Libertarianism as Social Ethic

A common argument against libertarianism — heard mostly in conservative circles — is that no moral society can be a free-for-all, devoid of moral content. A social order worthy of the name must be based on certain ethical principles that extend beyond selfishness and individualism. These principles form the basis of culture, which is ultimately more central to the proper ordering of a free society than mere enforcement of contract.

The problem with this argument is not that it is wrong; it is simply misdirected, and, as stated, is impossible to disagree with. Anyone who feels intellectually threatened by it needs to do some serious reflection on history: no society can long exist, much less thrive, which does not have -oot a notion of the common good. That is why the political philosophy of libertarianism, by now well developed and mature, is not affected by the central claims of these conservative critics. It is libertinism which exalts personal fulfillment and eschews restraint, and which proves to be a fragile basis for a social order.

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Libertarianism rightly understood is best expressed in the title of Professor Burke’s book: do no harm. It means no more (and much more is required for a full view of life itself) and no less (we need not approve of all behaviors that the principle of non-aggression would permit). Harm in this context is understood as physical violence against another’s person or property, a crime (or sin) as likely to be committed by individuals as by the state. Think of the Hippocratic Oath. In the old days, when most doctors really saw their profession as a vocation, the ancient axiom carried meaning: primum non nocere.

It is that principle that Mr. Burke, a professor of religion at Temple University, attempts to resurrect. It used to be said that if you gave a Jesuit the first premise of the argument, he would win the debate. It is as difficult to deny the conservative criticism of libertarianism as it is to deny Mr. Burke’s first premise: a general prohibition of causing harm to person or property ought to be the legal foundation of a civilized society. From this seemingly non-controversial premise, Mr. Burke constructs a finely argued case for the social ethic of libertarianism, which recognizes that the flowering of prosperity and civilization requires social peace along with individual and communal freedom.

Professor Burke’s work, then, is evidence of this mature sort of libertarianism afoot in the land. He is widely read, knowledgeable about history and theory, sophisticated in his understanding of philosophy, and, most importantly, deeply concerned about moral values. He has brought forth a well-rounded, well-documented, and clearly written defense of the free society.

From the first pages of No Harm, Mr. Burke directs his attention to the falsifiability of his argument, a mark of both intellectual integrity and confidence. We learn from reading his work that Mr. Burke has seen various aspects of the debate he initiates in his book, and demonstrates a personal willingness to revise his thesis when the facts necessitate such a revision.

No Harm approaches the defense of the free society from several vantage points: historical, arguing that with the rise of science eventually came economic prosperity and the liberal doctrine of tolerance; economics, favoring the market economy over the state-directed society; and moral philosophy. Unlike so many similar books, this work is never dull, and inevitably employs just the right illustration to clarify a point.

The book covers a wide scope of questions, including monopolies, market failure, the individual and community, the Great Depression, the role of labor unions, and the implication of just price, the living wage, and victimless crimes. In each of these areas the author proves unafraid to apply and test his theory, with persuasive results.

Only one area is really left untouched, and it is the great divide between libertarians: the question of abortion. From the principle so carefully outlined throughout the book, we can conclude that causing harm is the violation of the person. Granting that determination and ownership of the individual human being is a difficult area, based on such strictly libertarian thinking, even the secular philosopher ought to regard abortion as a violation of the no harm principle.

I urge critics of libertarianism to read and understand Mr. Burke’s presentation. They would thereby appreciate both historical and moral dangers of excessive state involvement in social and economic life. Conservatives can especially benefit from understanding the book’s primary moral premise, so they can more informatively direct their intellectual fire. In all, this is a welcome contribution to the debate.


No Harm: Ethical Principles for a Free Market
T. Patrick Burke
Paragon House
289 pages, $24.95

This article originally appeared in the September 1995 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Rev. Robert A. Sirico

    Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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