Home > Life, Politics > Libertarianism Isn’t Free

Libertarianism Isn’t Free

Like most people, I guess, I’ve flirted with libertarianism. In high school, I also flirted with a libertarian who was a real-life version of “Gossip Girl’s” Carter Baizen. I lived to regret it, but that’s another story. Get me drunk some Friday night and I’ll tell you all about it. Two margaritas should be enough. 🙂

Basically, libertarianism says that we should have as little government as possible — and for many libertarians, that means no government at all. According to them, the only legitimate purpose of government is to protect people from violence, coercion, and fraud. Anything else is illegitimate. Libertarians oppose government involvement in activities such as ensuring food and drug safety, licensing doctors, limiting child labor, operating public schools, or regulating banks. On the positive side, however, libertarians support complete freedom for people in their private conduct. As a result, they oppose all laws against so-called “victimless crimes,” such as the use of socially-disapproved drugs. The most extreme libertarians want private business to take over all the functions of government, including police, courts, roads, and national defense. That enables them to argue for the total abolition of government.

My introduction to libertarianism

My introduction to libertarianism came via Ayn Rand (1905-1982), the fiercely polemical author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as well as several other books. She also wrote a Broadway play called “The Night of January 16th” that, ingeniously, has two different endings. It depicts a murder trial in which members of the play’s audience serve as the jury. The play’s characters testify in the trial, and the jury’s verdict depends on which characters the audience members believe. Later, in the 1960s, Rand described a philosophy based on her ideas and called it “objectivism.” There’s no denying that she was a smart, creative person who thought her own thoughts and went her own way.

However, I was ultimately repulsed by her total lack of compassion for other people, as well as by her kinky ideas about the proper relations between women and men. One pivotal scene in The Fountainhead has the book’s protagonist, Howard Roark, rape the main female character Dominique Francon. But the rape is supposed to be “okay” because Roark is the good guy and “you know, women really want to be raped” as long as it’s by a big, macho man with chiseled features.

Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged depicts a strong businesswoman named Dagny Taggart who has a similar relationship with her lover Hank Rearden, the owner of a steel mill. At one point, Dagny wears a diamond bracelet that Rand says gave her “the most feminine of all aspects — the look of being chained.” Uh-huh. And it’s a woman who wrote that! No, thank you. Bondage might be fine as play (as long as it’s consensual), but not as a definition of femininity.

Unlike some writers, by the way, Rand cannot make the excuse that these scenes are just part of a story and that they don’t mean anything. According to her philosophy of art and literature as she explained it in her book The Romantic Manifesto, art’s function is to focus on what is essential and to ignore the merely accidental. If she spends time describing a scene or event, it’s because she thinks it spotlights something important. Her essentially misogynistic view of women has been a scandal in libertarian circles, leading both to criticism by feminists and to fevered apologetics by Rand’s followers. (See, for example, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, edited by Mimi Reisel Gladstein and Chris Matthew Sciabarra.)

But let’s get back to libertarianism.

Libertarianism’s central idea

Libertarianism’s central idea is that we shouldn’t use violence or coercion against other people except in self-defense. Libertarians call it “the non-aggression principle.” It sounds nice, and we could definitely do worse. But there’s a big problem with it:

It’s impossible to know if an act violates the non-aggression principle unless you already know what rights people have and what belongs to whom.

That gap makes libertarianism a blank doctrine. You can fill the blank in different ways, depending on which theories of rights and property you pick. Those determine what counts as aggression and what counts as self-defense. That’s why libertarianism comes in so many different flavors: mainstream (“limited government”), anarchist (“no government”), socialist, Christian, and lots of other varieties. They all fill the blank in different ways.

For example, suppose that I have a new iPod and you take it from me by force. That’s aggression, right? But what if I had stolen the iPod from you? Then you are repossessing your property. What if I got the iPod with a tax refund that you believe came indirectly from your paying higher taxes? Is it then aggression if you take the iPod? Or did I commit aggression against you by buying an iPod with a tax refund?

Or suppose that I’m Dominique Francon from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, and you’re the novel’s hero, Howard Roark. You break into my bedroom and, against my violent resistance, force yourself on me sexually. Was it rape? Not according to Ayn Rand:

It was not an actual rape, but a symbolic action which Dominique all but invited. This was the action she wanted and Howard Roark knew it.

And elsewhere:

If it’s rape, it’s rape by engraved invitation.

