The phrase “liberal right” may strike some people as a contradiction in terms. But it is not. It is an integration of terms that logically belong together.1 And it is an integration that advocates of reason and freedom would do well to understand and embrace.
Historically, the essential, life-serving characteristics of liberalism (i.e., classical liberalism) have been a concern for rational inquiry, individual rights, freedom of speech, and economic liberty. Likewise, the essential, life-serving characteristics of the political right (i.e., the American right) have been a concern for property rights, free markets, and the social system that protects them: capitalism.
Seen in this light, key principles of liberalism and the political right are of a piece. This will become increasingly clear as we lay out basic principles drawn from each, state them in terms of essentials, and see how they unite into a coherent ideology grounded in observation and logic.
The principles presented below are not an exhaustive list of the ideas of the liberal right. That would require a book. Rather, these are the most basic, most general principles of the ideology. Other principles that correspond to reality and thus support a culture of reason and freedom would qualify for inclusion in a comprehensive presentation. But our purpose here is to focus on essentials.
Nor is the aim of this essay to show the steps by which each principle is derived or induced. That too would require a book, or at least an article dedicated to each principle. (That said, I will include links or citations to articles or books that focus on such derivations.) Nor is the aim to show how these principles apply to various issues of the day. That is the purpose of a periodical such as The Objective Standard, which publishes a steady stream of articles in this vein.
The aim of the present essay is simply to set forth a body of integrated, observation-based principles in support of a culture of reason and freedom.
Principles of the Liberal Right
Reason is man’s only means of knowledge.
The entire history of civilization, science, and human progress demonstrates that man’s means of knowledge—and his only means of knowledge—is reason, the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses.2
We acquire knowledge by observing reality; integrating our observations into concepts, generalizations, and principles; checking our conclusions against the laws of logic; and correcting any contradictions we discover along the way. This is how people discovered the principles of physics and engineering, biology and nutrition, chemistry and medicine, agriculture, economics, pedagogy, psychology, (objective) morality, properly limited government, and every other field of (genuine) knowledge.
Reason is the means by which we discover what things are, what properties they have, and how we can use them to support and enhance our lives. This is why parents encourage children to “Use your head.” It’s why teachers urge students to study. It’s why courts of law require evidence in support of claims. And it’s why we visit genuine doctors—those who have used reason to become experts in their fields—rather than faith healers or witch doctors or psychics.
Knowledge does not come from faith, revelation, or any other form of extrasensory perception (ESP). Knowledge is a product of perceptual observation, conceptual integration, and logic. It is a product of reason.
The liberal right recognizes and upholds reason as man’s only means of knowledge.3
The requirements of human life and flourishing constitute the objective standard of moral value and political legitimacy.
The only way to determine which moral or political principles are right and which are wrong is by reference to an objective standard of moral value. Such a standard is derived from reality by reference to the questions, “What are values? And why does man need them?” In pursuing answers to these questions, we discover that our values are the things we act to gain or keep, and that the reason we need to gain and keep things is in order to live and flourish.4 (If we didn’t want to live and flourish, we wouldn’t need values at all; we could just be still, and we would soon die.)5
The liberal right holds the requirements of human life and flourishing as the standard of moral value because these requirements are the only standard supported by reason. Although the chain of observations and integrations that gives rise to this principle is beyond the scope of this article, the principle makes sense even on a cursory glance at our own lives and the world around us. The only reason people need moral values and principles in life is to enable them to think in terms of the long-range and wide-range requirements of a lifetime of flourishing. People who want to live a life of meaning, purpose, and happiness need guidance toward that end. And we are not born with knowledge about this. Nor do we acquire it automatically. If we want it, we must observe reality and form general truths to guide our actions accordingly. Hence the need of moral principles: general truths about the choices, values, actions, and social conditions necessary for human flourishing.
The liberal right recognizes both the need of an objective standard of morality and the fact that the requirements of human life constitute that standard.
Each individual’s own life and happiness are properly his own ultimate value.
Because human beings are individuals—each with his own body, his own mind, his own life—each individual’s own life is properly his own ultimate value. This means that each individual should pursue his own life-serving values, that each is responsible for his own choices and actions, and that each must respect the rights of others to pursue their values. (More on the principle of rights below.)
Treating one’s life as one’s ultimate value does not mean treating other people unjustly. Clearly, other people—so long as they are rational, productive, honest, and rights-respecting—are of great value (or potential value) to rational, life-loving people. They provide friendships, romance, business relationships, goods and services, recreational engagement, and all manner of social value. Treating people justly—as they deserve to be treated—is in one’s best interest because it maximizes good (life-serving) relationships and minimizes bad (life-stifling) ones. Every rational person can see this in his own life and the lives of his friends and family.
