Two Arguments Against Libertarianism

Published by timdean on

Libertarianism – in a coarse telling – is political philosophy that places primacy on individual freedom over all other values. As such, it’s often placed in contrast to traditional political notions that advocate some limits to freedom, such as liberalism (economic regulation, but personal freedom) and conservatism (personal regulation, but economic freedom).

It’s not the most popular political orientation; a 2006 PEW study found only 9% of Americans polled fell in to the libertarian category compared to 18% liberal and 15% conservative. However, libertarianism appears to be particularly popular amongst those who are wealthy and well educated.

It’s also popular amongst economists, for libertarianism is quite compatible with some of the key assumptions that underlie  modern day free market economics: such as that behaviour is driven by self-interested rational agents. For these agents, interference in their behaviour restricts their ability to pursue their own preferences. From this point of view, the only role of the government ought to be to enforce property rights, manage contracts and provide a few true public goods, like defence, roads and basic infrastructure. Everything else is left to individuals to figure out for themselves, according to their free will.

Libertarianism can seem an appealing philosophy from a purely rational perspective. Why have a government interfere with my life, telling me what I should and shouldn’t want – or can and can’t do? As long as I don’t interfere with the ability of others to pursue their personal goals and preferences, I should be free to pursue my own ends unhindered. And, furthermore, in doing so, we can advance the ends of all individuals care of the magic of the invisible hand.

However, there’s a chink in libertarianism’s armour. In fact, there are two.

First is the assumptions it makes about human psychology – such as that we are capable of understanding and articulating our preferences and that we’re able to act upon them rationally, i.e. that we’re Homo economicus.

In fact, the truth is quite different. Preferences are often obscure. There are long term and short term preferences. Imagined and real. Needs and wants. And often the preferences we articulate are not in accordance to the things that actually benefit us or make us happy.

Often our decisions cause us – and others – harm. And in retrospect, we often regret many of our decisions and wish someone had encouraged us to do otherwise. Or our decisions are manipulated, either by other individuals, or by the environment at large. Or, most sinisterly, by those with vested interests, such as politicians or companies trying to encourage you to buy their product, whether you need it or not.

Libertarianism is rather unforgiving of behaviour that leads to self-harm, yet many of us have strong desires to prevent others from causing themselves harm, even if that means limiting their freedom – such as the freedom to gamble away all their money or the freedom for companies to advertise sweet and fatty foods to children.

Then there’s the second chink: libertarianism makes for an unstable society.

Common habits, customs and traditions – as well as common moral values – bind a community together and encourage cooperation. A highly libertarian society, with a vast diversity of values and customs, is a fractured society, without the bonds of common culture except those that emerge in pockets as people of similar preferences gather together (and, I’d suggest, establish rules of behaviour, which limit personal freedom).

Certainly, the market can enable high levels of cooperation in terms of production, but a strongly libertarian market is largely unregulated. That can lead to great inequities emerging, and that can also destabilise the society.

Or take a personal practice like polygany – the taking of multiple wives. Libertarians would hesitate to regulate such a behaviour, yet polygany can also destabilise society. A deficit of potential mates increases levels of male competition for status, often leading to violent conflict.

Consider many of the limits on freedom advocated by liberals and conservatives. They come at the issue from different directions, but they’re both trying to achieve the same end: bind communities together and encourage cooperation.

Liberals do this by limiting the ability of some to gain disproportionate power over the group and exploiting that power for their own ends. They also attempt to lift up the most disadvantaged, bringing more people in to the pool of cooperators rather than letting them drop off the edge. Liberals are less interested in the effort one puts in as the results that come out.

Conservatives, on the other hand, seek to regulate personal freedoms – customs, habits, practices etc. Taboos are common, with behaviours steered towards a common ground. This also binds communities together through like beliefs, traditions and prohibitions.

Food taboos in religion are like this. They might start as health initiatives, but they rapidly become instruments of conformity. And a highly conforming community is more likely to trust each other and cooperate.

Libertarians – at least extreme libertarians – sacrifice the egalitarianism of liberalism and the social binding of conservatism for hyper-individuality.

