This is a compilation of my objections to the main arguments of right-libertarians (or propertarians) done as an FAQ (based on the fact that my FAQ for economists was pretty popular). I hope here to persuade libertarians that things are more complicated than their framework, neat as it is, implies. Whether it will succeed is another question.
Writing these arguments revealed an interesting recurrence: once the libertarian framework is picked apart, the debate collapses back to where it’s always been. The various binary distinctions libertarians make (voluntary/coercive, government/market, positive/negative liberty) fall apart upon critical inspection, and we then have to take things on a case by case basis in the fuzzy world of morality, trade offs and so forth. It strikes me that the libertarian framework tries to provide easy answers, to side step this debate.
What do you have against liberty? Why do you statists always try to rationalise ways to control our lives?
Slow down! If everyone who criticises you is automatically the bad guy, that doesn’t leave much room for productive debate, does it? For what it’s worth, I’d characterise libertarians as those who are so skeptical of the state that they think it should only protect the most powerful, but that’s no reason to dismiss them as the bad guys before we’ve even started. But more on that later – for now, just try not to assume I am Stalin reincarnated.
But libertarianism is about liberty. What justification do you have for infringing on liberty?
Again, this attitude leaves open the actual question of whether libertarianism really does improve individual liberty. Libertarians generally distinguish between positive and negative liberty, where positive liberty is the freedom to command resources to realise certain ends, while negative freedom is the extent to which one is (or isn’t) constrained by other moral actors. Since a low degree of positive freedom is, unfortunately, imposed by nature, the only things humans as moral actors can do is ensure we don’t restrict people’s negative liberty.
However, this distinction is functionally meaningless. A starving man at a shop cannot take food because he will be arrested or at least kicked out – he is constrained by another moral actor. The libertarian might reply that property rights helped create that resource, so the starving man is no worse off than he would have been without property rights. The my first response to this is “so what?” It doesn’t change the functional relationship between the starving man and the food, and begs the question of whether we can harness the resource-creating power of property rights to create more just outcomes. Or just let the guy have some food through redistribution.
Taxes are theft! Why do you think you can steal from people?
First, it would be easy to turn the question of wealth creation raised in the last section around on libertarians and ask exactly how the government can be said to ‘steal’ resources that its own actions created. A large amount of innovation has its roots in government research and development, and many of the institution upon which capitalism is built are state-backed. These are the facts; going into unverifiable counterfactuals about how things would be better with ‘less’ government is just speculation. The moral question of whether government should ‘intervene’ is undermined by the fact that it already has.
Even more importantly, the pretax income distribution cannot necessarily be thought of as some amoral ‘baseline’ into which the government ‘intervenes’. The enforcement of property rights, contracts and the prevention of force, fraud and theft does not avoid significant political decisions. For example, implied contracts are an incredibly tricky area of law; so are intellectual and environmental property rights, where the nature of the property itself raises difficult questions. Ownership of some things (votes, people, identities) is generally prohibited, as are certain contracts (slavery, murder-suicide pacts, anything entered into by children/the mentally ill). Political decisions about these issues, and many more like them, will involve value judgments, historical path dependence, and sometimes be somewhat arbitrary. And this will all influence patterns of production, distribution and exchange. There is no neutral ‘baseline’ distribution, and there is no way of keeping politics out of distribution. A similar argument can be made about individual choice.
But if distribution results from voluntary actions, then what is the problem?
There are a few major problems I have with the ‘voluntarist’ perspective:
First, saying that existing actions are ‘voluntary’ takes the existing social structure as a given. I was born in the UK, and I ‘voluntarily’ opted to go to university; if I had been born in certain areas of China, a libertarian would argue that I ‘voluntarily’ consented to working in a sweatshop. But obviously my actions are dependent on the circumstances in which I found myself, and an argument to change those circumstances is independent of whether people’s actions are deemed ‘voluntary’ in any given situation. (This is short of banning things, physically restraining people and so forth).
Second, there is the binary distinction between ‘voluntary’ and ‘coerced’ action, which leads to a lot of problems. Using it, I could argue that nobody in the developed world is really ‘forced’ to obey the law, because they could move country. Obviously it would be silly to say this: one can’t expect people to uproot themselves from their family, friends, location and career, so functionally people do not have much choice about obeying laws. Another example of the limitations of the libertarian line of argument is that one could use it to frame the decision not to obey the law as a ‘voluntary trade off’ between, say, prison and the alternative.
A better way to think of the distinction between voluntary and involuntary action is as a spectrum. We might consider the degree to which someone’s action is voluntary as how much it is influenced by factors outside the persons/objects involved in the immediate decision. Under such criteria, few actions can be considered truly ‘voluntary’; there are always outside influences on decisions, however small or large. At the less significant end of the spectrum we might have travel costs; we might then go through peer pressure, then, for workers, the threat of poverty. We would end up at something like the threat of being killed or tortured. The extent to which actions are voluntary must be considered on a case by case basis; we cannot just make a binary distinction and apply one size fits all based policies on this basis.
The third voluntarist argument I take issue with is the Nozickean justice principle most libertarians implicitly or explicitly respect. It is based on the idea that if voluntary actions led to a situation, that situation must be just. This problem is perhaps best illustrated within one of Robert Nozick’s own thought experiments: the Wilt Chamberlain example (as it goes, this is also a situation where one could accurately describe the agent’s behaviour as purely voluntary). Nozick suggests that if everybody at a basketball game volunteered to pay Wilt Chamberlain a small amount of money, the end result would be a vastly unequal income distribution, but since everybody had donated ‘voluntarily,’ there would be no problem regarding the justness of the outcome.
