This article was published in the Spring 1999 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
A Free Society Requires the Myth of a Higher Law
by Roy Halliday
(to table of contents of FNF archives)  (to start of essay)

Self Interest
-Personal Freedom
-We need a social rather than a selfish myth
-Reasons for Believing in the Non-Aggression Principle
-Moral skepticism is not acceptable.

(to top of page)  (to outline)

Self-interest, altruism, and principle are three basic reasons why people do things. Self-interest is our motive when we do something because we believe we will benefit from it. Altruism is our motive when we do something because we believe someone we care about will benefit from it. Principle is our motive when we do something because we believe it is the morally right thing to do.

Why would people work to establish a free society? Which basic motive holds the most promise? To simplify the analysis, let's imagine that we act on only one of these motives at a time.

(to top of page)  (to outline)


Two selfish reasons why we might work for a free society are: (1) so we can get rich (greed) and (2) so we can live in a country where we don't get bossed around by the government (personal freedom).

(to top of page)  (to outline)


Greed can motivate us to defend a free society in which we already have investments, and it can motivate us to invest in an established free society, but it cannot motivate us to make sacrifices to establish a free society unless we are fools. The myth that we will get rich by establishing a free society might appeal to gullible people, but state lotteries have siphoned off so many that I don't think there are enough left for a libertarian movement.

Libertarians who are interested in building a free society cannot promise success, nor can we honestly say that joining the libertarian movement is in our self-interest. Probably it is not.

Unless we get some libertarian billionaire to hire enough people to create a free society, greed will not provide enough incentive.

In a country such as the United States where state power is spreading steadily, greedy people, if they are smart and unprincipled, will take advantage of the political means to acquire wealth.

(to top of page)  (to outline)

Personal Freedom

If all the people who like to be left alone by organizations, movements, causes, busybodies, reformers, and do-gooders would band together to crusade for their common cause, they might win the peace and privacy they desire. The problem, of course, is that these are the very people who don't join crusades of any kind. All movements and causes are distasteful to the kind of people the libertarian movement would benefit the most. They don't have fancy ideas about morality or economics to promote. They don't like to bother people. They respect privacy.

How can these individualists be induced to unite and to make sacrifices to build a free nation? I doubt that it can be done.

Individuals whose top priority is personal freedom will come to a free society after it is established, but they won't make sacrifices to create such a society.

(to top of page)  (to outline) 

We need a social rather than a selfish myth.

Being a libertarian today entails being alienated from the prevailing modes of political and moral thinking. It can entail sacrificing some popularity, prestige, and economic opportunities.

We won't get far in building a free nation if we base our movement on selfishness. We cannot achieve a free society by holding personal wealth or personal freedom as the ultimate goal and aiming directly at it. Instead, I think we need to appeal to a wider audience that includes more social people.

What myth can we promote that social people might like to believe?

(to top of page)  (to outline)


Altruism as it naturally occurs, is not generalized enough to support a movement for universal freedom. Most people, in so far as they are altruistic, are interested in the welfare of their friends and families more than in the welfare of mankind at large. Their altruism is strongest with regard to people they share their lives with, and it is more effective when it is channeled into special-interest politics as opposed to working for the public interest.

For altruism to be generalized so that it embraces everybody (as in social utilitarianism), it needs to tap into our sense of morality rather than our natural concern for people we actually know and love.

A social utilitarian, who believes the highest moral good is to maximize the material welfare of the greatest number of people, has to put aside his natural concern for his friends and family. He has to reject his natural selfishness and his natural altruism in order to count all people (himself, his family, his friends, and strangers) as equal units in his calculations. He is morally obligated to understand economics so he can determine how to optimize the use of society's resources.

By studying economics, a social utilitarian can come to believe that private property and the free market are the appropriate means to his moral goal. This would give him a motive to promote a free society. However, I do not believe economic theories will persuade enough people to build a libertarian movement.

For one thing, most economic theories that people are exposed to are wrong and do not support a free society. For another thing, Austrian economics, which I believe is correct and which does support a free society, is boring and is beyond the mental capacities of most people.

Not only is social utilitarianism too complicated, it misses the mark emotionally. After all, the strongest emotional objection to the state is that it is tyrannical, not that it is inefficient.

(to top of page)  (to outline)


The non-aggression principle is simple enough for even public-school graduates to understand, and it is the key to libertarianism. Many people already agree with this principle and practice it in their private lives, but they fail to apply it to the activities of the state. Libertarians are distinguished by the consistency with which we apply the non-aggression principle. We regard it as absolutely binding for all morally responsible adults, regardless of race, religion, nationality, sex, time, or place. We recognize this moral principle as superior to the laws of any state. So, logically, libertarianism is a "higher-law" philosophy.

The non-aggression principle serves three functions for libertarians: (1) It provides a basis for judging the morality of government laws. (2) It is the fundamental law of a free society. (3) It provides a motive for us to work for a free society. Let's look at these functions one at a time.

(1) To see how the non-aggression principle enables us to judge the morality of government laws, consider the statement "Taxation is theft." This statement makes sense only if theft has a meaning beyond the legal meaning assigned by the state. In other words, this judgment assumes a higher law than the laws of the state. The non-aggression principle is such a higher law. When we combine the non-aggression principle with the principles of private property (self-ownership, the homestead principle, and the right to make contracts and to trade), "Taxation is theft" becomes an intelligible statement. Otherwise it is nonsense.

