The Limits of Libertarianism

I considered myself a libertarian for at least ten years. The first time I heard the term was in 2000, watching Harry Browne in the third party presidential debates. I knew next to nothing of libertarian philosophy, but the little I did understand, I identified with. My high school held a mock presidential election and I hung up “vote for Harry Browne” posters and encouraged my friends to write him in on their ballots. It was the first and last time I would participate in any kind of political campaign.

When I turned 18, I registered to vote with the Libertarian Party, despite my parents’ warning that I would lose the chance to influence primary elections. I was also aligning myself with a third party, and everyone knows third parties don’t win elections.

I never voted for a Libertarian presidential candidate. In fact, I don’t think I ever voted for any presidential candidate. There is a chance I sent in an absentee ballot from college voting for George W. Bush, but I can’t remember if I ever actually mailed the thing. Either way, I missed out on the great American ritual of walking into a booth, scribbling on a piece of paper, and throwing it in a glorified trash bin.

I would call voting valuable but the number of scare quotes I’d have to drape around the word would offend my typographic sensibilities.


See. And that’s still not enough, but what can you do?

I moved further and further toward what I considered true libertarianism, eschewing the capital “L” and politics in general. I read Rand and Rothbard and Mises, scoured countless articles and listened to hundreds of podcasts. I understood libertarian philosophy. I remember the moment when I realized anarchism was the only legitimate conclusion. It was like Bertrand Russell’s “Great God in Boots!” moment. Only mine was committed by a nobody… and also not wrong.

Anarchism was libertarianism fully realized. Political libertarianism was a deformation of the ideology, only attractive to those who valued the sentiments of libertarianism but weren’t principled enough to carry it to its logical (and moral) conclusions. Once I realized this, there was no going back.

But anarchism isn’t a part of libertarianism. Anarchism is its own broad political and social philosophy. Libertarianism is just one school of thought that can (and should) lead you to statelessness.

So I stopped calling myself a libertarian, preferring “anarchist” when labels were necessary. I still considered most of my beliefs to technically fall under the umbrella of libertarianism. But somewhere in the last few years even that association has faded.

It took me a long time to articulate why, but that’s what I’m going to do now.

This essay is the result of an evolution in my thinking, one which has led me further from “right” libertarianism and strict anarcho-capitalism toward what could be described as radical, leftist anarchism, or maybe even libertarian-socialism.

Anarcho-Capitalism from Wikipedia

Anarcho-capitalism (also referred to as free-market anarchism, market anarchism, private-property anarchism, libertarian anarchism) is a political philosophy which advocates the elimination of the state in favor of individual sovereignty, private property, and open markets. Anarcho-capitalists argue for a society based on the voluntary trade of private property and services (in sum, all relationships not caused by threats or violence, including exchanges of money, consumer goods, land, and capital goods) in order to minimize conflict while maximizing individual liberty and prosperity. However, they also recognize charity and communal arrangements as part of the same voluntary ethic.

Libertarian Socialism from Wikipedia

Adherents of libertarian socialism (sometimes called left-libertarianism) assert that a society based on freedom and equality can be achieved through abolishing authoritarian institutions that control certain means of production and subordinate the majority to an owning class or political and economic elite. Libertarian socialism also constitutes a tendency of thought that promotes the identification, criticism, and practical dismantling of illegitimate authority in all aspects of life. Accordingly, libertarian socialists believe that “the exercise of power in any institutionalized form – whether economic, political, religious, or sexual – brutalizes both the wielder of power and the one over whom it is exercised”.

I’m going to make broad generalizations. It’s hard to criticize a body of thought like libertarianism. There is no one set definition of what a libertarian is or what they believe, so for any criticisms there will be countless exceptions. You can easily play the “no true Scotsman” game with everything that follows. Yes, many libertarians do think X, but they’re not really libertarians. Therefore, I ask that you view my points as criticisms of general themes and attributes I’ve found in libertarian thought, rather than an indictment of everyone who self-identifies as libertarian. Particularly, they’re criticisms of elements of my own belief system when I considered myself libertarian.

I was hesitant to write this piece because I routinely see libertarians smeared and ridiculed in mainstream dialogue, specifically by leftists that support the current political institutions. That is a bandwagon I absolutely will not jump on. As Tarzie writes:

I believe that anti-libertarian fear-mongering is increasingly being deployed as a stratagem of liberals and other statist lefts, in an effort to immunize the Democratic Party from any genuinely leveraged opposition from anti-imperialists and civil libertarians. In other words, the primary aim of stigmatizing libertarians is the fortification of state violence, as well as fortification of the primacy of the state itself. Its leading proponents are careerist idiots acting in the worst possible faith.

This article is not an act of bad faith. I’m writing this because I value many of the contributions libertarians make to challenging power. But I see the limits of libertarianism.

Furthermore, criticizing the ideas and the people I identify (or previously identified) with is a point of pride. Who better to levy judgments? If anyone is going to criticize the things I care about, it’s going to be me.

The Ethical Rebut

The limits of libertarianism begin with ethics.

Libertarians confine their moral reasoning to something called a “legal” or “political” ethic. This ethic, based on property rights and the non-aggression principle, is the cornerstone of libertarian morality. But it is an intentionally limited moral framework.

Murray Rothbard

Murray Rothbard describes it here:

For we are not, in constructing a theory of liberty and property, i.e., a “political” ethic, concerned with all personal moral principles. We are not herewith concerned whether it is moral or immoral for someone to lie, to be a good person, to develop his faculties, or be kind or mean to his neighbors. We are concerned, in this sort of discussion, solely with such “political ethical” questions as the proper role of violence, the sphere of rights, or the definitions of criminality and aggression.

Libertarians typically push matters outside of property rights and violence into the realm of aesthetics, which Rothbard described as “personal” morality. On these issues of personal morality, libertarian theory is silent.

If you accept the premises of self-ownership and property rights, it is a logically consistent and powerful framework. But if you allow yourself to have wider moral sensibilities, the framework is woefully inadequate – if not outright grotesque – in certain cases.

Take Rothbard on parental obligations to children:

The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.)

At least Rothbard recognizes that children are subject to the non-aggression principle, but outside of direct aggression (or maybe just aggression that results in death or mutilation) he reinforces that libertarian theory has nothing to say. A parent can starve their child to death. We might find this morally reprehensible, as Rothbard surely did, but it’s outside the purview of the political ethic.

Walter Block, another prominent libertarian theorist, has attempted to narrow the case where abandonment is permissible (no one is willing to “homestead” the abandoned baby), but rejects that the non-aggression principle applies to children. Why? Because children aren’t full humans with all the same rights as adults. They exist in a superposition between animals and humans. Which means it’s permissible to aggress against children.

Both Rothbard and Block accept that some degree of child abuse either violates the NAP (in Rothbard’s case) or de-legitimizes parental ownership (in Block’s case), but what constitutes abuse represents a “continuum problem” for libertarians. Some attacks on children are okay but not too much. It’s a big gray area.

It’s embarrassing that many libertarians have so little moral clarity on this issue. Especially when compared to a website like Jezebel, which has no problem taking a hard stance on aggression against children. These quotes from a piece criticizing a Kansas pro-spanking bill could just as easily be directed at libertarians and their continuum problem.

It wrongly reinforces the idea that there is such a thing as a good kind of spanking. It suggests there is a bad, abusive kind that should be illegal, but also a good, loving kind that only causes bruises and welts but must be tolerated because it helps nurture more effective, obedient citizens. It’s just a different “style” of parenting, no better, no worse!

Yeah, a “different” style that just happens to be legalized assault. Even worse, it indefensibly suggests that there’s some kind of logic to hitting that can be measured in actual strikes — 10 you’re fine, 11 you’re a child abuser? Should we let the domestic abuse shelters in on the secret?

Make no mistake: There is no such thing as “good hitting” versus “bad hitting.” There is no positive outcome from violence toward children

This is a human rights issue — again, this is legalized assault against those we are bound to protect.

Treatment of animals is also outside of the political ethic. There are no animal rights – unless the animals request them – so humans are free to treat animals however they want. The same is true of the planet in general. In order for the Earth itself to be considered under libertarian philosophy, it must be private property.

Other major social issues such as religion, race, gender, sexuality, and class dynamics are either analyzed only from within the property rights framework or not at all.

Lew Rockwell, too, affirms this position:

Libertarianism is concerned with the use of violence in society. That is all. It is not anything else. It is not feminism. It is not egalitarianism (except in a functional sense: everyone equally lacks the authority to aggress against anyone else). It has nothing to say about aesthetics. It has nothing to say about religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation.

Of religion, Rothbard says:

There is no necessary connection between being for or against libertarianism and one’s position on religion. … Libertarians believe that liberty is a natural right embedded in a natural law of what is proper for mankind, in accordance with man’s nature. Where this set of natural laws comes from, whether it is purely natural or originated by a creator, is an important ontological question but is irrelevant to social or political philosophy.

I find it hard to accept that religion and the origins of mankind are irrelevant to social philosophy. Perhaps only to an intentionally limited philosophy, with a large socially conservative bloc.

Granted, libertarianism – as a body of thought – doesn’t have to comment on every social issue. It can say nothing of race and gender and class. It can be silent on non-violent forms of hierarchy and inequality. But then it stands incomplete as a social philosophy. That’s fine, especially if that is a conscious and intentional choice on the part of libertarians. We will focus our ideological work on this area and let other systems of thought cover everything else. But it certainly wasn’t something I was aware of when I considered myself a libertarian. On the contrary, I thought libertarianism offered a robust and complete analysis of society. I suspect others do, too.

And this isn’t just a case of convenient specialization. Many libertarians are actively hostile to those who step outside – or attempt to expand – the scope of moral reasoning. Libertarians who are outspoken against aggression against children, take strong stances on religion, or analyze other social issues have faced resistance from others that would prefer to cleave only to the foundations of “true” libertarianism.

Christopher Cantwell dismisses the expansion of libertarianism by saying:

Libertarianism does not address race, gender, religion, sexuality, or any other class the left would like to see protected from offense. Nor should it. Libertarianism makes the radical assertion that these subjects are irrelevant outside of our own personal preferences, and that our own personal preferences are not how the whole of human society should be organized.

Libertarianism addresses one thing, and one thing only. Force. Libertarianism claims to do nothing other than answer the question of when violence is permissible. … If your philosophy includes something other than this, you’re more than welcome to that philosophy, just call it something else. Please stop trying to further undermine our efforts by inserting nonsense interpretations into our philosophy, because they have no place here.

Jeffrey Tucker describes these libertarians as brutalists. They reject larger humanistic social perspectives in favor of the strict and narrow adherence to the libertarian core.

I can understand the desire to keep libertarianism laser focused, but it is rarely presented as a highly specified and limited body of thought. Libertarianism is not understood as a specialized field like chemistry or biology. It is supposed to be an ideology that describes and prescribes human social behavior. But to that end, its core framework is inadequate.

Choice. The Problem Is Choice.

Besides all it leaves out, the framework also includes a facile conception of consent.

Within the libertarian ethical framework, choice is binary. Either something was consented to voluntarily or it was not. This conception of consent marks the line between good and evil. On one side of the line are socially acceptable behaviors and on the other side are impermissible behaviors.

Theft, rape, murder, and fraud all lie on the non-consensual side and are therefore not good. The other side includes all forms of voluntary human interaction which, again because we’re limited to a political ethic, we can’t really say much about. It’s all fine.

But there is some gray on the good side. Is a rich CEO really in the same ethical position as a poor Chinese factory worker? On the libertarian view, yes. There are plenty of differences, but if that Chinese worker voluntarily chose to work for that factory, they’re not ethical differences.

Like the starving-your-child issue, any moral objections you might have are outside the scope of the libertarian ethic. They reflect your personal morality which has no business being used to dictate social behaviors.

But choice isn’t binary. It’s a spectrum. There’s a gradient that we can use to measure how constrained a choice really is. On one end is outright force and on the other is pure, unconstrained freedom. But in between is a fuzzy gray area where economic, psychological, cultural, biological, and social forces are leaning on human decision making.

Most libertarians would admit that this spectrum exists, but there is still strong sentiment within libertarianism that any non-coercive relationship is good. And – within the political ethic – even if it isn’t “good,” it’s still permissible. That’s why you see libertarians defending sweatshops.

A poor Chinese factory worker is far more constrained than a rich white businessman. His range of possible options is tiny in comparison. He is less free. The same may be true depending on your race, gender, class, or sexual orientation. The way you were treated growing up – by your parents, teachers, and peers – may contribute. The way people like you are represented in media and entertainment may contribute. Social prejudices and cultural norms may contribute. These factors don’t mean people are being outright forced to do anything, but simply that they’re constrained by their environment. We all are, in different ways.

We don’t lose any ground or sacrifice any claims to a rational moral framework by admitting that. We can still say that one side of the spectrum – the unconstrained one – is good for human beings and the other side is bad. And we can still conclude that the use of force is only a legitimate response to human behavior that falls on the far end of that bad side (theft, rape, murder). But by accepting the spectrum we can examine other relationships that, while they may not include force, can be exploitive, hierarchical, and authoritarian.

As before, without admitting that this spectrum exists, libertarianism leaves an entire range of human social behavior off the table.

Finish With A Flourish

All of these deficiencies of libertarianism result in one thing: A limited vision for the future.

Libertarians want a world without a state. Beyond that, the philosophy says little about the shape of human culture. It should be based on property rights and non-aggression. How can we combat racism? Property rights and non-aggression. How should humans approach sexuality and gender? Property rights and non-aggression. What is the place of hierarchies in society, whether it’s families or work places or financial classes? Property rights and non-aggression. What role – if any – should religion and superstition play in society? Property rights and non-aggression.

I recognize that a consistently applied libertarian ethic would make the world a much better place than it currently is. And I recognize that I’m essentially criticizing libertarians for only wanting to take down the greatest threat to human flourishing on the planet. In a world full of people who defend the status quo and apologize for power, those with radical ideas deserve the least criticism.

But for libertarians who see the dismantling of the state as the ultimate goal, I have to disagree. It is not enough.

While eliminating the state is a massive multi-generational project, it is in many ways only the first step. Human flourishing is the ultimate goal. And if libertarians think they can dust off their hands and head home just because the state is in ashes, they’re wrong. The state is the most obvious and brutal source of power and hierarchy, but it’s far from the only one. The state is a giant engine for deforming human culture, and what’s left over once it’s smashed isn’t a foregone conclusion. It will be up to humans to reshape and remake culture and society in the way that suits us best. This will have to include examinations of race, class, gender, sexuality, relationships, religion, social institutions, and traditions in the absence of the state apparatus. It will have to include disassembling other forms of hierarchy – both violent and non-violent.

Having this perspective now and beginning the work on every other issue facing humanity isn’t a waste of time or moral mis-prioritization. Toxic social and cultural norms are much less concrete an enemy than the state, but they must be battled all the same.

The degree to which I’ve moved away from libertarianism is the degree to which I think the ideology is ill-equipped to fight those battles. Once you move your goals beyond the elimination of the state, the ethical framework of libertarianism falls far short. Its black-and-white view of choice is shallow and inadequate when judging the nuances of human interaction and of how power and exploitation affect us.

My goal isn’t a society based on property rights. My goal is human flourishing. I want an ethical, free, and humane planet. A world where humans take care of each other and other living creatures. I want a world of flattened hierarchies, including the non-violent ones. A world with human dignity. That may be a future where property rights – as we think of them today – don’t exist. It may be a post-scarcity world full of abundance. It may be a world where our familiar social structures – both macro and micro – are vastly different. It’s up to us to build it.

To those of you who consider yourselves libertarians, I say this:

You don’t have to reject your current beliefs. But you must expand them. Libertarianism’s narrow views do a disservice to yourself and to the world. Widen the circle of your radicalism until it encompasses all of society. Leave no status quo unexamined. There is work to be done and radicals needed to do it.

Published on April 16, 2014