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Do you agree with Dr. Tom Palmer’s idea that human beings are naturally Libertarians ?

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Often, libertarian ideas are regarded as unnatural and alien, particularly when it comes to the Eastern nations, which are regarded as more community-based than the Western ones. However, Dr. Tom G. Palmer construes otherwise, maintaining that people are naturally libertarians; that if “you don’t hit other people when their behavior displeases you. You don’t take their stuff. You don’t lie to them to trick them into letting you take their stuff, or defraud them, or knowingly give them directions that cause them to drive off a bridge. You’re just not that kind of person. You respect other people. You respect their rights. You might sometimes feel like smacking someone in the face for saying something really offensive, but your better judgment prevails and you walk away, or answer words with words. You’re a civilized person,” these aspects inherently point to your liberal values. 

But the question yet remains, are humans ‘naturally’ Libertarians?

Certain writers, like Hobbes (who in his book Leviathan argues that humans are motivated by self interest and a desire for power) and Locke (who in his book Two Treatises argues that the persistent moral corruption of human nature is the primary reason government exists), disagree, but let us take a look at this for ourselves.

In pondering the answer to such a question, one must first look within the definitions of the terms used. In this particular case, what do we mean by naturally’? Does it mean that humans, as they are born, are inherently libertarian? Does it refer to humans being individually libertarian, or a libertarian society? 

In this instance, let us take an example of a child. There is a reason greater humankind considers children to be innocent and pure in many aspects. The common consensus is that children are untainted by the ugliness of our world, and what is the reason for this consensus? That children are, before being taught otherwise, inherently caring, empathetic, and loving. They don’t hit each other, manipulate each other, or defraud them. They respect other people, and do not need to differentiate between man and woman, black-skinned and white-skinned, age, religion, and they don’t care who you choose to love. In other words, they are the embodiment of libertarian values. 

Of course, there are always exceptions to every norm, but a consensus is a consensus for a reason, and in regard to children, it’s because the majority do fall within these parameters. 

However, Dr. Palmer does not seem to be writing only about children. His words “as you go through life,” seem to pertain to adults as well. Therefore, let’s consider the same question in a context where ‘naturally’ being libertarian is an instinct that comes to us regardless of age or circumstance. 

As I previously addressed, we consider children to be untainted by the ugliness of our world. In another sense, this means there is another consensus – that the world is tainted – whether it was reached through religion or philosophy. How would that be, if, in an individual sense, humans are naturally libertarians? 

In this writer’s view, unfortunately, the world is made of inequalities. In this spectrum, one can both not care to be a libertarian, or not afford to be one. 

In the former, it’s more likely that the more privileged you are and the more privilege you were raised in, the less liberal your way of life is. For example if you are a man, you might hit a woman when her behavior displeases you, because you would have seen/heard/been taught that this is acceptable. If you were in a position of power as a child (due to family background, etc.) you might enjoy manipulating others for your entertainment. If you’ve not been raised to take accountability for your actions, you would pawn off your misdeeds on anyone else. You would, in essence, not be a civilized person if you never learned – or cared – what a civilized person does. In the words of Edith of Enola Holmes, “you have no interest in changing a world that suits you so well.”

On the other end of the spectrum, being a libertarian is a privilege, and not one that everyone can afford. If you were starving for food, would you stop to consider whether another person has a right to the bread loaf more than you? Would you stop yourself from lying, manipulating, or even defrauding, to survive? If doing so provided a solution to your worldly problems, would you knowingly give someone directions to drive off a bridge? We would all like to answer that last question with a resounding “NO!” but put in those shoes, in the right (or wrong) circumstances, at least some of us would say yes.

For us libertarians, it’s a nice idea to think that humanity inherently aligns with our beliefs. And to an extent, that is true. None of us are born to oppress, intimidate, or scheme. But there is no inherent libertarianism as we grow up. What seems inherent is only maintained through conscious efforts – learning, unlearning, and relearning in a complicated and messy world. 

Isn’t that more valuable than something that would have come to us ‘naturally’?

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.


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