One Will Moyer recently penned The Limits of Libertarianism, which has gotten some attention among libertarians, and critics thereof, on Facebook and various blogs. In the article, Moyer, who implies that he is an ex-libertarian, makes various characterizations of, statements about, and criticisms of libertarianism, many of which I believe to be incorrect. Below I discuss a few of my disagreements with Moyer’s piece. As a preliminary matter, it will be helpful to set down a brief explanation of some of the basic aspects of libertarianism.
“Libertarianism” is the name given to a particular political philosophy. As I discuss in some detail in What Libertarianism Is, what characterizes libertarianism is not “property rights,” since every political philosophy has some treatment of property rights. Every system has an answer to the question: who gets to control that resource?
What distinguishes libertarianism from other political philosophies is its particular answer as to how property rights should be allocated in scarce (i.e., rivalrous, contestable) resources. And that answer is: property rights ought to be allocated in accordance with Lockean principles of initial appropriation, sometimes called homesteading; contractual transfer; and other transfers as a result of torts or crimes. As Roderick Long puts it, citing Robert Nozick,
Libertarian property rights are, famously, governed by principles of justice in initial appropriation (mixing one’s labour with previously unowned resources), justice in transfer (mutual consent), and justice in rectification (say, restitution plus damages).1
Another formulation that describes the libertarian idea is the opposition to “aggression.” The link between the so-called “non-aggression principle” and our property rights view is that we oppose aggression defined in terms of property rights so allocated. We believe aggression is unjust and unjustifiable. Thus, our shorthand use of phrases like “non-aggression principle” or “non-initiation of force,” as well general terms like “liberty” and “freedom,” and opposition to “coercion,”2 and so on—all of which are either shorthand or conceptually dependent terms on the more fundamental and primary notion of property rights. As an example: if I hit you, it is aggression because you own your body. If I take an apple from you, it is aggression only if you own the apple; if it is my apple and I am retrieving it from a thief, the act of force used to take it back is not aggression. We cannot determine whether a given apparent “border crossing” is invasion, or theft, or trespass, or aggression, unless we first identify who the owner of the contested resource is.
In fact, the reason property rights are more fundamental than, and a concept upon which “aggression” depends, is that the only reason there is a need for property rights is the possibility of conflict, and this arises only because we live in a world of scarce (rivalrous) resources. As Mises explains, humans act, which means to employ certain scarce means to achieve certain chosen ends. The scarce means are physical resources in the world that our scientific knowledge informs us are causally efficacious in interfering with the world, in changing the course of events to achieve some forecasted state in the future that is desired more than what is otherwise predicted by the actor to come about. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains in Of Private, Common, and Public Property and the Rationale for Total Privatization,
Conflict only results if our different interests and beliefs are attached to and invested in one and the same good. In the Schlaraffenland, with a superabundance of goods, no conflict can arise (except for conflicts regarding the use of our physical bodies that embody our very own interests and ideas). There is enough around of everything to satisfy everyone’s desires. In order for different interests and ideas to result in conflict, goods must be scarce. Only scarcity makes it possible that different interests and ideas can be attached to and invested in one and the same stock of goods. Conflicts, then, are physical clashes regarding the control of one and the same given stock of goods. People clash because they want to use the same goods in different, incompatible ways.
Even under conditions of scarcity, when conflicts are possible, however, they are not necessary or unavoidable. All conflicts regarding the use of any good can be avoided if only every good is privately owned, i.e., exclusively controlled by some specified individual(s) and it is always clear which thing is owned, and by whom, and which is not.
It is important, then, to emphasize that every dispute is always really about scarce resources. And every proposed or disputed law is ultimately about the use of force against some identifiable scarce resource: a human body, or other scarce resources in the world that humans can employ as means of action. For example, it is sometimes said that people “fight over religion.” This is not true. People fight only over scarce resources. Disagreement over religion may be the reason for the fight but the fight is always conducted with physical force, mediated by causal means (e.g. weapons), to physically control others’ bodies or owned resources. For example A may tell B to change to A’s religion or face death; the fight here is over who get’s to control B’s body.3 When the state threatens to jail people for disobeying drug laws, the state is asserting an ownership claim over its citizens’ bodies. When the state taxes people, it is taking their money.
So: we say aggression (invasion of property rights)4 is unjustifiable. This matters, in our view, or should matter, to those who care about justice and justifying their claims (as anyone engaging in argumentation or discourse about such matters undeniably demonstrates).5 As I noted in my 1996 JLS paper Punishment and Proportionality: The Estoppel Approach,
No doubt punishment serves many purposes. It can deter crime and prevent the offender from committing further crimes. Punishment can even rehabilitate some criminals, if it is not capital. It can satisfy a victim’s longing for revenge, or his relatives’ desire to avenge. Punishment can also be used as a lever to gain restitution, recompense for some of the damage caused by the crime. For these reasons, the issue of punishment is, and always has been, of vital concern to civilized people. They want to know the effects of punishment and effective ways of carrying it out.
People who are civilized are also concerned about justifying punishment. They want to punish, but they also want to know that such punishment is justified—they want to legitimately be able to punish. Hence the interest in punishment theories.
Or, as I argued in What Libertarianism Is,
Not only libertarians are civilized. Most people give some weight to some of the above considerations. In their eyes, a person is the owner of his own body — usually. A homesteader owns the resource he appropriates — unless the state takes it from him “by operation of law.” This is the principal distinction between libertarians and nonlibertarians: Libertarians are consistently opposed to aggression, defined in terms of invasion of property borders, where property rights are understood to be assigned on the basis of self-ownership in the case of bodies. And in the case of other things, rights are understood on the basis of prior possession or homesteading and contractual transfer of title.
This framework for rights is motivated by the libertarian’s consistent and principled valuing of peaceful interaction and cooperation — in short, of civilized behavior. A parallel to the Misesian view of human action may be illuminating here. According to Mises, human action is aimed at alleviating some felt uneasiness. Thus, means are employed, according to the actor’s understanding of causal laws, to achieve various ends — ultimately, the removal of uneasiness.
