Progressives, Libertarians and Selfishness

Column by Mark Davis.

Exclusive to STR

"Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live." ~ Oscar Wilde

The constant promotion of the elite meme condemning those people promoting liberty as being “selfish” has reached a feverous pitch of late. This label is typically attached as a pejorative by progressives (i.e. communitarians, socialists, collectivists) to libertarians in an effort to demonize self-determination and self-responsibility, but it simply reveals a profound hypocrisy in their self-serving promotions to enslave humanity “for its own good.” A Google search entering “libertarian selfish” brought up 341,000 links, nearly all of the negative variety. It’s time to put this silly strawman argument to rest.

The idea that libertarians are selfish is absurd on its face, yet this popular meme is rarely challenged in mainstream media outlets. The silliest screeds on the subject go to the extreme by defining libertarians as hermits seeking isolation and shunning human contact. Why, libertarians sell out their mothers, shun their families and have no friends! All libertarians care about is themselves! Really?!?! Please, in the interest of brevity, can we move past this childish caricature? If you are discussing this matter with a progressive who truly believes this, then stop arguing and see if their diaper needs changing.

The next step up in this anti-libertarian meme is that, okay, libertarians have families and friends, but they are small and few, and they are otherwise “anti-social.” The social nature of man, the evolution of mankind, is tied to community; that is helping each other, working together and organizing into groups for mutual benefit. Yes, this is absolutely true! Human action is inextricably tied to social instincts that we seek out others all on our own. But this is why we need liberty, not why we should reject liberty.

There are only two basic methods of organizing social units: voluntary and coercive. The real difference between libertarians and progressives is that libertarians believe in voluntary organizations and progressives believe in coercive organizations. These positions are diametrically opposed and can never be reconciled. There is no way to compromise these two positions because once you introduce even a small amount of coercion, an organization is no longer voluntary. A spark of coercion grows like wildfire.

Now, most progressives will become uncomfortable at this point in the argument and say that they, too, prefer voluntary cooperation (it is better that you agree with them). But if you do not agree with them, then you must be reprogrammed using progressive enlightenment methods (coercion) until you do. This is where libertarians draw the line that progressives ignore. Progressives hate libertarians for pointing this out because up until now they have assumed that they hold the moral high ground with all their good intentions and caring for others. But revealing that their philosophy is nothing more than a cover for the use of force and violence can be disconcerting to their feelings of self-righteousness.

Libertarians have a live-and-let-live philosophy where individuals may choose to follow different philosophies about life. If you and others wish to go live in a commune in search of egalitarian Nirvana, more power to you; hope it works out. But when it doesn’t, don’t blame your failure on the rest of us for not “helping” enough. We will share what we can to try and alleviate the sorry consequences of your progressive choices, but don’t claim we are not giving you enough and start stealing from our reserves. While we do not believe in initiating violence, we do believe in defensive measures that include violence unto those who seek to harm us.

At this point in the argument the next tack taken by progressives--to mask the coercive nature of their philosophy--is often shifting from calling you selfish to calling you mean and/or uncaring, suggesting that because you oppose coercive organizations, then you must not care about those “who can’t help themselves.” More silliness. Do people voluntarily help the less fortunate? Of course, all the time in overwhelming numbers, but to self-righteous progressives, the standard of perfection is applied to the results attained by charity and voluntary giving such that it is never enough.

If there is one hungry person anywhere, and there always is, then voluntary charity is deemed a failure by progressives. Yet when considering the results of their beloved coercive organizations imposed to “fight poverty” and all the rest, the standard is the pompousness of the promises and the perceived goodness of the intentions of those coercing you (e.g. politicians). Talk about double standards! So, more selfishness and hypocrisy becomes evident in progressive arguments as empty promises from professional liars are used to justify their preferred coercive social organizations.

The heart of the matter, and why progressives feel so strongly about shutting up voices that promote self-determination, is the belief that all men are simply cells in a larger social organism. As such, men are interconnected in such a way that we must all work together or the organism dies and with it all the cells. It then follows from this fantastical belief that some cells are the brains, other cells the backbone and still others the heart, feet or hands. The brains must call the shots, or the body will lack purpose and even coordination. Of course, progressives consider themselves the brains and those rebellious parts such as the heart, backbone, feet and hands must do what the brain says. Society simply can’t survive if the hands want to do one thing and the feet another. Therefore, the brain is justified in taking control of all the body parts for their own good. That is, since voluntary organizations lead to chaos, and elite guidance is a required element for a social organization (and all its cells) to survive, then coercion by the elite is justified.

How many times have you heard a progressive say: “How could you get to work without driving on government roads? How could you spell or do math if not for government teachers? How could workers survive on their piddling paychecks (after taxes) if not for government health care, government retirement plan and government food stamps?” or some other form of the same thing. Is this any different from the plantation owner asking his slaves: “How could you get anywhere without using the roads I have built? How could you eat without the food I provide or drink without the well I have made for you? What would you wear if I didn’t give you the shirt on your back?” If you monopolize the provision of basic human needs in a geographical area and then use that condition to justify taking a portion of the labor of those who live in that area, then how can it be any other way if the slaves believe it, too? Do progressives think so little of others that we couldn’t figure out how to build roads, grow food, spell words, make clothes and save for a rainy day without their elite planning and guidance? Apparently, they do.

Consider those social organizations that you have belonged to in your life, both formal and non-formal, like the Girl Scouts, Boy’s Club, Little League Baseball, Kiwanis Club, fan club, where you work, the local community of grocers, car dealers, your church or local watering hole, and the hundreds of others too numerous to list or remember and compare them to the coercive organizations that you were forced to join like the city, county, state and federal Governments, the local Mafia or gang, that take your money, tell you how to act and demand your obedience in lieu of violent repercussions. Which type of organizations, voluntary or coercive, have been the most rewarding? The most destructive? The most efficient? Which are most sensitive to your input, desires and expectations? If you truly believe that the coercive organizations are preferable to voluntary organizations, then do you also believe that your preference justifies imposing coercive organizations on others who don’t?

The modern elite can’t come straight out and tell everybody that we must all obey them or die like the rulers of old did because human nature also instills a fundamental self-awareness in us all and our social organizations have outgrown those archaic models. They must work day and night to spread lies, label non-believers as heretics to the cause and propagate the feeling that you can belong to something greater than your individual self, if only you submit to their authority; just to keep people from becoming self-aware. This means flooding the corporate media outlets and government schools with silly screeds and “lessons” condemning people who challenge the primacy of coercive organizations and prefer a voluntary society.

The seed of liberty starts with self-awareness, not selfishness. To think for yourself, to make your own choices in life and to take responsibility for the consequences of those choices starts with self-awareness. If taking personal responsibility or making hard choices in life scare you and you prefer to submit to those promising to take care of you and tell you how to live (or if you want to tell others how to live), if you are more comfortable being a cog in the machine or a cell in an organism, then by all means that is your choice. But respect my choice to join with others of like mind such that we make our own choices and take responsibility for those choices. And if you fail, do not blame those who warned about making poor choices and do not steal from those who chose more wisely. For that is the true essence of selfishness: believing that others “owe” you.

People seeking to cooperate with others voluntarily for mutual benefit is human nature, and no force is required. This is simple to understand on the surface, but can be difficult to appreciate after a lifetime of immersion in the state religion that believes institutionalized violence wielded by a benevolent elite is the savior of mankind. Pointing out the moral bankruptcy of progressives will raise even more emotional responses than the utilitarian arguments listing the many and frequent failures of coercive organizations. But pointing out the moral ramifications of this simple choice is ultimately the most effective way to reach people who really care about others.

