Made in America

Libertarianism Is Very Strange

January 27, 2014

Libertarianism is on the rise, thanks in good measure to many newly politicized techies who have married their live-and-let-live views about lifestyle to leave-me-alone views about taxes and government.

I viscerally understand the libertarian mystique, but, outside the fantasy novels of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein, libertarianism does not make much anthropological or historical sense. As a philosophy, it may; one can build a coherent moral system from almost any starting point, be it God’s breath upon the waters; the first self-replicating, “selfish” gene; or autonomous individuals signing a social contract. And versions of libertarianism have a fierce logical consistency. Robert Nozick’s starting point is the “fact of our separate existences”; “there is no social entity . . . . there are only individual people.” Charles Murray proclaims, “Freedom is first of all our birthright.” America’s founding revolutionists, inhaling the earliest wafts of libertarianism in the 1700s, declared that we are created with “unalienable rights”; that is, people cannot sell themselves into slavery even if they want to, so fundamental is the independence of the individual.

Great ideas, to be sure, but historically odd ones. Clifford Geertz pointed out that “the Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique . . . center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action . . . is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.” For most of history, including Philadelphia, 1776, more humans were effectively property than free. Children, youth, women, slaves, and servants belonged to patriarchs; many patriarchs were themselves serfs to chiefs and lords. And selling oneself into slavery was routine for the poor in many societies. Most world cultures have treated the individual as a limb of the household, lineage, or tribe. We moderns abhor the idea of punishing the brother or child of a wrongdoer, but in many cultures collective punishment makes perfect sense, for each person is just part of the whole.

What difference does this history and anthropology make to libertarian arguments about the good life? Plenty. If libertarians would move real-world policy in their direction, then their premises about humans and human society should be at least remotely plausible; we are not playing SimCity here. Instead, libertarian premises arise from a worldview that was strange at its origin and is strange now, after the global triumph of liberalism.

The Western, especially American, view of autonomous selves is anomalous.

Social psychologists have demonstrated how anomalous is the Western, especially American, view of autonomous selves. For example, Americans are likelier than others to explain what happens to people as a result of their individual traits and choices, to perform better when we are allowed to choose our own tasks, to get upset if we sense a lack of personal freedom, and to care greatly about our self-esteem. Psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan synthesized much of this work in a well-received 2010 article, “The Weirdest People in the World?” They conclude that, yes, Americans are the weirdest; they are most likely to “conceive of themselves primarily as self-contained individuals . . . as autonomous agents,” rather than as “interpersonal beings intertwined with one another in social webs.” Americans, for example, seem unique in assigning babies their own rooms. That such fundamental cross-national differences persist after centuries of Western colonialism and a hundred years of American cultural hegemony testifies to the historical oddity of the libertarian premise.

The individual was not the prime mover of history, but its result. Emile Durkheim objected to “deducing society from the individual” for “we possess no knowledge that gives grounds for believing in the possibility of such a spontaneous generation.” “Collective life,” he argued, “did not arise from individual life; on the contrary, it is the latter that emerged from the former.” Libertarian thinkers have reinvented history to place the autonomous self at creation.

Of course, libertarians can concede that society preceded the individual but still argue that government was formed by contract. Spontaneous, voluntary groups grew into the minimal state, which they see as the only legitimate state. But this is also bad history. The state, as a distinguishable institution—whether Roman, Aztec, American—is distinctive, but rulership is universal, or nearly so. Chiefs, councils of elders, and “big men” all sought to monopolize power and maintain order. Government rarely if ever emerged from social contracts. (A few supra-governments emerged from contracts among lesser governments, as in Philadelphia, 1789.) Bentham thundered this point in the early days of libertarianism: “There are no such things as natural rights—no such things as rights anterior to the establishment of government.” Research explaining why rates of interpersonal violence have declined over the centuries backs this up: domestic order is necessary so that individuals can have rights against the assaults of other individuals. “The origination of governments,” Bentham continues, “from a contract is a pure fiction . . . . It never has been known to be true in any instance . . . . All governments that we have any account of have been gradually established by habit, after having formed by force.”

Libertarians can concede this, too, claiming only that their just-so story serves moral philosophy. Nozick writes, “We learn much by seeing how the state could have arisen, even if it didn’t arise that way” because he is making a moral argument. Modern Westerners do indeed endorse the principles of individual self-ownership and universal rights. We do so, however, not because the principles are self-evident but because our thoughts on the matter are the product of modern Western philosophy.

If libertarian positions cannot be justified by reasoning from history or anthropology, they might be justified by practicality: “That government which governs best governs least . . . . [indeed,] that government is best which governs not at all,” Thoreau claimed in a characteristically solipsistic declaration. (Not paying taxes was Thoreau’s way of remaining unstained by connection to slavery, yet it took big government to end slavery.) In today’s policy debates, libertarians argue that their philosophy guides us toward both more individual freedom and better collective outcomes.

