Journey into a Libertarian Future: Response to Reader Comments

This post was first published on December 12, 2011

By Andrew Dittmer, who recently finished his PhD in mathematics at Harvard and is currently continuing work on his thesis topic. He also taught mathematics at a local elementary school. Andrew enjoys explaining the recent history of the financial sector to a popular audience.

Many readers wrote in warm and thoughtful comments on the series I wrote interviewing Code Name Cain. I was unfortunately away when the series first posted, and so was not able to respond immediately. Here are some reflections.

The word libertarian originally meant anarchist, or libertarian socialist, in the sense of someone who is wary of authority in general, whether coming from the state or from property rights arrangements. However, libertarian as used today more typically refers to right-libertarians like Robert Nozick, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Murray Rothbard. For a more complete discussion of the different uses of the word libertarian, Karl Widerquist has written a nice essay on the subject.

Widerquist points out that it “is perhaps poetically appropriate that property rights advocates have appropriated a term that was already being used by people who subscribe to the idea that property is theft, and that these property rights [advocates] now accuse anarchists of trying to steal [the term] from them.”

Fairly or not, most people today think of right-libertarians when they hear the word libertarian, and so I will from now on use libertarian to mean right-libertarian. I have personally known many libertarians, and one is a good friend of mine. I became particularly interested in libertarianism when I started to realize how powerful such ideas have become in America today. One major political party is strongly influenced by think tanks like AEI and the Cato Institute, in which libertarian ideas are extremely prominent. Although members of the Tea Party do not fit a single stereotype, they do have a strong penchant for libertarian rhetoric.

Barack Obama frequently expresses his support for the “free market” and talks about the “burden” of taxes; Republican candidates feel no corresponding obligation to express verbally their support for “democracy,” or for the existence of some taxation. If candidates of both parties now talk in ways that are conditioned by libertarian preferences, it is clear that libertarianism has made great strides.

During the series, one reader made a comment about the outlandishness of libertarian thought, to which reader Foppe appropriately replied, “That doesn’t matter – the question is whether they influence policy.”

What is Libertarianism?

The critics of libertarianism often describe it as a theory that privileges liberty, or freedom, over other values like equality, or social justice, or tradition. They often respond by agreeing that liberty is important, but that it is important to balance liberty with other essential commitments.

However, after reading a number of libertarian authors, such as Hayek, Friedman, and Nozick, it started to seem to me that libertarianism is not a theory of freedom at all. Reader Marat cited an example by libertarian Walter Block, in which a person is hanging for dear life to a flagpole protruding from the 15th floor of a high-rise. Block says that if the apartment owner demands that the person let go, and the flagpole hanger attempts instead to climb down into the balcony, then if “the occupant shoots him for trespassing… the answer is clear. The owner… is in the right, and the trespasser is in the wrong.”

In my experience, libertarians often enjoy citing examples like this, in which the freedom of the flagpole hanger to survive is trumped by the right of the owner to maintain sovereignty over her apartment. Is is possible that libertarianism is a theory of sovereignty, and not a theory of freedom?

Libertarian Sovereignty

If libertarianism is a theory of sovereignty, it is natural to wonder whether libertarian sovereignty can be just as tyrannical as the kind of governments that libertarians dislike. If libertarianism defends the rights of corporations to govern themselves as they see fit, will some people end up signing contracts that effectively make them quasi-slaves? Many libertarians specify that no one will be allowed to sign a contract to make themselves a slave. However, what if people sign contracts that effectively make them into slaves without doing so explicitly? Then they could be slaves in a rights-respecting manner – would that be okay? If not, what is the alternative? Should the government be allowed to police every possible contractual arrangement and annul the ones that it thinks could lead to effective slavery?

John Holbo of the blog Crooked Timber made an argument along these lines, arguing that a certain form of libertarianism can become something close to feudalism.

On the other hand, Widerquist has written an interesting article (A Dilemma for Libertarianism) taking this observation in a slightly different direction. He points out that the same arguments that libertarians use to defend the sanctity of property rights can be used just as easily to defend the rights of governments to tax individuals and to regulate businesses – or the rights of a hereditary, unconstitutional monarch.

At this point it becomes to seem like libertarian ideas of sovereignty can justify many different possible societies. Some of these societies would not be considered very free by normal definitions of the word.

Reader Susan the other initially wondered if the series would help us understand how to balance freedom and equality. She later decided that in Code Name Cain’s ideal world

There is no freedom and there is no equality? Hoppe-Libertarianism is so over the top it wipes dilemma off the plate. No worries at all about how to balance everyone’s freedom with everyone’s equality because emotional democracy is out of the question. CNC takes the instinct for freedom and crushes it forthwith. I was expected him to crush equality first.

Frustrating Contradictions

Most libertarians are not in favor of restoring the property rights of native peoples who were dispossessed. But if we get rid of the claims of American Indians by arguing that their lands were taken away so long ago that we can’t possibly fix it, then (as Widerquist points out) it becomes hard to argue that governments (many of whom got their powers long before the discovery of America) should not also get to keep their rights to tax and regulate. Since pretty much no libertarian would say that governments have the right to tax and regulate as they see fit, there is a problem: it is very difficult to make the legitimacy of property rights argument work so that the correct rights are legitimate, and the incorrect rights are illegitimate. Code Name Cain wrestles with this tortuous problem in parts IV and V of the series.

