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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.
origins 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.
values 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...
- "process legitimises outcome"
This is a standard underlying belief among liberals, in all forms of liberalism. All liberal societies include some form of interactive process or procedure. In turn, that has an outcome, which at least partly shapes the society: liberals see this shaping of society as legitimate. Libertarians emphasise this principle primarily in their rejection of (government-enforced) distributive justice. To libertarians, there is no such thing as distributive justice in the usual sense, what Nozick calls a 'patterned distribution'. To them, the outcome of a fair and free market is just. In fact, most libertarians believe that it derives this quality of justice, from its being the outcome of a special process (the free market, or a comparable process).
- revealing of order / perfection
One of David Friedman's books is called "Hidden Order: the Economics of Everyday Life". The idea of implicit order, is a part of most libertarian philosophy. The simplest version is, that there is a hidden order or logic in the world, which is revealed through the workings of the market. To varying degrees, this order is then considered sacred: and indeed it is originally a religious doctrine. It comes to libertarianism through the conservative-liberal tradition in Europe, and it has its origins in mediaeval philosophy. The most famous metaphor of the free market, Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' is part of this tradition. In the original religious version, the hidden order is seen as the work of God, and it is revealed in the social world of human interactions. Modern secular versions do not see order as pre-existing, in this sense. They speak of "self-organising" or "emergent" orders, but the quasi-religious emotion is still there - the sense that something more perfect is revealed. This aspect of libertarianism has cross-connections to New Age and spirituality.
- world of emergence
The value attached to the outcome of process, is so central to libertarianism, that it defines the ideal libertarian world. The liberal tradition generally is hostile to utopias, seeing them as attempts to enforce an ideology. Liberals share this aversion with some postmodernists, who see a direct line, from European utopian thought to Auschwitz. However, libertarians are an exception to this pattern of hostility. They often have a utopian political style, not hesitating to describe their 'ideal society' (at least, a version set in the USA). This society is usually seen as the result of libertarian process, not the process itself. For example, the libertarian utopia is not simply 'less government', it is what emerges after 25 years of less government. It is not relevant to say that libertarians have "got their predictions wrong", and that something else would happen. The point is, that libertarianism does have an ideal world, which it intends to substitute for other possible worlds. Inherently, it must then defend this world's existence. And if the absolute free-market had totally unexpected effects (such as a Bolshevik world government), then most libertarians would interfere with its workings, to reinstate their intended ideal world. In other words the libertarian utopia is not a prediction of the effects of libertarian politics, it is a stand-alone utopian vision. It is defined as emergent (or in similar terms), and perhaps it is emergent, but the relevant fact is that libertarianism generally operates under the equivalence "the emergent = the good". By being 'emergent' it is for libertarians a world more perfect, than any ideal city of the European Renaissance. And therefore, it "must" come to existence, and it "must" exclude other existence. Libertarianism can not be understood, without understanding this preference, and its emotional depth.
The Darwinism of libertarians is an example of their preference for a particular future world. Most libertarians support competitive interaction in a Darwinist form - Darwinist in the sense that some entities may disappear, in the process of competition. In the free market, products which fail to secure a market niche, are no longer produced. A short pro-libertarian essay by David Friedman is about "bad trucks" - trucks made in the Soviet Union. As Friedman says, "The capitalist truck was built under a system of institutions in which people who build bad trucks are likely to lose money". So in the end, no more "bad trucks" will be built. There is no evidence that Friedman sees anything wrong with this. For him, and many other libertarians, it is self-evident that certain things are "bad": they deserve no existence, and society should be designed to punish them out of existence. Selective competition is the instrument, disappearance of "bad trucks" is the result, and this result is explicitly desired. Even without an explicit reference to Darwinian evolution, this obviously leans on the success of Darwinism as a social metaphor. This is an important issue for the philosophical legitimation of libertarianism. If the market has evolutionary effects, or indeed any predictable selective effects, then it can no longer claim to a "neutral set of rules and procedures".
Many libertarians are social utilitarians. Simply stated, they believe that the benefits for the many outweigh the disadvantage for the few. Phrases like "most people would prefer" are common in libertarian texts. Libertarian texts generally concede that poverty will not disappear, some concede that some of the poor will be much worse off, or even starve. They justify this in terms of classically utilitarian approaches. The 'trickle-down effect' is a familiar example - the claim that "if the rich get richer, then some of the money will reach the poor eventually". Here too is a specific philosophical belief, in this case the very clearly defined philosophy of utilitarianism. Libertarians who propose a society on this basis, would necessarily impose their ethical doctrine on others. It is not possible to have a 'value-neutral utilitarian society', any more than a 'value-neutral Catholic society'. Libertarians who insist on utilitarianism as a social value, can not claim to support individual freedom with respect to philosophical beliefs.
Despite the claimed horror at 'collectivism', libertarians share the general liberal preference for collective forms of decision-making - above all, the market. This is often legitimised by a claimed universal necessity, to "balance" or "weigh" preferences. This is an ancient metaphor, and very popular since Newton, but the 'necessity' is not self-evident. No can show why preferences should be balanced, or weighed: to want them weighed or balanced is a preference in itself. It is, by definition, a collectivist preference, since at least two people must participate. In practice, free-market decisions are always collective: supply of one product, by one maker, to one customer is not a free market. A free market in the libertarian sense needs at least three parties: with only one buyer and one seller, there is no competition. In such a free market, with multiple parties and competition, all parties influence the final state of affairs. No individual can decide that outcome alone. While claiming to reject autocracy, libertarianism has in fact abandoned autonomy.
- "interarchy": are libertarians minarchists?
Some libertarians describe themselves as anarcho-capitalists, or just anarchists, or minarchists. Anarchy means literally "no rule" and minarchy implies minimal rule, minimal government. Robinson Crusoe, alone on an island, could claim to have a truly minarchic and anarchist system, of absolute autonomous self-government. However, isolation is not what libertarians mean, when they use these terms. The political structures proposed by libertarians allow any person to interact with another, in any non-coercive way. Libertarianism, and liberalism in general, recognise no "right to be a hermit". But most libertarians not only allow interactive society, they positively value it. They claim it allows knowledge to be shared: they value this input of others. Not just in their own life, but as a general social precept. This high-interaction society, of collective decision making, already has a name: Hayek suggested "catallaxy". However, the term "interarchy" seems better. It indicates that no-one in such a society is "self-governing" in the Crusoe sense. Others affect their lives: in a global economy, about four billion other consumers and millions of business firms. 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.
This term is used in cognitive psychology, for a model of the mind based on neural networks. However there is also a normative connectionism, familiar from early Internet activism - the idea that connections are good in themselves. That ideology of the fully interconnected global society, the 'wired world', inspired many activists. (Ironically, it often inspired them to demand government action to wire the world). However, connectionism in itself pre-dates the Internet. Probably every improvement in communications technology over the last 200 years, has led to connectionist declarations. In libertarianism, connectionist beliefs underlie the libertarian preference for a global (trading) economy.
The syncretism of libertarianism is also best visible among cyber-libertarians. For many people the mere fact of connection is not enough, they value the fusion it produces. Especially, they value the fusion of cultures, and religions. Religious and ethical syncretism are very old beliefs, although they never produced a global religion. (Syncretists tend to form minorities within existing religions). The Internet led to a cultural revival of syncretism, which had been confined to a New Age minority. In one particular form, it overlaps with libertarianism: the pan-syncretism of organic social theories. In other words, the ideal of human society as a global organism, fused from existing societies. This old and generally obscure ideal was dramatically revitalised, by claims that the Internet could make a 'global brain' technically possible. It apparently has a deep emotional appeal for some libertarians: they see in the interactive nature of the free market a forerunner of a planetary organism. The theorist David Friedman, a hard economic libertarian, links from his homepage to the SF novel Earthweb, which in turn credits him as an inspiration. The papers by Alexander Chislenko, linked below, are good examples of how free-market individualism can switch to extreme organic collectivism.
Even for those who do not dream of immersion in a global brain, unity has political appeal. The importance of a global economy for almost all liberals (not just libertarians), is an indication of that. "One world!" is an immensely powerful slogan: it appeals to left and right - even to people who support all kinds of secessionist movements. Again, the libertarian version of global unity, is generally the options-exchange version: global financial trading, absolute free trade, and sometimes free global migration. (However, US libertarians are cautious, evasive and non-emphatic, about free immigration). But certainly, most libertarians would reject the idea of a divided world: a libertarian half-planet is not enough for them.
Most libertarians believe, not only that they themselves should live in a libertarian world, but that the rest of the world should as well. Most liberals take a similar view. Unlike libertarians, mainstream liberal-democratic governments have armies to enforce it. Libertarians (and most liberals) believe, that to impose freedom is not an imposition. For them, anything which can legitimately be described as 'freedom', may legitimately be imposed. The Libertarian FAQ, for instance, says "America's free press is envied by freedom-starved people everywhere": implicitly, to allow any other press would be a denial of freedom. In this logic, imposition of a political ideology is a generous response to the suffering of others, who are 'starved' of it. The climate of global politics is increasingly interventionist anyway. If US libertarians become less isolationist, they might demand that the US Marines bring the 'gift of freedom' to Africa and Latin America.
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.
The principle of non-coercion, or non-initiation of force, appears in most self-definitions. It is the equivalent of the liberal concept of 'negative liberty' and some libertarians use that term. Libertarians say they are against coercion, but they support the free market. The introduction of a free market in Russia after 1989, lead to an excess mortality of about 3 million people. I call that force (and not defensive or retaliatory force): libertarians do not. 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.
- moral autonomy:
Libertarians claim to value the moral autonomy of the individual. However, in the free market which they advocate, there is no connection between individual action and social outcome. A one-person boycott of meat will not stop the slaughter of animals. In reality, the individual is powerless in the face of the market - and without some decision-making power there is no real moral autonomy. The implicit position of most libertarians is that this must be accepted - that the outcome of the market is morally legitimate, even if it does not correspond to the conscience of the individual. Certainly, all libertarians distrust even limited interference with the market, many reject it entirely.
- political freedom:
Libertarians say they favour political freedom. But even to simply enforce the outcome of the market, the apparatus of a state would be necessary - an army to prevent invasions, a police force to suppress internal revolt, a judicial system. Most libertarians go much further: they want a libertarian regime, a political system. Some of them have written complete and detailed constitutions. But like any state, a libertarian state will have to enforce its constitution - or it will remain a proposed constitution. Even if the state is founded on Mars (as some libertarians suggest), someone else with different ideas will probably arrive sometime. The libertarian constitutions might work in a freshly established libertarian colony, inhabited only by committed libertarians. But sooner or later there will be an opposition, perhaps resolutely hostile to the founding principles. States, which fail to enforce their own political system against opposition to the state itself, ultimately collapse or disappear. The state can not be indifferent to its opponents.
In the case of libertarianism within existing states, the position is much clearer. There is no question of a fresh start with a fresh population. The Libertarian Party of the United States, for instance, seeks to impose a libertarian system on the United States. It is an imposition, and can not be anything else. Unless they are prepared to accept the division of the country, they will have to deal with millions of anti-libertarians, who reject the regime entirely. They might call the riot police the Liberty Police, they might call the prisons Liberty Camps, but it's still not 'political freedom'.
- instrumental claims:
Libertarians often make many instrumental claims - claims that their system would produce desirable results. Arguing from results is not generally considered sufficient to justify a political philosophy. (The attitude of British and American fascist sympathisers was caricatured in the expression "Mussolini made the trains run on time"). Most libertarians favour a drastic deregulation and full privatisation of the economy, and this is typically where the instrumental claims are made. The libertarian reforms will, they claim, improve education and medical services and make better and cheaper products available. Similar claims are made by almost all liberals. However, like David Friedman's 'bad trucks' argument, they rely on a value judgment.
There is no neutral common standard of what is good and bad, in consumer goods or education. Different economic systems and different societies produce different types of goods and services. Libertarians implicitly claim that their preferences are the right preferences, and that the economic system itself should be chosen to produce their preferred goods and services. They don't want Soviet-style goods in the shops, so they want a non-Soviet system. Perhaps you don't want Soviet-style goods in the shops either. The point is: did they ask you?
All instrumental arguments are paternalistic. The fascist sympathisers who praised Mussolini's train timekeeping, assumed that was the most relevant factor to judge Italian fascist society. For themselves - but also for their listeners. Libertarians assume everyone wants an American-style economy directed to consumer goods. Some people do. But other people have different tastes, and different priorities. Libertarians ignore these differences, and simply assume that everyone wants exactly the same, from health care or the educational system. That paternalism is incompatible with the moral autonomy and economic freedom, which libertarians claim to promote.
That is an inconsistency in libertarian claims to political power. It is a separate issue from the accuracy of their predictions, about the wonders of deregulation and privatisation. There is no point in discussing the accuracy of these predictions here. If libertarians say, for instance, that global deregulation will lead to increased electricity production in Ghana in 2050, there is no point in discussion. No-one knows anyway. The instrumental arguments of libertarians are untested, since no country has a fully libertarian economic system. There are partial neoliberal and libertarian 'experiments' - deregulation and privatisation. But, as the Californian electricity crisis showed, if the experiment fails, its supporters will simply claim that it was not sufficiently neoliberal or libertarian. So even the evidence for the instrumental claims of libertarians is a matter of interpretation and preference: it would be futile to use it as a basis for discussion.
- "choose us or choose Hitler":
Perhaps it is no more than a style of argument, but a 'dual world' is a feature of many libertarian texts. On one side is libertarianism, on the other totalitarianism and dictatorship. The historic examples cited are almost always Nazism and Stalinism, the historic figures are Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. If it is not just a style of argument, then it is a specific from of utilitarianism: the legitimation of libertarianism by the (presumed) prevention of the horrors of totalitarianism. That would imply a libertarian claim, that even if libertarian society is unpleasant for everyone, they should accept it - to avoid the Gulag. As a style of argument this is very common in all forms of liberalism. However, it is hard to judge whether liberals seriously think that there is a two-way switch built into recent history.
- specific position in the USA:
Here too, it is hard to judge how far libertarians have identified themselves with the USA. Certainly libertarianism is a largely North American phenomena (USA and Canada). Certainly European libertarians are generally also Atlanticist. But the question is, whether the USA is the promised land for libertarians - the only possible location of their libertarian revolution. And if it is, would they accept a strategy of 'libertarianism-in-one-country'? Libertarianism is ultimately a universal ideology: that implies that a libertarian USA would become a vehicle for global libertarianism. In other words, when the USA went libertarian, libertarians would proceed to an expansionist war of conquest. However, I have never seen such a proposal: in fact US libertarians seem only vaguely aware that there is anywhere outside the USA.
|| 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.
- non-coercion creates veto right:
Libertarians, as indicated above, emphasise the principle of non-coercion. Many libertarian propaganda texts begin by stating the principle. The Non-Statist FAQ (now offline) says:
...libertarianism is the ideology that aggression is bad. In libertarian argot, "aggression" is defined as the initiation of coercion, and "coercion" is defined as force, fraud or duress; coercion exercised in self-defense or restitution is defined as retaliation, not initiation.
And Charles Murray writes in What it means to be a Libertarian (p. 6):
It is wrong for me to use force against you, because it violates your right to control of your person....I may have the purest motive in the world. I may even have the best idea in the world. But even these give me no right to make you do something just because I think it's a good idea. This truth translates into the first libertarian principle of governance: In a free society individuals may not initiate the use of force against any other individual or group.
Now it is logically inconsistent, to demand a 'noncoercive principle of governance'. Unless someone (coercively) enforces it, it will be meaningless. And libertarians have a narrow and specific definition of coercion anyway (see below). But leaving that aside, this principle has an important political characteristic. It carries an implicit secondary claim, that any veto on coercion is legitimate.
In a libertarian world, any person could exercise a veto over any project, if it required their coercion. And as protesters have discovered, you can place yourself in a position where that coercion is required. In other words the non-coercion principle is a licence for deep NIMBY-ism. By literally or metaphorically 'sitting in front of the bulldozer', any project can be blocked. To evade this, libertarian theorists would have to create exemptions to the non-coercion principle, and probably exemptions from these exemptions. I have not seen any libertarian attempt to do this. However, there is a good comparison with rights theory - where every right can be matched by a claimed counter-right. In political practice, this has led to an inflation of rights (which can also be found in some libertarian proposals). The creation of a de facto veto right, or a specific set of exemptions from it, would undermine claims that the proposed society is a neutral set of rules and/or procedures.