Writing in Salon, Michael Lind taunted libertarians on this claim: “If your approach is so great, why hasn’t any country anywhere in the world ever tried it?” In the scramble to answer the challenge, conservative blogger Ben Domenech, quoting Robert Tracinski, points to “America itself, up to about 100 years ago,” with “no federal welfare state, no Social Security, no Medicare. . . . Life for the common man was better than it had ever been before.” Yet Domenech concedes, “Life was nowhere near as good [then] as it is for Americans today—after another century of progress.” Americans’ life expectancy, health, physical security, and living standards soared in the 20th century—not, however, because of the march of libertarianism, as Domenech insinuates, but in great measure because of the welfare state and of regulation of food, medicine, water, work safety, pollution, and so on. Personal liberty itself has also improved in the last century, with civil rights for minorities and women and broader guarantees of civil liberties. These advances, too, largely developed not against government but with it.

The American western frontier illustrates what libertarians might consider the minimal, “night watchman” state. Yet that watchman was often outgunned by desperadoes and vigilantes. The high homicide rates there and in the frontier-like quarters of 19th century American cities came down largely because a bigger state—policing—stood up. American history testifies against the libertarian thesis.

So do contemporary cross-national data using the Human Development Index, which measures a population’s well-being in terms of health, education, and wealth. The HDI, corrected for internal distribution (the Bill Gates-makes-all-Americans-look-rich factor), is typically higher in OECD nations where governments are relatively large.

Both historical and contemporary research suggests that Thoreau was wrong; the government that governs least does not govern best, whether the criterion is promoting the general welfare or promoting individual liberty. This does not mean that the converse is true, that maximal government is best. There appears to be a reasonable balancing point. We Americans seem to be below that reasonable point, and libertarianism threatens to drive us further down. Of course, Rand’s John Galt wouldn’t give a damn.

Read more: 


Libertarianism is appealing to many Americans and Canadians to a degree because it exploits philosophical tendencies that revolve around the letter "I".  This includes a spin-off of Protestant Theology(not necessarily orthodox) that implies - to acts upon the thesis that I alone interpret/develop/choose the framework of my beliefs. It also includes the perspective that I alone are responsible for my success (a pull yourself up by your bootstraps mantra) and anything that impedes that effort (taxes/regulations etc) for the aid of someone that is incapable such personal effort is an affront to my liberty and progression in search of success. Once one's identity has been supplanted in favour of Consumerism, rather than Citizenship or Faith Group or even Lineage than the deification of liberty for the purposes of consumption becomes the de facto guiding principle of libertarianism.

If you feel that you want more government control in your life for some reason, you can feel free to ask for it and receive it.

The libertarian position objects to your insistence on forcing the same on all the rest of us who would prefer otherwise. This position has been stated over and over again for 250 years. Just read Frederic Bastiat's "The Law." Short, simple, and to point.

And you seem to have completely ignored the economic arguments that favor freedom and individual rights and small government as well, which is a pretty major oversight.

"If you feel that you want more government control in your life for some reason, you can feel free to ask for it and receive it."
No, you can't. Why on earth would you think this? Unless you're talking about an election or referendum, you actually can't get more government services just by calling up your representative and requesting them.

If you feel that you want less government control in your life, you can feel free to ask for it . . . or you could if it were possible for you to give up all the benefits of government control.  Exercise your freedom to travel, but don't use the roads that my tax money built.  All you have to do is get permission from the owner of every piece of property you have to cross in getting from where you are to where you want to be.  Feel free to barter for everything you need, because you're not allowed to use our money.  Feel free to use whatever natural medicine you can find on your own property because you don't get to use the medicines that have been approved as safe and effective by the FDA.  Feel free to barricade yourself in your house and arm yourself with the weapons you barter for or make yourself because the police will not longer answer your calls for help.  I hope your septic system works very well, because you don't get to use our public sewer system.  And I hope it doesn't contaminate the groundwater because you don't get the protection of the Safe Drinking Water Act.  Need I go on?

"don't use the roads that my tax money built":  many roads were here before taxes came about - why?  They were necessary for the freedom of individuals to conduct travels.  It's not like people didn't move around until after the IRS was established.

We can still use gold, though, right?  Good, your money is going to be worlthless in the near short term.

Here's a little clue for you:  the FDA isn't all that good for you.  They simply abide by whatever crony corporation pays them the most.  Has been that way for decades.

Never had much use for the police.  Come trying to break my door down and you'll find out why.

