Heartless Libertarians

Column by tzo.

Exclusive to STR


The specter of the heartless libertarian arises when it is suggested that society could perhaps be better organized without a coercive government at its core. The proponents of this shocking scheme are dismissed as being either blatantly naïve or else accused of being calculating, soulless monsters who don’t want to be bothered with the less fortunate members of society who may need help—it’s all about the me, me, and the me.

This heartless libertarian is best conceived of as the creature who, upon discovering a man stuck in a deep hole on the side of the road, walks on and ignores his unfortunate fellow man because he is under no legal obligation to help.
"It may be the right thing to do, but you can't legislate morality," he pontificates, "because to do so would make me this man's slave, forcing me to perform labor for him against my will."
Can you imagine a society full of such heartless jerks? What about the needy? Who will feed and educate the children of the poor? No, these libertarian ideas can only lead to a callously selfish, miserable society.
Legislating morality is the ticket for making people at least pantomime moral actions, and this gets the necessary job done. Because let’s face it—if someone needs help, does it really matter if he receives it through voluntary or involuntary measures?
Well, it most certainly does matter. Murray Rothbard differentiated quite rightly, I believe, between ethics—which delineate rights—and morals (see last three paragraphs here). Ethics relates to social behavior that is subject to the law, and is intimately tied to human rights and property rights. Morality relates to accepted social behavior and does not necessarily require that the law need be involved.
Society is a collection of individuals who are cooperating with each other in order to take advantage of the division of labor and its resultant benefits. We cooperate for selfish reasons, in that we are able to realize an enormously, stupendously higher standard of living by participating in a society as compared to existing in isolation, but also because we naturally like to get along and help each other out.
I know that many of you will object to this rather warm and cuddly, subjective-sounding “people are basically good” assertion, but the only way society begins is through cooperation: Cooperative creatures beget cooperative society. Naturally aggressive, destructive creatures cannot do this.
Many attempt to circumvent this logic by imagining that groups of smarter-than-your-average-bear individuals somehow "rounded up" savage, uncivilized human beings in the wild and broke them to the benevolent and beneficial yoke of civilization. These wise government supervisors to whom we owe the creation of society out of chaos remain on call to this day with their rolled-up newspapers at the ready for when some of the still-semi-feral citizens inevitably stray and wet the carpet.
Bunk. Cooperative creatures beget cooperative society. Government appears later, and besides acting as a parasite on the fruits of the good people’s labor, it inevitably ends up corrupting that society by redefining morality and ethics through its public “education” institutions and its positive legislation. But more on that a bit later.
Now, cooperation is just one half of the human interaction equation and is not more important than the individuality of each and every human being that comprises a society. We want to cooperate because we are naturally social animals but also because we want to benefit from the arrangement. Competition and cooperation: Yin and yang: Coopetition.
But if someone does not wish to cooperate, then what is to be done? What if he will not help the less fortunate? What if he insists on consuming unapproved substances? What is to be done with this square peg? Throw him in jail? Fine him?
No. The law has no place here as long as the individual is not interfering with another's rights.
But he is harming society by not cooperating! When society is harmed, we are all harmed! He is indeed interfering with the rights of everyone!
Here is where we must be crystal clear. If member X of the society can cite exactly how member Y's "non-cooperative" activities have infringed upon his individual human rights, only then should the law be brought to bear. Society has no rights and cannot be harmed. Society is every bit as safe from harm as is Santa Claus.
But then horrible, amoral (although not rights-infringing) behavior will run amok! If these offensive behaviors are not punished, society will deteriorate to the point where miscegenation and alcohol consumption and working on the Sabbath will eventually bring about the end of civilization!
Two approaches come to the fore here as possible ways to resolve such typical social controversies. Society can use government positive law to codify such moral offenses and to dole out punishment to transgressors of these laws, or society can deal with its “moral outcasts” in a more efficient, nonviolent manner via social ostracism.
And while the former is the method generally adapted, the latter is perhaps more efficient and infinitely more ethical. Ostracism is a very powerful mechanism for tempering social behavior, the built-in “checks and balances” system in any society.
If society is based on cooperation by "good" people, then if I do not want to cooperate, or if I want to act in a "bad" manner, even if only morally and not ethically, then no one will want anything to do with me and I will lose my benefits. That's all there is to it.
If I leave the poor guy from the second paragraph of this paper stranded in the hole, what will he think of me? Who will he tell? Does he know someone in my circle of acquaintances? Is he a friend of my boss? And so on.
If I wish to participate in a society made up of rights-respecting, cooperating individuals because I want to reap the benefits of such an arrangement, then if I decide to treat other members in a non-respectful, non-cooperative manner, it is my right to do so—but then I should not be surprised to see that I will not be treated with respect or receive the cooperation of others and I will see the membership benefits decrease. It’s my call.
If good people make up a good society, then they expect everyone to act in a cooperative and in a somewhat relatively-moral manner. But where is the line? Well, wherever society draws it. If one acts in a “bad” manner, society will simply withdraw the membership benefits. Here we have defined a truly voluntary social contract with no aggression involved. How heartless is that?