- selective benefit from the non-coercion principle:
The comparison with the 'inflation of rights' is a reminder of another hidden preference, in the non-coercion precept. There is no self-evident way to apply the non-coercion principle. It must be applied to someone or something. The question is, to what, to whom? This is the problem which right theorists faced, when people started claiming rights for animals, for species, for ecosystems, for land, and for rocks. The non-coercion principle also has a limits problem. May fish legitimately be coerced into nets? Is it coercion to demolish a building? May collectivities benefit from non-coercion? In other words, is the principle of non-coercion exclusive to natural persons? Some libertarians do say that, but even this is unclear. Libertarians can not agree, on whether an abortion is initiation of force, because they disagree on whether the fetus is a natural person.
Certainly libertarians insist that the State should respect the non-coercion principle. Some libertarians might concede that the State is also protected by the principle, especially the so-called minarchists. For instance, they might condemn extortion from the government as coercion, force or fraud. If they concede the existence of a government at all, it will need protection against force in order to function. But if they concede this extension, why not extend it further to clubs and associations, which also need protection in order to function? Or to ethnic minorities? Or to species? A libertarian society needs to define the limits of the non-coercion principle, in order to apply it. These limits must then be enforced. Once again the claim to neutrality is undermined. The libertarian state would have to be maximal enough, to enforce their particular view of who deserves non-coercion.
- market forces not defined as coercion:
Imagine a world where coercion (or initiation of force) is forbidden, and everyone accepts that prohibition. In such a world, power would rest with those who define "coercion" or "initiation". The Libertarian Party Principles state:
We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.
In other words, interference with the lives of others is permitted, so long as it is not forcible. So anti-coercion libertarians do not just oppose coercion (force initiation): they also claim to legitimately define it. Their definition excludes much, that others would see as coercion.
Most explicitly, market forces are not defined as coercion by libertarians. Many exclude any form of competition from the definition. Some libertarians take this to extremes, proposing for instance a free market in children, or the return of indentured labour and contract slavery. On the other hand, any attempt to restrict market forces (or competition) would be defined by most libertarians as 'coercion'. Yet again the claim to neutrality is undermined: the libertarian state would also enforce their particular views of what constitutes non-coercion.
Cynically defined, a libertarian is a person who believes that all humans should live in total and absolute submission to market forces, at all times from birth to death, without any chance of escape. Only liberal ideologies claim that living in a free market is equivalent to living in a free society. Charles Murray writes in What it means to be a Libertarian (p. 6):
Formally stated: A voluntary and informed exchange benefits both parties. This characteristic of a voluntary and informed exchange makes a free society possible.
No, it does not. There is a huge gap in the logic here. The characteristics of the exchange do not determine the form of the society in which it takes place. A society is not a two-person transaction. A voluntary and informed exchange between two parties may already have dramatic consequences for a third party. Billions of free-market transactions result in some 'third parties' starving to death: that is neither voluntary, nor informed, nor an exchange.
A simple example: two islands exchange crops, to reach a minimum healthy diet. Soil conditions mean that a full range of crops can not be grown. Without the exchange the inhabitants of both islands will die. Then an external trader arrives, and sells the necessary crops to one of the islands. The trader sells honestly at fair prices: both parties (trader and one island) are satisfied with the deal. Nevertheless, the inter-island exchange ends. On the other island, the population dies of malnutrition. Obviously, they never contracted to this, yet some libertarians would claim that they are in some sense more free.
To allow 'freedom' in the sense that no-one finds themselves in a non-consensual condition as a result of transactions, would require
- the effect on all persons is known (predictability), or at least the risks to all persons are identified
- all those affected are informed, and
- all those affected consent.
Even in a small village with a barter economy these conditions are impossible. they are certainly impossible in a global economy.
Libertarians must know that free markets are not 'pure' transactions in a social vacuum. The voluntary and informed nature of a contract can, in reality, never extend beyond the contracting parties. But its effects can. Even if every single transaction is voluntary and informed, the resulting society might disadvantage everyone. If, and only if, all its members have contracted to accept any and all outcomes of all transactions collectively, can it be a 'free society' in the sense implied by Charles Murray. Otherwise, the image of the voluntary transaction as a metaphor for society, is false and propagandistic.
- existing world not defined as coercion:
Liberal political philosophy often has a hidden preference for the existing world, concealed within apparently neutral structures. In libertarianism, it is found in the non-coercion principle. Since humans have not freely chosen the world into which they were born, a truly non-coercive philosopher would demand that the cosmos disappeared - and only re-appeared, when everyone consented in writing to its existence. The real world is not so helpful. Libertarians take the existence of existing society as given. That makes it unfairly privileged - since attempts to abolish it can be legitimately described as coercion. In other words it gets a head start over all possible other societies: they have to prove 'non-coercion' before coming into existence, the existing society does not.
Libertarians appear to reject destructive force in general, including the destruction of tradition, and of traditionally venerated objects. Prohibiting the destruction of the existing is, by definition, a form of conservatism. Libertarianism appears to be 'anti-iconoclastic' in this sense, but specific libertarian condemnations of revolutionary iconoclasm are hard to find.
- selective anti-moralism:
Libertarians do have values (see above). Nevertheless, like most liberals, libertarians not only claim to be value-neutral themselves, they explicitly promote value neutrality. The standard model of human rights is a classic example of liberal value neutrality. The whole point about human rights is that they are universal - and therefore deliberately amoral. Good humans and evil humans get equal human rights: the rights are equally valid when used for good or evil.
Some libertarian philosophy rejects all moral judgment. No statement, it claims, can be more than an opinion. Almost all libertarians claim to reject the imposition of values by the State and other external authorities. They reject personal moralising, for example interference in the sex life of individuals by religious groups. Since libertarianism is so concentrated in the USA, school prayers, pornography, abortion and gun control are the typical issues.
However, ethics is not only about adult videos: there is a huge range of fundamental moral issues, submerged beneath the consensus of western societies. Almost by default, existing nation states impose some moral values, and reject others. Some of these have never even been discussed: academic philosophers find new ethical issues every day. Very few are the subject of the 'ethics controversies' debated by US libertarians and their opponents. So the opposition of libertarians to 'government moralising' can only be selective - and it is in practice selective. That obscures the position of libertarians, on moral issues that are not constantly in the US media. US schools also teach the benefits of the free market, and libertarians don't complain.
If libertarians did take the position that absolutely no state imposition of values is legitimate, I would put that in the section on their values. It is obviously a value judgment in itself. But I have not seen such a libertarian position yet: the present political reality is rather the selectiveness of libertarian anti-moralism.
effects The effects of a libertarian world flow from the values it enforces.
A free market (or the comparable electronic structures envisaged by techno-liberals) exercises social forces. It is true, that individuals can offer some resistance to social forces, but absolute rejection of all values and trends in the surrounding society is impossible. So there is always some reduction in individual freedom through 'interarchic' effects. In a free market, the individual consumer does not have 'freedom to choose': the freedom can only be exercised collectively. However, those consumers whose choice coincides with the outcome of market forces, are rewarded. The others are not only the losers on the market, but then also face market pressure to adapt their choice. In general, average-taste choices benefit. Free markets are not simply collective, but do have a centring effect. This quote from Eric Raymond sums up the libertarian attitude:
As for whether open-source is "techno-libertarian" -- well, I invite you to note that there is no coercion in it anywhere. It's a pure example of voluntary cooperation in a free market. The fact that open-source development leads to mostly cooperative rather than mostly competitive behavior is consistent; market economies are the most marvelous cooperative engines ever.
That is why markets are wrong: they produce social and technological uniformity. They 'centre' society. However, for some libertarians, that is exactly what makes them right.
- imposition of a specific world order
As the libertarian constitutions (linked below) emphasise, a libertarian world is not a free-going world. It is an extremely specific world, in fact a specific world order of states of a specific type. (Most of the libertarian constitutions assume a world of multiple states). Libertarians may call these states "minimal", but their individual specification would be extremely rigid. So too, probably, the relations among them, although I know of no proposals for a libertarian UN. In other words, if the Martians landed, they would know at once that they were on a libertarian planet. (Probably, they would be charged a landing fee). Libertarians can not see this specificity as a defect: because it specifies the world that they want, that they believe to be right. And indeed for them it is no defect, but for non-libertarians it is.
