Laying into libertarianism

You’d have to be very unobservant not to have noticed that there are an awful lot of bloggers with an avowedly (and sometimes aggressively) libertarian political philosophy. There’s even an Australian Libertarians group blog, and a British equivalent called Samizdata (whose title embraces the ubiquitous right-wing conceit that they’re somehow a subversive, persecuted minority rather than the comfortably dominant self-justificatory elite of corporate capitalism). Individual bloggers including Jason Soon, Bargarz, Michael Jennings and Sam “Yobbo” Ward all embrace the libertarian credo to varying extents. Pseudonymous blogger Professor Bunyip also publishes occasionally on the Libertarians blog, but seems to this little black duck to be more an old-fashioned conservative (albeit an erudite and stylish one) than a libertarian in any meaningful sense. Leftie blogger Tim Dunlop also once memorably (if bizarrely) claimed to be a libertarian! I suspect, however, that he was taking unpardonable definitional liberties not unlike those the former USSR engaged in to label itself “democratic”.

I’ll pass up for the moment the temptation to speculate about why libertarian sentiments seem so much more prevalent in the blogosphere than the general population. Personally, I have an instinctive attraction to some aspects of libertarian ideals. They form a useful antidote to excessively intrusive demands of the “nanny state” mandated by political and bureaucratic elites convinced they know best what is good for the rest of us. Libertarian arguments are at their most persuasive when dealing with moral and interpersonal relations between individual adults. They’re much less persuasive IMO in the economic arena. The least persuasive libertarian writer, I’ve always thought, was the late Robert Nozick, who is mostly responsible for the libertarian mantra that the rule of law should pre-eminently protect private property rights, as well as the closely related nonsensical claim that all redistributive taxation is “theft”.

Why am I blogging about this topic now, you might well ask? First, because I badly need a break from exam marking. Secondly, because I’ve been surfing the web looking for student reading resources on conceptual aspects of notions of “rights” for the forthcoming teaching semester, and I happened to come across an excellent set of links to critiques of Nozick. The best of them IMO are: Jonathon Wolff, Robert Nozick, Libertarianism, And Utopia; James Hammerton, A Critique Of Libertarianism; Hugh La Follette, Why Libertarianism Is Mistaken; Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick And The Immaculate Conception Of The State. I’d be most interested to hear from any libertarian bloggers after they’ve taken the time to read and digest one or two of these linked articles, especially the arguments of Wolff and Hammerton. The latter, incidentally, also does a fair hatchet job on Hayek. Hammerton also suggests (mischievously but correctly, I think) that libertarianism would more accurately be called “propertarianism”. All the linked articles are of a reasonable length and very readable.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Niall
2022 years ago

That’s asking a bit much, Ken. Read AND digest?

24601
2022 years ago

I’ll have to get back to you – but I note that you have a reference to Murray Rothbard, who was of course another member of the libertarian movement. Rothbard was an anarchist (often considered, along with David Friedman) the most important anarcho-capitalist of the 20th century. He spent a lot of time attacking ‘minarchists’ such as Nozick and Rand over their desire to have any state at all.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Would it be too familiar to call you 24?

Of course, Rothbard critiques Nozick on anarchist principles, but seeks to demonstrate (like the more mainstream commentators) that Nozick’s minimal state propositions are not mantainable on his own libertarian principles. Once you concede legal constraints and mechanisms that may result in property being taken coercively on some bases, there is no logically maintainable place to stop using libertarian principles. Of course you can utlise other principles, but they’re equally available to justify (say) redistributive taxation.

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2022 years ago

I think the second commenter’s surname is “six one and half dozen the other”.

Gareth
2022 years ago

I’ve been meaning to ask this for a while 24601, but is your handle a reference to the Jean Valjean character in Les Miserables?

Yobbo
Yobbo
2022 years ago

I tried writing a response to this post but I must be tired, because no matter how I do it, it doesn’t make any sense. What I’m trying to say to Ken is that there’s a difference between the ALS libertarians and the ones like me and Bargarz. Take a look at this and this to see what I’m trying to get at.

I might argue for similar policies as the guys at the ALS, but for different reasons. Part of it involves the ALS’ definition of “moral libertarians” and “utilitarian libertarians” but there’s a bit more to it than that, at least for me.

