Posted by: captainfalcon | January 19, 2011

An Unsavory Thread in Libertarianism

A fundamental and unsavory aspect of libertarianism that is, I think, often overlooked is that – notwithstanding what would be their vehement (and, in many cases, sincere: such is the perniciousness of ideology) protestations to the contrary – the locus of value for libertarians is not the human person, but instead (to invoke a serendipitous phrase) human action. This is (big “R”) Romanticism’s contribution to the libertarian gestalt, and it is exemplified, canonically, in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt and Ayn Rand (both of whom were, or at least self identified as, Romantics).

Humboldt conceived of the valuable life – the life worth living – as one that was active, experiential, and in the course of which the subject developed a maximum of capacities and taste (he called this goal Selbsttatigkeit, fwiw). His “classical liberal” politics, which endorsed a variant of the night watchman state, flowed from this substantive view of the good. Only the night watchman state, Humboldt thought, would permit the kind and variety of activity constitutive of Selbsttatigkeit.

The obvious (if somewhat anachronistic) objection is that a redistributive state, one that went some way toward equalizing the number of activities people could join, would ensure that more people would have more experiences than otherwise. Where there are significant inequalities of income, a few can be particularly assiduous about maximizing their experiences – probably much more so than in a more egalitarian society – but many have virtually no chance to live a varied life at all. If people’s developing a variety of different forms of life were Humboldt’s highest good we would thus expect him to endorse some sort of redistributive scheme, the better to ensure that everybody enjoyed some of the good. If, on the other hand, the perfect realization of Selbsttatigkeit were his aim, operationalizating the night watchman state is the right means. Humboldt plumps for the latter means-end set. As he puts it in The Limits of State Action:

[E]veryone must have too much respect for himself to look for recreations which leave his highest faculties inactive, and too much reverence for human nature, to pronounce any of his companions completely useless or insensitive…[H]ence, inasmuch as the State, in its positive care for the external and physical well-being of the citizen…cannot avoid creating hindrances to the development of individuality, we find another reason why it should not be permitted to exercise such interference…

State action is to be limited to protect “the development of individuality,” which is activity, not humanity.

Finally, not much needs to be said about Ayn Rand because it is the bleeding obvious that she venerates action more than she does human beings. She celebrates her heroes, uniformly unkind people, precisely because “productive achievement [Rand’s Selbsttatigkeit] is their noblest activity.” In Atlas Shrugged, by excluding the “moochers” (who, presumably, are left to starve and freeze) from her utopian state, she ensures the maximization of productivity, and thus signals that she locates value therein.

I said in the opening paragraph that the libertarian veneration of activity over people is “fundamental.” I mean this in the sense that it explains libertarianism’s distinctive suspicion of state power. That suspicion is the product of two miscalculations: an overestimation of the intrinsic harm associated with state power, and an underestimation of the good it can do. Because state power is good insofar as it helps people, it makes sense that an ideology that does not value people – that instead values productive achievement, or individual self-realization – would commit the libertarian underestimation. An explanation of its overestimation will have to wait until my next overdose on Geuss.



  1. Why is your font different?

  2. It does that from time to time when I paste from Werd.

  3. […] arguable that anxiety about state power is, in some sense, itself rooted in a selfish interest in actions instead of people, that connection to selfishness is too etiolated to sustain Balkin’s unconditional […]

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