Libertarianism is attractive. I find that it functions as a sanctuary for both those unhappy with conservatism (which they often see as loyalty to authority and tradition) and those tired of liberalism (which they often see as loyalty to blind compassion).
Libertarianism replaces those key beliefs with a foundation that’s not tradition, authority, or compassion based, but one built upon individual freedoms. This has an elegance and purity to it that many, including myself, find compelling.
On this view, the role of government is to ensure that individuals cannot impede the rights of others, and to otherwise stay out of the way. Everyone has opportunities to become successful. Some take those opportunities, and some do not. As such it is natural for some to flourish while others sputter, and it is not the purpose of government, nor anyone’s moral responsibility, to try to correct that natural order.
I found this to be an overwhelmingly strong argument for a period in my life, and I know a great many intelligent people who still find it so. For that reason I will highlight below two major reasons I no longer share this perspective.
The Practicality Problem
The first tripwire I hit with libertarianism appeared when began exploring its likely real-world ramifications. If people are allowed to succeed and fail on their own, it seems obvious from looking at the world that the tendency is to do the latter. In short, without help most would fail–both globally and in the U.S. Even worse, though, the number of people failing would accelerate rapidly. Failure will beget failure, and practically speaking those enjoying their success and their lack of group responsibility would end up surrounded by poverty, filth, and crime.
So, moral questions aside, I couldn’t even imagine a better world for my own interests if it were implemented. If people are becoming increasingly uneducated, are reproducing at faster and faster rates, and crime and war are increasing everywhere…this doesn’t help the people I most care about on the libertarian view: me and my loved ones.
The Moral Problem
The practicality problem was a recurring issue for me, but the impetus to abandon the libertarian outlook was a moral one. Not only did the system not play well for the successful, but it seemed plainly obvious that most people on the planet (i.e. the unsuccessful) would see their quality of life suffer horribly. That’s literally billions of people.
I tried for a long time to square that against my libertarian mantra of “individuals have options to succeed, and it’s not our responsibility to help the group if they choose not to help themselves…”, but that weighed against actual humans suffering did not seem right. Despite my efforts I couldn’t imagine watching billions of people suffer and saying with a wagging finger that they should have made better choices. It’s always perplexed me that people claiming to be of the highest moral character can do precisely this.
What I Replaced Libertarianism With
As I mentioned, people like to have a fallback defense when they’re pressed. It’s their “go to” concept that serves as the bedrock of their belief system. For many religious types it’s, “Well, the Good Book has never failed me.”. For hardcore liberals it’s often something about altruism over selfishness. And for libertarians it’s, “just leave me alone and we won’t have a problem”.
I wasn’t immune to needing something similar for myself, so I set out to identify what that should be. I believe what I settled on elegantly accomplishes both practicality and morality:
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Our goal as humans should be to use reason, science, and compassion to increase the happiness and reduce the suffering of all conscious creatures.1
We have here a definition of morality that is tied to caring about the happiness and suffering of others, accompanied by a guideline of using data-driven outcomes to determine the best way to achieve that.
This isn’t conservative because its methods of accomplishing the stated goal are subject to significant change based on science. It’s not bleeding-heart liberal because it advocates the use of data to measure outcomes and do what actually works rather than just “feeling through it”. And it’s not Libertarian because the central principle is that morality is tied to improving everyone’s life, not just your own.
A couple of examples that resonated powerfully for me during this journey included imagining what childhood smoking rates would look like if we had taken a “personal responsibility” approach to tobacco companies targeting children in advertising. Or what elementary and high school attendance would look like if truancy wasn’t illegal. What would that do for university attendance, crime, and the American workforce? Over and over the “hands off” approach showed itself to be extremely detrimental over time.
Ultimately, Libertarianism has a nobility to it that I still respect, and while it is not a malicious worldview it most definitely is a selfish one. The longer I thought about the challenges we face on this planet, and the deeper I looked at the repercussions of averting our eyes, the more I realized I needed a moral principle based on shared human experience rather than individuality. It’s really that simple.
That’s why I’m no longer a libertarian.
1 This is assembled from Bertrand Russell’s essay titled “What I Believe”, and Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape”, both of which I strongly recommend.