Is libertarianism just a code word for selfishness and lack of empathy for the poor?

…as answered on Quora….

A “code word” is a term of art for jargon used in an esoteric manner by an in-group to convey meaning among insiders while preventing comprehension by outsiders.

“Empathy” is a term of art coined by philosopher Max Scheler to distinguish the capacity of vicarious feeling from “sympathy” as it had previously been explored by Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer, the 18th and 19th century philosophers who advanced the notion most thoroughly. The word “sympathy” was too closely associated with pity and commonly understood as the opposite of antipathy to do the work Scheler was engaging in. Yet, because both Smith and Spencer often used “sympathy” to designate very nearly what Scheler later called “empathy,” I will revert to the former word in much of what follows.

“Libertarianism” is a term appropriated for use in the political realm from philosophical discussions on fate, determinism and free will, first by anarchists in the 19th century and then by individualist liberals in mid-20th century. From the tenor of the question, I surmise the questioner is asking about that second variety, which includes the aforementioned Smith and Spencer as pioneering forebears, Smith advancing ‘the simple system of natural liberty’ and Spencer ‘the law of equal freedom.’

Herbert Spencer, who was basically a modern libertarian (and even 19th century anarchist theoretician Prince Peter Kropotkin recognized some kinship between his ideas and Spencer’s), would be shocked at the merest suggestion that advocacy of individual liberty would be identified with a lack of sympathy or a prevalence of selfishness — in Data of Ethics he had devoted four chapters to elaborating a dialectic between egoism and altruism, making sympathy key to his analysis. He thought a free society depended on extensivesympathy. He thought it undergirded justice as well as “negative and positive beneficence.”

As for “selfishness,” here we get into a weirder area. Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness in which she redefined the term in a special way that confused a lot of people, friend and foe alike. Rand has been a huge influence on the modern libertarian movement, so her ‘new concept of egoism’ is not irrelevant — so the plausibility of tarring libertarians with the selfishness brush is definitely there. I regard her word usage an abuse, however, and her argument a farrago — an obvious falling off of conceptual clarity from Spencer’s analysis — which leads me to dismiss the charge of “code word.”

More importantly, Rand did this out in the open, so “code word” seems silly.

What the questioner asks about is not really code-word analysis at all, but a calumny.

The one way to make the calumny stick might be to notice the psychological complexion of libertarians compared to other current and more popular ideologies. Libertarians are not generally known for the kinds of empathy Simon Baron Cohen has recently written about. Instead, they are known for astoundingly high IQs, a metric that corresponds to Cohen’s ‘systemizing intelligence.’

Libertarians argue that freedom would help the poor better than do the current welfare state institutions. Further, they believe that the only reason to think otherwise is to ignore all we have learned from economics and other social sciences, and — this is key — to ignore the conceptualization (and keeping in mind) of the distinction between the purported policy goal and the actual policy results. Classical liberals and libertarians make this distinction all the time, but folks sporting less sophisticated political philosophies keep balling this up, continually harping on their alleged intentions and feelings about their favored policies over consequences and unintended effects, linking their ‘feelings’ with ‘empathy’ and asserting libertarians’ attention to processes and facts as ‘uncaring.’ Arguably, this is a sign of non-libertarians’ general lower IQs, as well as an understandable practical grokking of the advantages of going along with the long con of statism. Libertarians see the general advantage in principles of distributed responsibility, but maybe they are generally not selfish enough to cave in and just make the most of the heady rush to mass exploitation by political favor.

A lot of very smart people realize the genius of liberty, but then give up on it because there is greater personal advantage to be found fooling the rubes with silly and even grotesque statist programs.

In pushing a general public interest perspective, libertarians are anything but selfish. Arguably, they are way too atruistic. After all, there is a much higher percentage — vigorish; “rent” (as in “rent-seeking”) — in corrupt politics.