Waylaid Dialectic

September 29, 2011

What’s the Matter with Libertarianism?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 6:37 am

While I’m in the field I’m recycling some old posts from older blogs of mine. This one from here originally and on a favourite subject: the problems with libertarianism…

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I?… – Hillel the Elder

Conventional wisdom has it that the 2005 elections in New Zealand were fought, to a significant extent, over the size of the government. According to such conventional wisdom, the reason why Kiwi voters almost turfed Labour out of power despite 6 long years of economic prosperity was because they were sick of a big, greedy government that insisted on running huge surpluses funded by their hard earned wages (never mind that the surpluses weren’t huge). In short, New Zealand voters, we are told, wanted a piece of economic freedom. Yet, oddly enough, despite the supposed thirst for economic liberty, the 2005 elections also turned out to be spectacularly cruel for the two parties who, on the surface at least, were offering the most economic liberty of anyone: ACT and Libertarianz. ACT, who proudly refer to themselves as “the Liberal Party” (that’s classical liberal darling), saw themselves almost extinguished as a political force, being reduced to receiving 1.5% of total votes cast and only being kept in parliament by Rodney Hide winning his seat in Epsom. While the Libertarianz managed the scarcely credible feat of receiving a percentage of the party vote that was 37.5 times smaller than the percentage ratio of government spending to GDP they had campaigned on. This was despite the fact that they were calling for government spending to be only 1.5% of GDP in the first place (in other words they received a whopping 0.04% percent of all votes cast).

All of which ought to be provoking something of an existential crisis in our classical liberal and libertarian friends at present.

After all, one of the prerequisites for believing that libertarianism will lead to a better world is the belief that people (individuals) will make the right choices if only given the freedom to do so. Yet here was the public (that motley collection of individuals), operating under all the freedom of MMP elections, choosing to flush the two parties who had the most confidence in their ability to choose wisely down the electoral toilet.

No doubt ACT-ites and their Libertarian brethren will have their own explanations for this: the pernicious influence of state-run education perhaps? Or the endless torrent of propaganda that flows from the obscenely statist (and state-owned) National Radio? Or the fact that the elections themselves were organised by the state (when, surely, private contractors would have been best for the task)?

But I’m not so sure. In fact I’m inclined to believe that the reason why ACT and the Libertarianz did so badly was because the New Zealand voting public (who, it’s true, even I despair of often enough) were smart enough at least to recognise baloney dressed up as political theory when it was presented to them.

What follows is what I see as “being the matter with Libertarianism?” In particular, what I see as being the matter with Libertarianism as it manifests itself in the New Zealand political arena. I won’t, except for the odd instance, be assailing the wisdom of Robert Nozick (who was wise enough to recant some of what he said anyhow) nor Hayek. Not even Ayn Rand (oh heck maybe occasionally in her case – it’s kind of fun). And I do recognise that there is a reasonable degree of heterodoxy of belief amongst Libertarians themselves (Nosick, Hayek and Rand, for a start, are completely different animals, and – likewise – ACT and Libertarianz have plenty of air between them). What I intend to do is take aim at libertarianism, as it is broadly represented in the Great New Zealand Debate.

People Don’t Live by Liberties Alone

While I have no intention of debating particular libertarian philosophers, I do feel that it is worthwhile starting by pointing out a few of the philosophical holes in the Libertarian ship. After all, any ideology that starts taking on water in the deep blue depths of philosophy is likely to be next to sunk by the time it has sailed as far as the treacherous shoals of practical application.

In my mind, the largest of the holes in the HMS Liberty is the privileging of certain “rights” over others. And, in particular, the privileging of one person’s right to hold private property over the right of another human being to survival (or even good health). The inalienable right to acquire and hold private property is central to almost all libertarian(i) thought, yet explanations of why one person’s right to possess inanimate objects or land ought to take precedence over another person’s right to survival tend to be thin on the ground, or unconvincing. Which, to be fair to libertarians, is probably because they are rather hard to construct. After all, what is more central to the human condition: property or survival? Indeed, what is actually more important in safeguarding the total quantity of freedom (aka liberty) that any particular person is able to enjoy in their life: ensuring that they get to hang on to every bit of private property that they have ever acquired(ii) or ensuring that they receive food and shelter sufficient to enable them enjoy another day on this planet?

Against which, a libertarian might argue that, in the real world, freedom and property are all that is really required to ensure survival; that man can live by liberty alone: with freedom from a greedy state, his or her industriousness and capacity to reason will be sufficient to put food on the table. True, there might be the odd person who, through their own indolence, goes hungry, but that’s their problem. All of which is a nice fantasy but also, sadly, complete nonsense. For the simple reason that people are – whether libertarians like to admit it or not – affected to varying degrees by forces beyond their control. No matter how hard a small farmer works, if he is caught up in an event like the Oklahoma Dustbowl, there is a pretty good chance that he will starve or at the very least suffer. The same is true for an urban worker who is caught in the tides of economic depression – through no fault of her own she may find herself unable to put food on the table.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen covers this ground in his book Poverty and Famines, showing that significant famines have occurred without anyone’s rights (as conceived by libertarians) being violated.

Freedom’s Just Another Word…

In another of his books – Development as Freedom – Sen discusses another flaw in libertarian thinking which, while not necessarily present in all libertarian thought, certainly finds a happy home in the rhetoric of New Zealand’s libertarians. This is the equating of negative freedoms with freedom per se. As Sen so neatly points out in outlining his capabilities approach to measuring poverty, the concept of freedom surely relates to what we are able to do with our lives not simply what we are permitted to do. Or, in other words: positive freedoms matter. Getting the “government off our backs” will increase freedom when the government is doing things like restricting newspaper’s freedom to publish; but when the government is involved in other undertakings like ensuring that we can all read and write, getting it off our backs is more likely to reduce rather than increase the freedom of a significant proportion of the population. Newspapers, after all, are only any use if you can read them. None of which is to say that the dreaded state will inevitably do a great job of promoting such positive freedoms or even that it inevitably does a better job than the private sector does. But – given that in New Zealand education is a major chunk of government spending, and given that the experiences of countries where education has been privatised indicate that one of the effects has been to move it out of the reach of poorer sectors of the population – it seems at least worth acknowledging that eliminating (or dramatically shrinking) the state might not actually increase the real freedoms of the average New Zealander.

No Man (or Woman) is an Island

As I noted earlier, a significant proportion of New Zealand’s libertarians like to refer to themselves as ‘classical liberals’ alluding to the fact that their ideology has a pedigree that stretches to enlightenment liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith. I have written elsewhere why I think Smith was a great thinker but why I also don’t believe that his views on the state are particularly relevant to today’s debates, so I won’t rehash my arguments here, other than to note that we have another word (other than classical) for groups that cling to literal interpretations of texts written hundreds of years ago, ignoring the lessons of the intervening years. Instead, for a moment I want to examine a particular quote from John Stuart Mill. In ‘On Liberty’ Mill wrote: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” Personally, I am not sure that I agree entirely with Mill on this matter but I think that the general principal is reasonably a solid one, and one that should be overridden by policy-makers with utmost caution. Which seems like a strange thing to admit in an essay headed “What’s the Matter with Libertarianism?” Strange because most Libertarians would also agree with Mill, and maybe even appeal to Mill’s Maxim when staking the case for their libertarianism. My problem with libertarianism, however, is not so much with the ideal that the only place for government is in mediating when the actions of one person interfere with the life of an other, but rather with the fact that libertarians seem to have a limited understanding of just where and when the actions of one person may cause harm to others. Most libertarians, for example, would agree that it is appropriate for the collective unit (the state in the case of Minarchists, militias or something similar in the case of Anarcho-capitalists) to intervene to stop one person from beating to death another person for no reason, or from stealing their justly acquired property. And I’d agree with them. The trouble is that there are millions of other situations where the actions of one person interfere with the wellbeing of others that many libertarians seem to be wilfully blind to: pollution for example; or noise pollution from boy-racers; or the danger caused by speeding drivers etc. It’s possible that some libertarians might even agree with me that some form of collective action might be appropriate in these instances. However, where we would part ways almost certainly is the issue of seat-belt laws. To a libertarian, mandatory seatbelt laws are an example of the state doing just what Mill extols it not to do: intervening in people’s lives “for their own good”. Surely, if I choose not to wear a seatbelt, knowing the risks, this is my own business as I am the person who is going to go flying through that windscreen, no one else. And I am the person who is going to bear the consequences of my action: no one else. Except that things aren’t that simple – starting with the wellbeing of any dependants that I might have. Of course a libertarian might respond to this by asking: “well what if I don’t have any dependants?” This changes the situation somewhat but your actions are still going to have an emotional impact on your family and friends. To which a libertarian might then reply: “well, what about if I have been a good Objectivist for many years and – for some hard to grasp reason – have no friends and have alienated my family?” Even then though there is going to be the cost of the ambulance and hospital treatment which will be born by the rest of society. “Ah, but not if we scrap public health care and I have insurance?” a libertarian might reply. Unfortunately though, in this case, the costs will simply be born by other policy holders. Which would probably lead to a libertarian’s final response: “well what about if we scrap public health care and if I have no insurance and don’t want to receive health care?” Even then though things aren’t that simple: humans are empathetic creatures and your actions are still going to have an impact on the ambulance driver who has to leave you to die by the roadside or the A&E surgeon who has to decide to withhold your treatment.

In saying all this, I am not making an argument for extreme communitarianism where all our actions have to be considered intensively vis-à-vis their impact on other people. I’m not even necessarily making the case for seat belt laws. I am simply pointing out that humans are communal beings and that our lives are linked in innumerable ways. This is something that means that there are, in reality, very few “victimless crimes” or actions which we may take that have absolutely no impact on other people. Which, in turn, means that an awful lot of what the state does actually takes place without violating Mill’s maxim above.

At the end of the day, our lives are full of interactions with other human beings – they are an inescapable element of being human. We rely on others and, likewise, others rely on us. Other people’s choices influence our lives. And our choices influence theirs. Libertarianism, by its almost exclusive focus on the rights of the individual simply isn’t a workable philosophy when placed in among the messy – interconnected – reality of human existence.

Just Plain Unjust

“Such are the rich, they seize what belongs to all and claim the right of possession to monopolise it.” Saint Basil of Caesarea, 4th Century.

As well as being a long way removed from the reality of human existence, libertarianism suffers from the problem that, when placed in historical context, it is thoroughly unjust – even on its own terms.

Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick famously argued (partially in response to Rawlsian and Utilitarian arguments about distribution of income) that: “A distribution is just if it arises from another just distribution by legitimate means.” Which is a pretty succinct statement of the libertarian perspective on distributional issues. Ultimately, I don’t agree with Nozick here – I’m in favour of something representing a Utilitarian approach – however, even if you do accept Nozick’s proposition, it’s no argument for the justness of libertarianism in any practical sense. In fact it’s evidence as to why any libertarian society must inevitably be unjust – at least by Nozickian standards. This is for the simple reason that the current distribution of income (in New Zealand, in the USA, in the world) hasn’t arisen legitimately from another just distribution at all. Think of all the crimes of history: of all the violations of property and liberty as defined by libertarians (the Nazi theft of land and belongings from the Jews; the collectivisation of private property that took place in the Soviet Union followed by the de-collectivisation which handed most of this property to figures high-up in the communist party; the theft of indigenous people’s land by the colonial powers; slavery; the billions of contract violations that have taken place since the first contract was drawn up). Once you do it becomes clear that our present ‘distribution’ is anything but just. What’s more it’s irredeemably unjust – on Nozickian terms. This is because while it might be – theoretically – possible set up some sort of draconian court that looked back through all the injustices of the past and confiscated from those who benefited from them, returning wealth to those who had lost, in practice, this would be impossible. Not in the least because you would have to be compensating people who were already dead (and, indeed some who were never born) by taking property from people who might not be alive (or have ever been born) were it not for the injustices perpetuated by their forbearers. In the absence of any real chance of justice looking back, a libertarian could possibly argue for some sort of ‘level playing-field moving forwards’ form of justice as a next best option. This might involve a 100% inheritance tax accompanied by massive investment in public education for a generation followed thereafter by a libertarian system with strict protection of property rights. This would at least be interesting, if still highly implausible. But you certainly won’t find it in the proposals of New Zealand’s libertarian parties. To be fair this, perhaps, is because a 100% inheritance tax would be politically unpalatable to most New Zealanders; but at the very least, one would expect Libertarians to be as hawkish as practically possible when it came to rectifying past wrongs. This would provide their philosophical system with a tiny semblance of fairness.

Yet, Libertarianism, as it is advocated in the political arena in New Zealand, argues for nothing of the sort. The ACT party, for example, is not, as you would think, staunchly in favour of providing redress to Maori for our long history of violating their property rights. Much the opposite in fact: ACT is one of the cheerleaders of ‘moving on’ from the crimes of the past; of putting an end to the ‘culture of grievance’(3). What they’re really advocating is ‘start from now’ libertarianism which, funnily enough, almost-always finds its strongest advocates amongst those who are doing pretty well at present thank you very much.

Mostly Bonkers – what’s Worse, it wouldn’t Work

The final problem that I have with libertarianism runs as such. Even if you’re willing to accept that it’s philosophically dodgy and unjust even on terms of its own philosophers you might still favour libertarianism simply because it worked. If, unfairness and all, it provided the best outcome for people. Utilitarian’s libertarianism, so to speak. The trouble is simply put (and apologies for the shortness of this section I would like to get this essay finished) there’s simply no evidence to show that a ‘freer’ economy leads to better outcomes than a more regulated one (up to a point of course – we’ll call that point Sweden). As Harvard Economic historian Peter Lindhart shows in his book Growing Public, state intervention in the European welfare states, did not – over the last century – lead to appreciably slower growth than in more liberalised economies like that of the US. All the US has got for its troubles is a less healthy less secure society with a bundle of social problems that are worse than those encountered by Social Democracies. And this is despite the fact that the US is only slightly more liberalised than the European states. Now it’s possible that you could argue that the US only suffers because it hasn’t been bold enough in embracing ‘Freedom’, but given that the major problems it encounters – the environment, health care, inequality, poverty etc. – have only ever been addressed effectively using collective action, it’s pretty darn hard to see how more economic liberalisation in the US will take the country closer to utopia.


What I have written above is my attempt to explain what bothers me with libertarianism and why I would never vote for its acolytes here in New Zealand. To me libertarianism just doesn’t pan out: when expressed in terms of rights it renders absolute a right (property) the pre-eminence of which it cannot defend; its rhetoric co-opts the word freedom and robs it of half its meaning; and it is unjust – on its own terms. What’s more I see no evidence that – even if you were to discard all the concerns above – it would ‘work’ any better than the alternatives. In short it is wholly unconvincing.

The iconoclastic Canadian-born economist John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote that: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” To the extent that much modern conservatism is libertarian in nature, and because none of the justifications offered for it hold water, I am inclined to agree.

Perhaps I am wrong though. This is only a blog post – a first draft if you will – I’d love to hear where my mistakes are.

Some Readings:

In terms of Books – Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom covers, makes an eloquent argument in favour of positive freedoms.

Some online articles I found worth a read were:

Johann Hari on Ayn Rand

The LRB on Ayn Rand (hat tip to Anon in comments)

The Wikipedia has an ok section on criticism of libertarianism

And, of course, on libertarianism itself

This is an online index of criticism

A conservative criticism of libertarianism, which – typically enough – uses ad homs. etc. It almost made me want to side with the libertarians.

This is someone who obviously got tired of arguing with libertarians on Usenet

If house pets were libertarians – a cartoon

A good critique of libertarianism by a philosopher:

Whittaker Chambers’ famous review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.


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