Libertarianism, again

With the exception of Chris Bertram, participants on all sides of the debate over libertarianism kicked off by Ken Parish seem to regard refuting Robert Nozick as being a bit of a cheap shot. As Perry de Havillard says in Brian Weatherson’s comments thread

Nozickâs are the weakest arguments for the whole libertarian edifice so donât congratulate yourself all too much on hitting such a large slow moving target.

So I think this is a good time to move on to more serious objections to libertarianism.

The basic claim of libertarianism, as I read it, is that the standard liberal case for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and so can, correctly be extended to embrace ‘free markets’, though not, for example, ‘free education’ or ‘free health care’.

As the examples in scare quotes indicate, a purely linguistic argument based on usage of the word ‘free’ doesn’t get us very far. It’s necessary to think about what we mean by ‘freedom of religion’ and the implications for public policy before attempting to generalise.

The debate about freedom of religion begins with the observation that there are many different religions and no obvious way of determining which one is right. The liberal position begins with the claim that people are better if they are free to choose their own possible religious beliefs, and to debate these beliefs with others. The most pertinent restrictions on the choice set have been attempt by the State to enforce or encourage particular religious beliefs at the expense of others. Hence the natural liberal position is that States should do nothing to restrict, or encourage, religious beliefs, thereby maximising the choice set for all.

Identical arguments work for freedom of speech in general, and for freedom in regard to a range of ‘self-regarding’ actions, such as sexual preferences, consumption of drugs and so on.

Carrying the analogy over to economic issues in general, we reach, as a starting point, the claim that a person is better off, the larger is their choice set, that is, the larger is the set of consumption bundles available to them. If accepted, this claim rules out a range of actual and possible economic policies, such as restrictions on choice designed to ‘protect people from themselves’. It does not, however, get us very far in relation to economic policy in general. The most important single determinant (though not the sole determinant) of the size of a person’s choice set is their real income (defined appropriately to allow for non-marketed goods, preservation of the environment and so on)

The analogy with religious freedom would suggest that liberals should favor policies that increase real income for everybody. In the absence of additional auxiliary hypotheses, it yields no conclusion about policies which change the distribution of a given income.

The most plausible auxiliary hypothesis is that summed up in the postulate of diminishing marginal utility, that the marginal benefits of increased income (a larger economic choice set) relative to other goods decline as income rises. If this is accepted, as it was in the end by most 19th century liberals, we get a conclusion in favour of of egalitarian income redistribution.

The libertarian position seems to rely either on linguistic confusion about the meaning of ‘free’ or on the adoption of the factual hypothesis that free-market economic policies maximise income, and therefore the economic choice set, for all or most people. The views of economists regarding this hypothesis have varied over time. More importantly, as JS Mill was the first to point out clearly, acceptance or rejection of this hypothesis has nothing to do with the arguments for freedom of speech and religion.

The implication of Mill’s point is that ‘libertarianism’ does not describe a single coherent philosophical position, but a combination of two logically unrelated positions.

Evidence for this may be found in the various attempts at mapping political viewpoints, which typically adopt a two dimensional framework in which views on personal freedom and economic policy are treated as orthogonal. A typical example is presented here

28 thoughts on “Libertarianism, again

  1. John,

    Guilty (with extenuating circumstances) on the cheap shot charge. May I just say in mitigation, that the piece has more to do with my own reasons for not finishing ASU than an attempt to refute Nozick (or Rand). More perhaps about how wasting time on the silly ideas of others gets in the way of doing more productive things, such as your writing this post.

    BTW – only one cheap shot? I thought I got in at least two good ones.

  2. Your argument depends on the key economic freedom being the freedom of the consumer. In my experience, libertarians are more concerned about the freedom of the producer. Government intervention in the market is portrayed as a burden on and hindrance to corporations, not on customers.

