The Humble Case for Liberty

The virtue of humility is found in recognizing our limits — and that humility ought to make fans of limited government.

I could be wrong about pretty much anything. What I don’t know so outweighs what I do that my actual knowledge appears as little more than a small raft on an ocean of ignorance.

I suffer no shame admitting this unflattering fact, not only because there’s never any shame in acknowledging the truth, but also because everyone else is in the same boat. Our ignorance — what we don’t know — always and enormously outweighs our knowledge. It’s true of even the smartest and most educated.

Recognizing that fact ought to humble us. And that humility, informed by a realistic picture of how government operates, ought to make us libertarians. Libertarianism is a philosophy of humility. It’s one that takes us as we are and grants us the freedom to make as much of ourselves as we can. And it’s a philosophy that understands just how damaging human failings can be when coupled with the coercive force of government. Libertarianism limits rulers because it recognizes that rulers are just ordinary people who exercise extraordinary power — and that the harm that power can inflict more often than not outweighs any good it might achieve. Libertarianism rests on humility and refuses to tolerate the hubris of those who would consider themselves higher and mightier than others.

Let’s start by looking at what it means to have humility in our claims to knowledge. Each of us certainly seems to know quite a lot, from what we ate this morning to the number of moons circling Mars. We know that George Washington was the first president of the United States of America, that Boris Yeltsin was the first president of the Russian Federation, and that driving while drunk is a bad idea.

But if we look to the whole of intellectual history, we see one overturned conviction after another. What was scientific truth three hundred years ago is balderdash today. Our brightest once believed that you could understand a person’s mind and character by studying the bumps on his or her head. (It was given the scientific sounding name of “phrenology.”) The wise and the great were once certain that the Earth sat at the center of the universe.

It’s not just science that can’t seem to finally and forever get it right. Very smart people have argued about deep philosophical problems for as long as there have been very smart people. Two and a half millennia ago, Plato thought he’d figured out what justice is. Most philosophers since have disagreed — but none have offered an alternative that wasn’t itself open to strong counter-argument.

We ought to always be skeptical of claims to absolute knowledge. If you believe a philosophical point is settled, you’re almost certainly wrong. If you believe science today understands a topic fully, you’re likely to find in just a few years that it didn’t. Furthermore, if we’re properly skeptical about humanity’s knowledge in general, we ought to be even more skeptical about proclamations of certainty from individual members of our species.

But all of that doesn’t stop many of us from often feeling like there’s just no way we could be wrong.

It was in college that I first began to understand how common such intellectual hubris is. I was baffled by how broadly many of my professors saw their own expertise. A PhD in early twentieth-century American comedic film felt qualified to critique the cutting edge of physics research and to lecture his students on which types of cancer ought to get the most funding. It happens outside the university, too, especially in politics. How many Americans look at the fantastic complexity of our health care delivery system and say, “Oh, I know how to fix that”? How many voters without even basic knowledge of economics think it’s clear which candidate’s proposals will promote prosperity? It takes some effort to admit that we could be wrong about the things we think we have good reason to believe. But at the very least, it ought to be easier to recognize when we clearly know nothing about a topic.

Furthermore, many of us aren’t adequately skeptical about the move from knowledge of facts to knowledge of values. Take nutritionists, for example. They believe they know which foods are most healthy, that is, which give us the most nutrients with the least harmful other stuff. If we consume substance X, we can expect result Y. (Of course, even that knowledge has changed dramatically in recent years.) But notice this “is” doesn’t get us to an “ought.” What’s healthy is a different question entirely from what I ought to eat.

I can recognize that fried potatoes aren’t as healthy as steamed broccoli while still being right that I ought to eat French fries for dinner tonight. That’s because what I ought to eat doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as what’s healthiest for me. “Ought” can include other values, too, such as the pleasure I’ll get, the varying prices of the alternatives, and so on. Nutrition speaks to the one value (what’s healthy), but it has nothing to say about the rest.

