Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Existentialism, Libertarianism, and the NAP | The Libertarian Institute

Posted by M. C. on December 13, 2020

The philosophical thesis of existentialism has no normative content—even morality is an undecided issue. Libertarianism, in contrast, champions what is sometimes characterized as the non-aggression principle (NAP) as its most fundamental tenet: initiating or threatening forceful interference with individuals and their property is wrong. In existentialism, everything is permitted. In libertarianism, in contrast, everything is permitted except violation of the NAP. Libertarianism, therefore, exemplifies moral absolutism, which existentialism does not.

by Laurie Calhoun

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I self-identify only as myself but have long been sympathetic with both libertarianism and existentialism. Having dealt throughout 2020 with an array of restrictions on my liberty imposed by local authorities everywhere I have been (Europe, the UK, and now in the US), the primary effects of which have been not to save lives but to control how people behave, I have been thinking about existentialism, which naturally raises questions about the proper scope and role of government, bringing me back, also, to libertarianism. Both outlooks prioritize human liberty, dignity and personal responsibility above all else. I have seen nearly nothing written about existentialism in recent years, perhaps because its most famous adherent in the twentieth century, Jean-Paul Sartre, was politically aligned with socialist and even communist movements. To suggest that existentialism and libertarianism are somehow related might seem prima facie odd because the latter is typically regarded as politically conservative, a right-wing, not a left-wing, view of the proper role of government. The mere mention of the word libertarian may incite ire among progressives of the “social justice warrior” stripe, and some leftists appear to derive untold delight from sardonically ridiculing libertarians as “pot-smoking Republicans”.

Another common stereotype is that libertarians must be white male land owners (why else would they care about protecting private property?!), which is of course just as simpleminded as Joe Biden’s claim that “You ain’t black!” if you have to think about whether to support him. In fact, nothing could be more racist than to assume that “authentic” black people have no real choice but to support the Democratic party. Biden’s claim was all the more disturbing given that he himself helped to author the 1994 crime bill which put thousands of people behind bars for nonviolent offenses, including many African Americans. Biden also rallied vigorously for the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, which is relevant not only because a disproportionately high percentage of racial minorities serve in the military, but also because the lives of millions of persons of color were destroyed or degraded as a result of arguably the worst foreign policy blunder in U.S. history. In 2011, the Obama-Biden administration went on to offensively attack the country of Libya, which resulted in a resurgence of African slave markets. In that same year, they used lethal drones to execute brown-skinned U.S. citizens without indictment, much less trial. But who really cares about Biden’s policies? At least he is not Orange Man Bad!

Speaking of labels, Jean-Paul Sartre famously praised Che Guevara as “l’homme le plus complet de notre époque [the most complete human being of our age]” which, again, might lead some readers to scoff at my claim that existentialism and libertarianism have anything whatsoever in common. It would be a mistake, however, to confuse Sartre’s political views with the higher-order philosophical thesis of existentialism, which was most appealingly articulated by nineteenth-century thinkers Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard and Fyodor Dostoevsky, who are not coincidentally some of my favorite authors. Albert Camus, another twentieth-century intellectual, wrote a number of works which arguably reflect an existentialist outlook—including his most famous novels, L’étranger [The Stranger] and La peste [The Plague]—but Camus himself resisted that label. He certainly wasn’t the first independent thinker throughout history to have refused to accept such labels, for a variety of different reasons. Some among them simply do not like club-like organizations, which do on occasion transmogrify into religious cults of sorts, even when their memberships comprise what to all appearances are intellectuals.

Jean-Paul Sartre followed the lead of his nineteenth-century predecessors in famously propounding that “l’existence précède l’essence,” which is an explicit rejection of the essentialism of ancient Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. We become what we do, but that is never fully determined by the circumstances of our birth. That said, it was not entirely insane for twentieth-century existentialists to champion left-wing political causes, so long as they were convinced (as they seem to have been) that the conditions for human liberty, dignity and personal responsibility were not available to the vast majority of persons. Sartre rejected not only Aristotle’s essentialism but also his belief (apparently common in ancient Greece) that women and non-Greeks (barbarians!) were not full-fledged persons. As pretty much everyone owns today, individuals denied the opportunity to educate themselves may appear to be illiterate, but that has nothing whatsoever to do with their inherent intellectual capacities. Along those lines, left-wing existentialists may insist that before anyone can make free choices, they need to have not only the potential but also the power, at least in principle, to do so. People who are scrounging around for their next meal or a roof over their head for the night may not have the energy or time to do much else.

