Failures Of Libertarian Philosophy

From Critiques Of Libertarianism
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Libertarian philosophy has some conspicuous failures. The numerous libertarian attempts to demonstrate self-ownership and property rights fail badly. This undermines essentially everything else they attempt.

Basic mistakes of libertarian philosophy can include:

  • apriori reasoning
  • natural rights
  • self-ownership
  • individualism
  • the assumption of property
  • single value reasoning
  • misframings
  • ignoring anthropology
  • just deserts claims


Just Deserts (7 links)
A philosophically unsubstantiated claim that people deserve their market competition outcome. Based on unsupportable premises that compelling people into market interactions is just and that the competitions themselves are just. Sometimes spelled "just desserts".
Libertarian Admissions (1 link)
Every now and then, a famous libertarian backs himself into a corner and says something honest that conflicts with popular libertarian belief.
Libertarians Misunderstand Property
Libertarians routinely assume modern property is natural, is absolute, is costless, should extend over all, and solves all problems. None of that is true.
Natural Rights (10 links)
Natural Rights has always been a propaganda term, from its first invention as an answer to the rights of kings. Nobody has yet really answered Jeremy Bentham's charge of "nonsense on stilts". Most libertarianism (Nozick, for example) is still behind the times here. Also known as "unalienable rights" or "inalienable rights".
Non-Aggression (22 links)
The "non-aggression axiom" , also known as non-coercion and NAP, is one of the most widely repeated bits of libertarian propaganda. It simply means "we want to coerce you to live by our rules whether you like it or not." "Steal my candy bar? Then you must die!" It is an incoherent piece of rhetoric. And just how is a libertarian compelled to adopt the NAP? Without such an explanation, claiming the NAP would be followed or is a feature of libertarianism is bullshit.
Philosophical Individualism (10 links)
Individualism is merely one viewpoint in an enormous hierarchy of viewpoints ranging from Planck length to the universe. Individualism as a tenet of a philosophy transforms that philosophy into a Procrustean bed that cannot model the real world well, because the real world is not based on individuals.
Property Is Coercive (22 links)
Claims that government is coercive but capitalism and markets are not overlook the coercion involved in property.
Reinventing Government Badly (10 links)
It is patently obvious, even to many libertarians, that some form of government is needed. Libertarians thus reinvent governments according to their own lights as defense associations, private monarchies, and a variety of other bad solutions that privatize power.
Self-Ownership (12 links)
Self-ownership is another imaginary right. No human society has ever treated people as their own inviolate property. Even if self-ownership was only an aspirational goal, it could not be implemented for children or incompetents. Libertarians frequently base their philosophy on this imagined right. In modern society, persons have "body rights": they do not own their bodies, but do have limited property rights in them. Libertarians also confuse possession with ownership.
The Private Sector can solve that. (3 links)
Hand-waving arguments that because the private sector is already involved, there is no need for government. If you ignore market failures, game theory, historical evidence, psychology, transaction costs and more, why, it all makes sense!
The Turing Test: Who Can Successfully Explain Robert Nozick? [More...]
Brad DeLong provides a succinct explanation of the major reason why nobody should take Robert Nozick seriously. This is ridicule done right.
Rights Are Socially Constructed
Rights are socially constructed through political, religious, or academic institutions that codify, promote, and sometimes enforce these ideas. They have no positive existence outside of human ideas and practices. This is why there is little uniformity in ideas of rights, except where pragmatic needs (such as competitiveness) lead to gross similarities. This is why there are no "true" rights: every society will construct its own based on the interests of its members. Philosophy of rights that doesn't start with the social construction of rights is making a basic category error.
A Dilemma for Libertarianism [More...]
Anarcho-capitalism exists; property ownership just happens to be dominated by about 200 firms called “governments.” Libertarians have erred in calculating who owns property.
A Is A (3 links)
Also known as the law of identity, is a worthless piece of philosophical drivel that plainly doesn't apply to the real world and seems to be unnecessary in mathematics. Objectivists use it as a shibboleth.
Against Utilitarianism and Self-Ownership Defenses of Libertarianism [More...]
"Utilitarianism is too consequence-sensitive and self-ownership is too consequence-insensitive."
Anarchism: Liberal Threat or Liberal Critique? [More...]
Basic problems of anarchism, whether anarcho-capitalist or leftist.
BadPhilosophy, search for libertarian, Rand, and objectivism. [More...]
The BadPhilosophy reddit routinely scoffs at libertarianism, Ayn Rand and Objectivism.
Big Government (5 links)
Isn't it strange that all first-world countries have big government? Maybe it's a good thing, and not the bogeyman of libertarians and the right.
Capitalism Whack-A-Mole [More...] (1 link)
"There is no general framework of morality or justice that supports laissez-faire capitalism. This is a problem of course for those who wish to argue on behalf of it. When you talk to such people, a familiar argumentative pattern emerges that I have come to call Capitalism Whack-A-Mole."
Real Life Capitalism Whack-A-Mole [More...]
"I taped a TV segment today with the Ayn Rand Institute’s Don Watkins about his book “Equal Is Unfair.” My sole goal going into the segment was to see if I could produce a Capitalism Whack-A-Mole in the wild."