  3. John,

    I wouldn’t want to argue with the proposition that Nozick is a “slow moving target”. He’s dead, a state of being which tends to militate against rapid footwork. Nevertheless, despite the fact that all the libertarian bloggers backed away from Nozick very quickly as soon as I mentioned him and the arguments against him, the fact is that he’s broadly regarded as one of the principal “fathers’ of modern libertarian thought, and his thinking remains a strong underpinning to the rhetoric of most libertarians (if not their logic when pinned down). Most populist libertarian rhetoric (including in the blogosphere) posits unrestricted property rights, low tax and minimal regulation of just about eveyrthing as self-evident goods, and any attempt to interfere with them however minimally by regulation or increased taxation as an outrageous, socialist, authoritarian imposition. Less frequently, libertarians attempt to bolster this primary (and tacitly “morally” based) position by trying to provide utilitarian demonstrations of the greater wealth-generating effects of “minimal state” systems. Most of the writings of the entertaining but simplistic PJ O’Rourke fit that description. More broadly, the ubiquitous libertarian argument that the US system has resulted in a vastly wealthier society than European social democratic models also fits that pattern. Given current rises in US unemployment rates and the current 3 year economic flat spot, it will be interesting to see how those comparisons play out over the next few years.

  4. <nitpick><generalisation>I think most libertarians prefer to think of producers as individuals or, in the case of corporations, free associations of individuals.</generalisation> It’s a neat little intellectual dodge which allows them to avoid dealing with another phenomenon which arises through the operation of Nozick’s invisible hand – corporate political and economic power.</nitpick>

  5. bah – I haven’t got time for this right now. I haven’t backed away from Nozick btw, I just think that the utilitarian arguments are stronger. And John – acceptence of the decreasing marginal utility of money does not necessary mean that coercive redistribution is necessary.

    There is a theoretical efficient amount of redistribution which is non-zero and non-infinite. There is a private amount of redistribution. For various reasons, including free-riding, some (including yourself presumably) believe that the private amount would fall short of the efficient amount, and therefore government redistribution would increase utility.

    There are plenty of reasons to not accept this positions, including:
    – evidence of the extent of the free-riding is scarce and inconsistant
    – there are several unavoidable costs of govt redistribution, including admin costs and deadweight loss
    – the political reality is that most welfare is badly distributed… going to the squeakiest wheel not the most broken wheel

    In the end, most welfare is taken from the middle-class and given to the middle-class. It involves a significant cost to society per $1 that goes to somebody in need – and there is no guarantee that the government solution has even got closer to the efficient amount!

    Of course, you can dismiss all of these concerns quite easily by not mentioning them. After all – who would be silly enough to doubt the ability of government to fix any potential theoretical problem? Also, if it helps some people (stentor) to sleep better at night – you can dismiss all people like me by thinking us greedy, nasty, evil people who like to kill babbies and don’t care about those silly consumers.

    So far, all the critiques of the ‘moral’ libertarian argument (such as by John and Ken) have relied on utilitarian rebuttals. That’s understable given John’s previous stated position of only accepting utilitarian arguments for various political philosophies – but it is not necessarily an adequate rebuttal.

    The moral argument is simply: All used things are owned (by definition). Different political philosophies differ only in how they ‘allow’ ownership to be transfered. A moral libertarian argument is simply that all transfer should be voluntary. The alternative is by violence or coercion. Fair argument, but not one that fully convinces me (or most people) because it is deontelogical.

  6. The moral argument is simply: All used things are owned (by definition). Different political philosophies differ only in how they ‘allow’ ownership to be transfered. A moral libertarian argument is simply that all transfer should be voluntary.

    This seemingly sensible proposition is why most libertarians (though not, it seems, 24) back away from Nozick when challenged. His theory explicitly acknowledges that the moral case only stands up if the initial acquisition (not just subsequent transfers) was “just”. The problem that brings into stark relief is that there simply isn’t any society where initial acquisitions were all (or even mostly) “just”, even in Nozick’s restricted terms.

