The Neverending Battle Against the Dichotomies of Libertarianism

Entering debates with libertarians has become somewhat tiring, as I seem to have to start every debate by explaining why they approach issues from an inherently biased perspective, using loaded terms and framing the debate in what I regard as a completely incoherent manner.

Many of these problems amount to false dichotomies: governments versus markets; positive versus negative liberty; distinctions between actions done under credible threat of coercion and those done ‘voluntarily’. Generally, the problem is that libertarians ignore certain institutions that they deem natural or desirable, and build their dichotomies under the implicit assumption that anything they perceive to be an ‘intervention’ is the opposing side of the argument.

While there may be some merit in retaining these dichotomies for formalistic discussion and analysis, they do not work well as a functionalistic approximation of what ordinary individuals experience day to day – which, after all, is what libertarianism is predicated upon.

For example, take positive versus negative liberty, where positive liberty is defined as having the resources to fulfil your desires, and negative liberty is defined as being restrained from doing this by another moral agent. For libertarians, the second is often the most – or only – important consideration here.

The distinction between positive and negative liberty is, functionally speaking, false. Why? Consider two people: a rich man who wants to buy a plane, but can’t because taxes have just been increased, and a penniless man who wants to buy an apple, but can’t afford it. For libertarians, the rich is the one who is constrained by the law and ‘coercion’. But reconsider the poor man – what is stopping him from getting an apple from a shop without any money? If he goes into the shop and tries to take the apple, he will, ultimately, be arrested. He is constrained by the law, the same as the rich man.

It could be said that property and contracts work in a similar way to taxes and laws. Property uses the law to constrain people’s access to certain resources; tax does the same. Contracts use the law to make people perform certain actions and restrain them from others; the law does the same. Of course, libertarians would respond that restraints according to property are the result of voluntary transactions, and that contracts are also entered voluntarily, so the various constraints and obligations are more justified.

Firstly, even assuming no injustice, property distribution results from a large amount of individual and collective decisions. While it might be said that those involved in the decisions have consented to the new distribution, it doesn’t follow that those who had no say in them – most notably the unborn – have consented. Most still face legal constraints on their access to resources that they had no part in creating, and many suffer as a consequence.

Secondly, if the alternative to entering a contract is starvation, the contract cannot truly be said to be ‘voluntarily’. Even if we assume full employment, it will never be favourable to an employer – due to competition for efficiency – not to maintain some discipline at their workplace. The fact is that – as it logically impossible for everyone to be a capitalist – a large amount of the population rely on working under hierarchical conditions to survive.

I should note that I’m not implying taxes and laws are exactly the same as contracts and property, only that their enforcement is functionally similar. Introspectively, it would be pretty unreasonable to argue that people’s lives don’t involve having their access to certain resources restrained, and also being forced to perform certain actions that they’d probably rather not, generally in exchange for various benefits. It would also be unreasonable to say that these constraints and compulsions only originate from taxes and (regulatory) laws, rather than private contracts and property.


, ,

  1. #1 by Woj on May 26, 2012 - 1:40 am

    A thought provoking post, as always, especially for a relatively recent convert to being a Libertarian. Not much I really disagree with either.

    The only point I’d mention is that I think all views, including those of Libertarians, have a biased perspective through which they try and frame debates. It seems to me that trying to make over-arching distinctions is inherently flawed from a functional stand point. Unfortunately in the course of normal discussion, especially argumentation, it often seems natural to try and make those distinctions. I’m not saying we should, but rather that it appears to be a somewhat natural habit.

    I don’t expect to change your view and I think the recognition of these (and other) false dichotomies is important. Hopefully future conversations will focus more on the ” functionalistic approximation of what ordinary individuals experience day to day.”

    • #2 by Unlearningecon on May 28, 2012 - 2:29 pm

      I think biased perspectives are inevitable and perhaps the only perspectives possible. My main problem with the governments versus markets one is that it’s classic divide and conquer – that the elite class are as one is completely hidden.

  2. #3 by Oliver on May 26, 2012 - 7:43 am

    • #4 by Oliver on May 26, 2012 - 12:44 pm


      …The first movement of the right-wing argument runs as follows:

      (1) Freedom is compromised by (liability to) interference (by other people),
      but not by lack of means.
      (2) To lack money is to suffer not (liability to) interference, but lack of means. So (3) Poverty (lack of money) does not carry with it lack of freedom.

      The conclusion of the first movement of the argument, proposition (3), is a conceptual claim, a claim about how certain concepts are connected with one another. But, in the right’s hands, that conceptual conclusion is used to support a normative claim, a claim about what ought to be done, which is reached as follows, in the second movement of the argument:

      (3)Poverty (lack of money) does not carry with it lack of freedom.
      (4)The primary task of government is to protect freedom.
      So (5) Relief of poverty is not part of the primary task of government…

      • #5 by Min on May 26, 2012 - 3:20 pm

        Indeed, poverty (lack of money) does not imply lack of freedom, any more than any other constraint implies lack of freedom. Freedom has more than one meaning.