Libertarianism is an appealing idea if you hold human agency and freedom above all else. However, it has its weaknesses. Freedom is certainly worth having, but at what cost?


FW · 6th December 2009 at 10:33 pm

There is a lot I disagree with here.

Often our decisions cause us – and others – harm.

Libertarianism is rather unforgiving of behaviour that leads to self-harm,

I really don’t even know where to start – it sounds like some very Randian libertarian ideas there, which is not what I consider libertarian much at all.
Libertarianism, as I learned it 20 years ago, doesn’t really give a fuck about self harm – that’s the entire point of it – it’s all about harm to others, not doing any harm to others doesn’t count – and EMOTIONAL harm doesn’t count, not even if it’s the emotional harm done to a mother when an adult child dies of a drug over-dose.

I’m confused about:
“yet many of us have strong desires to prevent others from causing themselves harm, even if that means limiting their freedom – such as the freedom to gamble away all their money or the freedom for companies to advertise sweet and fatty foods to children.”
When you say “many of us”, are you talking about non-libertarians? Because sure, we have that desire, but the question is where does our desire to control another become a right to control them? At gambling? Well, whose money is it? Is he single, is it a co-account with the Mrs.? If it’s his, fine, his wife’s not fine, because it “hurts her property” as in takes it away from her without her consent. Companies advertising? Corporations? or owned by a single individual? How much damage is in the food – it can do physical damage – if (and how we find out IF is another whole issue) it does physical damage, the damage must be stated, explicitly but then : Children? As in under 18 children? A red herring, a strawman, a copout, a dirty trick. Mom or dad has to buy the food, or give the child the money – where does their responsibility lie – between the advertising right and the right of the child to do self harm? -(which, children should not have that right anyway, until they reach the age of majority)

Read this for another take on Libertarianism:
here’s the full book, free online (you can skip around to chapters of interest, it’s not very linear):
and here it is on Amazon, if you want to check out the reviews first:

“A highly libertarian society, with a vast diversity of values and customs, is a fractured society,”
I like the melting pot, but some people don’t tolerate other customs very well, you kinda sound like one of those people. If the custom is freedom unless you physically hurt another person, or their property – how can it be fractured unless one group tries to impose a value that physical harm to another is ok, or if one group tries to restrict the ?

And the polygamy? Very androcentric view you have there.
This view of libertarianism you have is androcentric, and appears to be filtered through Judeo-Christian philosophy. Which seems totally wierd considering this whole blog is about EP – and I love EP in a very gynocentric atheistic way.

Well, now that I got all my bitching and moaning over with: Nice Blog 🙂 Interesting stuffs.

FW · 6th December 2009 at 10:35 pm

others, not doing any harm to *others. Imagined* doesn’t count – and EMOTIONAL


Tim Dean · 6th December 2009 at 11:45 pm

Hi FW. Thanks for the comments. A lot of thoughts there – not sure if I follow them all, but I’ll attempt a reply.

My first argument really boils down to values. If you value freedom because it aids us in finding happiness (or ‘satisfaction’, or ‘well being’, or ‘flourishing’ etc), I’d suggest these psychological issues are significant. If we can’t reliably make informed decisions to further our happiness, then perhaps limits on freedom – within reason – are justified.

However, I’ll concede that if you value freedom intrinsically – say, because you believe in some kind of intrinsic autonomy that shouldn’t be interfered with – then libertarianism sidesteps my argument. However – and I haven’t argue this here – I think such an idea of intrinsic autonomy is difficult to justify. (In fact, I think any intrinsic values are hard to justify.)

On my second argument – I, too, like the melting pot. I believe there is strength in diversity, as I’ve argued elsewhere. However, I also acknowledge there’s strength in conformity. And even greater strength when diversity and conformity sit in tension meaning we never go too far in either direction.

As for androcentrism – I don’t think, or at least, don’t mean to be so. I use the example of polygany because of its historical significance. Arguably homo sapiens have been polyganous for much of our history, as are many of our primate cousins. But it’s through the suppression of our polyganous instincts that has helped bind modern societies together.

