The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

What Robinson Crusoe Teaches Us About Libertarianism

Allow me to borrow a scenario from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe. You will remember Mr. Crusoe landed on a deserted island where he was forced to fend entirely for himself.

Let us assume a modern wayward wayfarer finds himself in a similar predicament. Our modern Robinson, no doubt known to all and sundry as Rob, is cast onto the island when his boat hits a reef and sinks. The island is a good size place and with a modicum of effort Rob is able to survive.

He is alone on the island. No one tells him what to do or when to do it. He is entirely self-sufficient, finding all the food he consumes. He pays no taxes. He endures no regulations of any kind. There are no laws except those that are imposed by nature itself — which in themselves are often onerous and cruel.

Is Rob a libertarian? Is the situation libertarian?

I think how people look at the answer may be indicative of thinking errors concerning libertarianism.

I would argue we have no idea whether Rob is a libertarian or not. And we couldn’t possible say he lives in a libertarian environment. He is completely free, that is true. He is as free to live unmolested by others as is possible. But we can’t describe that freedom as libertarian.

The necessary component to define the situation as libertarian, or not, is missing. And what is the component? It is other people.

In Defoe’s original novel his Crusoe does interact with others. There are cannibals who come to the island to have dinner now and then. And one of the main courses, a man Crusoe names Friday, escapes. Together Crusoe and Friday form a society of two, which eventually grows with others they rescue from the cannibals.

What makes, or doesn’t make a person a libertarian, is not whether they live in some stateless paradise. It is not whether they are taxed or regulated or controlled. What makes them a libertarian is how they treat others.

If Crusoe had enslaved Friday and forced him to labor on Crusoe’s behalf, it would be clear Crusoe was no libertarian. There is nothing libertarian about Crusoe or his island situation, in spite of his freedom and self-sufficiency, because other people are missing. Libertarianism describes an ethical system individuals adopt concerning how they will relate to other people. Libertarian politics is simply the application of those ethical principles to the realm of politics or governing.

When Friday appears on the scene our Rob would be able to act in accordance with libertarian ethics, or in violation with those ethics. If he used force or violence against Friday, not in self-defense but in order to secure something he merely desires, he would not be a libertarian. If he voluntarily shares with Friday or makes voluntary exchanges with him, he is living in accordance with libertarian ethics.

Libertarianism sets the minimal standards by which we should treat one another. It merely says we must respect the choices of others, the property of others, and the rights of others. In libertarian parlance it means respecting life, liberty and property. All exchanges are voluntary, without force or fraud. Each individual has the equal and same rights as every other individual. Of course Friday may be a better fisherman than Rob but Rob might find it more useful to gather fruit. Friday may end up with a surplus of fish, and Rob a surplus of fruit. They have unequal results from their labor but neither has infringed the rights of the other. They may choose to exchange the fruits of their labor, if they had any sense, for a bit of variety in their diet.

Our modern Crusoe cannot be defined as libertarian when he is alone because libertarianism describes a set of ethical rules individuals adopt for mutual interaction. Without the ability to interact there is no ability to interact in a libertarian manner.

This is why I argue libertarianism cannot possible be construed as a “selfish” philosophy, or a self-centered one in the widespread use of the terms. When Rob is on the island he is entirely self-centered because he is the only one there. He couldn’t center his actions on others because there are no others. Friday’s arrival changes it. Now that Friday exists there is the opportunity to act as a libertarian would. Once another person enters the equation libertarianism is possible. When only the self exists libertarianism does not, and cannot exist. Only with others is libertarianism possible. It is entirely and wholly other-directed, not self-centered.

Crusoe and Friday, if they act voluntarily with one another are acting within a libertarian framework. That is all that is necessary for it to be libertarian. Suppose they become quite fond of one another and help each other out of pure affection. That is still libertarian. If they don’t care for each other and voluntarily exchange goods for their own self-interest they are still being libertarian. Only the use of force or fraud turns the exchanges they have into something unlibertarian.

A libertarian is not required to only exchange value for value, just an idiot if he doesn’t. He may do so or may not. He may give away value simply because he cherishes others more highly. He may dispose of his possessions in a manner that is entirely altruistic and still be a libertarian. He may even despise the market exchange system and set up a communal organization where voluntary participants live with common ownership. If it is voluntary it is libertarian. If it is involuntary it is not.

In a libertarian society individuals could form entirely non-capitalist structures for themselves. They may well live in communes or some state of collective ownership. Provided they do not impose their will on others they are entirely consistent with libertarian ethics and a libertarian state would leave them in peace. Only if they behaved violently toward their own members would it be proper, and necessary, for the state to intervene.

People in a libertarian society can and do act out of love, charity or benevolence; but libertarians recognize there are limits to love. Adam Smith noticed this over two hundreds years ago. There are billions of people in the world. We are incapable of loving them all. You can’t love someone of whom you are totally unaware. Even if every act in your life were motivated by a selfless love, you couldn’t act on or with people with whom you have no interaction.

However, the free exchange in markets allows you to do that. You do it everyday. You benefit others who are entirely anonymous to you. If you go to your refrigerator and eat a banana you benefit others — probably many others. If your loving actions give benefits to others then voluntary exchange also gives us a portion of the same thing. These benefits give them a portion of what they may have had were it possible for you act only in a loving manner toward them. But you can’t love everyone; it is not possible. Yet through exchange you do give them benefits as real and concrete as if you had been motivated only by altruistic purposes alone.

Someone grew that banana, but you don’t know them. You don’t know if you would love this person, hate this person or feel indifferent toward him. But it doesn’t matter. He has a banana and you want a banana. Your purchase of the banana, through an unknown chain of middlemen, benefits the original owner and all the people who acted in that exchange. The grower of the banana has no idea who you are. Yet he or she acted in a way that benefited you.

In fact, because markets are so huge and pervasive, compared to intentional charity, the uplifting nature of markets is many times greater. Markets do more to end starvation and poverty than all the charities put together. The unconscious beneficence of the market does more good than conscious compassion.

When you know people you can act out of love. But we live in a world where it is not possible to know everyone and thus impossible to act lovingly toward all those people. Through market exchanges you do things that improve the lives of others and they do things that improve your life. None of you know each other. None of us do it purely for altruistic reasons. You each act because you want to better your own life but because you act in a voluntary way you can’t benefit yourself without the consent of others. And they are unlikely to consent unless they benefit as well.

Voluntary exchange transforms selfishly motivated actions into mutually beneficial ones. Markets allow people to benefit one another without ever knowing each other and without caring for one another. If you consider it loving to benefit others then voluntary markets are a great means of spreading the love to people who otherwise wouldn’t experience it.

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