly or who choose exit and find only other obligations or (maybe worse) themselves.

Liberty, by itself and however you define it, doesn’t have the answer.


Category: Statehouse

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18 Responses to Libertarianism and the good life

  1. Brandon Berg says:

    Why would you expect a political philosophy (and libertarianism really isn’t even one political philosophy so much as a coalition of broadly similar political philosophies) to provide this?

    • Glyph says:

      I also expect libertarianism to be a floor wax and dessert topping!

      But more seriously, I second the question. However one wants to define them, I would be surprised if liberalism or conservatism offer satisfying answers either, since these seem more like questions to be asked of philosophies or religions.

      Political philosophies simply posit an order of government (and its relation to other societal institutions and individuals) in ways that can foster (or harm, or leave largely unaffacted) whatever your concept of the good life is.

      • greginak says:

        Yeah, i don’t see any political philosophy as telling me what it takes for me to have a good life. They are about the government and society around us, in which we will try to figure that out for ourselves.

    • Your and Glyph’s point is a good one. And I guess what I’m trying to say is what you said, that it’s a political philosophy and designed for political purposes.

      However, it took me more than 600 words to say this. It took you and Glyph far fewer. 🙂

    • RTod says:

      “Why would you expect a political philosophy (and libertarianism really isn’t even one political philosophy so much as a coalition of broadly similar political philosophies) to provide this?”

      Off hand, I would say it’s because without having some kind of definition of a good life as well as an explanation for why one system gets achieves that better than another, there is no real purpose for a political philosophy. Seriously, I can’t think of a single political philosophy that’s rooted in a statement of, “fish if I know if this will help anyone’s lives be better or not.”

      Promises of a good life (or at least a *more* good life) are the only reason political philosophies even exist, and the only reason anyone even bothers to install them into a society.

  2. mike shupp says:

    Ummm…. Rawls was definitely not a libertarian. You’re thinking of Robert Nozick, I suspect. Anarchy, State, and Utopia

    As for Ayn Rand, people who knew her personally seemed to feel she was gracious and generous. She took in several people who would have homeless during WW II, for instance. And the impression I got was that as she meant things, miserliness was not a virtue; instead we should look within ourselves for what motivates us and pursue the course that seems most noble and shining and honorable to us, rather than being conformists.

    Modern day libertarians are generally not my favorite people, but I’m still very partial to Rand.

    • It’s quite possible I’m misinterpreting Rand, especially because I’ve never read her. And I know almost nothing about her life.

      The reference to Rawls was because I had thought Murali (a frequent commenter here and Over There) called/calls himself a libertarian and uses Rawls to get to that point. As with Rand, I may be mistaken (and I hope Murali will correct me if I’m wrong).

      • Brandon Berg says:

        There are a lot of different places you can go starting from Rawls’ analytical framework (i.e., the Veil of Ignorance), depending heavily on your beliefs about the effects of different economic policies. I think Rawls was fairly left-wing economically (though I haven’t read his books, either), but there are some libertarians who use his analytical framework to argue for libertarianism.

        I remember Ayn Rand hated A Theory of Justice, but she hated libertarians, too. And people who liked different music from her.

    • P.S. By the way, Mike, your comment is a good reminder to me not to write about things/people/books I don’t know much about.

      • mike shupp says:

        Well, I’m an older guy. I can recall when Rawls and Nozick (and Rand for that matter) were a bit newer than they are today.

    • Brandon Berg says:

      Modern day libertarians are generally not my favorite people, but I’m still very partial to Rand.

      It’s worth noting that despite being a libertarian herself, more or less, Rand was fiercely critical of “libertarians.” It’s been about fifteen years (Jesus!) since I read her books, but IIRC she equated libertarianism with anarchism. I’m not sure how far off the mark that was at the time.

      • mike shupp says:

        I’m guessing here but …

        Rand was a novelist — an adventure novelist, actually, if you ignore the philosophy. She liked big bold characters who carried great responsibilities and accomplished great things — Elias Wyatt, John Galt, Dagny Taggert, the rest of that crew. She liked to imagine such people around here, and to some extent, she created them — Alan Greenspan, Nathaniel Brandon, etc.

        The sad reality is, in the nature of things, most of the people who imbue her philosophy nevertheless fail to reach the heights. Arithmetic and luck in large part — it isn’t possible for all the children in Lake Woebegone to rise above average. And character and ability, also in large part — most of us fall into Eddie Villers’ kind of role. We take jobs at SpaceX and slap ourselves on the back for our daring and skills, forgetting that our true goal should be to out do Elon Musk with our creations, and we fall for mass movements, such as Republicanism or Methodism, while trumpeting our individuality. We fail philosophically, even as we succeed fiscally.

        So from Rand’s vantage, I suspect, Libertarians looked like very smudged copies of what proper Objectivists should be.

        My 2 cents.

  3. I think Brandong and Greginak have a point about limiting our expectations when it comes to political philosophy and perhaps I’m just strawmanning things by debunking answers such philosophy doesn’t try to provide.

    But Tod above explains pretty well why I’ve raised the question about the good life. I also think that libertarians, like any other human, have a personal notion of the good life, but that that view in some ways is reflected in their libertarianism.

    Another thing I’m trying to do–and this is something I’ve come up with just now, I can’t promise I had this in mind when I wrote the post–is to get at an understanding of why I don’t consider myself libertarian and others don’t either, even though I (and many of those others) share some of the assumptions libertarians claim to share. The best objection I can come up with comes from a kind of Burkean skepticisim about the promises sometimes made in the name of “liberty.” And while that skepticism doesn’t say much about the good life, either, I can’t shake it.

  4. James Hanley says:

    Libertarians tend to be believe value is subjective, so the good life is a subjective concept. That’s why they want to limit coercion, to allow each person to pursue the good life as s/he perceives it. For most people the good life involves other people, so if we allow people to make their own choices about whom to associate with, and what to do with those other people, that will do more to produce the good life, for more people, than government intervention in their choices will.

    • That’s about as succinct an explanation I can think of.

      • J Hanley says:

        This hands-off policy is what frustrates some people about libertarianism. I remember certain commenters “Over There” demanding to know what libertarians were for, where “for” meant “particular public policies.” They complained that libertarianism was entirely a negative program, that it didn’t have any positive proposals, because to them a positive proposal could only mean government implementing policies that intervene in some way. To the libertarian this perspective makes no sense, because what we are “for,” our positive program, is wholly voluntary human interactions.

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