The moral of the story is that a relatively small number of inventors and capitalists have made incalculable contributions to human welfare and human well‐being and yet are not what most people think of when they think of leading a moral life. They are not factored into the moral equation. We live in a culture that teaches that morality is self‐sacrifice and that compassion and service to others are the ultimate good. We don’t associate morality with ambition, achievement, innovation; and we certainly don’t associate it with profit making. But if the standard by which we are judging is human well‐being, then whatever the enormous merits of compassion, they do not compare with the contributions to well‐being that are made by the motivation of achievement.
One of the great problems of our world, and the ultimate difficulty in fighting for a libertarian society, is the complete lack of fit between the values that actually support and nurture human life and well‐being and the things that people are taught to think of as noble or moral or admirable. The calamity of our time and all times past is the complete lack of congruence between the values that, in fact, most serve life and the values we are taught to esteem most. So long as that lack of congruence exists, the battle for freedom can never be permanently won.
People have not only material needs, they have psychological needs, they have spiritual needs. And it is the spiritual needs that will have the last word. Until the libertarian vision is understood as a spiritual quest and not merely an economic quest, it will continue to face the kind of misunderstandings and adversaries it faces today.
So I’m enormously interested in what has to be understood if a free society is to survive and flourish. A free society cannot flourish on a culture committed to irrationalism. And 20th‐century philosophy has witnessed a virulent worldwide rebellion against the values of reason, objectivity, science, truth, and logic — under such names as postmodernism, poststructuralism, deconstructionism, and a host of others.
It’s not an accident that most of the people doing the attacking also happen to be statists. In fact, I don’t know of any who aren’t. You cannot have a noncoercive society if you don’t have a common currency of exchange, and the only one possible is rational persuasion. But if there is no such thing as reason, the only currency left is coercion. So one thing that libertarianism in the broad philosophical sense has to include is respect for the Western values of reason, objectivity, truth, and logic, which make possible civilized discourse, argument, conversation, confrontation, and resolution of differences.
Another great value that was once central to the American tradition, and that has now all but disappeared, is one very close to my heart as a psychologist, namely the practice of self‐responsibility. We began as a frontier country in which nothing was given and virtually everything had to be created. We began as a country of individualism in which, to be sure, people helped one another and engaged in mutual aid, but it was certainly taken as a foregone conclusion that each individual adult bore primary responsibility for his or her own existence. If you helped people, it was to get them back on their feet. The assumption was that the normal path of growth was from the dependence of childhood to the independence and self‐ responsibility of adulthood.
That vision has all but vanished, if not from our culture, then from the intellectual spokespersons for this culture. We hear more and more stories about the insane things that happen when people are no longer held to any kind of accountability or self‐responsibility. You may have heard of the agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who was found to be embezzling money from the bureau to feed his gambling habit. When he was discovered, he was fired. He sued the FBI under the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing that he was being discriminated against because he had a disease, namely gambling addiction. The judge ordered him reinstated on the job. Has there ever been a civilized society in which it has been easier to avoid responsibility?
As a psychologist, I am keenly aware that in working with individuals, nothing is more important for their growth to healthy maturity than realizing that each of us has to be responsible for our own life and well‐ being, for our own choices and behavior, and that blaming and dependency are a dead end; they serve neither self nor others. You cannot have a world that works, you can’t have an organization, a marriage, a relationship, a life that works, except on the premise of self‐responsibility. And without that as a central cultural value, there is no way for people to really get what libertarianism is all about. One of the main psychological, ethical underpinnings of libertarianism is the premise that we must take responsibility for our own lives and be accountable for our own actions. There is no other way for a civilized society to operate.
For thousands of years, to turn to an ethical dimension, people have been taught that self‐interest is evil. And for thousands of years they have been taught that the essence of virtue is self‐sacrifice. To a large extent that is a doctrine of control and manipulation. “Selfish” is what we call people when they are doing what they want to do, rather than what we want them to do.
The world is changing. Imagine, for example, that a speaker was addressing a room full of women, only women, and he said, “Ladies, the essence of morality is realizing that you are here to serve. Your needs are not what is important. Think only of those you serve; nothing is more beautiful than self‐sacrifice.” Well, in the modern world, such a speaker would rightly be hooted off the stage. Question: What happens if the same speech is made to a mixed audience? Why is what’s wrong with it different if men are also in the audience? We need to rethink our whole ethical framework. We need to rethink and realize that it is the natural right of an organism, not only to defend and to sustain its own life, but to fulfill its own needs, to pursue its own values, bound by the moral obligation not to violate the rights of others by coercion or fraud, not to willingly participate in a coercive society.
