The Market for Liberty - Ch. 2

Man and Society

Chapter 2 of The Market for Liberty

by Morris & Linda Tannehill (1970)

In all of recorded history, men have never managed to establish a social order which didn’t institutionalize violations of freedom, peace, and justice - that is, a social order in which man could realize his full potential. This failure has been due to the fact that thinkers have never clearly and explicitly understood three things - namely, 1) the nature of man, 2) what kind of society this nature requires for men to realize their full potential, and 3) how to achieve and maintain such a society.

Most self-styled planners and builders of societies haven’t even considered that man might have a specific nature. They have regarded him as something infinitely plastic, as the product of his cultural or economic milieu, as some sort of identity-less blob which they could mold to suit their plans. This lack of realization that man has a specific nature which requires that he function in a specific way has given rise to floods of tears and blood . . . as social planners tried to wrench man apart and put him back together in a form they found more to their liking.

But because man is, he is something - a being with a specific nature, requiring a specific type of society for his proper functioning as a human being. Since Darwin, scientific research has been steadily uncovering evidences of evolution which show the development of the nature of the human animal. In order to survive, men had to acquire certain behavioral knowledge and capacities - for instance, the knowledge that voluntary cooperation is good and the capacity to stop clubbing each other. Most men conduct their lives according to this knowledge and, when left alone, get along quite well. Social planners have always been among the most ignorant about man’s nature. Evidence that man has a specific biological nature which cannot be remolded to suit society-builders continues to mount,[1] but political rulers continue to ignore it. If men are to be happy and successful, they must live in harmony with the requirements of their nature. What, then, are the essentials of man’s nature?

Life is given to man, but the means to sustain his life are not. If a man is to continue living, he must in some way acquire the things he needs to sustain his life, which means that either he or someone else must produce these things. There is no environment on earth where man could exist without some sort of productive effort, and there is no way he could be productive without using his mind to decide what to produce and how to produce it. In order to survive, man must think - that is, he must make use of the information provided by his senses. The more fully and clearly he uses his mind, the better he will be able to live (on both the physical, including the material, and the psychological levels).

But thinking is not an automatic process. Man may expend a little or a lot of mental effort to solve his problems, or he may just ignore them and hope they’ll go away. He may make it a policy to keep his mind fully aware and always to use it as effectively as he can (whether he is a genius or a dimwit), or he may drift through life in an unfocused mental haze, playing ostrich whenever he sees something that would require mental effort and commitment. The choice to think or not to think is his, and it is a choice which every man must make.

Because man must initiate and maintain the process of thinking by an act of choice, no one else can force him to think or do his thinking for him. This means that no man can successfully run another man’s life. The best thing one man can do for another is not to prevent him from enjoying the benefits of his thinking and productive work, nor to shield him from the bad effects of refusing to think and produce.

Life is given to man, but the knowledge of how to sustain that life is not. Man has no automatic knowledge of what is good or bad for him, and he needs this knowledge in order to know how to live. If he is to have a full and happy life, he needs a blueprint to show him what is pro-life and what is anti-life and to guide his choices and actions. Such a blueprint is a code of morality - a chosen guide to action. If a man wants his morality to further his life instead of crippling it, he must choose a morality which is in harmony with his evolved nature as a sensing, thinking being.

Choosing effective guides to action is not a matter for blind faith or reasonless whim; it requires clear, rational thought. Therefore, one’s morality shouldn’t be a set of dos and don’ts inherited from one’s parents or learned in church or school. It should be a clearly thought-out code, guiding one toward pro-life actions and away from anti-life actions. “The purpose of morality is - to teach you to enjoy yourself and live.”[2] A rational morality doesn’t say, “Don’t do this because God (or society, or legal authorities, or tradition) says it’s evil.” It does say, “Only if you act according to your reason can you have a happy, satisfying life.”

