Libertarianism’s hidden shadow: Tyranny

English: Title page of the first printing of t...

English: Title page of the first printing of the Federalist Papers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For most people the word libertarian makes them think of liberty. Libertarians want to ensure individual freedom. At the same time, people will seek libertarianism as opposed to tyranny. Despite the surface belief, I argue that it hides a tyrannical soul. By tyrannical soul, I mean it contains the idea of tyranny. Tyranny is understood here as the political practice of a subordinating all common goods to their own individual good. The tyrant rules the city so that it serves his interests. The tyrant is not concerned with the common good for its own sake. To the extent that he is concerned with the common good, it is for his own interests such as security. When libertarianism encourages the pursuit of individual liberty, it encourages it at the expense of the common good. In this pursuit, it discourages democratic beliefs that support the common good and encourages tyrannical beliefs that erode the common good. In this belief, libertarianism undermines the American idea.

Is libertarianism a perversion of the American idea?

America is the idea that a people could form a government by consent and intent and not through accident and fraud. The America idea is expressed through its constitution, where We, the People, created a new government. We note that the We, the people, was set against the King, an individual, who ruled them tyrannically. The Americans rejected that the individual would rule the people at the expense of common good. Instead, they created a government born of the common good and created a more perfect union. The common good succeeds to the extent that Americans can practice self-government. Self-government, though, is more than the pursuit of individual liberty, it requires that the individual participate in the public domain. For an individual to participate in the public domain, they have to sacrifice their own individual good for the common good, which is expressed in the 10th Amendment. The individual has a role in the government, which if shirked in the pursuit of individual liberty, impoverishes the public good. Far from being the threat to our liberty, government is what binds American together and makes Americans.

At seminal events, Americans have focused on the common good over their individual good. When Lincoln renewed America’s founding, he reminded us of that common good in the Gettysburg Address. He spoke of a government, of the people, by the people, and for the people. He did not talk of the individual or individual liberty. Instead, he spoke of self-government and whether men could design and consent to a government that was based on the idea of self-government. Individual liberty he explained was found in self-government that required that the individuals devote themselves to something larger and more important than their own interests. The Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, refer to a res publica, a public thing that is held in common. Neither document puts individual liberty before the common good. They both are based on the idea that the common good is necessary for individual liberty.

Every Man a King destroys trust in self-government and nurtures tyranny

The American idea, as expressed by Lincoln and the Federalists, is based on an implicit trust in the government that is of the people, by the people, and for the people. Today, though, that trust is at a historic low corroded by an unremitting attack on government and the rule of law. The most vociferous critics have attacked the government in the name of liberty. In this attack, the critics encourage lawlessness and claim it is the only way to liberty. They forget that Americans believe that liberty develops from self-government and law abidingness that is America’s political religion. Those who attack the republic idea of government flatter the people with appeals to personal liberty. Their flattery masks tyrannical beliefs and behaviours. Throughout the ages demagogues have arisen who would flatter the people about their rights and freedoms and then impose a tyranny. America has known such demagogues who have touted individual liberty so that they could achieve their political aims. We recall Huey Long who proudly proclaimed that he would make Every Man a King. He would flatter everyone with the promise for their individual good at the expense of the common good. He promised tyranny for what is a king but a tyrant to an American in the name of liberty.

Flattery soon gives way to tyranny.

The founders feared demagogues who begin by flattery and end with tyranny.

It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants. (Federalist 1) [1]

Today, libertarian candidates would flatter Americans by defending their rights. Yet, their claims to subscribe to the founding fathers would require him to jettison his libertarianism. The Founding Fathers understood that an individual’s good, his liberty, depends on his ability to participate in the common good. Yet, that public activity relies on the bureaucratic state. The modern individual developed with the modern state. The individual requires a bureaucratic state infrastructure to act as an individual. Instead of the family or the tribe, the individual can act freely because a bureaucracy ensures the laws and government systems provide a safe and prosperous public domain. The individual does not have to enforce their own contracts or ensure their water is safe.

The individual destroys the common good, an eternal danger reborn by Rand Paul

As Socrates pointed out, the tyrannical life for non-philosophers is one in which the common goods are subordinated to one’s own individual good.[2] To the extent that a libertarian is concerned with the common good, it is only for their own good. They fear the loss of their own good more than they value the common good. Unlike Socrates who believes that his particular or individual good is derived from the universal good, the libertarian believes that the common good must serve the individual good as it comes before the common good. By contrast, the American founding is based on the idea of a universal good by which we judge any individual good. The individual good, according to the Federalist Papers, is found within the common good. Thus, we see the idea of a people creating a union; it is not individuals, as suggested by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan.

Libertarianism undermines the virtue by which soldiers serve the common good.

Our veterans understand their liberty requires devotion to a higher, common, good beyond their own good. We honour their service because they are patriots. A patriot loves his country and sacrifices their life for it. Their sacrifice, though, is not always death it can be their time, their health, and their opportunities. They do this for something that is more important than themselves for the highest common good the country.[3] To cheapen this sacrifice by equating it with libertarianism confuses sacrifice for selfishness. The patriot loves his country enough to sacrifice himself for it just as a parent would sacrifice their life for their family. Perhaps in the Libertarian America of Ayn Rand parents are to sacrifice their children for themselves. Our private good comes before the public good.

Can we recover the public life when we are told liberty depends on privacy?

If we pursue libertarianism to its logical conclusion, we would sacrifice the common good for the individual private good. We would embrace tyranny. Such individuals would seek a political leader who would deliver on that promise. Tyranny becomes viable as citizens forget the common good. We are encouraged to pursue privacy at the expense of our ability to participate in the public domain and share the common good. We relinquish our public right to democracy for the private pleasure of liberty. Privacy and libertarianism leads us away from the res publica, the public thing. Is this liberty or slavery to surrender the public domain and pursue private pleasures?


[2] Harry Neumann, Socrates in Plato and Aristophanes: In Memory of Ludwig Edelstein (1902-1965) The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 90, No. 2 (Apr., 1969), pp. 201-214 Accessed: 22-05-2015

[3] Consider the famous saying by Hillel “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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