I used to call myself a libertarian. I still believe that market forces are the best way to allocate non-essential resources. And I still believe that government should stay out of people’s personal business. But I now realize that libertarianism is based on a number of conceptual confusions.

Libertarianism holds out a laudable and seemingly reasonable ideal: a democratic meritocracy of free, rational, self-reliant individuals who take responsibility for their own problems, who cooperate with others based on mutual self-interest, and who expect nothing more than what they have earned. Grounding this ideal is one uncompromising principle: personal liberty. The government’s only role is the protection of that liberty. With that liberty assured, libertarianism presumes that rational, self-reliant individuals will always eventually come up with rational solutions to their shared problems. All that is required are free individuals who can recognize what is in their self-interest and a free market through which a solution can be implemented.

This insistence upon personal liberty ahead of all other considerations implies a strict moral neutrality about how one ought to live one’s life. As long as one is not hurting anyone or infringing upon anyone’s liberty, one ought to be free to do what one likes. This simple idea appeals to the great many of us who would describe themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. In one fell swoop, divisive social issues would be resolved in favor of leaving such matters up to the personal choice of individuals.

Unfortunately for libertarianism, the demand for personal liberty, by itself, cannot deliver on the theory’s conceptual, moral, and political promise. Most of the policy positions or social arrangements that libertarians actually defend depend upon something other than personal liberty, thereby undermining the principled clarity and intellectual neatness that libertarianism promises. Here are some problems that illustrate this tension.

Problem: Freedom is not just the absence of constraint

For the Libertarian, personal liberty is negative liberty  — “freedom from”  as opposed to “freedom to.” It is a freedom from restraint, regulation, and all forms of coercion. The problem is that this doesn’t add up to much of a life. If this negative sense of freedom were all there were to personal liberty, then we would only be truly free living alone in the wilderness, away from society with all its political, moral, and social constraints. But few would trade the opportunities afforded by human society for this “true freedom.” Most of us would prefer to accept some limits upon our personal liberty, even restraints to which we have not explicitly agreed, because with these restraints come opportunities. When we think clearly about our personal liberty, we quickly realize that it is not simply a negative, hands-off kind of freedom that we desire but a maximization of freedom, a maximization of opportunities with a minimum of constraints. In other words, what we really desire is a reasonable balance between opportunity and obligation. The problem with this revised notion of freedom, however, is that it can no longer play the role of one unbending principle against which all political problems must break. Instead, the maximization of freedom implies a pragmatic balancing of personal rights and community concerns. That sort of murky pragmatism runs counter to the principled clarity promised by libertarianism.

Problem: Personal liberty does not imply ownership

Libertarians often construe personal liberty in terms of self-ownership. Why do they do this? This rhetoric of self-ownership allows the libertarian to expand the notion of personal liberty to include property rights. Personal liberty is construed as the fundamental right, not simply to pursue our interests free from coercion, but to own and to dispose of property, particularly that piece of “property” that we hold most dear, our body.

This notion of self-ownership presumes a dualism that is a much disputed notion philosophically, a dualism between our bodies and whatever it is that we really are besides our bodies, be it a soul or spirit or ego or brain. The libertarian then must further assume that the relationship between this real self and one’s body is one of “ownership” thus making ownership and property not human-made notions but ontological facts built into the nature of human existence. I doubt that many libertarians are willing or able to make these sorts of dubious philosophical claims.

Anyway, most people can see that the notion of self-ownership is nonsense. We do not “own” ourselves. We do not “own” our bodies. We are ourselves. Once the question of property rights is unhitched from the fundamental primacy of personal liberty, the libertarian is obliged to give arguments about how and when private property is justified. Such arguments are certainly available, but they are not entailed by the principle of personal liberty alone.

Problem: Not all constraint is the same

It is not possible to construe all political situations in terms of personal liberty and coercion. Consider, for example, the differences between the “coercion” of parents over their children and the coercion of the master over the slave. Consider, as well, the “liberty” demanded by the petulant child, the “liberty” demanded by the libertarian who declares himself to be a “slave” because he is forced to pay taxes, and then the liberty demanded by an actual slave. There is no way, on the basis of a singular principle of personal liberty, to distinguish, morally or politically, between these different demands for freedom. Such distinctions can, of course, be made. A reasonable community accepts some abrogation of personal liberty in certain circumstances, including abrogations to which the individual has not consented. But for the strict libertarian, seeking to encapsulate everything in one uncompromising principle, these are all morally equivalent demands.

Problem: Cost-effective government is not the same as minimal government

Just as the libertarian finds it difficult to justify parental authority, so she also finds it difficult to limit governmental authority. According to libertarian theory, the only legitimate authority that the state has over non-consenting individuals is the protection of liberty and the collection of taxes to pay for that protection. But why can’t the state use this same justification in other ways? For example, why not invest in communities (say, through education or social programs) to reduce the threat to our personal liberty (say, through lack of opportunities or crime)? If the protection of liberty can be achieved with more cost effectiveness by way of progressive social programs than by way of policing alone, on what basis would the libertarian oppose such programs?

The libertarian notion of self-responsibility presumes that we are always capable of maximizing self-interest, regardless of our circumstances or upbringing. Investing in communities, so it is said, only fosters dependence upon state handouts. However, the thoughtful individual recognizes that one’s upbringing and environment shapes, at least to some extent, one’s opportunity and ability to act in one’s long-term self-interest. Recognizing that fact does not excuse the individual from her legal or moral responsibility, but it does mean that there is no logical reason for refusing to invest in communities if that investment “maximizes liberty” at a lower cost than does policing.

Problem: Not all government intervention is authoritarian

Another reason that libertarians resist social programs is that they see politics as a stark choice between free individuals rationally pursuing their self-interest, and an authoritarian state. Social programs in particular are thought to lead to “socialism” which somehow leads to dictatorship. There is no question that libertarians are correct to warn us about the dangers of government power. But the ideological myopia of the libertarian renders her unable to see the vast intermediate area, consisting of governments around the world implementing a wide range of social programs without succumbing to authoritarianism.

Problem: Social programs do not violate personal liberty

Many libertarians will still resist the idea of investing in social programs on what can only be described as moral grounds. One will often hear the libertarian declare that no one should get something for nothing. Note, however, that this is a moral stricture that is in no way entailed by the libertarian demand for personal liberty. The only concern of the state ought to be the most cost effective protection of our personal liberty.

The libertarian delusion: A society of free-wheeling, self-reliant individuals

As noted earlier, individuals can only maximize their opportunities — and thus their freedom — in communities. However, contrary to a central assumption of libertarianism, we are not individuals who choose to live in communities only out of self-interest. Rather, we are fundamentally interdependent social animals, whose identity as self-responsible citizens depends upon, and is only possible because of, community. At every stage of both our personal history, and our collective evolutionary history, we are thoroughly dependent upon family, community, and society. Only at one unique stage in our lives, and only recently in our history, does our social dependence seem less obvious  —  when we are young and healthy and have enough resources at our disposal to strike out on our own. Libertarians would take this short moment of (illusory) independence and design a political system around it.

But we are interdependent social animals who identify with families and social groups, feel loyalty to and make sacrifices for those groups, prefer to live and work in groups rather than alone, seek the approval and respect of others, and naturally feel empathy toward others, all of which override simple calculations of self-interest. In fact, human activity has little to do with a rational calculation of self-interest at all. The decisions and actions of normal humans are always filtered through emotional and social considerations.

Recognizing the essential importance of social institutions and communities means that politics must remain a complex and frustrating trade-off between personal rights, personal obligations, and community needs. It can never be as simplistic and one-dimensional as the libertarian would have it. That is why I am no longer a libertarian.

One thought on “Why I am Not a Libertarian

  1. Response from a current libertarian (me).

    “Libertarianism holds out a laudable and seemingly reasonable ideal: a democratic meritocracy of free, rational, self-reliant individuals who take responsibility for their own problems, who cooperate with others based on mutual self-interest, and who expect nothing more than what they have earned.”

    Not quite true, actually. Libertarianism in its most philosophical form sets out no expectations of actual human behavior. It only lays out what kinds of human behavior it sees as ethical and unethical, but it never actually expects humans to fully adhere to those standards. That is why, for example, libertarianism upholds the standard of non-INITIATION of force, not non-USE of force; libertarians realize that there are bad people out there who will attempt to hurt others and that such people must be stopped, which may require additional force or harm.

    Libertarians also tend to oppose democracy as a concept, because whenever our rights even manage to get up for a ballot vote, we’ve really already lost our rights. Unfortunately, a vast majority of ballot initiatives and politicians elected by the ballot almost make a show out of promising to violate rights through avenues such as passing economic regulations extending well beyond the scope of simply protecting rights, passing new tax increases which rob the people of even more of their money, etc. As Mark Twain once said, “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” The ideal libertarian society would be far from democratic; although it ethically prefers the abolition of all arbitrary authority, which makes it ethically anarchistic, even if we do retain a small government set up solely to enforce individuals’ rights, we should barely even need to flex our right to a vote at all because crucial issues such as gun rights, for example, would never even be on the table. It would not be autocratic, of course, either, since a strong leader in charge of a powerful government is also the antithesis of libertarianism; but democracy certainly is not integral to it. Democracy as the main form of governance — in terms of referendums being put up for a vote — is no better, ethically speaking, than autocracy, because individuals’ rights can no more be rightfully violated by a majority of one’s peers than by a dictator. Democracy is also essentially one of the most striking examples of the bandwagon fallacy being used as the approach by which to govern.

    “Problem: Freedom is not just the absence of constraint”

    Actually…… for libertarians, that’s exactly what it is. The idea of strictly “negative” freedom is derived from the self-ownership principle, which the author is indeed aware of. The idea of opportunity maximization is a positive freedom, but in order to achieve it, we occasionally have to infringe on the negative freedom of someone else. Libertarians categorically reject this. Libertarians are fully aware that many people have different definitions of freedom — “freedom from want”, etc. — and that’s why we actually tend to avoid the words “liberty” and “freedom” in everyday conversation and philosophical parlance. Those words are simply too vague and ill-defined to actually get across what we really mean. To a libertarian, no man’s benefit may ever come at any other man’s expense. That’s simply a grounding principle.

    There seems to be some confusion in this section of the article regarding what might be called “reasonable constraints” on freedom. Libertarians also believe that your right to absolute autonomy ends when it encounters someone else. You do not have the right to kill, harm, steal, cheat, etc. That is only a natural conclusion when we start with the principle of self-ownership and work it logically all the way through. If every man owns themselves, their actions, and their property, then for one man to violate another’s person, actions or property through any means must be wrong. Certain restrictions on liberty, counterintuitively, are directly derived from of the idea of absolute liberty. Living alone in the wilderness is no such requirement for the exercise of maximal liberty.

    “Problem: Personal liberty does not imply ownership”

    We are merely the consciousness in our minds, and if we were transferred to a computer it would still be us. That is precisely why we are said to “own” ourselves — it actually means to own our bodies, because we (our consciousness) are in control of our bodies. However, you do have me there on one point: control is not ownership; the *right* to control is ownership. I’ve struggled with this very concept myself, and indeed, against the grain of most libertarians who accepted the so-called “argumentation ethics” of Hans Hermann Hoppe on this matter, I reject the idea that you can in any way prove that you own yourself. Ownership is a statement of moral right, and morality is merely a fiction of the mind anyway, so how can we possibly prove *any* version of morality is right? You can prove you control yourself, your actions, and that you can indeed manipulate property, which seems an unnecessary derivation given that we can observe this all the time in the real world. What cannot determine is that you *own* yourself, that you *own* your actions, and that you *own* your property.

    However, even though I’ve just admitted in plain sight that my belief in self-ownership and all which is (correctly in the article) derived from it is arbitrary and unprovable, what’s to say *your* vision of what’s right is any less arbitrary and unprovable?

    Ethics largely originated due to what evolutionarily worked out better for the species in terms of governing rules for interpersonal behavior. That is why I think sometimes we feel it is OK to cheat, steal, harm and kill: whenever it would appear to benefit the species. It is actually an exercise to the rational mind to reject impulsive moral assessments in favor of a definitively arbitrary, but indeed completely internally self-consistent, but also contra-evolutionary standard of ethics, namely, libertarian ethics.

    “Problem: Cost-effective government is not the same as minimal government”

    Libertarians really don’t dispute parental authority. A child is not capable of independent thought until a certain age at all; a person’s rights, by the libertarian standard, increase in proportion to their ability to be cognizant of their own existence. Self-ownership is predicated on one’s ability to recognize and assert it. As such, until a child grows older, parental control is legitimate, of course to a lesser and lesser degree as their age advances. The legal age of majority is arbitrary, but any non-anarchistic libertarian society will inevitably be forced to make compromises through the use of blanket standards due to the sheer unenforceability of any case-by-case self-awareness-based standard on issues such as child rights and abortion.

    “According to libertarian theory, the only legitimate authority that the state has over non-consenting individuals is the protection of liberty and the collection of taxes to pay for that protection.”

    Here the author makes a critical error in his analysis of libertarian theory. The collection of taxes is never justified, hence almost all libertarians chanting “taxation is theft” all over the internet. If we’re going to have a government at all, it is still viewed merely as a “necessary evil” — the collection of taxes is never forgiven as an ethical transgression against one’s right to property, including monetary property, no matter how much the government puts it to “good use” by restricting itself to the sole purpose of defense of rights. Libertarians would almost always prefer that something be voluntarily funded as opposed to coercively funded.

    “Problem: Not all government intervention is authoritarian”
    “Problem: Social programs do not violate personal liberty”

    True, but libertarians oppose the welfare state, sometimes in addition to various pillars of the public system such as public roads, public schools, libraries, etc. for other reasons. It’s not because of what the government is doing that makes it wrong — it’s how it’s being funded (through coercive taxation). Libertarians would love for a privately funded charitable foundation to take care of all of these things. We are against them not because of what they do, but because of how they get their money to operate. Governments around the world may manage to operate certain systems without growing into an obviously totalitarian power, but because libertarians tend to believe that government is at best a “necessary evil” in order to defend rights, we believe that unless it is demonstrably necessary to avoid societal collapse that the government do something, the government had best not do it. We won’t give them an inch more power than they really, really, really need to perform its function of defense of rights, especially since in addition to the immediate near-monopolization of whatever service it takes on, it also most likely would require an increase in taxes to fund it… and taxation is theft of people’s monetary property.

    “The libertarian delusion: A society of free-wheeling, self-reliant individuals”

    Hardly. Libertarians recognize that society is incredibly interconnected and we are all reliant on each other. But people tend to not realize, despite our interconnectedness, just how much we are still able to make voluntary choices and decisions about where to allocate our resources, including time, money, labor, and energy. We don’t all have to live apart from each other in order for libertarianism to work. It’s a critical error to claim that living together in a society is impossible for libertarians; as stated earlier, the restriction on liberty which dictates “do no harm to others” is actually canon libertarian theory. We know we’re all mutually dependent on each other, and we are even dependent on people we do not even know nor will ever meet. (Milton Friedman’s “pencil” video is a staple even among libertarians.) But for all this dependency, the only requirement for libertarians is that as little as possible of it is predicated on anything which is involuntary or coercive. An infinitesimal slice of our global capitalistic society is involuntary; governments typically do their consistent-with-libertarianism job at stamping out any attempt at coercion or fraud in the open marketplace, although admittedly they are not perfect at it and some slips through. Meanwhile, government is literally the embodiment of involuntariness. It does not have to fairly compete for your money and business; it does not have to prove that it is better than the alternatives. There *is* no alternative, and it *forces* you to give it the money it demands. *This* is what libertarians are actually against — certainly not interconnectedness and dependence on others.

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