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Selfless Self-Ownership: Reconciling Liberty-Minded Living with a Sense of Community

Libertarian types are as selfish as they come.  All they want is to be left alone. They don’t believe anyone should do anything for anyone else.  They just don’t care…

Heard that before?  Me too; it seems to be a fairly common assumption.  As a liberty lover in what could be called a “statist” job, my work friends seem to default to that notion every time I open my mouth.  But why? Where does it come from? And how true is it?

A lot of it starts with self-ownership.  It is one of the founding tenets of libertarianism, and it gets a very bad rap.  Briefly, it is the idea that individuals have exclusive rights over their persons and their labor, and that no other individual has any rights to another’s person or labor without permission.  Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. Who should be allowed to tell you how you should spend your efforts or use your body?

The conclusions that arise from this foundational belief are the basic principles of liberty-minded living.  Minimal government, market forces allowed to work unfettered, people free to do, act, buy, and sell as they please.  What is not included in this philosophy is a concept of community goals or duties. If I own my own person and my own labor, how can anyone, the government included, all of a sudden take the fruits of that labor without my consent to use on causes to which I do not subscribe?  Morally, the government cannot force me to involuntarily pay to support, say, the NEA, just as you cannot force me to hand money to you at gunpoint. Under the concept of self-ownership, both are violations of my rights.

For many, this seems as incongruous as self-ownership at first seemed reasonable.  Surely, we owe our fellow man something. Surely we are to love our neighbors, look out for each other, and make this world a better place, right?

It is true that there are no collective duties imposed on individuals by the principle of self-ownership.  Our only moral imperative is to respect the rights of all other individuals. But that does not preclude the liberty-minded individual (or anyone else) from doing something beneficial to those around her.  We do not see each other merely as silos of inviolate individual rights. We are free to to make positive impacts on our communities according to our own means, values, and understanding.

After all, isn’t the essence of those activities that we consider morally “good” the fact that we are not required to do them?  There is nothing “good” about respecting the rights of others. No one gets keys to the city for not killing someone, not stealing cars, not defrauding the elderly.  Doing “good” is doing for others when no one is making you.

Republican or Democrat, left or right, red or blue, I can almost guarantee that there is some cause over which the government has taken ownership that you are angry about supporting with your own taxes.  Be it the military-industrial complex, social services, or the Wall, everyone has a bone to pick. Some overreach is surely stuck in your craw. And so, from either side, you already have a visceral sense of the violation that the government has levied upon you by taking up these causes without your consent.

Take it a little further.  Everyone who can admit that there is a facet of life where the government should not be meddling has the right idea.  The problem is that, once you admit that, you have to face the possibility that many of the things you are happy the government is doing represent violations for someone else.

The conclusion some jump to from this point is that if we stop those violations, and remove all those artificial duties from the government, nothing will get done.  Well, if the government formed the Department of Household Suction tomorrow, would you conclude that no one but the government could ever make or sell a vacuum? Of course you wouldn’t.  Let’s move on.

The liberty-minded person is not always a self-absorbed loner in a fortified bunker.  I mean, she can be, if that is her thing. But she can also be passionate about education, concerned for the environment, or sensitive to the needs of the less fortunate.  We are public school teachers, charitable donors, and community volunteers. Some of us believe employees should be better compensated, and pay our employees more or provide more comprehensive benefits.  Some of us believe the environment is valuable and should be protected, and patronize businesses with sustainable practices. We don’t need to wait for laws to force us to make these choices. Believe in the things you value, but acknowledge that you cannot force others to value the same things.  Rather, choose to celebrate each person’s freedom to impact the world in her own way. Your power to effect positive change, in concert with those in your community that share your values, is a wonderful thing that should be treasured. And it will always be greater than a distant group of uninvested bureaucrats with no incentive to succeed.

It is the wish of every liberty-loving citizen to be free.  Not only free to preserve what is hers, but free to shape her community in a positive way according to her own values.  We must stop mistaking moral goods for moral imperatives, and stop imposing those false imperatives on our neighbors. We are using the government to force people to value the same causes that we value, and the result is ineffective, expensive, and a violation of our most basic rights.  Let us instead have the courage and compassion to choose liberty, not only for ourselves but for our fellow man, so that we can all be free to do the good in our hearts.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance.