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Why Is Libertarianism Wrong? ^

Posted on 02/01/2002 10:21:47 AM PST by Exnihilo

Why is libertarianism wrong?

Why is libertarianism wrong?

The origins, background, values, effects, and defects of libertarianism. Some sections are abstract, but at the end some irreducible value conflicts are clearly stated.


Libertarianism is part of the Anglo-American liberal tradition in political philosophy. It is a development of classic liberalism, and not a separate category from it. It is specifically linked to the United States. Many libertarian texts are written by people, who know only North American political culture and society. They claim universal application for libertarianism, but it remains culture-bound. For instance, some libertarians argue by quoting the US Constitution, without apparently realising, that it is not in force outside the USA. Most online material on libertarianism contrasts it to liberalism, but this contrast is also specific the USA - where the word 'liberal' is used to mean 'left-of-centre'. Here, the word 'liberal' is used in the European sense: libertarians are a sub-category of liberals. As political philosophy, liberalism includes John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Isaiah Berlin, and John Rawls. As a political movement, it is represented by the continental-European liberal parties in the Liberal International.

At this point, you might expect a definition of libertarianism. However, most definitions of libertarianism are written by libertarians themselves, and they are extremely propagandistic. "Libertarianism is freedom!' is a slogan, not a definition. Most other definitions of libertarianism borrow from those self-definitions, so I have avoided them. Instead, the values, claims, and effects listed below describe the reality of libertarianism.


The values of libertarianism can not be rationally grounded. It is a system of belief, a 'worldview'. If you are a libertarian, then there is no point in reading any further. There is no attempt here to convert you: your belief is simply rejected. The rejection is comprehensive, meaning that all the starting points of libertarian argument (premises) are also rejected. There is no shared ground from which to conduct an argument.

The libertarian belief system includes the values listed in this section, which are affirmed by most libertarians. Certainly, no libertarian rejects them all...

the claims and self-image of libertarianism

Libertarians tend to speak in slogans - "we want freedom", "we are against bureaucracy" - and not in political programmes. Even when they give a direct definition of libertarianism, it is not necessarily true.

The differences between libertarian image and libertarian reality are summarised in this table.

libertarian image libertarian reality
Image: non-coercion, no initiation of force Reality: libertarians legitimise economic injustice, by refusing to define it as coercion or initiated force
Image: moral autonomy of the individual Reality: libertarians demand that the individual accept the outcome of market forces
Image: political freedom Reality: some form of libertarian government, imposing libertarian policies on non-libertarians
Image: libertarians condemn existing states as oppressive Reality: libertarians use the political process in existing states to implement their policies
Image: benefits of libertarianism Reality: libertarians claim the right to decide for others, what constitutes a 'benefit'

political structures in a libertarian society

Values do not enforce their own existence in the social world. The values of libertarianism would have to be enforced, like those of any other political ideology. These political structures would be found in most libertarian societies.


The effects of a libertarian world flow from the values it enforces.

what is libertarianism?

With the values and effects listed above, the general characteristics of libertarianism can be summarised.

Firstly, libertarianism is a legitimation of the existing order, at least in the United States. All political regimes have a legitimising ideology, which gives an ethical justification for the exercise of political power. The European absolute monarchies, for instance, appealed to the doctrine of legitimate descent. The King was the son of a previous King, and therefore (so the story went), entitled to be king. In turn, a comprehensive opposition to a regime will have a comprehensive justification for abolishing it. Libertarianism is not a 'revolutionary ideology' in that sense, seeking to overthrow fundamental values of the society around it. In fact, most US libertarians have a traditionalist attitude to American core values. Libertarianism legitimises primarily the free-market, and the resulting social inequalities.

Specifically libertarianism is a legitimation for the rich - the second defining characteristic. If Bill Gates wants to defend his great personal wealth (while others are starving) then libertarianism is a comprehensive option. His critics will accuse him of greed. They will say he does not need the money and that others desperately need it. They will say his wealth is an injustice, and insist that the government redistribute it. Liberalism (classic liberal philosophy) offers a defence for all these criticisms, but libertarianism is sharper in its rejection. That is not to say that Bill Gates 'pays all the libertarians'. (He would pay the Republican Party instead, which is much better organised, and capable of winning elections). Libertarianism is not necessarily invented or financed, by those who benefit from the ideology. In the USA and certainly in Europe, self-declared libertarians are a minority within market-liberal and neoliberal politics - also legitimising ideologies. To put it crudely, Bill Gates and his companies do not need the libertarians - although they are among his few consistent defenders. (Libertarians formed a 'Committee for the Moral Defense of Microsoft' during the legal actions against the firm).