The libertarian Lamont Rodgers produced a rejoinder to Widerquist’s Dilemma. While his counterarguments did not seem very convincing to me, his commenters were very excited. One said:

I was pondering this “problem” earlier with regards to the notion that aboriginal property rights inevitably force libertarians to violate their own principles. But gladly someone has already done the hard thinking for me!

Argumentative Strategies

Although certain libertarians are forced to deal with frustrating contradictions when trying to defend their views, they have a wide array of strategies at their disposal in order to make up for this seeming disadvantage. One is simply to ignore all signs of discomfort in the listener and proudly continue. The estimable John Médaille, who read the series before it was posted, confided that “what scares me is that libertarians will read it and take it seriously; they might find the questions perplexing, but they will find the answers brilliant.” This prediction was duly confirmed by one reader, who found that the interviewer’s “questions and replies to CNC are often childish and emotional. CNC seems like a very smart fellow, though he does have several mistakes in his axioms and conclusions.”

Another approach is to attack other people for using specific terms in “incorrect” ways, so that the discussion gets mired in questions of proper linguistic usage. Code Name Cain provided some examples of this strategy – he became angry when I said that his future society would make people slaves, or involve coercion. Fortunately, I was able to satisfy him by referring instead to people being made effective slaves in a rights-respecting manner, and to noncoercive coercion. A few readers also provided examples of this approach, insisting vehemently that it is wrong to call Rothbard, Hoppe, and CNC libertarians when they are really anarchists, or anarcho-capitalists, or neoliberals. Other readers rebutted that only libertarians who insisted on complete elimination of the state could truly call themselves libertarians. Hans-Hermann Hoppe might agree with this last view.

A somewhat similar technique is to take advantage of the fact that no two libertarians ever think exactly alike. The key is to listen to what is being said, and then announce that it doesn’t apply to real libertarians (i.e. libertarians like you) at all. Then you condemn the author for shoddy and possibly dishonest writing. If you use the phrase “straw man” a few times, there will be no need to ask questions about whether any of the author’s arguments apply to your type of libertarianism.

Code Name Cain naturally thinks of his own libertarianism as the correct variety. However, the interview series went to some lengths in order to make clear that many other (right)-libertarians have different views. See the beginning of part II and the criticism of “left-libertarians” in part III. Curiously, some readers decided that the interview series was presenting CNC as the most typical libertarian imaginable. They then complained about “straw men.”

The main point of the Rodgers response to Widerquist seems to be that (authentic?) libertarians don’t really believe that libertarian-style natural rights require a minimal (or nonexistent) government ¬– they just believe that natural rights permit such a government. Even if that were true, it doesn’t seem like much of a rebuttal of Widerquist’s main point. However, by claiming that Widerquist had misunderstood the libertarian position, Rodgers made it possible for his commenters to happily dismiss Widerquist as “a fairly unintelligent individual.”

As we have just seen, another important argumentative strategy is to slip in casual insults at someone who does not agree. CNC likes to say things like “maybe you haven’t realized it yet” and “if logic is difficult for you.” Some readers followed his example.

Libertarians are not the only people who sometimes try to make up for the lack of a substantive responses by courageously offering anonymous abuse. Some of the most entertaining insults came from the readers who thought that I was the same person as CNC, or that I shared his views. One such reader said “what a bunch of crap. So some kid fresh out of his PhD has a wet dream about a society where “brilliant” people get their fair share and bad evil government are kept in check. […] Stop imagining the world from your math dept.” Another reader reminded others that “these are the “thoughts” of an overeducated elementary school math teacher,” describing me as “an apologist for the manifestly failed libertarian economic model.”

There seems to be a lot of anitpathy towards mathematicians and elementary school math teachers out there. I knew that seventh graders frequently make fun of kids who like math, but I was a little surprised to read these kind of comments on Yves’ blog.

A Parody?

Hans-Hermann Hoppe is quite real. While one reader identified Code Name Cain as John Denson (adjunct scholar at the Mises Institute), it is my opinion that he is the fruit of my imagination. However, CNC was not intended to be satire in the normal sense of the word. Reader Chad, who has some familiarity with Hoppe’s work, declared that even ‘if this is an apocryphal interview, it’s not satirical hyperbole.’ StPaulite added, “the direct quotes in red are without fail more batshit than the rest of the text.”

In fact, I found Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s ideas fascinating, but it would have been quite difficult to construct a dialogue entirely from snippets of his book. Even if I had done that, there would still have been a risk of misrepresenting his thought. Code Name Cain was created so that I could try to fill in missing or uncertain details of a Hoppe-like philosophy in the most logical manner I could think of, without attributing these additions to Hoppe himself. Some fine points that a couple readers thought I personally invented were actually adapted (rather faithfully) from Hoppe’s book: in particular, the graphs in part VI showing time-preference curves for different types of individuals (compare p. 8 of Hoppe’s book).

In defense of readers that thought CNC was simply a satire, reader RanDomino cites Poe’s law: “[…] it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between sincere extremism and an exaggerated parody of extremism.”

Do Many Libertarians Agree with Hans-Hermann Hoppe?

Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, and Hoppe prefer to abolish the state, while libertarians like Nozick, Rand, and others would opt for an extremely small government that protects contracts and property rights. This is the famous dispute between libertarian “anarchists” and “minarchists.”

While the distinction is certainly important, the different kinds of (right)-libertarians often manage to coexist surprisingly well. Part II of the series quotes two non-anarchist libertarians on this subject – Bryan Caplan explains how anarchist libertarians play a symbiotic role in the libertarian world, helping other libertarians to seem more moderate, while Tibor Machan urges libertarians not to let their differences on this issue “distrac[t] from the far more significant task of making the case for libertarianism in the face of innumerable bona fide statist challenges.”

