For me, John Stewart Mill’s Harm Principle is a key element of libertarian philosophy. It holds that a person should be free to do as they like, until they start causing harm to others. If you want to have an avante garde theatre on your land, that is your right and I cannot object unless the noise is keeping me aware at 3:00am or you start dumping toxic paint into the river from which I drink.

At an election party the other night, however, I spoke with someone who has a more expansive libertarian philosophy than I had previously encountered – one that isn’t especially bothered by harm. They thought the important thing was for individuals to be as unrestricted as possible by government, even if their behaviour is causing harm to others. If you really value liberty for its own sake, perhaps it makes sense to adopt a Wild West ethical philosophy, in which individuals are behaving rightly whenever they try to get what they want. That said, I think this philosophy proves lacking very quickly as soon as some questions are asked.

Basically, the underlying ethic is that the strong should feel free to impose themselves on the weak. When you discard the Harm Principle, you leave people to fend for themselves. If my neighbour has guns and goons and I do not, I have no way to personally prevent him from dumping plutonium into my river, stealing my property, or having me beaten up for expressing my political views. In order to live in a decent society, I think we need to constrain the rights of the powerful. Everyone must be subject to the rule of law, and the law must protect important rights such as the freedom of speech.

A mega-libertarian society which discards the Harm Principle seems to me much like the Hobbesian state of nature. It wouldn’t necessary be quite as chaotic and violent as Hobbes believed, but it would certainly be terribly unjust. Without the Harm Principle, there is no moral basis to condemn rape, robbery, or murder. Under mega-libertarianism, a serial killer is just expressing themselves in their preferred manner, and the government really ought to get off their back.

I can appreciate the libertarian impulse to be skeptical about government and other systems of societal organization. At the same time, we must recognize that the whims of the over-mighty are also a major constraint upon liberty. It is much better to live in a democratic society with the rule of law than to live in a feudal society where military strength determines who is in charge and what the rules will be. In order for a society to be truly free, those who live within it need to adopt reasonable limits on their own behaviour.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

32 thoughts on “Mega-libertarianism”

  1. But you forget the principal libertarian principle: “fuck you, got mine”. Also, being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple.

  2. I believe it would be scary to live in a mega-libertarian society where the imposition of harm was unrestrained and allowed.

  3. One other factor to consider is the problems that arise when people rely on government to solve their problems.

    Governments often do a bad job, and it strips people of their sense of personal responsibility.

  4. At a talk at TAPSS this week, Henry Rosemont advanced the position that the only way to argue that libertarianism is not a basically decent moral philosophy, i.e. one which could be held by a reasonable person, is to adopt a form of Confucianism. While he was supportive of mine and others’ attempts to find resources in the western tradition to use to show that libertarianism fundamentally misgrasps the essence of freedom and being a person, his Confucian position, which states that you are your relations and roles, rather than your abstractability from any particular relation or role, is appealing.

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  6. It is much better to live in a democratic society with the rule of law than to live in a feudal society where military strength determines who is in charge and what the rules will be.
    While I agree that a libertarianism lacking a “no harm” principle is indeed scary, thought I’d just quickly point out that historically, feudalism was no such situation. There were complex and highly developed political arrangements involving all kinds of social obligations and limitations on political power. We may well critique the arrangement of those power relations, but it was no state of nature.

  7. You could even defend feudalism from a moral perspective, by arguing that the alternative social, political, and military arrangements possible at the time would have been even worse.

    One thing Hobbes was largely right about was the importance of avoiding civil war.

  8. “by arguing that the alternative social, political, and military arrangements possible at the time would have been even worse.”

    You could. Except it would be impossible to verify the truth of any of your claims, and the persuasiveness of such an argument would be based entirely on our “fear” motive.

    Incidentally, if you want to argue for a “next best” political system due to fear of an “even worse” one, why not just go straight to defending fascism? I don’t think we are far from this in Canada anyway, perhaps you could get a job doing it?

  9. “One thing Hobbes was largely right about was the importance of avoiding civil war.”

    Many great political advances have been attained through civil war. The idea that we should avoid civil war at all costs is the idea that the people should never demand anything outside the realm of imperial consent. It is also the idea that human life, even the life of slaves, is irreconcilably more valuable than freedom – and that people should not be allowed to choose abstract values over life or personal security.

  10. I didn’t say civil war is absolutely always the worst option – but it is usually a pretty terrible one. The worst places in the world to live in today are either states suffering from civil wars or totalitarian (often communist) dictatorships.

