Our critical examination of libertarianism has left us with some provocative
questions, the responses to which will serve as a summary of these essays.
Is a Well-Ordered Society a Free Gift?
The libertarians regards a morally well-ordered society as a free gift, to
which nothing is owed for its maintenance. Accordingly, they argue against
the liberals that redistribution of wealth, care for the weak and
unfortunate, support of education, the arts and the environment, the
promotion of civic pride -- none of these is required of the citizen.
Presumably, all these will be cared for "spontaneously" as each
individual goes about his or her private business.
True, private donations to charities and private organizations that aid
these unfortunates and support these amenities are morally praiseworthy, but
they cannot legitimately be supported by required tax assessments. To do so,
the libertarians argue, would constitute involuntary appropriation of
private property – in a word, “theft.”
In reply, the liberal cites an additional concept in John Locke's political
writings, conveniently overlooked by libertarian theorists; this is the
concept of the social contract. Contract theorists such as Locke,
and the contemporary liberal moral philosopher, John Rawls,
point out that secure possession of the rights of life, liberty and
property, and the orderly functioning of the free market, are only
possible in what John Rawls calls a "well ordered society." Such a
society exists he writes:
[W]hen it is not only designed to advance the good of its members but when it
is also effectively regulated by a public conception of justice. That is, it
is a society in which (1) everyone accepts and knows that the others accept
the same principles of justice, and (2) the basic social institutions
generally satisfy and are generally known to satisfy these principles...
Among individuals with disparate aims and purposes a shared conception of
justice establishes the bonds of civic friendship..."1
Such a society is not the libertarian’s mere aggregate of "social atoms" --
of private individuals, seeking merely to maximize their own self-interest.
Rather, the liberal contends, it is a well-knit community of citizens, with
loyalties to the community, and with an active understanding that rights
must correlate with duties. For example, no citizen can consistently claim
his right to a jury trial while at the same time deny his duty to serve on a jury. In a well
ordered society, every citizen, without exception and whatever his
accomplishment, bears an enormous burden of moral debt to both predecessors
and contemporaries. The liberal insists that in a democratic society one
appropriate and indispensible institution for the management and payment of that debt is the
To appreciate the scope of the this debt, imagine an American libertarian
entrepreneur, characteristically "fed up with big government interference,"
who calls his travel agent to book a flight for a business meeting in
Europe. That simple transaction would have been impossible without the
"interference" (in part) of the National Weather Service, the Air Traffic
Control system, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Reserve
System, and countless additional "government bureaucracies." Because these
agencies oversee the public "commons" and serve as referees of private
commerce, they can not legitimately be privatized, any more than courts can
Equally significant as these public agencies is the "moral tone" of the
"well ordered society;" the sense of safety and well-being which accompanies
the implicit and widespread expectation among the citizenry of fair-play,
trustworthiness, and empathy -- a condition founded upon the general
acknowledgment that all citizens "have a stake" in the existing
politico-economic order. It is not a mere accident of good fortune that the
United States and other stable nation-states are not like Somalia or Uganda.
It is not without reason that the citizens of these peaceful countries
enjoy, by contrast with those failed states, the benefits of what Rawls
calls "civic friendship." These benefits have been and must forever be
purchased, in part, through the citizens' support of public institutions
that maintain education, culture, popular government, and publicly owned
natural areas – all familiar items in the liberal agenda. Probably no
pre-supposition of libertarianism, concludes the liberal, is more misguided
and more dangerous than the assumption of the "free gift of the well-ordered
The British sociologist, L. T. Hobhouse, made the point supremely well, when
The organizer of industry who thinks he has 'made' himself and his business
has found a whole social system ready to his hand in skilled workers,
machinery, a market, peace and order -- a vast apparatus and a pervasive
atmosphere, the joint creation of millions of men and scores of generations.
Take away the whole social factor, and we have not Robinson Crusoe with his
salvage from the wreck and his acquired knowledge, but the native savage
living on roots, berries and vermin.2
Thus Ayn Rand’s totally self-made
and self directed John Galt type of entrepreneur is a myth. As even
Bill Gates must appreciate, there is no Microsoft without the myriad
of publicly educated “micro-serfs” on the payroll and a publicly
funded court system to protect patents and otherwise enforce
Can a Nation be Both Ignorant and Free?
A libertarian reader of
The Crisis Papers, disagrees with
Hobhouse, as he writes:
People would want to be educated even if there were no public education and
would educate themselves, if necessary, as they did in days past. It is the
Ayn Rand hero who would take the root-eating savages and educate them so
that he could build a factory in their barren land and thus produce a good
living for himself and them.
Once again, the libertarian unwittingly gives us a powerful self-refutation.
For on reflection, this proposal is both malevolent and absurd.
We are asked to imagine Ayn Rand’s "John Galt" or his surrogates strolling
through the village of savages, picking out a few children and offering to
educate them to work in Galt's factories. This would, of course, require
several years of education, and capitalists are not renowned for their
willingness to await long-term returns on their investments. But let that
pass. More serious problems arise. Would these selected "students" be
required to work for Galt to pay off their debt? What if, during their
education, they developed other career aspirations? Would they nonetheless
be indentured servants to Galt? What kind of "liberty" is this? And if, on
the other hand, the chosen students were accorded the right to take their
Galt-supported education elsewhere, what entrepreneur would take such a risk
on his investment in their education? And what would be the content of that
education? Presumably, only the specific skills needed to enhance Galt's
profits. If so, forget about literature, history, philosophy, or any of the
"liberating" liberal arts. Instead, the selected students would trained to
be skilled workers, “human capital,” and not free citizens of a democratic
Once again, we find in this proposal the libertarian disregard of the
essential "like liberty principle," defended by such great liberals as John
Stuart Mill: the principle that each individual is entitled the maximum
liberty, consistent with the same liberty for others. The above education
scheme exacts a heavy "freedom penalty" and “welfare penalty” on others, all
to the exclusive advantage of the “sponsoring” entrepreneurs.
Another reason why I should support public education, at all levels from
Kindergarten through university graduate schools, is that this support is
“payback” to all those who paid for my own public education. This payback is
quite justly assessed and taxed throughout my lifetime, since I benefit from
the advantages of that public education throughout my life.
But this is a paradoxical sort of “payback,” since I cannot directly “return
the favor” to my patrons. Those individuals who built and sustained the
institutions that I attended, and those teachers whom I encountered in
innumerable classrooms, are either dead or in their dotage. My debt is
payable to abstractions: to society and civilization. By this I mean,
payable to those fragile institutions that secure, sustain and enrich the
lives of us all: our Constitutional government, our laws, civic peace and
tolerance, our common history, our sciences and arts. I “pay back” those who
paid for my education by preserving those institutions and by enhancing the
“The public good?” The libertarian will have none of it. For, to recall once
again, as Ayn Rand once wrote, “there is no such entity as ‘the tribe‘ or
‘the public‘; the tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of
Accordingly, the libertarian argues, educational institutions exist only to
benefit each individual person who is educated, and thus should be paid for
only by that individual’s family.
This is an absurdity that only a doctrinaire libertarian could believe. For
in fact, the education of each individual benefits the public at large, and
thus should be supported by the public at large. In particular, as
libertarian supporters of the “corporatocracy” so easily forget, public
education supplies the literate and skilled work force that is the
foundation of corporate affluence.
When I entered the University campuses, first as a student and later as a
professor, I found magnificent institutions at my disposal: buildings and
grounds, faculties, libraries, and traditions – all these supported,
refined, added-upon over the decades at great public expense, only a small
fraction of which consisted of student tuition and fees. Yet the returns of
this public investment to the public are incalculably lavish: scientific
advances issuing from university laboratories, the accumulation and
integration of knowledge from the many separate disciplines, the public
service of the scholars, teachers, engineers, business people, lawyers,
doctors, etc. that graduate from these public institutions.
There is no better evidence of the social and economic benefits of public
education, than the GI Bill of Rights (1944) that offered free college
education to veterans of World War II. This bill, steadfastly opposed by the
Congressional Republicans at the time, was the foundation of the middle
class that emerged from that war, and a springboard to the unprecedented
economic growth that followed. Thus the GI Bill is regarded by many as the
most significant federal legislation of the twentieth century.