In general, however, it is surprisingly difficult to tell how “extreme” or “absurd” a given libertarian actually is. In Rothbard’s confidential 1961 memo,
he advocated “infiltrating” key intellectual strata, keeping in mind that “one scholar is worth a thousand housewives, in the matter of influence, import, etc.” Rothbard emphasized that libertarians should make a point of

never acting in a manner, or speaking in a manner, inconsistent with the full libertarian position. To be inconsistent, in the name of “practicality” is to betray the libertarian position itself, and is worthy of the utmost condemnation….

Thus, suppose that one is writing about taxation. It is not incumbent on the libertarian to always proclaim his full “anarchist” position in whatever he writes; but it is incumbent upon him in no way to praise taxation or condone it; he should simply leave this perhaps glaring vacuum, and wait for the eager reader to begin to question and perhaps come to you for further enlightenment. But if the libertarian says, “Of course, some taxes must be levied,” or something of the sort, he has betrayed the cause.

If libertarians are often careful to leave the more surprising parts of their vision of the future unsaid, then it becomes hard to tell what a given libertarian actually believes. Looking at public figures under Rothbard’s litmus test, there might be quite a few politicians who have never given a hint that they think “some taxes must be levied” – such politicians could have sympathy to Hoppe-like views, but of course we don’t necessarily know. This might explain why reader wunsacon says “my closest, devout, highly educated “libertarian” friend sounds like he has much in common with “CNC” interviewed here. And you wouldn’t know how “radical” his views are until you talk with him at length and then some weird comments slip out.”

Is Discussing Hans-Hermann Hoppe Evil? Is It a Novel Form of Red-Baiting?

The preceding discussion may bring to mind the Cold War, with libertarians in the unexpected role of communists, and critics of libertarians in the unexpected role of anti-communist inquisitors. This similarity is not accidental – in fact, Rothbard says in his memo that “we can learn a great deal from Lenin and the Leninists” in planning for a libertarian “revolution.”

However, if Rothbard was happy to learn from Lenin, not all modern critics of libertarianism are eager to take on the role of Joseph McCarthy. Some readers picked up on this parallel. Thus reader RugbyD worried that “Holding up an anarcho-capitalist as the torch-bearer for libertarians… [is] like equating all people with socialist tendencies with Stalin.”

On one interpretation, this argument seems to imply that anarcho-capitalists like Rothbard and Lew Rockwell are as dangerous as Stalin. If so, Ron Paul, who has strong links with both of them, should be treated as a frightening menace. But I think this is not quite what these readers had in mind.

Instead, these readers are perhaps proposing a new era of respectful civic discourse. For decades, anyone in America who proposed a new kind of economic system was immediately brought face to face with the threat of being labeled as a communist or a Stalinist. Speeches would immediately be made about how the noble intention to create a better society often leads down the “road to serfdom.” Even today, there are many circles in which bringing up something like a national health care system is taken as the first step to totalitarianism.

These readers might be offering us all an effective truce. In the future, minimal-state libertarians will be free to discuss their ideal society without anyone confusing them with anarcho-capitalists like Rothbard. In exchange, other people that propose other ideal societies, whether anarchist or gift-exchange or socialist or whatever, will also be able to discuss them freely without anyone confusing them with Soviet planners. New ideas will flourish. Everyone will win out.

Is Hans-Hermann Hoppe Too Absurd To Be Worth Discussing?

CNC is quick to identify certain populations of humans as being so defective that they are perhaps better considered subhuman. Ayn Rand is of course famous for denouncing people who are “scum” and “lice” and “looters and moochers,” while Walter Block has worried about immigration leading to “forced integration with […] the dregs of the world.”

Some readers suggested ignoring “extreme” or “absurd” libertarians like Hoppe (and Rothbard? and Lew Rockwell?). It is a little hard to know what constitutes “extreme” sometimes. The last conversation I had with a Ron Paul supporter involved complaints about how it was unfair that taxpayers are “coerced” into paying for the food and shelter of prison inmates. “Would you prefer that they do forced labor?” I asked. “Taxpayers should not have to pay again for the maintenance of people who have already sapped the resources of society,” he said. So yes, inmates were going to do forced labor. Later in the conversation, my acquaintance explained that this would make prison less pleasant, therefore creating an incentive for less crime. I pointed out that some people would already consider prisons to be unpleasant places. “Obviously they’re wrong,” he replied. “If prisons were really that unpleasant, incentives would operate and crime would decrease.”

Take the example in part V where Code Name Cain dispossesses an African tribe in order to produce large gains for his hedge fund. Before writing that part of the series, I ran this example by one of my libertarian friends. He agreed with CNC that CNC had not violated natural rights, and that instead the natives had violated CNC’s natural rights by refusing to be evicted.

In any event, readers who thought that some libertarians were too “extreme” to be worth discussing came to this conclusion through different routes. Some readers (including at least one libertarian) seemed to feel the same scorn for Hoppe that CNC feels for other “subhumans.” Others seemed to think that even presenting Hoppe’s views clearly was equivalent to keeping “us distracted with contrived enemies,” or presenting an “obscene and grotesque image of the infamous ‘libertarian’ .” Apparently these readers seemed very offended by Hoppe’s view of the world and did not think anyone could take it seriously – but I still wondered why they found it difficult to say:

I denounce Hoppe and believe his ideas would create a terrible society. There are other kinds of libertarians, like X, who are totally different because they believe in x, y, z, which Hoppe does not. I support them, or at least think they are people I can talk with.