I'd rather have a septic system than public sewer any day of the week.  And a properly working septic tank doesn't affect ground water....

Yes, you need to go learn why you don't need the gov't to wipe your arse for you.

Nice write-up on the anomoly that is libertarianism.
It's strange how our relationship with government, whether we consider ourselves libertarian or not, is so often contentious. Libertarians especially seem to view the relationship between citizen and government as necessarily hostile, a constant struggle between opposing ends. They have this in common with anarchists, although anarchists tend to be far more concerned with how government oppresses those citizens of minimal means, while the archetypal libertarian is a person of moderate or large means seeking to protect his assets and justify his hoarding. The difference - between seeking massive redistribution of wealth on the one hand, and rationalizing self-interest (hoarding) on the other - is a telling difference, and is in my opinion what makes libertarianism such an ugly philosophical position to uphold.
Of course, the obvious answer to either of these positions is to create a government which is not the enemy of the people, but one which enables and expedites the flourishing of a free and happy polity. But, like, that requires a whole lot of effort, doesn't it?

That contentiousness is not strange at all, when you consciously understand and accept the actual nature of the relationship between an individual who considers himself a "citizen" and an individual who considers himself an "authority". 
The state is simply a mental tool we use to excuse ourselves morally, for the use violence, and the threat of violence, to force others to do what we think they should do. Given that the relationship is grounded in the imposition of one individual's will over another, OF COURSE its going to be contentious. 
We spend most of our lives trying to hide this simple fact from ourselves, and each other. The sooner we stop, the sooner we can start actually working on social problems, instead of trying to make them go away, at the point of a gun.

by using the term hoarding, you loosely imply that the property of the libertarian is not exactly theirs to keep but that of the community. are you advocating the use of force to distribute others property for whatever reason you see fit? how can a person not see the government as anything but an enemy when subjected to a policy he or she see's as morally wrong? articles like the one above try to paint libertarianism as a complex ideology when in fact it's the opposite. Voluntary exchange, private property, free trade, respect for civil liberties and most of all, an aversion to the use of force, particularly when used under the guise of "for the common good".

Hoarding, A.K.A. savings, A.K.A. the capital part of capitalism. Why don't you just admit what kind of society you really want?
The government constantly proves itself to be the enemy of the people, because it is made of people who desire to control us. They spy on us, take our assets, suppress dissent, tell us how to live our lives, try to control our businesses and livelihood, dictate who we can freely associate with, etc. 
The unlected bureacracy and our elected masters treat us all as if we were just slaves on their plantation.
The obvious answer is to create a free and voluntary society where people can choose how to best pursue their own happiness, subject to the laws that protect the rights of all. But, like, that requires a whole lot of effort, doesn't it?

What a sophmoric comment!
I grew up in a time when people respected the government. When I read comments like yours I want to throw up. You, sir, are your own worst enemy.

By the same criterion democracy is anomalous, human rights are anomalous, women's rights are anamolous, laws against child labor are anamolous, etc, etc.  Hardly a very compelling argument against libertarianism.

The author seemed to be saying not that democracy et al. was more natural or mainstream than libertarianism but rather, that libertarianism was not a natural or necessary outcome of human nature. More specifically, the author critiques the presumed naturalness of hyper-individuality so central to libertarianism.

I understand what you're saying.  The author makes no coherent argument for why a theoretical system which maximizes individualism is any more "strange" than democracy was when it was first envisioned.  Short of the state of nature, any form of government could be seen as anamolous.  The debate should be: which one is the best?
I think the author was just trying to critique the idea of "natural rights," so her critiques don't go to just libertarianism but all Western philosophy grounded in rights such as life and liberty.  (Makes you wonder whether she thinks we'd be living with the ability to express ourselves so freely if these "Weirdos" of the 1700s hadn't made a dent in the order of the day.
Also, to the extent the critques raised valid points against people who say libertarianism is "natural," she creates a strawman -- no libertarians actually claim the world used to be a libertarian paradise before government destroyed everything.

"The high homicide rates there and in the frontier-like quarters of 19th century American cities came down largely because a bigger state—policing—stood up."
That myth has been pretty much decimated by those who bothered to look into it.  Check especially "The Not So Wild, Wild West" by Terry Anderson.
"yet it took big government to end slavery"
It took government for it to exist in the first place.  See esp "Fugitive Slave Law".
For the rest, painting humans of antiquity as something akin to the Borg from Star Trek, with no sense of self, and nothing but a collective brain (how did that work exactly?), is so rediculous as to disprove itself.   For goodness sake, man, even Bees and Ants accomplish their lives from a process of individualism and emergent order -- why couldn't humans?

outside the fantasy novels of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein

When a writer can't get into a second paragraph without showing his ignorance. It is time for him to find another line of work. There is a big difference between science fiction and fantasy.