- "process legitimised this outcome"
Since libertarians generally believe that process legitimises outcome, a libertarian society will tend to accept any outcome as legitimate. Specifically, a libertarian society will tend to see itself as legitimate - since it guarantees libertarian process, and is itself the outcome of that process. This is a potential licence for injustice. It is already common practice in liberal societies to legitimise social inequalities, by reference to the 'equal opportunities' which were available. (Usually they were not, but this political tactic forces critics to first prove they were not).
- glorification of the order revealed through process
For libertarians, the social order which comes into existence through market process (and comparable process) has a special value. In cyber-liberal terms, the "emergent order". In a fully libertarian world, the veneration of this order would be an important cultural feature. At worst this could amount to a sacralisation of the existing order. Certainly, libertarians vehemently reject attempts to interfere with the wealth distribution resulting from the market. (This hostility apparently unites all libertarians).They clearly feel that something valuable would be destroyed. If this sort of veneration or sacralisation applied to the society as a whole, it would have a paralysing conservative effect. It would equate innovation with sacrilege, creating a taboo on destroying the 'sacred and perfect' order.
- exclusion of entities from the post-emergent world
The perfect libertarian world would contain only entities which were the product of market forces. It would be emergent, or more accurately post-emergent. Nothing would exist, which had not been through the filter of emergence. Entities which could not 'emerge', would not exist. The more libertarian the society, the more closely it would approach this state of affairs. In general, in a libertarian society, only goods and services would be available which conformed to market forces. Primarily, those would be the products of private enterprise. Some charities might also exist, but only if they successfully marketed themselves.
In other words certain entities will be permanently missing from the libertarian world. To libertarians, that is an advantage: they think of these entities as wrong: wrong as a product of coercion, or just plain wrong, like David Friedman's "bad trucks". Not just bad trucks will be missing, but an entire range of 'bad' entities, from 'bad' pencils, to 'bad' organisations, to 'bad' cities.
Urban planning theory has an established rhetoric of rejection of the "Soviet City", the 'bad city' which is contrasted with the US city. It is a specific example of the contra-utopianism of liberal thinking. Sometimes you can imagine the theorist shouting at, for instance, Kaliningrad "Such a city must be forbidden!" The point is that not everyone shares this preference of mainstream urban theory: and not everyone shares David Friedman's conviction that American trucks are self-evidently good. The entire range of 'bad entities' in this sense, is no more than a list of the personal preferences of libertarians.
- Darwinistic society generates evasion:
Attempts to introduce intermediate stages, on the road to a libertarian society, emphasise privatisation and competition in government. Libertarians generally favour this approach. However, introduction of markets or quasi-markets may not produce the predicted aggressive goal-oriented competition. Students know this well: a university is the most competitive institution most of them will ever experience - unless they become an options trader. And students know what they do, or at least what other students do, in such circumstances. They cheat. So do cadets at military academies, which make a cult of performance under pressure. So do Olympic athletes. If society was run to the high-achievement standards of the international derivatives market, one probable result is a new mass culture of evasion.
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...
- coercion not an absolute wrong:
The libertarian claim, that freedom from coercion is the supreme social value, is simply wrong (leaving aside their own inconsistency about force and compulsion). Non-coercion is not the absolute good: other values override it. For instance, other things being equal, it is not wrong to secure justice by coercion. And when the alternative to coercion is non-innovation, then coercion to secure innovation is also legitimate.
- ideals should not be abandoned simply because they involve some coercion:
The European Union and the Council of Europe have both prepared spatial plans for Europe. I don't agree with their versions, but a plan in itself is a good idea. They are wide-ranging documents, shaping the future of 700 million people on 10 million square kilometres. Inevitably, some people will suffer compulsion, in the implementation of such a comprehensive plan. For instance, although no-one will be sent to the Gulag, their land might be compulsorily acquired. Libertarians reject even that level of coercion. They reject the whole idea of such a huge plan: they think that any state planning is wrong. So, they say, the idea should simply be abandoned: "leave it to the market". But there is no reason, to simply abandon any broad and complex ideal of the future of Europe. Grand ideals are not inherently wrong - and they are not made wrong, simply because their fulfilment requires a degree of coercion.
- redistribution of wealth is not wrong:
Libertarians argue as if it was self-evidently wrong, to steal the legitimately owned property of the rich, and give it to the poor. But it's not wrong, not wrong at all. Redistribution of wealth is inherently good: in fact, it is a moral obligation of the state. Excessive wealth is there to be redistributed: the only issue is what is 'excessive'. And of course this is coercion, and of course Bill Gates would scream 'Tyranny!' if the government gave his money to the poor of Africa. But it's still not wrong, not wrong at all.
- people are not absolutely entitled to keep the money they earned:
Labour creates no entitlement to property. The claim that is does is merely a culturally specific preference: the labour theory of value - ironically a pillar of Marxist theory. Other cultures might claim that God's grace, or piousness, or filial devotion, or patrilineal descent, or status, create the entitlement to property and wealth. There is no objective standard, by which these claims can be ranked. On this issue, you say what you choose to believe. I say the state should tax those with more than an acceptable minimum income. But what if they are the creators of wealth, and they refuse to create when they are taxed? Well then let us all live in poverty, and let us imprison them, for trying to blackmail the state into lowering their taxes.
- the State is not wrong:
Anti-statism is a central element of libertarianism, but it rests on no foundations, other than the libertarian principles themselves. Often, libertarians suggest that 'The State' (the government, in American usage) is inherently wrong. But even if they say that explicitly, it is simply their belief, that's all. By its nature, the state uses coercion of the type that libertarians oppose, but that is not inherently wrong either (see above). In return, the state can end coercion of the type that libertarians tolerate and welcome, especially in the free market. And the State is, almost by definition, the only means to implement large-scale change and innovation in society - as opposed to simply letting market forces shape the future.
- moral values are above the law:
US libertarians often complain that "the government is above the law": they oppose an entity with this status. The most extreme libertarians see the government (tax officials especially) as a gang of armed robbers: they see the courts as the remedy for this. In fact, most liberals support the 'rule of law', the Rechtstaat-liberals see it as central to liberalism. In practice, the rule of law would probably mean the rule of lawyers and judges: the courts would become the State, and exercise its functions. But the principle is wrong in itself. Certainly, if libertarians flatly state that "nothing should be above the law", then they are flatly wrong. The law is not the supreme moral value: it is not a moral value at all. The law must defer to moral values: they are indeed 'above the law'.
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:
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.
- to restrict tradition and heritage, to limit transgenerational culture and transgenerational community - especially if they inhibit innovation
- to restrict 'national values', that is the imposition of an ethnic or nation-specific morality
- to permit the individual to secede from the nation state, the primary transgenerational community
- to limit market forces, and their effects
- to permit the individual to secede from the free market
- to restrict an emergent civil society, that is, control of society by a network of elite 'actors' (businesses and NGO's)
- to prevent a 'knowledge society' - a society where a single worldview (with an absolute claim to truth) is uncontested .
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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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.
posted on 02/01/2002 10:41:39 AM PST
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.
posted on 02/01/2002 10:42:13 AM PST
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.
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)
Then start by refuting the author's points which demonstrate repeated inconsistancies in Libertarian thinking.
posted on 02/01/2002 10:43:47 AM PST
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.
posted on 02/01/2002 10:43:49 AM PST
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?
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.
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
Comment #31 Removed by Moderator
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.
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.
Libertarianism is anything but an argument for a perfect world. Libertarianism denies the folly of perfection imagined by those who would control others.
posted on 02/01/2002 10:47:58 AM PST
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.
posted on 02/01/2002 10:48:07 AM PST
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.
posted on 02/01/2002 10:48:12 AM PST
by El Sordo
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...
posted on 02/01/2002 10:49:17 AM PST
I and the founders would agree. That's why we have a REPUBLIC, not a Democracy.
posted on 02/01/2002 10:50:22 AM PST
Bookmarked and bumped! However, I titled it a study of libertarianism. LOL! I tried not to offend. I must be too liberal.
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.
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