Liberty and Responsibility

Tibor R. Machan

That freedom is the matrix That required for the growth of moral values—indeed not merely one value among many but the source of all values—is almost self-evident. It is only where the individual has choice, and its inherent responsibility, that he has occasion to affirm existing values, to contribute to their further growth, and then earn moral merit.

—F.A. Hayek 1

Liberty’s relationship to moral responsibility is a problem often raised to those who regard the fully free society as also the most just society. The matter comes up when someone asks, “Why are rights supposed more important than responsibilities?” or “Why all the focus on our rights as opposed to our obligations?” Such questions are raised by critics of classical liberal, libertarian political theory from both the Left and the Right.

These kinds of rhetorical questions have that air about them that casts those asking as righteous, implying that freedom’s champions care nothing for ethics and living responsibly. The latter, it is intimated, focus only on casting off restraints in a kind of adolescent fashion, asking that we be left unguided by anything other than our autonomous choices. They suggest that libertarianism is really libertinism.

True, in a free society politics tends to focus mostly on individual rights. And it appears at times that this happens without much thought of moral responsibility.

In a substantially free society, government is supposed to “secure rights.” This leads people to tend to render as rights whatever they want government to do for them. This accounts for entitlement programs. Yet such extension of the concept of rights is a corruption, because it leads to the violation of bona fide rights. Genuine rights designate spheres of freedom. To have a right to use one’s time and skills means no one may stop one from doing so. It doesn’t mean that one must use them, only that one has a right to do so. A right carves out an area in a social setting wherein one has full authority to make choices —what philosopher Robert Nozick calls “moral space.”

That’s one coherent idea of liberty, namely, of political liberty—the right to decide and act on one’s own. This is the meaning of the slogan, “Don’t tread on me.” Even the pseudo right to, say, health care implies that one is free either to obtain or not to obtain it. So, it’s understandable that in public discussions there is a lot of focus upon bogus or genuine rights, not on obligations. The sole exception is the obligation to abstain from rights viola-tions— e.g., from most crimes.

The same, however, isn’t the case with moral responsibilities. We are mired in those; but they are not the same as obligations, namely, responsibilities subject to enforcement. Once one leaves the sphere of politics and law in a free society—once one fully respects others’ rights (meaning one is no criminal, no delinquent)—the issue of greatest concern is “What should I do?” In other words, “What are my moral responsibilities, given that my obligation to respect others’ rights has been fulfilled?”

The answer will be akin to “I’ve got to . . .” take the clothes to the cleaners, take the kids to school, get gas for my car, drive to work—all of these examples and many, many more of greater or lesser significance are one’s moral responsibilities. We are overwhelmed with such responsibilities, even if they are not of any political relevance. We ought to fulfill them, though there is no law requiring this of us—no laws make us gas up or take the laundry to be washed or reprimand our kids when they misbehave and so on.

Responsibilities, as ordinarily understood, are not a matter of law but a matter morality or ethics, of how we ought to live. Responsibilities are inescapable even if they are not always fulfilled. They are everywhere in our lives, in our role as parents, friends, or professionals. With any role we have assumed, that of friend, parent, corporate officer, cabby, or athlete, we have, in effect, taken an oath to fulfill numerous responsibilities. But these need have nothing at all to do with laws.

Of course, because we are talking about free men and women, these responsibilities are up to us to fulfill, and some of us may fail at this task, at least sometimes. Which is what often motivates critics to denounce freedom, since if we are free, we may not be forced to do even what is the right thing for us to do. Inducements to do the right thing must come not from law and politics, but from the influence of others throughout our communities.

In contrast, to repeat, we have certain obligations—enforceable respon-sibilities—as citizens, members of human communities as such. These must not be neglected, and, if they are, sanctions are applied that often serve as assurance that they will be fulfilled. In a free society, these are “negative” in the sense that they prohibit certain conduct instead of requiring it. They include mainly prohibitions against the committing of violent crimes. We must not kill, assault, kidnap, rape, rob—those are all prohibitions of conduct that would violate the rights of others. So we have negative obligations that are enforceable. If you don’t obey, sanctions are applied.