Universal support of public education affirms the principle that We the
People of the United States are a community, and not, as the libertarian
right would have us believe, a mere aggregate of disconnected,
self-interested individuals and families, the sum of whose private activity
is somehow mysteriously, and without need of planning or management,
transformed into the public good. On the contrary, the fabric of our
national community has been woven, to a significant degree, by the public
schools as they took in immigrants from numerous nations and transformed
them, in a single generation, into Americans – e pluribus unum. They did so
by teaching a common language, our national history, and our founding
political principles. Of late, the teaching of history and civics in the
public schools has been downgraded, and we are now paying a terrible price
for this neglect, as a generation of Americans emerges that is ignorant of
their heritage and of their rights, and thus ill prepared and ill-motivated
to protect them when threatened.
Because we are all continuing beneficiaries of our system of public
education, that system deserves universal support - whether or not we happen
to have children currently in school. Our very freedom depends upon a
flourishing educational establishment, for, as Jefferson correctly observed,
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and
never will be."
Or as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote in his
Aims of Education:
In the conditions of modern life the rule is absolute, the race which does
not value trained intelligence is doomed. Not all your heroism, not all your
social charm, not all your wit, not all your victories on land or at sea,
can move back the finger of fate. Today we maintain ourselves. Tomorrow
science will have moved forward yet one more step, and there will be no
appeal from the judgment which will then be pronounced on the uneducated.5
Can there be Freedom Without Order?
The liberal proclaims, with John Rawls, that "[A] society is a cooperative
venture for mutual advantage... [S]ocial cooperation makes possible a better
life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own
To which the libertarian replies, “How can personal liberty and autonomy
thrive in your ‘cooperative venture for mutual advantage’?”
A wise answer was told to me by a Russian friend, a professor at Moscow
University, during the “cowboy capitalism” days following the collapse of
Soviet communism. “Under communism,” she observed, “we had order without
freedom. Then we had freedom without order, only to discover that without
order, there is no freedom.”
The libertarian and the liberal concur in their desire to maximize personal
liberty. However, the libertarian advocates freedom without order – without,
that is, an institutional structure that will ensure freedom for all. Absent
such a structure, liberty, like wealth, will “percolate up” to those in
charge, “with liberty for some," leaving the masses with nothing but their
squalor and oppression.
The liberal, on the other hand, strives to establish and maintain the
social, economic and political order without which there is no freedom. The
liberal understands that the economic output and the civil liberties of a
society are the products of the joint contributions of all members of
society – of the plus-sum cooperative, rule governed and goal oriented
efforts of all. Because no social order operates without some “friction,”
there are inevitably victims of social and economic misfortune: the
unemployed, the bankrupt, the abandoned. Add to these, the victims of
natural misfortunes – accidents, disease, birth defects, earthquakes,
hurricanes, tornados, etc.
Voluntary charity to these unfortunates, as advocated by the libertarians,
is commendable. But it is insufficient. Good for the souls of the
charitable, but not very helpful to those in need. There are just too many
of them. Moreover, voluntary charity is a “tax on virtue,” as are private
donations to education, museums, libraries, concerts and parks. Most
citizens correctly reflect, “I might contribute, but even if I do, my one
contribution will not abolish poverty and ignorance, nor will it add
significantly to civic excellence.” To accomplish these common benefits, all
must contribute through taxes. And with this understanding, most enlightened
citizens will pay their taxes willingly, as they likewise support
legislation designed to relieve suffering and to promote the common good.
"Taxes," wrote Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, "are the price we pay for
civilization" -- the very civilization that is prerequisite to any and all
personal wealth. Accordingly, it is not unjust to require the beneficiaries
of civilization to share in the burden of its maintenance. However, there
may be justifiable reasons to complain about the distribution of this
“Necessitous men are not free men,” Franklin Roosevelt observed in 1936. The liberal
realizes, as the libertarian does not, that if personal liberty is to be
maximized in society, it is not enough merely to guarantee the life, liberty
and property of each individual. In a just society, as John Rawls put it,
the citizens implicitly agree to share each others’ fate.
The social contract of a just community also requires that if the citizens
are to enjoy “the blessings of liberty,” the pre-conditions of liberty must
be attended to: namely, public education, economic opportunity, equal
opportunity, the protection of common resources, and the promotion of civic
As the English conservative, Edmund Burke observed:
[Society is] a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the
ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it
becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between
those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.7
Is Not Libertarianism a Nietzschean "Master Morality"?
One of the books of the libertarian economist and Nobel Prize winner, Milton
Friedman, is titled "Free to Choose."8 That title reflects the libertarian
conviction that the individual
is the best judge of his own welfare, and that the welfare of all will be
best realize through an exchange of personal and private "preferences" in
the free market and through the assured security of one's life, liberty and
The system sounds just fine for those with a super-abundance of wealth and
power. But what of all the others in society? Not to worry, say the
libertarians. Citing Adam Smith, the libertarian assures us that the
enterprising entrepreneur who "intends only his own gain" will, in the
course of maximizing his satisfactions, be "led by an invisible hand to
promote... the public interest." "The invisible hand" metaphor has familiar
variants, such as "the rising tide that lifts all boats" and "the trickle
down effect". (As noted above, those who celebrate the "trickling down" of
wealth from the most to the least advantaged, seem disinclined to notice
that wealth also "percolates up" from the labor of the less advantaged, and
from public adherence to a "well ordered" system of justice). By invoking,
through "the invisible hand" and "the rising tide," the advantage to all
which accrues from the self-motivated search for private wealth by each, the
libertarian conveniently (if temporarily and inconsistently) puts aside his
"social atomism" in favor of an ad hoc theory of an integrated system of
In response to Milton Friedman's celebration of the "freedom to choose," one
is immediately led to ask: "freedom of whom to 'choose' -- and at whose
expense?" Given the libertarian's uncompromising fidelity to property rights
and his faith in the free market, those with property and with the wealth to
enter the market have the "freedom to choose," in direct proportion to their
wealth. And at whose expense? Presumably, those without the tickets (i.e.,
cash) to enter the marketplace or to own property. This would include the
very young, the very poor, other species, ecosystems, and future
generations.. Thus it would appear that the libertarian morality embraces
the cynic's version of "the golden rule:" "Those with the gold, get to
rule." Accordingly, libertarian doctrine might be regarded in
large part as a rationalization for the wealth, social status and
political power of the privileged elite. Small wonder that
libertarian think-tanks, publications and mass media are lavishly
funded by that privileged elite.
To the philosophically educated, libertarianism is reminiscent of Friedrich
Nietzsche's "master morality," which he thus characterizes in Beyond Good
and Evil: “the noble type of man regards himself as a determiner of values;
he does not require to be approved of; he passes the judgment: ‘What is
injurious to me is injurious in itself;’ he knows that it is he himself only
who confers honor on things; he is a creator of values. He honors whatever
he recognizes in himself: such morality is self-glorification.”9 Clearly,
according to this formulation libertarianism is a "master morality."
(For more, see Chapter Four,
"A Master Morality,"
in Conscience of a Progressive).
However, "master morality"
predates Nietzsche and the libertarians, and in fact is as old as
class structure in human society. Whenever a sovereign class
claims and enforces its perceived "right" to rule over all others,
that "right" is accompanied by an ideology that purports to justify
the privileges and powers of the ruling class. Until the
Eighteenth Century and the Age of Enlightenment, that justification
was found in the doctrine of "the divine right of royalty" -- the
claim that The Almighty Himself had bestowed upon royalty, the right
to rule. That doctrine was followed by John Calvin's claim
that an individual's wealth and power was "proof" of God's grace
upon that person's eternal soul. Then came the "Social
Darwinism" of the late Nineteenth Century, whereby wealth, power and
privilege were regarded as the "natural" result of the survival in
society of the "fittest" individuals and corporations.
Libertarianism is but the latest of a long line of ideologies which,
in John Kenneth Galbraith's words, "is engaged in one of man's
oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a
superior moral justification for selfishness."
Can an Abstract Theory be Fairly Compared With Policies at Work?
Libertarians routinely trot out horror stories about government waste,
fraud, and abuse, and compare these sorry anecdotes with an unrealizable
ideal of a "perfectly functioning market." However, as Mark Sagoff correctly
points out, this argument "commits the fallacy of disparate comparison. It
compares what the perfect market would do in theory with what imperfect
governmental agencies, at their worst, have done in fact."10 No thoughtful
defender of public regulation of the environment in liberal democracies will
pretend that this approach is perfect. In fact, as everyone knows,
regulatory agencies are under constant assault and their public service is
constantly compromised, usually by the very free market forces and private
interests that are celebrated by the libertarians. But if the libertarians
have a better alternative, then it must be shown to be preferable in
practice, rather than in ideal theory. However, as I have suggested above,
the unconstrained free market, privatization and the absence of "government
interference" gave us opium in cough medicine, spoiled meat, child labor,
mine disasters and black lung, air and water pollution, depletion of natural
resources, and now the collapse of the financial markets and the spectre of
catastrophic climate change.
“The theory is beautiful, but
reality is a bitch,” is a maxim that should be carved above the
entrance of every college of economics, not to mention The Heritage
Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Analyses of
competing theories in academic journals and seminar rooms is
appropriate, as is a comparative evaluation of competing policies in
action (e.g., murder rates in states with capital punishment vs.
states without). But untried utopian schemes can not be fairly
compared with worst-case anecdotes of policies-in-action, in this
case government regulation of market forces. For history has taught
us, time and again, that idealized abstract concepts such as “the
free market,” “the profit motive” and privatization of the commons,
inevitably come a-cropper when applied uncompromisingly to actual,
ongoing, practical circumstances. Theory is best applied empirically
and pragmatically, as reality “feeds back” information that prompts
alterations and improvements of policy. This is why the New Deal
succeeded, while utopian communities generally fail.
Does History Support Libertarian Doctrine?
The rise and persistence of government regulation of “capitalistic acts by
consenting adults” is no accident; it is an invention born of necessity. No
industrial society is without government, and constraints upon legitimate
governmental powers can open opportunities for private exploitation. The
threat of suits after the fact (“courts and torts”) did not prevent the
contamination of food or the abundance of unsafe and ineffective drugs prior
to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration. Moreover, even
private interests recognize the necessity of impartial "referees." Thus, for
example, United States history discloses that many of the regulatory
agencies of the Federal Government were established by petition from private
industry; notably, the Federal Communications Commission, which was created
in 1934 to oversee "traffic control" of the electro-magnetic spectrum,
without which the industry could not function. No one who has attempted to
drive across Manhattan during a power outage is inclined to believe that
traffic signals are an unwarranted governmental intrusion upon their
Even "the free market," that cornerstone of libertarian theory, cannot
survive without a governmental referee, for the unconstrained and
unregulated "free market" contains the seeds of its own destruction. Though
free market theorists are reluctant to admit it, capitalists are not fond of
free markets, since open and fair competition forces them to invest in
product development while they cut their prices. Monopoly and the
destruction of competition is the ideal condition for the entrepreneur, and
he will strive to achieve it unless restrained not by conscience but by an
outside agency enforcing "anti-trust" laws. That agency, necessary for the
maintenance of the free market is, of course, the "government," so despised
by the libertarians. Evidence? Look to history. Then it was John D.
Rockefeller, now it is Bill Gates.
Of course there is a sad history of governmental exploitation (usually on
behalf of the powerful); but the remedy is better government, not no
government. How many of us who travel abroad would prefer that international
air traffic be operated by private for-profit firms, rather than national
and international government agencies? Who would we rather have safeguarding
our environmental health; state agencies such as the US Environmental
Protection Agency, or private industry? Once again, look to history for the
When, during a football game, a referee makes a call against the home team,
the fans are often heard to shout: "Kill the Ref!" -- forgetting, for that
moment, that without referees, the game could not continue.
Similarly, "abolish government" is another cry that issues from frustration.
Without a doubt, governments can be damned nuisances. They require us to pay
taxes, often for services that do not benefit us or for benefits which we
take for granted. Governments tell us that we can't build homes and
factories on public lands, that we can't throw junk into the air and rivers,
that we can't drive at any speed we wish, and that we can't sell medicines
without first testing their safety and efficacy. All this curtails the
freedom and the wealth of some. But at the same time, such "government
interference" promotes the welfare of the others: of consumers, travelers,
ordinary citizens and, yes, property owners. Interestingly, among the
liberal democracies, the constraints of "big government" tend to burden the
wealthy and powerful, while those same constraints protect the poor and the
weak, all of whom, in a just polity, are equal citizens before the law.