Treating your own life as your ultimate value means using your mind to guide your life in a manner that will maximize your achievements and happiness over the course of your lifetime. It means recognizing that your mind controls your choices and actions, that you are responsible for your choices and actions, and that your choices and actions form your character and substantially determine the course of your life. Likewise, it means recognizing that every other individual’s mind controls his choices and actions, that he is responsible for them, and so on.
The liberal right recognizes that rational self-interest and self-responsibility are moral virtues because they are basic requirements of human life and flourishing—and because pursuing a life of flourishing is precisely what each individual morally should do.6
A human being’s basic means of living is the rational judgment of his own mind.
Human beings live and thrive most fundamentally by using reason—observation, conceptualization, and logic—to understand the world and their needs and to choose courses of action that sustain and advance their lives. In short, we live by acting in accordance with our rational judgment.
This is why parents encourage children to think before they act. It’s why we prize rational judgment in business partners, politicians, friends, and lovers. And it’s why we assign “Darwin Awards” to people whose patent irrationality causes them harm or death.
The liberal right recognizes the fact that in order to live and flourish, an individual must think rationally and act accordingly. In short, he must act on his rational judgment.
To the extent that physical force is used against a person, he cannot act in accordance with his rational judgment.
What can stop a person from acting on the judgment of his mind? Other people and governments can. And the only way they can do it is by means of physical force.
If and to the extent that a person or a government physically forces an individual to act against his judgment, he clearly cannot act in accordance with his judgment. He must act as the force wielder dictates; thus, he cannot live the life of a human being. He is forced to “live” as something less. This is why slavery is immoral; it’s why dictatorships are immoral; and it’s why all lesser degrees of initiatory force against human beings are immoral. A human life is a life guided by the judgment of one’s own mind.
We can see the evil effects of initiatory physical force throughout history—for instance, in the horrors of slavery in the antebellum South (and Africa today), communism in the USSR (and North Korea today), and theocracy in medieval Europe (and Iran today). We can also see the evil of such force at the immediate, personal, perceptual level: If a person or a government puts a gun to your head and tells you to shut up, or to hand over your money, or to take off your clothes, or to get on the train, you cannot act on your judgment; you must do as the gun wielder commands or die. To the extent that his force stops you from acting on your judgment, you cannot live as a human being. You are relegated to living as something less—or not living at all.
The liberal right recognizes the fact that to the extent that a human being is forced to act against his judgment—his basic means of living—he cannot live a life proper to a human being.
Each individual morally must be free to act on his own judgment, so long as he does not violate the same rights of others.
This is the principle of individual rights. Observe that this principle is stated in moral terms. “Each individual morally must be free to act on his own judgment.” Rights are primarily moral matters, and understanding this fact is crucial to understanding why rights precede governments and are not created by governments.
As Ayn Rand put it, rights form the bridge between ethics and politics:
“Rights” are a moral concept—the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others—the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context—the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.7
The moral law in play here is the recognition of the fact that, in order to live, an individual must act in accordance with his rational judgment. Individual rights subordinate society—including all governmental policies and laws—to this more fundamental principle. Any action or policy that infringes on the individual’s freedom to act in accordance with his judgment is by that fact morally wrong and properly illegal. (More on objective law below.)
The principle of individual rights subsumes the rights to life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness, and freedom of speech—all of which are factual requirements of human life, each with a different emphasis:
- The right to life is the right to take all of the actions required by the nature of a human being to support and further his life.
- The right to liberty is the right to act in accordance with one’s own judgment, free of coercion by other people and governments.
- The right to property is the right to keep, use, and dispose of the products of one’s efforts.
- The right to the pursuit of happiness is the right to pursue the goals and values of one’s choosing.
- The right to freedom of speech is the right to express one’s views regardless of what others think or feel about them.
Importantly, all such rights pertain to freedom of action. They are not “rights” to be given goods or services. In logic, there cannot be any such thing as a right to be given a good or service—such as food, medical care, or education. Such a “right” entails a contradiction: It implies that someone must be forced to provide the good or service. In logic, rights can pertain only to freedom of action—and only to action that does not violate the rights of others.8
The liberal right upholds the principle that all individuals have an inalienable right to act on their own judgment and to keep and use the product of their own effort—so long as they do not violate the same rights of others.
The individual—not the collective or society—is the basic unit of moral and political concern.
This is the principle of individualism, which stands in contrast to that of collectivism.
