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May 15, 2015


Luis Enrique

some libertarians also

1. have a sink or swim attitude, and if you sink, that's your tough luck.
2. underplay role highly unequal endowments (rich parents)


Another issue is that whilst some libertarian ideals is commendable (smaller government, personal freedom etc) the ultimate libertarian "fantasy" of a society with no government, individualism, objectivism and privatised corporate security is most people's idea of a dystopian hell.

Dave Timoney

Caplan gets closest to the truth when notes that intellectually-coherent libertarians (who he describes as "self-conscious") are vanishingly few in number. The problem is all those other bastards who claim to be libertarians but are just reactionary poltroons or instrumental neoliberals advancing corporate power. What many people despise about self-identifying libertarians is their insincerity.


There's also a more basic conceptual problem with libertarianism, which in turn enables some of the kind of problems you've identified:

There are innumerable things that can perfectly legitimately be labelled 'liberties' or 'freedoms', of which countless necessarily conflict with each other. More importantly, this is not a shortcoming of the concept of freedom, but simply a reflection of the fact that an appeal to freedom (at least at face value) can never on its own constitute a complete political philosophy; it must always be accompanied by an appeal to further independent moral principles. (Hence, with your UKIP example, we must decide whether we place higher value upon homophobic business owners' freedom to discriminate, or upon homosexuals' freedom to participate in social and economic society on an equal basis. Note also that the traditional positive/negative liberty dichotomy doesn't adequately characterise the dilemma here.)

The irony is that, by failing to recognise this insufficiency, and people instead getting drawn into misguided debates about the ‘true’ or ‘correct’ definitions of freedom, which is often easily biased towards the prevailing configuration of capabilities. So libertarianism, which is supposed to be intellectually radical, too often ends up ironically taking on a conservative tone.

So to address the original questions, contempt towards libertarianism is most likely because many libertarians tend to support (either as a considered moral position, or due to an implicit, unthinking bias towards the status quo) an accompanying set of moral principles that is seen to favour the better-off in society and neglect the marginalised.

Steven Clarke

@Luis About 2.

I think a libertarian would say they are not underplaying unequal endowments - but they are not in and of themselves an injustice which requires any restriction of freedom.

If you look at Nozick's entitlement theory he would say: if the rich parents got rich justly, and pass on the benefits that result from their riches justly, no injustice has been done.

He would also not be so concerned with the 'pattern' (i.e. distribution) merely the process (has anyone's natural rights been infringed as the pattern has formed).

It's not a view I share, but it's a legitimate philosophy.


"If libertarians' critics overstate this, they themselves understate it."

Yes, but a Hayekian libertarian would know that the outcome of an order depends on the nature of rules. Certain rules of conduct can as well lead to disorder.

Hence a constructivist libertarian suffers from the same rationalist conceit as a command-order style Socialist. Both are ignoring the essential knowledge problem associated with human conduct.

If you take Hayek seriously then at least one of the requirements for better social outcomes would be to allow the best practices to emerge.

Essentially it's a constant discovery process enabled by a relatively open-ended institutional framework.

Eventually with some certainty of conduct dictated by shared values and property rights we can have an effective selection mechanism to discover best practices which will benefit everyone.

David Friedman

As a libertarian anarchist, I'm curious whether Thor's point is about the idea of a stateless society or about his (most people's) beliefs about its implications. My guess is that most people, given a description of how anarcho-capitalists expect an anarchy to function, would see it as attractive, although not all. It's just that they disagree with us about whether that description is correct.

In which case his point would apply almost across the board. Libertarians reject the views of socialists in large part because they think a socialist society would be a dystopian hell. Similarly, to a lesser extent, of liberals wrt conservatives and vice versa.

David Friedman

MSReekan might be interested in Ronald Coase's final work, a book coauthored with Ning Wang on how China went capitalist. If I read it correctly, Coase not only thinks that China did better with trial and error than it would have with construction on the model they would have followed (a version of Soviet central planning) but better than they would have done following a more nearly correct model—in part because what he calls "blackboard economics" leaves out a lot of real world complications.


My personal gripe with (some?) libertarians is their insistence on property rights while ignoring the fact that property rights (a) are about the biggest limitation of liberty around (ie my freedom to go where I want), and (b) usually arise from some historical theft or conquest.

Richard Gadsden

I remember meeting one self-described libertarian who took the view that people who couldn't earn enough money to eat and didn't have any savings should quietly starve to death.

While most libertarians say they don't agree with him, few vehemently make the opposite position, that preventing death by starvation is a legitimate use of state power, which rather tends me to believe that they agree with him but don't dare say so. This tends to put me off.

Ralph Musgrave


It is nonsense to claim, as you do, that Ukippers are hypocrites because they want a smaller “nanny state” while wishing to deny people the right to work where they want, by which you presumably mean tighter immigration controls.

The fact of wanting a less intrusive state on most respects is perfectly compatible with wanting a MORE INTRUSTIVE state in a few other respects.

Conversely, the political left normally wants a MORE INTRUSIVE state. Members of the political right are not normally so dumb as to accuse the left of hypocrisy where at the same time the left wants a LESS INTRUSIVE state in one or two respects.


Most libertarian believe property rights are handed from Jesus himself. This is an insane and childish view - "Finders Keepers." They support monopolies, which are anti-free market.
Geolibertarianism is a type of libertarianism where the government eliminates monopoly/cartel rents through taxation of natural monopolies, reduce rents/super-profits, taxes such as (most importantly) land value, renting out radio spectrum bank levy/asset tax, auction of airplane slots, etc, instead of income and other taxes, bond interest which is unnecessary as MMT shows us.
There are a small rent-seeking elite of idle rich making money off 'owning' land
and other natural resources and charging us rent.
Land should be taxed the most, then capital and labour should be untaxed.
I would describe myself as left wing Georgist not libertarian but my libertarians have similar concerns.
The govt should also promote competition in the labour market through a job guarantee, and immigration restrictions with free immigration only with countries
Capitalism is like a nuclear reaction and needs a fail safe and cooldown rods. Then we get more power out of the system.


*countries with a JG or similar scheme. The open borders area will expand and eliminate poverty. Points based system for those outside that treats everyone equally based on skills. *


Hi David Friedman,
Thank you for the recommendation, yes I do agree that the final work by Ronald Coase draws on Hayek's theoretical view.

How Ning Wang and Coase interpreted the Chinese transition of from Socialism to Capitalism with Socialist "qualities" was evolutionary in the Hayekian sense.

On a totally different note, I do respect your anarcho world view. Seems like all we need are institutions and rules to coordinate our individual expectations. In that sense society is necessary but govt seems optional.

Steven Clarke

@Luke In my comment to Luis, I mentioned Nozick's entitlement theory - which has 3 principles.

I mentioned the first 2 (principles of justice in acquisition and transfer).

The 3rd is the principle of rectification of injustice. If you're rich because, say, your ancestor nicked other people's land - that is a historical injustice that should be rectified and redistribution would be justified.


"The fact of wanting a less intrusive state on most respects is perfectly compatible with wanting a MORE INTRUSTIVE state in a few other respects."
Maybe, but are not libertarians supposed to oppose the state all the time?
We have a name for this type of libertarian - conservative.


Steve, thanks. But that still doesn't deal with the fact that I can't go for a walk where I want, camp/set up a yurt/build a house where I want, or pick fruit, fish, hunt game etc.

From memory Nozick justifies property rights on the grounds we're all collectively better off as a result. Fair enough, and I agree, but that's a utilitarian argument. Nothing to do with freedom. And in practice, if not theory, quite a lot to do with self-interest, like a lot of libertarian spoutings (not Brian Caplan).


"Fair enough, and I agree, but that's a utilitarian argument."
I don't! It is redistribution upwards to a class of renters and harms freedom. It causes property bubbles and protects monopoly and power. It is biased against the young.
And there are strong utilitarian arguments for universal healthcare, but you never hear libertarians argue for this, they support 'health freedom.'

Steven Clarke

Luke, I've had a very brief skim of Nozick. He doesn't base property rights on any utilitarian grounds, but on John Locke's argument that you own your labour, and by mixing your labour with something you make it yours.

"Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others."

This last bit, "at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others" he calls the Lockean proviso - he here tries to deal with your objection that by owning something you deprive others of it. It's OK, he says, if you leave enough to go around. Nozick acknowledges many weaknesses in these arguments, but he seems on weaker ground in this section of the book.

BTW some of the restrictions you mention - not being able to build a house where you want etc - come from State restrictions rather than private property.

Also BTW, I don't necessarily support all these arguments myself - just trying to put forward the ideas of one of the best libertarian philosophers.


It's worth noting that most of the *evidence* from the work in complex systems suggests that spontaneous order is a very rare occurrence and not something to be relied upon for systems with the features that economies display.

But then, economists rarely have much interest in the evidence from the actual study of complex systems.


To be fair, I only hate Right Libertarians. Generally because they are closeted reactionaries and usually lack charisma or a coherent worldview.

Nicholas Gruen

I'm sympathetic to the philosophy of liberalism - amongst other creeds. Libertarianism not so much, because it reflects its philosophy is disembodied - as if our lives should be ruled by a set of intellectual principles - with one principle itself reified above all others - rather than those principles interpreted within the bonds of our individual experience as socially constructed beings as Adam Smith might have written if he'd written the Theory of Moral Sentiments according to modern lingo.


Seems much simpler to me: libertarians usually affect an absolute absence of concern for the wellbeing of anyone else, a personality trait which most other people find repellent. Randians even regard such concern as an evil!