Civilized man feels uneasy at the prospect of violent struggles with others. On the one hand, he wants, for some practical reason, to control a given scarce resource and to use violence against another person, if necessary, to achieve this control. On the other hand, he also wants to avoid a wrongful use of force. Civilized man, for some reason, feels reluctance, uneasiness, at the prospect of violent interaction with his fellow man. Perhaps he has reluctance to violently clash with others over certain objects because he has empathy with them. Perhaps the instinct to cooperate is a result of social evolution. …
Whatever the reason, because of this uneasiness, when there is the potential for violent conflict, the civilized man seeks justification for the forceful control of a scarce resource that he desires but which some other person opposes. Empathy — or whatever spurs man to adopt the libertarian grundnorms — gives rise to a certain form of uneasiness, which gives rise to ethical action.
Civilized man may be defined as he who seeks justification for the use of interpersonal violence.
Of course, not everyone cares about justifying their actions. There are sociopaths among us. For them, instead of reason, cooperation, trade, and civilized discourse, we have to treat them as a technical problem to be dealt with, by defensive force if necessary.6 As Hoppe observes in a response to libertarian criticism of his argumentation ethics defense of libertarian rights:
The reaction from the other Randian side, represented by Rasmussen, is different. He has fewer difficulties recognizing the nature of my argument but then asks me in turn “So what? Why should an a priori proof of the libertarian property theory make any difference? Why not engage in aggression anyway?” Why indeed?! But then, why should the proof that 1+1=2 make any difference? One certainly can still act on the belief that 1+1=3. The obvious answer is “because a propositional justification exists for doing one thing, but not for doing another.” But why should we be reasonable, is the next comeback. Again, the answer is obvious. For one, because it would be impossible to argue against it; and further, because the proponent raising this question would already affirm the use of reason in his act of questioning it. This still might not suffice and everyone knows that it would not, for even if the libertarian ethic and argumentative reasoning must be regarded as ultimately justified, this still does not preclude that people will act on the basis of unjustified beliefs either because they don’t know, they don’t care, or they prefer not to know. I fail to see why this should be surprising or make the proof somehow defective. More than this cannot be done by propositional argument.
In any case: since aggression is unjust, it follows that the state itself is inherently unjust.7 Thus, all consistent libertarians should be anarchists, or anarcho-libertarians; and, in our view, the only real anarchist is a libertarian, despite caterwauling by syndicalist- and other types of socialist anarchists to the contrary when this is pointed out.
What this all means is that, in the eyes of libertarians, anyone who argues for the state is arguing for aggression and, therefore, for injustice. One can favor the state, but he cannot justify it. As the Roman jurist Papinian said, before being put to death by axe for refusing to compose a justification of Caracalla’s murder of his brother and co-Emperor, Geta, “It is easier to commit murder than to justify it.”8 Likewise, as we libertarians see it, anyone who argues in favor of a law that prohibits, or violent action in response to, any action that is itself not aggression is calling for a law that is itself unjust and aggression. In other words, force may legitimately be used against others only in response to aggression. If it is leveled against someone for any other reason, it is unjust aggression itself. As I pointed out in What Libertarianism Is, “Libertarians believe in self-ownership. Nonlibertarians — statists — of all stripes advocate some form of slavery.” We believe anyone arguing in favor of any form of aggression, especially institutionalized aggression in the form of state legislation or the state itself, is simply wrong.
So for us, the question is whether a given law, or proposed law or use of force, or action, is aggression, or not. Is it just, or not. And because aggression itself depends on a more fundamental allocation of property rights, the real question is always this: for any particular scarce (rivalrous) resource, that is, a thing over which two or more people may have conflict because of its rivalrous nature, which of two of more competing claimants has the better claim? As noted above, that is always the question in any real dispute in the real world, and, as also noted above, only libertarianism consistently answers this question in accordance with original appropriation, contract, and restitution/rectification. All other political philosophies deviate in some way from this answer and thus propound rules which the libertarian sees as unjust, because the rules proposed commit rather than respond to aggression. To the question: Who has the right to control that person’s body?, the libertarian answer is: he does. We oppose slavery. Completely. To the question: Who has the right to control that disputed scarce resource?, the libertarian answer is: whoever got it first, or his contractual transferee, or someone that owner owes money to because of some crime or tort. We oppose theft of owned resources. We oppose ownership by mere “verbal decree”. For, as Hoppe explains in the previously cited article:
What is needed to avoid all conflict, then, is only a norm regarding the privatization of scarce things (goods). More specifically, in order to avoid all conflict from the very beginning of mankind on, the required norm must concern the original privatization of goods (the first transformation of nature-given “things” into “economic goods” and private property). Further, the original privatization of goods cannot occur by verbal declaration, i.e., by the mere utterance of words, because this could work and not lead to permanent and irresolvable conflict only if, contrary to our initial assumption of different interests and ideas, a prestabilized harmony of the interests and ideas of all people existed. (Yet in that case no norms were needed in the first place!)
So, in the case of any dispute over control of someone’s body or some rivalrous good, anyone who gives an answer other than the libertarian one is endorsing slavery, or theft, or trespass, or arbitrary ownership or taking of already-owned resources by verbal decree. This is why it matters whether one is a libertarian or not. This is why any position other than the libertarian one is incoherent and/or unjust.
Thus, for the libertarian, this is the inquiry, and we have a particular answer, an answer that differs from that given by all other, non-libertarian, political perspectives. All other political philosophies end up advocating laws that are themselves aggression, or some type of partial slavery (such as taxation) or even complete slavery (conscription, incarceration for narcotics use), or some positive rights that invade the sphere of legitimate, negative property rights, and so on.
