Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats. –H.L. Mencken
Over at Virtuous Society Tom Stringham blogs about why he is no longer a libertarian.
Tom tells us that “The essence of libertarianism is not political, but inescapably philosophical” and then tells us why he rejects that philosophy. Wordpress picked this up and featured it as part of their daily “Freshly Pressed” list, so I felt like it warranted a response.
Tom’s five reasons are:
You’ll notice right away that the last three, if not four, of his points are not about libertarianism at all, but rather libertarians–people who label themselves as libertarian. This is interesting and telling because his thesis concerns the philosophy of libertarianism.
This is sort of a bait-and-switch.
On the surface, Tom’s “Personal freedom is libertarianism’s only value” reason appears to be a valid criticism of libertarianism, but it isn’t.
I could quibble over whether this statement is true or not, but for the sake of argument I’ll go with it. Let’s assume that by “personal freedom” Tom means “the ability to do whatever you want provided you don’t aggress against others”. The question still remains, so what?
Libertarianism does not claim to be a complete value system or worldview. Its core principle is the non-aggression axiom, i.e. when is aggression against others justified.
To be upset that libertarianism has only one “value” is like saying you hate math because it only deals with numbers.
Libertarian mantras to the contrary, heroin and consensual incest should probably remain illegal. A zero percent income tax rate is probably a naïve suggestion in a globalized, advanced society. There’s probably no free-market solution to climate change. There are hundreds more examples. The point is not that libertarians are wrong about these issues–it’s that they ignore, at everyone’s peril, every conceptual dimension of these issues except that of liberty versus tyranny.
“Should”, “probably”, “naïve”, “probably”, yada-yada-yada, libertarianism is unworkable and therefore wrong.
This is hardly a reasoned and logical critique of libertarianism.
This leads us to Tom’s second point, “Libertarians ultimately fall back on a very vulnerable claim” where he switches from talking about the philosophy of libertarianism to the people identified as libertarians.
The liberty-only worldview of libertarians is nearly impossible to justify from any philosophical standpoint. Various libertarian theorists have tried to “prove” it—Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe—but end up making spurious or absurd arguments. Rand makes fantastic leaps of logic from Aristotelian logical axioms to libertarian property rights that only seem plausible when wrapped in a narrative (Atlas Shrugged). Hoppe actually tries to say that because people speak to each other with civility, they are somehow proving that the non-aggression principle, a moral claim, is an objective truth.
First, Ayn Rand was not a libertarian, she was an Objectivist. In short, she was a Randian, a disciple of her own individual philosophy.
Second, Hoppe is a great libertarian, and his argumentation ethics may or may not be interesting or correct, but they are not the core of libertarian philosophy, merely an attempt to prove that the core is objectively true. This, by the way, is the only place in Tom’s post that references the NAP (non-aggression principle) as having anything to do with libertarianism.
As for Rothbard, one of the greatest and most prolific libertarians ever, well, Tom says absolutely nothing about him.
Since up to this point Tom has failed to tell us exactly what this “vulnerable claim” is, I’m forced to divine that he’s referring to his made-up idea that libertarians believe “a truly free system will automatically give rise to all the other political goods listed above”.
No, Tom, a truly free system will merely result in the lack of coercion by the state. If anything, it is the statists who continue to propound the idea that if we only give them enough time, money, and power then they will create for us a blissful utopia.
He goes on to say that “Libertarian fundamentalism, including free market fundamentalism, really doesn’t always work as a policy.”
But what policy? In a libertarian world there is no policy because there is no state.
There are only free people who can either decide to associate with one another voluntarily or commit aggression against others, but the latter do so without the sanction of “law”.
Tom’s third objection is that “They inevitably become amoral about anything consensual”.
The “they” here refers again to libertarians, but is nothing more than an ad hominem attack on them and a generalization that has nothing to do with the philosophy of libertarianism.
In other words, libertarians do not have the same moral sense as the rest of us. While they oppose murder, rape and theft on the basis of liberty, many of them see acts like burning flags, eating one’s deceased dog or public nudity as morally neutral.
No, Tom, we see those acts as non-aggressive and therefore not justifying the use of aggression to stop people from doing them.
There is a moral judgement here, just not the one you think.
It’s ironic that the supposed lack of moral outrage by libertarians over flag burning upsets him more than the deaths of hundreds of millions of innocent people at the hands of the state over the last century.
Tom’s fourth point is “Libertarians reduce complicated realities to simplistic models”.
For example, to the dismay of most experts, libertarians insist on defining government as no more than a “monopoly on violence”. Sociologists think that marriage is an institution the identity of which is difficult to pin down, but to libertarians, it is clearly just a contract of union between two people. A law, to libertarians, is a “threat of force” without any greater significance.
Definitions like these are appealing because it’s very easy to reason toward libertarian conclusions on their basis. Since law is just a threat of violence, the government can easily be characterized as abusive and arbitrary. If marriage is just a contract, then it’s obvious the government should just “get out of the marriage business”. If the state is just a monopoly on violence, then isn’t it our enemy?
Tom doesn’t dispute that government is a “monopoly on violence” and that it uses the “threat of force”, but argues that it holds “greater significance.”
Greater than what we’re not told, but apparently it’s the rights of those it steals from and murders.
The state may not be Tom’s enemy, but as someone who opposes everything it does, it is most certainly mine.
Tom’s final objection is my favorite, “Libertarians feel entitled to strong opinions on issues they know little about”.
This is what’s known as the pot calling the kettle black, and the perfect ending to his diatribe.
Tom says (emphasis mine):
Many non-libertarians are content to leave an issue aside or take a tentative stance when the relevant field of study is outside their intellectual comfort zone. Take monetary policy—most Republicans and Democrats defer to economic experts because handling the money supply is a genuinely daunting policy question, one about which even Nobel Prize winners disagree. Libertarian amateurs, however, dive headlong into these very deep policy waters. Ron Paul (a physician) wants to “end the Fed”, others want to return to a gold standard, and some want to privatize money altogether.
Whether they are ultimately right or wrong on monetary policy is beyond my ability to discern, but also beyond theirs: in justifying their radical opinions, these libertarians bypass a very large field of economic research and innovate convenient theoretical simplifications (like ignoring the differences among various parts of the money supply).
He basically says that he has no way of knowing so neither can “libertarians” and we should just leave it to the government-paid, so-called “experts”.
This is very interesting as it was the Austrian economists, many of whom are closely associated with libertarianism, who were able to predict the disastrous consequences of Paul Krugman’s and Ben Bernanke’s “expert” policies.
Do I care that Tom is no longer a libertarian? No.
Do I think that Tom ever was a libertarian? No.
His issue with libertarianism has nothing to do with any lack of internal consistency or with libertarians themselves, his attack on them notwithstanding. Tom’s issue is simply that libertarianism is not a political platform which will allow him to control his fellow man at the point of a gun.
What I think this highlights is that people who move away from conservatism/progressivism to “libertarianism” because of disillusionment with their party’s lack of “progress”, will eventually become disillusioned again and return to their statism.
Embracing libertarianism means abandoning your desire to control others, not merely seeking a new political platform from which to rule.