By Tibor Machan
Whenever I speak up for liberty, there’s bound to be someone who accuses me of favoring the individual over the community, favoring rights over responsibility and obligations. But that isn’t so.
Champions of individual liberty often believe even more firmly than critics in doing the right thing, including acting generously, compassionately and helpfully in the spirit of community. What they insist on, however, is that all such responsibilities and obligations be carried out from personal conviction, not from fear of going to jail or being fined.
Is it not far more decent if people do the right thing because they want to do it, choose to do it, rather than if they are coerced to do it by others, including governments? What meaning does a good deed have if it is done because someone fears punishment for not doing it? What is the moral merit of helping someone if it comes about from having taxed someone and the support “transferred” to the needy?
What libertarians insist on is that good deeds are done voluntarily. And when it comes to good deeds that benefit one’s community, no less must be true. In fact, a decent human community isn’t like an ant or termite colony, where all the critters are being “public spirited” as a matter of their biological hard wiring. Which is why they don’t deserve any moral praise. Neither do higher animals that fend for each other — it’s all instinctual, even the most complex variety of such behavior.
Human beings tend, of course, to ascribe human capacities and motives to animals — even some of the most educated researchers of the great apes make the mistake of anthropomorphizing the animals they study. “Dominance,” “assistance,” “sorrow” and other concepts are often deployed where they lack a true foundation, which is a moral nature.
The sort of community that is suitable to human beings doesn’t cooperate automatically, from instinct, but from goodwill, sound judgment, discrimination. Thus loyalty to a Nazi or communist community is a bad thing, even though it contributes in a fashion. In those cases, the community to which the contributions are being made is a vicious one, counterproductive, ill suited to human habitation and flourishing.
Those who champion liberty need not apologize and be on the defensive when communitarians and others level their frequent charges against them for not being community-minded. This is a bit like accusing a refugee from a concentration camp of not caring for his fellow captives, not exercising responsibilities toward the community, for being disloyal! (I know a bit about this, personally, since when those like me managed to escape from tyrannies, now and then people would accuse us of not being loyal, not remaining to sacrifice ourselves.)
The plain fact is that human beings require a certain kind of community, one that makes their thriving possible. And since they are free moral agents, they require a community wherein individual rights, the guarding principles of liberty, are respected and protected. To the extent that a country is near this kind of community, it is right and just, but once it departs from it significantly, it isn’t worth much.
Individualists and libertarians are, in fact, the most honorable champions of community life because they insist on the building and maintenance of proper communities, not slipshod ones where there is little care for what human beings require to flourish.
Of course, the world is full of the false gurus of communitarianism or, perhaps better labeled, tribalism. Ethnic solidarity and such are peddled as high moral virtues, but they aren’t at all. Being loyal to the Mafia is no virtue, however much the Dons insist on it. The same goes for countries that treat the population as if these were resources for the leaders to pursue various of their worthy goals. Those aren’t human communities at all but near-prisons.
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at