Let me get this straight.* If I “all but invite” sexual assault (Is my skirt too short?), and the man who assaults me is sure that I “really want it” in spite of my resistance, then it’s not aggression or rape. Am I the only one who thinks that’s transparent double-talk in defense of the indefensible? Let me give you the real argument. Libertarians don’t like the word “aggression” but they do like Ayn Rand. Therefore, it wasn’t rape. Libertarians pick and choose which actions they think are aggression based on their ideology and emotional biases.

The non-aggression principle says nothing

All political and moral theories forbid non-defensive violence and coercion, but they define it differently. Even Adolf Hitler felt the need to pretend that Poland had attacked Germany first, so he could claim that the Nazi invasion of Poland was in self-defense.

Therefore, to say that one shouldn’t commit aggression is merely to say that one shouldn’t do what one shouldn’t do. Libertarians think that they’re saying something profound and important, but in fact their central principle says nothing at all. At least, it says nothing until it’s tied to a particular theory of what rights people have and who owns what. Until then, it’s a blank waiting to be filled.

How libertarians fill the blank

Mainstream libertarians try to fill the blank in two ways. First, they appeal to economics: usually, to their house brand of “Austrian” economics, which they prefer because it validates conclusions that they’ve already decided they want to reach. But economics merely describes the current distribution of income and wealth, and then tries to explain it. If you look to economics to determine what rights people have and what they own, the only answer you get is a description of how things currently are and a theory about why they are that way. Thus, despite its pretensions, libertarianism is a very conservative creed.

Second, libertarians appeal to ridiculously simplistic examples to justify their views of income and wealth distribution. If someone walking in the forest picks up acorns that don’t belong to anyone else, then she “mixes her labor” with the acorns and they belong to her. If a pin-maker working alone makes 1,000 pins in a day, then the income from selling those pins clearly belongs to her.

But libertarians try to extend those simple cases to argue that corporations have the “natural right” to own vast tracts of land or that Wall Street bond traders somehow “produce economic value” corresponding to the stupendous incomes they are paid. How do we know that they produced the value? Because they got the money. Why did they get the money? Because they produced the value. Some people might call that circular reasoning.

Libertarianism’s conservative bias

Libertarianism’s conservative bias is also built into the non-aggression principle itself. Events that occur in the present are much easier to prove as aggression than events in the past. If you hit me on the head and I haven’t hit or threatened you first, that seems pretty easy to identify as an act of aggression.

But if a corporate polluter dumps toxins into a community’s water supply, then it’s much more difficult to prove what happened and who is responsible. Can you prove that Mr. Smith, vice president of illegal operations, ordered the dumping? Can you prove that Sally’s cancer and Jimmy’s auto-immune disease, which developed years later, were caused by the toxins? Can you prevail against an army of corporate lawyers who have unlimited funds to drag out the case until you give up or die? Probably not.

As a result, libertarians come down hard on working people trying to defend their lives and livelihoods, but they want to let corporate wrongdoers get away with murder — sometimes, literally. Their solution to corporate crime is to get rid of all government regulation and let the crimes happen. The survivors (if any) can then sue for damages. Good luck with that. It worked so well on Wall Street that it wrecked the world economy.

One of my uncles, who is a philosopher (and in conversations with whom I developed many of these ideas), remarked that libertarians’ real guiding principle is this:

“What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is probably a government handout that’s rightfully mine.”

That doesn’t sound like non-aggression to me.

* In a less serious context, I’d probably make a joke about that.

Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

  1. September 24, 2009 at 1:36 am

    Outstanding! I’d say more, but I’m going to go back and re-read it, so I don’t have time.

  2. Rinth de Shadley
    September 24, 2009 at 2:36 am

    Hi, Sempringham 🙂

    Thanks so much for your kind comment! Thanks also for mentioning my blog on your own blog. That was really nice of you, and I enjoyed reading your blog, too!

    (Everyone please go visit Sempringham’s blog — it’s cool and newsy and funny and has some beautiful graphics. 🙂 )

  3. September 24, 2009 at 3:31 am

    Thank you. This is an excellent peice. Semprhingham have that much in common. Obviously you would know a Libeterian if you saw one….I was informed and amused. All I ever ask from a blog author

    • Rinth de Shadley
      September 24, 2009 at 12:02 pm

      Thanks for your kind comment!

      Yes, I do know several libertarians. Mostly they are intelligent, well-meaning people who seem to be blinded by ideology. In fairness, of course, we all have our blind areas. Some of us try harder to see around them. 🙂

  4. September 25, 2009 at 9:14 pm


    You’ve probably seen this, but just in case:

  5. Rinth de Shadley
    September 25, 2009 at 11:18 pm


    LOL! That is hilarious. I’m going to repost it.

    Thanks so much!

  6. April 30, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    Interesting piece, but using Ayn Rand as the archetype of libertarian thought is akin to using Fred Phelps as the archetype of Christian belief. Many of your examples inaccurately describe the views of most libertarians. Other examples completely ignore the libertarian argument all together.

    For example, when you say “[I]f a corporate polluter dumps toxins into a community’s water supply, then it’s much more difficult to prove what happened and who is responsible,” you completely ignore the libertarian argument against public land ownership. An individual is far more concerned about his or her personal property than communities are about land that they, in theory, own collectively. Consequently, it is easy for the landowner’s property rights to be violated when the landowner is so completely non-specific.

    And here, when referring to bond traders, you say “How do we know that they produced the value? Because they got the money. Why did they get the money? Because they produced the value.” People are compensated for goods or services found valuable by other people. Business owners employ other people for the purpose of producing those goods or offering those services more effectively than the owner could alone. The owner hopes to profit by keeping more of the value the customers perceive (revenue) than the owner pays out as an expression of his or her own perceived values (wages, overhead, inventory, etc.). People are not compensated irrationally. In a market economy, people are compensated relative to their perceived value. That value is established based on tradeoffs, the expected alternatives for the paying entity if it does not spend its money on that person. You experience this valuation through tradeoffs all the time without even realizing it.

    For instance, if you have a sick cat and $100 (the sick cat isn’t important but I’m using it as an example), then you will, either intuitively or intentionally, decide how to spend that money based on tradeoffs. What is the potential emotional cost of ignoring that cat’s illness and hoping it gets better? What could you buy with the money if you don’t spend it at the vet? Is a new cat cheaper than the cost of the vet? Will I feel ok with myself if I don’t take the cat to the vet and it dies? These are just some of the tradeoffs involving the money, the cat, and your emotions. And this is what every entity, individual, corporation, or otherwise, does with every economic decision, including you and me.

    My point is that your representation of libertarianism as a political philosophy is highly misleading. I suggest you read a book about libertarianism instead of basing your views on a book written by a someone who detested anyone claiming to be a libertarian. I highly recommend David Boaz’s “Libertarianism: A Primer” as a start.


    • Rinth de Shadley
      May 1, 2010 at 12:28 pm

      Hi Jason 🙂

      Thanks for your calm and reasonable comment. Some people, including libertarians, can’t argue about things without getting upset. I’ve had a few comments that weren’t very nice.

      However, I can’t agree with some of your points. Let me try to answer them one at a time.

      First, you say that my examples inaccurately describe the views of most libertarians. I’ll get to the examples of the corporate polluter and the Wall Street bond traders, where I think that your arguments are a little beside the point. But I re-read my post and I couldn’t find anyplace where I thought my description of libertarian views was inaccurate. I summarize those views in paragraph 2, and if I made any mistakes there, please do correct me.

      Second, about the corporate polluter. I know the libertarian argument about private ownership of everything. But it doesn’t seem relevant to my point that it’s easier to prove current, public acts are aggression than it is to prove past, secret acts are aggression. Suppose that a community water supply is privately owned by XYZ Corporation, which secretly dumps some toxic chemicals into it. Ten years later, children in the town start getting cancer. If you want to prove that aggression has occurred, you have to prove (a) that the corporation dumped the chemicals, (b) that the chemicals can cause cancer, (c) that the children were exposed to the chemicals enough for it to raise their risk of cancer, and (d) that it caused the cancers 10 years later when a lot of other things also happened that could be blamed. You then (e) have to get your local lawyer for $50 an hour to go up against an army of corporate lawyers with an unlimited budget to stall, bribe people, and make witnesses disappear. I think that the power imbalance and the probable results are obvious, whether the water is privately owned or not.

      Third, about the bond traders. Maybe I misunderstood, but your argument seems to prove my point. Economics looks at how things are and tries to tell a story about why they are that way. Why did the bond traders get so much money? Because someone subjectively thought that their work was valuable. How do we know that someone subjectively thought that their work was valuable? Because they got paid for it. What’s missing is any connection to reality. If you say that value is completely subjective, then obviously people “earned” whatever they got paid because if they got paid, then that’s all it means for them to earn the money. The whole argument seems, to me anyway, to be lost in a fog of subjectivity and circular reasoning.

      You seem like a very nice and reasonable person, though we disagree.

  1. June 10, 2010 at 6:29 pm

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