Two final observations, before taking a look at Moyer’s piece: First, it is also important to keep in mind that the foregoing understanding of property rights is the reason that (unchosen) positive rights are incompatible with the “negative” rights implied by the libertarian non-aggression principle. (“Unchosen” because, as I have argued, positive obligations and positive rights are permissible if they are the result of one’s actions. I discuss this in How We Come To Own Ourselves.) You cannot just add more positive rights to the set of negative rights, without taking away from negative rights; your right to housing or a job implies that I have an obligation to provide you with it, which infringes my own rights, since it involves a use of force against me even though I have not myself committed aggression. Likewise, as I have pointed out umpteen times elsewhere, intellectual property (IP) rights are incompatible with libertarian property rights in scarce resources, since they end up transferring partial property rights of owners in such resources to third parties, without the owner’s consent.9
Second: I do not know if my approach here is “thick” or “thin” and do not really care; I have never found the thick-thin paradigm to be coherent, consistent, well-defined, necessary, or even useful. It’s full of straw men, or seems to try to take credit for quite obvious and uncontroversial assertions. I respect many of the libertarians arguing for it, but I’m not persuaded. I reject the very paradigm, just as I and other standard, radical anarchist libertarians reject the coherence of the left-right spectrum (from our perspective, left and right are just different flavors of statism/socialism; we are neither; we are better than both). I am not a left- or right-libertarian; I am a libertarian. And I don’t think I’m thick, and I don’t think I’m thin, because I think this entire way of looking at things is confused. I’m a non–thick-thinner.
Now, with this in mind, let me quote a few excerpts from Moyer’s piece, and provide some comments (mostly critical), in light of the above understanding of libertarianism. This is not meant to be a comprehensive or exhaustive response.
But anarchism isn’t a part of libertarianism. Anarchism is its own broad political and social philosophy. Libertarianism is just one school of thought that can (and should) lead you to statelessness.
Just a quibble but, as noted above, coherent anarchism requires libertarianism (and vice-versa). What does it mean to be a non-libertarian anarchist? If you are non-libertarian you must be in favor of aggression in some cases, of invasion of property rights. If you are anarchist you are against the state, and institutionalized aggression, so must be in favor of some forms of private crime. Some anarchist.
So I stopped calling myself a libertarian, preferring “anarchist” when labels were necessary. I still considered most of my beliefs to technically fall under the umbrella of libertarianism. But somewhere in the last few years even that association has faded.
Not clear why he stopped calling himself libertarian, and anarchist “instead”—even by his lights, libertarian anarchism is one type of anarchism. But this is another minor quibble.
I was hesitant to write this piece because I routinely see libertarians smeared and ridiculed in mainstream dialogue, specifically by leftists that support the current political institutions. That is a bandwagon I absolutely will not jump on. As Tarzie writes:
I believe that anti-libertarian fear-mongering is increasingly being deployed as a stratagem of liberals and other statist lefts, in an effort to immunize the Democratic Party from any genuinely leveraged opposition from anti-imperialists and civil libertarians. In other words, the primary aim of stigmatizing libertarians is the fortification of state violence, as well as fortification of the primacy of the state itself. Its leading proponents are careerist idiots acting in the worst possible faith.
This article is not an act of bad faith. I’m writing this because I value many of the contributions libertarians make to challenging power.
I really like this part of the article. I respect non-libertarians who can at least see and admit this.
The limits of libertarianism begin with ethics.
Libertarians confine their moral reasoning to something called a “legal” or “political” ethic. This ethic, based on property rights and the non-aggression principle, is the cornerstone of libertarian morality. But it is an intentionally limited moral framework….
Libertarians typically push matters outside of property rights and violence into the realm of aesthetics, which Rothbard described as “personal” morality. On these issues of personal morality, libertarian theory is silent.
That is not a criticism of libertarianism. It is a political philosophy after all. But the assertion that matters outside property/violence are treats as matters of “aesthetics” is completely and utterly wrong. I know of almost no one who holds this view, and it is certainly not widespread. Most libertarians say that the non-aggression principle does not prohibit merely immoral actions, but they do not deny that there are morals and ethics outside of the NAP; they certainly do not relegate all non-rights-related ethics to the domain of aesthetics (the study of art). Maybe he misspoke here. This is a bizarre assertion.
If you accept the premises of self-ownership and property rights, it is a logically consistent and powerful framework. But if you allow yourself to have wider moral sensibilities, the framework is woefully inadequate – if not outright grotesque – in certain cases.
As I’ll explain below, the “framework” is neither “inadequate” nor “grotesque,” though one may believe the applications of particular libertarians are grotesque. It is not “inadequate” because it fails to provide a full moral code of conduct for life, advice on manners, career, etc., since one is not precluded from such just because the answer is not in libertarianism. The answer is not in socialism or welfare-statism, either. These disciplines address political issues. That’s why they don’t tell you what your religion should be or whether you should sass your grandma. As for the “grotesque” part:
Take Rothbard on parental obligations to children:
The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.)
At least Rothbard recognizes that children are subject to the non-aggression principle, but outside of direct aggression (or maybe just aggression that results in death or mutilation) he reinforces that libertarian theory has nothing to say. A parent can starve their child to death. We might find this morally reprehensible, as Rothbard surely did, but it’s outside the purview of the politcal ethic.
Walter Block, another prominent libertarian theorist, has attempted to narrow the case where abandonment is permissible (no one is willing to “homestead” the abandoned baby), but rejects that the non-aggression principle applies to children. Why? Because children aren’t full humans with all the same rights as adults. They exist in a superposition between animals and humans. Which means it’s permissible to aggress against children.
Both Rothbard and Block accept that some degree of child abuse either violates the NAP (in Rothbard’s case) or de-legitimizes parental ownership (in Block’s case), but what constitutes abuse represents a “continuum problem” for libertarians. Some attacks on children are okay but not too much. It’s a big gray area.
It’s embarrassing that many libertarians have so little moral clarity on this issue. Especially when compared to a website like Jezebel, which has no problem taking a hard stance on aggression against children.
Libertarianism is a young discipline—about 50 years old. It is still developing. There is disagreement on a number of issues, such as this one. It is not embarrassing that it does not have everything figured out yet, or that there are still disputes. Singling out two authors and saying this perspective is the fault of the framework makes little sense. Prominent anarchist libertarian Stefan Molyneux has railed against spanking, as have a growing number of (mostly anarchist) libertarians in the Peaceful Parenting movement (and I’ve spoken out against it too). In any case, libertarians are no worse than most people or other political philosophies on this issue. Many libertarians are even anti-abortion. On the issue of positive obligations to children, well, I have written explicitly in favor of this,10 from an explicitly Rothbardian-Hoppean anarcho-libertarian position, and I know countless libertarians who agree with me on this issue, for my reasons or on other grounds.
