A. C. Grayling, an normally sensible English academic – just check out his book, Liberty in the Age of Terror (Bloomsbury, 2009) – wrote recently in The New York Review of Books: "Of course, people who hold extreme political positions are not troubled by such conflict [as the one between wanting to make everyone economically equal and also making sure everyone is free]. They simply disown the values that they believe cause the conflict. The libertarian can say that only freedom matters and the totalitarian that personal freedom does not matter at all. But for people who are sensitive to the full range of moral values, the extreme views are not options…."
We can pretty much stop here since this setup embodies a serious distortion. To start with, the protection of the right to liberty is not a moral but a political value but once one concludes that it is of great importance in politics, there is ample room left to attend to moral responsibilities, that is, to one's ethics. But for folks who want everything done by way of politics, this is a strange idea. Isn't every value one holds supposed to be political, directing only public policies?
Libertarians do hold that the right to individual liberty across the board is the prime political value but by no means the prime value. Politics for libertarians can be thoroughly derivative, meant mainly to secure the possibility for a full moral or ethical life. Why be free? Mainly to be able to choose right from wrong, that's why.
I don't know about totalitarians but even there Grayling is offering a caricature. Most totalitarians aim to guide or make people to do what is right, which could be serving God or the public interest, following the democratic plan, saving the earth, conserving natural resources, etc., etc. But never mind totalitarianism. Is Grayling even nearly right about libertarians?
Since he gives us no libertarian to examine, no quotations from Rothbard, Nozick, Rand or the rest – and these days there's a plethora of them who have written plenty to cite for anyone who wants to do them some measure of justice – we need to check what libertarianism means as one of the political options in our day and age.
As the term clearly indicates, it is all about liberty, in particular about a polity the legal system of which takes the right of every citizen to be free of coercive force from others as its highest value to be protected and preserved. As I already pointed out, this is just the beginning of a libertarian's system of values. These are the politics that the libertarian holds will secure for citizens their sovereignty, their sphere of personal authority. Within that realm, however, innumerable moral challenges face a citizen. Libertarians do not address those qua libertarians but mostly as ordinary free men and women with their various sources of moral convictions.
The only thing libertarianism has to say about one's moral convictions is that they may not include coercing anyone else to do anything. Coercion is using unprovoked force on people, ones who haven't violated the rights of others. If you believe it is your moral duty or responsibility to rob Peter so as to help out Paul, that will not fly. It is like holding that one has the moral duty to rape or kidnap someone. Some may – and sadly some do – claim that this is what they ought to do but they are confused or vicious. Only vis-a-vis children or invalids could one have such moral duties or responsibilities, never toward intact adults.
Despite what we could call the thinness of libertarian politics – the opposite end of the thickness of any kind of totalitarian regime – it does not follow that libertarians hold "that only freedom matters." That's what matters politically but as far as how human beings should conduct themselves in their lives, a plethora of moral requirements will be on the agenda for everyone. Fathers, mothers, friends, colleagues, sports partners, farmers, engineers, doctors, and all others who occupy some such role in life have a list of virtues they ought to practice. Hence even college courses in medical, business, engineering and legal ethics, for example.
On top of it there is just the ethics for living one's human life, ethics addressed by numerous philosophies and religions and nearly all libertarians embrace one or another of these in their personal, nonpolitical lives.
In The New York Review of Books it seems even largely libertarian folks must demean that political alternative. After all, if libertarianism is the politics of a good, just human community or country, there is very little meddling left for all those bright in its pages people to do. Who will they be nudging? Where will they practice their oxymoronic paternalist libertarianism? Put plainly, whom will they be pushing around so as to fulfill their aspirations when they fail to voluntarily enlist support from others?
Finally, what is so extreme about libertarianism? In fact is the common sense social philosophy of most civilized people. Fulfill your moral tasks as a matter of your own free will and leave others to do the same – they aren't your children or subjects! But make sure no one gets to lord it over anyone who acts peacefully. Not so extreme, me thinks!