There exist trenchant criticisms of the libertarian idea. Henry Sidgwick, in his The Methods of Ethics (seven editions, 1874-1907), provided a concise set of challenges to the doctrine as he understood it. Each of his points is well worth addressing. And yet when today’s major thinkers muster up their inner dialectician to rail against the freedom philosophy, they usually fall flat, get caught up in inessentials and absurdities.

Take Jeffrey Sachs. In “Libertarian Illusions” he attempts to unveil and discredit the ism behind the Ron Paul phenomenon. It’s a pretty lame attempt. Here’s his basic characterization of his target:

Libertarianism is the single-minded defense of liberty. Many young people flock to libertarianism out of the thrill of defending such a valiant cause. They also like the moral freedom that libertarianism seems to offer: it’s okay to follow one’s one desires, even to embrace selfishness and self-interest, as long as it doesn’t directly harm someone else.

Yet the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values. Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable — all are to take a back seat.

A well-educated liberal-leaning friend of mine gave the exact same rap years ago. He also referred to “liberty as a value,” so I’ve long pondered that odd phrasing. I think of liberty as a condition dependent on relationships (with other people). I don’t primarily think of it as “a value.”

value liberty, yes, and will agree with Sachs that it is not my only value; I have many others. Nearly all freedom-lovers do. They have lives. Personal lives, communal lives, careers, hobbies, interests . . .

Yet, I do value liberty highest in the political and legal context.

This distinction is important. In which domain of life and thought is liberty relevant? What does it compete with — that is, what do some folk place higher, or “alongside,” liberty?

Sachs provides a list. An odd list. Among his enumerated values are compassion, honesty, decency, etc., — and I rate these human characteristics highly, too. I promote them in various ways, every day, in my personal life, within the community I inhabit. But when it comes to making policy for the instrumentality of coercion within my community and nation — which Barack Obama recognizes as the distinct realm of political governance — I take caution. Compassion for people in groups A and B isn’t going to elicit from me policies that would be unjust to individuals X, Y and Z, or folks in groups C and D, no matter how my heart “bleeds” for them, to use a common cliché.

Which brings us immediately to: Justice. Sachs is no Sidgwick. The great 19th century utilitarian philosopher understood how individualist liberals (i.e., libertarians) regarded liberty (freedom):

It has been held that Freedom from interference is really the whole of what human beings, originally and apart from contracts, can be strictly said to owe to each other: at any rate, that the protection of this Freedom (including the enforcement of Free Contract) is the sole proper aim of Law, i.e. of those rules of mutual behaviour which are maintained by penalties inflicted under the authority of Government. All natural Rights, on this view, may be summed up in the Right to Freedom; so that the complete and universal establishment of this Right would be the complete realisation of Justice,—the Equality at which Justice is thought to aim being interpreted as Equality of Freedom.

Sidgwick then went on to argue that this idea doesn’t quite work, in his lights, though he saw its attraction. But note: He didn’t pretend that justice “is a value” separate from liberty. He understood that, for libertarians, justice is liberty systematized — or, at the very least, law is only just when systematically organized around the idea of basic, equal rights to freedom.

To say that libertarians shove justice to the back seat is either witless error or sly dishonesty. Sachs being no dummy, I suspect the latter.

Of course, rhetoric in political debate rarely ascends to honest dialectic. It’s mostly filled with cheap, dishonest verbal barrages. And no doubt Sachs thinks that, since the libertarian view of justice doesn’t work for him, he may characterize libertarian views of justice as, in effect, “non-justice.”

Odd, in someone who valorizes honesty in his list of things over to which liberty must, at least sometimes, give up the driver’s seat.

The reason to talk about liberty “as a value” is that, when we speak of values, we order them: This is more important than that; the other less vital than yet another. And it’s pretty obvious Jeffrey Sachs wants liberty to slide over, even take a back seat, to a number of other issues and interests. So you can see why speaking of liberty “as a value” is so strategically important to him, and to other modern “liberals”: they want to shunt aside considerations of freedom much of the time.

Often, like Barack Obama, they’ll talk about particular liberties running up to an election — checks on governments’ ability to put you in prison or kill you outright, based on mere suspicion — but it’s no surprise that such folk abandon liberties-talk when they get into power. Guantanamo was an enormity to Obama before election; a necessary part of the war on terror, after.

This experience with politicians, which every libertarian has had, is probably one of the largest influences on why we valorize liberty so highly. Politicians are in the business of compromising about the practice of coercion. Justice, in its fundamentals, is not about compromise. Politics is. So libertarians cast a suspicious eye on political processes, and certainly do not regard the outcomes of such processes as anything like “justice.”

More importantly, the liberty element in justice comes down to a core idea that Sachs does not ever mention. He never cracks the nut of the libertarian idea: Liberty limits coercion, the use of force — we are free only to the extent that we are not being robbed, beaten, bullied, or otherwise victimized by some agent (individual or group of same, under cover of some hallowed idea or symbol, or not). Libertarianism is basically the doctrine that no one has the right to initiate force; only defensive and retaliatory force can be justified.

Indeed, crimes are defined by the use of initiated force, or (by extrapolation) fraudulent machinations to extract one’s time or property by deception in contract. To say that liberty must be “balanced” by “other values” is to say that those other values trump one’s right not to be bullied, pummeled, entrapped, coerced, etc. Sachs does not bother even mentioning how his “other values” could possibly warrant the strong arm of initiated force: How doeshonesty trump liberty? Argue, please, how respect justifies threatening with force those whom you allegedly respect for not complying with your schemes.

Sachs’s list of “values” appears hastily constructed indeed.

Honesty, for example, is the origin of much libertarian analysis. Libertarians regard most of the common rationalesfor force as dishonest, inconsistent, and overlaid with flowery garlands of rhetoric.

And, in matters where people make contracts, honesty becomes a prime concern. It’s on the grounds of honesty that fraud — a concept derived from initiated force and the notion of rightful property — makes sense. So to say that libertarians place liberty above honesty seems, as P.H. Nowell-Smith neatly phrased such talk, logically odd.

Listing “respect” as something libertarians shunt aside, or back down the value scale, proves equally absurd. Most who advocate liberty for all (rather than merely take liberty for oneself) do so out of respect for others. Indeed, in the standard rhetoric of rights, “recognizing” a right is the same thing as “respecting” a person’s rights. Respect is what it’s all about, at core.

The idea of respecting individuals as individuals, and not merely for their utility in some governmental scheme, or because they fall into this group or that (race, religion, ethnicity, income category), has been central to libertarian thought for a very long time. It was there in Kant, and there, as well, in anti-Kantians like Herbert Spencer and Ayn Rand.

But don’t consult Sachs to learn out about libertarian thinkers. His short treatment of Rand is a travesty: “Ethical libertarians, exemplified by the late novelist Ayn Rand, hold that liberty is the only true virtue. Rand claimed when a rich man responds to a poor person’s plea for help (even by giving mere pennies), the rich man actually debases himself. This view is the opposite of Christian charity and Buddhist compassion, according to which moral worth is achieved by helping others.”

Of course, Rand doesn’t consider liberty a virtue at all. Her virtue is rational self-interest, a “new concept of egoism.” And though I reject Rand’s ill-conceived “virtue of selfishness,” and have argued against it as one of the gravest errors any libertarian thinker has made, I’ll say this: I don’t remember her arguing that benevolence and charity and generosity were “debasements” of the rich man. I’d like to see the reference. Did Sachs cull this notion from some early, Nietzschean work, such as the repulsive spectacle, Night of January 16th?

In times past, the Sachses of this world would have targeted Herbert Spencer as the callous anti-compassionate individualist. And those folks were wrong, too, for Spencer, though dubbed a “Social Darwinist,” was the 19th century’s chief theorist of empathy (following Adam Smith, he made do with a nuanced meaning of the traditional term, “sympathy”). Spencer grounded liberty on altruism as well as egoism, expounding at length on the importance of beneficence to the good society, the free society (see the final two books of his Principles of Ethics).