In any code of morality, there must be a standard - a standard by which all goals and actions can be judged. Only life makes values meaningful - or even possible - if you’re dead you can’t experience any values at all (and without values, happiness is impossible). So, for each man who values living, his own life is his moral standard (death, the negation of all values, is the only alternative “standard”). Since each man’s own life is his objective standard, it follows that whatever serves or enhances his life and well-being is good, and whatever damages or destroys it is wrong. In a rational morality - one designed to further each individual man’s life and happiness, whatever is pro-life is moral and whatever is anti-life is immoral. By “life” is not meant merely man’s physical existence but all aspects of his life as a sensing, thinking being. Only by rational thought and action can a man’s life be lived to its fullest potential, producing the greatest possible happiness and satisfaction for him.

Man has only one tool for getting knowledge - his mind, and only one means to know what is beneficial and harmful - his faculty of reason. Only by thinking can he know what will further his life and what will harm it. For this reason, choosing to think is man’s most powerful tool and greatest virtue, and refusing to think is his greatest danger, the surest way to bring him to destruction.

Since man’s life is what makes all his values possible, morality means acting in his own self-interest, which is acting in a pro-life manner. There is nothing mystical or hard to understand about right and wrong - a rational morality makes sense. Traditional morality, teaching that each man must devote a part of his life, not primarily for his own good, but for God or the State or “the common good,” regards man as a sacrificial animal. Today, many are recognizing this doctrine for what it is - the cause of incalculable human carnage, and a morality of life is gradually replacing it. A rational morality is a morality of self-interest - a pro-life morality.

The only way for a man to know what will further his life is by a process of reason; morality, therefore, means acting in his rational self-interest (in fact, no other kind of self-interest exists, since only that which is rational is in one’s self-interest). Sacrifice (the act of giving up a greater value for a lesser value, a non-value, or a dis-value) is always wrong, because it is destructive of the life and well-being of the sacrificing individual.[3] In spite of traditional “moralities” which glorify “a life of sacrificial service to others,” sacrifice can never benefit anyone. It demoralizes both the giver, who has diminished his total store of value, and the recipient, who feels guilty about accepting the sacrifice and resentful because he feels he is morally bound to return the “favor” by sacrificing some value of his own. Sacrifice, carried to its ultimate end, results in death; it is the exact opposite of moral, pro-life behavior, traditional “moralists” to the contrary notwithstanding.

A man who is acting in his own self-interest (that is, who is acting morally) neither makes sacrifices nor demands that others sacrifice for him. There is no conflict of interest between men who are each acting in his own self-interest, because it is not in the interest of either to sacrifice for the other or to demand a sacrifice from the other. Conflicts are produced when men ignore their self-interest and accept the notion that sacrifice is beneficial; sacrifice is always anti-life.

In summary: man, by his nature, must choose to think and produce in order to live, and the better he thinks, the better he will live. Since each man’s own life makes his values possible, chosen behavior which furthers his life as a thinking being is the moral, and chosen behavior which harms it is the immoral. (Without free choice, morality is impossible.) Therefore, rational thought and action and their rewards, emotional, physical, and material, are the whole of a man’s self-interest. The opposite of self-interest is sacrifice which is always wrong because it’s destructive of human life.[4]

Any society in which men can realize their full potential and live as rational and productive human beings must be established in accordance with these basic facts of man’s nature. It must be a society in which each man is left unmolested, in which he is free to think and to act on his ideas - without anyone else trying to force him to live his life according to their standards. Not only must each man be free to act, he must also be free to fully enjoy the rewards of all his pro-life actions. Whatever he earns in emotional joy, material goods, and intellectual values (such as admiration and respect) must be completely his - he must not be forced against his will to give up any of it for the supposed benefit of others. He must not be forced to sacrifice, not even for “the good of society.”

To the extent that a man isn’t free to live his life peacefully according to his own standards and to fully own whatever he earns, he is a slave. Enslaving men “for the good of society” is one of the most subtle and widespread forms of slavery. It is continually advocated by priests, politicians, and quack philosophers who hope, by the labor of the enslaved, to gain what they haven’t earned.

