Libertarianism and Selfishness

In a recent widely-cited Washington Post column, conservative commentator Michael Gerson claims that libertarians promote “a freedom indistinguishable from selfishness.” The accusation that libertarians are really advocates of selfishness is a very common one. Googling “libertarianism + selfishness” yields 1.9 million hits, the majority of which are attacks on libertarianism similar to Gerson’s.

In reality, however, libertarianism often requires unselfish behavior. Libertarians routinely condemn politicians who advocate statist policies in order to expand their power or ensure their reelection, bureaucrats who seek to increase the authority and funding of their agencies, businessmen who lobby for government subsidies and handouts, politically influential developers who use the power of eminent domain to acquire property that they covet, law enforcement officials who support the War on Drugs because it increases their funding, public employees unions who support big government in part because it increases their pay, and much other self-interested behavior. The fact that all of these groups are motivated, at least in part, by self-interest doesn’t prevent libertarians from denouncing them. That’s because libertarianism is a theory of the appropriate role of government in society, not a theory that judges the morality of human behavior based on whether or not people are acting out of self-interest.

To be sure, libertarianism does appeal to self-interest in the sense that libertarians believe that the vast majority of people would be better off in a libertarian society than under any realistically feasible alternative. In this, however, libertarianism is no different from most other ideologies. Advocates of liberalism, conservatism, and socialism also contend that their preferred policies would benefit the majority of society.

Obviously, some people may support libertarianism because they think it will promote their self-interest to do so. But that too does not differentiate it from many other ideologies. Plenty of people support liberalism or conservatism for similar reasons. Consider the aforementioned politicians, bureaucrats, public employees unions, drug warriors, and rent-seeking businessmen. Are all of them purely altruistic? Self-interested advocacy of government intervention is no less selfish than self-interested support for libertarianism.

Another common formulation of the “libertarianism is selfishness” argument is the claim that libertarians are narrow “individualists” who deny the importance of social cooperation. In reality, however, libertarian thinkers from John Locke to F.A. Hayek and beyond have repeatedly stressed the importance of voluntary social cooperation, which they argue is superior to state-mandated coercion. As Hayek (probably the most influential libertarian thinker of the last 100 years) put it:

[T]rue individualism affirms the value of the family and all the common efforts of the small community and group . . . [and] believes in local autonomy and voluntary associations . . [I]ndeed, its case rest largely on the contention that much for which the coercive action of the state is usually invoked can be done better by voluntary collaboration.

Perhaps Gerson and other critics mean to suggest not that libertarianism justifies any and all selfish behavior but merely that its supporters are disproportionately selfish people. Even if that is true, it says nothing about the validity of libertarianism. Selfish people can make good arguments and altruistic people can make bad ones. Lots of people endorsed communism and Nazism out of altruistic motivations, for example. Moreover, the fact that selfish people disproportionately believe in a given ideology does not prove that the ideology itself is just a justification for selfishness.

In reality, however, the available evidence does not support the view that libertarians are, on average, more selfish than advocates of other ideologies. For example, Arthur Brooks’ research shows that supporters of free markets donate a higher percentage of their income to charity, even after controlling for both income levels and a wide range of demographic background variables. Brooks’ study doesn’t differentiate libertarian advocates of free markets from conservative ones. However, accusations of libertarian selfishness (especially from the left) are usually directed primarily at their support for economic freedom rather than social liberties. If support for free markets isn’t correlated with selfishness, libertarianism probably isn’t either. More generally, research on voter behavior consistently finds that opposition to government intervention in the economy has little or no correlation with financial self-interest.

Some leftists claim that opposition to taxation or other forms of government intervention necessarily implies selfishness and indifference to the welfare of others. But that assumption simply ignores the possibility that anyone might sincerely believe that imposing tight limits on government power actually benefits the poor.

In sum, libertarianism cannot be equated with advocacy of selfishness because libertarians condemn a wide range of self-interested behavior and are well aware of the importance of social cooperation. They simply believe that cooperation should be voluntary rather than coerced by government. In addition, there is no good evidence showing that people attracted to libertarianism are disproportionately selfish relative to supporters of other ideologies. And even if the latter were true, it still would not prove either that libertarianism is reducible to selfishness or that its claims are wrong.