We Shouldn’t Just “Leave Everyone Alone”
Obligations and commitments are a source of meaning deeper than the common idea of freedom.
The idea of “victimless crimes” has libertarian defenders in the Right and Left of liberalism. There is tremendous merit to the idea that acts like using heroin should not be criminally punished, but that only deals with the latter word in the “victimless crime” label. Where I take issue is when this no harm, no foul mindset is treated as the end of morality or worldview rather than a bare minimum: that is short-sighted, hedonistic, and entirely unsustainable. If I use heroin, a lot of these libertarian-minded folks would say I have no victims. I say that’s nonsense. My wife would be a victim. My unborn daughter would be a victim. My coworkers who rely on me would be victims. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a victim is “one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent”; maybe the act of heroin use shouldn’t be criminal (no, it definitely shouldn’t be), but it certainly isn’t victimless.
This type of leave-everyone-alone liberalism has a foothold in many political ideologies, but it is most predominantly manifested in the United States by the Right-liberals, commonly referred to simply as “libertarians”. This liberal ideology consumes enormous stores of social capital without providing a viable method of replenishing it. It actively erodes the very collective virtues that so many of its advocates claim it requires. When this type of liberalism is hijacked by corporate interests (and it often is), it fosters a view of humanity as a never-ending series of technical problems to be resolved through logic and Enlightenment rationalism alone. No society with this philosophy can last very long.
When people apply their liberty indiscriminately, the social norms that support their liberty are worn away and eventually destroyed. Unfortunately, this leave-me-alone ideology tends to take certain norms, values, and virtues as givens, as if they are inevitable results of rational human society. Reality though is that those are all the results of generations of laborious, intentional community building and strengthening. There is no way to even begin to copy or replace this effort with grand political projects, political-economic ideologies, or the complete abdication or rejection of authority; those are all great ways to destroy that effort, though.
Political liberty as we in the United States typically understand it is a thoroughly Western phenomenon latched to a skeleton of Western ideas and cultural assumptions that sprung from The Enlightenment. But, when liberty results in hedonism (not of the “Christian” variety, but the type regularly manifested in the “if it feels good and doesn’t directly violate someone’s individual rights, do it” style of libertarianism), the anchors and reference points of the very Western culture that our ideas of political liberty are based on are destroyed. This kind of liberalism treats people as individuals and nothing more. In doing so, it divorces modern political liberty from the context it was cultivated in, rendering it extremely vulnerable to be overwhelmed by sheer nihilism.
Another brand of this ideology attempts to reduce life to technical rationality, and to the extent it does so it is fundamentally anti-human. For example, the bulk of liberal arguments against state action are economic (not all, but most of them). However, the validity of these arguments relies on the assumption that more wealth or more efficiency are inherent and objective goods. This assumption makes perfect sense from a technical-rational and materialistic standpoint, but it’s not a suitable guiding philosophy for a society for one simple reason: humans are social creatures.
We humans are communal beings that require a sense of belonging and togetherness for our mental, psychological, and spiritual well-being — all things with unquantifiable value that don’t fit into technical-rational schemes. The common liberal stance against market regulation undeniably (for the most part) reduces inefficiencies, but it also allows the free market to ignore social and communal duties. For example, libertarianism largely allows for market actors to externalize environmental costs in order to maximize profit, but that passes those costs on to our descendants even though they played no role in creating the problem. (This obviously seems to ignore the libertarian non-aggression principle, but I digress.)
In the 90s classic The End of History and the Last Man, political scientist Francis Fukuyama dreaded what he saw as the inevitable reduction of human experience to mere economic problems and solutions. Meanwhile, capital-obsessed liberals are diving headfirst into that fate.
(A quick, tangential side note: Neoliberal arguments about regulation often claim that states interfering in markets creates economic inefficiencies that hurt everyone, including the people they were trying to help. It should be pointed out though, that unregulated markets regularly impose huge social costs — environmental degradation, social alienation, even seemingly-mundane things like the mass proliferation of items and technology with zero productive applications. I think it has to be considered that these social costs outweigh the costs of the economic inefficiencies caused by regulation; if that is the case, then the state correcting (or at least alleviating) those social failures would be more justifiable, and maybe even consistent with maximum-efficiency ideology.)
One thing the hedonist and techno-rationalist libertarians share, is that by-and-large they have at best, uncomfortably accepted, and at worst, completely embraced, atomization. By doing so, these classical liberals are snared by the same traps their progressive opponents often fall into. Too many libertarians choose to see people as individual, self-contained units that fundamentally do not owe anything to anyone, which is the same critical flaw as Leftist materialism. All these ideologies only halfheartedly, if ever, acknowledge humanity’s transcendent nature. This failure of recognition results in an insufficient ideology and stunted humanity. Now, for those liberals and materialists who do embrace this transcendent nature, I would say that’s in spite of their ideology, not because of it.
