This article was originally written in 2002 for the Ontario Libertarian Party, and began with the paragraph: “The Ontario Libertarian Party is proud to be known as ‘The Party of Choice.’ Choice is what we stand for, and promoting choice is why we exist.”
Choice, according to the (Oxford Canadian) dictionary, means both “an act or instance of choosing between alternatives” and “a range from which to choose.” “To choose” means to “select from a number of alternatives,” “decide,” “like,” and “prefer.”
Human choice is always individual, as only individuals can choose. Human ingenuity has devised many means of collective decision making, but the value of these comes from nothing more than the individual choices of those who propose and agree to them. Libertarians consider the recognition of, respect for, and defence of individual human choice to be the highest political good.
Why the highest good? Because choice appears necessary for so many other things that we consider good. Indeed, it is hard to separate the idea of choice from that of good: If you or I consider something (X) to be good, that is only because you or I have chosen X as a good; believing that X is a good necessarily also means believing that choosing X is good. Whatever we value in life, we value by our own choice, and in valuing it we also value our own choosing.
Choice is necessary not only for ourselves, but for everyone. Respecting the choices of our friends, family, neighbours — indeed, any or all of humanity — seems essential to respecting them as persons. Honouring the choices of others looks like a necessary part of the idea of morality.
Equally, choice seems integral to the idea of justice. Phrases like “he brought it on himself” or “you made your bed, now lie in it” reflect a basic intuition that it is just for people to experience the consequences of their own choices. Similarly, we consider it unjust to hold people responsible for actions they did not choose to commit, or had no choice but to commit.
As well, choice seems essential to human progress and abundance. Without the ability of humans to imagine and act on preferred alternatives, we would literally still be living in caves. All creativity, all advancement, every new idea and invention, exists only because of the power of choice. The market and the price system — an economy directed by nothing more than individual choices — makes those ideas and inventions widely available, empowering us to live without the age-old fears of starvation, poverty, and disease.
Despite all this, some people worry about choice — perhaps not about choice in general, but quite often about there being “too much” choice. One worry is that people’s choices often conflict. Letting everyone act on their own choices sometimes does lead to disagreement and conflict; some principle that can override individual choice is required to solve this type of conflict.
That is a legitimate concern.
Libertarians agree that there should be rules and principles governing choice; what they deny is that those rules need be anti-choice. Rather, governing rules and principles can be justified by the nature of choice itself. As choosing to do X means choosing to use one’s mind and body to do X, respecting another’s choice means respecting his (or her) right to freely use his own mind and body. What John wants to do to himself, is a matter of his own choice; but what John wants to do to Mary is not simply a matter of John’s choice, but more importantly of Mary’s.
The idea of individual human choice requires the complementary idea of individual human rights — of what philosopher Robert Nozick calls the “moral space” within which each person is governed solely by his own choices. In turn, the idea of human rights helps define, and defend as well as limit, the scope of everyone’s freedom of choice.
Acting on one’s choices requires not just moral but also physical space, and (often) access to physical things. Human choices on how to use these spaces and things are a fertile source of conflict. So choice requires property rights, as an essential part of human rights.
A second objection is that some people make bad choices — some choose to rob, some to , some to defraud. Why should those choices be respected?
But this second objection is just a special case of the first — that choices can conflict — with the same solution. Recognizing the principle of human rights, means recognizing that choices which violate the human and property rights of others should not be respected, or even permitted — not because one’s choices are unimportant, but because those others’ choices are equally important.
That in turn leads to the Libertarian theory of law: that acts which violate the rights of others should be legally forbidden, while those that do not should be left alone. What is important, in judging a law to be good or bad, is the nature of the acts it forbids. Does an action affect only the person acting, or only those who consent (or choose) to be affected? Then it should not be interfered with. Does it hurt those who have not consented? Then it should not be allowed. Whom an action affects; where it takes place (in one’s home? on a public street-corner?); and whose property it uses; are what the law should consider when judging any action.
In this way, the Libertarian theory of human and property rights makes possible a free society, one based on and maximizing individual choice. That society of choice, in turn, makes possible the realization of those other values of liberty, respect, harmony, progress, and abundance.