  11. The notion of a “communist dictatorship” is an oxymoron; the first criterion of communism is worker control over production, and in a dictatorship production is controlled not by workers but by a dictator.

  12. Actual communist countries differ substantially from the academic/intellectual ideal of the system.

    Communism seems completely discredited as a way to try to establish a just society.

  13. If you don’t define what “communism” means, then you can’t meaningfully say it has been “discredited” as a way to establish a just society. It seems you are using it in the sense it is used as a propaganda term by dictators who are attempting to legitimize their theft of everything by saying they are making it “common property”, or something like that. The fact that many dictators use the word “communism” to attempt to lend legitimacy to their brutal projects is no more a critique of communism than the fact many dictators use the word “democracy” in the name of their countries is a critique of democracy, and for the same reasons.

    It is easy to rattle off liberal cliches, like “communism seems discredited”. What is a good deal harder is to speak clearly and use concepts carefully, so that you can actually interact with people who do not already agree with you.

  14. So have there ever been any ‘real’ communist countries as you define the term? Are there any you would have been happy to live in?

  15. I will assume that the “anon” who wrote on May 12 that Canada is not far from a fascist political system is the same who wrote on May 13 that communism is discredited is a literal cliche. S/he goes on to encourage use of concepts carefully.

    For anon to suggest that Canada has a fascist political system seems to be the type of cliched rhetoric that anon condemns.

  16. It is possible that each any every anonymous comment is written by a completely different person. Do not expect consistency.

  17. I don’t think it’s cliche to say Canada is not far from fascism at present. I think it’s a serious description of changes in immigration policy we’ve already seen under the conservatives, and a reasonable outlook about what future changes we might see. For instance, acceptance of Roma refugees has dropped from approximately 100% acceptance to approximately 0% acceptance during the Harper administration. Moreover, the number of precarious status workers, who’s condition is not so different from chattel slavery, has exploded and was even discussed in the leaders debate. Why can’t expect more of the same, now that Harper has a majority? Why won’t he be free to emphasize xenophobic migration policies, and further use our two-channel migration to continue to depress the price of labour by creating more and more precarious-status workers?

    At what point does Canada become an apartheid country? How many people in Canada need to be of precarious status before they are recognized by the liberal mainstream as an oppressed group? How many more times will liberals employ nationalist rhetoric, explicitly or not appealing to their birthright to Canadian privilege in order to dismiss the idea that these policies are racist or exploitative?

    With the last election, we’ve seen the middle drop out of Canadian politics. How many examples do you want of this happening in the past, and the states in question moving either towards fascist dictatorships or communist dictatorships (both kinds of which this anon personally abhors).

  18. Incidentally, I don’t know if this is happening here – but it’s cliche and a gross simplification to only associate fascism with Nazi Germany. There have been many governments in many parts of the world this century which have been “fascist”. Also, most of them have been significantly less evil than the 3rd Reich. It is generally characterized by garnering support through xenophobia, implementing business friendly policies by imposing a discourse of alliance between all people within an industry, and scapegoating/dehumanizing/de-valuing out-groups based on an arbitrary distinction, like where you were born. Lots of countries, most even, already do these three things to some extent – fascism is what we call countries that do them to an extreme extent.

  19. anon, Canada has the highest per capita acceptance of immigration rate of any country; that would seem the opposite of xenophobia.

  20. Another way the GOP got loopy was by overdoing libertarianism. I have some libertarian tendencies, but at full-strength purity it’s an ideology most boys grow out of. On the American right since the ’80s, however, they have not. Republicans are very selective, cherry-picking libertarians: Let business do whatever it wants and don’t spoil poor people with government handouts; let individuals have gun arsenals but not abortions or recreational drugs or marriage with whomever they wish; and don’t mention Ayn Rand’s atheism. Libertarianism, remember, is an ideology whose most widely read and influential texts are explicitly fiction. “I grew up reading Ayn Rand,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has said, “and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.” It was that fiction that allowed him and so many other higher-IQ Americans to see modern America as a dystopia in which selfishness is righteous and they are the last heroes. “I think a lot of people,” Ryan said in 2009, “would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.” I’m assuming he meant Atlas Shrugged, the novel that Trump’s secretary of state (and former CEO of ExxonMobil) has said is his favorite book. It’s the story of a heroic cabal of men’s-men industrialists who cause the U.S. government to collapse so they can take over, start again, and make everything right.