Opposing drug prohibition on the grounds that it is futile is different than opposing it on moral grounds, but it’s the same policy in the end. I will eventually try and put it into a proper post tomorrow.

bargarz
2022 years ago

LOL! It’s like dejavu all over again. Methinks libertarianism in all its forms (e.g. realist, purist and technolibertarianism) are a topic close to Ken’s heart. Not many posts seem to pass his web.

Last year, Ken posted on imperialism that touched on “libertarianism” and challenged me to examine the logic behind my ideals to a degree. I’ll blockquote some extra comments of Ken’s post for completeness…
John Quiggin has an excellent piece demonstrating the imperial aspects of the “Bush doctrine”, and pointing out that it isn’t only lefties who hold concerns about such tendencies. The following is a republication of my comments on John’s blog. I am responding to a comment by Tim Dunlop suggesting that the US has been an imperial power since WWII and is just being more honest/overt about it now, and one from Scott Wickstein who says that Bush’s evident imperial aspirations are the reason why he remains nervous about an Iraq invasion:

I agree with Scott. That is the main reason (as well as the possibility of large civilian casualties) why I remain uneasy about Bush’s Iraq regime change plan. I have never really understood how the supposedly “libertarian” warbloggers manage to be so sanguine and supportive of the authoritarian, imperialist strands of Bush’s rhetoric and plans. I suspect many of them like the sound of the label “libertarian”, but are really just old-fashioned conservatives with a hypocritical liking for demanding protection of their own personal freedom under the guise of principle.

Needless to say, I took the bait. My response started out as a comment which wildly snowballed into a biggish post here – thereby earning a dry and bemused response from the master fisherman who suggested (correctly damn him!) that my post had been;
probably provoked by my unkind suggestion that lots of people who call themselves “libertarians” really aren’t. By the time Bargarz discovered I wasn’t talking about him, he had done huge amounts of work and turned out a masterpiece. I should carelessly insult him more often.
Well yes, and the compliment certainly helped. :)

And then there was leftie libertarian Tim Dunlop’s efforts to seduce me into online Socialisation. The post that Ken links to is this one by Tim (there is meat in Tim’s comments as well).
NB: Tim’s link to my archive post is incorrect. It may have been moved and is actually located here. (blogger links ok)

So after all that waffle, I guess I can confirm that I have more than a few libertarian ideals although of course I recognise that anyone can see that purist libertarianism is really nothing more than anarchy. When faced with the choice of libertarianism or authoritarianism my inclination is to favour libertarian ideals – I’m equally against flag burning legislation and anti-vilification legislation becasue I see tham as two sides of the same bad coin.

Does that make me a soft libertarian? Then again, I’m in good company and similar results were also generated by Yobbo’s recent political quiz.

I can live with that.

24601
2022 years ago

24 is fine Ken. And yes Gareth, the number is from Les Miserables – where Jean Valjean, a successful industrialist, is pursued by the government. It’s not my real name… :)

Yobbo – I’m not sure what difference you’re trying to establish between yourself and some ALS bloggers. ALS bloggers are by no means homogenous, and range from moderates to anarchists and include moralists and utilitarians. They are united only in their (broad) conclusions – and even then there are plenty of debates.

Yobbo does pick up one important point – and that is the moral v utility aspect. This topic is too big for a response, or even a single blog (better suited to a pub), but Ken – your critics seems based at the moralists (who make up a vocal but small minority among libertarians I think).

Personally, I agree with the moral positions in libertarianism, but I am a utilitarian first and foremost. And this is based on my belief that voluntary exchange works pretty well, and most government ‘solutions’ make things worse.