Treatment of animals is also outside of the political ethic. There are no animal rights – unless the animals request them – so humans are free to treat animals however they want.
Given that animals don’t have rights (is it the crime of “murder” when a tiger kills a gazelle? when a spider kills a fly?), this is not a defect or “limit” of libertarianism. To recognize animal rights would, in fact, invade the rights of humans. Animals rights laws result in aggression (see the discussion of positive rights above).
The same is true of the planet in general. In order for the Earth itself to be considered under libertarian philosophy, it must be private property.
This wording is confusing and the meaning is not entirely clear, but of course planet Earth does not have rights. And it is true that any useful scarce resource can potentially serve as a means of human action, and thus, of conflict between men, and therefore, potentially subject to property rights, to prevent conflict and to permit peaceful, cooperative, productive use of the resource, as Hoppe notes above. The only alternative to subjecting every potentially scarce resource to private property rights, is to have them collectively owned, say, by a state, which either utilizes the resource or forbids its use (as in the case of national forests). There are a number of defects with this alternative, first and foremost which is it requires there to be a state, which poses a problem for libertarian anarchists. And second, in most cases the state ownership claim is based not on use, but on mere verbal decree, which I already discussed above as being a flawed candidate for property rights acquisition. If the state keeps the land unused, it is still acting as owner, for only someone with an ownership claim has the right to stop someone from homesteading an unowned/unused resource. So the private-property approach of libertarianism is a feature, not a bug.
Other major social issues such as religion, race, gender, sexuality, and class dynamics are either analyzed only from within the property rights framework or not at all.
Lew Rockwell, too, affirms this position:
Libertarianism is concerned with the use of violence in society. That is all. It is not anything else. It is not feminism. It is not egalitarianism (except in a functional sense: everyone equally lacks the authority to aggress against anyone else). It has nothing to say about aesthetics. It has nothing to say about religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation.
There is no necessary connection between being for or against libertarianism and one’s position on religion. … Libertarians believe that liberty is a natural right embedded in a natural law of what is proper for mankind, in accordance with man’s nature. Where this set of natural laws comes from, whether it is purely natural or originated by a creator, is an important ontological question but is irrelevant to social or political philosophy.
I find it hard to accept that religion and the origins of mankind are irrelevant to social philosophy.
Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a broader “social philosophy.” It is hard to understand why this is a criticism of libertarianism. Further, the writes quoted do not say “religion and the origins of mankind are irrelevant to” libertarianism; this ambiguous phrase is Moyer’s. Libertarians routinely employ knowledge from other and related disciplines in their libertarian reasoning, such as history, the natural sciences, economics, sociology, cultural studies, psychology, and so on. What the authors quoted above are saying is that the libertarian position is a unique one that condemns aggression consistently. And this means that only laws aimed at aggression are justified, and laws that use force against people who have not committed aggression are themselves aggression. This in turn implies that someone is libertarian if and to the extent they oppose aggression. No matter what their aesthetics or religion or sexual preference, and even if they are bores are rude or ill-mannered or dishonest or craven. The point of recognizing and pointing this out is vigilance against laws that would otherwise punish or regulate actions that are not aggression—such as immorality, using drugs or alcohol (which may in fact be unwise), practicing the “wrong” religion, merely being rude to others, consuming pornography, and so on. This position does not say that these other fields are “irrelevant,” nor that people ought not be decent people, benevolent, and so on. It does not say that only non-aggression is important. It simply says that only aggression may be outlawed. To criticize libertarians for emphasizing this crucial point, in a violent, state-run, murderous world, from a former libertarian, is jaw-dropping. They should be commended for this, not criticized for not coupling political views with personal moral views. In fact, one might suspect that the reason for this criticism is to distract attention away from the NAP, so as to find a way to argue for policies or laws that violate the NAP. Libertarians are right to be, in the words of Douglas Hofstadter, “viligant.” I am proud that we stick to our guns on the NAP issue. We are the only ones doing this, after all. And we are simply not opposed to the discipline of private ethics, of social and cultural analysis, and so on, any more than we are opposed to physics just because we do not have an official libertarian position on physics.11
Perhaps only to an intentionally limited philosophy, with a large socially conservative bloc.
As he did above with conflating libertarianism, a political philosophy, with “social philosophy” so as to criticize it for not being a full social philosophy, here, it’s “philosophy” in general. Well, yes, “political philosophy,” a subset of philosophy, is … well, a limited subset of philosophy. One might as well criticize epistemology for being an intentionally limited subset of philosophy. How dare epistemology limit itself!
The “socially conservative” swipe also makes no sense. If it is aimed at one subset of libertarianism, then it’s not a criticism of libertarianism in general. If it is aimed at libertarianism in general, it’s false, since it is not the case that all or even most libertarians are right-libertarians. There are many left-libertarians. There are minarchists and anarchists; pragmatists, consequentialists, utilitarians, and deontologists; there are Chicagoites and Austrians; Rothbardians and Friedmanians and Epsteinians and Hayekians and Hoppeans; activists and theoreticians. And there are non-left, non-right libertarians, like yours truly. Slamming libertarianism for being too socially conservative makes no sense, because it is not.
Granted, libertarianism – as a body of thought – doesn’t have to comment on every social issue. It can say nothing of race and gender and class.
Not sure what this means exactly (ambiguous language again), but if it means what seems to mean, this is untrue. Libertarians have long pointed out the disparate impact of state policies on blacks, for example. It is non-libertarians who are racist—Republican and Democrat-favored policies (minimum wage, welfare state, drug war, education system, and on and on) are ruining many underprivileged classes; yet Moyer has the audacity to criticize us … not because we favor policies that would harm minorities, but … because we are a political philosophy?
It can be silent on non-violent forms of hierarchy and inequality. But then it stands incomplete as a social philosophy.
