Is Selfishness A Libertarian Virtue?

Is Selfishness A Libertarian Virtue?


It probably won’t shock you to hear that the majority of friends I made while working on undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy are liberals or socialists. However, libertarians might be shocked to know just how the outside world sees us. While I can’t make absolute claims about everyone’s perspective, I can point to a specific trend my friends have every time we go grab drinks. At least once per outing, someone will undoubtedly say something like this: “I’d love to buy you a drink, but I’m going to be a libertarian tonight and not do anything for anyone except myself!”

Then they laugh.  I attempt to correct their misunderstanding with a one-sentence response while knowing that saying anything more will take the conversation into a dull and irritating direction. Then we go about our night.

So why is it that libertarians are thought of as selfish, callous, and greedy? Well, I certainly can’t account for every reason, but I can say that a good place to start the search for a reason is to look at Ayn Rand and her political philosophy. When a prominent figurehead of the libertarian movement authors a book titled The Virtue of Selfishness, it’s not hard to understand why those outside of the libertarian camp think that the only things libertarians are concerned with are themselves and their money. So, the question must be asked: “Is this admittedly widespread view accurate?”

[read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]The short answer is, in principle, no. There is nothing to be found in the core tenets of libertarianism suggesting explicitly or implicitly that it’s better to be concerned solely with oneself. What is found in those tenets is the idea that the government’s redistribution of money via taxes and social programs is nothing short of theft. Worse than theft, it’s theft at gunpoint. It’s not that the government sneaks behind your back and siphons off a percentage of your paycheck; Instead, it strong-arms you with threats of additional fines and imprisonment if you attempt to resist. In other words, libertarians aren’t in principle charitable OR stingy; they just don’t believe that the government’s reallocation of their money is charitable-It’s theft.

But what about the actual people within the libertarian party? Are they themselves selfish, greedy people, even if the core tenets don’t prescribe such qualities? The only logical response I can find is this: Not if they’re smart.

As members of a community, it isn’t lost on us libertarians that we are better off when our community is thriving. Even if you take the libertarian as seen from the outside, a mean old crotchety man who only cares about himself, he is surely bound to realize that his overall well-being is going to be at least in some way contingent and dependent upon the well-being of his community.  A person who passively watches the surrounding community wither is surely going to follow suit.

Not only is it irrational to disregard the welfare of your community if you’re truly interested in self-preservation, but the libertarians that I’ve interacted with have been anything but selfish, callous, or greedy. They give to charities, they volunteer their time to help those less fortunate than themselves, and they’ve made decisions in their personal lives that can only be labeled as self-sacrificing. The truth is, we libertarians love our communities and are willing to help others as much as needed in order to better the worlds in which we live. We would just rather not have our money forcibly taken by a terribly inefficient system in the name of benefiting others. Even if our government were incredibly capable of providing the maximum amount of genuine social benefit through its redistribution of resources(which it isn’t), it would still be theft. A theft that removes the relationship between the person stolen from and the person receiving those stolen resources. I don’t think that makes us selfish, I think that makes us compassionate. We would rather freely choose the ways we help others, and in freely choosing we maintain a direct and personal relationship with our community.  Without the ability to be selfish, we cannot be self-sacrificing by choice.  That decision will be made for you.

And that’s why I’m a libertarian.  [/read]


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