Proper skepticism applies to both others and to us. I should be skeptical about your claims of absolute certainty, and I should likewise be skeptical about the veracity of my own. Such skepticism shouldn’t make us abandon all claims to knowledge, of course. But it should lead us to adopt an attitude of humility. Knowing others face the same difficulties in ascertaining truth, we should expect humility from them, as well.

This is where humility urges us in the direction of libertarianism. If we embrace legitimate skepticism about our knowledge of both truth and values, then we should hesitate before compelling people who may disagree with us to live by our convictions. We should hesitate, in other words, before reaching for a club or calling on the police to use their nightsticks.

Why? Any policy may turn out to be bad or ineffective, but can’t we always go back and fix it? And what of the gains to be had in trying to make the world better by coercing others, either by our own force, or via state action, even if it means occasionally making things worse for some people? If we’re pretty sure our values are correct and our facts support them, then what’s the harm in using politics to make everyone else comply?

To show what’s wrong with that line of thinking, it may help to think about the purpose of life. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed the only thing desired for its own sake is the achievement of eudaimonia — usually translated as “happiness” or “flourishing.”

Aristotle believed that eudaimonia isn’t something found in discrete moments of pleasure or pain (what we often mean when we say, “I’m happy”) but instead is found only in an assessment of a life taken as a whole. At the end of a life, we look back and ask, “Was it good?” Everything we are, every reason we have for being, is bound up in being able to answer “yes” when our time comes.

Aristotle had his own idea of the best life, the life that exhibited eudaimonia to the highest degree. He thought it meant living in accord with that which is uniquely human: our capacity to reason — and from this he concluded that the highest and best life was one spent in contemplation. Perhaps it is not surprising that one of the world’s greatest philosophers thought happiness flowed from a life of philosophy.

For Aristotle, of course, it did. But just as we need to recognize the limits of our knowledge about the external world, we must also be humble in our prescriptions of the recipe for the good life. Happiness for me may not be the same thing as happiness for you. There is no generic “human being” who is happy, but billions of very diverse human beings. Happiness may be found in contemplation, but it can also come through raising children, experiencing great art, building a successful business, becoming an athlete, or helping those less fortunate. And if the good life for each individual is bound up in the specific features of their lives, so too are the paths to achieving it. How I go about making my life good can vary from the way you do — not just in the goals we each aim at but also in the ways we assure our aim is true.

While Aristotle may have gotten some of the details wrong, I think he was right about the broad picture. Most people want to live good, satisfying lives — and a good life is, we might say, a life lived in pursuit of the good life. As the American founders put it in the Declaration of Independence, it’s “the pursuit of happiness.” Our various pursuits may take different paths, depending on our circumstances, interests, and values. It’s the pursuit that matters.

Respecting each other — recognizing each other’s dignity as self-directing (what the philosophers call “autonomous”) beings — means respecting different forms of that quest. It means not actively inhibiting each other in our pursuits of the good — and recognizing the right each of us has to choose his or her own path.

I’ve come to the conclusion that that necessarily entails a state that is radically limited, certainly compared to the actual states we see around the world. To understand why, we need to have a realistic view of how governments operate.

In their private lives, people often act poorly, or pursue their own selfish interests, even when it means harming others. Sometimes they hurt other people just for the thrill of it. Pickpockets steal from strangers, scam artists prey on the elderly. Many people, when they think about government, assume that those undesirable traits vanish when someone enters public office. Politicians abandon selfishness and become motivated only by a desire to promote the public good.

That’s silly, of course. People remain themselves, even when given fancy titles and power over the lives of others. Being a politician or a bureaucrat doesn’t automatically make one better informed — or better — than the rest of us. There is a group of thinkers who take the realistic approach to understanding government, that people don’t change their natures when they enter government; they just change the institutional constraints they face, because they have powers that the rest of us lack. Their school of thought is known as “public choice.”

Public choice teaches us that politicians and state officials use the knowledge they have available to make the best decisions they can, with “best” being a product of their own judgment and also of their own interests. Those interests could, of course, include money and fame, but more often mean simply staying in power.

