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News Link • Philosophy of Liberty

Freedom: Because It Works or Because It’s Right?

• The Independent Institute - Robert Higgs

Libertarians divide into two broad classes: those who espouse a free society because it gives better results than an unfree society, and those who espouse a free society because they believe that it is wrong to deny or suppress a person’s right to be free (unless, of course, that person is suppressing the equal right of others to be free). “Consequentialists versus deontologists” is the oft-encountered labeling of this difference. It is unfortunate that so much energy has been devoted to infighting between these two groups.

I first embraced libertarianism on utilitarian or consequentialist grounds related to my training as an economist. I was convinced that a free society—certainly in the long run, if not at every moment—would be healthier, wealthier, and happier than an unfree society. From economic theory and economic history, I came to understand the horrendous failures of the centrally planned economies in the USSR, China, and other countries. This understanding struck me as an adequate basis for anyone’s embrace of libertarianism.

Lacking a solid background in philosophy, I did not spend much time thinking about the moral case for libertarianism, at least in the early stages of my journey. Yet no one really needed to persuade me that people by nature deserve to be free, that each person possesses a natural right to control his own life insofar as the exercise of that right does not conflict with other people’s exercise of the same right. So, when I was first asked—more than twenty years ago as a panelist at a libertarian conference—whether I was a consequentialist or a deontologist in my libertarianism, I answered that I was both: I believed that people ought to respect other people’s right to be free of aggression (the initiation of violence or the threat of violence) and that if everyone behaved in this way, people would attain the best possible social and economic outcomes for the whole society.

Over time, I found myself making moral arguments for libertarianism more and more frequently. In some ways, I was simply expressing the grounds for my outrage against one coercive evil or another of which I became aware. Yet I never surrendered my belief that a free society works better than an unfree society along many social and economic dimensions. I was also persuaded by the great rule-utilitarian Leland Yeager that in the deepest possible sense, we must all be consequentialists. No one of good will can cling to the rule “fiat justitia ruat caelum” (let justice be done though the heavens fall) all the way down. If the most committed libertarian deontologist knew for certain that adherence to every critical element of libertarianism would entail, say, the utter destruction of the human race, even he would have to relent and to rest his decision on the consequences of a no-exceptions adherence to a normally binding moral rule.


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