No, I Don’t Think So

However, I disagree with readers who think Hoppe’s views are unworthy of comment. I often disagree with Hoppe, but I still found studying his book to be helpful in understanding certain ideas. As reader Alex points out,

Hoppe […] probably just thought it all through to the logical ends and made no effort to be politically correct or tactical in his arguments;” and this lack of reticence makes Hoppe extremely interesting

How do we treat with respect perspectives with which we really disagree? Is it best to pretend as if we agree, or as if we are above all of this? I would say that these responses can be rather patronizing. Isn’t it more respectful to argue with the other perspective directly, and to try to find the root of the conflict?

There are a couple areas where I actually agree with Code Name Cain. First, in part V, CNC makes an argument that the preferred society of minimal-government libertarians is very unlikely to be stable. As some readers pointed out, minimal-government libertarians typically oppose an incestuous relation between corporations and government regulation, and worry that regulations will be designed to benefit the stronger corporations. If a minimal government does not involve a vastly different campaign finance system than what we presently have, I do not understand how it will not involve a regulatory system full of corporate welfare and special advantages for well-connected corporations.

Second, in part VI, CNC and Hoppe argue that we cannot actually decide which economic theory is true by just examining the historical record. I don’t think this is actually true – at least, I think examining the historical record can help a lot. However, what does seem true to me is that the overwhelming majority of people choose which economic theory they support without making a detailed examination of all of the relevant historical data. Take also global warming – how many of the readers of NC have actually immersed themselves in the relevant climate science? Clearly, these allegiances are often decided for other reasons.

Now I happen to think that CNC/Hoppe/Mises’ “praxeological” approach is not a good response to this uncertainty. But at least these figures are doing us a valuable service by pointing out that we decide which theories to believe in through a procedure that is often much less like the strict scientific method than we might prefer to imagine.

Criticisms of the Arguments in the Interview

In some places my responses to CNC form a coherent argument about particular aspects of libertarian ideas; in other places CNC himself furnishes an argument against the beliefs of certain other libertarians. In the hundreds of comments on this series, surely some libertarians pointed out flaws in these arguments, or showed how CNC could have replaced his arguments with stronger ones?

No. In a couple cases, people brought up arguments that were later addressed. Aside from these, there was only one attempt at a counterargument. This was from reader indio007, who suggested that

The wrongdoing [in an anarcho-capitalist society] could never match the breadth and scale of wrong doing done by organized governments. Even if we had a lawless society of dog eat dog there would be less injustice than those cause by organized war.

Given that the security GLOs will have their own private armies and private intelligence services, I’m personally not convinced they won’t fight horrible wars – but at least indio007 and I are actually having an argument. No other critic of the series made an attempt.

Is It Already Happening?

Other readers were able to profit from a critical reading of Code Name Cain’s views. Reader Jill decided that “At some points Cain gives an accurate description of what is occurring. His remedies never seem to line up with reality.”

While working on this series, I also ended up reassessing the relevance of CNC’s views. In part II, Cain explains how the key step in creating his form of ideal libertarian society is by “delegitimizing” democracy – by constantly endeavoring to show that problems in politics are not about personalities, but about democracy as a system. While writing part II, it occurred to me that this part of CNC’s “strategy” is well under way in the real world, with public choice theorists playing a key role.

Reader propertius pointed out that the idea of having insurance companies carry out surveillance of consumers is already starting to be implemented: “Progressive, of course, is already doing this – offering lower rates in exchange for “bugging” your car so they can keep track of your driving habits.” Reader Walter Wit Man noted an ongoing transition of security functions to private entities with “less oversight and democratic control,” citing “e.g., Blackwater type military contractors has exploded the last 10 years.”

Other readers started to consider the possible upsides of living in CNC’s future world. Reader TGS liked the cool lasers, comparing “Dr. Evil’s mutated sea bass with frickin’ lasers strapped to their back.” Reader craazyman announced that “I am coming under Mr. Cain’s spell, reluctantly, like being struck suddenly by an arrow from Cupid […] I want my own GLO and my own oasis and harem and the right to engage in drunken mayhem. I have to be honest about that. But I want it to be all voluntary, with no church ladies telling me I’m sinning.” These readers naturally assumed (in the words of reader Blissex) “that they will be part of the superior/creative few not the inferior/looter many.”

Readers Try to Sum Up

Many readers tried to sum up what they saw as the fundamental inconsistencies in Code Name Cain’s approach. Reader drugstoreblonde asked, “So everything in the current system is invalid except the wealth hoarded under it?” Reader Sauron made an analogy: “A kid tags another then calls out “no tag backs” or “home free.” In short, I’m winning, so I invoke a ‘rule’ that says I stay ahead.” Reader Kukulkan commented succinctly “the violence [that libertarians consider legitimate] is always someone else’s fault.”

Readers also focused on the distinctions between governments, corporations, and individuals. Reader Sauron concluded, “Libertarians seem to rely on one or both of two premises: all government is repressive and/or all repression is governmental in origin.” In reader YankeeFrank’s opinion, “A libertarian is someone who prefers to be dominated by a faceless corporation rather than an at least somewhat accountable government.” Reader TK421 summed up a CNC-like position as “Which corporations have broken the law and should be disbanded? We can never know. It’s just too hard, so no point in trying. Which people have broken the law and should be exiled to Siberia? That one’s easy.”