Capitalist Nursery Fables: The Tragedy of Private Property, and the Farce of Its Defense [More...]
"Since the beginning of class society, every ruling class has required a legitimizing ideology to justify inequality and to frame its own privileges as deserved... But it has nowhere been more true than under modern capitalism."
Coercion (24 links)
Coercion is used in libertarian propaganda to brand things they don't like. Property and rights are fundamentally coercive; pretending that they are not coercive with the excuse "defensive force" is one of the great libertarian lies. We choose public government to perform our desired coercion, because people are too partial to their own interests to be trusted.
Desert-Sacrifice-Utility Whack-a-Mole [More...]
Another common shifting of arguments to support capitalism is from desert justifications to sacrifice justifications to utility justifications. Each one can be shown to fail as a valid justification.
Does Nozick Have a Theory of Property Rights? [More...]
Barbara Fried points out numerous ways Robert Nozick abandons libertarian principles and resorts to utilitarianism in Anarchy, State and Utopia. Free download.
Expropriation (7 links)
Libertarians generally ignore or make excuses for the fact that essentially all property in land has been coercively expropriated (often repeatedly) from preceding peoples. Including acquisition from the commons. Any philosophy of just property in land must deal with this historical fact.
Foucault in cyberspace -- Chapter 2: Libertarianism, Property and Harm [More...]
(Starts on page 11.) Law Professor James Boyle points out that libertarianism fails to justify which rights we should have in three ways: common law, natural rights and Property. "When the vague first principles turn more specific, then the fun really begins."
Freedom and Money [More...]
G. A. Cohen points out the elephant in the room: property restricts freedoms of others, and money is the bribe needed to enjoy those freedoms. In this respect, the poor have much less freedom than others.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Argumentation Ethic: A Critique [More...]
Robert P. Murphy and Gene Callahan shred Hoppe's argument for self-ownership.
How Did Private Property Start? [More...]
"Libertarians tend to get flummoxed when confronted with this simple question... How does something that was once unowned become owned without nonconsensually destroying others’ liberty? It is impossible. This means that libertarian systems of thought literally cannot get off the ground."
Ideology (26 links)
The ideological universe of libertarians: how to view them with less distortion from propaganda.
Individual Choice (3 links)
Individual choice is a misleading concept: individuals do not control the choices available and are heavily influenced by advertising, propaganda, and other irrational factors. It also focuses attention away from alternatives, such as social choice.
Initial Property Continues to Vex Libertarians [More...]
"Perhaps the most interesting thing about libertarian thought is that it has no way of coherently justifying the initial acquisition of property. How does something that was once unowned become owned without non-consensually destroying others’ liberty? It is impossible. This means that libertarian systems of thought literally cannot get off the ground. They are stuck at time zero of hypothetical history with no way forward."
Inviolable Private Sphere of Rights
A classic reification. But also grossly misleading: actual (legal) rights cannot be inviolable because that would be incredibly expensive. Nor can rights be sphere-like: innumerable exceptions must be carved out to prevent conflict, to reflect what people actually care about and to keep enforcement costs down. A better topological model would be a swiss cheese.
Involuntary (1 link)
There are many things which are inescapably involuntary on an individual level in our lives. Start with social institutions such as property. And commons, many of which are biological, not social. Demands for voluntary or voluntarism conveniently ignore these issues in order to oppose social choices such as taxation.
Is big government bad for freedom, civil society, and happiness? [More...]
"Do the gains from government goods, services, and transfers come at the cost of reduced freedom, weakened civil society, and diminished happiness? The experience of the world’s affluent democratic countries suggests that, at least so far, the answer is no."
Is Libertarianism Fundamentally about Competition? Or about Property? [More...]
David Brin attempts to find common ground between liberals and libertarians by stressing the value of competition. He concludes that: "today's libertarians are (I grieve to say it) in-effect quite mad."
It is Okay -- Call Republicans Social Darwinists [More...]
Libertarians too. The main guiding principle of Social Darwinism is a defense of the free market as a moral arbiter, rather than merely a tool for creating wealth. The consequence is the idea that harsh inequality is both necessary and right.
It's my money! (12 links)
Short for "I earned it, so it is entirely my property." The most common libertarian complaint against taxation of income. Completely mistaken because (a) your income is not solely your product and (b) there might be many pre-existing claims against your income, including rents, alimony, tithes, debts, taxes, etc. Fallaciously used to claim "taxation is theft" and "taxation is slavery".
John Kenneth Galbraith on Conservatism. [More...]
"The modern conservative is not even especially modern. He is engaged, on the contrary, in one of man’s oldest, best financed, most applauded, and, on the whole, least successful exercises in moral philosophy. That is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness..."
Laissez Faire (23 links)
Laissez faire is a hypocritical propaganda term: it is government that creates a capitalist environment, advantaging capitalists over others. Unregulated Market is a more honest term. History shows pretty clearly that unregulated, unfettered capitalism is a brutal environment where wealth accumulates in the hands of an elite leaving most people in poverty, deeply vulnerable to the inevitable economic shocks that follow.
Left-Libertarianism: A Review Essay [More...]
"Self-ownership" may not be able to do the work that left-libertarians assign it, any more than it can do the cognate work assigned by the (libertarian) right. The left-libertarians' choice to justify equality by reference to liberty may raise some strategic concerns.