When a progressive devolves into name-calling, like “selfish,” “mean,” “uncaring” and the like, then you have already won the argument. However, the name-caller likely is in denial of this fact and has short-circuited into an emotional breakdown. A selfish sense of entitlement typically precludes attaining maturity, and it can be difficult to communicate reason and logic under these conditions, but do not back down from selfish hypocrites spreading their gospel of the state, because they are many and the true danger to society. Indeed, proceed with mature conviction and patience. The survival of humanity may depend on it.

“The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

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Mark Davis's picture
Columns on STR: 65

Mark Davis is a husband, father and real estate analyst/investor enjoying the freedoms we still have in Longwood, Florida.


Alex R. Knight III's picture

Mark, you've crystallized it here!  Fantastic job!  I just finished having another one of these fruitless debates with a hardline (and now Blocked) socialist on Facebook.  Time to spread this essay far and wide!

DP_Thinker's picture

Excellent article! Definitely succinct and thoroughly clear in putting the criticisms of both the socialists and the let's not forget power hungry fascists that seek to rule everyone else.

I would also add another quote by Mahatma Gandhi that came to mind as I was reading this "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win." It would seem to me that we are at the attack stage. So even though we may have entered a new chapter in the anti-libertarian mindset, maybe we are closer to victory than we thought!

Glen Allport's picture

Terrific essay, Mark! Filled with pithy, quotable truths and with a clear and honest view of things. Nicely done!

Samarami's picture

Sorry to be late weighing in, but appears that not many have come crowding in with essays, so yours is still on top.

Your usual sound, logical thinking, Mark. There appears to be a chronic and universal fear of total self responsibility. And it's not limited to liberals, or what they're wanting to call "progressives". I always like the way Harry Browne put it:

    Conservatives vs Liberals
    Conservatives say government cannot end poverty by force, but they believe government can use force and threats of violence to make people moral.

    Liberals say government cannot make people moral, but they believe government can use force and threats of violence to end poverty (redistribute wealth).

    Neither group attempts to explain why government is so clumsy and destructive in one area but a paragon of efficiency and benevolence in the other.

    ~Harry Browne
    Liberty A-Z p 35


Paul's picture

" if you are more comfortable being a cog in the machine..."

Somehow I expect that putting it in these terms is not going to convert anyone.

While I believe your essay is correct in its main points, I also believe it will not help. The last thing we want in such an exchange is a frontal attack.

"The goal of all to find and communicate the truth about an experience or subject. The purpose is never to make points or win contests; the writer should not attempt to 'sell' himself or herself, and certainly should not be interested in selling ideas to anyone. No writer of deliberate discourse should try to force readers to accept opinions not based on evidence, and the writer should not make an elaborate show of presenting 'both sides' of some presumed argument to readers, while ignoring the facts."
-- Dr. Richard Mezo

"When, in the course of studying a long series of military campaigns, I first came to perceive the superiority of the indirect over the direct approach, I was looking merely for light upon strategy. With deepened reflection, however I began to realize that the indirect approach had a much wider application - that it was a law of life in all spheres: a truth of philosophy. Its fulfillment was seen to be the key to practical achievement in dealing with any problem where the human factor predominates, and a conflict of wills tends to spring from an underlying concern for interests. In all such cases, the direct assault of new ideas provokes a stubborn resistance, this intensifying the difficulty of producing a change in outlook. Conversion is achieved more easily and rapidly by unsuspected infiltration of a different idea or by an argument that turns the flank of instinctive opposition. The indirect approach is as fundamental to the realm of politics as to the realm of sex. In commerce, the suggestion that there is a bargain to be secured is far more potent than any direct appeal to buy. And in any sphere it is proverbial that the surest way of gaining a superior's acceptance of a new idea is to persuade him that it is his idea! As in war, the aim is to weaken resistance before attempting to overcome it; and the effect is best attained by drawing the other party out of his defenses.

This idea of the indirect approach is closely related to all problems of the influence of mind upon mind - the most influential factor in human history. Yet it is hard to reconcile with another lesson: that true conclusions can only be reached, or approached, by pursuing the truth without regard to where it may lead or what its effect may be - on different interests.