But what if society draws lines in bad places? What if, as an example, unwed mothers are ostracized and can’t find work to support their children?
Look, I am not claiming that human society will ever be perfect, but a voluntary society will be much more flexible and provide opportunities for people to resolve such differences of moral opinion far better than the society with a fixed set of legislated and enforced moral rules.
A voluntary society will actually be a collection of smaller, interconnecting and overlapping communities, and people will be better able to move around and choose the living environment that best suits them.
Within such a dynamic structure, society will be free to evolve in various directions and will not remain static and stagnant under one set of enforced moral rules. What will be discovered, I believe, is that the freest communities within the society will produce more and have higher standards of living, and this will attract people who will value these benefits more than they disvalue any particular behaviors that they may not agree with.
The result will be that over time, society will evolve toward more and more personal freedom, which is the direction opposite to which we currently find ourselves moving. Man, that’s heartless.
I mentioned before that governments insinuate themselves into good society and corrupt it, and now it is time to examine this assertion more closely. The current general consensus is that government is good and essential, and also that it is acceptable to use force to make everyone conform to a universal “moral code.”
To believe that using force to make peaceful people behave in some preferred manner is to be corrupted, and this corruption springs from government education and positive legislation.
Want to see the power of ostracism first hand and witness the inversion of ethics and morality due to government’s poisoning of the well? Try this:
Go forth and live your life making it known to all that you believe politics is unethical violence and voluntary transactions are the only just ways for people to interact. Proclaim those two very simple, irrefutable truths that taxation is theft and war is murder. Merely suggest that the troops abroad are acting in an unethical manner because they are killing human beings on command. Infer that just perhaps, if a person voluntarily supports an organization that murders, then he is somehow, just maybe, a tiny bit complicit in those murders. See how uncomfortable it is to be at such philosophical odds with coworkers, friends, and family.
The government will not, as a rule, need to send agents out after you for speaking out against its policies (not at the moment, at least). The government utilizes the better weapon of social ostracism as its main enforcement arm for controlling its citizens. If the government had to use direct force to coerce people into behaving like good little compliant citizens, the jig would be up.
But they really don’t have to exert too much overt vertical pressure, as they have indoctrinated the masses so as to apply constant horizontal pressure to one another to stay in line. As social animals, we are very susceptible to this peer pressure.
Corrupt the minds, and then let them police themselves. This requires much less work for the government to control its citizens, and it hides the violence behind the consent given to the government, and creates a mass of relatively happy people who think they are free. The random few who are dissatisfied with this virtual paradise on Earth are quickly jumped on by their fellow citizens and either brought back into line or ostracized.
Now just imagine this horizontal pressure being used to uphold a just society. Yes, I believe it would work quite well. Perhaps the current generations of adults are mostly lost causes, but each will sequentially be replaced with a new generation, and if we can begin to teach our children about freedom and raise them in loving, caring, and respecting environments, only then may the paradigm finally shift.
Heartless libertarians? This is a term forged by the heartless people of a corrupt society. These misguided individuals believe themselves to be good and believe that the people with true hearts are bad. Up is down and black is white.
Trying to paint a picture of a free, uncorrupted society to a corrupted person is to describe a society full of heartlessness and corruption. People will be free to interact with others as they please? No one will forcibly regulate these interactions? No one will be forced to help anyone? Horrors!
They will then explain to you the obvious and proper way to organize society:
I don’t like the fact that some people [do x], and so I will force everyone to pay for someone with a gun to prohibit them from [doing x].
Prohibition is not just a reference to a Constitutional amendment, it is the very definition of government, and the government advocate is truly the heartless one, not the libertarian.
It is not heartless to advocate for individual rights and freedoms;
it is not heartless to assume the best of innate, cooperative human nature;
it is not heartless to raise your children to respect the individuality and sovereignty of all human beings and to understand their own innate freedom; and
it is not heartless to allow each equal-rights-endowed human being to freely pursue his or her own goals as they see fit as long as they do not interfere with the innate human rights of others.
Heartless is locking up people for victimless crimes, such as having certain plants in their possession.
Heartless is not allowing people to have property they can call their own.
Heartless is not allowing people to travel freely upon the face of the Earth.
Heartless is training children to be lifelong subservient dependents.
Heartless is forcing people to work and pay for other people's goodies.
Heartless is ruthlessly enforcing the positive law with agents who are allowed to use force with relative impunity and immunity.
Heartless is arbitrarily killing people in distant lands.
I know you can see the difference: So what does your heart tell you?
"Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live." ~Oscar Wilde


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tzo's picture
Columnist tzo
Columns on STR: 64

tzo now lives in your head.