Libertarianism and Pollution [More...]
Libertarian Matt Zwolinski points out that the libertarian theories of rights of Nozick, Rothbard, and Mack don't work for pollution problems. He also says "[Free-Market Environmentalism] can serve as a supplement to a theory of rights, and never as a substitute for one." He concludes that there is currently no good libertarian solution, using the euphemism "a fruitful subject for future research." It never occurs to him that essentially government holds rights and powers which solve these problems. But with his libertarian blinders on, he never observes that the environment consists of commons that are resistant to privatization.
Libertarianism: an unscience [More...]
"Sometimes I watch libertarians talk about epistemology and I just laugh and laugh." Describes Jason Kuznicki as a typical example of bad libertarian epistemology.
Libertarianism: For and Against (book, online)
Tibor Machan argues for libertarianism, while philosopher Craig Duncan defends democratic liberalism, which aims to ensure that all citizens have fair access to a life of dignity.
Libertarians are neither right wing nor left wing. (5 links)
A false claim. Libertarians are simply pragmatic conservatives who have a moral focus on non-interference by the government, according to George Lakoff. That makes them solid right wingers.
Libertarians' reality problem: How an estrangement from history yields abject failure [More...]
"[L]ibertarianism cannot provide a coherent account of our capacity for choice. It presents freedom as its central concern, conceptually and normatively, but is indifferent to the conditions that nurture and sustain it. Actually, this is too weak. It is not just indifferent to these conditions: It is actively hostile to them. It cannot accept a constructive role for the social and the public; it conceives of them only as obstructions."
Libertarians, Conservatives and Human Nature [More...]
Eddie SantoPrieto points out that libertarian (and especially objectivist) models of humans are grossly at odds with anthropological science.
Liberty, Games and Contracts: Jan Narveson & the Defence of Libertarianism (book, online)
14 philosophers critique Narveson's justification of libertarianism. Narveson responds at the end.
Listen Libertarians! Part 1 [More...]
Part I of David Ellerman's review of John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness. The fundamental consent-versus-coercion misframing.
Listen Libertarians! Part 2 [More...]
Part 2 of David Ellerman's review of John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness. The misframing of property theory.
Listen Libertarians! Part 3 [More...]
Part 3 of David Ellerman's review of John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness. The misframing about "productive property".
Listen Libertarians! Part 4 [More...]
Part 4 of David Ellerman's review of John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness. Liberalism’s faux "inalienable rights" theory.
Listen Libertarians! Part 5 [More...]
Part 5 of David Ellerman's review of John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness. The property invisible hand mechanism.
Myths about the State of Nature and the Reality of Stateless Societies [More...]
Social contractarian assumptions that all people are better off with the state fail the empirical test of modern stateless societies.
Nozick on Philosophy [More...]
Turns out to be very descriptive of his own work's failings, that of Bleeding Heart Libertarians, and other libertarians. More comfortable than a Procrustean bed, but just as awful.
On the Problematic Political Authority of Property Rights: How Huemer Proves Too Much [More...]
Kevin Vallier eviscerates Michael Huemer’s anarcho-capitalist "The Problem of Political Authority" by pointing out that the same arguments undermining political authority of a state also undermine the political authority of property.
One-Sided Delusions of a Libertarian [More...]
"Shorter Ron Paul: Property Rights Superior to Civil Rights" Why Ron Paul would allow private segregation.
Parable of the ship: why Austrian Economics fails.
The great fault of Austrianism is that it is not scientific. It is structured as a medieval philosophy based on authority, rather than systematic adherence to real-world data.
Political Philosophy’s Fundamental Question [More...]
Libertarian philosopher Kevin Vallier explains why social contract theorists "got it right", which pretty much implies why almost all libertarians get it wrong.
Political Spectrums and Typologies (13 links)
Libertarians are fond of misrepresentations such as the Nolan Chart, The Political Compass, and The World's Smallest Political Quiz. These are primarily propaganda tools, with essentially no academic support. In the US, the left-right axis is all that is really needed for understanding government. Within the US, surveys reveal a typology of 8 primary political groups, none of them libertarian.
Positive and Negative Liberty (6 links)
The concepts of positive and negative liberty are not generally agreed upon: major philosophers such as T. H. Green and Isaiah Berlin used different meanings, and modern libertarians have their own bastardized meaning. Many philosophers think the distinction is a word game. As soon as you observe that "negative liberty" has opportunity costs for others, it doesn't look so negative any more. American legal philosopher Gerald MacCallum explains Freedom as a Triadic Relation, with positive and negative being a false dichotomy, different viewpoints of the same thing. The Capability Approach is much better.
Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy (book, online) (1 link)
From a review: "The myth that life outside the state is unbearable and that life under the state is better remains the essential premise of two of the most influential Western political philosophies in the modern world … [Widerquist and McCall] systematically debunk this founding myth on the basis of empirical evidence. The results are fascinating and, I will argue, should prompt a methodological crisis for some schools of political philosophy."

-Maeve McKeown, University of Oxford

Rand's work: style and quality [More...]
Why academics disdain the slipshod work of Rand and her major followers.
Reading The Ethics of Liberty, Part 2 – Rothbard on Natural Law [More...]