    Essentially, what 24’s position holds is: “I ‘own’ my possessions and I’m not going to let anyone take them away from me, even though they were probably obtained by theft or deceit in the first place, and even though my ability to continue enjoying them is dependent on most other people accepting the proposition that it’s just for the law to help me to hang onto them unless I feel like sharing”. It’s a difficult proposition to sell once these tacit premises are exposed, which is why libertarians shy away from any critical discussion of Nozick.

  7. Re: The moral argument is simply: All used things are owned (by definition).

    That’s a very interesting use of language. Which prompts me to pose a simple question: if I pick up a stone off the ground, and use it to break a window (by throwing it) do I acquire property rights in the stone? Or is it in fact morally wrong to do this, because I have used a thing which I do not own?

    PS – for the sake of this example, please assume that the window is my own, as is the house it is on. There may be any number of reasons why I might choose to break my own windows but the simple assumption of lunacy will do for now.

  8. “After all – who would be silly enough to doubt the ability of government to fix any potential theoretical problem?”

    Don’t you guys ever tire of that line? I know I tire of hearing it.

  9. I ‘own’ my possessions and I’m not going to let anyone take them away from me, even though they were probably obtained by theft or deceit in the first place

    While this is true (in most cases) and rebuts the “homesteading” argument, it also rebuts the socialist argument. If property was initially acquired unjustly, than neither the current individual property nor the state has a legitimate claim. Unless, of course, we introduce some form of “statute of limitations” argument, which doesn’t really satisfy my moral sensibilities, as it is merely a form of legal pragmatism.

    So what are we left with? Not much. Morally, the proper thing to do would be to return unjustly acquired property to the legitimate owners. But the legitimate owners are long dead, and it would be impossible to determine their rightful heirs. And if ought implies can, then there is no moral obligation to return the property to its rightful owners, since that cannot be determined.

    It seems to me that any moral defense of either libertarian or socialist conceptions of property are lacking. Perhaps this is simply because I am not familiar enough with political philosophy in general, and someone with more knowledge might be able to construct a better argument.

    Regardless, I believe this may be way many libertarians such as 24601 and myself prefer economic/utilitarian arguments over moral/philosophical ones. The details are less messy.

  10. Trotsky,

    I’m not sure I understand your argument. Assuming the rock was previously unowned, and assuming that the “homesteading” argument is correct, what exactly is your objection?


    As long as Public Choice economics exists, we will never tire of using that line. It’s definitely a keeper.

  11. Micha,

    Stop using my language. I hereby lay a full and complete claim to it under the homesteading argument, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s not to be maid available to libertarian nitpickers. Got that?

  12. According to J K Galbraith, 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.

    I guess we could add that the modern libertarian is engaged in a search for a little logic.

  13. Trotsky,

    Haha. I didn’t realize you were being facetious. My mistake.

    (If I were to take your facetious argument seriously, I would mention that libertarians differ over whether intellectual property deserves the same protections as physican property. I fall into the “nay” camp)


    Contra Galbraith, the modern leftist is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for theft, albeit for praiseworthy purposes.

    Although I must say that you are the first person I’ve heard to criticize libertarians for being illogical. Usually, the complaint is that libertarians are too logical and abstract too much so as to distance themselves from the “real world”, which is more often based on emotion and social arrangements than pure logic. I guess you learn something new every day.

  14. Oops. That should be “physical” property, not “physican” property, although physicians certainly deserve their rightfully acquired property as well. 🙂

  15. More broadly, the ubiquitous libertarian argument that the US system has resulted in a vastly wealthier society than European social democratic models also fits that pattern.

    Of course, as the libertarians are always quick to tell us, it’s not society that matters, it’s individuals.

    So, is the individual better off in a less-overall-wealthy EU state or a more-overall-wealthy US? I wonder if there are any numbers that compare the wealth of the median (not mean, since the exceptionally rich would skew the numbers) citizen of various countries. Such a number would have to take into account the value of social services provided by government of course. No fair saying Americans are better off by attributing a value of $0 to the government-provided health care in social democracy nations, for example.

  16. Of course, as the libertarians are always quick to tell us, it’s not society that matters, it’s individuals.

    I think this confuses the distinction between moral/philosophical and economic/utilitarian libertarians. Moral/philosophical libertarians would agree that only individuals matter, and that even if European social democratic models resulted in a vastly wealthier society, the U.S. system would still be superior if it involved less violation of individual rights. Conversely, econonomic/utilitarian libertarians would agree that European social democratic models are superior to the U.S. if they resulted in a vastly wealthier society, although we would want to take into account the value of freedom and the ability to choose among various alternatives when determining the costs and benefits of such a paternalistic state in our analysis.

  17. John’s thesis that libertarianism (at least the current fad) consists of two unconnected doctrines is borne out by this statement on the Australian Libertarian Society website:

    ‘Libertarianism can be based on two very different philosophical starting points. Some libertarians believe that free markets and individual freedom should be preferred because they are more moral political systems. Such people argue that it is immoral to take money from people by force and it is immoral to tell people how to live their lives. The other philosophical position often used by libertarians is utilitarianism. Utilitarian libertarians believe that a small government will lead to better outcomes than a big government. Such people argue that libertarian solutions will lead to greater wealth, less poverty, more diversity and will generally make people happier.’

    The first, ‘moral’, doctrine is so fatuous that it’s hardly worth wasting time on. The second involves a number of specific claims that may or may not be true in specific situations. But there is no general theoretical argument that ties these claims together. It is easy to envisage a situation in which lower taxes and less regulations will give rise to more aggregate wealth, while simultaneously creating more poverty and homogeneity. So, even within the ‘utilitarian’ plank of libertarianism we find a ‘combination of [several] logically unrelated positions’.

  18. Why is the idea that it is immoral to restrict how others dispose of themselves and their property, so long as they don’t harm others or their property, fatuous? You may disagree, and you may argue for a more stringent definition of “harm” than libertarians do, but the moral basis, on its face, isn’t “fatuous”.

  19. RVman,

    It’s fatuous because:
    (1) It ignores the issue of whether property was justly acquired or transferred to the person in the first place. That is, it’s a demand on the state and the rest of society to endorse and enforce the status quo however unjustly arrived at;
    (2) To put it slightly differently, it ignores the necessary role of the state (however minimal) in enforcing property rights and perpetuating a rule of law in which property owners can make productive and profitable use of their property, as well as the unavoidable need to convince the community to accept the appropriateness of those property rights and that rule of law, and to continue accepting it as asset and income inequality progressively becomes greater and greater. That again returns you to the question of the morality of initial acquisition and subsequent transfers. If those are not addressed, you’re simply asking the state and fellow citizens to entrench an unjust status quo that happens to favour your interests.
    (3) Lastly, even if we assume the justice of the initial status quo when a libertarian system is commenced, writers like Wolff make a persuasive case that a really minimal state system of the sort envisaged by Nozick would not in fact end up with greater individual choice, freedom and diversity, but quite the opposite. This argument is rather more utilitarian/consequentialist, and applies to an extent to Hayek as well, but is worth making. In a sense, it’s a different way of putting the point made by JQ in his primary post: the major determinant of choice/freedom is real income. If libertarianism tends to reduce the choice/freedom of the great majority by entrenching and increasing gross disparities of wealth and inequality, then it fails on its own terms as well as being what I would see as grossly immoral. Wolff argues that this is so in the following passage:

    Ultimately communities will compete for existence just as firms do in the market. Some will find a niche, but in general we can expect a law which favours the economically most fit: those with the most purchasing power. Just as many people now bemoan the fact that every city centre contains broadly the same types of shops and the same range of services, we are likely to see a drift towards homogeneity among communities within Nozickâs framework for utopia. This need not be because anyone wants homogeneity: possibly no one does. The argument is that it is likely that some sort of Îinvisible handâ will lead the framework in a single direction. There is absolutely no reason to believe that we will be able to retain a wide diversity of communities, and plenty of reason to think that successful market-based models will increase in size and power at the expense of those that try to embody alternative values. If the rich can flee with their property at any time, it is hard to see how we will avoid ending up with something like a barely regulated free market economy with rather haphazard voluntary philanthropy: nineteenth century capitalism.