Thirdly, libertarians are conservatives. Many are openly conservative, but others are evasive about the issue. But in the case of openly conservative libertarians, the intense commitment to conservatism forms the apparent core of their beliefs. I suggest this applies to most libertarians: they are not really interested in the free market or the non-coercion principle or limited government, but in their effects. Perhaps what libertarians really want is to prevent innovation, to reverse social change, or in some way to return to the past. Certainly conservative ideals are easy to find among libertarians. Charles Murray, for instance, writes in What it means to be a Libertarian (p. 138):

The triumph of an earlier America was that it has set all the right trends in motion, at a time when the world was first coming out of millennia of poverty into an era of plenty. The tragedy of contemporary America is that it abandonned that course. Libertarians want to return to it.

Now, Murray is an easy target: he is not only an open conservative, but also a racist. (As co-author of The Bell Curve he is probably the most influential western academic theorist of racial inferiority). But most US libertarians share his nostalgia for the early years of the United States, although it was a slave-owning society. Libertarianism, however, is also structurally conservative in its rejection of revolutionary force (or any innovative force). Without destruction there can be no long-term social change: a world entirely without coercion and force would be a static world.

the real value conflicts with libertarians

The descriptions of libertarianism above are abstract, and criticise its internal inconsistency. Many libertarian texts are insubstantial - just simple propaganda tricks, and misleading appeals to emotion. But there are irreducible differences in fundamental values, between libertarians and their opponents. Because they are irreducible, no common ground of shared values exists: discussion is fruitless. The non-libertarian alternative values include these...

the alternative: what should the state do?

The fundamental task of the state, in a world of liberal market-democratic nation states, is to innovate. To innovate in contravention of national tradition, to innovate when necessary in defiance of the 'will of the people', and to innovate in defiance of market forces and market logic. Libertarians reject any such draconian role for the state - but then libertarians are not the carriers of absolute truth.

These proposed 'tasks of the state' are a replacement for the standard version, used in theoretical works on public administration:

  1. to restrict tradition and heritage, to limit transgenerational culture and transgenerational community - especially if they inhibit innovation
  2. to restrict 'national values', that is the imposition of an ethnic or nation-specific morality
  3. to permit the individual to secede from the nation state, the primary transgenerational community
  4. to limit market forces, and their effects
  5. to permit the individual to secede from the free market
  6. to restrict an emergent civil society, that is, control of society by a network of elite 'actors' (businesses and NGO's)
  7. to prevent a 'knowledge society' - a society where a single worldview (with an absolute claim to truth) is uncontested .
To avoid confusion, note that they are not all directed against libertarianism: but if libertarians shaped the world, the state would do none of these things.

relevant links

Index page: liberalism

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Liberalism - the mainstream definitions of liberalism.

Liberal Manifesto of Oxford (1947), European political liberalism. Some elements, such as "Loyal adherence to a world organisation of all nations..." would now be rejected by the same parties.

Libertäre Ideologie - a series of articles on the libertarian ideology at the online magazine Telepolis. Even if you can not read German, it is useful as a source of links, to libertarian and related sites.

European Libertarians. The Statue of Liberty on their homepage also symbolises Atlanticism: there is no recent libertarian tradition in Europe, outside the UK. More typical of European ultra-liberal politics is the New Right economic liberalism which was at the start of the Thatcher government in Britain. See for example the Institute for Economic Studies Europe, or in central Europe the Czech Liberální Institut.

Libertarian NL, a Dutch libertarian homepage (Aschwin de Wolf). But look at the political issues, the political thinkers, and the links: the libertarian world consists primarily of the United States. In December 2000 the featured theme was an open letter to Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the US central bank (Federal Reserve Board). Yet this is a Dutch website, made by people who live in Europe. Their currency policy is made by European central bank chairman Wim Duisenberg, the former Netherlands central bank president. But they chose to ignore the society around them, and live as wannabe US citizens. Again, a recurrent pattern among European libertarians.

Libertarisme: De renaissance van het klassiek liberalisme by Aschwin de Wolf. This introduction to libertarianism, written for the members of the Netherlands liberal party VVD, illustrates the missionary attitude of libertarians in Europe. European liberalism has become corrupted, they claim, and must reform itself on the model of US libertarianism.

Libertarisme FAQ: explicit about the conservative effects of libertarianism: "Je zou echter wel kunnen stellen dat het libertarisme conservatief is in die zin dat zij mensen in hun waarde laat en geen progressieve experimenten door de overheid toelaat. Het libertarisme is dus heel goed verenigbaar met het koesteren van tradities of andere overgeleverde manieren van leven."

democratic expansionism: liberal market democracy itself depends on coercion, a US military invasion for example

The advantage of capitalist trucks, David Friedman

The Cathedral and the Bazaar: libertarian ideologists are switching their attention from the Internet to Open Source. This text restates a theme from classic liberal philosophy: the contrast between emergent and ideal order (market and Church).

The non-statist FAQ seems to have gone offline (December 2000).

Critiques Of Libertarianism, the best-known anti-libertarian site, but almost exclusively US-American in content.

Elfnet: O/S for a Global Brain?: a good example of the combination of New Age, computer science, and globalism in global-brain connectionism. Opens, as you might expect, with a quote from Kevin Kelly.

Multi-Agent Systems / Hypereconomy: organicist free-market ideas from Alexander Chislenko, "...a contract economy looks much like a forest ecology..."
Networking in the Mind Age: Chislenko on a network global-brain. "The infomorph society will be built on new organizational principles and will represent a blend of a superliquid economy, cyberspace anarchy and advanced consciousness". I hope it works better than his website, which crashed my browser.

Gigantism in Soviet Space: the Soviet Union's state-organised mega-projects are a horror for all liberals. They contravene almost every libertarian precept.

The Right to Discriminate, from the libertarian "Constitution of Oceania". Few libertarians are so explicit about this, but logically it fits. The Right to Own a Business also provides that "Mandatory disability benefits for transvestites, pedophiles, pyromaniacs, kleptomaniacs, drug addicts, and compulsive gamblers are obviously forbidden."

Virtual Canton Constitution, from the libertarian think-tank Free Nation Foundation. Although they claim to be anti-statists, libertarians write many and detailed Constitutions. This one re-appears in the generally libertarian Amsterdam 2.0 urban design project.

Serbia and Bosnia: A Foreign Policy Formulation : libertarianism solves the Bosnia problem. "I am a newcomer to foreign policy and cannot claim to understand all that matters". From the Free Nation site, which advocates a (logically inconsistent) libertarian state.

Libertarian immigration: Entirely free, but, but...."Fortunately, a truly free society would be protected by the fact that all property would be private. Only an immigrant who had permission to occupy the property of another could even enter the country. Even roads and sidewalks would be privately owned and would probably require some type of fee for entry."

Libertarian Foreign Policy, Libertarian Party of Canada. An example of the isolationism which at present characterises North American libertarianism, despite its inherent universalist character.

The Unlikeliest Cult in History

TOPICS: Editorial; Politics/Elections
KEYWORDS: aynrand; libertarianism; libertarians; medicalmarijuana
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To: Exnihilo
I dont think any political philosophy is perfect. Libertarianism, however, is probably the most consistent of the "western" philosophies. I see it as more of a guidepost, an ideal, which one should strive for, wherever possible.
21 posted on 02/01/2002 10:41:39 AM PST by Paradox
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To: Exnihilo
More relevant links:

Democratic Freedom Caucus

Republican Liberty Caucus

The Progress Report

22 posted on 02/01/2002 10:41:48 AM PST by Captain Shady
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To: FreedomIsSimple
Is that your rebutle to the author's points about Libertarians? I don't care what "side" he's on. His points about the inconsistancies of Libertarianism are exactly right.
23 posted on 02/01/2002 10:42:13 AM PST by Exnihilo
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To: Exnihilo
yeah, I found it illuminating that you chose a socialist's arguements against libertarianism. That's much like selecting a harlot's assault on chastity.
24 posted on 02/01/2002 10:42:21 AM PST by WindMinstrel
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To: El Sordo
I checked out some of the author's other writings.

Same here. I found this little snippet interesting:

``For every principled minority, for every oppressed minority, for all who suffer injustice, democracy is a nightmare without end, and every year more intense. Democracy destroys hope. Above all, it destroys the hope of change.'' (Paul Treanor, April 15, 1996)

25 posted on 02/01/2002 10:43:37 AM PST by tacticalogic
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To: Paradox
Then start by refuting the author's points which demonstrate repeated inconsistancies in Libertarian thinking.
26 posted on 02/01/2002 10:43:47 AM PST by Exnihilo
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To: Exnihilo
While this is clearly a well crafted post, and it makes many a valid point, I wonder at the wisdom of investing so much energy in such an attack. I consider myself a libertarian even though my political beliefs may not fall precisely on the tradtitional libertarian line. None the less, it's a political stance with which I find the most agreement. In my experience, I have far more in common with my freinds who call themselves conservative, than I do with any lefties. So while I think debating the "pure" virtue of a political belief is valid, I really have to wonder if our energies wouldn't be better spent promoting those areas where we agree.
27 posted on 02/01/2002 10:43:49 AM PST by tcostell
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To: Exnihilo
Reality: libertarians legitimise economic injustice, by refusing to define it as coercion or initiated force

Economic injustice? What, the rain in NYC keep you from marching with your communist, anti-capitalist breatheren, so all you have to do all day is bash Libertarians? And bashing us with this collectivist crap? Shouldn't you be trolling DU?
28 posted on 02/01/2002 10:44:07 AM PST by FreedomIsSimple
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To: Central Scrutiniser
I'm sure it will get pulled.

No, that only seems to apply to the Libertarians questioning Republicans threads. This one is likely an untouchable.

29 posted on 02/01/2002 10:44:07 AM PST by riley1992
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To: Aquinasfan
Hi Aquinas
I was just thinking God gave us free will
and probably man-made law which reflects it
is the most sensible one

libertarianism makes common sense to me --
it carries out the Constitution in spirit and letter
and allows as much free will as possible
Love, Palo
30 posted on 02/01/2002 10:44:31 AM PST by palo verde
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Comment #31 Removed by Moderator

To: Exnihilo
Is that your rebutle to the author's points about Libertarians? I don't care what "side" he's on. His points about the inconsistancies of Libertarianism are exactly right

It's hard to argue with someone who comes from the standpoint that it's the government's job to solve "economic injustice", which is merely a code word for "giving the tax dollars of hard-working citizens to worthless, lazy parasites". It's so completely opposite of my ideology there is no common ground to argue from.
32 posted on 02/01/2002 10:47:09 AM PST by FreedomIsSimple
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To: Southack
Well said. They definitely are defensive and love to get the last word in. They seem to be out of touch with the reality of how to really make any changes. "Either remove the whole tax code or just forget it". I've also noticed an alarming number of them are mensas. This shows that they are extreme elitists and simply don't want to be involved in a normal party because they can't stand out in a crowd well enough that way.
33 posted on 02/01/2002 10:47:17 AM PST by biblewonk
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To: Southack
Libertarianism is anything but an argument for a perfect world. Libertarianism denies the folly of perfection imagined by those who would control others.
34 posted on 02/01/2002 10:47:58 AM PST by decimon
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To: Exnihilo
For the most part, he simply _disagrees_ with libertarians, even down to the level of word definitions.

Some US employers require their employees to smile at all customers, or lose their job. I call that coercion: libertarians call it freedom of contract. There is no point in further discussion of these issues: they are examples of irreconcilable value conflicts.

I think this sums it up pretty much.

35 posted on 02/01/2002 10:48:07 AM PST by Paradox
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To: Exnihilo
Whoa now!!

Many of the author's "points" about Libertarian thought depend entirely on how he chooses to define his terms. His apparent definition of "coercion" being chief among them.

I find that the aurhtor is flagrantly using logical fallacies and selectively defining his terms in order to make a specious argument.

36 posted on 02/01/2002 10:48:12 AM PST by El Sordo
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To: El Sordo
I find that the aurhtor is flagrantly using logical fallacies and selectively defining his terms in order to make a specious argument

Funny, I and the author both find that Libertarians consistantly do that.. hmm...
37 posted on 02/01/2002 10:49:17 AM PST by Exnihilo
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To: tacticalogic
I and the founders would agree. That's why we have a REPUBLIC, not a Democracy.
38 posted on 02/01/2002 10:50:22 AM PST by Exnihilo
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To: Exnihilo
Bookmarked and bumped! However, I titled it a study of libertarianism. LOL! I tried not to offend. I must be too liberal.
39 posted on 02/01/2002 10:50:24 AM PST by Cold Heat
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To: Exnihilo
If minarchy means minimal outside influence, on the life of the individual, then libertarians are not minarchists. By the same token, they can certainly not be anarchists.

Notice that the only way that he can make the argument that libertarians are not minarchists is by changing the definition of minarchy from "limited government" to "minimal outside influence." In doing this, the author is guilty of the classic strawman argument.

40 posted on 02/01/2002 10:50:34 AM PST by The Green Goblin
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