Sunday, August 22, 2004

Distilling the Essence of Modern Libertarianism

In an earlier post I traced the underpinnings of modern libertarianism to their origins with John Stuart Mill and Friedrich A. Hayek. I used a lot of space (though far from enough) to spell out their arguments for the primacy of the individual as against the state. Wikipedia nicely summarizes the philosophy that results from their arguments:
Libertarianism is a political philosophy which advocates individual rights and a limited government. Libertarians believe that individuals should be free to do anything they want, so long as they do not infringe upon what they believe to be the equal rights of others. In this respect they agree with many other modern political ideologies. The difference arises from the definition of "rights". For libertarians, there are no "positive rights" (such as to food or shelter or health care), only "negative rights" (such as to not be assaulted, abused, robbed or censored), including the right to personal property. Libertarians further believe that the only legitimate use of force, whether public or private, is to protect these rights.
In summing up the reasons for subscribing to that statement, I said:
Mill instructs us that personal freedoms should be preserved because through them we become more knowledgeable and more capable; therefore, the state should intervene in our lives only to protect us from physical harm. Hayek then makes the case that the personal and the economic are inseparable: We engage in economic activity to serve personal values and our personal values are reflected in our economic activity. Moreover, the state cannot make personal and economic decisions more effectively than individuals operating freely within an ever-evolving societal network, and when the state intervenes in our lives it damages that network, to our detriment. That is the essence of modern libertarianism.
The closing sentence of Mill's On Liberty reminds us of what happens when the state prevails against the individual:
The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it; and a State which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation, to a little more of administrative skill, or that semblance of it which practice gives, in the details of business; a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes—will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.
The economic cost of statism is high, as I have argued here and here. The social costs are incalculable.