A Libertarian Puzzle
A reader writes:
I am writing from India, a country cloaked in Socialist government policies. I came across Austrian School of Economics on the Internet, and was surprised that even after studying Economics for five years, my coursework included not a shred of any work from the Austrian school. It’s been a year since I started reading on Austrian economics, and am more or less convinced by the logic of free markets. I have been debating my friends and explaining to them how free market works. Its been great having discussion with my interventionist friends and convincing them regarding the merits of free markets.
However, a close friend recently put across a question to me and I do not know how to answer her. Following was her argument- 1) Libertarianism says that an individual should be left free to make his own choices. 2) In India, we have a well functioning democracy. 3) Through this democracy, and the exercise of their voting rights, the people have put in power a Government which strongly believes in interventions. 4) So, people out of their free will, have chosen an interventionist Government. 5) Then, why do the free marketers crib when Government regulates and intervenes? It's the people’s choice – they have voted for more intervention. I am confounded by this argument and do not know what to make of it. If the Indian people themselves have chosen Government over free markets, who are the Libertarians to come and say that their choice is wrong?
Here is my answer. Libertarianism does not say “an individual should be left free to make his own choices.” It says, “An individual should not initiate aggression against anyone else.” As long as that dictum is observed, he may make all the choices he likes. But they must not involve the initiation of force against the innocent. The government interventions that your friend thinks are responsible for improving people’s living standards — in fact, of course, the interventions retard living standards (see the “anti-Marxist Insight” section of this old article of mine) — involve the initiation of force against peaceful individuals. They are therefore not defensible from a libertarian point of view.
Second, you ask rhetorically, “Who are the Libertarians to come and say that their choice is wrong?” This question implies that libertarians consider individuals to be infallible, that people’s choices are sacred and holy, and thus beyond question. This is not the libertarian view at all — again, the libertarian view is simply that people cannot initiate violence. Libertarians, just as much as anyone else, are perfectly free to criticize the choices made by others, and they are in no way inconsistent when they do so.