Spencer is relevant to this discussion because he so clearly limned the structure of morality, specifying that justice requires non-aggression (Sidwick’s “non-interference”) and that benevolence must be placed as something beyondjustice, a supplement. Rights to freedom were more fundamental than compassionate giving, yes; but Spencer provided reasons for this prioritization: liberty defends and encourages the voluntary co-operation that actually advances civilization and a true sense of general well-being; beneficence has much more limited social utility.

Trade is a form of voluntary co-operation, and its benefits are mutual: both parties to any exchange aim to gain. Compassionate giving is not mutual, on the face of it. It’s one person giving to another, with the gift coming off the tally of wealth or energy of the giver and accruing to the recipient. It does not increase the powers and wealth of both parties, which is why Spencer treated it carefully, urging caution. It is also why libertarians are very skeptical about those who push “compassion” above freedom, who conflate justice with love.

It is compassionate to give to the poor, or the less well-off in whatever realm of life (to assist the slow in learning, to help the sick to heal, to comfort the dying). And in point of observable fact, compassion is as important for most libertarians as it is for most human beings. And it can be both compassionate and generous to give to organizations designed to provide aid to the victims of chance or fate or even their own perversity.

But it is neither generous nor compassionate to force A, B, and C to help D, E, and F. One cannot be generous with other people’s money: that’s the worst form of prodigality. One cannot be compassionate in taking from some to give to others. Such a practice makes mockery of the very word “compassion” — one only has to listen to the political clamor for student loan forgiveness, or against any critique of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, to witness both cupidity and effrontery in near pure form.

Strangely (and indicatively), the technical difficulties of giving to others are rarely addressed by the alleged advocates of compassion. Instead of dealing with them, Sachs provides a stark thought experiment comparison, imagining rich folk on the one hand, and starving folk on the other — and in that context many folks unhesitatingly follow his line of thought. But that’s rarely the context of actual need . . . though one could argue that, today, the only cases where taking from the rich and giving to the poor really make much sense would be in massive expropriation from middle-class and wealthy westerners, giving that wealth to the deeply impoverished in Africa and Asia.

And yet such a vast international transfer rarely sees the light of day. But if liberty must be abandoned for compassion in the face of true needy, that policy would surely be primary. I guess in Sachs’s trinity of “liberty, compassion, and civic responsibility, these three,” the greatest of these is . . . nationalism.

But when one forgets borderlines, and struggles to consider helping the truly needy, the problems become more obvious. What do we give to whom? How much? Are there negative effects to giving?

These problems expand exponentially when forcing some to help others and making such actions an ongoing program. Recipients aren’t simply meek receptacles of others’ largesse. People respond to the incentives of the permanent gift environment. They change their behavior to get more. If the benefactor gives to mothers without husbands, some women will indeed engage in riskier sexual behavior that leads to more offspring. If benefactors pay for (or write off) hospital bills to the uninsured, some people will choose not to insure for illness and injury. If it becomes expected that benefactors will pay for all retirements, then fewer people will adequately save for their retirements.

These incentives influence folks on several levels, and is not a matter, always, of conscious life planning. It’s often about levels of risk in the face of the diminishing bad consequences of risky behavior. If the risks of “bad behavior” are made less, we are likely to get more of that bad behavior.

But it gets worse . . . when unilateral giving is coupled with vast takings, not only does the recipient list for all that “compassion” tends to grow, but class divisions increase as more expect to live at the expense of others, and greater “contributions” are required from those others to support the dependent classes. Parasitism emerges as a dominant social mechanism.

After decades of such programs, people now wonder why the number of “poor people” increases. Why, after billions spent on a “War on Poverty” is there still poverty?

It’s because it pays to be poor.

This is well demonstrated in both economics and sociology, though rarely talked about. Honesty would require the advocates of compassion to discuss this often, but those who speak of a “compassionate politics” rarely hazard such concerns. And they deride those who do. Without compassion.

Nearly every person I know who has adopted the freedom philosophy while coming from other commitments has thought about this at some level. Not all read the vast literature on these subjects — and very few dare read the dread Herbert Spencer! Many simply reflect on the general experience with socialism and the welfare state as preparation for adopting the libertarian idea.