Really?  It is the clearly outdated ancient concepts of Communitarianism  that is strange, indeed.  In my half
centruy on earth, the most most important thing I have learned to have a great fear of the government: judge,
jury and excecution all roled into one.

Ok, read the rest of it.
It's one big dose of naturalistic fallacy.
Wonder what all you progressives would say if the same logic were applied to civil rights, women's rights, gay rights. . . ?
Oh, right. Y'all loudly condemmed such.

I like that he admitted that the libertarian views are consistently honest.  (Fierce logical consistency.)
But, he must be outa your mind!  You took the well worn garbage of Thomas Hobbes, the state is an artificial man that preceeds individuals, and all individuals owe their life to the state and spewed it in the name of "society".  Then for the fun of it added many arguments that John C. Calhoun spit out in favor of slavery circa 1800's America. 
Hey Fischer, you are  slave to the state.  So since you gave up your humanity, you are trying to convince others that they should?  You little, litte, man with such a little, little, mind.  I think you should crawl back under the desk in the oval office.  Say hi to Monica while you are down there.

Claude S. Fischer is correct that libertarianism is a product “made in America”.
In other respects, his understanding of what libertarians think and want is quite risible. I know because I am one of those “weird libertarians” and I can’t help wonder what a discussion of libertarianism has to do with the army of straw men that Fischer has assembled for his article.
Libertarianism is a “prescriptive” philosophy of man’s relationship to the state. Ii does not make “descriptive” claims (like Marxism, or Boasian anthropology).  Libertarianism has no theory of the individual role (contra collective) in history.  Libertarianism is not a great-man theory of history (cf. Carlyle, Nietzsche) and makes no claims at all regarding the historical role of individuals.
Without donating more time than necessary, I’ll mention only a few of his most irrelevant or misleading assertions.
Since libertarianism does not explain historical processes, you will find no libertarians legitimizing the state with the theory that “government was formed by contract”.
 Since libertarianism is not about history, the claim that libertinism is “bad history” is strange. But not more strange than enlisting Jeremy Bentham to attack libertarianism. Libertarians view the moral-relativism embedded in Bentham’s utilitarianism as axiomatically evil. Seeking Bentham’s opinion of liberations is like asking a cannibal to evaluate veganism!
While libertarians do not claim “better collective outcomes”, we can point to belter individual outcomes.  For example, if we adopted Fischer’s method of argument, we could claim that OECD nations are richest because they are freest -- not richest because they have more government (as Fischer ludicrously asserts).  However, libertarians do not need to make those kinds of arguments, because libertarians assert that principles are more important than outcomes.
Our “made in America” libertarian philosophy is a philosophy of government, and as such, it does not seek to compete with your basic beliefs, religion, or moral code.  No one is too dumb, too rich, too poor or too educated to understand and perhaps embrace libertarianism. 

"Libertarians assert that principles are more important than outcomes."
I really wish you'd elaborate on this. Why would a person take this position? Are there any outcomes to wit which would possibly trump principles?
Thank you.

I'm the captain of my life. I have only one. I should be permitted to do what *I* choose to do to the greatest extent possible.
I would hope that's pretty much every educated persons position in Western society. The squabbling comes down to where you draw the line with regards to "greatest extent possible." Libertarians favor a much larger universe of "the possible" than others. Nothing strange about it at all.

Man is not the measure of all things. That Sophistry has returned to poison Western thinking should be obvious to any educated person in Western society. We do not create the world, nor society: we are born into a world and a culture we do not determine nor create.
Sophistry is not the birth of Freedom, democracy and ethics in Western thought: the rejection of Sophistry and its attenuated, utterly irrational and immoral selfishness and self-centredness is.
If you are Captain of your Life then I guess you don't pay tax, obey laws and everyone else salutes you. Is that what life is really like for you?

As a libertarian I would agree that the idea that an individual is autonomous is a historical anomaly; however, I would argue that the march of history is away from the idea that the individual is only part of a whole and towards the view that the individual is autonomous. The principle accomplishment of individualism has been that it forces others, regardless of their power, to recognize that other people are not simply Sims.
Libertarianism as a philosophy takes this idea, that no individual regardless of their bearing on society has any more rights than any other, and applies it to the relationship between individuals and government. Government, in the libertarian view, is not atop society to direct its course but within it to protect its members.
While history may seemingly be bereft of "free" societies it is littered with the horrors of authoritarian cultures. That history alone encourages me to aspire to a more, not less, libertarian future.

