Libertarianism: Criticisms & Questions

My recent article The Limits of Libertarianism has received a lot of attention, including a 7000-word response from Stephan Kinsella. I appreciate him and everyone else who responded thoughtfully. As a result of the feedback, I recognize that many of my points were unclear or could have been presented better. I hope this post helps with that clarification to some degree.

Limits of Libertarianism Article

Here are some responses to common questions and criticisms I’ve received:

Are you advocating for positive rights?
No. If by positive rights you mean “an enforceable obligation on someone who hasn’t committed aggression” then definitely no. I’m not sure you can prove that rights exist at all, but if you’re going to have any conception of rights as a part of your society, only the negative kind derived from self-ownership make any sense.

Why don’t you believe in property?
Because I’m a big, scary commie. Just like President Obama. Boo.

Despite Cantwell calling me an antipropertarian, I never said I was against property. I recognize that in a situation of scarcity and conflict over available resources, private property (homesteading, contractual transfer, self-ownership) is the best framework for allocating those resources in a just (and rational) way. Also, I like owning stuff.

But I am skeptical of concentrations of power. And not just political power. One person or one small group owning and amassing incredible amounts of wealth isn’t necessarily something I’m on board with. That doesn’t mean I want the state to take it away from them – that would be granting even more power to a different small group. But I’m not going to say “well if they amassed all that wealth and economic power via the free market then it must be a good thing.” It might not be a good thing. I’m open to that.

I’m also open to a possible future where scarcity is not the same concern it used to be. The digital age is part of that. If I came to your house twenty years ago and took your collection of favorite music, you wouldn’t be happy. That music collection would have been a bunch of scarce physical objects and by taking them from you, you’d have lost something. I can come to your house today and take your collection of favorite music and you will have lost nothing. (Stephan Kinsella will tell you it’s one of the major reasons that intellectual property rights don’t make any sense.)

I look at the internet and the digitization of stuff that used to require a physical presence, I look at 3D printing, I look at possible new energy resources, and I see a potential future where property rights might not be as foundational to society as they are now. And if that future is better for humanity overall, I’m fine with redefining or discarding what it means to be property. That’s what I meant when I said, “my goal isn’t a society based on property rights. My goal is human flourishing.”

So will you or will you not admit to being a communist?
Stop being so weird.

Libertarians don’t consider everything outside of property/violence to be aesthetics.
Yeah, this was probably bad wording on my part. Libertarians consider matters outside property/violence as personal morality or personal preference. That’s what I was referring to as aesthetics. I’m not talking about the study of art. I should have been clearer.

Here’s Christopher Cantwell doing the same thing:

So to the question of justice in the case of abortion or eviction, libertarianism is lacking. Some will find this good, some will find this evil, and in this regard it is no different than any number of matters such as racism, sexism, or homophobia. Non-aggression cares not for aesthetics.

It’s pretty clear that Cantwell is saying racism, sexism, and homophobia are aesthetic issues because they are outside of the libertarian property rights ethic. He doesn’t mean the “study of art” either, he means they’re matters of personal preference.

And Lew Rockwell on libertarianism:

It is not feminism. It is not egalitarianism. … It has nothing to say about aesthetics. It has nothing to say about religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation.

It’s not entirely clear whether he’s saying “libertarianism has nothing to say about aesthetics and it also has nothing to say about religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation.” Or whether he’s saying “libertarianism has nothing to say about aesthetics, such as religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation.”

Either way, it’s not some crazy, bizarre assertion I’m pulling out of my ass.

Are you and Cathy Reisenwitz going to have babies?
No, not until the Ministry of Reproduction instructs us to do so for the good of the social order. That’s how human flourishing works. Also, try to be less of a dick.

Do you want people enforcing what other people should believe or value?
No, but I’m fine with people persuading, criticizing, shaming, and ostracizing people who believe and value bad ideas. And no, “bad” doesn’t have to be subjective.

It’s too much to go into now, but there are different ways of organizing society, of relating to people, or solving social issues and they’re not all equal. They’re not just a matter of personal preference because force isn’t involved. Some are more optimal and some are less optimal.

I’m stealing from Sam Harris here, but human flourishing is a lot like health. It might be different based on context and time period. What counts as healthy for a 90-year-old woman is different from healthy for a 16-year-old boy. What was healthy in the Middle Ages is different from what is healthy now. But just because it can be vague and just because it can vary, it doesn’t mean the concept of health is subjective.

The same is true for humans in general. What makes us flourish, what creates a healthy society and promotes well-being, isn’t subjective. It might be hard to pin down and it might changed based on the context. But it’s possible to move societies in directions that promote flourishing and in directions away from it.

Treatment of children is something libertarians are still trying to figure out.
In the original article, I said it was embarrassing that libertarians have “so little moral clarity on this issue.” To which Stephan Kinsella responded:

Libertarianism is a young discipline—about 50 years old. It is still developing. There is disagreement on a number of issues, such as this one. It is not embarrassing that it does not have everything figured out yet, or that there are still disputes.

I can’t imagine a more laughable response. How many decades will it take before libertarianism can tell us it’s wrong to hit children? It is an absolute embarrassment that libertarianism does not have moral clarity on whether or not attacking children is okay, especially when a cornerstone of the philosophy is non-aggression. Poor little libertarianism, it’s only had five decades to figure things out. Are you kidding me?

Singling out two authors and saying this perspective is the fault of the framework makes little sense. Prominent anarchist libertarian Stefan Molyneux has railed against spanking, as have a growing number of (mostly anarchist) libertarians in the Peaceful Parenting movement (and I’ve spoken out against it too).

I didn’t just single out two random libertarians. I singled out figures who are foundational to current libertarian thought.

It makes it even more embarrassing that if it wasn’t for one person – Stefan Molyneux – this probably wouldn’t even be an issue for libertarians. At least not a hotly contested one. And when was the last time Stef Molyneux was invited to a libertarian conference to talk about child abuse? To whatever degree libertarians shouldn’t be embarrassed about this, it’s because of him.

You criticized libertarians for treating choice as a binary, black and white concept. What do you have to say to the responses?
I haven’t gotten any.

I do what I can.

Isn’t libertarianism necessary for a coherent anarchism?
I don’t see why. You can be an anarchist for purely utilitarian reasons – a society without rulers is more efficient by X or Y standard – that have nothing to do with property rights or rejecting aggression. That might be a less principled approach, but it’s not an incoherent form of anarchism.

Wouldn’t animal rights invade human rights?
Yes, sometimes extending rights to other groups means a reduction in your own. That’s a thing that happens. But I’m not really talking about rights when I’m talking about the treatment of animals. I’m just talking about things that I want libertarians to care about, but that get left out of a strictly political ethic. Same thing with the earth as a whole. More on this later.

You’re using the same weapons that tyrants love to get their blood-soaked hands on, aren’t you?

You’re part of a leftist strategy trying infilitrate and destroy libertarianism and therefore destroy liberty.
Hey, the halls of seriousness called, you’re banned for life.

You asserted a bunch of stuff about libertarians being hostile to non-state issues and thinking that libertarianism is a complete social philosophy.
Yeah, I did. I’ve experienced libertarians being hostile to discussions of race, privilege, class, sexuality, etc. I’ve also experienced them presenting libertarianism as if it was a complete answer to the problems in society. I thought this experience was more common. I had these tendencies myself a few years ago.

Either way, as Kinsella pointed out, I mostly just asserted these points. I’m sure there are a lot of examples to support this but until I gather them, just take what I said as personal statements about my own experience.

Libertarianism is not a social philosophy. It’s a political philosophy.
That’s an arbitrary line. It’s a philosophy about how humans should relate to each other under certain contexts.

What is wrong with libertarianism being a limited subset of philosophy?
Nothing, in and of itself. Like any other part of philosophy or science, it can have its boundaries and its own domain. That’s practically necessary if you’re going to do any work of real depth. But it can produce other problems.

One is this: I’m not convinced people see it that way, especially libertarians. I think a lot of libertarians see libertarianism as a complete social ideology. To steal from the development world, they see it as a full-stack social philosophy. The ways that human beings should relate to each other are described in this philosophy. Everything else is a matter of personal preference.

The way society is organized in the absence of force isn’t just a matter of personal preference. Anyone who cares about how humans relate to each other should have a lot to say on this matter. More than just “aggression is impermissible.”

Now maybe that isn’t your experience of libertarians. I definitely know libertarians that like to address every aspect of society they can. (Again, props to Stef Molyneux for doing this.) But I still don’t think that’s common. How many self-identifying libertarians do you see talking about race or gender or religion or anything else (economics aside)? These are considered leftist issues and largely left to statists to discuss (which isn’t going to produce meaningful solutions). When libertarians talk, they talk about the issue they think is the most important: the state.

Which brings me to another problem. I get why libertarians focus on the state. It’s a monster. It should be smashed into a thousand pieces and those pieces should be burned to ashes and those ashes should be swept into the dustbin of history. (Isn’t dustbin of history a Trotsky-ism? I knew he was a communist.)

But I don’t see the state as being fundamentally separate from culture. It’s a symptom of culture. It’s a symptom of social norms and beliefs and traditions. It’s a symptom of the treatment of children, of the treatment of people different from us. It’s a symptom of how we relate to authority – in the family, in the workplace, in every institution. It’s a symptom of how we relate to each other.

I don’t believe you can defeat the state without changing these things. I don’t believe you can draw a line around the state and say “this is our enemy because it commits overt, outright aggression and everything else is a preference.”

As I said in my article, it doesn’t mean that libertarians have to stop being libertarian. But I want them as allies in fighting these other battles. I want them to take the same radicalism they wave around when it comes to the state, and apply it to other cultural and social issues.

Published on April 22, 2014