There are many aspects of Libertarianism which are very compelling, such as their desire to remove waste, to acknowledge the power of government to do evil, and to show the power that freedom gives people to overcome their problems. However, when taken too far, Libertarianism tends to denigrate humans, and what it means to be human. The pushing of contract law as the only rational type of law points to a flawed misunderstanding of people. The restriction of the definition of “harm” to “physical harm” misunderstands the breadth of humanity – moral harm is possibly worse than physical harm, but Libertarianism doesn’t allow for that.
In a similar vein is the doctrine of the “sovereignty of the individual.” It sounds good – we all want to be our own masters, don’t we? What does this, specifically, state? It says, according to G. A. Cohen, “each person enjoys, over himself and his powers, full and exclusive rights of control and use, and therefore owes no service or product to anyone else that he has not contracted to supply.” The problem is that we do owe services, and maybe products, to others that we have not contracted to supply.
The big question is this: can you be bound – both morally and legally – to obligations duties that you did not agree to? My answer is a strong, definitive, “yes.” In fact, life is mostly about fulfilling obligations that we did not choose.
Family is the place where this is most obvious, but it applies elsewhere, too. We all have an obligation to our parents. The 10 commandments, in addition to telling us not to murder and steal, also tells us we have a basic duty to our parents. We also have a basic duty to our children, whether or not we specifically chose to have them. Abortion in all cases where the life of the mother is not also at risk is wrong, because of the duties and obligations we owe to our children, even if they were conceived in violence against our will. If a stranger drops a baby on my doorstep, I have a moral obligation to that baby to at least make sure it makes its way to another’s hands, or, if none other will take it, the obligation becomes mine. If someone is drowning next to you, and crying out for help, and you decide not to help them, you are liable for their death, and rightly so. You have obligations to others which you do not choose, and the government has a rightful role to enforce at least some of these.
Therefore, I am against the sovereignty of the individual as a general concept. However, I do think there are ideas which serve similar purposes which are not as problematic. For instance, it is problematic for the government to serve as mediator in most of these obligations. That is, if someone drops a baby on my doorstep, I am morally required to help it out. If I do not, I should be held liable. What I shouldn’t have to do is to contact the government at any point in the process as long as I am fulfilling my moral duties. The government should only invoke action if they have a legitimate reason to think that I am failing to do one of my moral obligations. So, as long as I am fulfilling my moral obligations, there is no reason for the government to mediate the operation. This gets rid of a lot of the busy-bodying that government does, without weakening the morality of the law. In addition, I would also agree that all governances should be exercise extreme caution when legislating a duty or service that we have not contracted to supply.
This is part of what I call the diminishing return of laws in MicroSecession. Part of what law does is help teach us the standards and morals of society. When that list becomes large, then the effect of each law becomes less. There are so many laws about so many things that all law is now viewed as a burden. Law can be a gift, but when done in excess it becomes a burden. Part of this is a failure to recognize the larger moral obligations to God and each other, which Libertarians usually want to get rid of. But, as G. K. Chesterton warns, “When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.” The overabundance of rules that we have is because we have forgotten the big laws, and now must be ruled by a tyranny of small laws.
In any case, while the “sovereignty of the individual” can sometimes serve as a decent heuristic, it falls flat as a general theory of governance.