Right of reply: on libertarianism and anarchy

If I’m going to be scolded for passing off anarchism as libertarianism, it would be nice if others would also stop passing conservatism off as libertarianism

by Sam Bowman on 17 October 2012 15:01

I stand accused of trying to pass off anarchism as libertarianism. My crime? To say that we should be able to take drugs if we wish without the threat of being thrown in jail.

My offending claim is that “nobody is better placed to make my personal cost/benefit calculation for any given action”. This, writes Donna, is ‘patently absurd’ and utopian. Note that I do not claim that individuals will never make mistakes – they will. They are simply less likely to make bad decisions for themselves than someone else is.

But, if not me myself, who can decide what will make me happy? The government? The voting public? Donna Edmunds? I may not be perfect, but I trust my decisions about what will make me happy before I trust anybody else’s.

It is ironic that Donna accuses me of utopianism while she argues that the state can be used to save us from our own mistakes, without making any itself, if only (presumably) the right people could be put in charge. What could be more utopian than that?

When the state has tried to make good decisions for us, it has invariably ended in farce or tragedy. To quote my friend Nick Cowen, “when the state tries to micro-manage these decisions for us, it demonstrates its very own pathetic inadequacies as a moral and rational agent that are often worse than addicts”.

Donna quotes John Stuart Mill, as if he would have agreed with her. He would not: Mill was a passionate anti-prohibitionist, writing that the harm caused by disorderly drunks was an “inconvenience . . . which society can afford to bear, for the sake of the greater good of human freedom”, and that a person’s “choice of pleasures” ought to be their “own concern, and must rest with their own judgment”. (On Liberty)

As a utilitarian, Mill believed that individuals must be left to choose what made them happy, not have happiness forced upon them by their “betters” even if it seemed likely to lead to self-harm: “The principle [of liberty] requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong”.  

Mill was not a libertarian, but his sentiments must be shared by anyone who wants to call herself one. Despite their many disagreements on other things, libertarians like Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand all agreed that drugs – all drugs – should be legalized.

Not that I’m too put out by being called an anarchist. Modern free market libertarianism owes much more to the anarchists of the 18th and 19th Centuries than it does to conservatism. Some of my best friends are anarchists, and the more I read of so-called libertarian conservatives, the more the black flag of revolution calls out to me.

In the meantime, if I’m going to be scolded for passing off anarchism as libertarianism, it would be nice if others would also stop passing conservatism off as libertarianism.

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