Each and every human social structure that has ever existed is built over a terrible void of potential nihilism. Societies that recognize and embrace the spiritual nature of humanity can find ways to manage that terror; materialist systems that do not recognize that nature and to avoid falling in that nihilist pit have to subsist on the built-up stores of social capital that more honest societies before them accumulated. But, when that social capital runs out — and it will run out — these societies will only be left wondering why they should bother operating within the norms that made their society possible to begin with. No one who continues to operate in that mindset will have a good answer, and their societies will inevitably fall into the dark chasm of nihilism and despair.
Additionally, the techno-rationalists and hedonists often tend to have zero disagreement in their total embrace of only the “negative” concept of freedom while totally abandoning all notions of “positive” freedom. This libertarian conceptualization of freedom is, in my opinion, the foundation of the “just leave everyone alone” mindset. This conceptualization of freedom is also terribly incomplete.
Negative freedoms are those that result from people and institutions not prohibiting you from doing something. Freedom of speech, gun rights, and no taxes are examples of negative freedoms. Essentially, if you are not directly and actively barred from doing something, you have the negative freedom to do it.
I’m not saying that negative freedoms aren’t important — they are. But I am saying that positive freedoms are important too. The freedom to choose a fulfilling vocation, the freedom to go about your day without fearing being attacked, the freedom to feel safe leaving your home unattended, the freedom to live free from chronic pain or illness. These kinds of freedoms are brought about and increased through deliberate interference from people and institutions. And yes, these are freedoms that the state can work to maximize. This is not to say that the state (especially the U.S. state) has always worked to maximize these freedoms, just that it could.
The extreme preoccupation with only negative freedoms is simply incomplete. Not being actively persecuted by the government doesn’t make you free any more than not actively dying makes a sick person healthy. Protected negative freedoms are simply the bare negative for a cohesive society. Freedom should include positive freedoms as well to be complete. Of course, some positive freedoms can only be attained by participating actively in society so there is an inherent conflict between the pursuit of these freedoms and liberal hyper-individualism and atomization.
I think this incomplete view of freedom truly is the root of the corrosive “leave everyone alone” mindset, so I want to spend extra time addressing it. Let’s look at two examples: education and healthcare.
The Right-liberal variety of libertarians would almost certainly oppose public funding for adult humanities education or vocational training. Those programs might raise taxes, after all, which would put a dent in their negative freedom. However, the skills and knowledge students may gain in these courses could very likely allow them to start a new career or to make more money, which would greatly increase their positive freedom.
Along that same note, libertarians are almost universally opposed to expanding public healthcare, for the same reason that tax increases would infringe on their negative freedom. But, the potential increases in positive freedom that improved access to medical care could give to the poor are immense. It seems plausible that to assume that such increases in positive freedom would result in a positive domino effect throughout society, with increased social/community stability and reduced crime, for example — both occurrences would be beneficial for negative and positive conceptions of freedom.
Now, I fully recognize that those two examples are neither specific nor necessarily descriptive of how the state (especially the U.S. state) has acted in the past. This writing is not intended to be either a pragmatic set of policy proposals or a historical critique of what the U.S. state has done. It is much less, and more, than that: I am merely trying to articulate a rethinking of the state, positive freedom, and negative freedom that could be. I’ll leave policy prescriptions for people who are far more interested in that type of writing than me, and I’ll leave the historical critiques for other articles where that would be more on topic. Regardless, I refuse to participate in the despair that just because the state hasn’t always been a proponent of either positive or negative freedom, that it can’t be; there is a clear difference between has not and can not, and ignoring that difference seems pointless to me.
And again, this is not to say that negative freedoms aren’t important. They are extremely important, and they certainly have their place in society. Not everything, not most things, should be in the province of state action, and people should be left room to develop individually as well as communally.
As shown in the two examples I gave, positive and negative freedoms are in a give-and-take flux with each other, and we should be prudent and careful when weighing the net impacts to either conception of freedom when thinking about community and politics. The goal should be to find balance between the two, but that balance is impossible under the libertarians’ and liberals’ extreme favoritism for negative freedom. By prioritizing self-interest and individualism above their communities, these ideologues are making a mistake that, in the end, can only hurt them and their communities.
The “leave people alone” ideology — as opposed to treating them like part of an integral community — is either a dead end that leads to social stagnation, or a road leading right off a cliff. This ideology is used as a deflective tool to avoid dealing with the horrific effects of atomization and to justify pretending like atomization isn’t a problem. We owe each other far, far more than that.
Help each other achieve greatness. Life is never truly a race run alone.