For other readers, the true problem with Code Name Cain’s views lies in his understanding of human nature. Some, like rotter, saw a pitiless social Darwinian ethic: “the freemarketers imagine themselves as sleek black panthers,solitary killing machines staking the economic “jungle”.” Reader Jill wondered, “What does it mean to say a child “gets what they deserve?”… There is no room in Libertarianism for the recognition that every human life begins in vulnerability.”

But for other readers, CNC’s survival-of-the-fittest attitude was actually full of naïvété. Reader craazyman worried about the moment when “our Mr. Cain gets gunned down in a financial dispute with his heavily armed security team.” According to ScottS, “[l]ibertarians seem to constantly forget that their own selfish impulses apply evenly to everyone,” citing the fact that Alan Greenspan “never imagined that a trader for an investment bank would do anything to benefit himself at the expense of his company.”

Thought-Provoking Comments from Readers

There were so many interesting and enjoyable comments besides the
ones quoted above, and readers did a wonderful job clearing up the misunderstandings of other readers. Here is a small selection of additional comments that I thought were interesting.

Jack E. Lope: This bogus talking point [that worries about taxes and regulations cause uncertainty] is at odds with the description of the workings of a Propertopia: no regulations, but every dispute can go to court. It is a poster child for business uncertainty.

walter_map: On the whole, a Huxleyan dystopia might be preferable to an Orwellian one, although it’s a foregone conclusion you’re not actually going to get a choice.

Bill White: [There was] a ceremony which the Romans performed whenever their armies crossed a border to invade a country. They complained in a symbolic way about the bad behavior of people they were about to invade […] They also invited the invaded ones to negotiate a settlement. Often, noone was actually on the other side, but that did not matter. The lack of negatiations was a sufficient reason to continue with the invasion.

F. Beard: Gee wiz Cain, it would be better to not worship God at all than to insult Him with burning dung and thorns.
[…] Well, it’s pretty clear that one CANNOT be a believing Jew or Christian and be a libertarian of CNC’s ilk.
propertius: Oh, no Mr.Beard […] God gave man “dominion” (that is to say, “sovereign legal authority”) in a voluntary transaction, right there in Genesis 1:28-29.
In so doing, God surrendered any claims to the property – it’s the original quitclaim deed.
F. Beard: Thus says the LORD, “Heaven is my throne and the earth is My footstool. […]” It appears the Lord still thinks the Earth belongs to Him.
propertius: Nonsense – this is a clear case of “seller’s remorse,” having happened millennia after the deal was consummated.

Susan the other: Am I right in being amused by your giving a vacuous twist to Isaiah Berlin’s Negative Liberty.
Andrew: Yes.

rotter: … I felt 12 [installments of the series] would be better, or 6 for Von Mises, 6 more for Ayn Rand, etc.,.
Andrew: That’s an interesting idea, and thanks for your supportive remark. I’ll think about it…

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  1. Summer

    It only received a passing mention, but it’s the debunked Social Darwinism that needs to die before any new ideas can prosper.
    It’s the degeneracy that creates degeneracy.
    It’s posionous to any notion of civilization.

  2. NJ

    Why not just save everyone a lot of time and headspace and just rename Libertarianism by the simpler (but equally fitting) term Selfishness?

    If we do that, we don’t have to spend days analysing the tortuous logic of libertarian-right academics trying to explain away their right to do whatever they like at everyone else’s expense. It’s self evident that unfettered selfishness is not a rational foundation for good governance or civilisation. Even the Mexican standoff of free-market capitalism still needs agreed upon rules of engagement and regulation to enforce them.

    Is it too idealistic to say we should call out libertarian ideals as self-serving and destructive to society wherever they pop up in government?

    1. Katy

      Agreed. My problem with people who identify as “libertarians” are invariably bordering on sociopaths.

      In a civilized society, as the saying goes, “my right to swing my arm ends where your nose begins.”

      In the libertarian utopia, I can shoot you in the face without consequences if you’re on my property (it’s your own fault—you should have hired a private security force!).

  3. Geo

    My personal view is that I wish those that hold views that one way is the right way would open themselves up to the idea that no way is the right way. Whether it be Capitalism, Socialism, Libertarianism, or any other ism. They are all perfect in theoretical (imaginary) form but in practice will be flawed. The key is to find balance between forms. For this, it is important to understand the theories of each but also the history and how they work (or don’t) in any given society. Each has their own appeal and can be configured in ways that work together.

    I don’t trust the views of anyone who claims one way is the right way on things like this. It might as well be religion at that point.

    I would love to see us shift our dialogue on these issues. I am often baffled by the heated opinions about “Socialism” for the poor when so little concern is raised about how much we do for the rich. From corporate subsidies and tax credits/incentives (Amazon HQ2 as a recent extreme example) to bailouts, to war and diplomacy for fossil fuel and other big business concerns, to residual costs of their pollution, resource extraction, and waste, etc… Yet, individuals are rarely given any breaks or benefits in these areas.

    Would be nice to see modern Libertarians spend more effort raging against the rich powerful who “mooch” off the government than they do toward the poor and powerless. Most I know and read seem more in awe of the rich and powerful and of the belief that they earned ever penny they have while the poor are leeches on the system.

    How anyone can see the poor and powerless as the ones wrecking things over the rich and powerful is truly baffling yet seems the most common view.

    1. Carla

      “How anyone can see the poor and powerless as the ones wrecking things over the rich and powerful is truly baffling yet seems the most common view.”

      Yes, this baffles me, too. When I try to point it out, I am immediately dismissed and it is as if I had never said anything. WTF.