The result is that politics frequently means helping the most vocal — the people most visible to politicians — and doing so at the expense of everyone else. That’s why the state enacts and maintains such truly awful policies — such as agricultural subsidies that raise food prices and lead to wasteful misuse of resources — that fly in the face of evidence and reason. Few politicians actively want bad policies. Instead, they’re motivated by the people who show up: the farmers benefiting from these programs. And, because they can’t see as directly the harmful effects their laws and regulations have on everyone else (higher prices of food, reduced variety, etc.), they continue to support policies most of us would be better off without.

Moreover, even those harmed frequently remain unaware of the harm being done. It would cost too much to become informed — more than we could recoup even if we were able to repeal those bad policies. So we remain, as public choice economists say, “rationally ignorant,” and since we remain ignorant of the burdens those policies place on us, we aren’t able to inform the politicians whom we vote into office. The special interests tend to be “squeakier wheels” than the rest of us.

It’s important to recognize that this isn’t the result of having “the wrong people” in office. It’s not something that can be fixed by electing better leaders. Instead, it’s just the way government works when it grows beyond certain narrow limits.

Another fact about government that ought to trouble the humble is just how far its reach extends. Imagine I have very particular values when it comes to educating children, and that I have certain beliefs about the best way to achieve those values. If I don’t control the state, my reach extends no further than my kids — and any children whose parents voluntarily participate in my program.

But if I can flex the state’s muscle in support of my values and beliefs, I can extend my reach to all the children in my town, or in my region, or even in my entire country. Nobody will have any choice but to bring their children up with the educational values I prefer.

If we’re good skeptics, this should concern us deeply, because those beliefs about the best way to educate children may turn out to be incorrect, in which case it’s not just a handful of kids harmed, but all of them. And what if parents disagree — as they do — on what “best” even means in this case? What if they simply have different values when it comes to education? A state without the proper limits forces us into a one-size-fits-all approach — one that assumes some person or group can definitively know what’s good for everyone. We should all be skeptical of such claims. We should all take a good dose of humility.

So what are those limits to government? What would a state based on a proper level of skepticism look like? It would be one restricted to providing an environment in which its citizens are free to pursue the good life as each understands it.

We can’t meaningfully pursue the good under constant threat of violence, so the state should protect us from others who would do us bodily harm. And we can’t acquire and make full use of the resources we need to lead good lives if we aren’t secure in our holdings, so the state should act to limit theft — and require thieves to compensate us for those thefts that do occur.

When the state does those things — when it protects us from violence, fraud, and theft — then it fulfills the role of freeing each citizen to pursue the good life in ways as personal and unique as his or her own values.

When the state does more, however — when it takes resources from us beyond what it needs to meet those duties and when it flexes its coercive might to force some of us to live by the values of others — it fails to grant us the dignity we deserve as rational, autonomous human beings. It substitutes its judgments for our own and places barriers in our pursuit of the good life.

In the end, if we need a state, we need it because of its usefulness to us in our pursuits of happiness. We need it for that, and no more. Having the proper degree of humility means recognizing that, no matter how certain we may feel that we have things figured out, we cannot use the state to force others into whichever mold we might prefer. To do so is to succumb to hubris and to abandon the lessons of history. What seems obvious today will very likely come off as risible tomorrow.

If we become humble, we will see the world as an often overwhelmingly complex place, filled with people on personal journeys to pursue happiness. We will be skeptical of calls to give the state power to do more than protect our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As another humble philosopher, John Locke, put it, “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Using violence to shape the lives of others in ways we prefer, but they do not, is anything but humble. Refraining from violence and resorting instead to voluntary persuasion is the humble — and libertarian — alternative.

Wisdom consists not only in realizing one’s powers, but in realizing their limits.

This essay originally appeared in Why Liberty?, an essay collection edited by Tom G. Palmer and published by Students for Liberty and the Atlas Network.