But while it is true that everybody at the basketball volunteered to donate their own money, it is not true that they agreed to anyone else donating money, and it is certainly not true that they all agreed to everyone collectively donating a fortune. The principle is actually based on a subtle switch from individually voluntary choices to collectively voluntary ones, one which doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The libertarian may reply that the choices of others are none of my/other’s/the state’s business. But if the inequality has pernicious effects (which is a separate issue) then it is very much everyone’s business. Since the voluntarist principle cannot be applied collectively, we are back to discussing the effects of inequality. This disparity between individual choices and collective outcomes is the reason we have voting, political movements and so forth to help.
Politics? Don’t you know any public choice theory? Democracy is a sham!
Well, modern democracy is probably a sham. But overall, public choice theory is simply refuted by the evidence, something that people do not note nearly often enough. Political scientists have known – and empirically confirmed – that voters and politicians mostly act in what they perceive to be the public interest, rather than for selfish gains. This isn’t to say that there is no truth to public choice theory, but evidence suggests it is more appropriate to model politicians and voters as public servants who are buffeted by special interest than as selfish maximisers who occasionally stumble upon a beneficial policy. The result is that democracy is far more effective a tool for translating collective interests into policy than libertarians might suggest.
But government action, democratic or not, rests on the initiation of force. When is that ever justified?
The special status libertarians accord to ‘force’ falls apart even on its own terms. For the fact is that most laws are not actually enforced by force, but by credible threat of force. These are, by definition, two different things. I know that if I try to go into a night club without permission, the bouncers will stop me or drag me out. This isn’t the same experience, and doesn’t have the same moral implications, as them actually dragging me out when I do run in. The relationship between the individual and the law can also be applied to laws libertarians approve of: to argue that credible threat of force is the same as force is to argue that people are constantly the object of coercion due to what they can and can’t do because of other’s property rights. Overall, the reduction of all laws to someone forcing you to do things at gunpoint is a stretch to say the least.
However, this is not the only problem with the focus on ‘force’. Even if we take the word ‘force’ at face value, it is irrelevant, because which laws we decide to use – where ‘force’ is justified – rest on theories of justice, and of who owns what and why. Taxation is only ‘initiating force’ if you believe you own your pretax income; if you don’t, it is evading tax that is an act of aggression. Hence the discussion collapses into theory of justice, distributive or otherwise.
Regardless of force, governments cannot know better than individuals/the market. So why should they intervene?
The framing of governments versus markets is largely a false dichotomy. I have already noted the inevitable political decisions that go with even what libertarians consider their baseline institutions. Beyond this, there are laws such as immigration, limited liability, laws that define shares and protect shareholders, laws that define companies, and so forth. These so-called ‘interventions’ do not require a government to ‘know better’ than any one individual; they were defined to have a systemic impact that cannot be enforced by any individual or group of individuals. Furthermore, the question of where we draw the line between ‘intervention’ and ‘the market’ is up for debate. Or it doesn’t really exist.
Even if the government backs the institutions required for markets, it sucks wealth out of the economy to do this. Hence, it should do as little as possible, right?
Saying ‘governments can’t create wealth’ is a sweeping, largely vacuous statement based on a superficial zero sum view of taxation as being ‘extracted’ from the private sector. In fact, taxation is just one prong of a symbiotic relationship that exists between the private and public sectors. If we take the definition of wealth as the creation of valuable resources, it’s clear that, say, teaching and infrastructure ‘create wealth.’ We’ve already seen just how large a source of wealth the government can be through its funding of research and development. Furthermore, many state-backed institutions are historically a prerequisite for substantial wealth creation to take place at all. Again, obscure, selectively interpreted examples like Medieval Iceland, or speculative counterfactuals about what things would be like without the government are ahistorical wishful thinking. Give me a clear example of capitalism as we know it coming out of nowhere and I’ll give you the time of day.
That reminds me – you seem to be primarily referencing minarchist libertarians. What about anarcho-capitalism?
Anarcho-capitalist, as far as I’m aware, have yet to answer exactly what a landowner is if not a de facto state. A state is defined over a particular territory, and (theoretically) has control over what happens in that territory. Ownership is also defined as having control over an object; in the case of land, this quite clearly leads to each land owner effectively being a sovereign state, however small. People do not have a ‘choice’ of whether they exist on land, and nobody created land, so there is no justification for those with ‘the biggest gun’ controlling it, while those without land are at their whims.
The extremely unsatisfactory response that, for some reason, everyone would respect the libertarian ideal and not engage in force, fraud and theft is really just wishful thinking. I can’t help but wonder what libertarians would say if a socialist made a similar argument about people suddenly becoming angels under socialism. Similarly, any response that centered on how landowners would be competitively inclined to do Good Things could equally be applied to states, so would be an exercise in special pleading.
OK, maybe you’re not Stalin. Do you have anything else worthwhile to say?
Probably not, but just in case, here are some more of my posts on libertarianism:
See here for more on the flawed positive/negative liberty distinction.
See here for a discussion of the problems with seeing ‘government’ as a homogeneous, all-encompassing entity.
See here for my criticism of libertarian’s perceptions of individual choice.
See here for a more detailed discussion of the faulty government/market dichotomy.