Matt Zwolinski points out that right at the beginning, The Ethics of Liberty runs into the famous "is-ought problem" that David Hume identified as a fundamental problem of much philosophy.
Reading The Ethics of Liberty, Part 3 – Rothbard’s Confusion About Self-Ownership [More...]
"Rothbard proceeds to argue in the chapters that follow as if he had established the normative claims of self-ownership and ownership of external goods. Indeed, his entire understanding of the free society is based on these concepts. And so, the oversight here is not a minor one. It is, instead, absolutely fatal."
Reading The Ethics of Liberty, Part 4 – Rothbard’s Second Argument for Self-Ownership [More...]
" Rothbard’s argument for self-ownership, I will argue, reveals a basic mistake in his understanding of the concept of property – a mistake that plagues not only a great deal of Rothbard’s thought on the subject, but that of many other libertarians as well."
Regional Policy and Distributional Policy in a World Where People Want to Ignore the Value and Contribution of Knowledge and Network-Based Increasing Returns [More...]
In a world of mammoth increasing returns to unowned knowledge and to networks, no individual and no community is especially valuable. Those who receive good livings are lucky, and the illusion of desert is punctured by any recognition that there is a large societal dividend to be distributed. This is the dismal science at its best and most dismal.
Risk (3 links)
Libertarians frequently ignore the problem of risks to pretend that liberties, "victimless crimes" and unregulated industries have no externalities.
Rousseau’s Challenge to Libertarianism [More...]
"What Rousseau brings into focus is that, at the most fundamental level, property rights are coercive and so trigger a requirement of justification to those who are putatively disadvantaged by the property system."
A long-supplanted philosophical methodology that is preoccupied with "true" definitions of words, a priori knowledge, logic, deduction, system, and its literary form of syllogistic argumentation. Apriorism and avoidance of empiricism are characteristic.
Self-Ownership Theses [More...]
"... we can see from the foregoing that the apparent simplicity and determinacy of the self-ownership principle is likely illusory."
Should the right to life be contingent on income distribution? Do we agree that the rich have more of a right to live than the poor? [More...]
Some basic questions about morailty where libertarianism fails badly.
Some problems with this traditionalist stuff [More...]
"The traditionalist has a formula. They write on a three-by-five card “defer to the status quo norms and traditions.” Then they also secretly scribble on the back “except when doing so conflicts with laissez-faire capitalism.” But we can leave that last part aside."
State Of Nature (1 link)
The term “state of nature” is largely an artifact of a discarded belief anarchy was more natural than state society. Today most researchers believe all human societies are equally artificial and equally natural. The “state of nature” simply means “the absence of state sovereignty.” However, the word nature is relevant in the sense that contractarians portray their description of it as the natural and inevitable result of the absence of state sovereignty.
Taxation Is Slavery (1 link)
A common libertarian theme, that interprets taxation of X% as slavery of X% of your time. The easy response is that you can emigrate: something slaves, serfs, peons and other chattel are not permitted. There is also a ridiculous "Lost Cause"/Sovereign Citizens theme that the 14th Amendment made all of us slaves to the federal government.
Taxation Is Theft (20 links)
A prize libertarian slogan that ignores facts of pre-existing ownership by government. Because government owns its territory, it gets to make rules like any other owner. See: A Non-Libertarian FAQ: 5.5 Taxation is theft. Taxation is also the price we pay for being part of a society. Libertarians want a free lunch from society, but conveniently forget the TANSTAAFL dictum that David Friedman likes to recite: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. If you want to be free of society, go ahead and be a hermit.
The Basic Income Guarantee and Tautological Libertarianism [More...]
"Of course, right-libertarians tell us that they defend property rights because they believe in freedom. Now we see that they’re simply defining freedom as the defense of the property rights system they want to see."
The Lockean Fable of Initial Acquisition (17 links)
Also known as the labor theory of property. John Locke tells a story (nothing more) that ignores the fact that current real-world ownership is based on past theft and conquest (expropriation) not initial acquisition (appropriation.) Initial acquisition without government is a myth. "Mixing of labor" is merely expenditure of effort: it does nothing to create property because property is a socially constructed institution.
The Prehistory of Private Property: Implications for Modern Political Theory (book, online) (1 link)
"This book debunks three false claims commonly accepted by contemporary political philosophers regarding property systems: that inequality is natural, inevitable, or incompatible with freedom; that capitalism is more consistent with negative freedom than any other conceivable economic system; and that the normative principles of appropriation and voluntary transfer applied in the world in which we live support a capitalist system with strong, individualist and unequal private property rights. The authors review the history of the use and importance of these claims in philosophy, and use thorough anthropological and historical evidence to refute them."
The Three Great Errors of Most Libertarians [More...]
"Libertarians are mistaken to seek foundations, to take sides over moral approaches, and to have no proper theory of liberty." That's right: don't think, just believe in the ideology and interpret non-aggression his way..
The Three Great Errors of Most Libertarians: a Concise Philosophical Analysis [More...]
"Libertarians are mistaken to seek foundations, to take sides over moral approaches, and to have no proper theory of liberty."
There Are Important Values Besides Liberty (16 links)
Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable. All these trade off with liberty in important ways. Libertarians want to found society on only one value, private property (which they conflate with liberty.) People with other values will be burdened by having to pay for them.
There's no such thing as society… only individuals and families. (5 links)
This famous Margaret Thatcher quote is philosophical twaddle. The same principle then applies to government, corporations, religions, etc. It is based on the unscientific and fallacious claim that individuals are the only valid level of analysis, common to the methodological individualism of Austrian Economics.
Violently Destroying Liberty Is Important For Flourishing, Libertarian Argues [More...]
"Thus we can't ever actually be debating about whether we are for or against aggression or coercion. That's ridiculous. Folks on all sides of the debate are for using force that is consistent with their theory of what belongs to whom (called "defense") and against using force that is inconsistent with their theory of what belongs to whom (called "aggression")."
Voluntary (10 links)
Libertarians conflate many senses of the word voluntary (and consent) and exclude others to suit their ideological needs of the moment. To libertarians, being forced to live in a system of laissez faire capitalism is voluntary for everyone because you could die instead. All government is considered involuntary, even though you can exit. And paradoxically, all voluntary exchange is based on involuntary systems of rights (primarily enforced by government.) See also Voluntaryism and private charity (voluntarism).
Voting as a Moral Wrong [More...]
Aaron Ross Powell declares that democracy has an immoral face because states are morally unjustified and commit some immoral acts. He might be convincing if only he had shown that alternatives to states were morally better justified and committed fewer immoral acts. But he doesn't: he wants you to assume that.
We libertarians are rational, they are not. (17 links)
People's thinking is based upon their values and premises. You cannot judge somebody else's rationality without adopting their values and premises for the judgement. There is very little evidence that libertarians do that, or judge fairly. Instead, the vulgar libertarian "logic" simply identifies that other people don't hold the same values or premises. See also Homo economicus.
What's Wrong With Libertarianism [More...]
Jeffrey Friedman, editor of Critical Review. thoroughly skewers four books on libertarianism. "Libertarian arguments about the empirical benefits of capitalism are, as yet, Inadequate to convince anyone who lacks libertarian philosophical convictions. Yet ‘philosophical’ libertarianism founders on internal contradictions that render it unfit to make libertarians out of anyone who does not have strong consequentialist reasons for libertarian belief. The joint failure of these two approaches to libertarianism explains why they are both present in orthodox libertarianism -- they hide each other’s weaknesses, thereby perpetuating them." Reviewed: Libertarianism, A Primer, by David Boaz; Classical Liberalism: The Unvanquished Ideal, by David Conway; What It Means to Be a Libertarian, by Charles Murray; Bringing the Market Back In, by John Kelley.
What’s the Matter With Libertarianism? [More...]
"Its models of human nature and society are terminally deficient."
Why Do Philosophers Talk so Much and Read so Little About the Stone Age? False factual claims in appropriation-based property theory [More...]
The libertarian argument for private property relies on dubious factual claims about how property develops, how well off people are in pre-property-rights societies, and how much freer people are under capitalism than in pre-property-rights societies.


There are substantial parts of ordinary human activity that don't make sense if we think of rationality as egoistic maximization of utility. Collective action, group mobilization, religious sacrifice, telling the truth, and working to the fullest extent of one's capabilities are all examples of activity where narrow egoistic rationality would dictate different choices than those ordinary individuals are observed to make. And yet ordinary individuals are not irrational when they behave this way. Rather, they are reflective and deliberative, and they have reasons for their actions. So the theory of rationality needs to have a way of representing this non-egoistic reasonableness.
Daniel Little, "Amartya Sen's commitments"
[...] the central analytical failure of libertarianism as a worldview: a total and disqualifying inability to measure or account for power as it exists in the real world.
Freddie deBoer, "Brief insights into the libertarian mind"
[A blind spot]... a simply weird refusal to acknowledge the huge role played by money and monetary incentives promoting bad ideas.
Paul Krugman, "Conservative Intellectuals: Follow the Money"
People seem to be faintly drawn to the idea that there might be more political dimensions than just "left" and "right". Bullshit. Being in favour of allowing other people to take drugs, shag each other or read what they want isn't a political position; it's what we call "manners", "civilisation" or "humanity", depending on the calibre of yokel you're trying to educate. The political question of interest splits fair and square down a Left/Right axis: either you think that it is more important to provide a decent life for everyone in the world, or you think it is more important to preserve the rights of people who own property. You can hum and haw as much as you like about whether the two are necessarily incompatible, or whether the one is instrumental to the other, or what constitutes a "decent life" anyway, but when you've finished humming and hawing, I'm still gonna be asking you the question, and your answer to it will determine whether or not we're gonna have an argument.
Daniel Davies,, December 31, 2002
We cannot simply say “Well, individuals have a right to do anything that does not harm another” because that answer simply dissolves into another value-laden debate about what counts as “a harm” in the first place.
James Boyle, "Foucault in cyberspace -- Chapter 2: Libertarianism, Property and Harm" pg. 16.
The more sophisticated libertarian philosophers -- Robert Nozick for example -- tend to build their libertarianism on extremely vague statements that command a high degree of acceptance in our society: for example, “individuals own their own bodies.” Now it is worth noting that, while this is a pretty uncontroversial claim in any Western democracy [...] Large numbers of people through history have believed, and still believe, that women, children, black people, kulaks, slaves and so on did not own their own bodies.