What an odd article.  I fail to grasp your object, unless it is another in a series of liberal pats-on-the-back contra libertarianism.
The idea that libertarianism does not reflect historical human norms and is thus "strange" is, i guess, a reasonable take, but I do not see how it follows that libertarian ideas smoehow fall short or are unworkable relative to the liberal mega-state.  Neither history nor anthropology need to justify a philosophy; as you note, slavery is very much an age-old human institution and yet you do not castigate libertarianism for its position there.  Lind's disappointing article is based on a thoroughly silly premise - one could make the same argument for women's suffrage in 1900 or for slavery in 1300.  Mankind and our institutions evolve as our thinking and capabilities do.  And, unsurprisingly, a philosophy that advocates a weaker central state unquestionably will have trouble overcoming existing powerful central states and their supporting interests in order to prosper.  That does not invalidate the philosophy.
Liberals seem to focus exclusively on an (inaccurate) view of libertarianism as a ruthlessly selfish individualism, disregarding the fact that the central premises of the philosophy are of individual liberty and non-initiation of force - neither of which require selfishness.  It is easy to throw rocks at those defending their indivudal liberty and property and overlook the fact that they are similarly defending the sovereignty of you and yours.  That libertarianism recognizes the inherent threat of force in any government action does not somehow render it "weird".  Good people can differ about how broadly that force is used "for the greater good" (meaning by the majority against the minority) but it does not seem nonsensical on its face to make the argument that there are very, very few cases where such force is justified.  Derisive articles such as this one do little to encourage what should be a productive discussion between adherents of philosophies that do share some common beliefs.

They will give sociology PhDs to anyone today it seems. It's risible that you believe that taking a few quotes out of context is somehow making a cogent argument. You say libertarianism is unworkable because it is rare in world history, but so are freedoms and rights for women. Would you argue against those? It is as ignorant a statement as saying that libertarianism can't work because it's never been tried before. That food can't be good because no one has ever made it before. That technology can't work because no one has invented it before. Do you see yet how ignorant this line of reasoning sounds? There may not have been a purely libertarian state before, but there have been advances in liberty and we can see that everywhere it is tried it results in better outcomes. Socialism and communism have been tried in large scale and the results are disastrous. Every problem you claim that big government has solved was created in the first place by big government. You cannot ascibe the higher standards of living and longer life spans to big government. They are afforded by increases in technology, which are brought about by the free market and individuals. How are OECD governments relatively large? Relative to what? Certainly not to despotic third world countries or the former soviet bloc. This whole article is nothing more than pronouncements without proof and obfuscation. Of course you end by calling your beliefs reasonable, while implying that everyone else is just crazy. 

" If libertarians would move real-world policy in their direction, then their premises about humans and human society should be at least remotely plausible; we are not playing SimCity here. Instead, libertarian premises arise from a worldview that was strange at its origin and is strange now, after the global triumph of liberalism."
What's strange about thinking people are actually individuals?  I mean you regard yourself as an individual, you regard your wife, children, employees, customers as individuals.  You don't regard other people (I presume) as property or something that should be treated as property.  So why is it a problem that libertarianism doesn't?  

Let's see, poisoning the well from the very start. A bunch of is-ought fallacies. Only a cursory reference to one 20th century figure of libertarianism, more poisoning the well, ayn rand mentioned twice. Some crude non-sequiturs.
This here is an article not written to confront libertarians, because it's very well laughable - but to keep your fellow leftists fearful. You're afraid of more liberals growing weary of your paternalist government finger-waging and turning to libertarianism. Unlike articles like this, the scholarly work of libertarians talks to them like they're adults. If they want to be talked to like idiots, sure they can go to MSNBC or Boston Review.
You see, you can't simply address all of libertarianism in an article, it would take a great deal of essays and academic rigor. This would have to come after you've thoroughly researched their work, such as Hayek, Rothbard, or Friedman. You'd have to provide case studies that show that not only have you found a sound exception, but one that is both suitable on morality and in terms of utility. Something tells me that with all the fluff you've included, such academic rigor is well beyond your grasp.  You are a lazy writer, and an even worse academic. Though I'd still love to see any number of living libertarian scholars cut this article to ribbons.

I left my native country because of its socialism, and emigrated to America. I can tell you based on personal experience that socialism sucks. Libertarianism and Classical Liberalism are the mirror image of socialism in that they put the individual above the state. The better collective outcomes that come from liberty are a natural and awesome side-effect.
If socialism and collectivism are so awesome, why is it that so few Americans have become Russian, Chinese, or Indian citizens? Why is it that so many Russians, Chinese, and Indians have become Americans?

And so many Swedes, Danes. Norwegians, Finns, have not. Oops, except many did become Americans! But that was before their countires liberal social democracies.

Hey I'm curious, what country did you come from?

