(I recently had the privilege to moderate an interesting debate on the legacy of Milton Friedman. Though perhaps not addressed explicitly, it seemed to me that an underlying theme in the debate was a longstanding distinction in libertarian thought. With the posting of this debate online, I thought I might interject a few reflections on this perceived subtext.)
This first paragraph is for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the internal distinctions among those whom, for purposes of discussion here, I’ll call libertarians. Among the distinctions is between what are called deontological and consequential arguments or positions. Deontological arguments are those that argue that liberty is a moral necessity whereas the consequential ones argue that liberty is required on the basis of the good consequences that arise. The consequentialist argues that free markets lead to general prosperity and peace. The deontologist or moralist argues that regardless of that beneficial outcome, the purely and strictly voluntary nature of free markets is required in the interest of human freedom and dignity.
The deontological and consequential divide among libertarians has been known to suggest a query, though. Some say to consequentialists, if it turned out that despite the economic benefits of free markets that such practices were harmful to human freedom and dignity, would you still support free markets exclusively on their benefits to prosperity and peace? Likewise, it is asked of the deontological or moral libertarian, even if free markets are best for human freedom and dignity, what if it turned out that they actually produced poverty and war? Would you still support them, then? Deontological libertarians believe liberty is right; consequentialists believe it is good. What is more important: right or good? In some circles, these are thought to be penetrating and challenging questions.
This is an entirely confused way of approaching the matter. These are not different positions, but simply two sides of the same coin. It is not possible for increased freedom and dignity to lead to war and poverty, if we understand the position properly. To understand why this is, and thus why one’s time is wasted in fussing over the differences, it is necessary to understand the foundation of natural law that underpins (most) deontological libertarian arguments.
Understanding natural law, or, more precisely, the law of human nature, is in principle no different than understanding any laws of any other aspect of nature: such as gravity, thermodynamics, minerals or pelicans. Everything has a nature: things which simply are, or are not, true of it. You may disregard the laws of such nature in theory, but doing so in practice is a guaranteed recipe for failure. Building bridges in disregard of the laws of gravity will result in fallen bridges.
It is a peculiar idea, so widely held, that somehow we humans are the one and only entity on this earth that does not have a nature. But, of course we do. Though I of course can’t possibly defend these claims here, I’ll just mention three laws of human nature: 1) individual humans are self-owners; 2) humans are energy optimizers; and 3) humans value their priorities subjectively. We might briefly mention a fourth, too: given the relative economy of brain and birth canal size, we have evolved to be born in a state of underdevelopment that requires an unusually long period of postnatal maturation. However, for all humans who have achieved full maturation and are healthily functioning, the three laws above are universally true. They describe human nature.
Since then humans are self-owners, energy optimizers and hold subjective values, the only way to allow for full human freedom and dignity is to allow humans the fullest options to pursue their own self-selected ends in voluntary association and exchange. Free markets are indeed essential to achieving individual freedom and dignity.
However, as stated above, efforts to impose unnatural conditions – i.e., disregarding the laws of nature in practice – leads to collapse: analogical and literal. Bridges that disregard the laws of gravity will fall. Likewise, institutions that disregard the laws of humanness will equally fail. And, since poverty and war are indeed destructive of human flourishing, one would expect these to be the outcome of disregarding human nature. So, the empirical fact that poverty and war flourish under institutions that suppress and deform free markets would be perfectly predictable.
Naturally, then, it is only human institutions and practices that promote human freedom and dignity, consistent with the laws of human nature, that ever could promote prosperity and peace. It is not some happy coincidence that free markets both promote individual freedom and dignity on the one hand and generalized prosperity and peace on the other hand. And one need not ever bother with hypothetical queries about what if the ends were not co-terminus. One might as well ponder a world were all food was poisonous or human brains were incapable of retaining any memories. Those certainly would be different worlds, but they’d have nothing of interest to say about our world.
Where human nature is acknowledged and respected, all humans, individually and socially, will experience the greatest level of flourishing and success. Deontological and consequential arguments are merely options from a menu of rhetorical strategies. Trying to make any more than that out of them merely confuses the natural law foundations by which both are ultimately underpinned.