History bears witness to the vital part that the 'prophets' have played in human progress - which is evidence of the ultimate practical value of expressing unreservedly the truth as one sees it. Yet it also becomes clear that the acceptance and spreading of their vision has always depended on another class of men - 'leaders' who had to be philosophical strategists, striking a compromise between truth and men's receptivity to it. Their effect has often depended as much on their own limitations in perceiving the truth as on their practical wisdom in proclaiming it.

The prophets must be stoned; that is their lot, and the test of their self-fulfillment. But a leader who is stoned may merely prove that he has failed in his function through a deficiency of wisdom, or through confusing his function with that of a prophet. Time alone can tell whether the effect of such a sacrifice redeems the apparent failure as a leader that does honor to him as a man. At the least, he avoids the more common fault of leaders - that of sacrificing the truth to expediency without ultimate advantage to the cause. For whoever habitually supresses the truth in the interests of tact will produce a deformity from the womb of his thought.

Is there a practical way of combining progress towards the attainment of truth with progress towards its acceptance? A possible solution of the problem is suggested by reflection on strategic principles - which point to the importance of maintaining an object consistently and, also, of pursuing it in a way adapted to circumstances. Opposition to the truth is inevitable, especially if it takes the form of a new idea, but the degree of resistance can be diminished - by giving thought not only to the aim but to the method of the approach. Avoid a frontal assault on a long-established position; instead, seek to turn it by flank movement, so that a more penetrable side is exposed to the thrust of truth. But, in any such indirect approach, take care not to diverge from the truth - for nothing is more fatal to its real advancement than to lapse into untruth.

The meaning of these reflections may be made clearer by illustration from one's own experience. Looking back on the stages by which various fresh ideas gained acceptance, it can be seen that the process was eased when they could be presented, not as something radically new, but as the revival in modern terms of a time-honored principle or practice that had been forgotten. This required not deception, but care to trace the connection - since 'there is nothing new under the sun'. A notable example was the way that the opposition to mechanization was diminished by showing that the mobile armored vehicle - the fast moving tank - was fundamentally the heir of the armoured horseman, and thus the natural means of reviving the decisive role which cavalry had played in past ages."
-- B.H. Liddel Hart, "Strategy"

Bottom line, we should either not debate at all, or ask (embarrassing) questions about the opponent's position - while putting such questions in as mild and unchallenging a format as is possible. Only way I know of to do that in a way that is not patently insincere, is to not be too settled in one's own position, and asking with an open mind.

By "not debate at all" I mean explicitly making the point that we hope the opponent is able to get the world he wants (putting it in as unjudgemental terms as possible - that is, terms he would use) while saying we'd rather not be a part of that world ourselves. No need to explain even why we'd rather not.

FWIW I know how hard it is to act this way, and frequently fail in that respect myself.

Mark Davis's picture

"The last thing we want in such an exchange is a frontal attack."  Paul, this essay was not meant to be a frontal attack, if you want to use military terms; it was intended to be a strong defense against a frontal attack.  As my first and last paragraphs should make clear, I was seeking to provide my brothers in arms with inspiration and support to withstand this attack as we are being assaulted from all directions with the weaponized term of "selfishness".  It is the progressives who have mounted a full out attack on libertarians.  Of course, I'm all for using the Socratic Method of asking questions and keeping an open mind, even trying to be "mild mannered" when discussing ideas with misguided souls.  Actually, I do that most of the time as I assume most people are interested in exchanging ideas and seeking the truth.  However, when a self-righteous progressive prick responds to being cornered by these gentle arguments with an irrational attack on their favorite stawman complete with the typical name calling, I advocate responding with a little more vigor.  Perhaps you have the patience of a saint and/or suffer fools better than I, but I don't think timid responses will convert many of the hard-core statists that are attacking us using the tactics you deplore.