#Hayek, #Libertarianism, #Philosophy

What Does It Mean To Be Libertarian?

I’m always unsure how to answer this question. I have at least some knowledge of what this label means in broad terms, and so I have applied it to what I believe best characterizes my own philosophical leanings, but is it an accurate portrayal of my day to day thoughts and methods?

There is nothing in the basic principles of liberalism to make it a stationary creed; there are no hard-and-fast rules fixed once and for all. The fundamental principle that in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion, is capable of an infinite variety of applications. —F.A. Hayek, Road to Serfdom p17-18

Using “the spontaneous forces of society” and resorting “as little as possible to coercion” in “ordering our affairs” is as apt a description of my philosophy as I could develop on my own. No small wonder that this quote comes from Hayek, then is it?

The only problem with my line of thinking is that it is so highly criticized as ineffective, heartless, and leads to inequality. The assumption is that the “spontaneous forces of society” are ineffective at dealing with the inequalities it might breed; when left to one’s own self-interests they are unlikely to care much about the interests of others unless those interests are in competition with their own or can be of help in achieving one’s ends. But can this be true? Western society has been dominated by institutions that turn this thinking on it’s head–and these institutions are not coercive in the way that government is.

The idea that society organized under these rules and conditions can breed inequality is no secret; the question is, what amount of coercion helped push this inequality forward? And what makes an unequal state of affairs so unpalatable? As I saw in a link that I posted earlier, people are not all rational actors, and markets are inefficient. Sometimes decisions are made that are detrimental to the actor1 and the market2 in question suffers greatly.

But is that it? Is it those in poor conditions that gives some the notion that a libertarian society breeds heartlessness and suffering? Nothing in such a society would prevent it from creating an institution to care for these people. A society organized around a different philosophy, however, could use the coercive powers of government in order to give the appearance of alleviating this unequal suffering without the need for a social organization to fill this role; I have to argue that this is likely to produce apathy amongst members of that society. There is no need to care directly for the suffering of others as your interest in their well-being is served by contributing to whatever power is placed over you.

I don’t know, am I crazy in thinking this way? Couldn’t the well-being of others in a libertarian society be of consequence to you as a rational actor? Why might helping them be in your best interests? To fulfill some sense of altruism? To ensure individuals can afford and want the products/services you provide?

I propose more questions than answers–all of it rambling.


  1. What is the actor in any case? It could be a corporation, an individual, or anything in the economic marketplace making decisions. Abstract. Very abstract.
  2. This is a market in the abstract. The group/place in question that is affected by the decisions of the irrational actor.

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