A friend of mine recently quipped on Facebook that opponents of health care reform were selfish, and that such selfishness was the height of irony coming from Christians.
Granted, this was an internet argument. It’s dumb of me to even care, much less address. But I figure there’s a question behind the question that needs to be answered: are libertarians selfish?
The ethos he is following was Marx’s: from each according to ability and to each according to need. (Not in some secret socialist way, either…he actually quoted the line directly.) It’s a core tenant of socialism: everyone contributes, everyone benefits. And with that as your jumping-off point, I suppose anything else would seem selfish. When the greater good of society is paramount, what use do we have for any individual liberty?
Which is why I suppose people of this mindset believe their rights are derived from government. If government is the source of rights, surely it has the ability to take them away in order to benefit society.
And somewhere in here, I think, is what Paine described in Common Sense:
SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil in its worst state an intolerable one…
This friend of mine is no different than the 18th century writer longing for the King’s gentle guidance. He wants the fatherly hand of government to wipe away society’s ills, to remove all needs, to fix all problems.
But we don’t live in that world. We don’t live in a world where rights are granted by the government, but where government itself is created by the people for the people. Our rights on Earth are inherent and inalienable, endowed by our Creator. Government exists not to give us rights — we have them by default.
That expansive liberty comes with pitfalls, for sure. It comes with the ability to fail, to lose everything and suffer the consequences of poor choices. But it also comes with the freedom to succeed, to follow dreams and acquire the things and relationships that can make us content — to pursue happiness. When we remove rights, when we invite government to dole out rights, to take away consequences, to distribute wealth with more equality, we destroy the ability to pursue what makes us happy. What is more selfish than to make life not worth living?
To the original question — are libertarians selfish? — my answer is no, not in this world. We are selfish in a world only where government is the source of rights, only in a world where freedom is granted and not endowed, only in a world without the ability to succeed.
I don’t root for failure, I don’t care to see people suffer; but these are my burdens, not society’s. And in a world where I have the freedom to succeed or fail, I also have the ability to take care of a downtrodden friend.
That’s the power of individual liberty: my life is mine to lead, in whatever manner I think best. Taking that God-given right away from people is true, fully-embodied selfishness.