Why I am Not a Libertarian

I used to call myself a Libertarian. Don’t worry, I still believe that market forces are the best way to allocate non-essential resources. And I still believe that government should stay out of people’s personal business. But I now realize that Libertarianism is impossible and as dangerously delusional as its ideological mirror image, communism. But first, let’s acknowledge its appeal…

The Intellectual or Conceptual Appeal.

Libertarianism holds out a simple and utterly reasonable social ideal: a democratic meritocracy of free, rational, self-reliant individuals who take responsibility for their own problems, who cooperate with others based on mutual self-interest, and who expect nothing more than what they have earned. Government intervention is a betrayal of that ideal. After all, you can’t have a true meritocracy if you have a government that is regulating, redistributing, and thereby undermining, the just allocation of merit.

Grounding this political ideal is Libertarianism’s one uncompromising principle: personal liberty. As long as each individual is free to act according to his or her own rational self-interest and is then allowed to keep whatever her efforts merited, then we will, out of self-interest, cooperate and eventually solve any real problems facing us. All that is required are rational individuals who can recognize what is in their self-interest and a free market through which a solution can be implemented. It’s not that Libertarians have all the answers. Rather, it’s that rational, self-reliant individuals will always eventually come up with rational solutions if they deem a problem urgent enough. Imposed government programs can only interfere with this fluid, democratic problem-solving process.

2. The Moral Appeal of Libertarianism: A Rational, Non-Interventionist Morality.

Libertarianism implies a strict moral neutrality about how one ought to live one’s life. As long as one is not hurting anyone or infringing upon anyone’s liberty, one ought to be free to do what one likes. This simple idea appeals to the great many of us who would describe themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. In one fell swoop, divisive social issues such as homosexuality, marriage, drugs, pornography, gun ownership, and religion would be resolved in favor of leaving such matters up to the personal choice of individuals. We do not need a ‘nanny state’ imposing moral standards, or enforcing common sense.

What’s more, this ‘nanny state’ and its attempt to legislate morality and/or common sense only slows efforts to finally slough off the intellectually stunting effects of religion and superstition. Free, rational individuals will naturally calculate their self-interest based on science, logic, and common sense for the simple reason that these will provide better outcomes. If we leave the state out of the marketplace of ideas and out of the calculation of self-interest, then dogma, tradition, political correctness, and moral squeamishness will eventually give way to rationality.

3. The Political Appeal of Libertarianism: The Failure of Government.

Libertarianism resonates for many people today because of its anti-government rhetoric. It offers a simple and plausible explanation for the apparent failures of government, namely, that government is inherently inefficient and corrupt. Note that this is not an empirical claim that Libertarians make, that this or that program is inefficient or corrupt. Rather, Libertarians hold that all government activity is, by definition, inefficient and corrupt. This claim follows logically from the twin ideas at the heart of Libertarianism, that problems are best solved by free, rational individuals in the marketplace of ideas, and that everyone ultimately acts in their own self-interest. If these two premises are accepted then it follows from the first that any imposed, top-down solution will be, at best, inefficient and at worst, tyrannous; and it follows from the second that the proclaimed objectives of any particular government program will always be at odds with the actual self-interests of those implementing the program. The failures of government thereby seem to confirm the truth of Libertarianism.

The Delusions of Libertarianism

Well, it all seems obvious and simple, doesn’t it? As free, rational individuals we have an intrinsic right to personal liberty that ought never to be infringed. But here’s the basic problem: The demand for personal liberty can never quite live up to the conceptual, moral, and political promise that makes Libertarianism so appealing. In the end, most of the positions that Libertarians actually defend in pragmatic, real-life situations depend upon arguments borrowed from classical liberalism. That is, they depend upon arguments other than the demand for personal liberty.

Problem: Negative Liberty vs. Maximizing Liberty.

What is personal liberty exactly? For the Libertarian, personal liberty is negative liberty — ‘freedom from’ — as opposed to positive liberty — ‘freedom to’. It is a freedom from restraint, regulation, and all forms of coercion. The problem is that this is an empty conception of freedom that, by itself, doesn’t add up to much of a life. If this negative sense of freedom were all there were to personal liberty then we would only be truly free living alone in the wilderness away from society with all its political, moral, and social constraints. But few would trade the opportunities afforded by human society for this ‘true freedom’. Most of us would prefer to accept some limits upon our personal liberty, even restraints to which we have not explicitly agreed. Why? Because with these restraints come opportunities and lifestyle alternatives. So, when we think clearly about our personal liberty, we quickly realize that it is not simply a negative, hands-off kind of freedom that we desire but a maximization of freedom, a maximization of opportunities with a minimum of constraints. In other words, what we really desire in the name of personal liberty is a reasonable balance between opportunity and obligation.

The problem with this revised notion of freedom, however, is that it can no longer play the role of all-simplifying Libertarian principle. The notion of maximizing freedom is not an unyielding demand, but a pragmatic balancing of concerns to be worked out in some democratic manner. As such, it can no longer be the one unbending principle against which all political problems must break. In other words, with the notion of a maximization of freedom, we have left the principled simplicity of Libertarianism and have entered the difficult, but essential, discourse of classical liberalism.