More bait-and-switch. Epistemology stands incomplete as a philosophy, too. Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a social philosophy. It does not pretend to be a full-fledged social philosophy. It also does not pretend to be a full philosophy of life. If you want that perspective, become an Objectivist, with their hatred of libertarians because you cannot be a good capitalist unless you swallow the entire Objectivist philosophy. Would Moyer say that someone is not a libertarian if they are rude, or not charitable, or dislike Jews or blacks? But notice the danger of doing this: libertarianism is aimed at defining what laws are permissible, by identifying behavior that may be prohibited by force. If you sneak in requirements like “opposition to hierarchy, inequality, racism, bigotry” as part of what it means to be libertarian, at the same time that libertarianism is recognized as a political philosophy which identifies which laws are justified, you open the door to laws against hierarchy, inequality, racism, bigotry. In other words, you open the door to the modern welfare-state or even the totalitarian police state, a theocracy which substitutes worship of secular modern egalitarianism for God. Thanks, but I think we libertarians are happy standing viligant against statist laws that use physical force to violate individual rights. That is a good niche to fill. We are the only ones even attempting to fill it.
That’s fine, especially if that is a conscious and intentional choice on the part of libertarians. We will focus our ideological work on this area and let other systems of thought cover everything else.
Now, you’re starting to get it. Oh, wait—
But it certainly wasn’t something I was aware of when I considered myself a libertarian. On the contrary, I thought libertarianism offered a robust and complete analysis of society. I suspect others do, too.
And here we come to the problem. Moyer says he was a libertarian for ten years. But he is let down by it because it didn’t meet his expectations. He is wrong. It is not a complete social philosophy. It does not pretend to be. He may suspect others think as he does, but I have no reason to think this is right.
And so what if he is? If it “should be” a more complete social philosophy: well, as noted, it’s only about five decades old. Give it time. Or do some of the work yourself. And even if it “should be” more complete—this does not prove that its current, “too narrow” tenets are incorrect. Moreover, what’s wrong with it “focusing” on this one area (as epistemology focuses on the theory of knowledge, and not on metaphysics, ontology, aesthetics, or morals?)? Why is this a fault of libertarianism, just because it disappointed a new libertarian who had unrealistic and confused expectations? That is simply not a criticism of libertarianism at all. And finally, even if Moyer is right that libertarianism is “unfortunately” only narrow focused on one social issue, and not others—so what? Why can’t Moyer turn to the other specialists for knowledge outside of political theory? He can study and read history and historians, economics and economists, and so on and so on. And, in fact, this is what most libertarians do. Almost none of them care only about aggression, or study only aggression. Libertarians are far more likely than your average person, or your average Democrat or Republican (say) to read in these other areas. A glance at the old Laissez Faire Books catalog would tell you that. Libertarians read and discuss and are extremely interested in literature, cultural analysis, science, history, economics, and on and on. All these fields, libertarianism/political theory included, complement and inform each other, but they are not the same as each other. So what?
And this isn’t just a case of convenient specialization. Many libertarians are actively hostile to those who step outside – or attempt to expand – the scope of moral reasoning.
This is simply false. They are careful not to equate merely immoral actions with rights violations (trespass), because they are viligant against laws, policies, and actions that punish non-aggressive behavior. But there is no such hostility in general implied by libertarianism’s principled opposition to aggression! And as one little example, here is Moyer’s bête noire Rothbard, commenting on Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s “argumentation ethics” defense of libertarian rights:
In a dazzling breakthrough for political philosophy in general and for libertarianism in particular, he has managed to transcend the famous is/ought, fact/value dichotomy that has plagued philosophy since the days of the scholastics, and that had brought modern libertarianism into a tiresome deadlock. Not only that: Hans Hoppe has managed to establish the case for anarcho-capitalist-Lockean rights in an unprecedentedly hard-core manner, one that makes my own natural law/natural rights position seem almost wimpy in comparison. …
A future research program for Hoppe and other libertarian philosophers would be (a) to see how far axiomatics can be extended into other spheres of ethics, or (b) to see if and how this axiomatic could be integrated into the standard natural law approach. These questions provide fascinating philosophical opportunities. Hoppe has lifted the American movement out of decades of sterile debate and deadlock, and provided us a route for future development of the libertarian discipline.12
The bolded part shows Rothbard was curious about using Hoppe’s theory in defense of rights, to develop ethical theory outside of the NAP. He would not have considered any such views “part” of libertarianism, but so what? It would be interesting and useful information for living humans. (I am aware of some people working on this right now.) And of course many other libertarians are interested in or have developed views and theories on ethics and many other matters outside of the NAP—too many to even begin to list them. Libertarians think and talk and write about environmentalism, how to live good lives, how to educate and rear children peacefully and successfully, how to manage one’s finances, what kind of college or education to choose, philosophy in general, epistemology, ontology, music, cooking, movies, sailing, oenology … So the idea that we are hostile to people who ever talk about anything other than aggression or the state is frankly mind-boggling.
Libertarians who are outspoken against aggression against children, take strong stances on religion, or analyze other social issues have faced resistance from others that would prefer to cleave only to the foundations of “true” libertarianism.
Well, there is disagreement within libertarianism on many topics: abortion, global warming, war, strategy, politics, voting. So what? Most libertarians do not “resist” people having outspoken views on spanking, religion, other social issues. Some of them disagree with the particular a-libertarian position taken by other libertarians (e.g. on spanking). But so what? And some of them are careful to observe that whatever the merits of one’s positions on religion, hierarchy, etc., the position one should take is not determined merely by the NAP itself. But almost no one objects to other libertarians being outspoken on a-libertarian topics, mostly because almost every libertarian that lives is in fact outspoken on a number of a-libertarian issues, just as most human beings are outspoken (have deeply felt values or beliefs) with respect to issues outside their politics.
I can understand the desire to keep libertarianism laser focused, but it is rarely presented as a highly specified and limited body of thought.
Again, I don’t know where Moyer gets this from. He just asserts it. I don’t see any links backing this up. Apparently he got the wrong idea about what libertarianism is, and now blames it for its limited nature. Basically every domain of knowledge is limited and narrow. That is how human knowledge and concepts work.
Libertarianism is not understood as a specialized field like chemistry or biology. It is supposed to be an ideology that describes and prescribes human social behavior. But to that end, its core framework is inadequate.