Individualism is the idea that the individual’s life belongs to him and that he has an inalienable right to live it as he sees fit—so long as he does not violate the rights of others.
Collectivism is the idea that the individual’s life belongs not to him but to the group or society of which he is merely a part, that he has no rights, and that he must sacrifice his values and goals for the group’s “greater good.” According to collectivism, the group or society is the basic unit of moral and political concern, and the individual is of value only insofar as he serves the group. As one advocate of this idea puts it:
Man has no rights except those which society permits him to enjoy. From the day of his birth until the day of his death society allows him to enjoy certain so-called rights and deprives him of others; not . . . because society desires especially to favor or oppress the individual, but because its own preservation, welfare, and happiness are the prime considerations.9
Collectivism is the ideology that gave rise to communism (in which the community is the unit of concern), socialism (in which society is the unit), Nationalism or Nazism (in which the “master race” is the unit), and fascism (in which the nation is the unit). And, as history shows in gory detail, this ideology is responsible for the suffering, starvation, and slaughter of hundreds of millions of people—and counting.
Rights-protecting government is a necessary good.
A rights-protecting government protects rights by banning physical force from social relationships, and by using force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. Such a government outlaws murder, rape, assault, fraud, extortion, and the like; prosecutes those it has reason to believe have committed crimes; punishes those found guilty of committing crimes; protects citizens from foreign aggressors; and settles rights-oriented disputes among citizens.
Contrary to the views of anarchists, rights-protecting government is both possible and necessary. We can see that such a government is possible by observing that some governments operate in a manner much closer to this ideal than others (e.g., governments of the United States and Norway vs. those of Iran and North Korea), and by noting that we can specify what a relatively rights-protecting government must do to become fully rights-protecting: It must begin repealing laws and policies that involve or permit initiatory force, and it must continue in this manner until it achieves the moral ideal of using force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.
We can see that rights-protecting government is necessary by observing that we cannot live and prosper if we constantly have to worry about being assaulted by criminals, or attacked by foreign aggressors, or coming to blows over disagreements with fellow citizens. Take these points in turn.
Some people don’t respect rights and will use force to get what they want.
Consider Larry Nassar, Bernie Madoff, Mafia types, and all of the lesser criminals who use force, extortion, fraud, or the like to satisfy their irrational desires. If we want to live peaceful, productive, happy lives, we need a way of dealing with such creatures so that we don’t constantly have to worry about them attacking, assaulting, or defrauding us or our loved ones. By delegating to a government the task of using retaliatory force against those who initiate force, we can go about living and loving our lives in relative peace and safety.
In the absence of a rights-protecting government, we would have to protect ourselves from lone predators and violent gangs who would be free to roam the streets, raping, robbing, murdering. To alleviate this unlivable condition and to protect our lives, our property, our loved ones, we would have to form militias or gangs ourselves. The result would be gang warfare as a way of life.
A rights-protecting government solves this problem by providing rights-protecting laws, police, courts, and prisons.
Foreign aggressors, rogue regimes, and terrorist groups can and do seek to coerce or kill peaceful, rights-respecting people.
Consider the murderous regimes in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea; and terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah. When theocratic, socialist, or other evil regimes or groups violate or threaten our rights, we need a means of eliminating the threats. A rights-protecting government, equipped with a capable military, serves this purpose. Without such a government, we would have to fend off foreign aggressors ourselves—which would require us to form militias and gangs—which, in turn, would cause the further problem of the threats that such gangs, unhindered by a government of laws, would pose to our rights.
A rights-protecting government solves this problem by providing an objectively controlled military whose function is limited to dealing with foreign aggressors.
Rights disputes can and do arise among rational, honest, rights-respecting people.
Good people can and sometimes do disagree over business contracts, marriage contracts, property lines, rights-of-way, water supplies, and other matters pertaining to their rights—and sometimes they are unable to settle such disputes on their own. In the absence of a government with objectively defined laws and impartial courts, such disputes could and sometimes would turn violent.
A rights-protecting government solves this problem by providing an objective means of adjudication.
In sum, a government dedicated to the protection of individual rights enables people to live in relative safety from criminals and foreign aggressors, to peacefully settle disputes concerning rights, and thus to put their time and energy toward producing and trading values and living and loving life.
The liberal right recognizes these facts and thus supports the establishment and maintenance of rights-protecting government.11
The only proper purpose of government is to protect individual rights.
