Mises Wire

Does Libertarianism Reject Communities? Libertarianism Actually Strengthens Them

Many opponents of libertarianism claim to reject its philosophy because of its extreme individualist tendencies or because they believe it encourages selfishness. While there are libertarians who are individualistic in every sense of the word, libertarianism does not naturally reject community. Additionally, libertarianism does not encourage selfishness but recognizes that most humans are selfish and thus are wary of giving humans too much power. The term “individualism” also needs further clarification. The individualist is not explicitly antialtruism or anticommunity, but the political individualist recognizes individual rights over any supposed communal responsibilities.

On the surface, some may think that libertarians only care about personal freedom. Most libertarians do pursue individual freedom, but they do not always pursue freedom for freedom’s sake. Arguing for freedom by itself is arguing for one’s preference. There must be additional objective or assumed reasons behind one’s desire to be free from state authority. The individualist who simply wishes to be left alone may be guilty of arguing from subjective preference. This is not the case for the individualist who argues from a rights or first principles basis. This sort of political individualist is rarely one who rejects community or voluntary altruism in general. Instead, he views rights to property as inherent to each individual.

Whether inherent rights are seen as natural to being human or as given by a creator, they must be objective and universal if they are to demand respect. Thus, the libertarian who rejects coercive welfare programs may do so not out of an unwillingness to help but out of his respect for natural property rights. These rights are necessarily negative, meaning that they do not require the action of others, only inaction. A positive right claim such as a right to clean water requires a person somewhere to sanitize water for someone else’s benefit, thus forced labor. On the other hand, a negative right to property simply requires a person to NOT disrespect someone else’s property.

There are also utilitarian libertarians who simply view state initiatives as mostly ineffective, thus not adding to human development. This is a significant point; the United States, one of the largest states in the world, unfortunately features some of the most ineffective governing in the world. Despite having strict drug laws, designed to reduce drug trafficking and usage, America has the most prisoners per capita in the world—a large percentage of these prisoners being nonviolent drug offenders. Opiate usage is also at record high rates in the United States. Additionally, New York City is known for having a very large police force, and a large city government in general. The city’s police force is larger than the entire police force of many countries around the world. As an example, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police yearly budget is less than half of the budget for New York City’s police department. Libertarians would view this bloat as unreasonable and unlikely to happen under a private government centered around private property and competition.

Regardless of how a libertarian justifies their political individualism, it is logically impossible to justify an assumed duty to society or community with consistency. If one believes that slavery to another man is wrong, then one cannot support the idea that someone has an involuntary duty to another man. Even from a religious point of view, a duty to assist the poor comes from a duty to God and the understanding that His creation is ultimately only under our stewardship. This command in scripture is not a precise command but a direction to have a generally charitable heart. From a practical point of view, the argument falls apart when one is asked to define which community is owed assistance, or how much assistance is owed to said community.

Communities are constantly changing. Additionally, there are subcommunities within each community. A person’s state has regional and ethnic enclaves, even going down to a person’s extended family and religious organizations. It makes sense that a person would contribute more to these communities, rather than the nation-state in which he is born. Each person has the natural tendency to want to associate with those who match their cultural background and beliefs. A person’s rights are violated if they are forced to contribute to a group that they fundamentally do not wish to. States also involve themselves in conquest far more than communities do, thus smaller communities are subject to fewer sudden changes to demographics.

What is very problematic is a perceived duty to assist a community. This claim means that the community has a right to one’s assistance, which is a coercive positive right. There is also the basic fact that not every member of a community will need the same sort of assistance, or even want assistance in the first place. Additionally, this will lead to some members of the community being forced to provide services for other members, thus eliminating any perceived equality or oneness. The difference should be obvious, but a choice to give based around altruism or a voluntary contract is not wrong. This is part of why libertarians and individualists are skeptical toward state action. A positive right to collective security or welfare necessarily means that a negative right is being violated at some level.

This is not to say that libertarians should reject community. As beings created for fellowship, we need community. It is simply morally correct and more useful for that community to be based around explicit consent. Imagine if a person were forced to join a religion, then forced to attend a specific church, and then forced to give a certain amount of money to that church monthly. Taken a step further, this person is forced to be “friends” with other members of the church, attending studies, weddings, and social events as if they were seeking genuine fellowship. The reality would always be that they are coerced into fellowship. This means that a lot of spiritual and communal growth would be artificial, based on a façade. Rather than have this situation, most people would instead want to associate voluntarily with their desired groups. Libertarians and self-ascribed individualists are rarely against community and charity. They embrace self-ownership and individual rights, which are perfectly compatible with community involvement.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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