Why Are We Libertarians?

Before proposing an answer to this question, I would like to state that by “libertarians”, I mean the broad group of people who seek an improvement in mankind’s condition by means of decreasing the scope of government. In my view, there are various schools of libertarianism; each school of libertarianism is generally associated with a particular author or group of authors. In my writing and social thought, the term libertarian does not refer to a particular school of libertarian thought, but instead refers to a general orientation of political thought. A libertarian in my view is one who believes that mankind’s condition can be improved by decreasing the scope of government, and by increasing the range of individual autonomy.

Two Theories of Libertarianism

When libertarians have sought to articulate the reasons for their libertarian views, they have generally provided an explanation in terms of economics or in terms of ethics. As one writer recently observed, “Ethics and economics have always been the twin goddesses of the libertarian movement”.(R) The works of Ludwig von Mises may be considered an explanation of libertarianism given in terms of economics. Prosperity flowing from the division of labor is diminished when the government intervenes in the economy, and maximized when the government abstains from such intervention. The best way to maximize prosperity is to minimize government intervention in the economy.

By contrast, the writings of Ayn Rand may be considered an explanation of libertarianism given in terms of ethics. She writes:

The basic political principle of Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others…The ethical principle involved is simple and clear-cut: no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force.

The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence—to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness. (TVS-36)

Thus, Ayn Rand proposes to limit the scope of government on moral or ethical grounds.

An Explanation of Libertarianism

I would like to propose an explanation of libertarianism that is neither an economic explanation nor an ethical one. I use the word explanation deliberately, because I do not intend to defend or advocate libertarianism today; instead I want to answer the questions: why are we libertarians or, why are there libertarians? These may seem unusual questions to want to answer, but I hope that by the end of this discussion, the reason for my framing these questions in this way will become clear.

Categories of Consciousness

The most important concept I want to discuss today is the concept of “categories of consciousness.” What is a category? A category is simply a classification. For example, length is a category, and so is width. Most people probably consider length and width to be characteristics of various objects we see and interact with. For example, one might hold that a chair “has” a length and it “has” a width. Length and width are thus considered characteristics of the chair.

It is also possible to consider length and width as categories of consciousness. We can assume that characteristics such as length, width, and others, are characteristics—or categories—of our perception. In this way of thinking (in this kind of theory), the categories are considered a function of our consciousness. One of the most important essays written about praxeology is Hayek’s essay “The Facts of the Social Sciences”. Hayek writes:

In discussing what we regard as other people’s conscious actions, we invariably interpret their action on the analogy of our own mind: that is, …we group their actions, and the objects of their actions, into classes or categories which we know solely from the knowledge of our own mind.

We…always supplement what we actually see of another person’s action by projecting into that person a system of classification of objects which we know, not from observing other people, but because it is in terms of these classes that we think ourselves.

We can derive from the knowledge of our own mind in an “a priori” or “deductive” or “analytic” fashion, an…exhaustive classification of all the possible forms of intelligible behavior.

If we can understand only what is similar to our own mind, it necessarily follows that we must be able to find all that we can understand in our own mind. (IEO-63, 67, 68)

Hayek is referring to what we may call the epistemological method.

The Epistemological Method

In his book The Philosophy of Physical Science, physicist Authur Eddington wrote: “The epistemologist is an observer only in the sense that he observes what is in the mind.” Eddington’s thesis is that laws of physics can be found “by examining the sensory and intellectual equipment used in observation” and that “all the laws of nature that are usually classed as fundamental can be foreseen wholly from epistemological considerations”. He defined a priori knowledge as “knowledge derived by epistemological study of the procedure of observation”. (PPS-18, 23, 24, 57) We can attain knowledge by examining the results of various observations. But we can also attain knowledge by examining the structure or form of observation itself.

