As I was eating lunch today, a colleague of mine brought to my attention an article in Jacobin Magazine entitled “A Philosophy for the Propertied” – urging us to reject libertarianism as a utopian fantasy. My first response to my colleague was that I was too busy to make a full response, but then I wrote, “who am I kidding, I’ll have a look.” I predicted, just for fun, that most of what I’d find wrong in the piece would be based on misconception or caricature.
I was correct. What follows are more than a dozen serious problems with the piece.
Item 1: “right-wing libertarianism.” Libertarianism isn’t “right-wing” in any meaningful sense of the term. We’re not hawks. We don’t base our positions on religious fundamentalism. We oppose the surveillance state and indeed all government violations of civil liberties. We oppose all censorship. We oppose the drug war. We were for same-sex marriage, and LGBT equality generally, more than 40 years before the Democratic party got on the bandwagon. We oppose subsidies and bailouts to big business, and indeed special privilege for the well-connected in general. So: Not right-wing.
Of all the political philosophies, we’re the least utopian.
Item 2: “What is libertarianism? The question is fraught, and dwelling on it is unlikely to be productive” Translation: I will deliberately avoid defining it so as to avoid the obvious reply that this is all straw-man and caricature.
Item 2a: “To hear them tell it” – no quotations or references follow. At this point I’m already convinced that the author is arguing deliberately dishonestly, and if I were grading this would be more than halfway to already knowing it’s inadequate: You can’t say “I will now argue against X” and then not quote from X at all.
Item 2b: “they exalt” – ok, so we’ll paper over cracks in the argument with rhetorical devices. Noted.
Item 3: “Libertarianism is a species of utopian political thinking.” Nope. We’re not the ones who imagine that power can be entrusted to people as long as they’re the right people. We’re the ones who try to push for structures in which the damage that venal people can do is minimized. We’re the ones who pay attention to what sorts of incentives are provided by different policies and institutions. Of all the political philosophies, we’re the least utopian. Again, author quotes no one.
Item 4: “free activity of individuals whose interactions are mediated by the market and uninhibited by anything other than their own volition.” Wrong again. The boundary condition is not one’s own volition, it’s the equal respect for the rights of others. Locke specifically differentiates liberty from licentiousness. Which libertarians say “do whatever you please”? More evidence that this author is either arguing dishonestly or is unaware of most libertarian thought.
Pure majoritarianism is indefensible. If the author wants to argue about that, fine, but it’s hardly unique to libertarianism to be skeptical of it.
Item 5: “it can’t solve collective action problems like environmental degradation and global warming.” Actually, many libertarians concern themselves with these issues. “Can’t solve” seems to imply that some other philosophy has some easy solution which we petulantly ignore. But that’s false also. Any purported solution that pretends there are no trade-offs is fantasy. “Just ban x” has a history of being a terrible answer to all such problems. People are whipped into a frenzy about the dangers of x, often falsely, and then the ban on x entails unintended consequences which are often even worse, and frequently create black markets in x.
Item 6: Halfway through, the one quotation I’ve seen so far is from another article in Jacobin criticizing libertarianism.
Item 7: Notes that libertarians are skeptical of unfettered democracy – a line of argument that’s as old as Plato, and was responsible for the U.S. Constitution not being characterized by direct democracy. You can spin criticism of democracy as sinister, but it actually is the case that unfettered democracy is not what the framers had in mind, as even a cursory skimming of the Federalist Papers reveals. Pure majoritarianism is indefensible. If the author wants to argue about that, fine, but it’s hardly unique to libertarianism to be skeptical of it. Then: “One popular libertarian solution” - finally a citation to an actual libertarian author! No quotes of course, just a link, but the person is actually a living libertarian philosopher, Jason Brennan. But “popular solution” is wrong – the work in question is brand new, and while some libertarians like Brennan’s work others do not (I have not read the book yet myself). So, calling this a “popular solution” tells me first of all that the author is amazingly unfamiliar with libertarian thought, and secondly that he’s picking a particularly controversial new book and presenting it as “they all think this.”
Item 8: A weird segue into criticizing Habermas and Rawls – who aren’t libertarians.
Item 9: “Unencumbered by the social commitments of contemporary liberalism, libertarianism quickly goes beyond the depoliticized inertia of deliberative theory and actively advocates the dismantling of institutions that are publicly accountable” Lots of wrong packed in here. The first 5 words are already wrong – libertarianism is profoundly informed by the social aspects of human existence. That’s a concern as old as Smith. But the whole sentence is wrong – it’s not that we should dismantle institutions that are publicly accountable (again who says this? No one quoted) but that the status quo is generally not composed of such institutions. The grain lobby gets subsidies for its members via the processes we have now – that’s not “public accountability.”
Where property rights aren’t respected, it is the rich and powerful who benefit – always.
Item 10: “For libertarian theorists, democratic oversight is an immoral abrogation of individual rights.” Yes, we do say that – and I’m terrified of people who disagree with it. This is an insight as old as Mill, with roots in Plato. That the majority doesn’t like me doing x is not sufficient justification for using coercion to prevent me doing x. Only if my doing x violates someone else’s equal rights, e.g. by hurting him or her, would coercion be justified.
Item 11: “Far from denouncing coercion, libertarians celebrate it” – quotes would help. Name one libertarian who celebrates coercion. That’s literally the opposite of what we say. See item 10: coercion is only justified to prevent action that violates the equal rights of others. So, I can’t go hit a person and take his car, although if I tried to do this, that person would be justified in hitting me back to prevent me taking his car. Aggression is bad, self-defense is permissible. That the author would say this is further proof of outright distortion.
Item 12: “libertarianism is a philosophy concerned with the defense of individual property owners” – says this like it’s a bad thing! This is precisely what the powerless need – an institutional structure that looks out for them, that regards their rights as no less important than the rights of the rich and powerful. Suzette Kelo lost her home because some wealthy developer wanted it. She needed more, not less, protection of property rights. Also, when we say “property,” we mean (as did Locke) one’s life – we have a property right in ourselves. Eric Garner and Philando Castile needed more, not less, protection of property rights. Where property rights aren’t respected, it is the rich and powerful who benefit – always. You cannot name one society where this isn’t case.
Item 13: “libertarians advocate for conservatism” – No. See F. A. Hayek’s essay entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Item 14: “libertarians advocate for capitulation to elites” – where? It’s getting pretty tiresome noting that none of these claims refer to any actual sources except the reference to Brennan’s new book. Anyway, we don’t advocate capitulating to anyone. We’re the pro-freedom team, the ones with “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper stickers. It’s the impositions of arrogant elites that we reject, not endorse.
Conclusion: author seems upset about one new book by a libertarian philosophy professor but either has no understanding whatsoever of libertarianism or is afraid of honest argumentation, seeing as how no other sources canonical or otherwise are cited – no Smith, Locke, Mill, Hayek, Nozick – just a bunch of unjustified assertions, straw man, caricature, and deliberate distortion. Sadly, I find this to be the case 90% of the time.
On the one hand, we have a lot more work to do explaining our ideas about peace, freedom, and prosperity to others. But on the other hand, if opponents either refuse to read what we write or deliberately misrepresent it, what good will it do? Perhaps more of the former will help counteract the latter.