Is Libertarianism Unsustainable?

Scripture makes the value of the individual in God’s eyes clear. For example, Genesis 1:27, Jeremiah 29:11, and Luke 12:6-7 1 articulate the value God holds for each individual. So, from the Christian perspective, there is some level of inherent worth within the individual. However, would a philosophy focused entirely on the worth of the individual be sustainable? Libertarianism in some of its forms fundamentally places the importance of the individual’s capacity to determine what is best for him or herself first and foremost. This emphasis on promoting individual autonomy is the method of promoting the highest good for libertarians, which is maximizing individual freedom.

However, a continuation of the strand of Libertarianism that seeks to maximize individual freedom via maximizing individual autonomy will inevitably come in conflict with not only itself but with moral precepts and standards that seek to limit the actions of the individual, ultimately making libertarianism unsustainable. This type of Libertarianism that represents this hyper-focus on the individual can be generalized as the “libertine” strand of libertarianism. First, it is important to delineate between the two different categories of libertarianism. 

While many self-described libertarians would not identify maximizing individual freedom as the highest good, there are exceptions. Christian libertarians seek to reconcile libertarianism with Christianity by emphasizing the need for individuals to voluntarily maintain Christian moral and ethical principles. For them, this serves as a backstop against encroaching “libertinism”.  

Notable Christian libertarians include Jeffery Herbener, Ron Paul, and Taylor Barkley. Imbued within even this strand is the emphasis of the autonomy of the individual. They argue that moral and ethical principles are valuable insofar as they are freely chosen.2 While many more libertine libertarians would largely agree with such sentiment, they tend to emphasize the importance of the promotion of maximizing individual autonomy over the value of firm moral or ethical principles. While one can hold a significant discussion on Christian libertarianism, and its sustainability, it remains somewhat outside the scope of this discussion of libertarianism as a whole.

A crucial component of libertarianism is its understanding of individualism. Writing for The Objective Standard, Craig Biddle, a prominent objectivist libertarian defines individualism as, “the idea that the individual’s life belongs to him and that he has an inalienable right to live it as he sees fit, to act on his own judgment, to keep and use the product of his effort, and to pursue the values of his choosing. It’s the idea that the individual is sovereign, an end in himself, and the fundamental unit of moral concern”3 .  While this view of individualism is espoused by the objectivist strand of libertarianism, it serves as a suitable definition for individualism for the entire group of libertine libertarians. Since the individual is the fundamental unit of moral concern, it follows that morality can only be determined by the individual. The good life therefore is achieved by the individual pursuing his or her self-interests. Objectivists, like Ayn Rand for example, take this logic and apply it to a defense of selfishness and towards the development of more obscure egoist philosophies. Importantly, in order for the individual to most effectively pursue his or her self-interests, society must be structured to promote the maximum individual freedom. This contrasts heavily with a Christian conception of the good life, which is best articulated by Paul in Philippians 4:8, “”Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”4 Libertarian philosophy is not a new way of thinking, as it relies on older philosophies and influences.

Libertarianism is far more than a constitutional or even a European parliamentary system of rights. “The rule of law, rights, and privileges of citizens, separation of powers, the free exchange of goods and services in markets, and federalism—are to be found in medieval thought.”5 Instead, the fundamental and defining characteristics of libertarianism stem from two assumptions. First, is what Patrick Deneen calls the “anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice.”6 This describes libertarianism’s tendency to promote the concept that individuals have an inviolable right to choice. Deneen describes the second assumption as, “human separation from and opposition to nature”.7 These two assumptions not only provide a foundation for understanding libertarianism but provide insight into the implication of a new definition of liberty.

For intellectuals stretching from Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, liberty was understood to be the capacity to do what is good. Libertarianism radically changes this longstanding definition to define liberty as the freedom from restraint. This new definition ceases to account for the effect some choices can have on communities, societies, and future generations. Taken to its logical conclusion, libertarianism holds that there are no wrong choices, but simply the right to make that choice. Therefore, libertarianism rejects all restraining institutions. Deneen explains, “[libertarianism] rejects the ancient and pre-liberal conception of liberty as the learned capacity of human beings to govern their base and hedonistic desires.” On the other hand, Deneen argues how the original understanding of liberty is necessary for proper self-governance in a functioning society. “Societies that understand liberty this way pursue the comprehensive formation and education of individuals and citizens in the art and virtue of self-rule.”8 It is important to note, however, that Deneen argues that the full realization of the implications of libertarianism does not happen immediately, but happens after a series of philosophical revolutions and waves of older forms of libertarianism.

The first revolution and its corresponding “wave” of its practical application is rooted in the idea of basing politics on the idea of volunteerism. Individuals are free to make largely unfettered and autonomous choices. Under this form of libertarianism, Deneen argues that the state is set up much like Hobbes describes in Leviathan; to “not stop travelers, but keep them in the way.”9 The state’s job in policy making is to keep people doing what is right by restraining people from acting inappropriately. Deneen states, “The state is charged with the maintenance of social stability and with preventing a return to natural anarchy; in discharging these duties, it “secures” our natural rights.”10 This iteration of libertarianism promotes human mastery over nature, while respecting the bounds of natural law and human nature. Recognizing that humans are fundamentally self-interested, the first wave of libertarianism promotes free markets to channel this characteristic for good to improve the human capacity. Much of this conclusion is rooted in the libertarian conception of the good life.