For Ludwig von Mises, praxeological knowledge is the result of the epistemological method or approach:

For as must be emphasized again, the reality the elucidation and interpretation of which is the task of praxeology is congeneric with the logical structure of the human mind.(UF-65)

The only way to a cognition of [praxeological] theorems is logical analysis of our inherent knowledge of the category of action. We must bethink ourselves and reflect upon the structure of human action. Like logic and mathematics, praxeological knowledge is in us; it does not come from without.(HA-64)

The epistemological approach is the thesis that the regularity we experience in natural and social phenomena is a function of the structure of our mind or consciousness.

Happiness and Unhappiness

Two of the most important categories in social science are the categories of happiness and unhappiness. When I say “happiness and unhappiness”, I mean the same thing as when I say “satisfaction and dissatisfaction” or “pleasure and pain” or “agreeable and disagreeable” or “desirable and undesirable”, etc. I mean the general notion that any given state of affairs can be either acceptable or agreeable to me on the one hand, or it can be unacceptable or disagreeable to me on the other hand. An unacceptable or disagreeable state of affairs is one that I desire to change.

In common speech, the category pair happiness/unhappiness may have a distinctly different meaning from the category pair satisfaction/dissatisfaction. However, when I refer to the category pair happiness/unhappiness or satisfaction/dissatisfaction, I am referring only to what these two category pairs have in common. One category (happiness or satisfaction) refers to a state of affairs that is acceptable to me and that I have no desire to change. One category (unhappiness or dissatisfaction) refers to a state of affairs that is unacceptable to me and that I desire to change. By the terms “happiness” and “unhappiness” I am referring to this general or universal notion.

Happiness and Unhappiness as Categories of Consciousness

In the common conception, we consider happiness and unhappiness to be characteristics of objects (i.e., characteristics that apply at a given time and place to a specific entity). Typically, happiness and unhappiness are conceived as characteristics of human bodies, meaning, happiness and unhappiness are conceived as distinct experiences occurring within the space occupied by human bodies. A person—a specific entity in a specific location—may feel happy or unhappy. Happiness and unhappiness are located with, or within, that person; we cannot find happiness and unhappiness in the sand.

However, it is also possible to consider happiness and unhappiness “categories of consciousness.” Instead of the conception that happiness and unhappiness are characteristics of things, we can assume that happiness and unhappiness are categories of our perception. If we assume that happiness and unhappiness are categories of consciousness—part of the structure of how we experience and perceive things—then this has far-reaching implications for social theory. It means that we can find happiness and unhappiness in the sand.

The conception of happiness and unhappiness as categories of consciousness means that our consciousness is structured in such a way that every conscious experience entails a happiness and unhappiness aspect. If my consciousness is constituted of the categories happiness and unhappiness, this means that my every differentiable conscious experience and activity is constituted of these categories.

In the common, every-day conception, I may feel happy or unhappy, and I feel so within the confines of my own physical, bodily enclosure. Likewise, the other people I observe may feel happy or unhappy, and they feel so within the confines of their own physical, bodily enclosures. Additionally, there are objects such as rocks, trees, and metal coins, that I observe and that simply “exist.” There is no happiness or unhappiness to be found in the spaces occupied by these objects.

When we conceive happiness and unhappiness as categories of consciousness, this view of things changes radically. Happiness and unhappiness are now conceived as forms of my consciousness, not as characteristics of some objects of my consciousness. In this conception, I experience happiness and unhappiness within the confines of my bodily enclosure not because happiness and unhappiness are “located” there; but instead because happiness and unhappiness constitute the structure of my consciousness, which is now directed toward my own body. In other words, when my body is an object in my conscious field, I naturally experience happiness and unhappiness because these are categories of my consciousness. When other objects enter my conscious field—houses, mountains, books, etc.—I will experience happiness and unhappiness for the same reason; because all objects of my conscious awareness are constituted of my categories of consciousness. The same principle applies when the objects in my conscious field are social phenomena—for example, when I interact with another person, or when I purchase an item online. If my consciousness is constituted of the categories happiness and unhappiness, then every differentiable conscious experience of mine is constituted of happiness and unhappiness “components.” It is then possible to study how various social phenomena in our conscious field are constituted in terms of these categories. We can study the relationship between various types of social interaction on the one hand, and how these types are constituted in terms of consciousness categories on the other hand.

