Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D


A Dim View of Libertarianism

Ernest Partridge


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 States.

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 essays.

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” interchangeably. (See 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 Bayes
4 expresses the essence of libertarianism with admirable clarity:

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 sees fit....

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 sustains him.

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.”

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



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, p. 348.

5. Smith, Robert J., "Privatizing the Environment," Policy Review, Spring, 1982, p. 11.

6. David Boas, Libertarianism: A Primer, New York: The Free Press, 1997, p. 16.

7. Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980, pp.13-14.





Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .