Is Selfishness A Libertarian Virtue?


It probably won’t shock you to hear that the majority of friends I made while working on undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy are liberals or socialists. However, libertarians might be shocked to know just how the outside world sees us. While I can’t make absolute claims about everyone’s perspective, I can point to a specific trend my friends have every time we go grab drinks. At least once per outing, someone will undoubtedly say something like this: “I’d love to buy you a drink, but I’m going to be a libertarian tonight and not do anything for anyone except myself!”

Then they laugh.  I attempt to correct their misunderstanding with a one-sentence response while knowing that saying anything more will take the conversation into a dull and irritating direction. Then we go about our night.

So why is it that libertarians are thought of as selfish, callous, and greedy? Well, I certainly can’t account for every reason, but I can say that a good place to start the search for a reason is to look at Ayn Rand and her political philosophy. When a prominent figurehead of the libertarian movement authors a book titled The Virtue of Selfishness, it’s not hard to understand why those outside of the libertarian camp think that the only things libertarians are concerned with are themselves and their money. So, the question must be asked: “Is this admittedly widespread view accurate?”

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  1. Gretchen Mangan Gretchen Mangan says:

    Libertarians are called selfish and worse. We discuss how others view us but have never really addressed it publicly. So glad you put the truth in writing and shared it. Great article Tayler!

  2. Tayler makes the point that it is not in our own best interest NOT to take care of our local communities. That needs to be highlighted because so often all we hear is how we would run things into the ground and exploit the “masses” if it were not for government.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. It is in our own best interest to do things the right way, hire the best people(discrimination does not pay dividends) and take care of our infrastructure as best as we can.

    Only when there is a third party introduce that will subsidize infrastructure, employment, and other business expenses do we get the sort of environment we see today.

    Government is not the solution; it is the source of the problem.

  3. Brett Larson says:

    The unstated bias in the “liberal and/or socialist” friends at the bar who choose to equate libertarians and selfishness is their belief that government control is the answer. People may or may not be selfish or at least self-interested, but in my view, the socialist is the one who is selfish, generally because they either believe:

    1.) (if they are part of government) That they should decide what to do with someone else’s money, property, or time -OR-
    2.) (if they are not part of government) That someone in government should be responsible for making sure that their needs are met.

    Either way, the rejection of personal responsibility is selfish. The libertarian believes that the individual is responsible for itself, but not in a selfish manner, but as not to be a burden on society. The idea of “forced charity through government” presupposes that without government force, individuals would not choose to help their fellow man. And, maybe, liberals are so selfish that they require a government to force them to help others, but as a libertarian I would prefer that government step back and give me the freedom to help those in need without the waste of bureaucracy.

    I can’t see how that is selfish at all.

  4. IMHO this idea stems from the theory that the BEST/ONLY way to distribute resources to help others in society is via a “non-biased” democratically elected government. This leads back to the charity at gunpoint argument. Another one, I once heard, was government is their religion, the lawmakers their clergy, the capitols their churches, the IRS their collection basket and abortion their sacrament. Rough crowd statements, not mine but encapsulates the liberal academic culture very accurately.

    • This bears repeating:

      “Government is their religion, the lawmakers their clergy, the capitols their churches, the IRS their collection basket and abortion their sacrament.”