For those skeptical of libertarianism, you might find the following resources of interest.
1) The first is a paper by philosopher Mario Bunge, Ten Modes of Individualism--None of Which Works--And Their Alternatives
It's an excellent argument that sheds much light on how much the common libertarian belief in the radical autonomy of the individual is a poorly thought out myth.  Arriving at an adequate understanding of how much we're liberated and constrained, attached to or separate from, others and the environment, is not a simple task.  Inquiry into this must be open and capable of self-correction.
But this is not the program of libertarianism.  Libertarianism absolutely is not a philosophy that sets itself the task of open-ended, scientific inquiry into the nature of humanity or the systems we create.  It's not capable of fundamental correction or rethinking when confronted with new evidence.  It's a belief system, an ideology, even a kind of secular religion with more than a few hints of fundamentalism.  And all too often it's a belief system that trades upon insecurities.  Become a libertarian and you too can be like your Randian hero fighting against the herd.  Become a libertarian and you can crown yourself one of the non-slaves, one of the daring few who has the Truth about "freedom." 
2) The best resource anywhere on the errors of libertarianism is the Critiques of Libertarianism page:
It's an incredibly impressive library of resources that should be in any anti-libertarian's bookmarks.

This article itself is considerably stranger; the author does realize, I hope, that in the guise of an attack on the minority philosophy of libertarianism (as a set of extreme minimalistic prescriptions concerning the role of government) he's actually challenging the basic premises of Western liberal thought, with which plenty even on the contemporary left would more or less reflexively agree, dating back to the Enlightenment? It's quite possible to believe that individuals have value outside their role as an appendage of whatever communal unit (!), and that it is an independent good to assure them the maximal possible amount of choice in their lives, while also supporting increased government subsidies for, say, education or medical care on the grounds that these will actually ensure that more people end up with the practical ability to make significant choices about their lives than would be the case in a night watchman state. Conversely, though, if you take away the idea that an individual's right to determine to the greatest possible extent the direction of his or her life has value, you've made a fairly serious dent in some of the best moral arguments in favor of freedom of speech, representative government, the rights of women to enter non-traditional occupations, gay rights, civil liberties ... Does the author spend a lot of time in (enlightened, non-American) social circles where people are nostalgic for the days of collective punishment? Because it seems to me that he's quite inadvertantly paid libertarianism a large compliment in this article, and I say this as someone who doesn't usually support libertarian social policies.    

The argument from history is false. The strong strand of individualism in Islam, for instance, is derived from Arab tribalism where people lived much as the libertarians presuppose is the ideal state.

In a society as envisaged by libertarians, there would be, I take it, not much function for a state beyond protection of property rights and external defence. I this is the case, I am curious what position its advocates take on the following problem. Please don’t take this as a provocation, libertarians; I suppose you would have an answer, and I really want to know what it is.

In such a society, an individual lucky enough to enjoy an economic surplus above his needs for subsistence, would be able to invest it- to buy himself additional wealth-generating capability, and additional control of his economic environment. He would accordingly grow richer, at a rate proportional to the current size of his surplus.
Correspondingly, an individual with income less than subsistence can only survive by taking on ever-increasing debt.

Obviously, there will be individuals who will break this iron law- either upwards, by extreme efforts, or downward through unwise investments; but generally, it is the way to bet.

So in our libertarian society, it seems to me inevitable that generally, the rich will get richer, and the poor will get poorer without limit (except that imposed by starvation).

The ability to inherit wealth will, of course extend this process across generations.

My question is- Do advocates of libertarianism either-
1. Deny that this will happen? (If this is the case, I would be glad to understand what will stop it.)
2.  See nothing objectionable in it?
3. Have some mechanism in mind to damp out this inherent instability.  I find it hard to imagine such a mechanism which would not cost some loss of liberty.

Please see the Libertarian International Organization at and especially things like OPERATION DIGNITY to understand how Libertarians offer tools to address such issues.
It may help to realize Libertarians advocate legalizing an ideal Libertarian eco-community where people have e.g. inalieanable self-sustaining property, but also a wide choice of rights-based societies so people can develop solutions suited to their interests.

Here's the deal: I disagree with the author on many points, though I'm not really a hardcore libertarian myself.  The real world is a balancing act between the needs of the individual and good of society.  Socialists and libertarians tip the scale too far one way or the other.  I don't agree with the author's tone in terms of our country's weirdness but the article does help refute the myths of how we were so much more free in the past.
I think libertarianism's Achilles heel is that it only recognizes government tyranny, while ignoring corporate tyranny, the tyranny of the majority, etc.  This is part of the balancing act we'll forever be working to perfect while ideological purists wring their hands and write blog posts about how awful the world is now.

