The Libertarian Idea

By Jan Narveson

The following story is part of Walter Block’s Autobiography Archive.

My winding up in something of a libertarian camp was not from reading Ayn Rand. If anything, it was from having been brought up in a tiny town (in Minnesota) where everyone worked for a living, having some experience in farm and factory as a teenager, and, mostly, from my professional reading down through the years, and trying to figure things out. Especially moral and political things, interest in which may have stemmed from a Lutheran upbringing in a family that took that very seriously – and having  become decidedly unserious about Lutheranism in the event.

I went to the University of Chicago as an undergraduate, back in the 50s, and there of course most of the students were flaming radicals or else utterly apolitical. I first did the U of C’s famous liberal education curriculum, in which we read people like Plato and Aristotle and many of the other famous philosophers of former times. I then did a year in Political Science, which I found not very interesting, and then in my final year moved into Philosophy, which was really my first love, and have been there ever since.

While a graduate student (at Harvard), my interest in the Utilitarians solidified, and for my thesis work I immersed myself in the very difficult problem of how to reconcile Mill’s very libertarian essay On Liberty, a very attractive and convincing work, with his likewise famous Utilitarianism. The latter argues that the fundamental criterion of morals is the maximization of general happiness or utility. But the former argues that we all have a basic right to be free so long as we do not, in our pursuits, harm others. This last sounded very persuasive to me, on reflection, but so did Mill’s utilitarianism. The trouble is, it is really not obvious that one can always maximize general utility by respecting someone’s right to freedom. It looks as though something has to give. But in my thesis, and in my first published book, Morality and Utility, I did try to reconcile them. When you interfere with someone’s liberty, you (insofar forth) reduce his utility – that’s clear enough. But what guarantees that you reduce it more than you increase some other people’s utility? Raskolnikov proposes to kill the little old pawnbroker lady, whom everybody hates and who is old and sick anyway, and thereby be able to continue his studies and do great things for the Russian people. If utilitarianism is true, why isn’t he reasoning the right way, at least?

I talked myself into utilitarianism by an abstract argument that appealed, implicitly, to Mill and was formulated more precisely by Henry Sidgwick, and has been used by others as well. The argument turns moral value into a kind of universal, same for all. A unit of your utility is just as good, neither more nor less, than a unit of mine, right? And utility – happiness, pleasure, satisfaction – is what matters, right? So how can utilitarianism be wrong?

The answer came in 1974, a decade after I moved to Canada (strictly for reasons of academic employment, not at all for political ones) when I encountered the work of David Gauthier on Hobbes. Studying that carefully, and taking Hobbes seriously, I came to see that the universalization argument I had been using was wrong. The right argument says that each person’ utility is his own, that only that is what he rationally pursues, and so if you and I are going to be subject to the same rules, they will have to be rules that we both agree on, which means that we both have good reason to agree on.

Soon thereafter there appeared Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which I read with a view to reviewing. I supposed I would be writing with a view to refuting it too. But in the end, I was impressed by Nozick – and also impressed at the total absence of genuine foundations for liberty in his work. But those foundations, I saw, were to be had in the sort of work Gauthier was doing. Putting the two together, I arrived at the Contractarian Libertarianism that was expounded in my next book, The Libertarian Idea (1989). It took another 15 years to get it pretty much together, as I hope it is, there, but they were interesting years.

Since then I have continued to be impressed with the importance, plausibility, and interest of the libertarian idea. In the meantime, I finally began reading libertarians, and even meeting some. John Hospers, who acted as a referee on The Libertarian Idea, noted the complete absence of reference to Ayn Rand’s work – isn’t this like “Catholicism without the pope”?, he asked? But then, I don’t believe in popes in political philosophy any more than in religions. And the last thing I want my political outlook to be is a religion. I want it, instead, to be a reasonable attitude toward social life. Even so, I did read Rothbard, Mises, and other luminaries, to considerable profit. And I encountered people with libertarian interests. This especially began to happen in Canada in the late 90s and the first years of the new millennium, when I met the remarkable women Karen Selick, Wendy McElroy, and Mary Lou Gutscher – if I had needed any evidence of the equality (at least) of the sexes, those three would have been ample! – as well as many others. Moreover, some of my former students have proven to be outstanding libertarians as well – Grant Brown, Alix Nalezinski, Ralph Hanke, John Simpson, among others. There’s also Peter Jaworski, organizer of Youth for Liberty and a high-horsepower organizer and thinker.  

Over the years I have applied the libertarian idea to all sorts of moral and political issues. (Many of my more recent essays are found in Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice (2002).) A generally dubious attitude toward the institution of government is pretty much a corollary of libertarianism. I followed this up to the point of coming to think, at least abstractly, that anarchism, of the capitalist variety, is the right fundamental view. People think anarchism impossible or unworkable, but I am doubtful of that. I am not doubtful that getting from where we are to there is extremely difficult, and not to be expected any time soon.

In the ensuing years, I’ve been impressed by the depth and breadth of much libertarian or near-libertarian writing and scholarship – David Schmidtz, Walter Block (whose classic Defending the Undefendable belongs on every shelf!), Anthony de Jasay, Bruce Benson, Tibor Machan, Randy Holcombe, and many others have influenced me. Many philosophers, economists, and others whom I’ve met at Liberty Fund conferences, the ISIL, and other places – especially the Internet – have also enlivened and enriched my understanding of these matters. And I remain hopeful, on the brink of academic retirement, that we can really clarify the libertarian idea, and make it plausible to all.

January 23, 2003