Libertarianism – and any political position that leans towards a greater degree of freedom from the state – is opposed both ethically and economically on a number of substantive grounds. The proposition that without the state we would have inequality, destitution for the masses, rampant greed, and so on is a familiar charge which attempts to point out that libertarianism is undesirableand/or unjustifiable.

A further point of opposition is that libertarianism and the drive towards it is simply utopian or idealistic, and that libertarians are hopeless day dreamers, lacking any awareness of how the world “really” works. In other words, that, regardless of whether it may be desirable, some combination of one or more of impossibility, improbability or the simple unwillingness of anyone to embrace the libertarian ideal renders libertarianism either wholly or primarily unachievable. It is this specific objection that we will address in this essay.

Let us first of all recount the libertarian ethic of non-aggression, which states that no one may initiate any physical incursion against your body or your property without your consent. From this we can state that the goal of the libertarian project, broadly, is a world of minimised violence and aggression. Consequently, the questions we have to answer is whether a world of minimised violence and aggression is unachievable and, hence, utopian.

Impossibility
The first aspect to consider is whether the attainment of the libertarian ethic is either a physical or logical impossibility. Clearly, in order to be valid, an ethical proposition must be within the grasp of physical capability. An ethic requiring each person to be in two places at once, or to make three apples equal five apples by adding only one more would be ludicrous. These are unattainable goals, regardless of how hard one might try. Similarly, we can dispose of ethical propositions which are not strictly impossible but, we might say, are technically impossible on account of the fact that the means required to achieve them are inaccessible to all or most individuals. For example, an ethic that requires a person to leap from Britain to China would fail in this regard. Such a feat is not strictly impossible as a person’s feet could leave the ground in Britain and fly through the air to China. But the means of fulfilling this imperative have not yet come into our possession and so as a guide to acting now in the world as it is today it is plainly hopeless.1

When we consider the libertarian ethic, it is clear that it does not come anywhere near these kinds of impossibility. In fact, this ethic, being a requirement to not commit certain acts, is one of the easiest of all ethics to adhere to. You simply have to refrain from initiating any act which interferes with the physical integrity of another person’s body or property – something which you can do, right now, sitting in your armchair. Thus, it is within the power of everyone here on Earth, right this very moment, to bring about a world free of violence and aggression simply by not moving one’s body towards committing such acts. Indeed, we can even say that it is physically harder to breach the ethic – if I want to commit a violent act I have to actually get up, find someone, and muster the effort to assault or rob them instead of following the much lazier route of just keeping still.

This may seem rather trite, but compare the physical attainability of this ethic with other ethics such as conquering poverty, spreading democracy, promoting equality, or even more ethereal goals such as seeking happiness and fulfilment. All of these are regarded, in the mainstream, as perfectly valid and noble, and yet they are far harder to achieve than the libertarian ethic because they all require some kind of positive action. Conquering poverty requires more work, more productivity and more wealth creation; spreading democracy seems to require armed invasions, active peacekeeping, the setup of institutions to hold elections and the willingness of the population to get off their backsides and vote (assuming, of course, that such an ideal is genuine and not simply a veneer for power and control over resources); equality requires the active redistribution of wealth which has to have been created by productive effort in the first place. On the ground of impossibility, therefore, we can say that libertarianism, which is derided, is the least utopian goal amongst all of these others, which are lauded.

If this was not enough, however, the state, the very same people telling us that the libertarian ethic is null and void, attempts to achieve goals each day that are readily accepted by the mainstream and yet are, on a proper understanding, literally impossible. For instance, it is impossible to guarantee full employment if you impose minimum wages; it is impossible to price a good or service below its market value and to not expect it to be inundated by demand and, thus, shortages (think healthcare, jammed roads, etc.); and it is impossible to create wealth by printing paper money. Yet the state believes that it can do all of these things.

On this last point, we surely have to acknowledge the sheer impossibility and, consequently, the utopianism of the current situation of endless debt and extravagant spending. At the birth of social democracy, Western nations had accumulated several generations’ worth of capital that had raised the standard of living by a significant magnitude. This provided a seemingly inexhaustible fund for politicians to bribe voters, showering them with goodies in the form of retirement benefits, welfare payments, nationalised industries, publicly owned infrastructure, and so on in return for their votes. Because politicians like to spend and spend and spend without raising current taxes, much of this spending was fuelled by borrowing, with the productivity of accumulated capital enabling tax revenue to service this debt. The borrowing and inflation has benefited the bookends of society – the poorest, who receive the majority of the welfare payments, and the very rich, whose assets survive the inflation by rising in nominal value – as well as the baby boomer generation, which benefited from being able to receive the goodies before the bill to pay for them fell due. The profligate waste disguised a gradual but relentless capital consumption until now productivity can no longer provide for the burgeoning level of spending. Governments today are even struggling to service the interest on their debt through tax revenues, having to borrow more just to pay down previously accumulated debt. Particularly now as the aforementioned baby boomer generation has begun to retire, leaving behind it a decimated workforce supporting a heavy generation of retirees, this situation is likely to only get worse. Assuming, therefore, that sufficient productivity to meet all of these liabilities is not going to occur, there are three possible options – to default on the entitlements; to default on the debt; or to print enough money to pay for everything. The first option would cause mass social unrest; the second would cause financial markets to collapse; and the third would cause hyperinflation of the currency. This is an unpleasant but soon to be necessary choice. It is precisely because the monetary orthodoxy is no longer working that solutions that have a non-state impetus, such as a return to gold, or crypto-currencies stand out in relief as viable alternatives rather than impossible dreams.2 Thus it is ridiculous for even moderate statists to claim that libertarianism is utopian when the lifeblood of social democracy – state managed money and finance – is on the verge of collapse.

Human Nature
A second reason why it is alleged that the libertarian ethic is utopian concedes the fact that it is not strictly impossible to achieve but, rather, that it is contrary to some vaguely defined impression of “human nature”. This view is nearly always based on the (correct, but superficial) observation that “man is a social animal” and that humans have, throughout their history, grouped themselves together into different collectives such as tribes, cultures, nations and, ultimately, states. The vicissitudes of these kinds of groups – that is, rules that subjugate the individual to the collective and, ultimately, the presence of violence and aggression – supposedly mean that the libertarian ideal is unrealisable, at least to the degree that libertarians would prefer.

Most of these critiques fail owing to their conflation of the state with society, and their resulting assumption that the libertarian admonishment of the former leads to a denial of the latter. As a corollary they misconstrue also the libertarian emphasis on individual rights as advocacy for some kind of selfish, atomistic existence.3

These views can normally be disposed of easily enough as there is, of course, no libertarian quarrel with either social organisations or society as a whole – libertarianism takes full account of the social dimension of humanity. Such critics simply fail to realise that the role of society is not to fulfil a “common purpose” or some kind of undefined “common good” dictated by the state but to act as a means for each individual to better satisfy his own purposes peacefully and voluntarily.4 Nor does the pursuit of such purposes, permitted by individual rights, have anything to do with selfishness – a person is as free to choose to spend his entire life helping others as much as he is to hoard a vast fortune that he shares with no one.

Rather, the claim we wish to examine here is a more basic one. This is whether the kinds of complex institution with which libertarians are preoccupied – that is, states, governments, parliaments, bureaucracies, etc – owe themselves to “human nature” in the sense that these things are, in some way, biologically inevitable; or whether they are, in fact, the product of consciously wrought human choice. To put it bluntly, is the impetus which caused humans to create the state of the same ilk that causes a pig to roll in muck?

This question is either tacitly assumed to be yes or completely ignored by the “human nature” objection to libertarianism. For example, during his misinformed attempt to demonstrate the disregard of libertarianism for the social dimension of human existence, American biologist Peter Corning has the following to say:

One problem with [the libertarian] (utopian) model is we now have overwhelming evidence that the individualistic, acquisitive, selfish-gene model of human nature is seriously deficient […] The evidence about human evolution indicates that our species evolved in small, close-knit social groups in which cooperation and sharing overrode our individual, competitive self-interests for the sake of the common good […] We evolved as intensely interdependent social animals, and our sense of empathy toward others, our sensitivity to reciprocity, our desire for inclusion and our loyalty to the groups we bond with, the intrinsic satisfaction we derive from cooperative activities, and our concern for having the respect and approval of others all evolved in humankind to temper and constrain our individualistic, selfish impulses.5

It is difficult to dispute much of this account. However, Corning never explains what caused these things to arise or why it was that humans embraced them. Why do we co-operate? Why do we share? Why do we have a “desire for inclusion”? Why is there a “loyalty to the groups we bond with”? Why are we preoccupied with a “respect and approval of others”? Did all of these things just happen in the same way that flies swarm to dung, or were there some kind of consciously appreciated reasons for each human to embrace these things?

The fact that these questions remain unanswered suggests that it is the critics of libertarianism who have failed to examine human nature fully and, consequently, have the deficient understanding of the concept. The aspect of human nature that most certainly does exist – that which separates us from other animal species – is the ability to determine, consciously, our goals, and to use the mental faculty of reason to investigate the world around us in order to discover the best means for pursuing those goals. These conscious human choices and subsequent, deliberate actions are evident at a very basic level. We may each, of course, act reflexively, such as when you touch a red hot object and recoil in an instant. Such an action is not the product of choice but of stimuli that provoke your brain into an automated reaction to prevent imminent bodily harm. Such actions are, therefore, a part of our nature and there is very little that we can do to prevent them. Nearly everything else a human does, however, is the product of his conscious choice. Even when we act emotionally or out of instinct – for example by punching another person in a fit of rage or satiating the carnal desire for intercourse by having sex with a stranger – we are still expected to choose to exercise control over these impulses. Such expectation is manifest in the fact that if the act in question happens to be illegal the law will still hold us responsible. Only mental impairment to the extent that there is a severely diminished connection between thoughts and actions will absolve one of moral responsibility for even our more animalistic outbursts.

To ignore this aspect of conscious choice is to ignore the sparkling jewel in the crown of human nature, and leads one to draw fundamentally false conclusions about social phenomena. As Murray N Rothbard puts it:

Only human beings possess free will and consciousness: for they are conscious, and they can, and indeed must, choose their course of action. To ignore this primordial fact about the nature of man – to ignore his volition, his free will – is to misconstrue the facts of reality and therefore to be profoundly and radically unscientific.6

This ignorance to which Rothbard refers renders the “human nature” objection to libertarianism as one of the laziest counterarguments, endowing superficial observations of human behaviour with some kind of inevitability and, thus, immunity from moral scrutiny. For if human behaviour is the product of conscious choice then not only is such behaviour in no sense “natural” but the very fact of choice indicates that alternative paths cannot be ruled out – and that, therefore, the libertarian is not struggling with futility against human nature, but rather, is pursuing the perfectly achievable path of influencing human will. As we shall see now, this is precisely the case.

In deciding the best course of action for fulfilling the ends that he desires, each human has to make a choice between three broad routes of accomplishment. First, an atomistic, isolated existence; second, social co-operation; or, third, violence, pilfer and pillage. The first has been almost universally discarded on account of its failure to furnish anything but the most impoverished existence.7 The other two, however, can prove extremely fruitful for those who pursue them.

Whether the pursuit of social co-operation on the one hand or of violence on the other has prevailed at any one time is a product of the human evaluation of the particular circumstances and how to best meet his goals within those circumstances.8 Appreciation of those circumstances is a product of mental effort – in each case, there were goals and humans pursued, deliberately, what they thought were the best means available for attaining those goals in the environment in which they found themselves. Even though the evaluation may have been wrong and resulted in failure, the fact remains that whichever path was taken did not owe itself to any “natural”, uncontrollable, instinctive urge. If we marvel at the great achievements of social co-operation – for example, the gothic splendour of St Pancras railway station; the intricacy of the internal combustion engine; or the ambition of Microsoft to put a PC in everyone’s home – we can see that the people who created these things were motivated by something more than a scramble to satiate some engrained longing for “community”. Similarly, on the violent side, neither of the world wars occurred because everyone felt that it had been too long since the last punch up. The only human institutions that can be possibly be accorded the description of being in some way “natural” are those which emerged as a result of the (oft-abused) term “spontaneous order” – institutions such as language, money, market prices, and so on which are not the deliberate result of any one individual or group of individuals acting together. But even these institutions are the result of consciously chosen human purpose – they just lack deliberate human design. For instance, we would have neither money nor prices if people did not choose to trade.

Because of the varying circumstances of history – some of them natural phenomena, and some of them the product of the past actions and ideas of humans – it has been the case that the incidence of either social co-operation on the one hand or violence on the other have each waxed and waned throughout the sands of time. Each millennium has been punctuated by periods of relative tranquillity and periods of relative turmoil, with the violent route peaking in the most recent hundred years or so. Meanwhile, social co-operation received significant boosts during the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

The unfolding of the latter provides a clear example of how circumstances can motivate human choices. For instance, contrary to the romanticised view of pre-industrial, rural life, humans abandoned their backbreaking and unproductive agricultural lifestyles to flee to urban centres because the prospect of industrial work, made possible by new inventions and machinery, promised a much higher standard of living than was previously possible. In other words an expansion of social co-operation was the most attractive option. However, after the elapse of one hundred years or so of wealth creation, it became possible for socialist theories to persuade people, on account of the unequal “distribution” of this wealth, that violent appropriation from those who had gained more was now more appealing.9 Thus, the twentieth century was plagued by varieties of socialism that made the false promise to disgorge all of this wealth from the allegedly exploiting classes and thus banish the deprivations of the workers forever. However, once all of this failed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, people again turned to market economies. Now we appear to be languishing somewhere in between, with Western societies, the apparent victors of the Cold War, continuing to socialise their economies and consume their capital under the aegis of increasingly authoritarian governance, whereas Asian societies appear to be doing the opposite.10