Problem: Self-Ownership vs. Personal Liberty

Libertarians often construe personal liberty in terms of self-ownership. Why do they do this? Because the rhetoric of self-ownership allows the Libertarian to expand the notion of personal liberty to include property rights; personal liberty becomes the fundamental right, not simply to pursue our interests free from coercion, but to own and to do what we like with our property, particularly that piece of property that we hold most dear, our body.

This notion of self-ownership presumes a dualism that is a much disputed notion philosophically, a dualism between our bodies and whatever it is that we really are besides our bodies, be that soul or spirit or ego or brain or who knows what. The Libertarian then must further assume that the relationship between this real self and one’s body is ‘ownership’ thus making ownership and property not human-made notions but ontological facts built into the nature of human existence. I doubt that many Libertarians are willing or able to make these sorts of dubious philosophical claims. Anyway, most people can see that the notion of self-ownership is nonsense. We do not ‘own’ ourselves. We do not ‘own’ our bodies. We are ourselves.

So, unfortunately for the Libertarian, personal liberty does not entail private property. Once the question of property rights is unhitched from the fundamental primacy of personal liberty, then the Libertarian is obliged to give arguments about how and when private property is justified. These arguments are available and I am certainly sympathetic to them. But these arguments are, again, rooted within the discourse of classical liberalism and not personal liberty.

Problem: Ownership vs. Coercion

Another difficulty emerges which again forces the Libertarian to rely upon principles other than personal liberty. The problem is this: It is not possible to construe all political situations in terms of personal liberty and coercion as if these were obvious, cut and dried distinctions that easily apply to the real world. Consider, for example, the differences between the ‘coercion’ of parents over their non-consenting children and the coercion of the master over the slave. Consider, as well, the ‘liberty’ demanded by the petulant child, the ‘liberty’ demanded by the Libertarian who declares himself to be a ‘slave’ because he is forced to pay taxes, and then the liberty demanded by an actual slave. There is no way, on the basis of personal liberty alone, to distinguish morally or politically these different demands for personal freedom. For the Libertarian, these are morally equivalent demands — ‘all personal liberty matters equally’. These distinctions can, of course, be made in a way that would satisfy most people. These distinctions are found within the discourse of classical liberalism in which individual rights are balanced against community concerns. A reasonable community accepts some abrogation of personal rights in certain circumstances. But, here again, the univocal simplicity of Libertarianism gives way to the nuanced complexity of classical liberalism.

Problem: Liberty and Self-Responsibility

Just as the Libertarian finds it difficult to justify parental authority, so he also finds it difficult to limit government authority. According to Libertarianism, the only legitimate authority that the state has over non-consenting individuals is the protection of liberty and the collection of taxes to pay for that protection. But why can’t the state use this same justification in other ways? For example, it is obvious that violence and infringements upon personal liberty are more prevalent in a society that is fragmented along racial, educational, and socioeconomic lines. Why not invest in communities to reduce the threat to our personal liberty? Furthermore, if the protection of liberty can be achieved with more cost effectiveness by way of progressive social programs than by way of policing alone, why would the Libertarian oppose such programs?

One answer lies with the Libertarian conception of self-responsibility. Libertarian self-responsibility presumes that we are always already capable of making rational calculations of self-interest, regardless of our personal circumstances and upbringing. We cannot blame our parents, society, education, circumstance, etc. for poor decisions or a lack of effort. Because we are already fully self-responsible, investing in communities only fosters dependence upon state handouts. Furthermore, it may encourage more social unrest to justify further community investment. State intervention only makes sense, therefore, when it is aimed at immediate, overt, physical infringements upon our liberty and not to the social conditions that seem to lead to violence and freedom-infringing behavior.

This Libertarian notion of full self-responsibility fuels an ugly anti-communitarianism. Here’s the logic: If every individual is ultimately and solely responsible for who he or she is and what he does, then we can judge a person simply by his socio-economic plight: ‘He’s poor because he made bad choices and didn’t work hard enough. Therefore, he does not deserve any help’. This is the myth of meritocracy.

But is any of this true? Is each individual really responsible, not just for his actions before the law, but also for who he is? For his basic character and inclinations? No.The thoughtful individual will recognize that one’s upbringing is responsible, at least to some extent, for one’s character and inclinations. Indeed, other parts of society are also responsible for molding the character of our children: our schools, our churches, our families, our communities, our friends, our medical institutions, our shared economic infrastructure, our laws, etc., etc. Recognizing that fact does not excuse the individual from his legal or moral responsibility. But it means that there is no logical reason for refusing to invest in communities if that investment ‘maximizes liberty’ at a lower cost than does policing. Instead of turning to Libertarian ideology to decide whether social programs makes sense, we ought to turn to empirical studies of the long-term costs and benefits of these programs.

Problem: The Fear Mongering of Libertarianism.