As a result of the political activities and fame of Sartre and Camus, the existentialist waters were muddied for decades to follow, with some of those claiming Sartre as a personal hero more or less on a par with the twenty-somethings who wear Che Guevara t-shirts but never bother to read any books about him. Those who adore the iconic stenciled image of “Che”, and the implied “coolness” of anyone who agrees, might be stunned to learn, among other things, that Che Guevara personally oversaw the execution of more than 500 human beings, most of whom had been going along to get along with the Batista regime. Then again, given what might be termed “the authoritarian turn” taken in recent years by leftists keen to impose their values on everyone else, perhaps they would not be bothered in the least by Che’s homicidal creds.

The division between left-leaning and right-leaning existentialists turns most obviously on their interpretation of potential. Few would deny that it can be difficult for a person born into poverty to break out of his conditions, but it is nonetheless possible, as we know from the many people throughout history who have done just that. It is precisely the inherent dignity of human beings which drives some of them to achieve great things, and, although some will roll their eyes or snicker at this, one may with equal reason point out that many a person with a good deal of potential ended up squandering it in part as a result of the privileged conditions into which he was born. Ultimately, in a free society, the answer to the question what persons should do with their lives comes back to themselves, regardless of whether they were disadvantaged or spoiled, encouraged or oppressed.

The philosophical thesis of existentialism has no normative content—even morality is an undecided issue. Libertarianism, in contrast, champions what is sometimes characterized as the non-aggression principle (NAP) as its most fundamental tenet: initiating or threatening forceful interference with individuals and their property is wrong. In existentialism, everything is permitted. In libertarianism, in contrast, everything is permitted except violation of the NAP. Libertarianism, therefore, exemplifies moral absolutism, which existentialism does not. An existentialist may adopt non-aggression as a personal principle, and he may or may not exhort others to do the same. He may or may not find fault with those who neither agree with him nor follow his lead. The existentialist may skeptically regard the NAP as an article of faith, for it must be chosen by an individual himself for himself and for his own reasons. But to claim that normative principles such as NAP are articles of faith is not to deny their importance in how some people choose to shape their own lives.

What should we do? is not a question which can be settled by appeal to the deliverances of science, because science trades only in facts, while normative prescriptions for action are based in values, which cannot be read off of empirical reality. The paradox of morality is that you cannot argue someone into acting morally, if he does not already believe that he should, because what one ought to do can never be deduced from the way things happen to be. Instrumental rationality is a matter of fashioning means to ends, but setting those ends is up to individuals themselves—an idea championed not only by skeptics such as eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, but also the existentialists.

The open-ended, contentless quality of existentialism is perhaps why much of what has been written by existentialists is literally literature—assuming the standard division between philosophy and literature. (I myself reject that division, but many philosophers do not.) However one distinguishes one type of writing from another, it is up to each person to decide how to interpret everything. If you choose to follow anyone else’s rules (those of your parents, teachers, the state, a religion or other group, a philosophical “school”), that is something which you choose to do—or not. “Ne pas choisir, c’est encore choisir [not to choose is still to choose],” as Sartre famously put it. Common criminals and protagonists such as Raskolnokov (in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment) or Meursault (in Camus’ L’étranger) may be viewed by many as miscreants, but their comportment arises out of their individual decisions to adopt their own principles for living. They are free agents, and no one else is responsible for what they do. Yes, forces of nature and nurture act upon everyone, but we alone choose what to do and bear the primary credit or blame for the consequences which ensue.

Western democracy is generally regarded as the best available system for free persons, for it permits them to carve out their own destinies, based on their own beliefs. Everyone faces obstacles and struggles along the way, but with sufficient initiative, drive and ingenuity, some people manage to make something of themselves. The laws of modern societies prohibiting violence against other people effectively affirm the libertarian’s NAP (which is not however to deny that the state is itself the primary violator of the NAP, above all through war). An individual may lead his life as he wishes, provided that he does not prevent others from doing the same. If your concept of “The Good Life” requires the destruction of other human beings and/or their property, then your liberty will be restricted by the government, if you are caught. Some people do not embrace the NAP, choose to rape and murder, pillage and plunder, and some among them end up in prison next to the nonviolent pot-smokers and others locked up as a result of the 1994 crime bill and related NAP-hostile legislation.

Now that recreational marijuana has been legalized in many of the United States, and medical marijuana in even more, there are plenty of pot smokers roaming free, even while others continue to languish behind bars. We also know that, although some murderers are locked up, others remain at large: one out of every three homicide cases in the United States is never solved. That may seem to be an alarming statistic to some, but it is the price that must be paid for the much worse alternative of judging everyone guilty until proven innocent. The presumption of innocence protects many more innocent than guilty people. No one should be locked up (much less executed) for their mere potential to commit crimes, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a tyrant, tout court. Some of the best works of dystopic fiction underscore the horror of a world in which everyone is constantly under suspicion and subject to arbitrary detention for whatever reason any authority may deem sufficient, solely at his caprice.