And I certainly don’t intend to inject Judeo-Christian values in here, except perhaps where they’ve influenced me culturally. Where J-C values might appear, I’d hope to strip them of their religious justifications and support them rationally instead, in which case their resemblance to J-C philosophy is incidental.

Marsnotheplanet · 14th October 2011 at 11:08 pm

Libertarianism ‘freedom’ is shaped on an ideal of perfect rationality which is really hard to accomplish, and which has been mercilessy criticized by Herbert Simon. Libertarianism is just a mixture of (unaware) selectionist, uber-capitalism-compatible darwinian stance, Nietzschian bitter outlook, sympathy for the excessive and the perverse (which sometimes identifies with the libertarian himself – remember Sade?). Its discourse tends to a reversed form of bigotry, a special kind of political correctness which implies the uncommensurability between human beings. In that sense, its attack to society is ruthless; but also sustained by the most elementary fear, anxiety and suspicion towards the others, paranoically seen as “judges” of one’s behaviour, so that any rule on that should be abolished. Thus, in my experience, most libertarian at words are almost sociopath, reactionary deviants at heart.

Bert Kolding · 13th March 2012 at 4:03 am

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WJ · 13th March 2012 at 10:51 am

Your argument about man not being capable of sensible decisions as a rational being does not compel me at all. If “people” are irresponsible, irrational (or some other bad quality that allegedly legitimizes a state to step in an prevent us from self-harm), then a government, which by defintion consists of people, is just as incapable of taking care of themselves, let alone an entire nation! In fact, i have little regard for your position and I think it is disgraceful to say that some people should prevent people from doing things that they want to do (regardless of they will be happy with the outcome or not). Ultimately, it boils down to social darwinism. If people are idiots (note that this is the statist assumption) then why should the human race continue to exist at all? Why is it worth preserving?

Secondly, if people need protection from bad decisions, why on earth would you let the very same people vote and decide which public policies should be implemented (perhaps you prefer a dictatorship to a democracy after all)? Because according to you, people can’t even make the right choises in their own life, so how could they possibly know anything about running a nation?

Tim Dean · 13th March 2012 at 11:57 am

Hi WJ. You sadly oversimplify psychology and thus present a straw man of my argument. Nowhere have I stated that humans are not capable of making sensible decisions, only that preferences are sometimes obscure and decision making is error prone – that we are not perfectly rational agents with fully transparent preferences, as some economists might suggest.

That we can identify errors we’ve made in past decisions shows that we’re capable of recognising this. That we don’t all reinvent the wheel but we benefit from the experiences and wisdom of others shows that groups of individuals can sometimes make better decisions than individuals.

This doesn’t suggest groups always make better decisions, but if it can be reliably shown that they do in some circumstances, then that could give reason to allow a group – or a state – steer our decisions into routes that will benefit us. Mandating that people should wear helmets when riding a motorcycle, or mandating compulsory superannuation payments, for example.

I’m also sure that you wouldn’t think it’s “disgraceful to say that some people should prevent people from doing things that they want to do” when that action inflicts harm on another. And there are many things, such as obesity or gambling addiction, that do inflict harm on others. Thus there’s reason to steer behaviour away from these things, as long as in doing so we don’t create more harm.

Your claim of social darwinism is hyperbolic, so I’ll ignore it.

As for democracy, its very strength is that it’s the least prone to corruption and bad decision making – but certainly not immune from them. If we want to have a government at all, then democracy is the least worst way to go about it.

slickity slick willy · 27th April 2012 at 8:11 am

@Tim Dean: “Nowhere have I stated that humans are not capable of making sensible decisions, only that preferences are sometimes obscure and decision making is error prone”

Terms like “obscure”, “sensible”, and “error-prone” are all very relative words. First of all every human preference can be considered obscure. Obscurity is simply a lack of information and, because we are always receiving information and time only moves forward, every set of information appears lacking in retrospect. This is a law of information and is the reason why (or at least its my justification for saying) its not up to one person A to presume they know whats better for person B *no matter how much information they believe they have.* When person A does this they are effectively assuming at least one of two things: either they can read B’s mind (and thus can 100% know what person B wants) or can 100% accurately predict the future (which would require all the information in the universe). Neither of these scenarios are remotely possible today, so no person or government can justifiably claim that they know what everyone wants.

