In a blog recently I was challenged for being inconsistent in my views. Yeah, I know: blasphemy! I had criticised the Roman Catholic Church for it’s policy on condoms, and my intention had been to criticise the inconsistency, incoherence and factual inaccuracies of the RCC’s moral policy. However, perhaps due to sloppy writing on my part, one of our readers thought I was criticising the RCC for a policy that caused the deaths of thousands of people. If I had argued this, it was alleged that my defence of libertarianism would be inconsistent. Why? Well, I defend libertarianism as the correct political philosophy “regardless of the consequences.” But, why then would I criticise the RCC for the bad consequences of its policy? If bad consequences are irrelevant to libertarianism, then why are they suddenly relevant to a critique of another worldview.

So, it was alleged that

(1) ‘Libertarianism is the correct political philosophy to adopt regardless of the consequences’

is inconsistent with

(2) ‘Position X is morally wrong because it leads to bad consequences.’

Is (1) inconsistent with (2)? Not at all.

Lets start at the beginning. I don’t intend to argue in depth for the following; it’s just a preliminary to my solution to the charge of inconsistency.

We are individuals; individuals with a certain nature. More specifically, we are individuals with the capacity to reason. Even more again, we are individuals with rights, rights derived from the type of beings we are: most fundamentally the right to life. In order to support one’s own life as an individual a person must use his or her rational faculties to make choices about how best to live. This in turn requires freedom. As rational beings we value our freedom, and crucially this freedom is only guaranteed by extending the same freedom to others. Any ethic or political position that runs contrary to this principle is rationally unjustified and unjustifiable, largely because to claim freedom for oneself without extending that same freedom to another is an arbitrary move with no rational basis. For instance, socialism is irrational because it fails to extend freedom equally to each individual (ironic considering socialists claim to champion egalitarianism). It treats individuals as sacrificial animals to be disposed of at the whim of some greater undefined (because indefinable)“collective.” It thus bypasses individual rationality and opts primarily for brute force to bend dissenters to the “collective will.” It robs men of the produce of their efforts, and thus, by extension, of their choices as rational beings, and ultimately of their lives. Socialism is fundamentally a futile exercise in attempting to squeeze the square peg of rational human nature into the festering round hole of an irrational political system. It is no coincidence that every single tyranny in the history of humanity was justified on the same collectivist grounds as socialism rests. Respect for individual rights and freedom is the only possible rational starting point for political philosophy.

Libertarianism embodies such rational principles. It is the only political philosophy that (1) actually fits the rational nature of humankind, and, (2) is derived from the facts of reality. It is my contention that government interference beyond a certain “libertarian minimalism” is rationally unjustifiable. This libertarian minimalism is defined by the aforementioned rights, which means government’s can only justifiably interfere to uphold these rights, (thus to take action against criminals and foreign aggressors that threaten the rights of the free citizen). The rationalism inherent in libertarianism means that we can’t and shouldn’t give intellectual assent to any other system, no matter how juicy the consequences we think it might entail.

A good summary of the issue is provided by Ayn Rand when she wrote: “is man a sovereign individual who owns his person, his mind, his life, his work, and it’s products – or is he the property of the tribe…that may dispose of him in any way it pleases, that may dictate his convictions, prescribe the course of his life, control his work and expropriate his products. Does man have the right to exist for his own sake – or is he born in bondage, as an indentured servant who must keep buying his life by serving the tribe but can never acquire it free and clear.” More simply: is man free or not? If man is free then no other form of political system is justified except libertarianism. However, to say that man is not free is irrational, unjustifiable. No one rightly – that is, rationally and justifiably – enslaves another man.

With these preliminaries in place we might be in a better position to understand the dilemma above.

Much of the solution hangs on what the word “consequences” is referring to in each context. When I say “libertarianism is the correct political system regardless of consequences,” what am I actually stating? It seems to me that using “consequences” in this context is different from using the word in the context of criticising a moral position for having “bad consequences.” Take the legality of drugs, for instance. In a libertarian system drugs would be legal. It would be up to an individual to make choices about what to put in his or her body. Government cannot rightly interfere, since there are no rights being infringed. Lets say that Bob takes a bunch of drugs and dies of an overdose. That’s a bad consequence, right? But, is it a bad consequence of libertarianism? Hardly. Libertarianism is morally neutral in this respect. It doesn’t advocate drug use. It doesn’t make Bob take an overdose. Libertarianism simply creates the space in which people are free from the unjustified interference of others to make their own decisions about their lives. People might abuse their freedom and do all manner of bad things to themselves. But that is a matter for them. Although libertarianism creates the possibility for such things it does not cause them; in other words they are not direct consequences of libertarianism. They are direct consequences of the free actions of human beings. So when I say “libertarianism is the correct political philosophy regardless of consequences” I mean to say that libertarianism is the correct form of political government despite the fact that some people will choose to act in ways which might bring bad consequences on themselves. That some people will bring bad consequences on themselves is not a point against libertarianism, or a reason to limit freedom. Libertarianism is rational whether or not people choose to do bad things to themselves. It is the actions of people that have moral weight, not the framework which allows them the freedom.

If the above is true then it seems to me to be fairly obvious that such a libertarian can be a moral consequentialist without inconsistency. He can hold that an action is immoral if it has bad consequences, and live his life in accordance with that principle. In the above example, he can rightly hold that the RCC policy is bad because it bends the truths of science and misleads people – very vulnerable people – to their death. The RCC’s policy directly leads to – that is, causes – death on a grand scale. It has bad consequences, whereas libertarianism has no consequences at all but simply creates the space wherein people freely act and accept the consequences of so doing. Libertarianism has no direct and morally relevant consequences at all, despite the fact that there are good and bad consequences that follow certain actions performed under a libertarian system. The distinction here is between the concept of “causation” and the concept of “enabling.” Libertarianism enables good and bad consequences: it doesn’t cause either good or bad consequences. Enabling is a morally neutral concept, causation is directly morally relevant.

Within the wider framework of libertarianism a person can readily accept that if an action leads to bad consequences then it is immoral. We must remember that it is human actions that are either moral or immoral. Libertarianism is not an action. Socially speaking, it could be described as a vacuum, or an empty space, and as such it lies beyond morality. For this reason it is a category mistake to apply moral consequentialism to libertarianism itself. In a sense it is “pre-moral,” and, incidentally, is the only system that actually makes full and genuine morality possible. It provides the stage on which full and genuine moral behaviour can take place. Central to the notion of morality is the concept of freedom. We don’t count robots as morally good when they defuse a bomb. Nor do we count them morally bad if they have been programmed to kill people. By virtue of the fact that they cannot choose to act this way or that they do not count as moral agents. Morality requires freedom. Freedom requires libertarianism, the only political philosophy to guarantee it.

So, to my mind it is perfectly consistent to adhere to libertarianism “regardless of the consequences” while at the same time adhering to a moral position that judges human actions by their consequences. This doesn’t mean libertarians should be consequentialists – I for one am not – it simply means that they can be without being inconsistent.

Stephen Graham