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The persuasiveness of libertarianism

Connor Roth | Sunday, March 3, 2013

While it may seem like a long time back, try to remember what first grade was like. You’ll probably think of some early academic learning experiences, field trips to a local history museum or historical society and, of course, recess. But if you continue, you might remember what it was like to encounter bullies. I was a pretty small guy back in the day and like many of you I also had to deal with the “Give me your lunch money or I’ll beat you up” situations in grade school. Looking back now, I can laugh at myself for worrying so much about those extra 50 cents, but there is a reason nobody liked the kid who ordered everyone around and an explanation for why we would go home sad and talk to our parents for comfort. It’s pretty simple, but still a relatively new idea: natural law.
I would like to credit Notre Dame’s professor Vincent Muñoz for the example he shared in class explaining morality and natural law, which I would like to share with you. Imagine someone outdoors going fishing. After successfully reeling in a nice-sized perch, he/she decides to take a nap before cooking the fish. Now imagine that while that person is asleep, somebody goes through the icebox and takes the fish. Why do we consider the second person to have committed an immoral act, but not the first? From my understanding of this anecdote, the first individual used nature for his/her own benefit while the second person took advantage of the first individual’s labor. Since the first person worked to catch the fish, that fish becomes his property upon being reeled in and thus was stolen by the second person.
Although these short stories do not reach the depths of philosophy that John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Murray Rothbard achieved, I believe they successfully define a few major principles of the philosophy of libertarianism that I would like to expand on. If you ask any person who leans toward libertarianism, “What is the most important aspect of your philosophy?”, he or she should simply answer, “Non-aggression.” The principle of non-aggression is based on the idea that the initiation of force against any human being is always morally wrong regardless of excuses for that force or judgments on why it will benefit society; that force is detrimental to human happiness. Let’s take a minute to re-think this idea on how is force applied today. We can go back to bullying as an example. The individual who threatened to use coercion in order to take money from another is initiating force and committing violence on the bystander. We do not accept this as a legitimate action. But if someone breaks into your house threatening to do harm against your loved ones and you shoot them in self-defense, clearly society would accept this force for the plain fact that it is self-defense – the shooter in that scenario is not initiating force, he is responding to it.
Looking at coercion in society today, it’s not hard to see why people are complaining about the decline of civil liberties and freedom: The government is initiating force against each individual in this country on so many levels that people become acclimated and indifferent to it. Society is audacious enough to ridicule those who call out these detriments and will laugh at their concern. Korematsu is not so far in the past. But here is the point in which dissenters with the libertarian philosophy will argue that the growth of the state is necessary in order to achieve the “maximum public happiness” or some other form of rhetoric along those lines. Another classic argument is that libertarianism is too utopian. But let’s look where the status quo has taken us: We now have a paternalistic government saying I can’t drive a car without wearing a seatbelt and I do not have control over what I put in my body. If I live in New York City, I can’t even order a two-liter cola with my delivery pizza. To top it all off, we have had consecutive presidents who believe they have the power to wiretap phone calls, read my emails, indefinitely detain American citizens without a trial and even assassinate American citizens abroad. Good thing we have a 14th Amendment.
From my own interpretation of the libertarian philosophy these standards are – and should be – rejected. Libertarianism incorporates what I consider the “rule of halves,” which describes how each of the two major political parties is half-right and half-wrong. Democratic platforms typically emphasize the importance of individual rights. Republicans on the other hand are described as protectors of the doctrine of laissez-faire – how true these statements still are is subject to the eye of the beholder. Why I find the philosophy of libertarianism so persuasive is that it is consistent across the board: Individuals will have their rights protected in the social sphere and also in the economic sphere. From here one can discuss many other facets of the philosophy: the importance of voluntary associations, charity, cooperation, peace and tolerance. If you are tired of having more of the same in Washington D.C., I’d encourage you to explore an alternative and consider the implications of force on society and the effects coercion has on humanity as a whole. If you take nothing else from this editorial, just know that no one likes a bully.

Connor Roth is a sophomore economics major and constitutional studies minor. He can be reached at
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.