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The Trouble with Milsted

In my 2006 article The Trouble with Libertarian Activism, I criticized the views of minarchist “Libertarian” Carl Milsted. He has a followup piece, “Bridging the Two Libertarianisms,” in Liberty magazine’s December 2009 issue (available in digital form for subscribers only at present).

In my earlier piece, I had stated:

In any event, the appeal to utilitarianism is problematic on several fronts. It is, first and foremost, ethically bankrupt because it is an unproven, and indeed, false, assertion that it is justifiable to rob one man if the robbery benefits others. It is also economically incoherent because the subjective and ordinal nature of value makes it impossible even in principle to ever determine whether a given invasive action results in a “net” benefit or “surplus” (see on this Rothbard’s Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics).


In his recent article, Milsted disagrees with this. Why? Because “empathy exists.” Wow. Demonstrating his lack of understanding of Austrian economics or its dualist view of the nature of science, mired in the scientism and monism of engineerssyndrome, he writes:

There is no neatly ordered set of preferences. Indecision and buyer’s remorse are common phenomena. Successful advertisers and car salesmen build their careers on exploiting this limitation of human thought and praxeology. So why should I reject common sense in favor of an abstract philosophy based on demonstrably flawed premises?

The fact that there is empathy, and that people are more or less successful at understanding the motives and values of their fellow men does not mean that “The Austrian model of ordered preferences and diminishing marginal utility … is a crude model of human decision making.” Nor does it imply that “common sense” is somehow opposed to the basic and undeniable insights of Austrian economics into the logical structure of human action.

Milsted goes on:

But even were I to accept the anarcho-Austrians’ argument and reject all asymmetric moral calculations, I would have to reject the Zero Aggression Principle as well and opt for pacifism. Self-defense is usually an asymmetric application of force. Restraining a shoplifter is not the equivalent of shoplifting. Pulling a gun on a burglar is not equivalent to burgling.

I am not opposed to “asymmetric” moral calculations–I realize that it is impossible to ever have a “symmetrical” one and even if you had one, or one in which the beneficiaries gained more than the victim of a given redistributionist poilcy, that would not make it just: theft is immoral, even if the recipient of it gains. Prohibiting aggression does not imply pacifism. It permits force used in self-defense and retaliation. But it does not permit the aggression that Milsted wants the state to commit.

[Mises cross-post]

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{ 1 comment… add one }

  • t w v October 21, 2009, 11:14 pm

    Your take on utilitarianism does not address the approach of those individualist liberal theorists (Spencer, Hazlitt) who adopted the position, and criticizes theorems not expounded or even implied by them. In this you follow Rothbard, who never got over a simplistic reading of Bentham. But then, Spencer, too, had a simplistic (inaccurate) reading of Bentham.

    But from your quotations, I’ve no idea what Milsted is going on about. Is he extending the Bradford/Waters line of thought? It would be a pity if he did, since Liberty’s discussions of “two libertarianisms” (the Waters stuff) were mostly confused and unpromising.

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