Thus libertarianism does not qualify as a just system for all members of
society. On the contrary, as we noted above, it is a Nietzschean "master
morality," reflecting the preferences and protecting the interests of the
wealthy and powerful. Complaints against "big government" and
"over-regulation," though often justified, also issue from the privileged
who are frustrated at finding that their quest for still greater privileges
at the expense of their community are curtailed by a government which,
ideally, represents that community. Pure food and drug laws curtail profits
and mandate tests as they protect the general public. And environmental
protection regulations "internalize" the costs of pollution, thus properly
burdening the corporations and their investors as a direct result of these
regulations relieving the unconsenting public of the previously externalized
The libertarian trust in "the wisdom of the free market" is likewise
attractive to the wealthy and powerful, since one's involvement with markets
-- the libertarians' preferred instrument of social adaptation and change --
is proportional to one's access to cash. The Golden Rule - "those with the
gold get to rule" - is one of the first principles of both "the master
morality" and of libertarianism.
If libertarian doctrine is a
"master morality," reflecting and serving the interests of the
wealthy and powerful elites, how does one explain its attractiveness
to those less well served by this ideology? In the first place, the
foundational principles of libertarianism - the rights to life,
liberty, and property - are, in the abstract, compellingly
attractive. So much so that the liberal critics of libertarianism
rarely dispute this triad of principles - in the abstract. But the
libertarians embrace another principle, "the like liberty
principle," that proves to be the undoing of their ideology. For the
exercise of the "right to property" can threaten the life, liberty
and property of others, as in the case of the segregation laws in the
American south, prior to the enactment of the “liberal” public accommodation
laws. In general, the powerful and wealthy individual's "freedom to choose"
is routinely found to constrain the same freedom in others. Then, as one
attempts to comprehend this tangle of inconsistent and competing rights and
claims, one discovers what most students of human society, psychology and
history already know and that defenders of political liberalism affirm: that
human beings are not merely isolated bundles of "preferences," but rather
are fundamentally social creatures. Accordingly, one also discovers that
successful human communities are characterized not simply by competition
and market exchanges, but also by shared ideals and the paradoxical
achievement of individual self-fulfillment
through self-sacrifice and
In short, libertarianism fails, not because it is wrong, but because it is
insufficiently and over-simplistically right. It correctly celebrates the
rights of life, liberty and property, and then fails to acknowledge and examine the
conflicts and paradoxes that issue from these rights. Moreover, the
libertarian fails to appreciate that a just system of adjudication of these
rights and claims of presumably equal citizens would necessarily restore
much of the very governmental structure that the libertarians would abolish
and that the liberals defend.
If the libertarian scheme of free markets, absolute property rights and
torts will not suffice to protect the rights of all citizens and the
integrity of the natural environment, then what will?
Here's a modest, if familiar, proposal. Let the public in general establish
an agent to act in its behalf, and as the guarantor of the commonly held
values and aspirations of the polity. And then let that agent first
determine and then enforce rules for the optimum sustainable use of the
necessarily "common resources" (e.g. the atmosphere, the hydrological cycle,
migrating wildlife, etc.), and the for the preservation and maintenance of
the shared institutions, traditions and values. And if the public is not
satisfied with how that agent is acting in its behalf, it then has the right
to replace that agent with another.
Such a system is in fact in place: the "agent" is called "government," the
rules are called "the rule of law," and the system of checks against the
abuse of power is called "democracy." In the United States Constitution, as
well as the supreme law of numerous other liberal democracies, the freedom
and integrity of the individual (i.e., one's rights to life, liberty and
property) are protected, even from "the tyranny of the majority." But these
assurances by the government will not suffice for the libertarians. They
assume a priori that "government," even popularly elected and under the rule
of law, will invariably behave as if it were an occupying foreign power.
This, they tell us, is the source of all our problems.
