A reader sent me the following email, which he gave me permission to reprint. I thought his concerns were quite understandable but that I wouldn’t have the time to do justice to them. So below is his (edited) email, and then my own two cents. Please chime in (with courtesy) in the comments.
Dear Professor Murphy,
I’m a teen who is interested in Libertarianism and Free-Market Economics. I recently started taking the course entitled “Introduction to the free market” and so far I’m liking almost everything I’m learning. That is, except for Libertarianism’s emphasis on selfishness. In Libertarianism, people who are selfish are praised and selfishness is perfectly okay even in the most extreme cases. For example, if B is riding in A’s boat, A has a right to throw him off even if that means he will certainly die. (I’m afraid to even mention Ayn Rand’s opinion in such a case.) I like the idea of not having a welfare state or a Fed, but Austrian Economists take an additional step and praise the selfish Wall Street businessmen calling them “the driving force of the market”.
Murray Rothbard writes in his book “The Ethics of Liberty”, chapter 14, entitled “Children and Rights”, that parents should have the legal right to allow their children to die. I know that [David] Gordon and Stephan Kinsella say that since parents bring their children into the world in a situation in which they are not self sufficient, they are obligated to support them until they are self sufficient. But that doesn’t really solve the core of the problem, namely, that Libertarianism believes in selfishness, and therefore, only in some cases will Gordon and Kinsella’s answer apply. For example, if the children are yours, you brought them into the world and are obligated to feed them. But if you see someone else’s child about to die from starvation, (God forbid) that would be okay.
I now have a dilemma. On one hand, Libertarianism makes a lot of sense. I can’t just stop believing in it. But on the other hand, it allows for immoral situations such as people murdering others indirectly. I emailed [some libertarian thinkers], but to no avail. What should I do about this? Is there a book that deals with this problem?
Thank you very much,
Isaac D. Cohen
Some quick reactions:
(1) Libertarianism doesn’t purport to be a complete theory of ethics. Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty should make that clear, upfront. Libertarianism in the tradition of Rothbard is a theory of property rights (including your ownership of your body). It is connected to ethics in this way: If you have the right to X, then it would be immoral for outsiders to use force to interfere with your exercise of X.
For example, standard libertarianism says you have the right to become a heroin addict. That is, it would be immoral for outsiders to use force to prevent you from using heroin and becoming addicted to it. But one could be a libertarian and still think that heroin addiction is immoral.
(2) Austrian economics is distinct from libertarian political theory. Austrian economics is the “value free” study of how human choice leads to patterns in the economic arena. Walter Block illustrates this distinction nicely, by saying we could logically imagine a socialist Austrian economist. That is, this person knows from the study of scientific economics that socialism leads to chaos in the allocation of resources to satisfy consumers. But this person is a misanthrope, and his value system ranks human misery very highly. So he advocates socialism, knowing that it is a means to achieving his end of human suffering. There is nothing that contradicts Austrian economics in this, though of course he would not be a libertarian.
So, in the real world, the reason Austrian economics and libertarian political theory overlap so much is that most people desire a world in which poverty and childhood illness are minimized, where we have rising standards of living, etc.
(3) It is undeniably true that a lot of libertarians think selfishness is a virtue; Rand even picks that as a title. But there are also many libertarians and Austrians who are Christian. I personally would say that selfishness is a vice when it is taken in the popular connotation, while altruism is a virtue. However, the beauty of voluntary market relations is that they take our natural, base, selfish impulses and through an “Invisible Hand” (which is God’s) they channel those impulses into altruistic actions. We unwittingly serve our fellow men and women when we obey the rules of property rights.