The Trouble with Libertarianism

Edward Feser has an interesting piece at TCS entitled, “The Trouble with Libertarianism.” His basic thesis is that

it simply isn’t true that libertarianism is neutral between various moral and religious worldviews, notwithstanding that most libertarians would like to believe (indeed do believe) that it is. The reason, as it turns out, is that there is no such thing as “libertarianism” in the first place: it would be more accurate to speak in the plural of “libertarianisms,” a variety of doctrines each often described as “libertarian,” but having no common core, and each of which tends in either theory or practice to favor some moral worldviews to the exclusion of others.

While he is certainly correct that “libertarianism” is a collection of people with very different value systems, I disagree that there are multiple “libertarianisms.” There are two significant flaws in Feser’s argument. First, he lumps in proto-libertarians, centuries-old philosophers who had some ideas that later became part of the libertarian worldview, into the mix. Second, he confuses private morality with state regulation. This is rather odd, in that his starting definition is reasonable enough:

“Libertarianism” is usually defined as the view in political philosophy that the only legitimate function of a government is to protect its citizens from force, fraud, theft, and breach of contract, and that it otherwise ought not to interfere with its citizens’ dealings with one another, either to make them more economically equal or to make them more morally virtuous.

Feser counts John Locke as a libertarian on the basis that he believed in some fundamental human rights–mainly, private property and some modicum of religious freedom–that he considered outside the power of a legitimate government to regulate. While those notions are certainly part of the modern libertarian worldview, Hobbes’ libertarian instinct stopped there. Indeed, he was a die-hard statist otherwise. The notion of the Leviathan was that, ungoverned, men who descend into a brutal anarchy and that, therefore, government must regulate.

He next moves to Friedrich Hayek, who he correctly notes “was perhaps the foremost champion of the free society and the market economy in the 20th century. He was also firmly committed to the proposition that market society has certain moral presuppositions that can only be preserved through the power of social stigma. In his later work especially, he made it clear that these presuppositions concern the sanctity of property and of the family, protected by traditional moral rules which restrain our natural impulses.” Here, Feser commits the second flaw noted above: confusing Hayek’s moralism with government action. One can be a libertarian–believing government has no right to regulate moral conduct that does not create significant externalities–and still believe that some moral conduct outside the scope of government regulation is inappropriate. Shunning those whom one finds contemptible can have a chilling effect on private action, to be sure. But liberty works both ways: One’s right to be a drunken lout without being arrested does not take away your neighbor’s right to think you’re a jerk and not wish to associate with you.

Private moralism and even intolerance are not incompatible with political libertarianism. There are all sorts of things that I find distasteful or even wrong that I nonetheless believe outside the legitimate role of the state. For example, I think prostitution and use of hard drugs are morally inappropriate and would not associate myself with people engaged in those activities. Simulaneously, I believe both fall within the scope of private conduct that government should not regulate other than with respect to externalities. So, for example, snorting cocaine should be legal but driving while stoned should not.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Political Theory, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Joseph Marshall says:

    Whenever I read “libertarian” speculations, such as the one’s you’ve linked to, James, I always get the same giddy feeling I used to have when reading the old book Flatland.

    It always seems to me that the discussion proceeds from the the assumption that society merely consists of equal sized marbles in a bag (known as “individuals”) aggregated by chance into functional groups known as “families” and in possession of various distinguising marks on the marble-glass known as “property”.

    This bears only the most tenuous resemblence to society as we actually find it. Consider, for example, the ficticious legal “persons” we call corporations and the “property” they have title to.

    The property of Microsoft Inc. fits the same literal dictionary definition as my postage stamp of a lawn with its two bedroom house and my personal possessions down to my vintage underwear, but it clearly does not function in society in the same way. And “protecting” the one does not carry the same social meaning or results as “protecting” the other.

    If society were simply an aggregation of relatively equivalent individuals distributed over a relatively level playing field (something like the beginning of a Monopoly game), the libertarian position would command my respect and, quite possibly, even my alliegience.

    But society simply isn’t like that and libertarianism is not so much in error as idealized rules for a game we are not playing.