There are also specific cases of market economics that people get irrationally angry about, but libertarians defend (making people even angrier), e.g. "price gouging". Folks do get on a moral high horse about their "right" to obtain some specific luxury at what they believe to be the "rightful" price, e.g. concert tickets that are incredibly scarce with high demand, and they really don't like the truth: there are many reasonable definitions of "fair allocation", and you personally might not get a ticket under some of them. The horror!

Ralph Musgrave


Your suggestion that a libertarian is someone who opposes the “state all the time” (to quote you) is a straw man argument I think. I.e. if libertarians opposed “the state all the time” – to the extent of opposing laws against murder for example, then obviously libertarianism becomes a nonsense. In practice in the real world, even the most extreme libertarians favor a whole string of forms of state intervention.

Dave Timoney

@Steven Clarke,

John Locke's theories on property conveniently denied rights to the land to Native Americans, on the erroneous basis that they did not cultivate or enclose it, and thus did not "mix their labour", in his narrow definition. You can take it as read that the "others" referred to in his caveat did not include either Native Americans or African slaves (Locke was an investor in the slave trade and was involved in the drafting of Carolina's slavery-friendly Constitution).

Locke stands in a long line of philosophers, historians and anthropologists who have excused the theft of land from indigenous peoples by denying their agency, denigrating their technology and insisting on their essential childishness or fecklessness - i.e implying that they did not deserve to own land.

You'll also notice that his theory privileges first-movers. For example, if I invest more of my labour in a small area of another man's field than he does, by cutting the grass with a pair of scissors and removing every pebble with a pair of tweezers, this does not give me a superior claim to that land. Locke is defending existing property distributions generally, and the seizure of America specifically.

Steven Clarke

@FATE I agree with you, and I think the more thoughtful modern libertarians (inc. Nozick) see the trouble with applying Locke's theory to land and natural resources.

I myself have some Georgist sympathies, so all I can say to your criticism is 'Amen, brother'.


Liberty cannot be the only value. Keynes said that every government action is a tradeoff between liberty, efficiency and fairness.

If you think fairness or equality is all that matters, you're a communist.

If you think that all that matters is efficiency in the pursuit of economic growth (or any other goal like the success of your race or the word of God), then you're a fascist.

And if you think liberty is all that matters, you're a libertarian, and as wrong as the first two.

If libertarian meant someone who believes liberty should be very strongly emphasized, at least it's an ethos. But a lot of libertarians think that somehow if you focus only on liberty it will magically solve all the other problems of fairness, growth etc.

And then it tends to fall apart, because liberty and spontaneous order don't build a decent road network, and you end up with it somehow being OK for concentrated private power to do things that would be utterly immoral if an elected democratic government did them.

P.S. As far as the mixing with labor makes it yours argument... well if Roark the architect has the right to blow up his building if it's not done his way, I'm not sure why the engineer, the construction manager, the banker who finances it, the plumber don't have the same rights. Everything we do, we do partly as individual, partly as members of a group. We're social animals. To say greater society shouldn't guide values, norms, rights and responsibilities is to deny human nature. To say that government is best that governs least is just common sense. But everyone thinks 'least' is a bit less when governing me than governing thee.

David Friedman

"are not libertarians supposed to oppose the state all the time?"

Most libertarians are not anarchists, although some are. Minarchist libertarians are in favor of, roughly, the classical liberal minimal functions—law, courts, and national defense.

"to the extent of opposing laws against murder for example"

"but that's a utilitarian argument"

Libertarianism is a conclusion. It can be reached by a variety of different arguments, including utilitarian ones.

Even libertarian anarchists are in favor of laws against murder—just laws produced and enforced by decentralized non-state mechanisms. For details see my _Machinery of Freedom_. The second edition is a free pdf from my web site, the third an inexpensive kindle on Amazon.

Ken Adams

With regard to the UKIP argument taken to its logical conclusion, is it the liberalism or the Marxism that says you cannot be both a liberal and a nationalist? That liberalism cannot exits in a sovereign nation state, that it can only exist in combination with internationalism.


"If you look at Nozick's entitlement theory he would say: if the rich parents got rich justly, and pass on the benefits that result from their riches justly, no injustice has been done."

Can I say that Nozick's entitlement theory is a crock of shit and though I haven't met the guy I hope he is dead or in the process of dying slowly.

Catch Boy

For the record I have met self-styled libertarians who have explicitly said they were against laws banning murder. Their argument being that none of us are likely to go out and murder anyone should it suddenly be decriminalised and, even if we did, there'd be nothing to stop friends/relatives of the deceased doing the same to us. Yes, it's a daft argument but it shows it's not a strawman to argue that (at least some) libertarians have those beliefs.



You say, "... freedom leads not to anarchy and chaos but to spontaneous order."

But neither of the hyperlinks in that sentence provide, so far as I can tell, any empirical evidence for that statement. They just link to essays or think pieces.

Perhaps you meant freedom can "sometimes" lead to spontaneous order but it reads as though you mean it always does. Really? And if so, how much harm is caused by the presumably chaotic period before such order emerges?

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