‘All human beings are born free’. These are the opening words of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948). This is the supposed starting point of all our ethical values, and to me the only way to respect the meaning of these words is through the ideology of libertarianism.
Like all things, libertarianism is subject to interpretations. I have my own, as I intend to share and justify, and it is one which is rooted firstly in principles, not practicalities, to be applied to issues as and when they arise. This may seem to many an approach unfit for modern politics; any political situation is complex, with many stakeholders and many objectives, and more importantly has real impacts on real people’s lives. Yet, human satisfaction can only ever be limited – after all, our desires are unlimited while our resources are scarce. Hence, a philosophical approach to political thinking allows us to determine who is entitled to the benefits of work and political actions, not just satisfy some and anger others on the arbitrary judgements of those in charge. After all, it can’t be said that slavery didn’t benefit some people, but nowadays we recognise it unequivocally to be evil, for denying to its victims the basic freedom which we now consider fundamental to all our human rights.
In the current western world, few atrocities approach the despicability of slavery, of course, but that’s not to say that similarly horrifying injustices don’t still take place around the world or, more relevant to westerners, that we ourselves do not conduct actions which, though we may not immediately realise it, are wrong for the same reasons, albeit with much less severe consequences. This is what I intend to explain; why so many of today’s policies constitute a violation of our basic rights, and how and to what extent I think we can deal with that.
Something which must, however, be emphasised is that the vast majority of politicians and voters of all viewpoints are completely benevolent; whatever parallels may be drawn and criticisms produced, they are still against those who genuinely believe that their approach is that which is of greatest benefit and justice to society. This doesn’t mean that all such people are correct, and that all views are equally valid – I of course believe that only my own views are morally justified to the greatest possible extent. Nevertheless this does not make others bad people as such, but rather just those who I believe to view the world incorrectly.
I will firstly establish what it is that we consider fundamental rights in the developed world, and proceed to apply this to the more contentious issues of modern politics. I will proceed to explain the flaws of modern western ‘socialism’ – or at least the mind-set behind the likes of the Democrats in the US and the Labour party in the UK and elsewhere – which is perhaps the greatest opposition to libertarian society, and yet made up of those who could easily become libertarians with greater depth of thought. I will then briefly explore why it is that libertatianism fills these shortcomings before finally applying its principles to the modern world and examining the limitations of such principles when taken alone.
My intention is to divulge my own worldview and justify it in a way which is convincing to others. Much of this requires no hard evidence, but is rather a philosophical argument and a matter of principle rather than the practicalities to which I will return later on. This is an important distinction – it is easy to disregard a principle on the basis of practicality, however to do so prior to the proposal of a practical implementation would indicate closed mindedness. I will specifically promote deontological libertarianism, which regards these principals as ethically sound, however in some cases will exercise restraint on the full implementation of these principles since they may not always yield the most favourable results.
Part 1: What Most of Us Accept
The argument that can be made for any instance in which we perceive the social rights of ourselves or others to have been violated is that there is no real reason why somebody shouldn’t be able to do a given thing or be a certain way. Indeed, how can anyone justify the restriction of the rights of an individual, as long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others in the process? There can be no reason – if we are born free and equal, we must be able to conduct ourselves as we please as long as those around us remain unharmed by our actions.
There are many possible answers to the question, none of which can be truly justified. For example, we may object to the wearing of burkas for the sake of preserving national identity or secularity. But who exactly suffers harm, physical or psychological, from an individual simply wearing an item of clothing? And say someone is distressed, what makes their personal feelings more important than another’s right to personal choice? If we really are all equal, it must be the case that we all have the right to make our own choices, and though this may still give each of us the right to pass judgement on the choices of others, a state which recognises the equality of all cannot give the personal preferences of some pre-eminence over the physical lives of other individuals (plus a truly secular society would be indifferent to the religious aspects involved)).
Of course there are lines which must be drawn. Firstly, to be obligated to refrain from the violation of others’ rights is very unspecific, and open to interpretation. Of course we cannot have the right to murder others, and yet we must of course have the right to choose the colours of our clothing as we please. There is no clear-cut boundary which can be drawn, however there is certainly an appropriate line of thinking, which is to preserve the rights of the individual to choose whenever it does not pose the risk of actual physical or serious physiological harm to other living humans. Environmental harm, or other harm to unwilling third parties is something which must be taken into account of course, however this would not prevent such a line of thinking from aiding societal progress today. For example there should be no debate concerning the rights of individuals to wear burkas so long as it is evident that is highly unlikely that burkas can and will be actively used to cause harm – I have heard of no examples of their use in this way in which the actions of those involved would have been altered as a result of their prohibition. I have heard the case made that people should not be able to have their face covered in a bank – yet, if somebody enters a bank with harmful intentions, they are unlikely to refrain as a result the prohibition of burkas, a balaclava being an example of an obvious alternative. Furthermore, if a given institution does perceive a particular threat, it is their freedom to produce the conditions which apply to the use of their production, and there are of course examples with the burka specifically where there is a security threat, such as airport security, which can be and is addressed sensibly and for the benefit of all people concerned (more on freedom and discrimination later on). So then why prevent people from exercising their religious rights, a basic freedom from which nobody is directly harmed. The state does not have this right, especially with the fundamental ideal of secularity in the west.
Take gay marriage. Marriage is merely a label, and so what right does anybody have to deny people from applying it to their own relationships regardless of its circumstances? People, Conservatives (of the ideological variety and not specifically concerning the party which has many more socially liberal elements) in particular may assert that marriage simply refers to, by definition, a relationship between a man and a woman. But given that nobody is harmed by the simple extension of a label, there can be no ethical justification for this. It can only be a rejection of the rights of those who are different, and not personal dissent to which all are entitled, but rather advocacy for the denial of individual equality by the state. If we are all equal, there is no reason to prevent some people from the use of any label, and while in reality there are often governmental incentives associated with marriage, why should these be denied to anyone either? Really, the state should have no role in the labelling of its’ peoples relationships anyway, so ultimately the solution may be to abolish the institution of state-recognised marriage altogether and rather allow its private recognition at the discretion of the individuals or other private entities, such as religions, involved. When there is no reason for government involvement, its insistence on involving itself regardless constitutes an intrusion into the rights of the people who should be free to make their own choices, such as in this case the termination of a relationship at will. While there may be issues with the immediate implementation of a policy such as that suggested, such as abandonment of families, these may still be taken into account and used to suspend any such policy until it becomes socially appropriate.
Abortion is one more contentious and interesting issue. But again it comes down to the right to choose. Though some may claim that the sanctity of human life surpasses any case for abortion, this can only really be motivated by religion or else by a sense which disregards the strictly logical, which may be applied to private decisions but does not warrant action by the state to make all of these decisions on others’ behalf. After all, a fetus is an unconscious ball of cells. Up until the point where conscious can be demonstrated, there can be no case against choice, since secularity, one of the cornerstones of western freedom, bars the use of personal beliefs to make decisions for the collective, typically concerning religion although in this case potentially otherwise as well. Thus, in this case also, the state must respect choice, or else it denies to people their promised freedom.
It should also be noted that minor government infractions may often be overlooked, however the significance of not directly harming other individuals stands regardless. This may apply to drug laws, some personal safety regulations and any social interaction in which all parties are willing.
Read Part II here.