    Of course, this gets us right into the realm of utilitarian/consequentalist analyses i.e. arguments about the social, economic and cultural consequences of a system which embraces extreme asset and income inequality as a social good. That’s really where the argument needs to take place.

  20. Jeez – to much to answer! Well, thank you to Micha for helping out. Let’s see if I can counter a few points here…

    1) the acquisition issue. legimitae ways to acquire something include: being given it; trading for it; homesteading it. It is true that some stuff is stolen. If the product can be found and the original owner can be found, then the product can be returned. If not, then let it be. While it’s true that many things have probably been stolen in history (though my car wasn’t, and my body wasn’t, and I’m pretty sure my clothes weren’t etc) this is unhelpful for comparing political philosophies because all political philosophies have to endorse some sort of system for allocating and exchanging property. Just because theft happened before doesn’t make a good justification for it to happen again.

    2) As for Ken’s comments – I believe he is getting at the paradox of requiring the initiation of force to defend a political system that calls for no initiation of force. This is indeed an interesting point – most especially difficult for moral libertarian minarchists (it is not an issue for utilitarians or anarchists). I believe Ayn Rand was wrong in this area (and was shown to be by Rothbard). One potential answer is that the moral libertarian position is onteological. That is, they can accept initiation of violence (it some tax for a police force) in order to ensure a minimisation of total violence (stop crime). You may argue about the comparative sizes of the violence – but that does not invalidate the logic of their position.

    3) Gummo – if the stone was unowned, you can homestead it. If you owned it (ie it was on your property), then you can use it. If it belongs to somebody else then you can use it if you have their (implicit or explicit) consent. A worst case scenario would be for your neighbour to see you throwing _their_ stone and ask for it back. If the stone was damaged they may sue for damages, but I think you and I would agree that the court costs would exceed the damages paid, and that such a scenario is very unlikely.

    As for your implication that language should be included as intellectual property – I disagree. Indeed, it is not clear to me that intellectual property should be recognised at all. But even for those that think it should – few would extend the definition to include a complete language. This is very much a non-issue and it’s hard to see why you raise it unless you’re confused about what libertarianism is.

    4) Jim Birch – according to Milton Friedman, Galbraith was a pretty good economist… for a writer. He was a political actor, playing the game. He did it well, but he wasn’t in the business of thought, he was in the business of polemics. You can continue to hide behind the “all libertarians are evil” mantra if that helps you to sleep at night. Even better, maybe find a group-think clinic and have your half-educated friends sit in a circle and repeat “they are wrong, we love baby seals” several times. Then wipe your tears away with a copy of ‘Green Left Weekly’. If you think me harsh for having a shot at you – consider how appropriate it is to question the ethics of strangers based on the fact that you don’t like their conclusions.

    5) Stew – while people keep excluding the issue of government failure I will keep pointing it out. If the left is annoyed that libertarians keep pointing out a basic simple fact (governments fail) then I suggest they wake up and stop making the same basic simple mistake (assuming that ‘if market failure – then government action’).

    6) society v individuals. I don’t see why we should draw any distinction. In nearly all situations, individuals choose to live in societys, and therefore society is very important. Indeed, it’s very important to me. The libertarian does not draw a dichotomy between society and people – but between ‘government’ and ‘civil society/people’. It is wrong to believe that society is government and therefore believe that libertarians are anti-society.

    There. I hope somebody learnt something from that… 🙂

  21. Thanks to Ken for saving me the trouble of defending ‘fatuous’. I’ll just make one small qualification. I could have said: it’s fatuous to argue that taxation is immoral if you accept the assumption that property rights like any others are conferred by social institutions.

    In complex societies people are inextricably interdependent. If we are to thrive, we need rules to give us order and security. Property rights are a part of this, but they need to be constantly balanced against other rights, principles and obligations.

