Those who point to us as being selfish and greedy have reasons to do so. A few ideas are hugely misunderstood; not only by those critical of Libertarians, but also from within our Libertarian camp.
One misunderstood idea is individualism, the bedrock of Libertarian thought. Steve Davies pointed out in his speech History of Individualism that many of his young Libertarian audiences told him they advocated for small government, because they liked free market capitalism. He said the order was wrong, that an appreciation of individualism ought to come first, and the idea of a limited government and free market economy come only as a result of that belief, not the other way around. Championing for free market before individualism twists our Libertarian stance. When orders of importance are flipped, something moral gets amiss.
The online Mirriam Webster dictionary defines ‘individualism’ this way:
in·di·vid·u·al·ism noun ˌin-də-ˈvij-wə-ˌli-zəm, -ˈvi-jə-wə-, -ˈvi-jə-ˌli- : the belief that the needs of each person are more important than the needs of the whole society or group : the actions or attitudes of a person who does things without being concerned about what other people will think
Urg. Unbelievable! False, false, false! Can we boycott Merriam Webster dictionary?
Trouble is, we have people like Milton Freidman and Ayn Rand who, in my perspective, give reasons to non-Libertarians to strengthen their misunderstood argument that Libertarians are egotistical and heartless. (I do expect to hear people defend Friedman and Rand. On with the discourse.) For example, how do I challenge a person who tells me Ayn Rand is cold hearted and therefore Libertarians are too, when Rand says things like:
‘Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. This is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: No. Altruism says: Yes.’
I agree that a person has the right to choose whether to give a dime to a beggar or not (give if you want to, don’t if you don’t want to; true charity is never forced), but just the way she puts it makes her sound cruel. It just doesn’t sound nice.
Then we have Milton Friedman. If you Google his name, one of the first things that comes up is this video interview with Phil Donahue, where Friedman speaks about “greed”: ‘The world runs on individuals pursuing their self interest’ he says, and I agree, but where I have qualms is that he equates self-interest with advancing one’s agenda i.e. greed, and the ability to make money with happiness. This might be true for some people, but it alienates and offends a great many people, like Liberals (in the American sense) and egalitarians, who end up bashing Libertarians as being conceited and greedy.
It’s not just the way Friedman gives a spiel with high brows that rub me the wrong way. In this video he talks about the trickle down effect, which is now a standard US Republican answer to concerns about ‘while the rich get richer, what about the poor?’ The trickle down effect doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen because we don’t have a completely free market, not at the micro level, nor at the macro level. Friedman endorsed government intervention at the macro economic level. Does this make him a non-Libertarian? (Debate: Was Milton Friedman a Libertarian?)
Another qualm I have is his stance on public education. He’s a fan of variety and diversity, ‘but it has to be a variety and diversity within a uniform set of standards, institutions and ideas.’ (Source) This confuses the idea of individualism. I think I figured out what the problem is. It’s his definition of individualism. In Friedman’s introduction to Road to Serfdom, he writes: ‘The argument for collectivism is simple if false; it is an immediate emotional argument. The argument for individualism is subtle and sophisticated; it is an indirect rational argument.’ (xii) The problem is that he divorces the rational from the emotional. I think a lot of people do this, like Ayn Rand and the objectivists. No wonder then, that the individualist argument is seen as heartless – because it disregards the human emotion.
Emotion and reason: They’re two sides of the same coin, they work in tandem. Maybe if we bring back the individualist debate, our Libertarian cause might be better understood.