A society in which men can realize their full potential must be one in which each man is free to act in his self-interest according to the judgment of his own mind. The only way a man can be compelled against his will to act contrary to his judgment is by the use or threat of physical force by other men. Many pressures may be brought to bear on a man, but unless he is compelled by physical force (or the threat of force, or a substitute for force) to act against his will, he still has the freedom to make his own choices. Therefore, the one basic rule of a civilized society is that no man or group of men is morally entitled to initiate (to start) the use of physical force, the threat of force, or any substitute for force (such as taking something from another person by stealth) against any other man or group of men.

This doesn’t mean that a man may not defend himself if someone else initiates force against him. It does mean that he may not start the use of force. To initiate force against anyone is always wrong, because it compels the victim to act contrary to his own judgment. But to defend oneself against force by retaliating with counter-force is not only permissible, it is a moral imperative whenever it is feasible, or reasonably safe, to do so.[5] If a man really values his values, he has a moral obligation to himself to defend them - not to do so would be sacrificial and, therefore, self-destructive. The difference between initiated force and retaliatory force is the difference between murder and self-defense. (Pacifists who have consistently refused to defend themselves when attacked have frequently been killed - the belief in pacifism is anti-life.)

As long as a man doesn’t initiate force, the actual goals and interests which he chooses to pursue don’t control the free choice or threaten the goals of anyone else. It doesn’t matter whether a man goes to church every day or advocates atheism, whether he wears his hair long or short, whether he gets drunk every night or uses drugs or stays cold sober, whether he believes in capitalism or voluntary communalism - so long as he doesn’t reach for a gun - or a politician - to compel others to live as he thinks they should. As long as men mind their own business and don’t initiate force against their fellow men, no one’s life-style is a threat to anyone else.

When a man initiates force against another man, he violates his victim’s rights. A right is a principle which morally prohibits men from using force or any substitute for force against anyone whose behavior is non-coercive. A right is a moral prohibition; it doesn’t specify anything with regard to what actions the possessor of the right may take (so long as his actions are non-coercive) - it morally prohibits others from forcibly interfering with any of his non-coercive actions. For example, a beachcomber has the right to life; this right says nothing of what the beachcomber may do with his life - it says only that no one else may forcibly interfere with his life so long as he doesn’t initiate force or fraud against them. Suppose, however, that the beachcomber does initiate force against a cab driver and does $100 worth of damage to the taxicab. In order to rectify the injustice, the beachcomber must pay the cabbie $100. The beachcomber does not, then, have the right to whatever part of his life and/or property that is required to make reparations to the cabbie (the cabbie has a just claim to it). Suppose, further, that the beachcomber will not willingly pay the $100; the cabbie is no longer morally prohibited from using force against the beachcomber to collect what is now rightfully his. The beachcomer, by his initiation of force against and to the detriment of another man, has alienated himself from the right to that part of his life which is required to pay his debt.[6] Rights are not inalienable, but only the possessor of a right can alienate himself from that right - no one else can take a man’s rights from him.

Each person has a right to his own life, which means that each person is a self-owner (assuming that his behavior has been and is non-coercive). Because a man has a right to own his life, he has the same right to any part of that life. Property is one part of a man’s life. Material goods are necessary to sustain life, and so are the ideas which a man generates. So, man invests his time in generating ideas and in producing and maintaining material goods. A man’s life is made up of time, so when he invests his time in material or intellectual property (ideas) he is investing parts of his life, thereby making that property an extension of his life. The right to property is part of the right to life. There is no conflict between property rights and human rights - property rights are human rights.

Another aspect of man’s life is his freedom of action. If a man is not free to use his mind, his body, and his time in any action he wishes (so long as he doesn’t initiate force or fraud), he is in some degree a slave. The right to liberty, like the right to property, is an aspect of the right to life.

All rights are aspects of the right to life, which means that each man has the right to every part of his own life. By the same token, he is not morally entitled to any part of another man’s life (assuming the other man has not initiated force or fraud against him). Any “right” which violates someone else’s rights is no right at all. There can be no such thing as a right to violate a right, or rights would be meaningless. A man has the right to earn a decent living, but he does not have the right to a decent living if it must be provided by force out of someone else’s earnings. That is, he has no right to enslave others and force them to provide his living - not even if he does so by getting the government to pass a law taxing others to make payments to him. Each individual is the owner of his own life - and no one else’s.