James Boyle, "Foucault in cyberspace -- Chapter 2: Libertarianism, Property and Harm" pg. 21.
Odes of praise to the common law, and mistrust of legislative modifications of it, allow libertarians to say that the true benchmark of rights is provided by the older rules, not the newer ones. Judged against this standard, of course, the rules that benefit employers, landlords and manufacturers simply define liberty and property rights whereas the rules that benefit workers, tenants and consumers are interferences with liberty. The rules one likes are the foundations of sacred property rights, those one does not like are meddlesome regulation. This is a nice trick...
James Boyle, "Foucault in cyberspace -- Chapter 2: Libertarianism, Property and Harm" pg. 19.
All forms of society grant freedoms to, and impose unfreedoms on, people, and no society, therefore, can be condemned just because certain people lack certain freedoms in it. But societies have structurally different ways of inducing distributions of freedom, and, in a society like ours, where freedom is to a massive extent granted and withheld through the distribution of money, that fact, that money structures freedom, is often not appreciated in its full significance, and an illusion develops that freedom in a society like ours is not restricted by the distribution of money. This lecture exposes that illusion.
G. A. Cohen, "Freedom and Money"
The non-consensual constraints on conduct recognized by libertarians are quite extensive. Our duties to respect the lives and the physical integrity of others' persons, and their freedom of action and extensive property claims, our obligations to keep our contracts, avoid fraud, and make reparations for harms we cause, are not based in free choice, consent, or any kind of agreement (actual or hypothetical). These are natural rights and duties, libertarians claim, that people possess independent of social interaction. Despite their emphasis on consent, voluntariness, and contract, libertarians are averse to appeals to consent or social agreement to justify their preferred list of moral rights and duties.
Samuel Freeman, "Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View" pg. 125
Alas, today's libertarians are (I grieve to say it) in-effect quite mad. They worship unlimited private property, even though it was precisely the failure mode that crushed freedom in 99% of human cultures. And they rage against a system that in general resulted in vastly more wealth, freedom and more libertarians than any other. This is a quasi-religious idolatry. It makes them complicit allies of the enemies of competition. It makes them murderers of the thing that they should love.
David Brin , "Is Libertarianism Fundamentally about Competition? Or about Property?"
The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy, that is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.
John Kenneth Galbraith, "John Kenneth Galbraith on Conservatism."
[Libertarians] are pulling some very thick conclusions out of some very thin premises, giving them the attitude to find in "self-ownership" whatever they were looking for.
Barbara Fried, "Left-Libertarianism: A Review Essay"
The essential unifying idea in this core of libertarian ideology is that the existence of rights and the propriety of liberty are either obvious, or matters of faith, or sufficiently explained by the word “natural”; accordingly, deeper moral or philosophic arguments in support of them are unnecessary. Why provide philosophic arguments for that which people can know by just opening their eyes, or closing their eyes, or waving their hands and saying “natural”? The fact is that people do not and cannot know anything about the nature of rights or the propriety of liberty by such means.
Craig Biddle, "Libertarianism vs. Radical Capitalism"
The weak logic and bad scholarship that suffuse libertarian responses to my article tend to reinforce me in my view that, if they were not paid so well to churn out anti-government propaganda by plutocrats like the Koch brothers and various self-interested corporations, libertarians would play no greater role in public debate than do the followers of Lyndon LaRouche or L. Ron Hubbard.
Michael Lind, "Libertarianism’s Apocryphal Past"
We can all agree that coercion is a bad thing -- even a paradigmatically bad thing -- while also believing that freedom can be importantly abridged in other ways. In particular, we might believe that imbalances in the allocation of resources amount to imbalances of power, and that these can constrain my freedom when they reach a certain intensity -- especially when they concern resources directly relevant to my autonomy.
Kim Messick, "Libertarians' reality problem: How an estrangement from history yields abject failure"
[W]e might describe a liberal as a libertarian who has been mugged by history. Libertarians, on this view, are liberals who cannot, or will not, accept the changes in American life that have occurred since the Civil War. In the face of all available evidence to the contrary, they continue to insist that an 18th century state is the only proper response to our 21st century economy and society.
Kim Messick, "Libertarians' reality problem: How an estrangement from history yields abject failure"
Global warming is the ultimate refutation of Lockean propertarianism. No one can pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while leaving “enough and as good” for everyone else.
John Quiggan, "Libertarians Can’t Save the Planet"
The problem is that libertarian principles, which revolve [around] the abstract notion of self-interest, are really not principles at all; they have no content and allow anything to be attached to them. Abstract self-interest alone can provide no instructive rule of thought and can disqualify no particular course of action, because each person is free to concoct what is in their best interest, and because “aggression” can be and has been defined in a variety of spurious ways.
John Ganz, "Libertarians have more in common with the alt-right than they want you to think"
Every idiot who advocates shirking by chanting "taxes are theft" bloviates as to how they have no obligation to contribute to the common good from which they benefit.
