3. Myth: Libertarians are selfish.
Some libertarians are selfish, but libertarians are no more likely to be selfish than non-libertarians. You see, libertarians don’t think compassion is something you leave at the voting booth. And if it’s compulsory, it’s not really compassion at all, is it? Self-interest is certainly a part of our worldview. To deny one’s natural inclinations toward pursuing happiness is just kooky asceticism (unless, of course, asceticism somehow makes you happy.) We also know prosperity is the result of “selfish” people going about their business — trucking, bartering and trading.
But people have selfless instincts, too. So how should people manifest those instincts, by actively looking after our neighbors or by watching MSNBC and bitching about the rich? Libertarians are charitable to the extent that human beings are charitable. We happen to think individuals are better at making decisions about charity than central authorities. In fact, we consider it morally lazy to conflate higher taxes and forced redistribution with compassion. And we consider it strange to justify coercion by appeal to compassion. Think about it: Would it be morally justified for me to walk up to a man on the street and hold him up at gunpoint if I planned to give his money to charity? If not, what does a mob of voters and a corruptible legislature add to this story?
4. Myth: Libertarians don’t care if poor people (especially children) starve and sick people die.
In the interests of some grand compromise, most libertarians would tolerate some sort of minimum income or safety net — but it would look nothing like the monstrous entitlement system we have today. I don’t want to be flippant. I’m using strong language because today’s entitlement state is truly monstrous. It creates a dependent underclass — i.e., folks essentially paid to be poor. Bizarrely, it forces younger, poorer people to pay for the pensions (Social Security) and healthcare of rich people in Boca Raton. And it corrupts/crowds out the philanthropic sector. Helping the poor with welfare is like putting out a fire with sweet crude.
5. Myth: Libertarians think people should be able to do whatever they want.
No. Libertarians think people should be able to do whatever they want as long as: they don’t harm others or others’ property; they are not contractually bound to forego certain activities; and their own freely chosen moral systems don’t proscribe it. On the latter: I know quite a few Mormon libertarians. They swear off caffeine, tobacco and alcohol. (These are some of my favorite vices!) But most Mormons don’t see it as the state’s responsibility to take care of my body or my spirit. It’s mine. By Mormon lights, I have to choose the straight and narrow for it to matter. Moral practice is both a private and social affair, to be sure. But “social” doesn’t extend to state power. It’s about the free formation of moral communities. What other kind of morality is there but the kind one chooses? State-enforced “good” has always ended up in varying degrees being on the wrong side of history — from the Inquisition to the Great Leap Forward. That is why, for libertarians, tolerance is a prime virtue.