PROPOSITION: The Best Case for Liberty Is Consequentialist.

Author:Freiman, Christopher
Position:The Debate Issue
 
FREE EXCERPT

AFFIRMATIVE: Freedom Is a Means to a Happier World

ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL freedom helps us feed the hungry, heal the sick, and enrich the poor. In short, liberty has good consequences. And that's why you should be a libertarian.

Don't get me wrong--rights are important. But they're important because they're beneficial. Private property, free trade, and civil liberties are valuable as means to a prosperous, peaceful, and happy world. Adam Smith tells us that market exchange is good because it's mutually beneficial. What's more, as F.A. Hayek showed, market prices convey information that enables economies to allocate resources efficiently. And robust protection for market liberties functions as a safeguard against government overreach--a state with limited regulatory and redistributive powers is a much less valuable prize for "rent seekers." To get rich in a place with a minimal state, you can't lobby the government for subsidies or for regulations that drive your competition out of business; instead, you'll need to make better and cheaper products that help stretch everyone's paycheck.

Deontological libertarians think that justice means respecting individual rights, not because doing so produces good outcomes but because rights are important in themselves. The trouble is, deontologists have a hard time explaining why enriching the poor and healing the sick matter at all. At most, these are fringe benefits of liberty. To deontologists, a political system that feeds the hungry is like a polio vaccine that freshens your breath--the bonus is nice, but it's not the point. This view gets things wrong, however. That freedom makes us happier, healthier, and wealthier is the point.

Along the same lines, deontologists have difficulty explaining what makes some violations of rights worse than others. For instance, these libertarians typically believe that we possess a right of exclusive control over our bodies that's comparable to the property rights we possess over material objects. Just as a thief who extracts my radio from my car without my consent violates my rights over my stuff, a dentist who extracts my tooth from my mouth without my consent violates my rights over my body.

But now consider two unethical dentists who pull teeth without their patients' permission. The first is gentle, so she at least has the decency to administer anesthetic to ensure her patient won't feel pain. The second dentist is sadistic and wants to maximize her patient's pain. Although both extractions are wrong, the gentle extraction is less wrong. Why? It isn't because the gentle extraction is a lesser violation of the patient's right of bodily integrity--if anything, it's a greater violation, because the injection of Novocaine involves an additional invasion of the patient's gums. The gentle extraction is less wrong because it causes less suffering. Notice that this explanation is available to the consequentialist but not the deontologist.

Deontological libertarianism is also implausibly rigid. For instance, if the duty to respect private property rights is insensitive to costs and benefits, then you may not violate these rights even when the cost is microscopic and the benefit is monumental. But surely you're right to steal the apple pie cooling on a windowsill if that's the only way to keep your child from starving to death. The victim of the theft will lament the loss of the pie, but that's nothing compared to the loss of your child's life. And ratcheting up the examples only makes things worse for deontology. Suppose a scientist develops a cure for cancer but keeps it locked up because he's an evil misanthrope. You should feel free to steal it. Sure, you'll violate his property rights, but that's a trivial price to pay to save millions of people.

What's more, deontological libertarianism's insensitivity to costs and benefits implies that your freedom may be restricted in wildly unreasonable ways. Take air pollution. When I drive my car past my neighbor while he retrieves his newspaper, some particles of pollution will undoubtedly invade his lungs. I've therefore trespassed against him and violated his right of bodily integrity. So if we're being...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP