A Dim View of Libertarianism
What is libertarianism?
A half century ago, when liberalism was ascendant in the Kennedy and
Johnson administrations, libertarianism was a fringe curiosity. Now it
has become a formidable political and economic force in the United
No existing democratic governments fully endorse and implement
libertarian doctrine, for no national electorate would tolerate so
radical a system of political economy. (The Libertarian Party in the
United States has never attracted more than one percent of the votes in
a Presidential election). Nonetheless, libertarianism deserves careful
critical analysis since in theory, if not in practice, it is the
ideological "spear-point" of "free market reform" throughout the world.
Furthermore, many of its prominent exponents, such as Milton Friedman,
F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Robert Nozick, are highly esteemed by
scholars throughout the world. Thus, while its principles may appear
stark, unqualified and unyielding and its proposals over-simplistic,
because of its widespread and growing influence, libertarianism must be
taken very seriously.
For all its acquired respectability in contemporary political discourse,
I will argue in these essays that libertarianism is a grave threat to
the very existence of the American system of justice and representative
democracy as we have come to know it. Libertarianism poses this threat
not because of the cogency of its doctrines but rather because of the
enormous financial and media resources that promote it.
These are serious accusations that require careful and extended
justification. I will attempt to provide that justification in these
It is important to note at the outset that libertarianism divides neatly
into two aspects: personal libertarianism and economic libertarianism.
This division puts the libertarians at odds with both the political
right and the political left. I hesitate to use the terms “liberal” and
“conservative” since the public media have abused both terms to the
point that they are essentially meaningless. In the American political
scene today, self-described “conservatives” are more accurately
identified as “regressives,” since they seek to return society and
government to the conditions of earlier times. Accordingly, I will favor
the word “regressive” in place of “conservative.” I will use the
essentially synonymous words “liberal” and “progressive”
Chapter 1 and
Chapter 2 of my book
in progress, Conscience of a Progressive, to which I will
frequently refer in these essays).
The liberal (or progressive) tends to agree with libertarian insistence
that law and government are not justified in interfering with the
personal lives of individuals. They agree that in a free society there
is no place for laws regarding sexual preference, abortion, drug use,
euthanasia, etc. Liberals and libertarians thus endorse John Stuart
Mill’s proclamation that “over himself, over his own mind body and mind,
the individual is sovereign.”1 To the contrary, the right, and especially
the religious right, has no trouble endorsing government interference
regarding these matters of personal conduct.
On the other hand, the liberal left strongly opposes, and the right
endorses, the libertarian positions regarding market fundamentalism,
deregulation of commercial activity, minimal government, and
privatization. Economic libertarianism has for all practical purposes
been adopted into the platform of the Republican Party, even though that
party is reluctant to embrace the term “libertarianism.”
Because economic libertarianism poses the greater threat to the American
system of government and traditions of justice, I will devote most of my
attention to that aspect of libertarianism.
These are the essential doctrines of libertarianism.
While not all
individuals who describe themselves as libertarians will fully agree
with all of these stipulations, (there are, after all, several varieties
of libertarianism), the following formulations will identify the
“targets” of my analyses in these essays.
Natural Rights. There are three fundamental human rights: to life,
liberty and property. These rights are all “negative rights,” in that
they all stipulate “freedom from” interference from other persons or
from governments. There are no natural “positive rights:” i.e., rights
to receive, e.g., an education, a livelihood, health care, etc.
The like liberty principle: All persons are entitled to maximum
freedom consistent with equal liberty for all.
Minimal government: The only legitimate function of government is the
protections of each individual’s rights to life, liberty and property
All other functions of government are illegitimate. Taxation to support
these illegitimate functions amounts to a theft of private property.
Spontaneous Order. The fundamental social institutions arise
“spontaneously” out of individual voluntary associations. No planning or
regulation “from the top down” is necessary.
Social Atomism. There are no separate entities called “society” or
“the public.” These are simply aggregates of individuals.
Privatism. Private ownership is always preferable to public ownership.
Market Fundamentalism: The “free market” – the unregulated and undirected
summation of all private buyer/seller transactions – is always “wiser”
than centralized economic planning.
Now, to an elaboration of these doctrines:
Individualism and Social Atomism: Libertarianism is a radically
individualistic doctrine. The optimal libertarian society (if "society"
is the correct word) is an aggregate of individuals in voluntary
association, secure in their "natural rights" to life, liberty and
property. (Thus, as we have noted, the only legitimate function of the
"minimal government" is to protect these rights). Since, in A. Myrick
Freeman's words, "each individual is the best judge of how well-off he
or she is in a given situation,"2 there is no agency (government or
otherwise) entitled to curtail an individual's liberty to pursue his own
welfare, provided that pursuit does not interfere with the equivalent
liberty of others. (Once again, the "like liberty principle." ) Thus
"society," ideally, is a simple summation of individuals, in voluntary
association, privately optimizing their satisfactions.
Natural Rights: To the libertarian, the Lockean rights of the individual
to life, liberty, and property are fundamental. Because these rights
reside in the individual, the only legitimate function of government is
to protect these rights from usurpation by other individuals or
institutions -- especially the government itself which, according to
John Hospers, is "the most dangerous institution known to man."3
Accordingly, the scope of government must be scrupulously confined to
the protection of life, liberty and property from foreign enemies
(through the military), from domestic enemies (through the police and
criminal courts), and from the private activities of others (through the
civil courts). This last function of government is justified by the
maxim that each individual is entitled to maximum liberty consistent
with "like liberty" of others; i.e., that I am forbidden only to
constrain the liberty of my fellow citizens. We shall later argue that
“the like liberty principle,” embraced in the abstract by libertarians,
proves in practice to be both the undoing of libertarianism, and the
foundation of liberal politics..
Thus Libertarians stress so-called negative rights (or "liberty rights")
which entail duties of forbearance on the part of others. For example,
my right to free speech entails your duty not to prevent that speech.
However, to the libertarian, there are no "positive" or "welfare
rights," which entail the duty of individuals or of government to
positively provide benefits or sustenance to others. The poor have no
"rights" to welfare support, and the only children that have a right to
our support are our own.
William Bayes4 expresses the essence of libertarianism with admirable
The freedom to engage in any type of enterprise, to produce, to own and
control property, to buy and sell on the free market, is derived from
the rights to life, liberty, and property ... [but] when a government
guarantees a "right" to an education or parity on farm products or a
guaranteed annual income, it is staking a claim on the property of one
group of citizens for the sake of another group. In short, it is
violating one of the fundamental rights it was instituted to protect...
All that which an individual possesses by right (including his life and
property) are morally his to use, dispose of and even destroy, as he
Where do my rights end? Where yours begin. I may do anything I wish with
my own life, liberty and property without your consent; but I may do
nothing with your life, liberty an property without your consent....
The liberal, while accepting the libertarian triad of negative rights,
also proclaims the citizens’ “positive rights” – to an education, to
employment with a living wage and safe working conditions, to a clean
and safe environment, etc. These rights arise from the fact that the
liberal, unlike the libertarian, recognizes social benefits and public
interests. Communities flourish when they include an educated work
force, when the citizens are assured that their basic needs for
livelihood and health-care are met, and when the citizens share the
conviction that the society is their society and that they have a role
in its governance. And because the communal activity produces more
wealth than would be obtained by the sum of individual efforts, members
of the community have positive rights to a share of that wealth, and to
community assistance in case of misfortune.
