Liberty or Utilitarianism: Which Do You Choose?

By Russell D. Longcore

(Editor’s Note: I wrote this in 2009, and it was the first article I posted at DumpDC.)

I read an essay by the late Murray Rothbard recently, taken from his book “Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature.” In the essay, he focuses on the reasons that people choose to be Libertarians, and the reasons others choose Utilitarianism. (note that he  wrote “Libertarians,” not “liberty.” One can love liberty without becoming a Libertarian.)

I admit that I did not have a clear understanding of the definition of the word “utilitarianism.” So, I looked it up in a few dictionaries. To my utter shock, I discovered the philosophical underpinning of our US Federal Government.

Webster’s Dictionary defines “utilitarianism” thus:

“1. The doctrine that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the end and aim of all social and political institutions. –Jeremy Bentham.

2. The doctrine that virtue is founded in utility, or that virtue is defined and enforced by its tendency to promote the highest happiness of the universe. –John Stuart Mill.

3. The doctrine that utility is the sole standard of morality, so that the rectitude of an action is determined by its usefulness.”

A few thoughts have percolated through my gray matter in this regard:

A. Every person has a worldview. It is a compilation of experience and education. It is the filter…the eyeglasses, so to speak…through which we evaluate our world and the cosmos. Many people go through their entire lives unaware of their own worldview, but it’s always there. It may change as life passes, or it can remain calcified for a lifetime.

Your worldview will either draw you to, or repel you from, certain things. But your worldview is the yardstick with which you measure all things. So, in this context, a person that believed strongly in individual rights, natural law and property rights would be repelled by strong government. Conversely, a person who believed in the efficacy of government would be drawn to Utilitarianism.

Capitalism, and the US Constitution, were built on absolutes, an iron stake driven into frozen earth. Utilitarianism is as fluid as water, seeking its own level, and taking the shape of its container. Capitalism has inviolable principles, and the Constitution strictly limited the scope of the Federal Government. Utilitarianism goes along to get along, and forsakes absolutes.

Utilitarianism is an existentialist manifestation of “situational ethics.” If one promotes the greatest good for the greatest number, one must also accept that the “greatest good” will change from issue to issue. One must also accept that the “greatest good” is defined by those with the power and the guns. So Utilitarianism can’t stand absolutes.

B. Utilitarians are kindred spirits with Socialists. Socialism is a kind of political midpoint on the journey from Capitalism to Communism. The USA began with a Capitalist worldview combined with fierce protection of individual property rights. Utilitarian politicians have, over time, eroded those property rights with laws supposedly promoting the greatest good for the greatest number. But Capitalism has now become Mercantilism in America. The government oppresses the masses to create competitive advantages for a select few. Naturally, those laws would require ever-creeping governmental control over property rights. Socialists can tolerate Capitalism so long as the government has primary control over the economy, citizens and their property rights. So, Socialists are all Utilitarians, but not all Utilitarians are necessarily Socialists.

C. Nature abhors a vacuum. As Capitalist/Constitutional absolutes have been forsaken, Utilitarian doctrine has rushed into the void. We now have a Federal Government filled with people that believe that utility is the sole standard of morality, so that the rectitude of an action is determined by its usefulness. That is the very reason why Congress could vote in favor a multi-billion dollar bailout of the financial markets when the bailout is clearly unconstitutional.

Finally, in the tragedy and comedy which is the US Federal Government, they prove, once again, that they cannot even make Utilitarianism work correctly. They turn it on its head, and the greatest number become the sheep, sheared to bring the greatest good to a small special interest who are generous with their campaign contributions.

2 Responses to Liberty or Utilitarianism: Which Do You Choose?

  1. It’s funny how we all as individuals have this innate tendency to prosper but differing thoughts on how to do so. Those that believe in the power-of-the-state to do what is necessary for the security of the welfare of the people rather than the individual is how I would define utilitarian. Great post!

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