Ken – I read the Hammerton piece, and I wasn’t particularly impressed. Some of his arguments are interesting, but he shows a sufficient ignorance of libertarian thought to be annoying – most especially with regards to Hayek. It is a good undergraduate essay, but could only be used as a polemic. Most especially, the article is annoying because he tries to tackle libertarianism on a moral ground, but then re-defines words to effectively be judged on a utilitarian framework. He then ignores the utilitarian libertarian arguments and basically assumes libertarianism is bad. Based on this assumption, he shows that libertarianism is bad. Brilliant. :)

But at least he outlined some of the most interesting ethical issues in moral libertarian thought. In this regard, he wasn’t out of his element (though plenty of libertarians have done it better – David Friedman). But when it came to Hayek… poor Hammerton clearly was out of his depth. He couldn’t rebut Hayek, because it is clear that he doesn’t understand Hayek or the entire Austrian tradition. Indeed, as he didn’t mention it and ignored its arguments, I doubt hammerton is aware of the Austrian school of economics. Or the chicago school. Or the public choice school. Or the… etc etc

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

24,

I generally agree with your points, assuming you’re equating Nozick with moral libertarian thought. I also agree that Hammerton doesn’t really assail Hayek too successfully (and the other linked authors hardly mention him – their focus is Nozick).

However, Hayek, as well as basing his theoretical approach on utilitarian principles rather than morality, is also less extreme in his conclusions than Nozick e.g. he doesn’t reject taxtion as theft, and accepts the possibility of some degree of welfare as acceptable. Speaking personally, that’s why I find Hayek rather more impressive. Nozick, on the other hand, is unpersuasive both because of his extremism and his drawing of logically untenable moral bases of argument.

Todd
2022 years ago

Ken, the basis for the vast majority of ‘libertarian’ thought tends to devolve from an economic standpoint. As in a backlash against the excesses of government taxation rather than a societal moral standpoint of anarchistic revolt.

I think in terms of the self-appointing term of Libertarian amongst the blogosphere, it can be thought of as both this economic backlash as well as a societal backlash in terms of government intrusion in to daily lives.

As with all political thought, there will be varying degrees of acceptance to the tenets of the philosophy and belief structure, much as in religious observance. These will range between a Talibanesque observance through to your garden-variety lapsed catholic who still attends mass at Christmas.

All may consider themselves to be ‘Libertarian’ but hold differing levels of commitment to certain views.

Personally, I like to clarify my own personal political positioning as Libertarian on economic policy, but libertarian-conservative on social policy. I would think that a number of others might find themselves in a similar position.

Due to the two basic tenets of Libertarianism of economic and social liberty, it would be extremely difficult to define oneself as strictly Libertarian in context of both tenets. They would, as Bargarz advised above, fall somewhere along the various axes depending on their views on certain issues.

mark
2022 years ago

“unpardonable definitional liberties not unlike those the former USSR engaged in to label itself “democratic”” — or, indeed, “Communist”. Ahem.

I had a longer, more relevant comment to make, but I’m so tired that I’ve now forgotten it. Damnit.

Another Bloody Libertarian

Ken, ask someone who doesn’t support redistribution, and they will call it theft, no matter the spin someone else puts on it.

omnibus
omnibus
2022 years ago

seems i remember a school that maintained that ‘property was theft’. don’t hear that much nowadays …whether or not property is theft, seems everyone wants some of it. has the whole of the left gone right? emergent philsophical base for leftist values in the green movement: environmental sustainability (planet as property of human species, and all have a ‘duty of care’ – ? oblique approach to logic of resistance to corporate imperialism). ain’t libertarian. not even an economist, nor any kind of academic. (not even a greenie). guess I’m sort of a humanist. from the beginning, to the end. believe anarchy an invalid philosophical position. put 100 anarchists alone together in a wilderness with some genuine survival challanges, and rules, leaders, hierarchies would soon emerge. not everyone would like it – and they would soon feel so uncomfortable they would leave. so an anarchist is perhaps nothing more than the shadow of the state. no state – no anarchist. if the emergence of a ‘state’ is inevitable, an expression of collective human nature (as distinct from the ‘individual’) – it seems that doing what one can to ensure the “best of all possible…” is more productive than whiteanting – even if (as is possible) we humans are nothing more than a thin smear of organic subtance on the face of the earth. i do feel as though I might have wandered into a closed shop, so…hello…and goodbye!

Michael Jennings
2022 years ago

I don’t have time to answer this in the detail I would like. However, two or three paragraphs on my political philosophy. (Just as a thought, I used to be a lefty. I would once have described myself as a “socialist” although in retrospect I don’t think I ever actually was one.

