Reflections on Self-Responsibility and Libertarianism

By Branden, Nathaniel | Ideas on Liberty, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Reflections on Self-Responsibility and Libertarianism

Branden, Nathaniel, Ideas on Liberty

The traditional American values of individualism, self-reliance, self-discipline, and hard work had their roots, in part, in the fact that this country began as a frontier nation where nothing was given and everything had to be created. To be sure, most Americans exhibited a strong sense of community, and they certainly practiced mutual aid. But this was not seen as a substitute for self-- responsibility. Independent people helped one another when they could, but everyone was expected to carry his or her own weight. People were not encouraged to believe they enjoyed special "entitlements."

The Declaration of Independence proclaimed the revolutionary idea that a human being had a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This meant not that he or she was owed anything by others, but rather that others-including the government-were to respect the individual's freedom and the inviolability of his or her person. It is only by the use of force or fraud (which is an indirect form of force) that human rights can be infringed, and it was force and fraud that were, in principle, barred from human relationships.

This rejection of the initiation of force in human relationships was the translation into political and social reality of the eighteenth-- century precept of natural rights-that is, rights held by individuals not as a gift from the state but rather by virtue of being human. This idea was one of the great achievements of the Enlightenment.

The principle of inalienable rights was never adhered to with perfect consistency. The US. government claimed the privilege of certain exceptions from the very beginning. And yet the principle remained the guiding vision of the American system. For a long time, it was what America stood for: Freedom. Individualism. Private property. The right to the pursuit of happiness. Self-ownership. The individual as an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others, and not the property of family or church or state or society.

Lord Acton observed, "Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end." This premise is what America was perceived to stand for and embody. The United States was the first country in the history of the world to be consciously created out of an idea-and the idea was liberty.

Observe that the inalienable rights on which this system was based were negative rights in that they were not claims on anyone else's energy or production. In effect, they merely proclaimed, "Hands off!" They made no demands on others except to abstain from coercion. I may not impose my wishes or ideas on you by force, and you may not impose yours on me. Human dealings are to be voluntary. We are to deal with one another by means of persuasion.

In the arena of political economy, the name given to this system in its purest, most consistent form was laissez-faire capitalism. In nineteenth-century America, with the development of a free-market society, people saw the sudden release of productive energy that previously had no outlet. They saw life made possible for countless millions who had little chance for survival in precapitalist economies. They saw mortality rates fall and population growth rates explode. They saw machines-the machines that many of them had cursed, opposed, and tried to destroy-cut their workday in half while multiplying the value and reward of their effort. They saw themselves lifted to a standard of living no feudal baron could have conceived. With the rapid development of science, technology, and industry, they saw for the first time in history the liberated mind taking control of material existence.

In the United States during the nineteenth century, productive activities were predominantly left free of government regulations, controls, and restrictions. True enough, there was always some government intervention into economic activities, and some businesspeople sought government favors to provide them with advantages against competitors that would have been impossible in a totally free market. …

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