And personal history often helps. Anyone who’s given their labors in a modern society a second thought recognizes the play of incentives on what they themselves do. The longer unemployment benefits are extended, the longer one is likely to remain unemployed. Statistics bear this out, but introspection often suffices. Though libertarians may rank among the hardest working of Americans, we all feel the tug of leisure, and it’s easy to lose one’s grip on the work ethic — the tough work required to seek and maintain employment, whether as a wage earner or professional contractor or entrepreneur.

I focus on compassion longer than his other trumps because it obviously means so much to Sachs. Libertarians realize something that Sachs does not address: That compassion and giving have severe limitations, and — when coupled with governmental exploitation and political demands — too easily becomes the acme of compassionate giving’s opposite: greed. There may be no group greedier than a public employee union pushing for the expansion of their benefits and the bureaucracies that allegedly help “others.”

True progress happens when people face up to the ultimate truth about voluntary co-operation: You must please others to get ahead. Some others. Some paying others.

The great tragedy of the poor is that they have little to offer anyone else. So they are left with gifts or plunder as a way of life. The horror of this is not well recognized, because, like death, the truth is so unpleasant. Though poverty is a frequent subject of literature, no tale has done for poverty what Leo Tolstoy did for mortality in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” The degree of universal evasion of the truth of this condition eclipses my ability to measure.

That this message isn’t a main and explicit lesson provided by “public education” is a good sign that education isn’t very educational.

Jeffrey Sachs would undoubtedly point to education as a vitally important “public good” tinged with a dollop of redistributive “compassion” that advocates of “civic responsibility” must advance. And yet this industry is one of the prime examples of massive and thorough government failure. Government-provided (tax-funded, government-run) schooling has engendered a whole education culture mostly devoid of practical use. We live and think in the context of near-universal miseducation.

Most libertarians have thought themselves out of at least some of the traps that establishment educators have set for them. And if they place the idea of resistance to force above all else, it is not in a vacuum, fed only by folks like Ron Paul and Ayn Rand and others.

We who are libertarians have dealt with these ideas on a personal level as well as theoretical ones discussed by economists and philosophers. Vague hand-waving about “civic responsibility” cannot trump our preference for a society respecting individuals and based on a humane division of responsibility that does not evade the actions and actual potential of human beings.

Indeed, when libertarians speak out, protest, devise legislation and repeals, and even go so far as to engage in the ugly work of politicking, they are engaged in “civic responsibility”; pretending that libertarians do so for narrowly selfish reasons is absurd. When Sachs says that the “vast majority of Americans today embrace liberty, civic responsibility, and compassion, and seek a government built upon all three,” libertarians don’t necessarily disagree. The difference? Libertarians judge massive expropriation as not only undermining of justice but also as corrupting the actual culture of voluntary giving.

It is not compassionate to denigrate individual liberty and personal responsibility. It is not compassionate or responsible to advance the war of all against all in the form of the modern redistributive state.

And it is not compassion to wear “giving” on one’s sleeve. That’s a pharisaic something else.

Compassion can only flourish where liberty is the rule.

Generosity and sympathy, when set loose in the environment of the modern state, are corrupted by dangerous greed and the vile temptations of plunder. Sachs’s brief dismissal of libertarianism ignores the modern state’s grave hazards — and carefully elides any mention of substantive libertarian critique of that state. (He engages, instead, in a typical canard: Praising Europe at America’s expense. This tactic quickly loses any grip on reality as Europe descends into poverty and strife.) Sadly, Sachs’s work in general rests upon acceptance of vast patterns of coercion and theft. It is understandable how a person so highly placed in the intellectual wing of the modern state would find the general order a great and grand thing. It is a system that valorizes his own very dear self.

But enormities, too, are big, impressive, over-powering.

Against such powers and principalities, libertarians insist that such influences need not over-power our reason and judgment.

And against lame attacks on the libertarian idea? Actual, informed arguments against libertarian ideas would be of more use. For, it may be that only by overcoming the problems (real or perceived) in libertarianism will we ever achieve a free society.

Final thought: Sachs’s main gambit, the “play of many values,” was precisely the issue that decisively turned me to libertarianism. Value subjectivity and value diversity present grave problems for moral philosophy and political practice. They do not require the kind of robust state that Sachs seems to think they do.

January 12, 2012