I don’t actually call myself a libertarian. I would rather call myself a liberal, but the word is so badly misused that I can’t really. (If you come to Samizdata and look around, you will find that while some of the individual contributors describe themselves as libertarians, the site itself no longer describes itself as libertarian. This is because we are not all comfortable with the word and would prefer people to realise that we are in fact a group of individuals with similar views but also significant differences.

I am in favour of much smaller government. The reason for this is not so much from opposition to redistribution as from the realisation that what government does a lot of the time is not redistribution but a matter of taxing people, placing the money in a pot, stirring it all around, and paying it back in the form of various benefits and programs to the same middle class people who paid the taxes in the first place. I have three objections to this. The first is that administration and dead weight effects impose enormous economic costs. The second is that government is generally more bureacratic and less efficient at delivering services to individuals than are organisations driven by market forces. The third is that by taxing me, and then spending the money on very specific benefits for me, rather than allowing me to spend it how I choose, the government, by its very existence, is reducing my freedom. I resent this. I am not in favour of no government, but in an ideal world for me, government would be around 25% of the size that is typical in most western countries.

Interestingly enough, a number of Asian countries that have managed to develop modern economies but have not gone through the expansion of government that Europe, Australia and North America went through largely due to the wars of the 20th century do seem to have government around this level. And they do not necessarily have more inequality than we do in Australia.

24601
2022 years ago

Ken – I think you’re right in your assessment of Hayek as more moderate than Nozick and that Hayek believes utilitarian arguments. It’s not necessary for these things to go together. David Friedman is a utilitarian and dismisses the ‘rights-based’ arguments – but he is more radical than Nozick (D.Friedman rejects government involvement in police, courts and defence). The same is true for this number. I agree with D.Friedman, Bentham and Jason Soon that the rights-based arguments aren’t the best defence of liberty (though, unlike Bentham and Soon – I think they are still useful).

Further, Hayek may well agree that taxation is theft. This is a matter of definitions and if theft is taking from somebody against their will, then tax is theft. However, Hayek (like me) is a utilitarian. Therefore, he would probably say (like me) that such theft is justifiable if it lead to a better outcome. When people (such as yourself) laugh of the ‘tax is theft’ line it is because you automatically assume that theft is wrong. If, however, government theft (tax) leads to a better outcome, it is not wrong (in a utilitarian framework). You therefore need not worry about that statement and can just check its validity with a dictionary.

Finally – I should add (contrary to what Hammerton implies) that Hayek self-identified as a libertarian. In “why I’m not a conservative” Hayek says that he is a ‘liberal’ but because that word has been so misused it would be more appropriate to think of him as a ‘libertarian’.

Pensky
2022 years ago

Why, when we have no libertarian (or liberal) party, has the direction of policy for the past thirty years been distinctly libertarian. Social and economic freedom has increased enormously in that time, for good or ill, notwithstanding the efforts of the fascist Howard dictatorship.

penskyfile.blogspot.com

24601
2022 years ago

Pensky – we have a libertarian political party called the Liberal Democratic Party (www.ldp.org.au) and the trend of the past 30 years has not been libertarian, as best revealed by changes in tax/GDP, spending/GDP, tax legislation, business regulations, planning policies, etc etc.

24601
2022 years ago

taxonomy of libertarians – http://www.libertarian.org.au

trackback
2022 years ago

Libertarians?

Ken Parish has an interesting post on the rising number of bloggers calling themselves Libertarians. I plan on responding later, but for now, go read.

trackback
2022 years ago

Fair Go!

It seems we’ve become a nation of self-centred, intolerant, apathetic buggers which everyone calls ‘mate’! According to UMR Research and…

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2022 years ago

a few good libertarians?

It seems like it is Nozick-bashing day Down Under. First Ken Parish links to his favourite online criticisms of Nozick. Then John Quiggin follows up with a different criticism. Quiggin’s argument is that given some plausible assumptions about his…

trackback
2022 years ago

Libertarianism, again

With the exception of Chris Bertram, participants on all sides of the debate over libertarianism kicked off by Ken Parish seem to regard refuting Robert Nozick as being a bit of a cheap shot. As Perry de Havillard says in…

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2022 years ago

Libertarianism and the time-scale of online discourse

Does that heading sound suitably ominous to you? Yes? Then let’s begin. Libertarianism seems to have become the topic du