Rights are not a gift of God or of society; they are the product of the nature of man and of reality. If man is to live a productive and happy life and realize his full potential as a human being, he must be free from coercion by other men. The nature of man demands that he must have values and goals in order to live - without them, human life is impossible. When a man is not free to choose his own goals, he can’t act on the feedback from his behavior and so he can’t correct his errors and live successfully. To the extent that a man is forcibly prevented by others from choosing his own values and goals, he is a slave. Slavery is the exact opposite of liberty; they cannot coexist.

Rights pertain only to individual men. There is no such thing as minority rights, States’ rights, “civil” rights, or any other form of collective rights. The initiation of force against the collective is really the initiation of force against the individuals of which the collective is composed, because the collective has no existence apart from the individuals who compose it. Therefore, there are no collective rights - there are only the rights which every individual has to be free from the coercive actions of others.

Morally, each man owns himself, and he has the right to do anything which does not violate another man’s right of self-ownership. The only way a right can be violated is by coercion. This is why society in harmony with the requirements of man’s nature must be based on the rule of non-initiation of force - it must be a laissez-faire society.

Laissez faire means “let people do as they please,” meaning, let everyone leave others alone to do as they choose. A laissez-faire society is a society of non-interference - a mind-your-own-business, live-and-let-live society. It means freedom for each individual to manage his own affairs in any way he pleases - not just in the realm of economics but in every area of his life. (If he restricts his behavior to his own affairs, it is obvious that he cannot initiate the use of force against anyone else.) In a laissez-faire society, no man or group of men would dictate anyone’s life-style, or force them to pay taxes to a State bureaucracy, or prohibit them from making any voluntary trades they wanted.

There will likely never be a society completely free from the initiation of physical force by some men against others, because men can act irrationally if they choose to. A laissez-faire society is not a Utopia in which the initiation of violence is impossible. Rather, it is a society which does not institutionalize the initiation of force and in which there are means for dealing with aggression justly when it does occur.

Can men ever achieve a laissez-faire society? Many people have an unshakable conviction that anything so “ideal” could never become a practical reality. They can’t explain why they’re so sure of this; they just feel an unreasoned “certainty” that it must be so. What is behind this reasonless “certainty” that the good (liberty) is unachievable? The answer lies in the inverted “morality” of tradition - altruism.

Altruism is the philosophical doctrine which holds that anything which is done out of concern for the welfare of others is good but that it is evil if motivated by concern for self. Some variation of this doctrine has been a basic part of nearly all of the world’s religions and philosophies for man’s entire history. One of the most common of religious tenets is that selfishness is evil and that only a selfless concern for the needs of others will win favor with God and man. Sacrifice is held to be among the greatest of virtues, simply because the beneficiaries of the sacrifice are others and the loser is self. It isn’t hard to see one of the reasons for the long-standing prominence of altruistic doctrines - religious and political leaders can collect much more substantial offerings and taxes from people whom these leaders succeed in convincing that it is their moral duty to give as much as possible in sacrificial service to others than they can from people who live for their own rational self-interest. This “something for nothing” doctrine - altruism - is the moral ideal of human parasites.

Altruism is an inverted morality, a “morality” of death. It teaches man that his interests are opposed to the interests of everyone else and that the only “moral” thing he can do is to sacrifice his interests. This means that whatever is practical and beneficial for a man is “immoral,” and conversely, that whatever is “moral” for him is impractical and destructive of his values. To the extent that a man is committed to some version of altruism, he can be either practical and immoral or moral and impractical - he cannot be both moral and practical at the same time - and his self-respect and honesty hang in the balance.

This artificial dichotomy between the moral and the practical splits man in two and sets him against himself. To the extent he makes himself worthy to live (by sacrificing his values), he makes himself unable to live; to the extent he makes himself able to live (by keeping and using his values), he makes himself unworthy to live. No man can fully practice such a code - if he did, it would kill him. For those who accept a “morality” based on altruism, their only protection from this belief is hypocrisy; they give it lip-service but practice it only so far as it is religiously and socially required to keep up a good front. This is the cause of most of the hypocrisy in our culture. Altruism makes hypocrisy necessary in order to live.

