During the Republican presidential primary in 2012, Saturday Night Live, in their parody of the debate, had a questioner ask the actor playing candidate Ron Paul as to whether he would rescue puppies from a burning building; to whit, he replied, “No. It’s none of my business.”
Jokes, as Groucho Marx tells us, are opinions presented entertainingly. The portrayal of a heartless Paul is no doubt how the mainstream media views libertarianism–as a kind of reckless freedom without consequences (even right-wingers like Dinesh D’Souza have contributed to this perception).
But libertarianism does have a social conscience, as evidenced by its history.
Thomas Jefferson, in many ways the father of libertarianism, formulated an individualist philosophy whose paramount goal was not only protecting citizens from unwarranted state power, but also ensuring that elected officials represent everyone and not for special interests. Thus he argued that farmers should be in office rather than businessmen. For in Jefferson’s mind, farmers were truly independent because they owned their own land and thus not in thrall to a landlord and a mortgage as were businessmen. Thus as politicians, farmers could not be bought; businessmen legislators could, especially from businesses they had invested in.
The immediate riposte to Jefferson’s theory was that it was designed to protect his own interest as a slave-holder. But he was uncomfortably aware of how individualism-crushing the institution was for blacks and sought to end slavery. As a slaveholder, he was aware of how much the institution needed new territories to survive and sought to contain it assuring its eventual collapse, by supporting the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which did not allow slavery to extend west. As President, he added to his containment theory by ending the federal slave trade.
The bible of libertarians was and is F. A Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom, published in the collectivist year of 1944. An Austrian economist who fled Hitler, Hayek wrote this defense of laissez-faire economics not to fatten wallets, but out of concerns for individual liberty. Planned economies, he asserted, weakened the desire for liberty and allowed the power-hungry in society government control, the result of which is the concentration camp and the Gulag. Hayek’s preoccupation with individual liberty was so apparent that even socialists like George Orwell found value in the economist’s thesis.
Nor have libertarians been content to sit on the sidelines while great wrongs are occurring. Milton Friedman, an official in the Nixon administration, helped end a draft that was forcing young men into the cauldron of Vietnam—so much for not saving puppies. Such moments like this have convinced even leftists like Christopher Hitchens of the value of the libertarian ideal.
One of the few perceptions both social conservatives and liberals share is that libertarianism has no morality. But as shown above, they have one; they just object to forcing it on other people, through laws and policies.