That argument probably sounds absurd to you when put like that. I’ll use an extreme example to emphasize my point. Say a person wants to drink some cyanide. Even though he has *virtually* a 100% chance of dying he should still have the choice to take it because,for all anyone else knows, he could have been genetically modified by aliens to require cyanide (1 in a zillion chance, but in a universe of indefinite and thus infinite chance even 1 in a zillion happens).

“I’m also sure that you wouldn’t think it’s “disgraceful to say that some people should prevent people from doing things that they want to do” when that action inflicts harm on another.” I would never say its a disgrace to want to help someone make a better decision. In fact, I would say the human race was founded upon and depends upon teamwork. Its not so much about stopping people from helping as it is stopping the government from abusing. Yes everyone should where a helmet when they ride a bike but if i believe im safe slowly riding down my street without one and im not endangering anyone then the government should not legally have the capability to prosecute me for it.

of course if freedom is not one of your highest priorities none of what i just said even applies. There are many ways a species can prosper with virtually no freedoms (ants are a classic example). I just personally believe freedom of choice directly translates into creativity and then into technology (technology is by definition a measure of quality in life. if it didnt improve your life somehow, you wouldn’t use it.). And even in a fully libertarian society, if a person wanted they could create their own private socialist society on their private land. that sounds like utopia to me… but then again in a world of infinite information i cant justifiably say i know what im talking about nor will i ever!


Tim Dean · 27th April 2012 at 10:16 am

Hi Willy. Interesting points, although I suspect you’re somewhat confused about a few important definitions.

For example, your notion of ‘obscurity’ in terms of information is not quite what I’m talking about.

Interests are interesting things. We have basic, or ‘biological’, interests, which we have by virtue of out genetic and biological makeup as homo sapiens. Sustenance, warmth, health, social interaction, sense of worth etc.

We also have a mind that does its best to satisfy these things. We respond to many cues in order to do so. Pleasure, happiness, contentment, satiety etc are all indicators that we’re satisfying some deeper interest.

However, these cues are heuristic processes that evolved to encourage behaviour that satisfies our interests – and they’re somewhat error prone today. For example, we evolved a sweet tooth because seeking out sweet food 50,000 years ago was adaptive. Yet today if we eat as much sweet tooth as our taste buds would like it would be detrimental to our health. Thus we’re aware that our surface desires don’t always promote our deeper wellbeing – in this case, general health.

When I talk about ‘obscure’, I mean our deeper biological and psychological interests are not always clear. Instead we tend to chase the heuristics like pleasure, happiness, satiety etc. And when we do so, we can end up behaving in a way detrimental to our wellbeing.

Now, the caveat here is that this model only works if you think one ought to satisfy their basic interests – their ‘needs’ more than their ‘wants’. I happen to think that is what people are already doing, but many don’t realise it.

Thus, a government that places a tax on sugar to reduce consumption can be doing so in the interests of health at the expense of people’s heuristic desires, and this can be beneficial to their overall wellbeing.

So, fundamentally, I’m not a hedonist – in the sense that I don’t think it’s good to pursue whatever surface desires we might have. I think it’s better to satisfy our deeper interests. There’s a longer discussion to elaborate on those interests, but I’ll leave that for now.

Also, riding a bike without a helmet and falling off doesn’t only affect you. It affects your friends, your family, your health system, your community etc. Very few of our actions affect only ourselves. Some only have a minor impact on others, and that should be weighed appropriately. But many actions supported by libertarians – smoking, gambling, not wearing helmets – do affect more than the individual.

I also think your definition of technology is very strange. Technology is a tool or device that we use for some end. Most of the time that end can be traced to a desire or an interest. Thus technology is not intrinsically good, it’s only instrumentally good in so far as it actually does advance your interests. The thermonuclear bomb or weaponised anthrax are technologies, yet they’re hardly a measure of quality of life.

Fundamentally, I believe freedom is important as a means to satisfy our interests, with some limitations placed on it when it harms our interests more than it serves them. I think libertarians mistake freedom as an instrumental good for being an intrinsic good, and that works against our wellbeing.

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