Are American Libertarians Inherently Consequentialists?

Atilla Sulker | United States

At the superficial level, libertarianism is split into two main camps regarding a moral doctrine. There is the old Aristotelian natural law tradition, sometimes referred to as deontological libertarianism, which draws some of the most passionate libertarians, including the likes of Ron Paul, Andrew Napolitano, Murray Rothbard, and Ayn Rand. And there is the consequentialist (often called utilitarianism) approach to libertarianism, advocated by many pillars of libertarianism including, Ludwig Von Mises, Milton Friedman, and David Friedman. The former group believes that libertarianism is valid because initiating force in any way is morally wrong. The latter on the other hand supports libertarianism simply because, in their minds, it leads to the greatest prosperity.

But the adherence to any form of libertarianism in America makes for a perplexing phenomenon. America has the greatest total wealth in the world and is the hallmark of the great machine that is capitalism. Surely there is some amount of freedom in America, despite the squabbles of libertarians. If not, the great works of entrepreneurial enterprise and competition would not be present to provide the average American with such goods as cars and electric ovens, products once classified as “luxury goods”.

Yet at the same time, the State tramples on the liberties of its citizens every minute. Wiretaps are initiated whenever the president feels like doing so. The state drafts young men to fight in territories unknown to them, showing how frugal its citizens are in its menacing eyes. Bureaucrats interfere with progressive efforts espoused by communities to take back control of their schools. Mandatory minimums tear apart families and lead to the mass incarceration of individuals who are supposedly detriments to society. Regardless of how you assess this claim from a moral standpoint, the argument could be strongly made that government in this day in age has become a far greater detriment to society than any drug lord.

Despite the mass regulations enforced by the state, the great bulwark of capitalism cannot be stymied. Sure, competition is slowly dying off and the Fed creates a false illusion of the growth of prosperity. But despite the destruction created by the Keynesian saga, prosperity still thrives to a much greater extent in America than most other nations around the world, further validating the extent of the notion that entrepreneurship drives the improvement in the material quality of our lives. Indeed the machine of entrepreneurship is far more powerful than the government. The great technological revolution of the late 20th century shows how the hindrances established by the government could not stop the glorious consequences of a market economy.

Now here’s a head-scratcher. Does an increase in the quality of goods in the market due to competition in the private sector necessarily signify an increase in liberty? Does a vibrant capitalist economy necessarily fall in line with a free world? Quite obviously not, as our country represents a good case study of this seemingly paradoxical phenomenon. But only superficially does it occur to be perplexing, for going beyond the layer of gloss shows that the situation is not that complicated.

A larger amount of wealth simply means a larger amount of capital for the state to exploit in its nefarious affairs. It means government simply has more wealth to steal and hence more wealth to fund the welfare-warfare state. This is evident with such tragedies as the growth of the military industrial complex and the bureaucratization of education. Lew Rockwell sums up this phenomenon:

In reality, the State is far more dangerous in a productive, capitalist society than it is in an impoverished, socialized society, simply because it has far more private resources to pillage and loot for the State’s own benefit. Availing itself of the vast fruits of private production, the State engages in self-aggrandizement, expansion, and, inevitably, imperialism.”

In retrospect, we see that much of the past imperialist adventures were supported through the exploiting of private capital, e.g. FDR’s redirecting of resources to support World War Two, or the rapid proliferation of nuclear arms during the Cold War. Indeed a capitalist economy could well be a catalyst for the expansion of the state. And more importantly, a desensitized public needs to be conditioned to express obedience. Think of the state as a block of sodium and the capitalist economy and obedience as a tub of water. Without the water, the sodium remains stable, but when put in the water, it becomes volatile. This is how the state works, it works parasitically- the more blood there is to suck, the bigger it becomes.

Comparing the United States to a garden variety third world country, we discover something interesting. While the former professes to be the beacon of the free world, it is so bloated and volatile that it tramples on the liberties of its people daily. The latter advertises itself as a monstrous entity that will drop the guillotine on any dissenters but is often so poor that it can’t actually enforce these codes.

Regardless of what a country’s government may proclaim itself to be, whether a slaughterer of masses or a liberator of worlds, to truly judge how free it is, we must focus on the actual situation of the country, i.e., the effectiveness of its means in realizing its desired ends.

Economic historian Robert Higgs adheres to this view, and used it to make a case for leaving the United States in search of another country. In a speech he gave, Higgs said:

If I were in your position, I would consider seriously getting out of this country, not because I think any other country is a paradise by the way. But because I think no other country has the means (emphasis added) that the government of this country has to carry out these horrifying surveillance programs, and other measures of state tyranny. So, I’m going to move. I’d suggest you might consider moving somewhere else.”

Higgs himself moved to Mexico in October of 2015.

So if one proclaims himself to be a natural rights libertarian, wouldn’t he be contradicting this assertion if he continues living in the United States? Natural rights libertarians are defenders of liberty even if it leads to economically inefficient outcomes. It would then follow that if they truly hold this to be true if they are truly the bleeding heart natural rights supporter that they claim to be, they would move to another country that does not have the means to enforce such control as our own.

I don’t believe that any libertarian can be classified as fully of the natural rights tradition or fully a consequentialist. Surely a consequentialist would become inclined to believe in some sort of natural rights if the government began to kill members of his family. He wouldn’t oppose it only on the grounds that it disturbs order and leads to disutility.

Now certain issues may invoke a more natural rights based defense. Such issues may include abortion and the defense of the second amendment. It would be hard not to be rooted in the natural law tradition to an extent, yet be an ardent supporter of the second amendment or the right to life.

Based on the actions of libertarians here in America however, on the economic front, the consequentialist doctrine trumps any belief that they may have in natural rights, not fully, but to an extent that libertarians have decided to stay here rather than follow the Higgsian vision. It would be foolish to try and sit here and say that we would defend liberty even if it didn’t lead to economically sound outcomes, yet live in a country in which the means to the destruction of liberty are far greater than most any other country in the world.

It is clear that we enjoy the fruits of entrepreneurship and capitalism as present in this country. For the American libertarian, the loss of this great prosperity in exchange for a more free lifestyle is not a convincing trade-off. Let’s face it, we all enjoy the constant new innovations in technology, in medicine, etc. We wouldn’t be willing to give up our cellular devices or our polio-free bodies in exchange for a more libertarian way of going about our lives.

America can be seen as a coin, having a free side to it, and an unfree side. As Lew Rockwell explains:By way of illustration, in the US today, we have two economies, one free and one unfree. The free one has given us the great abundance of consumer goods, the widest distribution of wealth, and the fastest pace of technological innovation known in the history of man. The unfree one—characterized by the two trillion dollar federal budget and the more than one-quarter of that spent on apparatus that builds and administers weapons of mass destruction—has produced what we have been reading about in the headlines for the last two months. Military Socialism, which exists by pillaging the free economy, is responsible for a brutal and immoral war on a civilian population halfway around the world—the destruction of hospitals, churches, nursing homes, residential neighborhoods, and town squares.”

So yes, it is the prosperity in the capitalist economy that keeps us here in this country. It is the reason why we enjoy the economic freedom present in this country. The atrocities committed by our government won’t drive us away, but the market economy keeps us latched. It thus follows that the American libertarian is inherently, to an extent, a consequentialist.


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