        However, relative poverty does imply lack of freedom, because the relative wealth of others allows them to impose additional constraints on you. And experience shows that they do so.

    • #6 by Unlearningecon on May 26, 2012 - 4:23 pm

      That’s a very clear and interesting deconstruction.

  3. #7 by christopher whalen (@rcwhalen) on May 26, 2012 - 11:52 am

    This article is really disappointing, but illustrates the basic misunderstanding of libertarian principles, especially American thinking on liberty. The negative/positive liberty debate used above as an illustration is poorly chosen. Considering instead that America, “we the people,” is an example of a negative liberty model, while the fascist EU model, where the state exists and people are subsidiaries, is positive liberty. The latter is the Ayn Rand camp, of note. The essence of the libertarian principle in American terms to me is that people individually and together form the basis of power, and “we the people” then empower agencies of government to carry out those tasks we cannot do ourselves, privately. That to me is what it means to be a libertarian. Just think Jefferson, Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan and you’ll be fine (and can include Barry Goldwater too if you want). Best, RC Whalen

    • #8 by Unlearningecon on May 26, 2012 - 11:57 am

      There are, of course, 2645 definitions of libertarianism. Here I am referring to the minarchist variety rather than more constitutionalist types. Perhaps I should have said that.

      Honestly, though, I get the impression that you haven’t had much experience with libertarians, at least online. Many would foam at the mouth at this sentence as a formulation of libertarian principles:

      ‘The essence of the libertarian principle in American terms to me is that people individually and together form the basis of power, and “we the people” then empower agencies of government to carry out those tasks we cannot do ourselves, privately. That to me is what it means to be a libertarian.’

      I also think it’s clear we have two completely different definitions of positive and negative liberty.

    • #9 by Min on May 26, 2012 - 10:22 pm

      “That to me is what it means to be a libertarian. Just think Jefferson, Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan”

      How did Reagan get in there? 😉

      • #10 by Unlearningecon on May 29, 2012 - 11:23 am

        Yeah not sure about that. The funny (I use the the term loosely) thing about Reagan and Thatcher is that they actually greatly centralised state power.

    • #11 by Septeus7 on May 31, 2012 - 12:02 am

      Libertarianism has no basis in American thinking on Liberty unless you count the writings of Aaron Burr. The American School of economics is protectionist, dirigist, mercantilist, and believes in the doctrine of high wages.

      All folks you mentioned except for Jefferson were brutal warmongers and Anglophiles.

      Jackson illegally seized the assets of the National Bank in direct violation of the Constitution sending the economy into a depression. Here’s a video on the details about this Indian slaughtering Baring/Rothschild Bankster loving traitor Jackson (

      Teddy Roosevelt was arch imperialist and anglophile raise by his confederate uncle while living in England as a child. Not very American.

      Ronald Reagan….I don’t believe this needs commentary.

      The real American tradition of Liberty was the anti-slavery Whigs and Republicans who fought against the big slave plantations, low wages, and for the monetary sovereignty of the United State in the form of the Greenback policy against the Bankster’s gold standard and the crime of 73.

      Libertarian is creation of rightwing Oligarchs Fascist supporting William Volcker (×1989989), arch kleptocrat Charles Koch (, and John D. Rockerfeller (

      The only form of Libertarianism that original to America is that of Henry George. But modern day Georgist like Dr. Michael Hudson are considered to radical socialist leftist. Libertarianism is psuedo politics for the gopnik.

      • #12 by Unlearningecon on May 31, 2012 - 2:51 pm

        I agree with your post in general, but I’ve always been suspicious of that first article – they could have sourced it more thoroughly.

      • #13 by Keith Gardner on June 1, 2012 - 12:19 am

        william volker, not volcker. i made the same mistake too.

      • #14 by Will on June 1, 2012 - 6:10 am

        I think I’m with you in spirit, but this is a rather simplistic analysis. I don’t see the point of excommunicating anglophiles from the “true American” club. And since the prime wellspring of the “protectionist, dirigist, mercantilist” tendency you herald was Alexander Hamilton, I don’t see that it serves your rhetorical purpose.

        Also, while I like that you count George a libertarian, I think one also has to acknowledge the native libertarianism of Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker, who were forerunners of the modern variety in everything except for their economic theory, which was pre-Austrian.

  4. #15 by Adam Bell on May 28, 2012 - 11:22 am

    With reference to the positive/negative liberty distinction, you may find Fleishacker’s ‘A Third Concept of Liberty’ interesting. It posits a role for a Smithian notion of judgement which falls between the two pillars.

    • #16 by Unlearningecon on May 28, 2012 - 2:27 pm

      Thanks for that, looks interesting.

  5. #17 by Anarcho on May 30, 2012 - 9:14 am

    The so-called “libertarians” are better termed propertarians. They stole the name “libertarian” from the left, from anarchists like Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman. Genuine libertarians are well aware that (to quote Proudhon’s words) property is both theft (exploitative) and despotism (oppressive). Unsurprisingly, genuine libertarians have always supported workers’ control of production.

    For more on Proudhon and the origins of genuine libertarian ideas:

    • #18 by Unlearningecon on June 1, 2012 - 11:12 am

      I see few reasons modern libertarians shouldn’t support worker democracy in order to be consistent with their philosophy. It retains ‘markets’ – which are what most of their arguments are about – and adds a further level of decentralisation, dispersing power.

  6. #19 by Keith Gardner on May 31, 2012 - 7:43 pm

    “AFTER conquest and confiscation have been effected, and the State set up, its first concern iswith the land. The State assumes the right of eminent domain over its territorial basis, where by every landholder becomes in theory a tenant of the State. In its capacity as ultimate landlord, the State distributes the land among its beneficiaries on its own terms. A point to be observed in passing is that by the State-system of land-tenure each original transaction confers two distinctmonopolies, entirely different in their nature, in a smuch as one concerns the right to labour-made property, and the other concerns the right to purely law-made property. The one is a monopoly of the use-value of land; and the other, a monopoly of the economic rent of land. The first gives the right to keep other persons from using the land in question, or trespassing on it, and the right to exclusive possession of values accruing from the application of labour to it; values, that is, which are produced by exercise of the economic means upon the particular property in question. Monopoly of economic rent, on the other hand, gives the exclusive right to values accruing from the desire of other persons to possess that property; values which take their rise irrespective of any exercise of the economic means on the part of the landholder.” — Albert J. Nock, Our Enemy The State, 1935

    “This imperfect policy of non-intervention, or laissez-faire, led straight to a most hideous and dreadful economic exploitation; starvation wages, slum dwelling, killing hours, pauperism, coffin-ships, child-labour — nothing like it had ever been seen in modern times…People began to say, if this is what State abstention comes to, let us have some State intervention.

    “But the state had intervened; that was the whole trouble. The State had established one monopoly — the landlord’s monopoly of economic rent — thereby shutting off great hordes of people from free access to the only source of human subsistence, and driving them into factories to work for whatever Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bottles chose to give them. The land of England, while by no means nearly all actually occupied, was all legally occupied; and this State-created monopoly enabled landlords to satisfy their needs and desires with little exertion or none, but it also removed the land from competition with industry in the labor market, thus creating a huge, constant and exigent labour-surplus.” — Albert J. Nock, “The Gods’ Lookout,” 1934

  7. #20 by Keith Gardner on May 31, 2012 - 7:46 pm

    land title is a state-granted privilege or positive liberty given to the wealthy and a negative liberty or coercion for the poor.

  8. #21 by Keith Gardner on May 31, 2012 - 7:57 pm

    your royal libertarians are generally misapplying their own principles since they ignore that land title is state-granted privilege and the issue of the legal tender either as gold or as commercial bank credit is also a state-granted privilege. the government should provide it’s own legal tender as a debt-free legal instrument, a unit of exchange, and spend it into circulation to fund a minimum government. if the government selected a “free market” currency for the legal tender, it has intervened in the free market. the government should also collect land rents and distribute those land rents to the citizens as a citizen dividend and fund a minimum government since by natural law we’re all equal owners of the earth. if this is done, then, you have a true free market absent of any state-intervention. the bible describes your toil as your own and the land as his, though you must grant a redemption for the land which you hold and that the profit of the earth is for all. if you want to end slavery (taxation upon toil), you not only have to end income taxation, you also have to end the privatization of land rents and the legal tender. this is knowledge that is as old as antiquity. all the classical liberals and even milton friedman understood this. the real libertarians understand this complexity and try to address these concerns. your royal libertarians are a bunch of disgruntled republicans brainwashed by the rockefeller foundation and william volker fund austrian school of neoclassical economics, not to mentioned bilderberger banker peter thiel’s libertopia and church of scientology (nsa) funded royal libertarians.

  9. #22 by Keith Gardner on May 31, 2012 - 8:00 pm

    the royal libertarians and the austrian school of neoclassical economics was funded to block economic truth so the aristocrats can continue to steal from the toiling masses through land rents and usury upon the money supply.

  10. #23 by Keith Gardner on May 31, 2012 - 8:02 pm

    and all the negative side effects associated with such.

    • #24 by Unlearningecon on June 1, 2012 - 11:29 am

      I agree with most of your comments, but please try to keep to one comment at a time in future.

  11. #25 by Julia on June 2, 2012 - 8:05 am

    Thank you for this. I find that most libertarians live in a fantasy land. It’s like they do whatever they can to justify the tyranny of property owners, and then try to prove why property-tyranny is somehow different from state tyranny. FYI, I’m an anarchist and I reject both capitalist and state power, as I find them to be identical in every single way.

    • #26 by Unlearningecon on June 2, 2012 - 12:02 pm

      I have had libertarians actually say to me that they don’t care about hierarchies and power as long as they don’t have the word ‘state’ attached to them. Jees, at least the state has a democratic check!

  12. #27 by FrancoisDerbèFrance on June 3, 2012 - 4:09 pm

    Propertarians(american Libertarians/neoliberals) are hierarchical individualists without power…..they strive for wealth and status but they know that ,most likely,they will never have any kind of state power in their hands

  1. Milton Friedman on Corporations « Unlearning Economics