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40


THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 40, July 9, 1998

Liberty, With Two Legs On Which To Stand

Second Place Winner, Young Adult Category

Josh Mercer (age 21)
don-tiggre@utah-inter.net

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

         In our world there are both idealists (religious and secular) and pragmatists; advocates for freedom can employ both ideologies. The natural rights theory appeals to the idealists' craving for justice, while a utilitarian approach will attract those interested in practicality.
         Natural rights theories developed chiefly from English philosopher John Locke in the 17th century. According to Locke, God made man free and equal; man then decided to enter into civil society with its laws based on consent. "The great and chief end" of government, as Locke described, was the protection of property. Only through such protection could man utilize his labor to further his life.
         Thus the Lockean view of government rests on a foundation of each individual's right to life, liberty, and property. Such principles for Locke applied equally so as to have "one rule for rich and poor, for the favourite at court and the countryman at plough."
         Yet Locke's natural rights system presupposed the existence of God. What if one denied God, would the natural right theory collapse?
         Years later, Ayn Rand provided a secular basis for natural rights with a basic a priori belief: self-preservation. According to Rand, "Rights are conditions of existence required by man's nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on this earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work." [1] If man is to live then man must also have the right to use his mind and his labor; he must have the right to property.
         Rand's conclusions reflect Locke's. She wrote, "The only proper purpose of government is to protect man's rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence." [2] For Rand, government properly understood would only retaliate against criminals and would not initiate aggression.
         As sound as the natural rights theory appears, many people are unconcerned with such "theoretical abstractions." To them what ultimately matters is "what works." Some deny that universal notions of right and wrong are possible; nothing in nature can ground such universal principles.
         Economist Ludwig von Mises wrote: "The notion of right and wrong is a human device, a utilitarian precept designed to make social cooperation under the division of labor possible. All moral rules and human laws are means for the realization of definite ends. There is no method available for the appreciation of their goodness or badness other than to scrutinize their usefulness for the attainment of the ends chosen and aimed at." [3]
         If that's true, is liberty doomed? If we can't appeal to justice what alternative do we have?
         Mises was not concerned with finding a universal system that would prove liberty once and for all. Economics and praxeology (how humans act), "apply to the means only one yardstick, viz., whether or not they are suitable to attain the ends at which the acting individuals aim." [4]
         Economics becomes a series of if-then statements to test whether certain goals are attained. If we want production we must have private property; if we want efficiency we must adopt a division of labor; if we wish to live in prosperity then we must adopt laissez-faire capitalism.
         Considerable debate exists over which system, natural rights or utilitarianism, is the correct one. Such a debate is purposeless. Each system rightly defends the individual's right to life, liberty, and property. Utilitarianism does because such a system produces the results (prosperity, freedom, and peace) that we all say that we want. Natural rights defends individualism because it is just; and thus also the best system.
         Since individual rights are both moral and practical it makes no difference which of the two ways one embraces liberty. This should not be a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. It should be of two legs walking towards the same destination -- liberty -- in harmony with each other.


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[1] Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged, p 1061.
[2] Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged, p 1062.
[3] Von Mises, Ludwig. Human Action, p.720.
[4] Von Mises, Ludwig. Human Action, p. 95.


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