    Property rights have only as much as legitimacy as the state that enforces them. If you claim property rights by invoking this authority, then you can’t claim it’s illegitimate for the same state to tax you.

    Of course if you believe that property rights are God-given, then it’s not fatuous to say taxes are immoral. But I won’t waste time arguing with you in that case either.

  22. Also, if it helps some people (stentor) to sleep better at night – you can dismiss all people like me by thinking us greedy, nasty, evil people who like to kill babbies and don’t care about those silly consumers.

    Wow. Those are some mighty powers of induction you had, to take an observation I made about which economic actors libertarians tend to concern themselves most with, and figure out that:
    1) I dismiss libertarians
    2) I think all libertarians are greedy, nasty, and evil
    3) I think placing less emphasis on is equivalent to not caring about
    4) My feelings about libertarians have the potential to keep me up at night

    And the truly amazing thing is, none of those four things are true.

  23. Just to clarify Stentor – I didn’t really think you stayed up at night thinking about me (I hope not anyway). My point, rather lost as they get hidden in my over-the-top manner, was that people find it easier to disagree with a position (say, libertarianism) if they can find some easy ways of subtely turning language against them (they care about producers, not consumers).

  24. James – property rights exist whereever a person is able to exclude other people from the use of some property. What the government often does (or tries to do) is prevent the transfer of ownership through means of violence and coercion (unless the transfer is by the government).

    As I’d already explained in the comment before yours – rights-based anarchists, utilitarian libertarians and onteological ‘moral libertarian’ minarchists suffer no contradiction here.

    As for the rights being ‘god given’ – it doesn’t matter where you think they come from. At the end of the day, all political philosophies are based on axioms that can’t be proved. God is as good a starting point as any (though not the one I use). However, the ‘natural rights’ that protect property from theft, violence and coercion seem reasonable to this number.

  25. There is no dichotomy between ‘individuals’ and ‘society’ because only individuals are moral agents and a society is not more than the sum of its individual parts. Libertarian desire to see individual rights as the first of many virtues is a critical preference based on those essential facts. Society is just a series of social interactions between individual moral agents who consent to interact… and society is nothing more than that. It is a description of a bunch of interactions, not a corporate ‘thing’. The state on the other hand is indeed a corporate ‘thing’ and is about political interactions (which is to say, it is about controlling of the collective means of coercion).

    Thus minarchist libertarians such as myself are largely concerned with making interactions between people social to the greatest extent practical, and only political when there is not other choice, for in such matters as discouraging murderers, keeping the Mongol Horde at bay and containing plagues… i.e. for a libertarian such as myself the state exists legitimately only to manage collective crisis.

    Whether or not the state should even be the exclusive repository for law is an issue of debate amongst many libertarians, some of whom see polycentric law as a far better solution ( or a mixture thereof as the way to maximize liberty by maximizing consensual social interactions at the expense of faux-consensual democratic political interactions.

  26. My point … was that people find it easier to disagree with a position (say, libertarianism) if they can find some easy ways of subtely turning language against them (they care about producers, not consumers).

    Very true, but I think my point needs some clarifying if you (and presumably others) took me to be offering the producer/consumer thing as a criticism of libertarianism. I meant it as a criticism of John Quiggin’s attempt to follow libertarian logic from their views on freedom of speech etc. to their views on economics. John entered the economic situation from the consumer, whereas libertarian arguments I’ve read tend to enter from the seller. As John’s methodology was to follow the libertarian argument from personal freedoms to economic freedoms and show why it was incorrect, it seemed to me that he was missing the mark by forging his own, different, path between the two spheres.

  27. 24601 ‘s

    “At the end of the day, all political philosophies are based on axioms that can’t be proved.”

    personal preferences, proclivities, inclinations, bias provide the energy that creates these axioms and enjoins them to bicker with each other in conflict and consensus, in co-operation and competition,

    both individuals and society are made in that interaction

    why should one set of preferences, one coalition, being given privilege of determining the whole “system”

    posession alone?

Comments are closed.