Responsibilities are different from obligations. We are talking here of what may be enforced. But responsibilities, such as your “obligation” to send anniversary greetings to your beloved, are not enforceable. If you forget, no one will call 911.

Arguably, a lot of people who want to ensure that responsibilities infact get carried out want to turn them into obligations. “There ought to be a law!” Take a somewhat trivial example: the anniversary card. Somebody very insistent on good manners might want a law that we all must send out anniversary, birthday, or holiday greetings.

There are a lot of people who oppose laws that are oppressive, not because what is desired isn’t important, not because responsibilities do not exist or are all subjective, but because these laws serve the purpose of allowing some people to make others do what they ought to do. But that deprives them of their sovereignty, the prerequisite of genuine moral responsibility.

Those who champion liberty do not deny that people have real responsibilities, or that there are things people ought to do or refrain from doing as a matter of morality or ethics; but they hold that these must be a matter of choice. That’s where liberty and responsibility come together—in a free society our responsibilities must be a matter of choice. Whether we eat right, smoke or not, exercise or not, get educated, are generous and charitable to those in need, or are decent to our friends, neighbors, employees, customers, and so on—all of these are not to be a matter of law but of free choice.

It is actually argued by some that the more conduct is made a matter of law, the more irresponsibility is encouraged, because once something is obligatory—so that one feels threatened if it isn’t done—the right reasons for doing it will not matter and the wrong ones will come to the fore. If you send out an anniversary greeting because otherwise you will be fined or go to jail, is that a good reason? Or even simply because people expect it of you? If you bring up your children in the proper way because otherwise you will be put in jail—is that the way to be a parent? No.

Under the concept of a political system of liberty, these moral responsibilities have to be left to people to assume for themselves. That’s what freedom means. If one is made to do good, it’s not a good thing done by one. It’s done under a threat.

Now with children, this tactic sometimes makes sense because that’s one of the ways in which they are acclimated and habituated to act right on their own, eventually. They’ll take up the task of self-development that we as parents facilitated earlier in their lives. But in time they are supposed to do this freely; otherwise, it is of no merit.

If one tells the truth because one figures, well, I’ll be found out anyway, that’s not being honest. That’s just being strategic.

When the free society is criticized for not emphasizing moral responsibilities, the right response is that in fact the free society emphasizes moral responsibilities far more than regimented societies do. But responsibilities must be a matter of individual choice, not imposed at the point of a gun. Persuasion, good upbringing, and peer pressure are the civilized ways of imploring others to act responsibly.

In a civilized community there isn’t supposed to be much crime because people do not deploy force while interacting among each other and because vices that do not involve coercion may not become crimes. Those who favor a fully free system are taking this ideal of civilization to its logical conclusion by insisting that only in cases of self-defense or retaliation is force warranted. All other matters must be handled through persuasion: convincing people through advertising, boycotts, ostracism—all peaceful ways.

Authoritarian laws always offer the mirage of a guarantee. If we only make a law, then we can be sure that people will do it. But this is not only untrue; attempting it actually perpetrates the demoralization of a community.


1. Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Moral Element in Free Enterprise,” in Mark W. Hendrick son, ed., The Morality of Capitalism (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1992). Originally written for The Freeman, 1962.

Tibor R. Machan teaches at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University. He is the author of Initiative: Human Agency and Society (Hoover Institution Press, 2001).

Tibor R. Machan

Tibor R. Machan is a Hoover research fellow, a fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, a professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University, and holds the R.C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University

That freedom is the matrix That required for the growth of moral values—indeed not merely one value among many but the source of all values—is almost self-evident. It is only where the individual has choice, and its inherent responsibility, that he has occasion to affirm existing values, to contribute to their further growth, and then earn …

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