      P.S. — Your whole comment was very good, BTW.

      1. Synoia

        How anyone can see the poor and powerless as the ones wrecking things over the rich and powerful is truly baffling yet seems the most common view.

        Live for while in Europe. That was the guiding mantra of the Aristocracy.

  4. pretzelattack

    However, what does seem true to me is that the overwhelming majority of people choose which economic theory they support without making a detailed examination of all of the relevant historical data. Take also global warming – how many of the readers of NC have actually immersed themselves in the relevant climate science? Clearly, these allegiances are often decided for other reasons.

    is believing the germ theory of disease, or recognizing the practical consequences of jumping off a building, or thinking the moon landing was real and not shot in a studio in burbank, determined by one’s allegiances? why would immersing oneself in the relevant science lead to a different position?

    1. Ape

      There’s a fundamental difference between objective sciences and philosophy masquerading as an external reality.

      1. witters

        What is this “fundamental difference” is the query here. (And “objective” and “external” are not synonyms.)

  5. David

    This series has served to confirm, at least in my mind, what I always thought about libertarianism in its USian form. It’s essentially two things.
    One is the childish desire to have everything for nothing, and to get your way at all times. It’s dressed up in a pseudo-intellectual language, but amounts in practice to “Give me, I want! You can’t have it!” I suspect that many libertarians were extremely indulged as children, and were never required to share their toys with others, for example.
    The other, and this is also an adolescent phenomenon, is the attraction to radical, sweeping, deliberately shocking ideas. Much like Bazarov in “Fathers and Sons” with his nihilism, or indeed much like the adolescents of the 1960s with their garbled Marxism, libertarians can expand a doctrine which doesn’t have to take account of the real world, and which can therefore be completely coherent, in a way that is intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

  6. Tony Wright

    Perhaps a wise man named Confucius had a better perspective, along the lines of “the middle way is usually the best option”. Any idea, philosophy or theory , if taken to logical extremes, will lead to disaster . Perhaps it would be best to ignore the fact that Confucius was Chinese in the current political climate….

    1. witters

      What is a “logical extreme”? Consistency? And consistency leads to disaster? (I suspect the problem is not “logical extremism” but terrible premises – best explained David’s way.)

  7. Off The Street

    That Rothbard quote shows the libertarian arrogance.

    “infiltrating” key intellectual strata

    Prior generations wrote of navigating between Scylla and Charybdis. Those roles now are filled by some variant of infiltrating libertarian on one side and by those Gramsci et al long marchers through the institutions on the other side. The average person is told to make way or just pushed aside while their life is put in play.

    Is it any wonder that so many people are frustrated and more at what is shoved down their throats by faceless agendizing schemers? Kids never liked castor oil, and eventually they will not even be able to afford its modern adjunct. At some point, they will say praxis this.

  8. Michael C.

    I see the problem with libertarianism as beginning with its false view of reality. It presupposes that we are distinct, wholly integrated beings within our own bodies, and that extends to that which we own. Reality is not like that, and a Buddhist might describe it as “Wrong View. In short, a fundamental flaw in how we see reality. One is not distinct from the world around us, and the fact that we all must have access to water, to air to breath, to heat, to shelter, to the aid of others, even if in the barest sense to the fact that it is due to the union of two other beings that we exist in this temporary state at all.

    Even if you narrow that assessment to the fact that we are dependent upon others to grow food for us to buy, to build those shelter, to provide the means to get water, etc., then we are dependent beings in ways that completely negate the idea of an integrated being separate from the larger world and those in it. Like it or not, we are all a part of an everchanging complex of atoms and dependent relationships that make the idea of personal right, or sovereignty as it is put above, a rather flawed way of looking at the world.

    For that reason, the inclusion of social aspect–and our undeniable need for and reliance on a host of others, is a more accurate and necessary way to see the world, to see it as it really is. When the libertarian does a simple task like turning on the faucet for a drink of water, he or she is unwittingly taking part in the interconnection within which we all exist. Or when one takes a breath of air one is admitting that he is wholly dependent on something outside of self.

    Therefore, the discussion might be about how much independence we are allowed in this highly integrated existence we have we call life such as one’s right to pollute with impunity, one’s right to own and hoard property, or one’s right to scarf up the surplus value of one’s worker, but one can never stand on a solid libertarian-view ground if one believes (an attachment to “wrong view”) that he is not reliant upon others and the material world around one’s bodily form along with all of “its” acquisitions.

    For me, the Libertarian is wrong a priori in his assumptions, and those assumptions stem from another aspect of wrong view–that is the view that greed, hatred, and the belief in an unchanging, independent self is a good thing.

    1. TankTruman

      Reading the Libertarians one suspects that they cannot grasp the reality of predatory behaviors and that they might actually be capable of degenerate behaviors.

  9. pjay

    An excellent conclusion to an excellent series. Thanks for re-running it. Dittmer has done a masterful job demonstrating how an ideal most of us value — liberty — has been used as an ideological corkscrew twisting our psyches and emotions so that we end up supporting its opposite.

    Most “liberals” (vs. “libertarians”) would probably agree heartily with the points raised here. It would be nice to see a similar series on how our ideals of “social justice” — or “humanitarian intervention,” “R2P”, etc. — have also been perverted into support of their opposite by the PTB.

  10. L

    This is a very interesting series. Have you looked at the relationship between libertarianism and slavery? I ask because your discussion of the conflicts reminded me a great deal of the gyrations that John C. Calhoun in his disquisition to claim that he was for liberty and the rights of people but then to restrict those rights only to rich people. It seems to be a very similar problem of articulating broad claims but then, when the ideas are laid out, having to exclude the actual consequences of those ideas.

