Libertarianism

LIBERTARIANISM….A couple of days ago Eugene Volokh wrote a long post about the “Harm Principle.” This is the principle that’s roughly summed up by the famous libertarian aphorism, “Your right to swing your fist stops where my face begins.”

This is fine, as long as you can define “swing,” “fist,” “stops,” “face,” and “begins.” But that’s a lot of definitions, isn’t it? Eugene uses his post to argue that libertarian principles don’t necessarily mandate sexual liberty because, after all, sex can sometimes cause harm to other third parties.

This is a good example of why I’ve never been able to take libertarianism seriously: it simply doesn’t provide any meaningful real-world guidance for what governments should and shouldn’t do. Once you agree that “harm” also means “potential harm” or “harm done to third parties down the road” or “unintentional harm” or ? well, or anything, really, then you no longer have a principle at all. Virtually every human action there is can plausibly be supposed to cause harm of some kind, which in turn means that we are left to judge policies by balancing their effects on personal liberty with the protections they provide us against harmful behavior by others. Which is exactly what Eugene proposes.

But that’s just what everyone does, liberals and conservatives alike. So exactly how does libertarianism help us make these decisions?

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation