Leave Me Alone!

Libertarians are often characterized as hermit-like souls, wanting only to be left alone and having little regard for others. I am not quite sure how folks derive this conclusion from what we write and say, but it bears clearing up. Let’s start with Steven Horwitz’s excellent piece on not leaving me alone. Go ahead and read it–I’ll wait.

Back? OK.

Limited government philosophy is not about what I should be able to do, but what all “I’s” should be able to do. Libertarians consider the individual the cornerstone of ethics and politics. Statists and other collectivists consider “society” to be so.

The fact that we libertarians believe in being “left alone” does not mean we want to go it alone. Many of us want the companionship and cooperation of others; all of us need it. Human beings just do not do very well solo. We prosper when we take into account the needs of other people and work to mutual gain. What we libertarians take issue with is an authority dictating to us the terms upon which we do so.

Bad enough that critics smear us on this count. It is inexcusable that our own give aid and comfort to the critics by talking like spoiled brats. Listening to some libertarians is like eavesdropping on a teen conversation–thick anger coupled with thin wisdom. Freedom to act as one likes is the root of libertarian philosophy, but it is not the fruit. The fruit of liberty is the ability to act wisely and in concert with others to live a full and rewarding life.

In a libertarian society, some people will make bad decisions. Many of those decisions will be just life lessons–the kind we all make from time to time. Other will be life-threatening–the decision to try meth, to have unprotected sex, to try out a homemade parachute. Collectivists will clamor for something to be done while libertarians will marvel at the ways in which the human animal can do itself in. When appropriate, libertarians will counsel remaining fools on making good choices.

It does not mean we don’t care when say others should be free to suffer from their own mistakes. It does not mean we think everyone everywhere and at all times is in full control. We know the difference between someone who makes an honest mistake and someone who chronically avoids reality. We can tell the difference between a moocher and someone who needs a little help. We figure they would do the same for us. Some of us just think it’s the right thing to do even if we never get a tangible payback.

Being left alone means recognizing that each of us is the best guide to our own lives. Overwhelmingly, people will choose to help each other, not only out of the expectation of like in return, but out of simple human kindness. This is the core problem with any version of collectivism–it replaces the wisdom of the individual with the dictates of the group. Usually, that is just a cover for power elites to ride herd over the rest of us.

By all means, leave me alone. Leave me alone to do the good I know I can do, not the good you say I should be doing. Leave me alone to build a company, write a book, be a friend. Stop taking a substantial portion of my income to encourage others not to be masters of their own lives. Leave me alone and see how much good I can do for myself and for others.

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About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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