Criticism of libertarianism

Criticism of libertarianism

Adherents of different ideologies have criticized libertarianism for various reasons.There are broadly two types of libertarians: consequentialists and rights theorists. [Barry, Norman P. Review Article:The New Liberalism. B.J. Pol. S. 13, p. 93] Rights theorists oppose "initiation of force and fraud," taken against a person who has not initiated physical force, threat, or fraud (many of these are individualist anarchists). Consequentialist libertarians, however, accept those actions, which they believe result in the maximum liberty even if it requires some initiation of force. A particular criticism of libertarianism may not apply to both forms.

General criticism

By the right wing

Although libertarianism (especially in the United States) is usually considered a conservative ideology, other conservatives often argue that government is needed to maintain social order and morality. They may argue that excessive personal freedoms encourage dangerous and irresponsible behaviour. Some of the most commonly debated issues are sexual norms, the drug war and public education. Libertarians feel that the state has no business being involved in what they see as victimless crimes, but conservatives view some of these same issues as threats to society. Some, such as the conservative Jonah Goldberg of "National Review" consider libertarianism "a form of arrogant nihilism" that is both overly tolerant of nontraditional lifestyles (like recreational drug use) and intolerant towards other political views. In the same article, he writes "You don't turn children into responsible adults by giving them absolute freedom. You foster good character by limiting freedom, and by channeling energies into the most productive avenues. That's what all good schools, good families, and good societies do. The Boy Scouts don't throw a pocketknife to a kid and say, 'Knock yourself out, kid. I'll be back in a couple hours.' The cultural libertarians want to do precisely that... pluralism [The Constitution is not a suicide pact| [should not be] ... a suicide pact] ." [Goldberg, Jonah. "Freedom Kills." National Review Online, December 12, 2001. [] ]

Goldberg has had repeated disagreements with Lew Rockwell and his followers (whom he calls "angry libertarians") over what they see as conservatism's concessions to socialism and its support for the war in Iraq. [Callahan, Gene. "Winning the Neocon Way," Lew Rockwell's webpage, February 6, 2001. [] ] Goldberg argues that modern conservatism incorporates the best features of libertarianism without its flaws through what he calls fusionism:

Hayek says that in the United States you can 'still' be a defender of liberty by defending long-standing institutions that were designed to preserve freedom. In other words, 'conservatives' in America arendash or can bendash classical liberals... traditionalist conservatives and free-market libertarians agree on about 85% of all public-policy issues... When [libertarians] try to break ranks entirely the most common result is that they throw a party to which nobody shows up. [Goldberg, Jonah. "Libertarians Under My Skin. National Review Online, March 2, 2001. [] ]

By the left wing

Many criticisms of libertarianism question the definition of freedom upheld by libertarians. Some liberals and socialists have argued that the economic practices defended by libertarians result in privileges for a wealthy elite, and that even people who have not been coerced (according to the libertarian definition) may not be free because they lack the power or wealth to act as they choose.Fact|date=March 2007

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. [Partridge, Ernest. "With Liberty and Justice for Some." "Environmental Philosophy" edited by Michael Zimmerman, Baird Callicott, Karen Warren, Irene Klaver, and John Clark, 2004. [] ] Further, Rawls argued that rational people without knowledge of their current status (behind what he calls a "veil of ignorance") would want society to provide a safety net for the least advantaged because of the possibility that they would need it themselves.

An important distinction made by Rawls is between freedom itself and the value of freedom, and libertarians wrongly seek to maximize freedom without consideration of the value of the resulting freedoms. This criticism is based on the notion of the incommensurability of values, where liberty is but one good that must compete with others, rather than all goods being reducible to one simple measure of utility. Libertarians simplistically consider liberty to trump all other goods, without consideration of the commensurability of different goods. Significantly, although Rawls argues for inviolable rights, these are restricted to situations where basic prosperity has been established, rather than being ideological maxims in the manner of libertarians' view of liberty.Fact|date=March 2007