The Relationship Between the Market System and Libertarianism

Libertarianism is essentially a political theory; by which I mean libertarianism has to do with interpersonal relations. In theoretical terms, there are two distinctly different ways in which I can interact with other people. First, I can interact with a person while that person’s mind is “present” to me. This is what we might call direct person-to-person social interaction. In my theory I refer to this kind of social interaction as “interpersonal action.” In interpersonal action, I address or interact with another person’s mind in the sense that the other person’s mind is present in my conscious field. In interpersonal action, I locate another mind in my conscious field, and I direct my actions or communications toward that mind. Examples of interpersonal action are: face-to-face conversations, telephone conversations, and generally any instance in which, from my own point of view, I interact with another mind (e.g, when I issue a command or threat).

Alternatively, I can interact with another person while their mind is not “present” to me; for example, by making a purchase from a vending machine. As a practical matter, I understand that another person will be part of my vending machine transaction at some point in time. However, during the time I make the vending machine purchase, I need not direct my actions nor direct any communications to another mind. I may make a vending machine purchase without another person’s mind appearing in my conscious field. Examples of this type of social interaction include street signs, maps, recordings, books, automated bank teller transactions, and Internet purchases. We can also consider the price system as an example of social interaction that does not entail interpersonal action. I may post a price without addressing another mind, and similarly, another person may observe this price without addressing another mind. In this sense, the price system enables social interaction to occur that is not interpersonal action.

This latter fact—that the price system enables social interaction to occur without interpersonal action—is what links libertarianism to the market or price system. Coercion, the essential instrument of government action, requires interpersonal action. The price system enables social interaction to occur without interpersonal action, and therefore the expansion of the price system implies a diminishment in coercion, the essential instrument of government. This is why libertarians call for an expansion of the market system and why non-libertarians call for its limitation. The market system implies the absence of government on a fundamental level, because the market system implies the absence of interpersonal action, the necessary condition of coercion.

Interpersonal Action and Consciousness Categories

The primary focus of my work in praxeology is the attempt to demonstrate how interpersonal action is constituted in terms of consciousness categories. This has remained an unsolved problem of social science and social thought. In his book The Phenomenology of the Social World, Alfred Schutz wrote:

We must, then, leave unsolved the notoriously difficult problems which surround the constitution of the Thou within the subjectivity of private experience. We are not going to be asking, therefore, how the Thou is constituted in an Ego…As important as these questions may be for epistemology and, therefore, for the social sciences, we may safely leave them aside in the present work. (PSW-98)

As you can see, the theory I’ve presented today cannot be accurately described as an ethics theory or as an economic theory. I believe it is a praxeological theory in the Mengerian/Misesian tradition. Here is how Menger describes the “exact” orientation in the realm of social phenomena, the orientation that Mises named praxeology:

The nature of this exact orientation of theoretical research in the realm of ethical phenomena…consists in the fact that we reduce human phenomena to their most original and simplest constitutive factors…and…try to investigate the laws by which more complicated human phenomena are formed from these simplest elements, thought of in their isolation.(I-62)

My theoretical focus has been on the universal aspects of human action and especially those of interpersonal action. I try, as Menger indicates, to show how complex social phenomena are formed from elemental consciousness categories, and in so doing, I try to explain why we are libertarians.



HA – Mises, Human Action, 1966

I – Menger, Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences, 1985

IEO – Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order, 1980

PPS – Eddington, The Philosophy of Physical Science, 1978

PSW – Schutz, The Phenomenology of the Social World, 1972

R – website: Rothbard.com, article “Twin Goddesses of the Libertarian Movement”

TVS – Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, 1964

UF – Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, 2002