Accordingly, the liberal insists that Ayn Rand’s
Ubermensch, John Galt,
is a fantasy. There is no fully “self-made man,” morally free of all
responsibility and obligation to the society that nurtured him and
Privatization, Environment, and the Commons Problem: According to the
libertarians, all environmental problems derive from common ownership of
such natural resources as pasturage, fisheries, and even air, water and
wildlife. The solution? Privatization of all such resources. Does this
sound extreme? Consider the following from Robert J. Smith (my
emphases): “The problems of environmental degradation, pollution,
overexploitation of natural resources, and depletion of wildlife all
derive from their being treated as common property resources. Whenever
we find an approach to the extension of private property rights in these
areas, we find superior results.”5
The environmental devastation in the former communist countries, the
libertarians argue, proves the rule: that which is the property of
everyone (i.e., the state) is the responsibility of no one. In contrast,
they argue, resources will be best protected when the costs of
environmental degradation fall upon the property owner. Accordingly,
when the environment and its resources are privately owned, there is no
need to urge the owners to practice "good ecological citizenship" for
abstract altruistic reasons or through the threat of government
sanctions. Instead, the libertarian believes, self interest and economic
incentives will suffice to motivate the property owner to maximize the
long-term value of his property.
Public Accommodations and Property Rights.
Because property rights are inviolable, the owner of a restaurant or
motel or other “public accommodation” is entitled to refuse service
to anyone at the owners’ sole discretion, which means that the owner
has the right to discriminate on the basis of race, religion,
national origin, or whatever. Thus the public accommodations section
of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 constitutes an illegitimate
violation of personal property rights. The libertarian might agree
that discrimination is morally indefensible, and that private
citizens are fully entitled to protest and to boycott establishments
that elect to discriminate. Nonetheless, the property rights of the
owners are inviolable. (See my
Property Rights and Public Accommodations).
Spontaneous Order. “The great insight of libertarian social analysis,”
writes David Boaz, “is that order in society arises spontaneously, out
of actions of thousands or millions of individuals who coordinate their
actions with those of others in order to achieve their purposes.”6
Because an orderly society arises “spontaneously” out of the free
associations and activities of individuals, without the support,
investment or coordination of any overarching institutions (e.g.,
governments), a well-ordered society is a “free gift,” for which nothing
is owed for its support and maintenance (i.e., taxes ) by the component individuals for its maintenance.
Minimal Government. Accordingly, it follows that government has no
function other than to protect and secure each individual’s natural and
inalienable rights to life, liberty and property. Any additional
functions of government, for example public education, public parks,
museums, support for the arts, scientific research, welfare payments,
foreign aid, are illegitimate, and taxes levied to support these
functions constitute theft of private property.
Market Fundamentalism. “The wisdom of the market place” – prices that arise
out of the numerous free transactions between autonomous individuals –
will always exceed the “wisdom” of regulated markets, controlled and
coordinated by superordinate (namely government) agencies. Milton and
Rose Friedman clearly enunciate this central dogma of libertarianism:
A free market [co-ordinates] the activity of millions of people, each
seeking his own interest, in such a way as to make everyone better
off... Economic order can emerge as the unintended consequence of the
actions of many people, each seeking his own interest."7
In the phrase “the activity of millions of people, each seeking his own
interest...” we see the concept of Social Atomism at work. And in the
clause, “economic order can emerge as the unintended consequence...” we
find a reiteration of the concept of spontaneous order.
In the essays that follow, we will critically examine these
fundamental doctrines of libertarianism, with the goal of proving
our opening assertion that libertarianism is both false and
dangerous. We turn our attention first to "Social Atomism" --
the radical reductionist claim by the libertarians that, strictly
speaking, "there is no such thing as "society" or "the public."
2. The Myth of Social Atomism
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.
2. Freeman, A.
Myrick (1983), “The Ethical Basis of the Economic View of the
Environment,” The Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy,
University of Colorado.
3. John Hospers, “What Libertarianism Is,” The Libertarian Alternative,
(ed.) Tibor R. Machan, New York: Nelson Hall. 1974.
4. Bayes, William W. 1970). “What is Property?,”
The Freeman, July 1970,
5. Smith, Robert J., "Privatizing the Environment,"
Spring, 1982, p. 11.
6. David Boas, Libertarianism: A Primer, New York: The Free Press, 1997,
7. Milton and Rose Friedman,
Free to Choose, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980,