Government has only one morally legitimate purpose: to protect individual rights. Government fulfills this vital function by banning the use of physical force from social relationships and by using force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.12
In terms of domestic policy, insofar as an individual (or business) refrains from initiating physical force against people or committing fraud, extortion, or the like, a proper government leaves him fully free to act on his own judgment and to keep and use the product of his effort. Insofar as an individual engages in coercion—whether direct force (e.g., assault) or indirect force (e.g., fraud)—a proper government employs the police and courts as necessary to stop him, to punish him, and to seek restitution for his victims.
Just as a free society requires complete separation of religion and state, so too it requires a complete separation of economics and state.13 Apart from protecting rights by banning force, fraud, extortion, and the like, government has no legitimate reason to interfere in the economy at all. This means no interference in medicine, health care, education, energy, banking, wages, media, or any other area of production and trade. It also means no corporate welfare, no entitlement programs, no wealth redistribution programs of any kind.
Likewise, for foreign policy: So long as a foreign country refrains from using (or threatening or encouraging) physical force against the citizens under protection of a rights-protecting government, the government refrains from interfering with that foreign country. But if a foreign country or gang attacks (or threatens to attack or urges others to attack) the citizens under its care, the rights-protecting government employs its resources to eliminate the threat as quickly as possible and with minimal risk to the lives of its own citizens and soldiers.
As with domestic policy, so too with foreign policy: The only proper purpose of government action is to protect the rights of the country’s citizens. This means no foreign aid, no nation building, no tariffs—no actions, expenditures, or restrictions of any kind except for those necessary to protect citizens’ rights.14
The liberal right recognizes the fact that government properly exists only to protect rights and that it may never engage in rights violations at home or abroad.
The only social system dedicated to the protection of individual rights is pure, laissez-faire capitalism.
Capitalism is the social system based on the principle of individual rights, including property rights, in which government is strictly limited to the protection of such rights. (This is the essence of genuine capitalism—not the mongrel system operative in America today, but pure, unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism.)
Under capitalism, government prohibits citizens from using physical force against each other, and a rights-protecting constitution prohibits the government from using force against citizens except in retaliation against those who initiate its use. (The closest thing to such a constitution in practice to date is the U.S. Constitution.) Under capitalism, all citizens are treated equally under the law, and none may receive special treatment or favors from government. Thus, everyone is fully free to act in accordance with his own judgment, to produce goods or services, and to offer them for voluntary trade in a free market.
Because the liberal right recognizes the moral imperative of protecting individual rights, it recognizes capitalism as the only moral social system—the only system that enables fully civilized life and maximum human flourishing.15
Voluntary charity is the only moral means of helping those who cannot help themselves.
An extremely small percentage of people are either severely mentally retarded or for some other reason unable to support themselves. In order to live, these unfortunate few must rely on charitable help from able people.
Fortunately, when able people are left fully free to act on their judgment and to keep and use the product of their effort, many of them become extremely wealthy—and many are willing and happy to help those who cannot help themselves. Even today, when federal, state, and local governments take 30 to 40 percent of their income, Americans give more than $390 billion a year to charities.16 Imagine how much they would give if they were not forced to fund countless cockamamie projects, boondoggles, and wealth-redistribution programs that they don’t want to fund.
The liberal right recognizes and upholds the principle that government has no moral right to force anyone to support others, that charity morally must be voluntary, and that when people are free to use their time and money as they see fit, many people are able and willing to help the relative few who genuinely cannot help themselves.17
* * *
The principles of the liberal right are derived from and supported by observable facts of reality and the requirements of human life. This is why they are true. And this is why they are properly the principles of the ideology that recognizes and upholds reason as man’s only means of knowledge and freedom as his proper political condition.
The Road to a Fully Free Society
Clearly, neither the United States nor any other country today is anywhere near the ideal of the liberal right. So how do we get there from here?
The short answer is: by thinking, speaking, and fighting in terms of these and related principles; by encouraging others to do the same; and by taking steps—large or small—toward this ideal at every opportunity.
Compromises along the way are acceptable, so long as they are not compromises of moral principle. Usually, this means simply that a compromise is acceptable when the net effect is a decrease in the extent to which rights are violated. Net increases in rights violations are never morally acceptable.
Proper applications of moral and political principles can be and often are non-obvious. The context surrounding a given issue always matters, and cultural and political issues can be extremely complex, requiring a great deal of analysis and essentialization. But we cannot even begin to apply such principles consistently until we understand them and see them as an integrated system of truths in support of a culture of reason and freedom.
The foregoing principles are the basic principles of the liberal right. They are the best ideas drawn from classical liberalism and the American right, essentialized for clarity, consistency, and precision. If you agree with these ideas—or even substantially agree with them—please share them with your friends, family, and colleagues. The more people who embrace this ideology, the faster we will move toward this ideal.