(2) A free society is a society in which everyone enjoys the maximum amount of liberty that is logically possible. The non-aggression principle is, necessarily, the fundamental law in such a society. Deviations from the non-aggression principle tend to reduce the amount of discretion in society.

(3) Belief in the non-aggression principle provides a moral motive for wanting to establish a free society. The non-aggression principle appeals directly to our sense of right and wrong (our conscience) rather than to our self-interest or altruism. Since conscience is a nearly universal human trait and since it is accompanied by strong emotions, it can move a large number of people to unite for a common purpose.

(to top of page)  (to outline)

Reasons for Believing in the Non-Aggression Principle

There are several ways to arrive at a belief in the non-aggression principle. It can be taken as a religious tenet based on faith, or it can be adopted as a moral tenet based on reason, or it can result from skepticism about all moral theories.

You could adopt the non-aggression principle because you believe in a supernatural lawgiver who commands you to do so. For example, if you believe Jesus is divine and ought to be obeyed, then you would refuse to use violence at all, whether for aggression or for self-defense. You would be a pacifist libertarian like Jesus.

Alternatively, you could adopt the non-aggression principle because you think the principle itself makes sense. You could reason in one of the following ways:

You could begin by noting that ethics is similar to esthetics. We have a natural capacity to learn about and to appreciate morality and beauty. We have natural emotions that are evoked by moral actions and by works of art. But we are not born with detailed moral codes or esthetic tastes. Instead, we acquire our moral codes and our tastes under the influence of the culture in which we are raised. If we study other cultures, we learn that they have different moral codes and different tastes in art and music. Knowing this, we could become libertarians by reasoning as follows:

1. No moral codes or esthetic tastes are objectively better than any others.

2. So there is no more reason for imposing one than there is for imposing any other.

3. So they should all be tolerated—or as many should be tolerated as possible.

4. To tolerate the maximum number of views, we need to enforce the non-aggression principle.

So we see that if there is no natural law, libertarianism can still win by default.

The same facts that lead some to skepticism can lead others to absolutism by reasoning as follows:

1. Since all cultures instill moral codes and esthetic tastes, the desire for morality and the love of beauty must be inherent in human beings.

2. Since cultural traditions and government laws vary, they are not sure guides to true morality and esthetics.

3. We must use reason to discover the absolute principles of morality and esthetics.

Then, those who believe that morality is real can become libertarians by reasoning this way: 1. The concept of morality implies that virtue and responsibility are possible.

2. Virtue and responsibility are possible only when people are allowed to make their own decisions.

3. The non-aggression principle allows the most opportunity for people to be responsible and virtuous.

4. So the non-aggression principle is fundamental to morality.

(to top of page)  (to outline)

Moral skepticism is not acceptable.

Moral skepticism and moral absolutism are both logical, but, psychologically, they are not equally acceptable. Whether we think it is pointless or not, we still have moral emotions and we still are moved by art. It is not psychologically possible for us to believe that all actions are equally good or that all creations are equally beautiful. It would mean giving up too much of what makes life worthwhile to adopt the skeptical view that there is no true morality and no true beauty.

I believe that moral skepticism is not correct, there are absolute principles of justice (such as the non-aggression principle and the principle of self-ownership), and these principles lead to the conclusion that libertarianism is the correct political philosophy. Furthermore, belief in a higher law (either natural law or supernatural law) is more in tune with human nature than moral relativism or skepticism.

To win and keep a free society, libertarians need to promote the myth of a higher law so that we can take advantage of the strong emotions associated with the moral sense and channel that energy into a movement dedicated to liberty and justice.

Despite the attempt of the public schools to teach moral relativism and obedience to the state, most of our countrymen have consciences and can reason well enough to follow the simple argument that virtue is possible only when people are allowed the freedom to make their own decisions.

It is natural to feel outraged by criminal behavior. We don't have to pretend to be outraged. We do not choose our emotions because they are useful. We naturally resent assaults against us.

Promoting the moral code implied by the non-aggression principle takes advantage of the natural human emotions that make us capable of principled and noble acts.

(to top of page)  (to outline)


Economic and social theories will not inspire enough people to create a free society. We can't expect many people to become dedicated libertarians by reading Human Action or Man, Economy, and State or other tomes on Austrian economics. Libertarianism is about justice, not about maximizing profits. To get popular support for a free society, we must appeal to people's moral sense rather than to their understanding of economic theory.

We need a myth that appeals to people's consciences by upholding moral ideals.

To establish a free society and to maintain order in a such a society, we must believe in a higher morality than subservience to the state. To create a free society, people must be moved by belief in the higher law capsulized by the non-aggression principle. To keep a free society, the public needs to deter crime by using non-aggressive means such as shunning, boycotting, and social ostracism. These voluntary methods require individuals to pass moral judgments against criminals, which they can do only if they believe in the non-aggression principle.

Promoting the non-aggression principle as the highest law is the moral way and the strategically sensible way to build popular support for a free society. D


Roy Halliday thinks he knows something about the higher laws of morality, but he has no clue about the laws of esthetics. He likes the music of Vivaldi and Tina Turner, the paintings of Renoir and El Greco, the novels of Anne Tyler and Gore Vidal, the humor of H. L. Mencken and Robert Benchley (known in their current incarnations as P. J. O'Rourke and Dave Barry), and, paraphrasing Joe DiMaggio, he thanks the Good Lord for making him a Yankee fan.

(to table of contents of FNF archives)   (to top of page)  (to outline)