A moderate social democratic criticism can be derived from a milder version of some far-left criticisms. Some level of ownership of private property may be valuable for people to express their freedom. At the same time, private ownership of property can be seen as, by definition, a government restriction on others' freedom. For someone to own property means that no one else has any freedom to use it. The right to ownership is recognized by the government and defended by government agencies such as police forces (who can use force to defend the right to ownership of property) and courts. As well, people are born into classes with differing levels of property ownership based on reasons unrelated to their own effort or innovation. The right to ownership of property is just one form of government action to protect citizens' lives, freedom, and expression but it needs to be balanced by other actions in order to ensure that everyone's individual freedom is actually protected. As such, there is nothing about the right to ownership that gives it precedence over other rights and freedoms (such as the right to free expression, which requires public venues to be a meaningful right, or the right to universally accessible health care, without which many people may well be deprived of any other liberty.)

By the Far left

Some critiques center on the notion of property (on which much of libertarian theory rests) and argue that many forms of property are illegitimate. The argument that property itself is theft, promoted by many anarchists. Noam Chomsky, for one, argues that property rights often function as authoritarian restrictions on others' actions. Others argue that current property owners obtained their property unfairly, justifying its redistribution. This is especially true in the United States where, they argue, land was initially stolen from the Native Americans who held it previously.

Classical Marxists and many modern socialists subscribe to the Lockean notion that production implies ownership, but argue that modern production makes it impossible to divide ownership of most goods amongst the individual laborers involved, for too many people participate in the complex process of extracting raw materials and in the manufacture of the end product (see labor theory of value). As such, they believe that property must be held in common for all, in trust, as it were, by the state. Moreover, they contend that the capitalist adds nothing to the equation in the way of labor, that which creates ownership, and that the profit or surplus value is therefore essentially unearned. Libertarians counter that this analysis ignores the complex labor of arranging for and managing production, the various investment risks, and the lost opportunity costs involved in deferring consumption until sufficient capital can be amassed to build a factory or hire workers and then spending it on these factors of production.

Libertarians contend that an agreement between laborers and employers to perform work is simply a contractual agreement of exchanging the use of one form of property (labor) for another (wages), and there is no particular need to tie production to ownership. Critics often respond that neglecting to tie production to ownership often results in situations in which the producers (workers) do not receive the full benefit of their own labor, or that impoverished laborers cannot "voluntarily" make agreements with someone because the capitalist's control of the means of production is coercive. This last argument depends on the criticism of property outlined above.

By Objectivists

While Ayn Rand's Objectivism philosophy advocates laissez-faire capitalism based on individual rights, she considered it radically different from libertarianism and explicitly rejected the term. Objectivists have criticized libertarians for suggesting that a just society is based on a axiomatic (intrinsic) belief in liberty or a pragmatic (subjective) belief that uses the practical outcome of capitalism. Objectivists argue that abstract ideas don't exist in a vacuum, and thus the concept of liberty needs to be validated by a process of reason with an underlying philosophy of rational selfishness, reason, and objective reality.

pecific criticism


Critics of the economic system favored by 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 advances in economics since Adam Smith show that people's actions are not always rational [cite web |url= |title=The Benefits of Brain Damage (Take Two) |author=Lehrer, Jonah |date=2007-06-27 |work=The Frontal Cortex |publisher=ScienceBlogs |quote=It is an irony of economic theory that it only excels at predicting the behavior of patients with serious brain injuries. ] , that markets do not always produce the best or most efficient outcome [cite news |last=Surowiecki |first=James |title=Fuel for Thought |url= |publisher=The New Yorker |date=2007-07-23 ] , and that redistribution of wealth can improve economic health.

Other economic criticism concerns the transition to a libertarian society. Critics may argue that privatizing Social Security would cause a fiscal crisis in the short term and damage individuals' economic stability in the long term. [Chait, Jonathan. "Blocking Move, The New Republic," March 21, 2005 [] ]

Another criticism is of the handling of Latin American economies by libertarian economists:

Between 1973 and 1989, a government team of economists trained at the University of Chicago dismantled or decentralized the Chilean state as far as was humanly possible (the so-called miracle of Chile). Their program included privatizing welfare and social programs, deregulating the market, liberalizing trade, rolling back trade unions, and rewriting its constitution and laws... Chile's economy became more unstable than any other in Latin America... growth during this 16-year period was one of the slowest of any Latin American country. Worse, income inequality grew severe. The majority of workers actually earned less in 1989 than in 1973 (after adjusting for inflation), while the incomes of the rich skyrocketed. In the absence of market regulations, Chile also became one of the most polluted countries in Latin America. And Chile's lack of democracy was only possible by suppressing political opposition and labor unions under a reign of terror and widespread human rights abuses.ref|Kangas

Most of the economic improvements in Chile happened during the period from 1989 to 1995, after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship that was supported by the Chicago economic team. Growth rates since the return to democracy have doubled over what they were during the dictatorship, including those in the current socialist administration, which has not made any significant changes in the economic policies. ref|VanCott Libertarianism's critics argue that the real-world results in Chile and elsewhere demonstrate that libertarian economic theory is not only faulty, but potentially threatens freedom, democracy, human rights, and economic growth.

Of particular interest to economists is the "New Zealand Experiment", which began in 1984 when Roger Douglas became Minister of Finance and began radically restructuring the country's economy to fit the libertarian model [cite web |url= |title=Downfall of an economic experiment |author=Kay, John |date=2000-08-30 ] . Over the next 15 years, New Zealand's economy and social capital faced a steady decline: the youth suicide rate grew sharply into one of the highest in the developed world [cite journal |last1=Wasserman first1=Danuta |last2=Cheng |first2=Qi |last3=Jiang |first3=Guo-Xin |year=2005 |month=06 |title=Global suicide rates among young people aged 15-19 |journal=World Psychiatry |volume=4 |issue=2 |url= |pmid=16633527 ] ; the proliferation of food banks increased dramatically [cite paper |last=Ballard |first=Keith |title=Inclusion, exclusion, poverty, racism and education: An outline of some present issues |date=2003-10-14 |url= |format=DOC ] ; marked increases in violent and other crime were observed [cite book |title=Crime in New Zealand |url=$FILE/CrimeNZ.pdf |format=PDF |edition= |series= |date=2001-07-31 |publisher=PublishingServices Division of Statistics New Zealand |isbn=0-478-20773-5 |pages=pp. 9 ] ; the number of New Zealanders estimated to be living in poverty grew by at least 35% between 1989 and 1992 [cite web |url= |title=LIFE IN THE ECONOMIC TEST-TUBE: New Zealand "experiment" a colossal failure |author=Kelsey, Jane |date=1999-07-09 ] ; and health care has been especially hard-hit, leading to a significant deterioration in health standards among working and middle class people [cite web |url= |title=The New Zealand Health Care System |author=Bramhall, Stuart MD |date=2003-01-09 |publisher=Physicians for a National Health Program ] . In addition, many of the promised economic benefits of the experiment never materialised. [cite news |first=Murray |last=Dobbin |title=New Zealand's Vaunted Privatization Push Devastated The Country, Rather Than Saving It |url= |publisher=The National Post (Canada) |date=2000-08-15 ]

Free trade has many critics, who argue that trade barriers are necessary for economic growth in some or all situations.

Government decentralization or shrinkage

Libertarian proposals to decrease the size or centralization of government may have the opposite of their intended effect. John Donahue argues in "The American Prospect" that when power is shifted to local authorities, parochial local interests predominate at the expense of the whole, leading to inefficiency, corruption, and loss of freedom - as when limits on federal power were used to defend segregation. He claims with regard to proposals for federal devolution that,

Collective value is squandered in the name of a constricted definition of gain. States win advantages that seem worthwhile only because other states bear much of the costs. America's most urgent public challenges... involve the stewardship of common interests. The fragmentation of authority makes success less likely."ref|Donahue

Deontological ethical theories

Many people criticize libertarian arguments that rely on the idea of natural law, or other deontological ethical views, for what they consider to be questionable premises (especially about human nature) and a heavy reliance on deductive reasoning. If a few basic premises of a libertarian theory built in this way could be proved false, the whole system would collapse.

