The Paradox of Libertarianism

Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s article, “Libertarianism,” first appeared in the International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology (2006, pp. 403-7). Sciabarra leads off with this:

Libertarianism is the political ideology of voluntarism, a commitment to voluntary action in a social context, where no individual or group of individuals can initiate the use of force against others.

Sciabarra’s rendition of libertarianism emphasizes the non-aggression principle. My version has a somewhat different emphasis and allows for a minimal state:

If you are doing no harm to anyone, no one should harm you physically, coerce you, defraud or deceive you, steal from you, or tell you how to live your life. “No one” includes government, except to the extent that government is empowered — by the people — to defend life, liberty, and property through the circumscribed use of police, courts, and armed forces.

The first sentence of my version is operationally equivalent to the quotation I pulled from Sciabarra’s entry. To put it more simply:

The core of libertarianism is liberty: briefly, the negative right to be left alone — in one’s person, pursuits, and property — as long as one leaves others alone.

The problem with all such formulations, however, is that they gloss over two important questions:

  1. What is harm and who defines it?
  2. How does one ensure that one is “left alone” in a world where there are predators and parasites who will not subscribe voluntarily to a pact of mutual restraint?

The paradox of libertarianism lies in the answers to those two questions, which I’ll answer in reverse order.

Here is how one ensure that one is “left alone”:

  1. All members of a group agree as to what specifically constitutes harm.
  2. All members of the group agree to honor the obligation to leave other members alone, as long as those other members do not commit acts that are recognized as harmful.
  3. By the same token, all members of the honor the obligation to defend a fellow member or members against predators (renegades within the group, or outsiders).

The “catch” is point 1, which requires an answer to the question “What is harm and who defines it?”

To be a member of the group and to merit its protection (through mutual restraint and mutual defense) requires acceptance of a common, specific definition of harm. Various members might prefer different definitions. (For example, some might view abortion as harmless; some might view it as the murder of a prospective member of the group; and others might view it as an act that will inevitably lead to harm because it invites, say, euthanasia.) But unless each member subscribes to the same, specific definition of harm there can be no basis for mutual restraint — or for mutual defense. Where some see harm — from other members of the group or from outsiders — others may see no harm.

In summary: Liberty rests on an agreed definition of harm, and on an accompanying agreement to act with mutual restraint and in mutual defense. Given the variety of human wants and preferences, the price of mutual restraint and mutual defense is necessarily some loss of liberty. That is, each person must accept, and abide by, a definition of harm that is not the definition by which he would abide were he able to do so. But, in return for mutual restraint and mutual defense, he must abide by that compromise definition.

That insight carries important implications for the “anything goes” or “do your own thing” school of pseudo-libertarianism. That school consists of those libertarians who believe that harm is in the mind of the doer, or who believe that they can define harm while standing on the outside of society looking in. Thus they proclaim abortion and same-sex “marriage” (among other things) to be harmless — just because they favor abortion and same-sex “marriage” or cannot see the harm in them.

But, as I have explained, that is not how liberty is defined. So the paradox of libertarianism is this: Libertarians cannot properly define it.