  11. reason

    I enjoyed this series immensely when it was first published. What I am perhaps missing here is the insight that above all (G)libertarianism is a theocracy – first you have to accept submission to dead philosopher kings before it can possibly work. And the history of theocracies is that they are the absolute worst of tyrannies. Gods will is unknowable and so can be invoked by any sociopath (who is inevitably a hypocrite) with a desire for power. This system would inevitably work the same way.

  12. Susan the Other

    Thank you for rerunning this series. 2011 was long enough ago that I virtually forgot most of it. And I never took libertarians very seriously to begin with because they had everything so buttoned up. But now I realize that their ideas really were very influential. Especially in convincing western democracies to become more authoritarian… which (imo) failed because it was like a solution without a problem. And now the analysis of our predicament has turned to neoliberalism – which seems to have predated the libertarians of the 1960s by a few decades. The neoliberalism I understand today seems to have been dusted off and escorted back in by both progressive liberals and libertarians. Interesting. I hope I’m not being too optimistic to say that I think the tide has turned against the neoliberals/globalists and we are becoming pragmatic again and even congress is waking up to the necessity for good legislation. Finally. My guess is that the change for the better was made possible because of blogs like Naked Capitalism. I do hope Yves, know what a difference they have made.

  13. Tomonthebeach

    I found this post to be easier to grasp that the series – even a bit more erudite. Thanks

    I still find self-proclaimed libertarians to be annoying. I lived in Oklahoma 7 long years int he 90s. As a tribe, most Okies are rather dim-witted reasoners. I used to refer to the state as a ghetto for Stupid. I too often encountered people who viewed their turf as a mini-state over which the laws of society did not apply – they ruled absolutely. Killing any fool stupid enough to set foot on their turf was entirely justified, like Florida’s stand-your-ground law that legalizes homicide. Some rural libertarians even went so far as to explain and one-up in discussions who had the most lethal homestead protections – things like claymore mines, boobie traps, 30 cal machine gun nests – really – you cannot make this shit up. How much of that was Anheuser Bush bravado is unclear. I surely never intended to see for myself.

  14. Paul Hirschman

    Property-rights Libertarianism is intellectualized solipsism. It imagines itself as a self-forming entity, when, in reality, it is just one product of human history, and human history is the story of a self-conscious species, not of isolated and independent individuals. L’s really ought to re-read Dostoyevski every year or so. We humans are a strange bunch. L is an attempt to escape history by denying it exists. All one needs to know is that insofar as L has spread in historical time, it has always done so because some government has forced people to live this way. Locke, Locke, Locke in the state of nature, where virtuous developers of the land must gather themselves together in civil society (and hence government) to fend off “degenerates” (his word, not mine). Were it not for these damn degenerates, we could all be free, without need of civil society and government. Those bums have ruined things for the rest of us “worthy” sorts. How boring can a thinker be in 2019?

  15. Daniel Romig

    “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are the words that define the United States Declaration of Independence.

    Where do we draw the line between personal freedom and government control of a citizen? If one wants to drink alcohol in one’s home, that is allowed, although in my state of Minnesota one must be 21 years old. Minnesota grants me the personal freedom to grow apples on my property and make hard cider out of them. I am free to consume this cider, but government control comes into play when I drive a motor vehicle on public roads under the influence of too much alcohol. That is a well drawn line.

    In some states a citizen can cultivate cannabis, but in my state, it is against the law. I cannot grow cannabis in my home or on my property to consume in the privacy of my home. As such, Minnesota’s government control in this matter is not a well drawn line. In fact, it contradicts the US Declaration of Independence, as it takes away my unalienable right to pursue happiness if that happiness is derived from consuming cannabis in my own dwelling.

    The Libertarian Party believes that it should be the right of Minnesotans to enjoy cannabis, if they choose to. The two party duopoly that controls both the Executive and Legislative branches of Minnesota’s government has taken away the right to enjoy cannabis.

    So, where do we draw the line between personal freedom and government control? Where do we find a balance between the government protecting its citizen’s life, liberty and property on one end of the scale, and on the other end of the scale using its power to modify, influence and dictate the conduct of its citizens?

      1. MichaelSF

        What about the renter Air BnB’ing one of the bedrooms without the landlord’s knowledge/permission? Shouldn’t the landlord be getting those extra profits/rents from his property rights per libertarianism?

      2. Todde

        I will give the Libertarian answer, and someone let me know if i am.wrong:

        it would be decided by a contract entered into by a willing buying amd a willing seller.

        Which means your ‘unalienable rights’ suddenly become subject to your local market conditions.

        Right? If there are more dope smoking renters than lessees then the dope smokers have to give up their right or not have a place to live.

        If the opposite is true, a landlord would have to not rent and suffer an economic consequence in order to exercise his right.

        Either way your rigts looks more like commodities to me.

      3. Daniel Romig

        The question I asked was about laws; laws that give the government control of what a citizen can or can not do legally within one’s own home. Some states in the US have changed their laws concerning cannabis, but the legality of cannabis is a good way to look at the difference between Libertarians and the established political structure.

        MichaelSF and Todde, if you read this comment and feel like replying again, please answer this straightforward question. Should the government where I reside in the state of Minnesota, USA, have the right and power to prohibit me from cultivating cannabis in my home and consuming it in my home?