Siegfried Van Duffel argues that libertarian natural rights theory grounds rights, not in any familiar notion of liberty but in the idea that a human is a sovereign beings. The problem with this idea is that it does not allow one to ground obligations of other sovereigns to respect each other's sovereignty.ref|VanDuffel

Jeffrey Friedman, editor of "Critical Review", argues that libertarians often rely on the unproven assumption that economic growth and affluence automatically result in happiness, and shift the burden of proof to their opponents without justification, when in fact "it is the libertarian who is committed to the grand claim that, for some reason, intervention must always be avoided." 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.'"ref|Friedman

Others think that libertarianism suffers from another faulty premise; that people will ultimately act in their best interests. Critics argue that people often do things that are not in their own interests, sometimes even if they know this, as in the case of drug addiction. The libertarian opposition to a standard, state-run educational system, and support for private education and home schooling, with no enforced quality standards, makes critics question how many citizens would know what is in their best interests in a libertarian society. Paul Kienitz writes, "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."ref|Kienitz

Large Scale Undertakings

Many argue that big government is simply the only way to accomplish certain large-scale projects, such as the space program. Some endeavors of mankind are so complex that they require the (possibly coerced or forced) participation and funding of millions of people. The United States was only able to compete in this field by the formation of a new publicly funded agency, NASA. The private sector was unable to compete with the USSR's government space program, and there has never been a successful privately-funded moon landing. Critics of libertarianism say that by the time market forces necessitate space exploration, it may be too late; the earth may be too prohibitively drained of resources by that time to put forth a proper space exploration effort.

As an extension, libertarians are often seen as short-sighted. Their philosophies solve immediate problems but do not address long-term problems. When pressed with this issue, many libertarians ask why they should care about the future of humanity, or at least past the point that they personally cease to exist. Because libertarianism is a philosophy with a strong basis in the merits of self-interest, its plans are restricted to the individual human lifespan. While this is fine for a small, agrarian society such as envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, it does not work as well with the large-scale technologically advanced societies we have today. Sometimes, ensuring the future prosperity of mankind means making investments which will not come to fruition until several generations later. Since making these investments is not based in self-interest, libertarian policies often stand against those of large-scale undertakings that span beyond one's own life.


Environmentalists like Jeffrey Friedman argue that libertarians have no method of dealing with collective problems like environmental destruction: "The environment is the libertarian Waterloo: it reveals the flaws of the doctrine in a way that seems to ensure that no 'answer' is forthcoming."ref|Friedman2 Critics argue that a libertarian society cannot prevent natural resources from being destroyed, or the environment from being polluted, because of its rejection of collective regulation and control.Critics find libertarian attempts to protect the environment through property rights are lacking. They see natural resources (like whales or the atmosphere) as too hard to privatize, and legal responsibility for damage (from pollution or wild animals) as too hard to trace.ref|Partridge

Critics point to a phenomenon whereby short-term profits can give an incentive for some to buy up resources, deplete them quickly and move on, regardless of long-term values. They argue that this shortsightedness is especially problematic in an environmental context, where the ramifications of actions can take centuries to develop, dooming efforts to deal with problems by privatization.ref|foodfirst Some critics, such as Arne Næss and Val Plumwood, claim a deeper philosophical problem, locating the root cause of humanity's destruction of the environment in its failure to give nature ethical value in itself, and arguing that until it does so, environmental problems will only worsen, regardless of policy. Most libertarian ethical positions, based in the idea of the rational subject as uniquely valuable, are incompatible with alternative ecological ethics.ref|Plumwood

Ideological culture

Libertarians have been criticized for their style of argument and perceived motivations. Libertarianism is seen as a utopian philosophy by some of its critics, who have argued that because of their unwillingness to compromise or adopt pragmatic solutions, libertarians have little relevance to the current political situation. Jonah Goldberg wrote:

Ask a libertarian (no, not all libertarians...) what the Department of Education should do, and he will say 'Well, the Department of Education shouldn't exist.' Now of course he's right... But it does. I've seen it. It's practically brimming with bureaucrats who aren't going away and they're awaiting orders from somebody to do something... I always compared libertarians to the Celtic warrior-tribes often employed by British kings. They are incredibly useful as allies in battle, but you wouldn't want them to actually run things. [Goldberg, Jonah. "Libertarians, in Theory. National Review Online, August 6, 1999. [] ]