<p class="rtejustify">The stupidity of this argument and those of many of the responses need only be answered by reading todays CBO report on the disaster that is Obamacare. Who will mourn for the loss of over two million jobs placed at the alter of the State. No it is the totally absurdity of the progressive/liberal mind that presumes that the collective is a gestalt. The State has killed more people than would ever have died, just in the 20th century and perhaps since the start of the one so ingloriously begun 14 years ago, than would ever die in a free, truly libertarian society where community and charity are provide the support for the indigent. Know the hubris of humanity always leads to far worse like Icarus we will always put our faith in either the political crony egomaniacs that lead this dumbed down civilization or in the totally false assumption that complex adaptive systems can even be effectively managed by even the smartest and wisest amongst us. Unfortunately, the current political system is one based on the Peter Principal on steroids, it is a catastocrocy-only the most corrupt, narcissistic and dangerously arrogant rise to positions of power. I am not going to debate the issues of libertarianism, but true libertarian belief does not preclude charity, laws or many of the trappings of government--Ayn Rand is not an example on one as Roosevelt was really not &quot;of the left&quot; by any means. It also means the end of war, of empire and the millions and millions that have died already this century and will continue to die as long as the Leviathan is considered humankind ultimate achievement.&nbsp;</p>

OK, since I have written several books on this, addresssing all the points the professor raises and then some, I will just point out that this missive is so lopsided, so unscholarly that it is sad to see a UCB professsor allow it to go out under this name.  Where are Hayek, Epstein, Sowell, and hundreds of others who are bassically libertarian being discussed and critcized here?  Nowhere.  But of course this is a piece aiming to disparage rather than analyze or even critique.

Tibor: We would love to have a piece in BR from you called "Not Strange At All," in which you identify and address the central flaws. I do not agree that Claude's piece is simply disparaging but I absolutely agree that there is MUCH to be said by way of illuminating criticism of it. Send us 800-1000 words. Would be great to have them.

Claude Fischer essentially make the claim that we libertarians are strange because our forebears can be shown to have make incorrect representations of how governments arise.  I'll give him that on Locke.  But governments really arose as the predation of brutes, (Read the Epic of Gilgamesh for a window on the ancient "nobility" of government.) and advanced into greater organization to increase the capacity of the brutes to plunder their own people.  That has a remarkably market-oriented twist to it, by the way...

But are we strange because we see individual freedom to self-direct and to act on local knowledge as a good thing governments should protect? 
Are we really strange because we have the logical consistency to understand that government has a tendency to become organized crime?
Are we really being strange if we recognize that "governing" is something best done least, as Thoreau claims, which really means we are sufficiently civilized not to need coercing into good behavior?
Are we strange to realize that "government" is no less a form of control of capital than any other form or corporation?
Are we strange to realize that volunteer organizations and societies offer much more opportunity for social experiment and novel solutions than the self-concious "intelligence" of governments?
Are we strange to realize that the obsolescence of all the other governments on the face of the Earth at the inception of the U.S. Constitution is what led to the novelties that make some people imagine America did not do well to so radically redefine government.  Is it strange, then to notice it is in the wake of our falling back from the perch of governmental innovation that we are finding ourselves repeatedly in doldrums?

Yes.  We are strange.  If you never venture from the Shire it is easy enough to look askance at those who have adventures.  And you can live in comfort knowing you will never see a dragon.
Until it is eating you.

The view that we are not the property of others may be scary to certain minds which are too accustomed to slavery, but it is not an entirely Western idea; Lao Tse recognized that too much slavery is a bad thing; that "where there are many laws, there are many criminals." The Chinese have a saying, "the Mountain is high, the Emperor is far away," which shows their attitude toward slavery and tyranny, two sides of the same coin: a condition which must be tolerated when Power is near, but otherwise imay be ignored. But Power always has a contingent of apparatchiks and defenders and bootlickers to aid its work. 

"Americans, for example, seem unique in assigning babies their own rooms. That such fundamental cross-national differences persist after centuries of Western colonialism and a hundred years of American cultural hegemony testifies to the historical oddity of the libertarian premise."

COULD THIS BE because Americans are rich and have homes with enough rooms for each of their kids unlike people in poorer parts of the world (you know, ones without capitalist systems).

An academic has a responsibility to do his research. Instead Dr. Fischer quotes non-Libertarians. Some of the commenters do as well.
To get started I suggest the Libertarian International Organization at These are the agendas and tools used by millions of Libertarians and fans in every country. Enjoy!

