Libertarianism and Utilitarianism

In the comments to my last post, one of our regular commenters asked a very interesting question:

“Libertarianism is a moral system, valuing individual liberty as it’s highest ideal.”

I have finally gotten an answer. When seen in that light it changes many debates. We must discuss just what is an unalienable right, and does it have value. What defines a moral system if “the good” isn’t it goal? What purpose does that system have, if it is not how we live in a society?

VRB has inadvertently touched on a major philosophical split. She asks what defines a moral system if not “the good”. What she is talking about is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is also a moral philosophy, but unlike libertarianism it seeks to maximize utility (“the good”) rather than liberty.

To better understand, the American Constitution is a document that enshrines the libertarian ideal. It is a document that does very little to provide for the “common good”, preferring a hands-off approach by government and letting people work out the “common good” through voluntary means if they so choose. Socialism, in all its forms, is a system of government that enshrines a utilitarian ideal. It is willing to submit freedom to providing for the “common good”. Our current American government is a mix between the two. The progressive taxation and welfare system attempts to be utilitarian, submitting the liberty to keep what you earn to the need of those who are of low income. However, there is still a very strong libertarian streak in the way our government works, suggesting that some liberties (like the protections in the Bill of Rights) are so important that they cannot be submitted to the “common good”.

But I think VRB has figured out one of the reasons why it can be difficult for many non-libertarians to debate libertarians. It’s a question of first principles. There are a lot of arguments in favor of libertarianism, and there are a lot of arguments in favor of utilitarianism. There are great thinkers on both sides. But the two are completely different moral systems, with completely different ends. When I, as a libertarian, argue with a utilitarian, my appeals to liberty carry little weight. When a utilitarian argues with me, their appeals to the “common good” carry little weight. Most people in this country have been taught, through our wonderful public education system, that utility should trump liberty.

Now, that doesn’t mean that we cannot find some agreement. Many of us who are libertarians also believe that libertarian policies will work better than letting the government define the “common good” and enforce it. In essence, I believe that libertarianism is usually much more utilitarian than socialism. Libertarianism is the credo of the free market, and the free market has done much more to increase utility than socialism ever will, simply due to human nature. When arguing against something like universal health care, it can be attacked both due to its denial of freedom and due to the fact that it’s less likely to maximize utility than a free market approach.

But sometimes there must be a choice. Sometimes liberty and utility are at odds with each other. At that point, the question becomes who you trust. In society, the agent opposite liberty is government, and if you want to enforce a policy of maximizing utility, it is government that enforces that policy. I have very little faith in government to maximize utility, and thus I still choose liberty.