Libertarianism and Social Cooperation

SFL Staff

” For example, a recent article at The Raw Story condemns the Bill of Rights Institute’s emphasis on freedom and responsibility by replying “While the Koch brothers won’t admit it, human beings are social animals. We always have been and always will be.” In November, anthropologist John Edward Terrell wrote at The New York Times that “Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others.” These writers seem to think that libertarians deny that humans are social animals. Yet libertarian thought is filled with analysis and celebration of social cooperation.

It’s easy to understand why this misconception about libertarianism persists. Libertarian rhetoric frequently emphasizes the right to “be left alone.” We talk constantly about individualism and individual rights. And our emphasis on property rights is easy to straw man as “I’ve got mine.”

But libertarianism is rooted in a deep appreciation for social cooperation. Leonard Reed’s essay I, Pencil eloquently describes the vast network of cooperation, largely among people who don’t know each other, that is necessary to produce goods as seemingly simple as a pencil. Many libertarians favor property rights largely because they produce incentives for market exchange that facilitates this cooperation that allows us to prosper. We support property rights and free markets not because we’re anti-social, but because mainline economics teaches that these institutions enable social cooperation on a vast scale. As Sheldon Richman points out, Ludwig von Mises repeatedly emphasizes social cooperation throughout his opus Human Action, and even considered Social Cooperation as an alternate title for the book. Peter Boettke continues this Misesian emphasis on the economics of social cooperation, writing:

Economics teaches us many things, but to me the most important is how social cooperation under the division of labor is realized. This is what determines whether nations are rich or poor; whether the individuals in these nations live in poverty, ignorance, and squalor or live healthy and wealthy lives full of possibilities. If the institutions promote social cooperation under the division of labor, then the gains from trade and innovation will be realized. But if the institutions, in effect, hinder social cooperation under the division of labor, then life will devolve into a struggle for daily existence. Economics, in other words, gives us the key intellectual framework for understanding how we can live better together.

The economic case for free markets is not built on atomistic individualism, but on an emphasis on how individual liberty enables social cooperation.

Libertarian emphasis on social cooperation extends beyond economics. For example, families represent a smaller sphere of cooperative social connections. As libertarians, we oppose the way mass incarceration, deportations, and war violently break families apart. Recognizing that humans are social animals leads us to understand and oppose how solitary confinement operates as a soul crushing form of psychological torture, depriving prisoners of the human contact that is essential to our flourishing. We support charity and mutual aid, and oppose all coercive interference with it. When governments jail people for feeding the homeless, when they imprison a man for sending money to his impoverished relatives, and when volunteers are arrested for providing life-saving humanitarian aid, libertarianism defends compassion and social cooperation from such callous coercion.

A defense of social cooperation lies at the heart of even the most radically individualist variants of libertarianism, such as the individualist anarchism of Benjamin Tucker. In his Relation of the State to the Individual, Tucker argues that freedom from aggression is key to harmonious social cooperation:

The average man of each new generation has said to himself more clearly and consciously than his predecessor: “My neighbor is not my enemy, but my friend, and I am his, if we would but mutually recognize the fact. We help each other to a better, fuller, happier living; and this service might be greatly increased if we would cease to restrict, hamper, and oppress each other. Why can we not agree to let each live his own life, neither of us transgressing the limit that separates our individualities?” It is by this reasoning that mankind is approaching the real social contract, which is not, as Rousseau thought, the origin of society, but rather the outcome of a long social experience, the fruit of its follies and disasters. It is obvious that this contract, this social law, developed to its perfection, excludes all aggression, all violation of equality of liberty, all invasion of every kind.


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