The Animus toward Business
For a very long time in virtually every major civilization we know of, there has been a terrific animus toward businesspersons. It was found in ancient Greece, in the Orient, everywhere. The trader, the banker, the merchant, the businessman has always been a favorite villain. But if we understand that the businessman is the person most instrumental in turning new knowledge and new discoveries into the means of human survival and well‐ being, then to be anti‐business is in the most profound sense to be anti‐ life.
That doesn’t mean that one glamorizes business or denies the fact that businesspeople sometimes do unethical things, but we do need to challenge the idea that there is something intrinsically wrong about pursuing self‐ interest. We need to fight the idea that profit is a dirty word. We need to recognize that the whole miracle of America, the great innovation of the American political system, was that it was the first country in the history of the world that politically acknowledged the right to the pursuit of self‐ interest, as sovereign, as inalienable, as basic to what it means to be a human being. The result was the release of an extravagant, unprecedented amount of human energy in the service of human life.
We cannot talk about politics or economics in a vacuum. We have to ask ourselves: On what do our political convictions rest? What is the implicit view of human nature that lies behind or underneath our political beliefs? What is our view of how human beings ought to relate to one another? What is our view of the relationship of the individual to the state? What do we think is “good” and why do we think so?
Any comprehensive portrait of an ideal society needs to begin with identifying such principles as those, and from that developing the libertarian case. We do have a soul hunger, we do have a spiritual hunger, we do want to believe and feel and experience that life has meaning. And that’s why we need to understand that we’re talking about much more than market transactions. We’re talking about an individual’s ownership of his or her own life. The battle for self‐ownership is a sacred battle, a spiritual battle, and it involves much more than economics.
Without the moral dimension, without the spiritual dimension, we may win the short‐term practical debate, but the statists will always claim the moral high ground in spite of the evil that results from their programs and in spite of their continuing failure to achieve any of their allegedly lofty goals.
I don’t think that there is any battle more worth fighting in the world today than the battle for a truly free society. I believe that we really need to think through all the different aspects from which it needs to be defended, argued for, explained, encouraged, supported; and then according to our own interests and areas of competency, we pick the area in which we can make the biggest contribution.
Marx, Freud, and Freedom
My own view is that the philosophical and the moral and ultimately the psychological are the base of everything in this sphere. And I’ll give just one concluding example of the psychological. When people think of the disintegration and deterioration of a semifree society such as we’ve had, they think of Marx as a very negative influence, which of course he was. They are much less likely to appreciate the relevance of a man from my own profession, Sigmund Freud.
What could Freud have to do with the welfare state? My answer is, plenty. It was Freud and his followers who were most responsible for introducing into American culture and spreading the doctrine of psychological determinism, according to which all of us are entirely controlled and manipulated by forces over which we have no control, freedom is an illusion, ultimately we are responsible for nothing. If we do anything good, we deserve no credit. If we do anything bad, we deserve no reprimand. We are merely the helpless pawns of the forces working upon us, be they our instincts or our environment or our toilet training.
Freud, whatever his intentions, is the father of the “I couldn’t help it” school. (Perhaps credit should be shared with behaviorism, the other leading school of psychology in this country, that propounds its own equally adamant version of determinism.) The inevitable result of the acceptance of determinism, of the belief that no one is responsible for anything, is the kind of whining, blame shifting, and abdication of responsibility we have all around us today. Any advocate of freedom, any advocate of civilization, has to challenge the doctrine of psychological determinism and has to be able to argue rationally and persuasively for the principle of psychological freedom or free will, which is the underpinning of the doctrine of self‐ responsibility.
My book Taking Responsibility addresses the task of showing the relationship between free will on the one hand and personal responsibility on the other as well as exploring the multiple meanings and applications of self‐responsibility, from the most intimate and personal to the social and political. And that I see as the much wider canvas and much wider job still waiting to be done: to provide a philosophical frame so that people will understand that the battle for libertarianism is not, in essence, the battle for business or the battle for markets. Those are merely concrete forms. It’s the battle for your ownership of your own life.