Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
columns

March 2015

Libertarians Exaggerate Individual Differences, But They Shouldn’t

Libertarians needn’t resort to hypothetical examples of extremely unusual people to defend individual autonomy, argues Hobart.

Libertarians are supposed to be astute observers of reality. We take seriously the intractability of social conflicts, self-interestedness, the ability of property rights to forestall violence and disorder, etc. where others (on the right and left alike) fail to do so. Depending on what kind of libertarian you are, these observations may both flow from and reinforce a deontological commitment to individual rights.

But the vast majority of libertarians also believe that a commitment to individual rights would also have largely good consequences, in practice, for actual people. Therein lies the empirical case for libertarianism, and it serves as an important place of entry and agreement for those who don’t find themselves feeling very libertarian, pre-theoretically.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that libertarians systematically inflate the importance—and even the existence—of individual differences when they are grasping at straws to justify a position. They overestimate the degree and kinds of these differences to prove points about the state only roughly, or even poorly, serving human needs. Lightly fictionalized examples:

  • “The government shouldn’t encourage or subsidize personal retirement savings. What if I someone wants to retire to a third-world beach at one-fifth of the costs of retiring here?”
  • “Only parents know what’s right for their kids. Who are you to say that Johnny isn’t better off being part-time homeschooled by his uneducated, nearly illiterate mom?”
  • “It’s wrong to encourage the purchase of health insurance. Those who were pushed onto the market by minor penalties for remaining uninsured had already revealed a considered preference for cable television or a second car over basic health care instead.”

If explanations of this kind sound familiar, it’s because libertarians play them up in a convenient, self-serving way fairly regularly. Additionally, on a personal level, people shy away from understanding humans as more alike than different because it is an affront to many our self-images. Especially for those of us who grew up amidst (read: became victims of) the self-esteem movement, this is bound to be a painful and humbling realization.

Like it or not, the findings of positive psychology and related fields credibly indicate that homo sapiens flourish when they enjoy meaningful social relationships, moderate (if not astronomically high) income, and a certain degree of health (though some afflictions are much worse than others). Experiences, not things, breed happiness. The climate where you live will matter less than you think, but a long commute will matter more. Some of these tenets have become incorporated into folk psychology by now, but some haven’t. Like all sciences, this one evolves.

Local knowledge exists, and it matters greatly – but so does not-so-local knowledge, this general (if imperfect) knowledge about our species. What laws and policies we do have would be much worse, were they not to take generalities about human nature into account. And arguments that are essentially about freedom and responsiblity shouldn’t be implied to stand or fall depending on the breadth (or narrowness) of the range of individual differences our soft sciences find.

If we shouldn’t force people to send their kids to school or to purchase health insurance, or whatever, it’s not necessarily because those people are thereby overwhelmingly likely to literally be maximizing wellbeing in accordance with their idiosyncratic natures. It is because humans are individuals, with only their own lives to lead, and meddling interferes with autonomy, and the development processes that are appropriate for an autonomous being to undertake.

Don’t ground a respect for autonomy on the basis of a mythical individuality of now-comic proportions. In the eyes of God, you are surely unique. To your spouse, and maybe your friends, you are literally irreplaceable. But at the same time, you are also just another human in a society of humans trying to manage itself feasibly.

Wield your individualism responsibly. A libertarian who has refused the cult of uniqueness notices that even if you are, on some level, much like the other humans gracing this planet, that doesn’t mean that your life is any less your own. It is enough to be a separate. You need not be so different.