The fact that each human moves himself towards either social co-operation on the one hand or towards violence on the other in order to better achieve his needs can be illustrated further by envisaging a future when almost all needs are satiated, i.e. when material scarcity is all but conquered. It would not be impossible for economic progress to one day reach a level where any good or service, including the provision of private security and defence, could be produced at the touch of a button. In other words almost all of our needs could be provided for in exchange for a trivial amount of effort. If this was the case then surely it is obvious that the need for any human to pursue either social co-operation or violence on a wide, systematic scale would be all but obliterated? Why bother co-operating with your fellow human, or why bother shooting at him, if everything you want can be provided from some kind of Star Trek style “replicator” device? Even if someone did shoot at you what defensive purpose would the state serve if everyone’s person and property could be protected by, say, some kind of invisible force field? If we ever come to live in such a quasi-paradise is it not clear that any kind of large, systematic organisation that serves to enable either social co-operation or violence – states, companies, etc. – would dissolve for a lack of any achievable purpose? All that is likely to remain is groups that would exist solely for pleasure – families, friendship groups, congregations, and groups revolving around pastimes, etc. Thus, what would emerge is something akin to that which is advocated for by “purist” libertarians who supposedly ignore “human nature” – human existence where systematic collectives and pervasive violence are largely relegated to distant memory. Such a society is, no doubt, a whimsical fantasy, at least in our lifetimes. But it is clear that its failure to emerge would be as a result of a shortfall in economic progress and not on account of any discord with “human nature”.

The fact that co-operation is a means to the fulfilment of complex ends does not deny the fact that co-operation itself presents benefits – for example, from a sense of belonging, familiarity, and overcoming a feeling of loneliness. But even some of the groups that we seemingly take for granted, such as the family, were originally motivated by a consciously appreciated, economic concern – in this case trying to find the best environment in which to raise children.

Similarly, there may well be nutcase theories that exalt violence and war for the sake it. However, the objects of idolisation are often the derivatives of war rather than war itself, such as heroism, comradeship, bravery, victory parades, national pride, medals, and so on, to the extent that these things are viewed as ends in and of themselves.11 Actual war, on the other hand, is very unlikely to gain mainstream traction without a powerful economic incentive. Even when the idolisation of war seems to crystallise into a more substantive ideology – such as in Nazism – there is still something of a chicken or egg problem. Did the Nazi elevation of “blood and soil” and the wehrbauer (“warrior peasant”) appear first and then gain momentum only because of the economic circumstances of Germany at the time? Or did they arise later as somewhat romanticised embodiments of what was required to accomplish the already perceived economic necessity of lebensraum?

Nevertheless, even if we were to ignore all of these issues and say that co-operation and violence were engaged in purely for the sake it, none of this would make a dent to our basic thesis which is that they are the product of conscious, human choice – that the ends were evaluated consciously and the means undertaken deliberately.12

With all of this in mind, therefore, we can turn to the question of the existence of the state. Without a shadow of a doubt, the state is the most violent and aggressive institution humans have ever spawned. There is not a single conflict that is worthy of mention in the history books that was not caused by the state or a proto-state entity, nor is there any such conflict that would not have been ameliorated by either reduced or absent state involvement. It is for this reason that libertarians focus all of their efforts on this institution. Thus, the objection to libertarianism on account of the allegation that it is contrary to “human nature” concerns, primarily, the question of whether the state is a phenomenon of “human nature” that we have to put up with and is, consequently, useless to fight.

From our preceding analysis, it should already be clear that this is not the case. The state exists for no other purpose than to serve as the ultimate vehicle of pursuing the violent method of achieving ones goals – of forcibly taking from some in order to benefit others.

The state has not existed as a uniform entity throughout human history. Rather, it has blossomed and withered in accordance with people’s desire to use it as such a tool of exploitation and the conviction of the public to either tacitly accept or actively promote its existence. All of the “great” institutions of states that we see today – parliament buildings, executive departments, highly trained armed forces and the complex weaponry and equipment they use, and so on – none of these things is in any way “natural”. Rather, they owe their existence to the fact that specific people, at specific times and places, believed that creating them was a worthwhile endeavour. Their final form that we see today is simply the outcome of centuries of consciously chosen behaviour.

The nature of the conflicts that the state has provoked has also varied – invasion, wars and conquests, direct enslavement of the domestic population, heavy taxation, etc. None of these things simply “occurred” out of nowhere but were undertaken for specifically chosen purposes. Moreover, it is also the case that the strength and power of the state has varied throughout history and varies also across the globe today – all the way from the horror of the former Soviet Union, possibly the worst state that there has ever been, down to the relative powerlessness of the Swiss canton. It is, therefore, far from ridiculous for libertarians to condemn the state as immoral and evil or for them to fight for institutions (or for a realigned global balance of power) that makes the route of violent appropriation via the state a less attractive option. This is something that the Swiss model has achieved domestically and which, globally, may be achieved by the relative rise of China and Russia as a counterweight to the hitherto condition of American uni-polarity that has allowed the latter to promulgate untrammelled aggression across the globe.
More: https://mises.org/wire/libertarianism-utopian