A society full of hypocrisy is headed for the crematorium. The moral/practical dichotomy not only necessitates hypocrisy, it also gives all the advantages to evil, since the good is, by virtue of its goodness, incurably impractical for life on earth. If the evil and the practical are one and the same, then evil must always win. According to the altruist philosophy, evil holds all the cards and man can hope for very little improvement in his life or in his society.

Of course, people who hold the moral/practical dichotomy seldom consciously realize what they believe. They just know that whatever is right and good seems somehow unworkable, at least on any major scale. The idea of a laissez-faire society - that is, a society of non-interference - leaves them unmoved because it seems so impractical.

But the “morality” of altruism is exactly opposite to the facts of man s nature. In reality, the only thoughts and actions which are in man’s self-interest are rational ones, and there is never any conflict of interest between men who are behaving rationally. Sacrifice harms not only the man who makes the sacrifice but also the man who accepts it; it is, therefore, inevitably detrimental. Acting in one’s rational self-interest is always right, so the moral and the practical are simply two sides of the same coin. Since moral actions are inherently practical and pro-life, immoral actions are always impractical and anti-life. Evil - i.e., anti-life behavior - is, by its nature, weak and can only survive by the support good men can be misled into giving it. It follows, therefore, that a laissez-faire society is both practical and attainable.

If a laissez-faire society is attainable, why haven’t men established one before now? The answer is that essentially good people have prevented it by their unwitting support of slavery. The majority of people throughout history have accepted the idea that it was both proper and necessary for some men to coercively rule over others. Most of these people weren’t basically bad, and probably only a few of them have had a lust for power. But they have held a terribly wrong idea which has caused them to support a social system that institutionalizes slavery and violence. It is this idea - that it is proper and/or necessary for some men to coercively govern others, which is the idea of government - that has prevented the establishment of a laissez-faire society and which has been responsible for incalculable human suffering and waste in the form of political and religious persecutions, taxes, regulations, conscription, slavery, wars, despotisms, etc., etc. To achieve a laissez-faire society, it is only necessary to enable enough people to change this idea in their minds. All that is required for the defeat of evil is that good men stop their unwitting support of it.

There is a great and growing conflict in our world between those who want to be free and those who want to rule (together with those who want to be ruled). This great conflict has been taking shape for centuries, but the vast majority of people have never understood what it was all about because they haven’t seen that the issue was freedom versus slavery. Because they have believed that men must be governed, most people have been, however, unwittingly and apathetically on the side of slavery. Until recently, no more than a tiny handful of individualsts have realized what freedom means and how necessary it is for man’s happiness and well-being.

The great conflict between freedom and slavery, though it has taken many forms, finds its main expression in a conflict between two powerful and opposing human institutions - the free market and government. The establishment of a laissez-faire society depends on the outcome of the war between these two institutions - a war whose most crucial battles are fought on the field of ideas.


1. See TERRITORIAL IMPERATIVE and AFRICAN GENESIS, by Robert Ardrey, and THE NAKED APE, by Desmond Morris.

2. From John Galt’s speech in Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED.

3. If a mother goes without a new dress to buy a coat for her child whom she loves, that is not a sacrifice but a gain - her child’s comfort was of more value to her than the dress. But if she deprives herself and the child by giving the money to the local charity drive so that people won’t think she’s “selfish,” that is a sacrifice.

4. For a much fuller development of objective ethics, see Chapter 1, “The Objectivist Ethics,” of THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS, by Ayn Rand. While Miss Rand is at present confused in the area of politics, her explanation of ethics is, by and large, very good.

5. Retaliatory force is defensive, not coercive, in nature; coercion is initiated force, the threat to initiate force - which is intimidation, or any substitute for initiated force.

6. This subject will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 10, “Rectification of Injustice.”


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