Critiques of Libertarians

Having spent most of my adult life outside the US, in Russia and Germany, I have not had the pleasure of much direct contact with other libertarians, certainly not in large gatherings. That came when I moved to New Hampshire with the Free State Project. Besides the FSP's two large annual events, the winter New Hampshire Liberty Forum and the summer Porcupine Freedom Festival(PorcFest), each with hundreds of participants, numerous weekly and monthly gatherings in towns across New Hampshire attract from 5 to 50 people. After many hours of listening to these people rant to each other, a pattern begins to emerge. Libertarians are notoriously poor communicators (which is why The Advocates exist), but they rant in a manner guaranteed to appeal only to others born with a libertarian nature (a minority), not to the bulk of normal people. By “normal” I have in mind a vague sort of well-meaning college-educated moderately well-informed adult, e.g. your typical listener of National Public Radio. Most of my friends are such people, and they would be appalled by the things libertarians say. We need to reframe our arguments, and our thinking, for the invisible NPR listener in the room. I have noticed five common emotional, theoretical, and factual errors:

1. Mischaracterizing the opposition–There are two types of statists, based on how they want to use the state: those who want to employ it to help others, or at least for the common good, and those who want to exploit it to for their own selfish interests (dominators, predators, and parasites). Call them good statists and bad statists (actually misguided statists and evil statists). Libertarians overwhelmingly assume that the opposition consists of bad statists. In my experience, there are many more good statists, and it is they who have to be convinced. For example, white NPR listeners overwhelmingly believe that government schools are a positive thing, especially for minorities and disadvantaged children. (I, a passing mulatto, have a hard time convincing a black friend that whites really believe this, as she firmly believes that government schools are a white plot to keep blacks down and maintain a pool of cheap labor.)

2. Arguing from selfishness, not compassion–An unsophisticated statist might not understand much theory, but he does understand that the typical guns 'n' taxes right-libertarian is looking out for himself, not others. Superficially, and ironically, this puts the libertarian in the same category as a bad statist. It does seem rather suspicious when a libertarian preaches the Non-Aggression Principle and then gleefully talks about justifiably using his guns in self-defense against a well-meaning tax collector. This appeals to a relatively small minority of people.

Libertarians should frame their arguments in terms of what is in it for the poor and disadvantaged, especially by showing the perverse unintended consequences of paternalism and social democracy. For example, high taxes that are seemingly paid by the rich are actually paid partially by the poor, as the rich pass them on as higher prices (this is called tax incidence, as opposed to tax burden). Regulations and licensing that supposedly protect unsophisticated consumers actually exclude simple people from entering an industry and lowering prices for the poor. Drug laws that supposedly keep drugs out of children's hands actually create violent black markets that seduce poor people into trafficking and make drugs available to children. Government schools that supposedly provide universal education actually deny poor parents choice, while providing a lousy education at exorbitant costs. Just about any libertarian issue can be framed in terms of compassion.

3. Ignoring theoretical weak spots–Libertarians are a bit too confident of their monopoly on justice, deriving it from first principles. Unfortunately, there are some very real flaws and counter-arguments. For example, without coercion, social public goods (e.g. homes for orphans and invalids) face the twin problems of under-provision and free-riders. Whatever one considers the “optimal” level of contribution, people will contribute less if not pushed, e.g. taxed or cleverly persuaded. When libertarians casually dismiss this with a wave of their hands, saying, “Charity will take care of everything,” normal people do not share their faith, and suspect their motives. (Ironically, NPR is supported by voluntary contributions, but its listeners and journalists believe in coercion.)

One rarely hears libertarians acknowledge counter-arguments, let alone express them seriously, but an excellent collection can be found at the Critiques of Libertarianism web site and its blog. Instead of preaching to the choir and beating up statist straw men, libertarians would be advised to train against the best that the enemy has got.

4. Confusing libertarian theory–Libertarians arrive at their ideology via different paths, and are often operating with gaps in their knowledge of the theory. Probably the most common path is emotional: most libertarians are born with an instinctive aversion to authority. They thus often oppose government action even when the free market would do the same. If a government were to post a warning sign in front of a cliff, libertarians would walk off it. At PorcFest I heard two people rant vigorously on stage about driver's licenses, but in an anarchist society, a freeway owner would certainly require a driver's license from his customers, who are all operating machines that in the US kill over forty thousand people each year, a significant threat. When libertarians rail against driver's licenses, normal people rightly dismiss them as insane. Admittedly, Americans are unusually confused about driver's licenses, which in the US serve as a vehicle operation permit, rite of passage, and personal identification.

Another theoretical confusion comes from a lack of appreciation for freedom of association. Individuals have the right to associate and enter into contracts limiting their freedoms, e.g. living in a community without nudity, profanity, or guns. Libertarians might not like rules, but local laws against these things would not disappear in an anarchist society. They are just, given the existence of a reasonably free market in communities, e.g. they should be small and stable, with easy exit.

5. Exaggerating conspiracies and doomsday scenarios–Libertarians have no monopoly here, but the profusion of other conspiracies (e.g. doubting records of Bush's service or Obama's birth) does not make ours sound any less loony. We lecture on government's inherent incompetence, and then in the next breath warn of government conspiracies such as the Amero, brain-washing government schools, shadowy political puppet masters, 9/11 truth, and now (I heard this twice at PorcFest) the BP oil spill.  The Amero is especially amusing: in a North American currency union, who would dominate, and who should worry? (Hint: the US has a population of 307 million, Mexico 106 million, and Canada 33 million.)

Doom-mongers compete to predict the direst scenarios and recommend the most extravagant preparations for the coming Mad Max post-apocalypse world. With nary a nod to past “The End Is Near” fizzles like Y2K or Paul Ehrlich's 1968 The Population Bomb, libertarian doom-mongers exhort me to buy gold and stock a year's worth of food and ammunition. With what historical precedent do they predict a “collapse”? Rome did not fall in a day. Libertarian doom-mongers sound as suspiciously religious and self-serving as their left and right counterparts (environmentalists and end-timers.)

When libertarians gather, they understandably want to let their hair down, but if they want to win this ideological war they had best maintain their readiness for battle. In particular, this means keeping the moral high ground, employing more-compassionate-than-thou tactics, and neither underestimating nor demonizing the enemy.


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