It is in fact a specialized field. It’s a political philosophy. It would be unnecessary in a world of no conflict, in a world of no scarcity, just as property rights would be unnecessary. (Many libertarians, such as Rand, if I recall, have observed that we want a world where rights are respected so that we don’t need to worry about political theory, so that we can take respect for our rights for granted and get on with others aspects of life.) Libertarianism is not “supposed to be an ideology that describes and prescribes human social behavior”. Saying that it is inadequate to that end is like saying that it is inadequate to the end of understanding string theory. It is no criticism of libertarianism that it is what it is, that Moyer misunderstood the nature and role of political theory. But yes, I confess, libertarianism is not a grant theory of all social behavior. We stand guilty.
But aggression is not justified.
All of these deficiencies of libertarianism result in one thing: A limited vision for the future.
Libertarians want a world without a state.
Would were that so. The minarchists and classical liberals amongst us want a state.
Beyond that, the philosophy says little about the shape of human culture. It should be based on property rights and non-aggression. How can we combat racism? Property rights and non-aggression.
This is more of the same as noted above. Libertarianism does not say that the NAP is the only way to combat racism. Many of us do believe that adherence to the NAP would remove one cause of racism. But libertarianism per se does not take a position on what other measures could or should be used to combat these and other problems. Libertarianism does not say that these are not problems, nor does it say that they should not be solved, nor does it say that the NAP is the only solution to any such problems. So this criticism just falls flat.
I recognize that a consistently applied libertarian ethic would make the world a much better place than it currently is. And I recognize that I’m essentially criticizing libertarians for only wanting to take down the greatest threat to human flourishing on the planet. In a world full of people who defend the status quo and apologize for power, those with radical ideas deserve the least criticism.
I admire Moyer for seeing, and admitting, this. This is good.
But for libertarians who see the dismantling of the state as the ultimate goal, I have to disagree. It is not enough.
That is correct, but we do not see it as “the ultimate goal.” All of us have lives and interests outside of the NAP and libertarianism. Different people have different “ultimate goals.” It is simply that we libertarians, among all our other values and beliefs as living human beings, believe that aggression is impermissible. The danger of criticizing us for this noble belief, is that you start to sound like a conservative or leftist who admits that liberty is “of course an important value,” but who then adds, “but there are other values too, unlike the libertarian, liberty is not our ‘only value’; so we have to ‘balance’ the value of liberty with other values….” And you know where this leads: to laws that compromise and invade liberty. This is where we get positive rights “added on” to the set of negative rights (as I discussed above), positive rights that really, necessarily, undermine negative (real) rights.
While eliminating the state is a massive multi-generational project, it is in many ways only the first step. Human flourishing is the ultimate goal.
Sure. Being free from aggression is one thing we need to flourish. It’s not the only thing. No one has ever pretended otherwise.
And if libertarians think they can dust off their hands and head home just because the state is in ashes, they’re wrong.
Yes, if they do, they would be wrong, but they don’t, so they’re not.
You don’t have to reject your current beliefs. But you must expand them.
None of us are just libertarians, so they are already necessarily expanded.
Libertarianism’s narrow views do a disservice to yourself and to the world.
This is simply not true, and is not supported by the arguments Moyer has marshalled. Libertarianism is not doing a disservice because it is narrow; every field of knowledge is narrow. It would only be doing a disservice if it were flawed or wrong, but Moyer has not even attempted to show that it is; he even seems to acknowledge its central claim about aggression is correct.
Libertarians are real people. We are not only libertarians. No one denies this. No one. In general, we have varied and diverse “ultimate goals” or, more likely, each of us has a huge panoply of important goals, projects, and values, but, as libertarians, liberty is one of them (again, liberty defined in terms of property rights as explained above). Most of us, maybe virtually all of us, are happy to admit that we have many other important goals. We, as libertarians, just want to be clear that aggression is impermissible. That, however one wants to tackle these other problems or pursue other values in life, aggression must not be permitted.
And this is the crux of the issue. If someone grants us this Nozickian “side constraint,” then we are happy, and they are a libertarian, whether they want to use the word or not. And if they are not a libertarian, it means they want at some point to use aggression to achieve these “other values.” This applies to Moyer too. If he does grant that aggression is impermissible, he’s a libertarian, albeit a confused one (which is fine with me), and his complaints amount to “libertarianism is not all there is to life; we need other knowledge and disciplines for other important goals and pursuits.” And I grant him that. I am happy to grant him that. But if he demurs from admitting that aggression is impermissible, that means all his criticisms of libertarianism for not doing enough to be a full social philosophy is just camouflage for some kind of unlibertarian law or agenda. I suspect it’s the former. But when I find people criticizing libertarians for having a principled and steadfast opposition to aggression, I am reminded of the line, when someone criticizes the rich and greed and money, hold onto your wallets, because they are coming after it. Or as Rand said in Francisco’s Money Speech, “Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil. That sentence is the leper’s bell of an approaching looter.”
Moyer has written a reply to me and other critics: Libertarianism: Criticisms & Questions. Just a few quick responses for now.
Are you advocating for positive rights?
No. If by positive rights you mean “an enforceable obligation on someone who hasn’t committed aggression” then definitely no. I’m not sure you can prove that rights exist at all, but if you’re going to have any conception of rights as a part of your society, only the negative kind derived from self-ownership make any sense.
Good. But to be clear: I do not think I accused Moyer of doing this.
Why don’t you believe in property?
Because I’m a big, scary commie. Just like President Obama. Boo.
Despite Cantwell calling me an antipropertarian, I never said I was against property. I recognize that in a situation of scarcity and conflict over available resources, private property (homesteading, contractual transfer, self-ownership) is the best framework for allocating those resources in a just (and rational) way. Also, I like owning stuff.
This is good. It means you are a libertarian.
But I am skeptical of concentrations of power.
Why the “But” here? Being skeptical of concentrations of power is not incompatible with holding libertarian-propertarian views.
And not just political power. One person or one small group owning and amassing incredible amounts of wealth isn’t necessarily something I’m on board with. That doesn’t mean I want the state to take it away from them – that would be granting even morepower to a different small group. But I’m not going to say “well if they amassed all that wealth and economic power via the free market then it must be a good thing.” It might not be a good thing. I’m open to that.