  21. But once emissions credits became a reality, libertarians almost unanimously rejected them, and switched from “free market environmentalism” to straight-up climate denial. As Quiggin says, the problem with tradeable emissions is that it rebuts the core tenet of libertarianism: John Locke’s idea that property rights arise spontaneously from nature, rather than being created by governments hoping to achieve specific policy goals.

    But more deeply, “Affluent white men who don’t like being told what to do are by far the most important constituency for libertarianism. Such men would consider it a dreadful imposition to have to pay, whether directly or indirectly, for the right to drive a car or use air conditioning.”

  22. “Then Trump came along. He grasped — indeed, embodied — the reality that abstract notions of personal liberty were not what really appealed to the conservative base. Rather, it was the conviction that well-off white men should be free to think, speak, and act as they pleased, while the state clamps down on everyone else when they step out of line.”

  23. In the big picture, the climate problem is, in principle, solvable. With existing technology and resources, and sufficient collective effort and political will, we, the human species, have what it takes to modify our energy system to minimize future warming and adapt to protect those most vulnerable from what can’t be prevented.

    But many among us, including those in positions of great power, don’t want to do those things — or even things that would seem much more personally immediate, like encouraging vaccination against Covid-19. Trying to convince them feels pretty hopeless. It seems that part of the reason they don’t want to support scientifically proven measures is because those of us they dislike say they should, or would share in the benefits.

    Solving the climate problem requires not just trust in science, but shared values and a will to collective action for the common good. These are all in short supply. That scares me, way more than the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does.

  24. (CNN)Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has been listening to arguments remotely from her chambers because she doesn’t feel comfortable sitting on the bench near colleagues who are not masked, including Justice Neil Gorsuch, according to a source familiar with the situation.

    Sotomayor, who suffers from diabetes as an underlying condition and would be at increased health risk if infected with Covid-19, participated in oral arguments on Tuesday remotely from her chambers, and plans to do so again on Wednesday, according to a court spokesperson.

    NPR first reported the reason for Sotomayor’s decision to participate from her chambers
    At the beginning of the term, Sotomayor wore a mask on the bench at many cases. Another source familiar with the situation said that after Omicron surged, Sotomayor expressed her concerns to Chief Justice John Roberts. The source said she did not directly ask Gorsuch to wear a mask. She has participated remotely during arguments this month..

  25. While the protest has thinned out, there remain enough tractor trailers clogging downtown streets to create chaos and gridlock. The people inside the big rigs pass the day (and night) by sounding their horns, creating a deafening cacophony that is depriving people of sleep and affecting the mental well-being of many downtown residents.

    Businesses have been closed for days. The Rideau shopping centre has announced it won’t open again until next week at the earliest – that’s a lot of people who aren’t earning money they depend on to pay bills and mortgages. The commute times for staff at Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital, front line workers already stressed and exhausted by COVID-19, have increased to two hours from 15 minutes in some cases because of the traffic bedlam.

    Hospital staff going in to work wearing masks have been intimidated and harassed by protesters. Rocks have been thrown at ambulances. People have cancelled hospital appointments to avoid downtown.

    The Cornerstone emergency women’s shelter issued a statement saying “women and staff are scared to go outside of the shelter,” and that protesters were “retraumatizing women in the city.” Judging by the response from city police, I would suggest that these women will likely keep suffering.

    There is an old saying about people’s freedoms that goes: “Your right to swing a fist ends where my nose begins.” Translation – you have every right to express your anger about something as long as it does no harm to others. Well, some members of the Freedom Convoy blockade have been doing harm almost from its inception and those involved have mostly gotten away with it.

  26. There’s a word for people who want freedom to do as they like regardless of how it harms anybody else: anarchist.

  27. Which brings me back to the Freedom Convoy, a large portion of which has been fighting for the “freedom” to infect others with a potentially life-threatening virus. And in doing so, has chosen to exercise a “freedom” to deprive entire neighbourhoods of sleep and rest with non-stop dangerous level of noise, a freedom to harass and scare fellow citizens, freedom to desecrate a cenotaph and make a mockery of Indigenous ceremonies, freedom to urinate and defecate in the streets, freedom to yell homophobic and racist slurs, freedom to stack potentially explosive gas tanks in residential areas.

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    I am not surprised, to be honest, that a significant group of people today would choose to define freedom, basically, as the freedom to harm others without consequences. It’s been a recurrent feature on this continent. If it wasn’t the case, Black history would look completely different.

    For centuries, Black people have stood against “freedom” defined as the freedom to cause the unfreedom of others. Who else, this week, wants to actively, energetically join that fight?

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