Defenders of liberty often make the case that people acting separately in their own "self-interest" can somehow produce the kind of advanced civilization that we now see. One argues that this goes at least back to Adam Smith, arguing in Wealth of Nations that men are guided by an "invisible hand" to maximize the efficiency of the market. This is of course a very lovely critique of the misplaced confidence of authorities in power to keep our business in order. On the other hand, it very easily degenerates into something which, I am fairly certain, Adam Smith was not saying. I am convinced he was not saying that men ought to seek only their own interests.
Yet defenders of liberty cling to this expression, and it seems the effect can be one of two things. One is that the phrase "self-interest" simply loses all meaning. That is, if I choose to give freely to charity, invest time mentoring a young teenager, become an activist on behalf of a persecuted group of people, these are all somehow said to be in my self-interest. I do not believe I am exaggerating; some libertarians really talk this way. If "self-interest" merely means "unforced behavior," I'd prefer to keep the latter expression and reject the former.
There is a second possible effect of clinging to the expression "self-interest" which is much worse, in my opinion. Sometimes it results in self-interest actually being lauded as a virtue, or, what is perhaps even worse, it may result in all charitable behavior or altruism being cynically treated as a myth. Though I must add the caveat that I have never read Ayn Rand, from what I understand this more or less describes her philosophy. Provocative, indeed, but ultimately immoral. If we exist only for ourselves, then we are hollow creatures. If altruism is a myth, then so is all morality.
The case for liberty, I maintain, does not begin with a claim of entitlement. I see no reason why I deserve my own freedom or my own property. Rather, the case for liberty begins with the simple observation that we are not gods. When Israel demanded a king, God told Samuel they had rejected him as their king. In vain do we seek a human being who can fill the position we demand.
We desire order, and we are incredulous at the idea that order might come about through no guidance from any particular person. The case for liberty is simply that we must overcome this incredulity.
Personal freedom, then, is not something to be grasped as if each of us were a universe unto himself. No, personal freedom is simply the best way to address the problem of knowledge. When we minimize coercion, we maximize the amount of knowledge that can be used, since each unique individual perspective is allowed to be tested and refined. Start forcing people to follow a collective plan, and you quickly limit the number of perspectives which may be fostered. If we were gods, or even if one among us were a god, we would have no need to foster this kind of creativity, since all knowledge would be readily at hand. But that is only a fantasy.
Thus, in a free society, no one should think too highly of his own plans, or the plans of any particular individuals. This requires almost precisely the opposite of having faith in "self-interest." A few years ago, Alan Greenspan's (slight) loss of faith in bankers' self-interest was a big deal for a lot of people, particularly for free market skeptics who jumped at the chance to trounce on conservatives. In my view, defenders of liberty should be able to say that Greenspan's faith was misplaced from the beginning. On what grounds would we place our entire financial well-being into the hands of a few people, simply because we know it is in their self-interest to do well? No human being can so be relied upon. If there did exist such reliable people, there is no reason we should not simply put them in government, and turn to a socialist democracy.
The defender of freedom is therefore in the somewhat peculiar position of affirming both the inherent dignity and the profound ignorance of each and every individual. Yet our overconfidence in our own plans is just what causes the steady erosion of freedom, and with it an increasing disregard for human dignity. We believe we can spread democracy, eradicate poverty, and secure economic growth indefinitely by the power of our reason--if we just put forth the willpower! Surely people can see, upon sober reflection, that this is a fairy tale.
But that doesn't mean people shouldn't try. In many creative ways, people are trying their best to roll back the disasters that face us. You want to fight poverty? There are many charities working on this, of course; there's also the relatively recent innovation of micro-lending. You want to help protect the environment? Engineers are constantly busy working on more energy efficient homes and automobiles. You want to spread democracy? There is nothing like modern communications technology to allow the ideas of freedom to be spread all around the world. Each of us pursues these things, not merely out of "self-interest." For if we stop and think even for a moment about all the engineers who make money building energy-efficient cars, or the intellectuals who make money writing books, or the micro-lenders who make money giving loans, it would be ridiculous to assume that none of these people actually believe in what they are doing--that is, that none of them are genuinely altruistic. What it comes down to, then, is not that they are acting out of "self-interest," but simply that they are doing their best.
I am persuaded that the best each of us has is a conscience to follow, and that this should be nurtured in each of us, not thwarted by the plans of others. It is on this basis that I argue for liberty.