“A Few Last Words on Liberty”

By Gerard Casey

[Editor’s Note: The author of this piece, Gerard Casey, is Professor Emeritus, University College, Dublin, Ireland. Besides being a libertarian and supporter of voluntaryism, he is “culturally … a conservative” and “religiously … a Catholic,” (p. 874) and he sees no incompatibility between these three advocacies. His article brings to mind Whole Number 77 of THE VOLUNTARYIST (December 1995) with two articles on a similar theme (page 1 and page 8): “Vices Are Not Crimes: Defending DEFENDING THE UNDEFENDABLE,” and Walter Block’s “Libertarianism and Libertinism.”]

I should say that for libertarians, liberty is the lowest of social values, lowest in the sense of most fundamental, a necessary condition of a human action’s being susceptible of moral evaluation in any way at all. Libertarians are sometimes portrayed as if they necessarily considered social disorder to be something desirable. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although there may be individual libertarians who, bizarrely, judge that a disordered, Hobbesian-state-of-nature is a consummation devout-ly to be wished, most libertarians desire to live in an ordered society. The question isn’t really whether order is desirable; it is what kind of order is desirable, where that order is to come from and how it is to be maintained.

For the libertarian … genuine order arises intrinsically from the free interaction among individuals and among groups of individuals; it does not descend extrinsically from on high. As is clearly shown in the world of commerce, high-level order can emerge without an orderer. Each individual consum¬er, each firm, orders its own affairs and the relations it has with others. Out of this nexus of relationships emerges a higher- level order that isn’t the design of any one person. No one person or agency, for example, is required to organize the production, transport, distribution and sale of food in a given country. Food producers, transport firms, wholesalers and retailers, each working to their own ends, produce an ordered and flexible outcome that isn’t planned by any one person or agency.

Libertarians are free to take a variety of positions towards the significance of custom, habit and tradition. Nothing in libertarianism mandates a particular stance. Although some libertarians adopt a hostile attitude towards custom, habit and tradition and, in particular, towards religious traditions, this wasn’t the position of Murray Rothbard, the pre-eminent libertarian of the latter half of the twentieth century. As I already mentioned, in an essay he wrote on Frank Meyer who sought to “fuse” the conservative’s reverence for tradition with the libertarian’s love of liberty, Rothbard remarked that custom “must be voluntarily upheld and not enforced by coercion” and that “people would be well advised (although not forced) to begin with a presumption in favor of custom.” If it be granted that one shouldn’t be coerced into observing customs or traditions Rothbard, for one, was more than happy to go along with much of conservative thought. He called his fellow libertarians to order, remarking that libertarians often mistakenly assume “that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange” forgetting that “everyone is necessarily born into a family” and “one or several overlapping communities, usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions.”

The libertarian relies on a sharp distinction between what is required only by morality and what is required only by legality, although, of course, there are areas where morality and legality overlap. In [my] “Preface,” I made mention of what I called the “Boundary Problem.” Thomas Sowell uses the term “precisional fallacy” to describe the use of fuzzy boundary issues to collapse distinctions that are, in fact, quite clear. “The precisional fallacy is often used polemically,” he says. “For example, an apologist for slavery raised the question as to where precisely one draws the line between freedom and involuntary servitude, citing such examples as divorced husbands who must work to pay alimony. However fascinating these where-do-you-draw-the-line questions may be, they frequently have no bearing at all on the issue at hand. Wherever you draw the line in regard to freedom, to any rational person slavery is going to be on the other side of the line. On a spectrum where one color gradually blends into another, you cannot draw a line at all – but that in no way prevents us from telling red from blue (in the center of their respective regions). To argue that decisive distinctions necessarily require precision is to commit the precisional fallacy.” Legality is determined by considerations of justice and justice, in turn, is a function of non- or zero-aggression. Whatever is done, provided it involves no aggression or threat of aggression is ipso facto just; it is not, however, ipso facto moral. Rothbard distinguishes emphatically between “a man’s right and the morality or immorality of his exercise of that right.” The possession of a right is one thing; its exercise is quite another. The moral or immoral ways of exercising that right “is a question of personal ethics rather than of political philosophy,” whereas political philosophy is concerned “solely with matter of right, and of the proper or improper exercise of physical violence in human relations.” It can hardly be said too often or too bluntly that, despite the suspicions of [Russell] Kirk and others, libertarianism is not the same thing as libertinism. Libertarianism will not admit the physical restraint or physical punishment of acts that do not aggress against others but it nowhere implies moral approval of such acts or rules out their restraint by other [non-coercive] methods.

[Excerpted from Gerard Casey, FREEDOM’S PRO-GRESS? A HISTORY OF POLITICAL THOUGHT, Exeter, United Kingdom: Imprint Academic, 2017, pp. 864-865. Permisson granted by author in email of August 14, 2017, 4:24 AM.]