Well, as long as you support the property rights that permits the wealthy to keep their wealth and you oppose aggression to take it from them—you are a libertarian. Being libertarian does not require you to say “it’s good” if someone gets wealthy. Lots of things are compatible with rights, but are not necessarily “good”.
I’m also open to a possible future where scarcity is not the same concern it used to be.
Depends on what you mean by scarcity. If you mean rivalrousness, the fact that we humans need to employ “scarce means” to achieve ends—this may change in form but not in principle, since it is a necessary aspect of human action. If by scarcity you mean “lack of abundance”: well, that is what the free market does: it helps to create abundance in the face of scarcity. There is more abundance now than in the past, so already, time has changed things. Of course, as technology and productivity and wealth increase, it is possible for there to be ever-more abundance. This is not incompatible with libertarianism.
I look at the internet and the digitization of stuff that used to require a physical presence, I look at 3D printing, I look at possible new energy resources, and I see a potential future where property rights might not be as foundational to society as they are now. And if that future is better for humanity overall, I’m fine with redefining or discarding what it means to be property. That’s what I meant when I said, “my goal isn’t a society based on property rights. My goal is human flourishing.”
Libertarianism does not say that “human flourishing” cannot be “your goal.”
Libertarians don’t consider everything outside of property/violence to be aesthetics.
Yeah, this was probably bad wording on my part. Libertarians consider matters outside property/violence as personal morality or personal preference. That’s what I was referring to as aesthetics. I’m not talking about the study of art. I should have been clearer.
I suspected so.
So to the question of justice in the case of abortion or eviction, libertarianism is lacking. Some will find this good, some will find this evil, and in this regard it is no different than any number of matters such as racism, sexism, or homophobia. Non-aggression cares not for aesthetics.
It’s pretty clear that Cantwell is saying racism, sexism, and homophobia are aesthetic issues because they are outside of the libertarian property rights ethic. He doesn’t mean the “study of art” either, he means they’re matters of personal preference.
It is not feminism. It is not egalitarianism. … It has nothing to say about aesthetics. It has nothing to say about religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation.
It’s not entirely clear whether he’s saying “libertarianism has nothing to say about aesthetics and it also has nothing to say about religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation.” Or whether he’s saying “libertarianism has nothing to say about aesthetics, such as religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation.”
Cantwell’s and your use were wrong. Rockwell’s is right; he is saying “and also” not “such as.”
Either way, it’s not some crazy, bizarre assertion I’m pulling out of my ass.
It’s just misuse of a term, by Cantwell too.
Treatment of children is something libertarians are still trying to figure out.
In the original article, I said it was embarrassing that libertarians have “so little moral clarity on this issue.” To which Stephan Kinsella responded:
Libertarianism is a young discipline—about 50 years old. It is still developing. There is disagreement on a number of issues, such as this one. It is not embarrassing that it does not have everything figured out yet, or that there are still disputes.
I can’t imagine a more laughable response. How many decades will it take before libertarianism can tell us it’s wrong to hit children? It is an absolute embarrassment that libertarianism does not have moral clarity on whether or not attacking children is okay, especially when a cornerstone of the philosophy is non-aggression. Poor little libertarianism, it’s only had five decades to figure things out. Are you kidding me?
Singling out two authors and saying this perspective is the fault of the framework makes little sense. Prominent anarchist libertarian Stefan Molyneux has railed against spanking, as have a growing number of (mostly anarchist) libertarians in the Peaceful Parenting movement (and I’ve spoken out against it too).
I didn’t just single out two random libertarians. I singled out figures who are foundational to current libertarian thought.
You should have criticized them, not “libertarians.” Especially given that we don’t all agree on this.
It makes it even more embarrassing that if it wasn’t for one person – Stefan Molyneux – this probably wouldn’t even be an issue for libertarians. At least not a hotly contested one. And when was the last time Stef Molyneux was invited to a libertarian conference to talk about child abuse? To whatever degree libertarians shouldn’t be embarrassed about this, it’s because of him.
I mentioned my views on this, the entire Peaceful Parenting movement, etc. As for Molyneux being invited to a conference—well, he appeared about a year ago at Liberty in the Pines here near Houston, at a conference I and Jeff Tucker also spoke at, and as I recall, at least in the panel Q&A, he (and I and one or two others) all talked about children and parenting, and related issues, with a clear anti-child-abuse theme.
What is wrong with libertarianism being a limited subset of philosophy?
Nothing, in and of itself. Like any other part of philosophy or science, it can have its boundaries and its own domain. That’s practically necessary if you’re going to do any work of real depth. But it can produce other problems.
One is this: I’m not convinced people see it that way, especially libertarians. I think a lot of libertarians see libertarianism as a complete social ideology. To steal from the development world, they see it as a full-stack social philosophy.
I don’t think this is quite right, but I think Moyer here is probably observing how “into” the “movement” a lot of libertarians get, especially those into politics, activism, and “lifestyle libertarian” issues. Minority perspectives like libertarianism, when they are small, tend to attract certain types of people. That does not mean libertarianism itself is a full-fledged social philosophy, much less an entire philosophy.
Now maybe that isn’t your experience of libertarians. I definitely know libertarians that like to address every aspect of society they can. (Again, props to Stef Molyneux for doing this.) But I still don’t think that’s common.
Of course it’s not common. And this is not a criticism. There is nothing wrong with specializing.
How many self-identifying libertarians do you see talking about race or gender or religion or anything else (economics aside)?
I don’t know who Moyer hangs out with, but the libertarians I know discuss these types of issues a lot. And since the ones I hang out with tend to be able to distinguish between libertarian and a-libertarian concerns, they have no trouble telling these things apart.
These are considered leftist issues and largely left to statists to discuss (which isn’t going to produce meaningful solutions). When libertarians talk, they talk about the issue they think is the most important: the state.
Which brings me to another problem. I get why libertarians focus on the state. It’s a monster. It should be smashed into a thousand pieces and those pieces should be burned to ashes and those ashes should be swept into the dustbin of history. (Isn’t dustbin of history a Trotsky-ism? I knew he was a communist.)
