Christopher Hitchens said of libertarianism that “I have always found it quaint, and rather touching, that there is a movement in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.” What are your thoughts on this assessment?

…as answered on Quora….

Selfishness is the excess of consideration of (or passion for) benefits to self over benefits to others. Libertarians, under influence of Ayn Rand’s goofy logomachy, sometimes make of selfishness a virtue. So for a non-libertarian to mistake libertarian norms as a defense of selfishness, it is hardly shocking.

But just as I expect libertarians not to fall for Rand’s error, so too do I expect really smart non-libertarians. After all, error remains error, and I shake my head no matter who makes it.

To clarify: I follow Aristotle in saying that an excess of a praiseworthy passion or proclivity, like a lack of same, is a vice. The questions regarding liberty might then be:

  • Is it selfish to want to be free?
  • Is it selfless to defend others’ freedoms?
  • Is it selfless to accept responsibility for one’s actions, or selfish?
  • Is it selfish to shrug off responsibility while demanding that others’ accept theirs?

I ask these questions mostly with a rhetorical intent. Commonsense responses include:

  • It is selfish of others to seek to take away my freedoms.
  • It is selfish of me to slough off my responsibilities.
  • It may be selfless of me to give up some of my freedoms for others’ benefits, but it is not selfless to take away others’ freedoms for my or anyone else’s benefit.
  • Freedom and responsibility fit together fairly naturally. It is only vice that twists our minds to think otherwise.

Truth is, “selfish” is a term of opprobrium we marshal most often at kids. It pertains most to situations of commons, like when sharing toys or taking common meals, etc. Adults can get more specific, can’t we? Let’s drill down.

Greed is one form of selfishness. Greed is the excess of acquisitiveness. We must acquire goods to survive and thrive. A person who lacks an acquisitive drive becomes a burden to others, or withers and dies. Normal acquisitiveness is absolutely vital. Thus virtuous.

A libertarian qua libertarian would say that acquisitiveness unbound by respect for others, acquisitiveness taking the form of theft, or fraud, is indeed a vice. The harm done by the vicious acts of over-acquisitiveness are obvious, and every society has some rules against such actions. Libertarian views on property rights are distillations of such universal norms. And greedy acts of theft and fraud are indeed selfish. Libertarians are very much against these forms of selfishness. It is our basic belief. It hardly gets more basic.

Libertarians would go further: they would say (and do) that much political activity to use The State to take from some and give to others feeds greed, expresses greed, is greedy.

Libertarians thus condemn today’s politics as a politics of greed. It is the foamers-at-the-mouth for higher taxes and ever-growing social programs — or merely for special advantages for their own groups — who are greedy, not libertarians.

Further, in the realm of personal ethics, a commonsense libertarian would readily concede, as I insist they do, that one can be greedy without violating someone else’s rights. All vices of excess amount to an imbalance. If one concentrates on acquisitiveness at the personal cost of neglecting other good habits, like empathy or curiosity or x — the list goes on and on — then one harms oneself. Vices are not limited to social destruction. Personal destruction also applies.

And though as libertarians we may not make a big deal about personal greed — most libertarians mind their business, knowing that virtue is not always easy — as normal members of families and communities, we do sometimes express our concerns about others’ private greed.

Now, let us take a step back: greed is not the only vice of selfishness. Another is niggardliness.

A few paragraphs above I suggested that those who would marshal the state to take from some to give to others are greedy. But sometimes they are worse than greedy. They play games of moral blackmail and confuse people as to what vice and virtue are.

A greedy person, they say, is stingy, is mean, is a niggard. Maybe. And it is definitely the case that generosity is a virtue. To give from a condition of strength is a special kind of excellence. But just as one can give too little, one can give too much. And, just as we do not use the word niggard much any longer (because of its similarity with a very different word), despite its key function in our ethical vocabulary as the lack of generosity, we also do not use often enough the very best word for the excess of generosity, prodigality.

prodigal is a person who spends too freely and gives too much. While a niggard is a person who robs himself of the joys of helping others, a prodigal indulges himself too much by helping others. In both cases, the indulgence chiefly hurts self. A niggard, in not helping the other, would commonly be said to be selfish, while we might say that the prodigal is indeed ‘selfless,’ but that is only a theory. The trouble here is that while acquisitiveness is a self-regarding virtue, generosity is an other-regarding virtue. Both virtues have lacks and excesses that constitute vices. But there are asymmetries here which can confuse is if we are not careful. The reader might see a key to resolving the whole confusion. But let us leave that aside for now.

Notice where we are at: Libertarians are against some vices on grounds of liberty, leaving opposition to other vices for venues other than politics and legal action (libertarianism being at core limited to a set of norms to be treated as laws), venues like manners, religion, and interpersonal persuasion.

But libertarians do have things to say about some vices, like prodigality. It may be regarded as a personal, familial, or community issue whether so-and-so is a prodigal. But just as greed can be expressed in the political realm in the clamor for special treatment for self or in-group, that same system and same sort of clamoring can serve as a platform for prodigality, too. It is extremely easy to indulge the halo of generosity in politics — all the while spending other people’s money. While it is prodigal to over-spend on generous acts from one’s stores of wealth — hoping to curry favor with others, often, in effect “buying love” — it is doubly prodigal to spend other people’s wealth in a similar binge of currying favor with others. Today’s liberals, Leonard Read ably noted, are liberal mainly in spending other people’s money. It is a fake generosity. It is stolen virtue.

It is modern politics.

The politics of prodigality.

And libertarians are most often roundly hated — not condescendingly regarded as “quaint” — for pointing out this pharisaic posturing of pseudo-generosity by “progressives” and other pseudo-liberals. And we regard this heart-on-sleeve “selflessness” as mere selfishness ill-concealed.

Savvy socialists do not see our challenge as “touching.” They see it as a threat, and seek a multitude of ways to diminish our critique.

So far, they have only been rhetorically, not dialectically successful. One way they have done so is by muddying up the waters of “selfishness.” It is usually a dumb-person’s accusation, nothing more. It is kindergarten ethics repeated by adults who should be embarrassed for themselves.