Another reason that Libertarians resist social programs is that they see the world of politics as a stark choice between free individuals rationally pursuing their self-interests and an authoritarian state that seeks control over us. Social programs somehow lead to ‘socialism’ which somehow leads to dictatorship. There is no question that Libertarians are correct to warn us about the dangers of government power. But somehow the Libertarian is unable to see the vast intermediate area consisting of governments around the world implementing a wide range of social programs without succumbing to authoritarianism. The either/or fear mongering regarding social programs can only be described as ideological myopia. It is certainly not supported by empirical research or common sense.

Problem: The Morality of Self-Responsibility.

Many Libertarians will still resist the idea of investing in social programs on what can only be described as moral grounds. One will often hear the Libertarian declare that no one should get something for nothing. Note, however, that this is a moral stricture that is in no way entailed by the Libertarian demand for personal liberty. Most of us would agree that freeloading is immoral and ought to be a consideration when shaping government policy. However, as per the Libertarian principle of moral neutrality, a moral argument of this sort can carry no weight at the state level because the government’s only concern ought to be the most cost effective protection of our personal liberty.

Problem: Can Morality be Reduced to Individual Preferences?

The only moral judgments that are politically relevant for the Libertarian are those that are some variation of ‘infringements upon personal liberty are wrong’. All other moral judgments are none of the government’s business. They are ideas or preferences that must compete for ascent among free individuals in the marketplace of ideas. This means that moral statements like ‘pollution is wrong’, for example, are really just preference statements that mean the same as saying ‘I don’t like pollution’. Unless pollution becomes a matter of personal liberty (unlikely), the question of whether anything is done about pollution will be left up to individual preference and the market.

It should be obvious that this is not the role that morality actually plays in our lives. Moral judgments such as ‘pollution is wrong’ or ‘freeloading is wrong’ purport, by their very nature, to be statements about what is right and wrong for everyone. Moral judgments, as they are normally understood by reasonable people, are communitarian in nature. They imply a claim beyond the self-interest of the individual. Furthermore, moral judgements depend upon a social, communal existence that precedes the individual. Sound moral judgments and ethical behavior depend on character, which, as suggested above, depends upon community and societal circumstances. Libertarianism, in effect, is a denial of this natural, communal understanding of morality.

Problem: Are governments inherently more corrupt and inefficient than private organizations?

Libertarians claim to be more realistic about the motivations of those in positions of power. According to the Libertarian, all of our apparently selfless, communal acts of empathy, altruism, and love are ultimately motivated by some sort of personal or psychological need or self-interest. This means that government, whatever the good intentions, will always be subverted by self-interest.

However, even if we were to accept that government programs tend to be inefficient and can be undermined by the self-interests of those implementing them, the same inherent flaws must also be present in the private, voluntary associations (i.e. corporations) favored by the Libertarian. In fact, the problem will likely be worse. Indeed, we see that even well-regulated markets are often distorted by the self-interests of powerful business leaders. Less regulation and less government would trade the self-interests of government bureaucrats and politicians for the unregulated self-interests of corporate management. In other words, to avoid the potential inefficiencies and corruptions of a government bureaucracy, the Libertarian would hand over our collective interests to an unregulated corporate oligarchy that is just as susceptible to corruption and inefficiency. Meanwhile, this corporate oligarchy doesn’t even have to pretend to be working for the common good.

The Libertarian Delusion: A society of free-wheeling, self-reliant individuals.

These problems reveal the fundamental error in the Libertarian worldview. Contrary to the main premise that grounds Libertarianism, we are not individuals who choose to live in communities out of self-interest. Rather, we are fundamentally social animals whose identity and individuality depends upon, and is only possible because of, community. Our evolutionary survival depended upon, not the individual, but upon the small, close-knit social group that made individual survival possible. At every stage of both our personal history and our evolutionary history we are always completely dependent upon family, community, and society. Only at one unique stage in our lives, and only recently in our history, does our complete social dependence seem less obvious — when we are young and healthy and have enough resources at our disposal to strike out on our own. Libertarians would take this short moment of illusory independence and design a political system around it.

Certainly, the failures of communism have demonstrated that an economic system that fails to take into account the inherent self-interest of humans cannot work, that a system that does not directly reward the efforts of individuals will soon become unproductive and lifeless. However, Libertarianism’s individualistic, self-centered conception of human nature is simplistic and one-sided. Whereas communism would organize society as if we were community only, the Libertarian would organize society as if we were individual only. Both are wrong and for the same reason — we are both individual and community. We are interdependent social animals who identify with social groups, feel loyalty to those groups, prefer to live and work in groups rather than alone, seek the approval and respect of others, and naturally feel empathy toward others, all of which override simple calculations of self-interest. In fact, human activity has little to do with a rational calculation of self-interest at all. The decisions and actions of normal humans are always filtered through emotional considerations of a social nature.

This means that our social and political systems must recognize the importance of civic structures and communities from which we emerge as citizens. This also means that politics must remain a complex and frustrating trade-off between personal rights and community needs. It can never be as simplistic and one-dimensional as the Libertarian would have it. Our social interconnections are just as essential as our personal freedom. A political theory that recognizes only the individual and not the community is foolish and destructive.

That is why I am not a Libertarian.