But I don’t see the state as being fundamentally separate from culture. It’s a symptom of culture.
Again, another uncalled for “But”, as if libertarianism has somehow missed Moyer’s perspicacious realization that the state is the result of the culture we inhabit. News flash: this is no news flash.
It’s a symptom of social norms and beliefs and traditions. It’s a symptom of the treatment of children, of the treatment of people different from us. It’s a symptom of how we relate to authority – in the family, in the workplace, in every institution. It’s a symptom of how we relate to each other.
Well, now you’re getting kinda flowery and vague—but in general, yes, we know that the state rests on legitimacy, which rests on false beliefs. Libertarians have long known this. See, e.g., my post The State, Destruction, and Propaganda, and the Hoppe article cited at the end, “Banking, Nation States and International Politics: A Sociological Reconstruction of the Present Economic Order,” Review of Austrian Economics 4 (1990): 62 et seq. (reprinted in The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, pp. 86-87), which states:
as a state emerges, then, it does so in spite of the fact that it is neither in demand nor efficient.Instead of being constrained by cost and demand conditions, the growth of an exploiting firm is constrained by public opinion: non-productive and non-contractual property acquisitions require coercion, and coercion creates victims. It is conceivable that resistance can be lastingly broken by force in the case of one man (or a group of men) exploiting one or maybe two or three others (or a group of roughly the same size). It is inconceivable, however, to imagine that force alone can account for the breaking down of resistance in the actually familiar case of small minorities expropriating and exploiting populations ten, hundreds, or thousands of times their size. For this to happen a firm must have public support in addition to coercive force. A majority of the population must accept its operations as legitimate. This acceptance can range from active enthusiasm to passive resignation. But acceptance it must be in the sense that a majority must have given up the idea of actively or passively resisting any attempt to enforce non-productive and non-contractual property acquisitions. Instead of displaying outrage over such actions, of showing contempt for everyone who engages in them, and of doing nothing to help make them successful (not to mention actively trying to obstruct them), a majority must actively or passively support them. State-supportive public opinion must counterbalance the resistance of victimized property owners such that active resistance appears futile. And the goal of the state, then, and of every state employee who wants to contribute toward securing and improving his own position within the state, is and must be that of maximizing exploitatively acquired wealth and income by producing favorable public opinion and creating legitimacy.
There are two complementary measures available to the state trying to accomplish this. First, there is ideological propaganda. Much time and effort is spent persuading the public that things are not really as they appear: exploitation is really freedom; taxes are really voluntary; non-contractual relations are really “conceptually” contractual ones; no one is ruled by anyone but we all rule ourselves; without the state neither law nor security exists; and the poor would perish, etc.
Second, there is redistribution. Instead of being a mere parasitic consumer of goods that others have produced, the state redistributes some of its coercively appropriated wealth to people outside the state apparatus and thereby attempts to corrupt them into assuming state-supportive roles.
But not just any redistribution will do. Just as ideologies must serve a—statist—purpose, so must redistribution. …
Of similar importance is the field of education. Depending as it does on public opinion and its acceptance of the state’s actions as legitimate, it is essential for a state that unfavorable ideological competition be eliminated as far as possible and statist ideologies spread. The state attempts to accomplish this by providing educational services on a redistributive basis.
See also Koen Swinkels, Ron Paul and the Role of Ideas in Class Conflict. In the article he explains that
“The state depends for its continued existence on the enthusiastic support of only a few. It requires the acquiescence of many more. The few that are enthusiastic about the state are the ones that profit from it, such as politicians, bankers, bureaucrats, contractors, big corporations, mainstream media (MSM), intellectuals, lobbyists and unions. The profit comes at the expense of the many. This as the classical liberals explained is the only meaningful class conflict in society. The trick to keeping the many complacent is to deceive them into thinking they are actually not being plundered. This is achieved in at least three ways:
This includes intellectuals coming “up with theories justifying state institutions before or after they are created” as well as “Mainstream media and intellectuals … drastically narrow[ing] the terms of acceptable debate by taking statism as a given.”
Back to Moyer:
I don’t believe you can defeat the state without changing these things. I don’t believe you can draw a line around the state and say “this is our enemy because it commits overt, outright aggression and everything else is a preference.”
This is a false choice. We also think the prevailing ideas have to be changed to get rid of the state. So it is false to imply that libertarians do not recognize this. The second sentence is too ambiguous to have much clear meaning, but it seems to be a non-sequitur and/or a straw man.
As I said in my article, it doesn’t mean that libertarians have to stop being libertarian.
You apparently have not stopped being one; you have just stopped admitting it.
But I want them as allies in fighting these other battles. I want them to take the same radicalism they wave around when it comes to the state, and apply it to other cultural and social issues.
What you want is fine, but you need to come up with an argument for it. Merely saying libertarianism “has limits,” and it disappointed you because it’s not a grand philosophy of life, does not imply that libertarians should also fight for equality, etc. It simply is an assertion out of nowhere; it isn’t supported by the rest of the article, which is concerned with misstatements about libertarianism and bizarre criticisms of it based on those misunderstandings.
- Long, Why Libertarians Believe There is Only One Right. [↩]
- But see my post The Problem with “Coercion”. [↩]
- On the danger of imprecise language and metaphors, see my post On the Danger of Metaphors in Scientific Discourse. [↩]
- See text at n. 11 of What Libertarianism Is for various terminological formulations used to describe aggression. [↩]
- See Hoppe’s “argumentation ethics” defense of libertarian ethics; links in my Argumentation Ethics and Liberty: A Concise Guide. [↩]
- See my post Hoppe on Treating Aggressors as Mere “Technical Problems”. [↩]
- See my What It Means To Be an Anarcho-Capitalist. [↩]
- Quoted in Barry Nicholas, An Introduction to Roman Law, p. 30 n.2 (1962). [↩]
- Intellectual Property Rights as Negative Servitudes. [↩]
- How We Come To Own Ourselves. [↩]
- But see my postHoppe on Falsificationism, Empiricism, and Apriorism and Protophysics. [↩]
- Quoted in my Argumentation Ethics and Liberty: A Concise Guide . [↩]