Self-Made at Harvard

The Illusory Appeal of Libertarianism

Two recent books are sure to capture the minds of Harvard students. The first is What It Means to Be a Libertarian by Charles A. Murray '65, infamous co-author of The Bell Curve, an inflammatory work that made him an outcast in intellectual circles. (Harvard students will most likely forgive that transgression after this newest publication.) The second is Libertarianism: A Primer by David Boaz, who is vice-president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank in Washington, D.C. Both books extol the virtues of a libertarian doctrine for American governance.

Libertarianism both flows from and into extreme individualism. It denies that the community (which acts through government) has any right, obligation or duty to infringe upon the individual, unless the individual's actions manifestly harm another. It gives government only the minimal means of providing for society. These means are limited to the police and military force, the criminal justice system and pure public goods such as the infrastructure and water systems. To replace all other roles which government plays, it relies solely on personal responsibility both for one's actions and one's fate.

Because of its link to individualism, libertarianism is inherently tied to democracies and democratic peoples. It slouches across our political landscape, today disguised as both liberalism and conservatism. Fortunately, the American people have rejected it since our founding because they reject its implications; this is the ultimate embodiment of our ideological conservatism and operational liberalism. Harvard is, as usual, two steps out of rhythm with the larger population.

To reject all rights of the community, one must reject all influence of the community. To do this implies a very specific, a very Hobbesian, view of human nature. One must think that men are naturally isolated, individual spirits frolicking only with their families and closest friends; we only assent to government to seek peace and stability of life. This outlook considers human society and sociability as purely conventional creations based on utility.

You'd think Harvard students would know better than to think such thoughts. If anyone in America should appreciate the community and the way it shapes and rewards individuals, Harvard students should. We did not get here as rugged individuals beating our way through the wild. Most of us came into the world with good parents who gave us two magnificent gifts: first, they gave us genes, then they gave us a nurturing environment for our minds. (Please note, rugged individualists, that we don't choose our parents.) Then our community took over. Some of us went to "the Best Schools with the Best Children from the Best Families," which is to say, private schools. The rest of us went to public schools which, for the most part, were exceptional due to the property taxes from our posh school districts.

In those schools, we found teachers who truly cared about us and our education, not just about the National Education Association's internal politics. After school, we had relatives, friends, coaches, neighbors, bosses or maybe even servants who further crafted our character. From them, we learned honesty, loyalty, compassion, responsibility, shame, duty and other "values." And, of course, our parents never stopped giving us every opportunity that so many other youths never had. Then we arrived at Harvard, and something curious occurred. We realized that we owed everything we have to...ourselves.

There are many reasons to be a libertarian. One is vanity. It is nice to think that you are responsible for all the good fortune and success you achieve. Another is naivete, for you are surely naive if you believe the immediately preceding proposition. Still another reason is selfishness: since you are fortunate and successful, you are likely to want to hoard that fortune and success. Each of these reason, and others, point to the central fact of libertarianism, which is that practically all of its adherents belong to a self-regarding and sanctimonious elite. Little surprise, then, that it is popular at Harvard.

Last fall, campus publications fell over themselves to praise the Libertarian Party candidate for president Harry Brown as "a breath of fresh air." In philosophy-for-the-masses courses, On Liberty, the manifesto of libertarianism, consistently tops the list of favorite student readings. In all areas, Harvard students find it preposterous to adhere to anything other than their own unfettered will. Imagine, the audacity of such a notion that the community should subject us to any laws surpassing the "no-harm principle."

Harvard students' allegiance to libertarianism is not only irrational, it is absurd, especially when one considers our privileged background. When Aristotle said that a man without a city is either a beast or a god, he was using hyperbole to demonstrate that our natural position is in a political society with our peers. Such a society inherently implies limits and boundaries on the scope of individual action.

Libertarianism, by its very definition, is not a political philosophy, for political philosophy entails questions about the nature and role of the public realm. Libertarianism denies legitimacy to the public realm. Thus, it cannot develop a coherent and thematic system dealing with the appropriate and tolerable mixture of law, liberty and personal responsibility.

Regardless of all of these shortcomings, however, there is another, purely practical reason to dismiss libertarianism--the reason why the American people dismiss it. Contemplate for a few moments what it would be like to live in a truly libertarian society (a lovely and noxious oxymoron). Even the most self-congratulatory Harvard student would find it unrewarding and destructive. I hope.

Thomas B. Cotton is a sophomore living in Adams House.