Gene Callahan, "No, Plato Did Not Think Taxes Were Some Sort of Permitted Theft"
The jump from the right to self-ownership to the right of property ownership always occurs hastily, as if the libertarian knows full well he’s fudging one of the most dubious steps of his proof. Boaz makes the unfortunate decision to choose John Locke’s theory of “labor mixing” as his preferred means of papering over the leap. This is the theory, dating from 1689, that when a person “mixes” her labor with a thing (say by turning a tree into a chair), she develops a property right in it. Why this should be so, nobody knows. What “mixing” even is, nobody knows either. Boaz doesn’t attempt to define it; its function is simply to jury-rig a rickety theoretical bridge that will suffice until the next deduction is made. So long as the reader blinks, she will fail to notice that the entire natural rights justification for property is built upon flashy prestidigitation.
Nathan Robinson, "Oh God, Please Not Libertarianism..."
What is wanting in many libertarian political theories is the recognition that property rights are coercive and so stand in need of justification to others.
Kevin Vallier, "On the Problematic Political Authority of Property Rights: How Huemer Proves Too Much"
So what is it that differentiates the writing of Rand from those of classic academics and professional philosophers? It is simply that her work has every appearance of an extended and multi-faceted straw man argument that fails to meet even the minimum standards of scholarship. It has all the marks of what in science would be pseudo-science. If there is such a thing as pseudo-philosophy, this is it.
Gary Merrill, "Rand's work: style and quality"
[H]umans are, at a very deep and basic level, gift-exchange animals. We create and reinforce our social bonds by establishing patterns of “owing” other people and by “being owed”. We want to enter into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships. We create and reinforce social bonds by giving each other presents. We like to give. We like to receive. We like neither to feel like cheaters nor to feel cheated. We like, instead, to feel embedded in networks of mutual reciprocal obligation. We don’t like being too much on the downside of the gift exchange: to have received much more than we have given in return makes us feel very small. We don’t like being too much on the upside of the gift exchange either: to give and give and give and never receive makes us feel like suckers. We want to be neither cheaters nor saps.
Brad DeLong, "Regional Policy and Distributional Policy in a World Where People Want to Ignore the Value and Contribution of Knowledge and Network-Based Increasing Returns"
This wish to believe that you are not a moocher is what keeps people from seeing issues of distribution and allocation clearly -- and generates hostility to social insurance and to wage supplement policies, for they rip the veil off of the idea that you deserve to be highly paid because you are worth it. You aren’t.
Brad DeLong, "Regional Policy and Distributional Policy in a World Where People Want to Ignore the Value and Contribution of Knowledge and Network-Based Increasing Returns"
Rousseau asks us to imagine someone who is not convinced of natural rights to property, at least as interpreted by the richer laborers in society. The responder has a rational complaint: who made you [the rich, the “haves"] judge of where your property rights begin and end? It’s a dangerous juridical power, one that can easily be used to keep people hungry and powerless. In light of the suffering of the property-less, why should they ever think that the claims of the rich and powerful are naturally legitimate?
Kevin Vallier, "Rousseau’s Challenge to Libertarianism"
...every discipline, as long as it used the Aristotelian method of definition, has remained arrested in a state of empty verbiage and barren scholasticism....
Karl Popper, "The Open Society and Its Enemies", 1950, p. 206.
[...] the idea that people have full liberal property rights in their pre-tax income is unwarranted. They participate in a co-operative venture with others in society subject to certain conditions, and those conditions include one that part of “their income” already belongs to the wider society, via the state. This point, hated by libertarians, defeats the widespread view that people are having “their money” taken off them: it wasn’t theirs to start with.
Chris Bertram, "Squeezing the rich is good: even when it raises no money"
In its own way, the "No True Libertarianism" argument is very similar to the "No True Communism" of those on the far left, who argue that the fault of Communism lies not with the idea, but with the practice--despite the fact that no successful large-scale Communism has ever been implemented in the world. Neither ideology can fail its adherents. They can only be failed by imperfect practitioners. Both ideologies run counter to human nature for the same reason: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
David Atkins, "The "No True Libertarianism" fallacy"
The appeal of the NAP [Non-Aggression Principle] lies in its apparent simplicity and intuitive plausibility (tautologies tend to be intuitively plausible), but it’s typically deployed in a way that amounts to a kind of shell game: I argue that socialism must be rejected on the grounds that it violates this one simple moral principle, and hope my interlocutor doesn’t notice that I’ve essentially begged the question by baking a theory of strong property rights incompatible with socialism into my conception of “aggression,” when of course libertarian property rights are ultimately backed by the threat of (individual or state) violence as well.
Julian Sanchez, "The Non-Aggression Principle Can’t Be Salvaged -- and Isn’t Even a Principle"
Let us clear from the ground the metaphysical or general principles upon which, from time to time, laissez-faire has been founded. It is not true that individuals possess a prescriptive 'natural liberty' in their economic activities. There is no 'compact' conferring perpetual rights on those who Have or on those who Acquire. The world is not so governed from above that private and social interest always coincide. It is not so managed here below that in practice they coincide. It is not a correct deduction from the principles of economics that enlightened self-interest always operates in the public interest. Nor is it true that self-interest generally is enlightened; more often individuals acting separately to promote their own ends are too ignorant or too weak to attain even these. Experience does not show that individuals, when they make up a social unit, are always less clear-sighted than when they act separately.