Libertarians, especially within the libertine strand, hold the assumption that the good life is achieved by maximizing personal freedom. Drawing on heavy Kantian influences they view human action as fundamentally rational, or purposeful.11 Libertarians, especially atheist libertarians often argue that ethics are a construct of rationality.12 Since rationality is something that can be most effective, or even only, conducted by individuals, it is the individuals who can determine what is right or wrong. The enlightened individual will, therefore, be able to recognize that using reason he can reject the wrong actions and see that right actions will result in personal gain.  

Fyodor Dostoevsky mocks this sentiment by exposing the shaky ground it lies on. “If only one’s eyes were opened to his real, normal interests, he would at once cease doing vile things and would immediately become good and honorable, because being enlightened … he would indeed see his personal advantage in goodness.”13 This exposes a critical contradiction in libertine libertarian thinking. It presupposes that the individual will choose the proper moral or ethical principle to follow and that man determines what is proper morally or ethically through reason. The first premise assumes that right and wrong are predetermined and that the enlightened individual can use reason to discover this right or wrong. However, the second premise claims that the individual uses reason not to discover what is already right or wrong, but to decide what is right or wrong is his own eyes. This leads down a path of relativism that makes it difficult to reconcile objective moral principles with libertine libertarianism.

Libertarianism taken to its logical conclusions promotes complete autonomy. This moves beyond simply being unconstrained by positive law and a strict use of only negative law, but liberation from associations and relationships. This includes fundamental institutions such as, “the family, church, and schools to the village and neighborhood and the community broadly defined—that exert strong control over behavior largely through informal and habituated expectations and norms.”14  Ironically, the rejection of institutions and concepts that have traditionally reigned in human behavior creates a further need and additional calls for the state to intervene to regulate bad behavior. This contradiction can play out as legislation mandating acceptance of, or at least association with, behaviors that would be rejected by natural law.

This leads to another critical component of libertarianism. Libertarians of nearly all stripes hold that coercive force is wrong as it prevents an individual from fully realizing their freedom of individual choice and is a violation of liberty. Different libertarians take somewhat different approaches on deriving this principle with Ayn Rand basing it on the right to life, while others like Murray Rothbard rooting it in the principle of self-ownership. Their views on coercion are summed up in the non-aggression principle. Rothbard writes, “No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor.

Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.”15 The immediate implications are fairly straightforward. If an individual initiates force against another person not in self-defense, he has violated the basic freedoms of the other person. This includes actions such as muggings, assaults, and theft. Furthermore, many libertarians hold that state coercion is also a moral bad that must be severely restricted if not entirely abolished in order to promote individual liberty.16  The principle of limiting coercion is a fundamental aspect of libertarianism but taken in context with the other principles of maximal autonomy and the ability for the individual to reason towards moral and ethical principles, it becomes contradictory. If moral principles are something that can be determined through an individual’s own use of reason how can there be an objective universal principle against coercion? Perhaps, some individuals may reason that non-aggression is a good moral principle, but it does not follow according to libertarian philosophy, that all individuals must reason to this conclusion.  Furthermore, if the highest good is maximal human freedom, as determined by maximizing individual freedom, the non-aggression principle is a limit on this highest good. If one truly sought to maximize individual choice, the choice to freely engage in coercion against others must follow.

Deneen argues that libertarianism’s reliance on concepts and ideas that originated prior to modern libertarianism, and institutions that are inherently anti-liberal must eventually create these contradictions in society. Such contradictions lead to a post-liberal society that retains some aspects of liberalism, such as the dignity of the individual, but results in a different, “understanding of the human person, human community, politics, and the relationship of the City of Man to the City of God”. 17 The wearing away of a traditional reliance on such institutions and customs, Deneen argues, will lead to a breakdown of functioning society. Instead of creating a society based on non-aggression and free transaction, best fulfilling the desires of its people, libertarianism tends to isolate the individual and break down the institutions that maintain a proper society.

This issue calls into question the sustainability of libertarianism. If libertarians continue to emphasize the good life as maximizing human liberty, instead of a something closer to a Christian concept of the good life, it will inevitably mesh with the depravity of human nature and self-destruct. While there are certain biblical parallels that can be drawn from libertarian ideas such as the non-aggression principle, a philosophy that emphasizes the individual above all else is not sustainable.

Lorenzo Carrazana is a senior at Grove City College where he studies political science and economics. He plans to pursue a career in law and policy.

2 thoughts on “Is Libertarianism Unsustainable?

  1. I’m coming late to this party, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Liberty is a very Christian concept. America inherited this idea of liberty, and it has produced (imo) the best country in the world. However, as John Adams noted “Human passions unbridled by morality and religion…would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.”

    The modern libertarian movement of free markets and social liberalism seems at best naive and at worst a Trojan horse for every wicked behavior. Leaving each person to their own devices may sound good when you’ve got life mostly figured out. You’re not going to end up a drugged up homeless person or someone unmarried with 15 kids (or an orphan because your parents were this way). However, you’d have to be crazy to believe that those who will are going to just roll over and die rather than violate the non-aggression principle.

    That’s where the self-defense clause comes in. “If they try to take my stuff, I’ll be ready!” However, such an idea is effectively survival of the fittest and there’s no way this doesn’t end in some sort of wicked dystopian future where everyone suffers from lack of cooperation.


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