In 2020, people are currently being denied the freedom needed to determine their own destinies and to conduct themselves with the dignity which distinguishes them from the members of other species. In this way, COVID-World offers libertarians a glimpse into the twentieth-century existentialists’ concerns about the material prerequisites which must first be satisfied in order for persons to be able to choose what to do with their lives. Before COVID-19, people in Western liberal societies were largely held responsible for their own deficiencies and failure to fashion a good life for themselves. Now, however, people are being denied the opportunity to do what they would choose to do, left to their own devices. Effectively, those being prevented from earning a livelihood and forced to stay home are the equivalent of innocent persons erroneously convicted and sentenced to prison terms. Incarcerated persons are severely hampered in their ability to start and run businesses, and to act in other ways which might prevent them from resorting to crime in the future. They are also strictly limited in their choices of how best to flourish and thrive while inhabiting a cage.

Just as innocent persons should not be incarcerated, healthy people should not be quarantined. From the perspective of both existentialism and libertarianism, this arbitrary detention of innocent persons can be viewed as an affront to humanity. People are being told how they must live by their government, which claims to be acting for the public good but in reality is destroying countless lives. It is not the case that persons are forbidden by the government only from harming other people and their property, as an NAP-based society would prescribe. Citizens are in fact being ordered, effectively, to harm themselves, under the pretext that acting in ordinary ways may lead to the deaths of other people. How so many compliant citizens have come enthusiastically to embrace this Orwellian Covidystopia as “the new normal” is beyond me. Perhaps it is simply the logical consequence of stringent behavioral conditioning initially implemented by appeal to what we now know to have been the false claim that millions of compatriots would otherwise die. Many months later, having already accepted the endless and mercurial decrees of the Covid czars, people still terrified of the virus are willing to do whatever they are told to do without posing any objections whatsoever. Nine months of habits die hard, so when gurus in white lab coats such as Anthony Fauci tell them to jump, they answer “How high?”

Governments allegedly of, by, and for the people have imposed many restrictions on liberty in countries all over the planet, the primary effects of which have been to harm millions of people in the name of the small percentage of those who are vulnerable to COVID-19. It may be tempting to ascribe underhanded or ulterior motives to those who wave their science flags in defense of the new Nurse Ratched state, but there is no real need to do so, for the phenomenon can be more simply explained as fully analogous to the enthusiastic drum-beaters for wars from which they themselves have nothing to gain and, indeed, much to lose. The problem at this point in time is that people reside on one or the other side of the COVID-19 divide, but the policymakers are for the most part aligned, claiming the authority to dictate behaviors for all of society by appeal to the opinions of a few select scientific experts, no matter how many times they have been wrong in the past. Recall that Anthony Fauci sincerely proclaimed in a 60 Minutes program interview that masks were not necessary, and in fact caused more problems than they prevented because people wearing them tend touch their faces more often than they might otherwise do. (And of course it is quite evident by now to any observant person that most people wear the same mask over and over again—pulling it out and putting it into the same pocket or purse, making the exercise purely a matter of show.) We were also told “fifteen days to flatten the curve,” but then the goalposts were changed again and again, until now, nine months later, Pennsylvanians have been ordered to wear masks whenever they leave their home and also within their residence, if anyone should happen to visit. Travel continues to be restricted and has been condemned by government authorities the world over, both at the national and state level, despite the IATA’s (International Air Transport Association’s) calculation that the chances of contracting COVID-19 on a plane this year were one in twenty-seven million. Although some disputed that claim, the U.S. government abandoned its own health screening of persons on incoming flights because the positive cases were so low that the program was deemed cost ineffective.

Citizens stepped onto a slippery slope when, back in March 2020, they agreed to stay home, and, if necessary, not to work. They agreed to wear masks wherever and whenever this was deemed necessary by the authorities that be. But one restriction and rule leads to another, with progressively more absurd implicatios, as is nowhere better illustrated than in the State of Pennsylvania’s requirement that people wear facemasks within their own homes. Who will be enforcing such laws? (Perhaps Amazon’s Alexa can be brought on board, given that she already resides in millions of homes.) This invasion of policymakers into the private lives of their constituents, and the fact that people have not risen up in response, is a dangerous turn in the already surreal series of events constitutive of the COVIDystopic year 2020, and it must be resisted, while it is still possible to do so. Beyond prohibiting domestic violence (which is one instance of enforcing the NAP), the state has no business whatsoever in any private residence. It is not the government’s business to tell human beings how they ought to live or who they should be. People need to take personal responsibility for their own health and well-being. No one denies anyone the right to choose not to smoke or to drink alcohol and eat fatty foods, and no one is preventing anyone afraid of the virus from donning hazmat suits. As for the rest of us, we should be permitted to shoulder the inevitable risks associated with leading what we freely choose to make of our own lives.

About Laurie Calhoun

Laurie Calhoun is the author of We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, War and Delusion: A Critical Examination, You Can Leave, and Philosophy Unmasked: A Skeptic’s Critique.

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