John Maynard Keynes, "The end of laissez-faire"
My goal, in the immediate stage, is to force libertarians to stop pretending that things like non-aggression, coercion, and force initiation do anything in the debate. They don't. Since the words get their meaning from an underlying theory of entitlement, the debate is always and anywhere about theories of entitlement. It is not about aggression or coercion or force. All arguments that turn upon those concepts are vacuous and question-begging. All of them.
Matt Bruenig, "Violently Destroying Liberty Is Important For Flourishing, Libertarian Argues"
... all legal systems, including libertarianism, coercively enforce rules that assign the “ownership” of all persons and all bits of the world. Every legal system throws a net of coercion over the entire society it covers, prohibiting by force any deviations from its definitions of rights. Inasmuch as there is just as much of the world to be parcelled out under each system’s set of property rules, and the rights governing all of this property are just as coercively enforced in all systems, there is no difference in the “amount” of coercion -- or, conversely, the amount of (negative) freedom -- under different legal systems, including libertarianism... So, strictly in terms of negative liberty -- freedom from physical coercion -- libertarianism has no edge over any other system.
Jeffrey Friedman, "What's Wrong With Libertarianism"
Amartya Sen has pointed out that all contemporary moral theories, including libertarianism, are essentially egalitarian; we can press on from this observation to ask why, if (as Boaz maintains) the liberty of a human being to own another should be trumped by equal human rights, the liberty to own large amounts of property should not also be trumped by equal human rights. This alone would seem definitively to lay to rest the philosophical case for libertarianism.
Jeffrey Friedman, "What's Wrong With Libertarianism"
To my knowledge, all libertarian philosophers (except Conway), from Hayek to Nozick to James Buchanan to lesser-known writers such as Antony Flew and Tibor Machan, reject the positive-libertarian alternative, preferring to rely on the claim that only negative liberty is “real” liberty. It may be surprising that, 700 years after the collapse of Scholasticism, there should still be philosophers who assume that there are “correct” and “incorrect” definitions of words. But it would be a mistake to underestimate how important to libertarian philosophy is the conviction that only negative liberty captures the “essence” of the word liberty. Even if negative liberty is “true” liberty (and even if liberty is intrinsically valuable), however, this cannot constitute an argument for libertarianism without the further assumption that negative liberty is either uniquely or relatively embodied in libertarianism. The assumption that liberty is embodied in libertarianism relatively more than in other systems is necessarily false, however -- unless we are speaking of positive liberty -- since, as we have seen, there is no difference in the amount of negative liberty afforded people by libertarianism and by competing systems of property law.
Jeffrey Friedman, "What's Wrong With Libertarianism" pg. 431.
In editing a journal that has received manuscripts from virtually every libertarian scholar, famous and unknown alike, I have long been struck by the consistent juxtaposition of what another observer delicately calls the “intermingling of positive statements and normative pleadings”: the coincidence of libertarian philosophical sentiments with weak empirical research, leaps of logic, and contempt for nonlibertarian points of view (of which the authors usually appear ignorant). The polemical tone and deficient evidence, however, and the tarnishing of often-good ideas by doctrinaire rhetoric and low scholarly standards, are only the least of it. The worst thing is not the waste of effort that goes into producing propaganda barely veiled by the robes of scholarship. The greater tragedy is what libertarians could produce, but do not.
Jeffrey Friedman, "What's Wrong With Libertarianism"
... libertarianism would simply be liberalism if not for its equation of “liberty” with private property.
Jeffrey Friedman, "What's Wrong With Libertarianism"
One problem with this (utopian) model is we now have overwhelming evidence that the individualistic, acquisitive, selfish-gene model of human nature is seriously deficient; it is simplistic, one-sided, and in reality, resembles the pathological extremes among the personality traits that we find in our society. The evidence about human evolution indicates that our species evolved in small, close-knit social groups in which cooperation and sharing overrode our individual, competitive self-interests for the sake of the common good. We evolved as intensely interdependent social animals, and our sense of empathy toward others, our sensitivity to reciprocity, our desire for inclusion and our loyalty to the groups we bond with, the intrinsic satisfaction we derive from cooperative activities, and our concern for having the respect and approval of others all evolved in humankind to temper and constrain our individualistic, selfish impulses (as Darwin himself pointed out in The Descent of Man).
Peter Corning, "What’s the Matter With Libertarianism?"
Indeed, libertarians generally have no model of society as an interdependent group with a common purpose and common interests. For instance, the canonized conservative economist Friedrich Hayek posited a stark choice between two alternative models—either a "free market" of atomized individuals rationally pursuing their self-interests in transactional relationships or an authoritarian, coercive "state" that seeks control over us.
Peter Corning, "What’s the Matter With Libertarianism?"
Anarcho-capitalism exists; landownership just happens to be dominated by about 200 corporations called governments.
Karl Widerquist, "Why Do Philosophers Talk so Much and Read so Little About the Stone Age? False factual claims in appropriation-based property theory"
Libertarianism is like Leninism: a fascinating, internally consistent political theory with some good underlying points that, regrettably, makes prescriptions about how to run human society that can only work if we replace real messy human beings with frictionless spherical humanoids of uniform density.
Charles Stross, "Why I want Bitcoin to die in a fire"