Rebirth of Reason


Machan's Musings - Is Libertarianism Simplistic?
by Tibor R. Machan

As I make the case for the free society in various forums—most recently in a book pro and con libertarianism—I have often been told that libertarianism or the principle of individual rights is simplistic. Things are more complicated than to expect that people could live together guided by laws that require them to abstain from intruding on one another.

Sure enough there is something this charge calls attention to. Just take the right to private property which is such a vital part of a libertarian, fully free society. Even in the realm of ownership of land exactly what constitutes trespassing can be complicated. Suppose you live on land you own and someone drills below it and finds oil you never suspected was there, nor tried to find. Or, again, suppose you live on some land and over it helicopters and airplanes travel, say about 1500 feet above. Are they invading your property, are they trespassing?

Other problems can easily arise. Suppose you hear a song and learn it and then sing it to your guests at a party. Have you stolen this song; must you pay the writer a royalty now? Or suppose that you are fishing in the ocean and catch some nice fish—are they yours or do they belong to the people on the adjoining shore or everyone around the globe?

Even such areas that are taken pretty much for granted by most people as part of a free society, the prohibition against censorship—what if you use language that incites some people to great anger—you call them severely insulting names. May not such speech be limited?

And there is more—should you, who have an unalienable right to your life, have the sole authority to commit suicide, even if doing so will not harm anyone else? May you just hire some expert to help you with this? Does your right to your right imply this?

Again, suppose you have sex with someone who has been saying yes, come on, let’s do it, but at the very last second decided not to continue. And you do continue, thinking, well, this must just be a ploy, given how eagerly I have been invited to carry forth. Are you then a rapist? Or is your conduct excusable, given that you have been led on?

Principles like those libertarians consider sound and justifiable are not simple to implement, even if they can be stated in fairly clear-cut terms. And this is so with all principles, be they part of politics, engineering, gardening, cooking, medicine or any other practical undertaking. We often wish to state a principle simply even if it is clear that there are borderline cases that pose problems for implementation. The whole business of language is to simplify—all words we use summarize a great deal of information that includes many complicated details. Take the US Constitution—it has some very straightforward principles to guide public policy that need to be applied delicately and can pose difficult challenges in certain circumstances—one reason why we have so many different specialists to deal with the law.

All areas of interest to us in the world can be subsumed under fairly simple principles, but it is also quite clear that this doesn’t mean these principles are simplistic. That would involve denying the nuances and challenges that come very naturally whenever principles are being used to figure things out, to guide our conduct.

Calling libertarianism simplistic is pretty much a way to avoid having to deal with it, very like calling it an ideology or calling those who embrace it ideologues. That is merely to substitute derision and belittlement for argument.

Of course, some libertarians, as some socialists, welfare statists or champions of any other school of political thought, can present the position simplistically, remaining blind to problems of application in complex cases. But from that nothing much follows but that some people who champion various political positions are lazy or having a bad day.
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