The Chief’s Thoughts: No Libertarianism Without Individualism

Individualism is the fabric of which libertarianism is made. Rather than being a substantive tenet per se, instead it permeates all of libertarianism’s overt principles, from the non-aggression principle to argumentation ethics to private property. Indeed, each of those principles are framed in an individualistic way and can only be applied individually.

This does not mean you have to conceive of life as atomistic individuals operating in isolation from one another. On the contrary, one can be very communalistic while appreciating the individualistic essence of libertarianism and the individualistic imperative of public policy. The phrase popularized by The Three Musketeers sums up the possibility of this quite aptly: All for one, and one for all.

It is often asserted that some cultures do not share the ‘Western’ conception of property rights or individual liberty, which is correct. However, those who assert this often conclude that that means private property doesn’t vest, or there is no entitlement to individual liberty. Perversely, those same individuals then assert that those cultures should be governed according to their culture. It’s a classic case of ‘liberty for me, but not for thee’, in essence declaring that individuals who happen to have been born in the West are somehow endowed with a natural right to freedom, but those who had the misfortune of being born elsewhere should suck it up and assimilate.

While I have come to accept property rights as the base right, i.e. the precondition for any kind of freedom, what initially brought me to libertarianism was its distinctively individualist bent. That is why I find it concerning that many libertarians have become shockingly selective in their outrage.

It has become common for us to (rightly) criticize modern feminists for being more upset with the apparent ‘oppression’ of women in the West (hint: women in the West are most assuredly not oppressed), however, we are unable to see that we are making the exact same mistake. When tragedy strikes Europe or North America, the average libertarian’s Facebook feed will light up with outrage. However, dozens or even hundreds of individuals killed by state actors in ‘the rest’ of the world are shrugged off, and, sometimes, even accompanied by the “Sad, but they should fix their country!”Articles about starving Zimbabweans or Venezuelans – if they do not have a substantial amount of ‘laughing’ reacts on Facebook – have people commenting only about how “We should learn from this and not elect the Democrats!” This is profoundly different from the reaction to, for example, the result of the French election, where American libertarians who were in favor of Marine Le Pen apparently ‘wept’ for France. Nobody weeps for the Central African Republic.

I am bound to be called a left-wing social justice infiltrator in the movement for calling this out (even though my credentials would neuter any such claim), which is perhaps part of the problem I am trying to draw attention to: sincere concern for non-Westerners is somehow now an act of ‘selling out’, as if libertarian principles are only supposed to apply to the West. But such eminent thinkers such as Murray Rothbard would once have agreed with me (in fact, not ‘me’, but still what I consider to be proper libertarian theory) about the borderless individualism of the philosophy, even though Rothbard might have changed his mind in his later years.

As Rothbard writes in The Ethics of Liberty, here referencing Edwin W. Patterson:

“If, then, the natural law is discovered by reason from ‘the basic inclinations of human nature… absolute, immutable, and of universal validity for all times and places,’ it follows that the natural law provides an objective set of ethical norms by which to gauge human actions at any time or place.”

He continues, writing:

“At this point, we need only stress that the very existence of a natural law discoverable by reason is a potentially powerful threat to the status quo and a standing reproach to the reign of blindly traditional custom or the arbitrary will of the State apparatus.”

On natural rights, Rothbard continues:

“It was the Lockean individualist tradition that profoundly influenced the later American revolutionaries and the dominant tradition of libertarian political thought in the revolutionary new nation. It is this tradition of natural-rights libertarianism upon which the present volume attempts to build.”

And:

“If, as we have seen, natural law is essentially a revolutionary theory, then so a fortiori is its individualist, natural-rights branch.”

Indeed, if it comes to pass, as is increasingly appearing to happen, that libertarianism is no longer the philosophy of individual freedom, but rather the philosophy of ‘freedom on this side of the [American/European] border and fuck everyone else’, I will have no reason to consider myself a libertarian anymore.

Make no mistake, however, my views will not change. If that time comes when I can no longer call myself a libertarian, it would be because the movement, and not I, has abandoned its principles. The floodgates of philosophical inconsistency will be opened when we try to define individual liberty as applying only to some (which always conveniently includes us, as individuals) but not others. Indeed, it will violate the universalization principle and be intellectually dishonest.

I am optimistic, however. Libertarianism, by its nature, is individualistic, and it takes a lot of time and effort to change the very nature of a legal-political philosophy. Thankfully, most libertarians appear to continue to appreciate and recognize the individualism of libertarianism, and are not swayed by that tempting little bit of satisfying collectivism always waiting at the gates.

This post was written by Martin van Staden.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.

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Martin van Staden is the Editor in Chief of Being Libertarian, the Legal Researcher at the Free Market Foundation, a co-founder of the RationalStandard.com, and the Southern African Academic Programs Director at Students For Liberty. The views expressed in his articles are his own and do not represent any of the aforementioned organizations.

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