Libertarians spend a non-trivial amount of time arguing for the obvious. At best, such arguments are redundant because there is no widespread believe that violence or threats of violence are a good thing. At worst, these debates hurt the prospects for a society with less violence because theories about the existence of “natural rights” are rightly a source of ridicule. The idea that “rights” just exist out there in the world without actual individuals engaging in contracts to establish rights is not going to persuade anyone with a sober mind. In that sense, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and the (early) Robert Nozick did not do the renaissance of classical liberalism a favor.
A similar problem is encountered with terms like “liberty” and “freedom.” There have been extensive debates about the meaning of liberty as if there is a God-given “real” meaning of the word that just lies out there waiting to be discovered. Many libertarians would argue that we should seek a free society. But as Anthony de Jasay has noted, “The question of whether freedom is valuable or a free society is good ought not to enter at all into a properly thought-out political doctrine, liberal or other. It should be resolutely ignored. Whichever way the question were answered would, it seems to me, inevitably steer us in a teleological direction, and undermine the foundations on which the society that we could consider free might stand and survive. ”
“Consequentialist” libertarians have rejected the emphasis of “moralist” libertarians on (absolute) rights and liberty and have argued for evaluating public policies in light of their consequences. Liberty founder R.W. Bradford (1947-2005) repeatedly held the moralist libertarians responsible for the poor acceptance of libertarianism. But it is hard to see why conventional consequentialist libertarianism would do much better. Most people do not come into this world seeking to optimize some kind of social welfare function or overall efficiency. In this sense consequentialist libertarianism is even further removed from reality – a point that has been well recognized by former utilitarians like Jan Narveson.
A small minority of libertarians have hopes of reconciling egoism and libertarianism. These authors often spend considerable time making the case for ethical egoism. For people who tend to look at such questions from the perspective of empiricism and modern science such investigations are rather excessive. The interesting question is not so much whether there are objective moral truths but what happens when people who have left such beliefs behind interact. This question can be approached from a Hobbesian perspective or from an evolutionary perspective. But what often is discovered is a general desire to discourage and prohibit violence.
It is not likely that Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard will be remembered for their breakthroughs in moral philosophy but what these authors have in common is their identification of classical liberalism with non-aggression. This re-conceptualization of classical liberalism has been an important breakthrough because it enables to see things like “regulation” and “public policy” in fairly non-ambiguous physical terms. If one strips away all the rhetoric about “rights” and “democracy” one is left with a State that mostly engages in violence and threats of violence against peaceful people. One of the major contributions of modern libertarians has been to show this is the case – even when the State only claims a “monopoly on violence” to solve public goods problems.
Contra libertarians such as R.W. Bradford, the desire for peace is neither outdated nor ineffective. People may differ on the importance of “negative” or “positive” liberty or growing “the economy” but few people go out in public speaking out in favor of violence against the innocent. The main task of libertarians is not to look for “justifications” or “foundations” but the demystifying of the State and the defense of anything that’s peaceful.