        This question is not about Air BnB or landlords and renters. It is about whether society allows the individual to live by their own moral compass as long as the individual does not violate the rights of others. Or does society dictate to individuals by force of law, that government should assure certain outcomes or forms of behavior considered desirable by those who wield political authority (in the words of Richard Ebeling).

        Minnesota and the USA tax alcohol and tobacco, so that acts as a force of behavioral influence, but these two substances are legal for citizens to purchase and consume. In 1919, a Republican Minnesotan named Andrew Volstead convince the 66th Congress of the United States that alcohol should be banned. I live in a place where cannabis is banned. The Libertarian party believes in my right to do as I choose as long as I do not interfere with others. For all of the commenters who critique the Libertarian party as being selfish, turn the clock back a century to remember what happened to individual rights in the USA when political paternalism ruled the day.

  16. Anon

    I am not an academic or intellectual with extensive knowledge in political science, but in my personal experience, the libertarians I know are mostly white men from upper middle class backgrounds, although I’ve encountered a few Asian and African-American male libertarians, usually from a higher socio-economic background as well. Besides being economically conservative and believing in free market principles, many of them are straight-up misogynists and men’s rights activists, so I don’t see a huge difference between them and conservatives other than on a few issues that benefit many libertarians such as the legalization of marijuana and support of gay rights. Yes, it is a selfish ideology that is becoming uglier with the rise of the intellectual dark web. I’ve noticed that quite a few hate feminism and SJWs, and believe that progressivism is a threat to traditional masculinity. It’s no surprise that so many thrive in Silicon Valley and its sexist start-up culture.

  17. skippy

    I so enjoyed these posts back in the day as they got stuck into the philosophical underpinnings and axioms flowing through mainstream economics, political architecture, and legalese. Much to the exception of its proponents assumed dominance via its culturally stupefing circular firing squad logic.

    If I got payed a dime for every word it took to wrangle Beardo’s never ending story plucked from the either of diabolical shifting goal posts on seismic sands I could bequeath YS a rather large honorarium for the blogs operations in perpetuity. That does not even broach the thousands of hours spent over some few years on other econ and political sites of various academic or intellectual rigor dealing with the multifaceted libertarian asymmetric warfare approach.

    I mean Marxist libertarians …. or Libertarian Marxists … promoting syndicalism or voluntarism with strong property rights …. hay lets just take some dead guy with some market share in market place of ideas and bolt ourselves on to it and then plagiarize it like rights [tm] don’t matter, when monopoly and dominance is the order of attack – don’t make me virtuous today as I have works to do ….

    I would leave all with this thought from an old associate in of that time ….

    “The point is that much of cultural organisation is arbitrary. It often serves no real purpose. Evolutionary psychologists might tell you otherwise, but they are just modern day myth-makers telling stories that try to give us meaning and, ultimately, justify certain cultural patterns that we hold dear by appealing to the narrative structure of evolutionary biology and imposing it on cultural development metaphorically much in the same way as marginalist economics transferred metaphors from physics to the social sciences. Levi-Strauss introduced the idea of the ‘bricoleur’ as the person who engages in such constructions.”

  18. Unna

    Libertarianism has no real future except as a set of talking points for the rhetorical advantage of the capitalists. Libertarianism has no future because, as the Series shows, it doesn’t believe in the State. In addition, with the moral discrediting and delegitimization of neoliberialism due to its now evident destructive social and economic results, Libertarianism is itself discredited as a more extreme, or ultimate extreme form of neoliberalism (Liberalism).

    Libertarianism is already caught within a multi tiered assault by opposing contemporary political philosophies and movements. They are, (1) the social democratic progressives like Bernie and Corbyn, (2) the neo fascist alt-right which is as yet still small, (3) the national social-model non-liberal democratic traditionalists like Orban, Le Pen, and the Polish ruling party, (4) cultural traditionalist Statists like Putin, and (5) neoliberal capitalists like Obama, Hillary, Trump, including so called “libertarians” like Ron and Rand Paul. There may be more but let’s leave it there.

    What “1” through “5” all have in common is their requirement of state power to function. They all need and believe in the State and its power, very much including neo-liberal capitalists like Hillary and Trump. State power includes the executive power, police power, legislative and regulatory power, judicial power, and war making power. Of course, each political philosophy will use these instances of State power in different ways, but they all need State power to actualize their programs and are nothing without state power.

    Libetarianism is not a threat. Neo-liberal capitalism, however, still very much is. In my opinion, neo-liberal capitalism has been morally and perhaps mortally discredited. It is now openly challenged politically and denounced more and more intellectually. Thus, it is weakened yet still holding power. For me, for the long run, the question certainly is when and how it will be replaced, but most importantly, replaced by which of the other political philosophies mentioned above.

    1. skippy

      Sorry I have to disagree Unna, MPS is a key philosophical corner stone to economic libertarianism aka neoliberalism, that some ID progressives [neoliberal – liberal market place equality for non traditional religious preferences] went third way, as a means to an ends, is just muddying the waters.

      I would buttress this perspective by an old NC commenter downsouths views and experiences in the LGBT community pre monetization within the neoliberal framework.

      Neoliberalism was launched as platonic libertarian rights agenda by pro business ideologues in establishing a means to quantify whom should have the right to shape society and to what ends[.]

  19. Chip Daniels

    The feudalism angle is the most concise.

    The libertarian world is filled with collective action, without collective agreement.

    They envision an entity which recognizes and enforces property claims through collective action, with whatever level of coercion is required, while being immune to challenge or popular will.


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