Suverans2's picture

Thank you, tzo. As a complement to your fine article, I give your readers this.

    Start with a cage containing five monkeys.

    Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water.

    After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

    Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

    Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm!

    Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked.

    Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

    After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana.

    Why not? Because as far as they know that's the way it's always been done around here.

And that, my friends, is how group attitude begins. Has anyone here ever really had a gun put to their head?

Gwardion's picture

That might be an interesting idea if there were no spoken language or written language.

In human discussion the idea of the threat of the gun is brought up, it isn't a secret threat or uncommunicated threat in the background.

Your story is an interesting study in Pavlovian behavioral studies, but it has no bearing on the idea of the social contract to the interaction of beings with language.

Also, in our society, we might not get hit directly by the water hose, but you cant missed the highly publicized soaking of others by the paid soakers (the police, military and intelligence establishments).

So, once again, interesting story but it has nothing to do with humans or modern society other then pointing out that Pavlovian training is possible on an animal level, which most people already knew.

Mark Davis's picture

Suverans2's example of behavioral conditioning is an excellent metaphor for how people are conditioned from birth by the spoken word and written language; though I would add television and movies. I constantly must point out the "gun in the room" to statists whom seem oblivious to it. The social contract is the cage itself and but a barbaric relic left over from discredited apologies for the feudal state.

People are animals that you give too much credit to as most react more than they think.

tzo's picture

Yes, on a discussion thread where I was repeatedly alluding to the gun, someone responded (paraphrasing):

"What is this gun you keep talking about? I've paid taxes all my life and no one ever pointed a gun at me."

School is indeed a Pavlovian reward/punishment system designed to elicit conditioned reflexes. Inflict it upon young children before they can defend themselves and it becomes a part of who they are. The reflexes become very difficult to identify or acknowledge as being problematic, and so the much harder to get rid of.

Samarami's picture

I'm not clear as to which story Gwardion refers -- Suveran2's or tzo's -- but I think it must be Suveran2's monkey analogy.

I can't see where the presence of "...spoken language or written language..." has any bearing on the idea that human beings conditioned by government ("public" ha ha) education and propaganda might respond in mass with ignorance of the gun in the room. Respond, in fact, with anger toward an individual who attempts to point out the gun in the room. Patriotic supporters of state are duty-bound to deny the fact that all acts of all agents of state are always backed by threats of violence upon s/he who dares to question compliance.

That denial is exactly like a group of monkeys denying that it's OK for one monkey to climb up the ladder and enjoy the banana.

I've signed no "social contract" that I'm aware of, and I do speak a few languages.


Glock27's picture

There is an true event involving human beings that is similar to this and it involves the process of cooking a ham. However, your fictional account is nicely put. I will have to remember this because that is a good illustration to the "Human Condition", but it stretches the principle a bit.

Mark Davis's picture

Another excellent essay tzo.

Steve's picture

Leftists' first thought is for the unfortunate, and they rightly perceive us libertarians as heartless because that is not our first concern. We begin any discussion with seemingly selfish statements of self-ownership and (negative) rights, and then only as an afterthought add with a hand wave that even the unfortunate would be better off because society overall would be wealthier and charity would be greater. To our leftist adversaries this is utterly unconvincing. If we are not preaching to the choir, we need to take the point of view of our audience. In the case of charity, we need to grab the bull by the horns and admit, *in a voluntary society, there would indeed be a very real problem of under-provision of public goods such as charity, but the problem is tractable*. The US charity industry is amazingly sophisticated, and quite clever at extracting ever more money out of donors. The Internet has enabled whole new approaches, like crowd-funding sites like ChipIn and Kickstarter.

Thus last week Jon Stewart and Judge Andrew Napolitano talked past each other, and Jon Stewart won applause by asking about "the free market's losers":
Napolitano and other libertarians shrug this off as "creative destruction", but Stewart and his audience understood it to mean "the unfortunate crushed and left homeless by cruel capitalism".

Do not cede the compassionate high ground to our adversaries.

livefreeretiree's picture


Chaeros Galt's picture

An excellent tractatum, though the first of questions to my mind is why there are wretches, of course they are convenient to the established power, in the roman age they did not constitute a moral problem, the romans were heartless??? Maybe it was so, but they were far from libertarianism, even so I don't want to go that far, if for the answer to that is so far, in the begining of Christendom, who were but a militia of helpless and poor wretches claiming for right such as those we grant today. I think moreso like you all, and I feel that ostracism applied on my person, even though I persevere in the opening of minds, the widening of gazes. I agree whit this post totally

Glock27's picture

This is almost exactly what I have observed from this site, not being a libertarian, I don't think. I may be and not know it, but I seek a kinder, moral and ethical response.