How can a Libertarian ever work for the government without compromising his/her beliefs?

…as answered on Quora….

The libertarian might hold to some variant of “relative ethics” as written about in Herbert Spencer’s Data of Ethics. Libertarianism is a formulation of Spencer’s conception of “absolute ethics.”

Spencer gave several cautionary principles when discussing ethics. One of them is this: “A great part of the perplexities in ethical speculation arise from neglect of this distinction between right and least wrong—between the absolutely right and the relatively right.”

The principles of liberty depend upon conditions wherein equal freedom is possible, where there is enough reciprocity regarding forbearance and tolerance that sticking to strict principles makes sense. When most of the people around you will not grant you your rightful freedom, then, well, all bets are off. Spencer writes that the “perfect conduct which is the subject-matter of Absolute Ethics” is not always possible, and must be distinguished from “that imperfect conduct which is the subject-matter of Relative Ethics.”

We live in a messy world, filled with coercion and conceptions of authority that run against the grain of libertarian ethics. Must we confine ourselves to living as if all this did not exist? Spencer wrote, early in his career, of a “right to ignore the State.” But just give that a try. The State will crush you, destroy you. So, as compensation for the impositions it places upon us, seemingly demanding to make martyrs of us, perhaps a few benefits from the system is more than allowable.

Most libertarian ideologues I know bristle at this penultimate chapter to the Data of Ethics. But it has long seemed to me that much of this objection to relative ethics is just denial of reality. Many libertarians prefer the fantasy. But facts don’t care about our preferences. It is simply the case that “a large part of human conduct is not absolutely right, but only relatively right,” and we have to deal with that.

And it is worse, “we have to recognize the further truth that in many cases where there is no absolutely right course, but only courses that are more or less wrong, it is not possible to say which is the least wrong.”

So, a libertarian who understands the actual nature of our lived experience would not pretend that ethics must serve only a straitjacket that we are obliged to tie ourselves into while those who would do us much harm are comparatively free.

The truth of the matter of liberty is that it all depends upon a general practice of reciprocal forbearance from initiating coercive interference. When that forbearance is not forthcoming, then the relevance of libertarian justice loses its traction.

This is something libertarians generally do not acknowledge. I think they are wrong not to.

And, I suspect, when they do acknowledge this feature of the moral universe, their consciences will be free to make quite a few compromises that rub up against their principles. It is inevitable. Indeed, it is almost required, as Spencer noted: “Among people who are treacherous and utterly without scruple, entire truthfulness and openness must bring ruin.

If all around recognize only the law of the strongest, one whose nature will not allow him to inflict pain on others, must go to the wall. There requires a certain congruity between the conduct of each member of a society and other’s conduct. A mode of action entirely alien to the prevailing modes of action, cannot be successfully persisted in—must eventuate in death of self, or posterity, or both.

Hence it is manifest that we must consider the ideal man as existing in the ideal social state.

And that the ideal social state — the free society — does not exist. And its strictures cannot fully apply.

That being said, I have found it difficult to even conceive working for some realms of government. Take policing, a job that usually entails the enforcement of evil laws — malign and harmful both. I would find working for that kind of government a disgusting business. Even activities like teaching in heavily subsidized colleges strikes me as too much compromise. But I rarely criticize those who compromise differently than I. If your only talent is for teaching, for example, and you lack an entrepreneurial bent, you will probably find yourself teaching somewhere in a government school or at least in a tax-subsidized, government-controlled institution.

Ugh, I shudder. But such is this messy world.

We are so far from a perfect society that we can just barely conceive of perfect conduct. Which is what Absolute Ethics is all about. In this creaky, state-ridden world, we must make do with Relative Ethics.