"Spontaneous, voluntary groups grew into the minimal state, which they see as the only legitimate state."
I think a better explanation would be from Rose Wilder Lane's "the Discovery of Freedom". Human civilization began as a depressing North Korea type hero worship situation where the Pharoah was God and your entire life was doomed to be whatever it was when you were born and so forth. She shows how people like Moses, Jesus, Muhammed etc freed people but also gave them the responsiblity to take care of themeselves. Moses leading people from slavery is a good example. Anyone could have simply returned to Egypt and been fed three meals a day if they would sacrifice their dignity.
so libertarianism isn't about returning to the past it's about escaping from it. (The liberal explanation of the advancement of society is the opposite: we were all barbarians until the state grew and taught people to behave then this somehow created the telegraph and the Beatles! I don't really know their interpretation actually. )
The United States was built on these same ideas, that human potential is best reached through freedom and people being given space. Various inventions and ideas such as versions of the airplane had been around for centuries but not pursued for various reasons one could imagine: not resources, superstition, politics, etc
Besides "Discovery of Freedom" I would reccomend Walter Block's Defending the Undefendable.

"We Americans seem to be below that reasonable point, and libertarianism threatens to drive us further down."

The author is severely delusional. America has more laws, regulations, taxes, mandates, bureaus, departments, branches, agencies, and other apparatus of the government than ever before - and we are below the author's preferred level of government power?

Thanks for your clear an articulate observations about libertariainism.  Unbridled self-interest has infected this nation as a sickness that if not treated as the disease it is will reduce the country to political rubble.

Is there anything more intriguingly bizarre than discussing issues with Libertarians? You feel like you are talking to 21 year old kid high on pot. You get the sense his sense of objecrive reality is dependent upon his warped sense.... oh that's right. It is.

"Modern Westerners do indeed endorse the principles of individual self-ownership and universal rights. We do so, however, not because the principles are self-evident but because our thoughts on the matter are the product of modern Western philosophy."


Yes, and so, libertarians are putting the cart before the horse on the matter of rights. Some kind of government or authority must exist in order to create "rights" because rights are a legal term. Lacking some kind of authority (such as government) what Libertarians call "rights" are mere metaphysical musings that require a social consensus -- which, clearly does not exist, has never existed, and cannot exist. The proof is that there is no historical precedent which, if the right of "self ownership" is as "self evident" as claimed, there would be no need for government because the world would be a peaceful place, people going about their business without causing harm to anyone else in their pursuit of freedom and manifesting their autonomy. This is laughable, not in its ideal (John Lennon touched on a similar platitude in his song "Imagine") but in its lack of understanding of human nature and social organization (culture).


Bentham is correct that rights are not natural but social and so the idea that a individual merely acts out his "natural" inclinations, as long as he doesn't harm anyone else, (the question of harm is NOT for the individual causing the harm to determine, but the victim and ultimately the society because we don't live as individuals relating only individually to others, we act based as members of a society, condition by social norms (inherited culture) and incentives  that are a result of social context, not individual imagination. Not so called "free will."


Nozick commits a non sequitur when he reasons that because we are minds in separate bodies, that we therefore are bioogically autonomous.  That reasoning goes only so far and doesn't require mere philosophical reasoning but science, biology, to nuance the point. We are social creatures who have developed biologically and culturally in a way that makes us INTERDEPENDENT, not independent, not isolated. In fact, the more independent we become, the more isolated and the more isolated, the more mental health problems. Because we are separated by others biologically is precisely why we create society and culture and so becomes an argument less for autononmy and more for forging social connection.


For example, a society's art is very important in its understanding of itself (as a group, not individualistically; no one but an insane person lacking empathy defines himself completely on his own terms). As much variety as we have in arts, the theme running through our art is that we are interdependent, that we care about others. We empathize. Writers create characters where they empathically imagine the lives of others. Musicians write music that resonates with, that "moves" others. Our lovers, friends and family mean a lot to us. If we were simply autonomous separate minds we would not make the kinds of social connections that are NECESSARY to us. Libertarians don't understand the importance of institutions or how they're created. Francis Fukuyama in his excellent recent book The Origins of Political Order talks about how institutions, governemnts and states are created, not out of mere theorzing -- as libertarians do -- but as a result of the complexity of culture and how a society perceives its needs at a given time. We have inherited a certain libertarian concept of ourselves in relation to our government which is good and bad. The founders were rightly wary of authority of government and so created a government with lots of checks and balances. What they didn't do was NOT create government at all and simply say, everyone for himself. Why? They easily could have assuming that it is possible at all. It isn't and libertarians should learn more about the origins of politcal order and stop causing HARM -- yes harm -- to those of us who want a government more responsive to average people and not just to the elites which, wittingly or not, the libertarians are aiding the oligarchs in THEIR pursuit of freedom which doesn't amount to freedom for the rest of us. I could go on and on about these ignornat fools.

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