Some criticize the motives of libertarians, saying that they only support libertarian ideas to justify and maintain what these critics perceive to be their position near the top of existing social hierarchies. Libertarianism has been characterized as an ideology for the spoiled or rich, who seek to justify their own greed or selfishness or who seek a means of thinking themselves inherently superior, rather than simply privileged. Brook Shelby Biggs wrote in "Wired", "The ironic thing is that many of today's loudest libertarians were once... stuffing daisies into the barrels of loaded guns... Funny how once they are financially secure, suddenly world peace and economic justice seem less important, crazy ideological college hijinks. Defending one's own wealth is so time-consuming!"ref|Biggs

Alternatively, libertarians are criticized for dogmatism. In a parody of a libertarian pamphlet, Mike Huben writes "Parrot these arguments, and you too will be a singular, creative, reasoning individualist!" Milton Friedman joked about an incident in which Ludwig von Mises stormed out of a room full of libertarian economists, yelling, "You're all a bunch of socialists!" [Skousen, Mark: " [,M1 "The Making of Modern Economics"] ", page 299. M E Sharpe Inc, 2001.]

Even prominent libertarians argue that the ideology's culture can be a liability. Hernando de Soto, a prominent free-market economist who works to encourage the growth of capitalism in the Third World, stated in an interview:

"One of the problems that you see mainly in Latin America, which is the area I'm most familiar with, is that people who have created special legal niches of privilege among themselves, and who have no way of justifying the privileges that they have created for themselves, have a tendency of quoting a lot of Friedman and Hayek and all sorts of libertarian writers, to justify their privileges."
"So if you are about to open a libertarian club, or NGO, or a think tank in Latin America, and all the guys that sign up have got pinstripe suits and nice silk ties, you'd better be careful. You'd better start suspecting that something's wrong." [ [ Commanding Heights : Hernando de Soto | on PBS ] ]


# Siegfried Van Duffel. "Libertarian Natural Rights.", Critical Review Vol. 16, Issue 4 (December 2004) pp. 353-375. [ .pdf] (large PDF file)
# Friedman, Jeffrey, "Politics or Scholarship?", Critical Review, Vol. 6, No. 2-3, 1993. Pp 429-45.
# Friedman, Jeffrey. "What's Wrong With Libertarianism, Critical Review" Vol. 11, No. 3. Summer 1997 [] (large PDF file)
# Kangas, Steve. "Chile: the Laboratory Test." "Liberalism Resurgent"," []
# Van Cott, Martin. "Direct from Chile,", March 25, 2002 []
# Donahue, John. [ The Devil in Devolution] , "American Prospect", Vol 8 Iss 32, May 1 1997.
# Huben, Mike. [ Libertarianism in One Lesson] , last updated 3/13/05, accessed 2/20/06.
# Haymen, Gene. [ Resolving the contradictions of addiction] , "Behavioral and Brain Sciences", 19 (4): 561-610. May 2, 1996.
# Kienitz, Paul. [ I'm Still Not a Libertarian] , "Critiques of Libertarianism," accessed 2/20/06.
# Plumwood, Val. "Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason." New York: Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0-415-17877-0. [ Review by John Hintz] .
# Barlow, Maude. " [ Water as Commodity: The Wrong Prescription] ," Institute for Food and Development Policy Backgrounder, Summer 2001.

External links

* [ Critiques Of Libertarianism] (includes sub-sections presenting anti-libertarian arguments from different political standpoints, as well as more general arguments)
* [ A Non-Libertarian FAQ]
* [ Comparison of Libertarians and Anarchists (Humor)]
* [ What's wrong with libertarianism]
* [ We Have Met The Gummint And He Is Us; or, Is government evil?]
* [ Libertarianism Makes You Stupid]
* [ Why is libertarianism wrong?]
* [ Why Not the Libertarian Party?] , Constitution Party critique of Libertarianism.
* Sachs, Jeffery, [ Interview with various economists]

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