Criticism of Libertarianism

Criticism of Libertarianism

Criticisms of libertarianism include deontological criticisms and consequentialist criticisms.


Deontological criticisms


John Rawls and Ernest Partridge argue that implied social contracts justify government actions that harm some individuals so long as they are beneficial overall. They may further argue that rights and markets can only function among "a well-knit community of citizens... with an active understanding that every citizen, without exception and whatever his accomplishment, bears an enormous burden of moral debt to both predecessors and contemporaries." If these prerequisites for a libertarian society depend on paying this debt, these critics argue, the libertarian form of government will either fail or be expanded beyond recognition.[1]


In his essay "From Liberty to Welfare", philosopher James P. Sterba argues that a morally consistent application of libertarian premises, including that of negative liberty, requires that a libertarian must endorse “the equality in the distribution of goods and resources required by a socialist state.” Sterba presents the example of a typical conflict situation between the rich and poor “in order to see why libertarians are mistaken about what their ideal requires.” He argues that such a situation is correctly seen as a conflict of negative liberties: the right of the rich not to be interfered with in the satisfaction of their luxury needs is morally trumped by the right of the poor “not to be interfered with in taking from the surplus possessions of the rich what is necessary to satisfy their basic needs.” According to Sterba, the liberty of the poor should be morally prioritized in light of the fundamental moral principle ‘ “Ought” implies “Can” ‘ from which it follows that it would be unreasonable to ask the poor to relinquish their liberty not be interfered with, noting that “in the extreme case it would involve asking or requiring the poor to sit back and starve to death” and that “by contrast it would not be unreasonable to ask and require the rich to sacrifice their liberty to meet some of their needs so that the poor can have the liberty to meet their basic needs.” Having argued that ‘ ”Ought” implies “Can” ’ establishes the reasonability of asking the rich to sacrifice their luxuries for the basic needs of the poor, Sterba invokes a second fundamental principle, “The Conflict Resolution Principle” to argue that it is reasonable to make it a moral requirement. He concludes by arguing that the application of these principles to the international context makes a compelling case for socialist distribution on a world scale.[2]

Jeffrey Friedman argues that natural law libertarianism's justification for the primacy of property is incoherent:

if (as Boaz maintains) the liberty of a human being to own another should be trumped by equal human rights (62), the liberty to own large amounts of property [at the expense of others] should... also be trumped by equal human rights. This alone would seem definitively to lay to rest the philosophical case for libertarianism... The very idea of ownership contains the relativistic seeds of arbitrary authority: the arbitrary authority of the individual's 'right to do wrong.'"[3]


Siegfried Van Duffel argues that libertarian natural rights theory does not allow one to ground obligations of other sovereigns to respect each other's sovereignty.[4]

Standards of well-being

Jeffrey Friedman has criticized libertarians for often relying on the unproven assumption that economic growth and affluence automatically result in happiness.[3]

Consequentialist criticisms


Critics of the economic system favored by some libertarians, laissez-faire capitalism, argue that market failures justify government intervention in the economy, that nonintervention leads to monopolies and stifled innovation, or that unregulated markets are economically unstable. They argue that markets do not always produce the best or most efficient outcome,[5] that redistribution of wealth can improve economic health, and that advances in economics since Adam Smith show that people's actions are not always rational.[6] Free trade critics also argue that trade barriers are necessary for economic growth in some or all situations.[7]

Other economic criticism concerns the transition to a libertarian society. Critics argue that privatizing Social Security would cause a fiscal crisis in the short term and damage individuals' economic stability in the long term.[8]


Paul Kienitz has criticized libertarian opposition to state-run educational systems: "As increasing technology enables ever greater amplification of abilities, the separation between those who start out with abundant resources and those who don't, in terms of what they can then get out of the market, is likely to widen further... The least we can do is to not egregiously widen the gap ahead of time if we can help it. This is why I oppose such measures as fully privatizing education."[9][unreliable source?]


Critics argue that many libertarians currently have no method of dealing with collective problems like environmental degradation[3] and natural resource depletion because of their rejection of collective regulation and control. They see natural resources as too difficult to privatize, as well as legal responsibility for pollution and degrading biodiversity as too hard to trace.[1] In contrast, free-market environmentalism attempts to protect the environment within a free-market framework.

Government decentralization

John Donahue argues in The American Prospect that when power is shifted to local authorities, parochial local interests will predominate at the expense of the whole, and that it will exacerbate current problems with collective action.[10]

See also


  1. ^ a b Partridge, Ernest. "With Liberty and Justice for Some." Environmental Philosophy edited by Michael Zimmerman, Baird Callicott, Karen Warren, Irene Klaver, and John Clark, 2004.[1]
  2. ^ Ethics: The Big Questions. Philosophy, the Big questions. "From Liberty to Welfare", Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998, p.237-241
  3. ^ a b c Friedman, Jeffrey, "Politics or Scholarship?", Critical Review, Vol. 6, No. 2-3, 1993. Pp 429–45.
  4. ^ Siegfried Van Duffel. "Libertarian Natural Rights.", Critical Review Vol. 16, Issue 4 (December 2004) pp. 353-375. .pdf (large PDF file)
  5. ^ Surowiecki, James (2007-07-23). "Fuel for Thought". The New Yorker. 
  6. ^ Lehrer, Jonah (2007-06-27). "The Benefits of Brain Damage (Take Two)". The Frontal Cortex. ScienceBlogs. "It is an irony of economic theory that it only excels at predicting the behavior of patients with serious brain injuries." 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Chait, Jonathan. Blocking Move, The New Republic, March 21, 2005
  9. ^ Kienitz, Paul. I'm Still Not a Libertarian, "Critiques of Libertarianism," accessed 2/20/06.
  10. ^ Donahue, John. The Devil in Devolution, American Prospect, Vol 8 Iss 32, May 1, 1997.

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