In conclusion, we have found that in numerous cases the libertarian
doctrines of social atomism, unfettered free markets, and unconfined
personal liberty, bear morally atrocious and practically unmanageable
implications. In contrast, these implications are avoided by the liberal
that human beings are essentially social creatures,
that morality and justice are independent of, and indeed the foundations
of, ideal market mechanisms,
that in readily identifiable instances, advantages to each result in ruin
that, conversely, advantages to all exact sacrifices (e.g. taxes) upon
and finally that, accordingly, optimal social policies are assessed from
“the moral point of view” – from the perspective of the “ideal disinterested
Accordingly, the liberal concludes, human excellence, social harmony and,
yes, personal liberty for all, can best be accomplished through the agency
of a government answerable to the people, and through the rule of law,
applied impartially and equally to all.
Admittedly, the liberal democracy and regulated capitalism that I would
recommend is not perfect -- nor is any human institution under the sun. But
an anecdotal inventory of the shortcomings of public regulation does not, by
itself, constitute a repudiation of the existing system.. What is required
is a clear and persuasive presentation of a better alternative. This the
libertarians have not offered us. Nor can they, so long as anyone pays more
than casual attention to human psychology, ecological necessities, and the
lessons of history.
The Libertarian Menace.
determined "push-back" by an informed public, libertarianism might
eventually succumb to the consequences of its
own "success." As this theory has been put into practice, we have discovered that this stark and simple dogma cannot accommodate itself to social
and political realities. For there is, in fact, such a thing as a “society,”
and there is a “public interest.” Social problems are not solved, and social
justice is not obtained, through the egocentric point of view -- the pursuit
of self-interest by each individual in a mythical “free market,”
unconstrained by rules and sanctions and heedless of the effects thereof on unconsenting “third parties.” Instead, as we have seen and as the liberal
insists, the public interest is best perceived through the “moral point of
view” – the perspective of the "unbiased benevolent observer” of society –
and the public interest is best secured by an agency acting in behalf of the
public and with the consent of the public. And that means a democratic government, of
The core doctrines of libertarianism are false, and dangerously so. The just
society simply cannot arise “spontaneously” out of the separate and
uncoordinated self-promoting activities of individual persons and family
units. The liberal insists that successful communities and nations are
comprised of individuals that share common resources, cherish a common
loyalty to their shared institutions, and act toward the realization of
common goals. As the founding documents of the American republic proclaim,
to accomplish all this, “governments are instituted among men, deriving
their just powers from the consent of the governed.” And what are those common goals?
To “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general
welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to
ourselves and our posterity.”
Libertarianism, a fascinating intellectual diversion and challenge in the
sixties, has become a menace in this new century. The denial of the very
existence of society and the public interest is an invitation to chaos,
which must result in the unraveling of civilization and the just society,
and in its place a government of, by, and for the privileged, the powerful,
and the wealthy.
Proving libertarianism wrong and immoral is not difficult. However, removing
the libertarians from power and repairing the damage that they have caused,
will be horrendously difficult.
And there is no guarantee that these efforts will succeed.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Mass, Harvard
University Press. 1971, pp 4-5. See also pp. 453-462.
2. L. T. Hobhouse, L. T. (1974). Quoted by Paul Samuelson, Newsweek.
December 30, 1974, p. 54.
3. I argue this point at length in the second half of my “Posthumous
Interests and Posthumous Respect,” Ethics, 91:2 (January, 1981).
4. “What is Capitalism?”, 1965.
5. Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education, Mentor, 1954. p.
6. Rawls, op. cit., p. 4.
7. Reflections on the Revolution in France.
8. Milton and Rose Friedman: Free to Choose, New York: Harcourt,
Brace, Jovanovich, 1980.
9. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Note to
Nietzsche scholars: I am taking from Nietzsche not a philosophy or a
doctrine but merely a concept: “master morality.” If you find that
this account of the master morality of libertarianisms departs
significantly from that of Nietzsche, don’t bother writing a
critique to that effect, for I will stipulate that departure at the
10. Sagoff, Mark, (1993) "Free Market Versus Libertarian
Environmentalism," Critical Review, Vol. 6, No. 2-3, p. 224..