Libertarianism?? No thank you!!

November 18, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

The nice folks at the Cato Institute have a new website for us promoting their libertarian ideology (www.libertarianism.org). Oy… Well, like many others, I also went through a libertarian phase back in early days of moral development, so I remain at least interested enough to view the introductory lecture that leads off this website. There, the lecturer summarizes libertarian philosophy as “Each person has the right to live his (sic!) life in any way he (sic!) chooses, so long as he (sic!) respects the equal rights of others.”

It made me smile to remember those heady days of youthful enthusiasm, then that would have been so convincing and full of wisdom to me. Now, however, I see that there are at least two major hidden assumptions in it that are clearly, demonstrably wrong, and fatal to the philosophy itself.

The first hidden assumption is that each individual has approximately the same amount of power in society, that is, the ability to executive his/her choices. If that were true, this philosophy would make sense. If that were not true, however, then this philosophy quickly reduces to the statement that those who have more power and ability to execute their choices are morally justified in doing so. Furthermore, it implies that less powerful people, pooling the power they do have (which is basically the power of numbers) so as to collectively counterbalance the power of those who wield superior power individually, are not morally justified in doing so. They are acting “tyrannically,” to employ a favorite term of libertarians.

I take it for granted that empirical investigation would lead all thinking people quickly to the conclusion that there is not anything even approaching an equal distribution of power among individuals in our society (or any other, as far as that goes, not even small voluntary associations.)

The second hidden assumption is that each individual functions within a sort of atomistic sphere of “personal space” in which his/her actions have no impact on others. Thus, the implied social contract of mutual respect offered by libertarianism is, “you stay in your bubble and I’ll stay in mine.”

This is a highly ideologically constructed view of reality, to say the least. In the social sciences, we mostly adhere to a very opposite view, a view that is usually called an “eco-systems” perspective. Even in the hermetically sealed social science, that is, economics, there is increasing dissatisfaction with this view any time one of its practitioners tries to be interdisciplinary (for example, the behavioral economists), though preference for the autistic view remains strong because it yields the kind of “clean data” economists love, whether or not that data has any relevance to actually existing conditions of life.

In the eco-systems view, there are no isolated spheres of action. Any and all actions are understood to have effects and repercussions throughout the entire system. The effects may be large or small, but this has mostly to do with what one decides to measure and the tools employed to do so (and most effects and repercussions are unknown entirely because they aren’t even on the radar screen of our attention at the moment – we only recognize them retrospectively, sometimes decades later, and wish we had acted differently back then.)

One might argue that the eco-systems perspective is also a highly ideologically constructed view, and I would agree. But I would also argue that it corresponds much more closely than the libertarian alternative to the current understanding of our environment found in the natural and life sciences, and is also much more compatible with a religious/sacred/spiritual worldview than its libertarian opposite.

Obviously, if you conceive of the world we live in as one of constant interaction with effects, repercussions and consequences reverberating through the entire ecosystem for perhaps decades to come, you quickly arrive at a very different understanding of private property rights than outlined in current libertarianism. It’s no small point to notice that, in a world of now seven billion people, it is exactly the area of property-use-promoting-personal-gain as opposed to property-use-promoting-general-welfare that quickly takes front-and-center focus in any libertarian definition of “freedom.”

I would only invite to ask which view (libertarian or eco-systems) corresponds more closely with a scientifically-honed sense of empirical reality. The answer is obvious. Libertarian philosophy is valuable, at best, only as an adolescent phase through which one passes on the way to incorporation into a more well-rounded political adulthood.



  1. Thanks Dan, I’m making copies–no infringement rights I hope!
    Marilyn Pulliam

    • Marilyn, the one place I am fully libertarian is in the area of free distribution of ideas!

  2. I’m kind of exploring the ideas of socio-capitalism myself. Any thoughts on that? Great article!

    • Atticus, I’m not acquainted with that term. I’ll look into it – any suggestions for readings?

  3. A great example of your second assumption is the present debate on whether individuals should be forced to purchase healthcare. It sounds unreasonable until one notes that if they don’t, and then get sick and can’t pay, many will likely want society to pick up the tab!

    Of course, this is only one example of many possible…

    Excellent post.

    • Diana, there is some talk in my state in relation to motorcycle helmet laws that one ought to be able to exempt themselves from helmet laws if they sign an official agreement stating that in case of an accident they are an automatic DNR and Organ Donation patient. I have also thought that it would make much more sense in relation to the “selling” of Obama’s health insurance mandate if there were a provision exempting any individual from obtaining health insurance so long as they sign an official agreement not to be taken to any hospital emergency room under any circumstances, unless they have the cash upfront to pay for it. That would make it more clear to people just what the insurance mandate is all about.

  4. Mr. Liechty: Although you certainly make some good points, I think you too quickly dismiss libertarianism. Many libertarians base their philosophy on the principle of non-aggression, which states that, except for purposes of defense, it’s wrong to use violence or the threat of violence against the person or property of anyone else.

    Now I certainly think people often use libertarianism as an excuse for selfish behavior. Obviously. And I don’t think that the principle of non-aggression can be upheld as an absolute. I can obviously think of instances in which one can justifiably use violence or the threat thereof for non-defensive purposes. But still…

    The state is a violent entity. Everything it does, if not itself violent, is based on the threat of violence. For this reason, I have trouble arguing against libertarianism — for I have trouble believing that it’s morally legitimate to use aggression or the threat of aggression to achieve many government ends, even if those ends themselves are truly good (e.g., public health care, public education).

    Any thoughts?

    • Don, I stated in my post that I had myself gone through a Libertarian phase, but that is actually an anachronism. What I understood myself adhering to during those years (while I was in seminary and some years thereafter) was Christian “pacifist anarchism” of the Tolstoyan type. I learned of Libertarianism after I had already developed my views rather strongly and even voted for the Libertarian candidate in one of the local elections of 1978. I am very prone toward sympathy for principled “nonviolent” libertarianism (small l libertarianism). But i very quickly saw that this was not who was being attracted to the Libertarian (capital L) camp at all, but rather gun-nuts and free market property-rights people who mostly saw the “violent” side of government (the military and police force) as the truly “legitimate” side, whereas the side of government representing people banding together for collective action benefiting the general welfare that none could accomplish alone as the “illegitimate” side. This was diametrically opposite of the criticism of state power I was developing (the topic of my MA thesis). I still have a place in my heart, these 35 years later, for pacifist anarchism (watching the “Occupy!” movement spring up has warmed me like nothing else in years) but I see this as having very little to do with what we call capital-L Libertarianism. Yes, a few RonPaul types show up in such places, but it only takes about a minute of good conversation to help those folks see that they have at best a tenuous few ideas in common with capital-L political Libertarianism (the Ayn Rand-er types prominent in, for example, Tea party circles.)

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