Liberals and Libertarians
Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers.
May 15, 2007
At the outset of my professional career in the Sixties, I lived and
worked in New York City and its suburbs. There I witnessed the rise of
libertarianism as Ayn Rand and her disciples frequently appeared on TV,
talk radio and public forums, at which I was an occasional participant.
(Rand was in fact a libertarian who rejected the label, as many
self-described “libertarians” failed to subscribe fully to her
This was, at the same time, the high tide of liberalism as Lyndon
Johnson’s “Great Society” rolled through Congress and as Barry
Goldwater, the “conscience of conservatism” suffered a crushing defeat
in the 1964 election.
The clash between the liberals and the libertarians generated heated and
exciting debates, whereby both contesting ideologies were refined and
Little did the liberals suspect then that three and four decades hence,
libertarianism would become a significant player in American politics.
Today, many liberals insist (and I concur), that the ascendance of
libertarianism is the result, not of the cogency of its ideology, but of
the overwhelming financial and media resources that have promoted it.
Where liberals and libertarians meet -- and part. Libertarianism
does not fit in comfortably with either the Democrats or the
Republicans, which explains the determined, if futile, persistence of
the Libertarian Party. However, when faced with the forced choice of the
lesser of two evils, most Libertarians have sided with the Republicans.
Now that is beginning to change, as many libertarians are deserting the
GOP and joining the liberal Democrats in a fragile alliance of
convenience. They are doing so as they find their principles of minimal
government, personal autonomy, fiscal responsibility and church-state
separation massively betrayed by the theocrats and crypto-fascists that
have taken control of the Republican Party. At the same time, the
Republicans continue to proclaim the libertarian ideals of the free
market and privatization, as they cut back on government services.
The common ground between the liberals and libertarians is found in
their endorsement of personal autonomy, as articulated by John Stuart
Mill: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is
sovereign.” (On Liberty, Ch. 1). Accordingly, the libertarians (and less
enthusiastically, the liberals), oppose the criminalization of so-called
“victimless crimes,” such as prostitution, homosexuality, and
“recreational” drug use, and both insist that the government has no
business interfering with a woman’s personal decision whether or not to
continue a pregnancy.
Notwithstanding this ground of common agreement, the differences between
liberalism and libertarianism are fundamental and irreconcilable.
To begin, the libertarian’s advocacy of completely unfettered individual
“sovereignty” extends to property rights and economic activity. Thus the
libertarian is steadfastly opposed to zoning restrictions or to seizure
of property by eminent domain. And the libertarian endorses, without
qualification, the unrestricted free market, confident that the
summation of individual “capitalist acts by consenting adults” (Robert
Nozick) will result in optimal results for all.
On the other hand, the liberal, while not hostile to free markets and
private property, insists that both must be regulated and occasionally
be curtailed “in the public interest.”
And why shouldn’t one
extend unrestricted personal liberty to include property and a liberty
of economic activity? What justifies the liberal’s insistence upon
government regulation of the economy? The answer lies in two principles
endorsed by both liberals and libertarians. First, the “no harm
principle:” “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully
exercised ... is to prevent harm to others." (J. S. Mill). And second, the “like liberty principle:” “Each
person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of
equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for
all.” (John Rawls)
The liberal will argue that the libertarian fails to recognize the full
implications of these principles, for, if he did, the libertarian would
find that an unconstrained free market results in harm to others and to
a loss of their liberties. Furthermore, unconstrained free markets are
they lead to cartels and monopolies. Thus the necessity for
regulation and anti-trust laws.
The liberal’s insistence that unrestricted property rights and
unregulated free markets can be socially harmful and contrary to the
public interest leads to another fundamental and irreconcilable
difference with the libertarian:
Society and “The Public.” Simply stated, the
the existence of "society" and "the public." If this sounds
outlandish, consider the following observations by three prominent
libertarians. First, Margaret Thatcher: “There is no such thing as
society – there are individuals and there are families.” Next Ayn Rand:
“There is no such entity as ‘the public,’ since the public is merely a
number of individuals.” Finally, Frank Chodorov: “Society is a
collective concept and nothing else; it is a convenience for designating
a number of people."
The implications of these pronouncements are radical in the extreme, for
if there is no such thing as “a public,” it follows that there are no
“public goods” or “public interest,” apart from summation of private
goods and interests. Moreover, if there is no society, it follows that
there are no “social problems,” there is no “social injustice,” and
there are no “victims of society.” The poor presumably choose their
condition; poverty is the result of “laziness” or, as the religious
right would put it, a “sin.” There are further implications. Since there
is no such thing as a “public,” taxation for the support of such
“so-called” public institutions as education, libraries, the arts, parks
and recreation, is coercive seizure of private property, or “theft.”
The liberal replies that this denial of the very existence of “society”
and “the public” is reductionism, plain and simple – what the Brits call
“nothing-buttery.” It is comparable to saying that Hamlet is “nothing
but” words, that Beethoven’s music is “nothing but” notes, and that the
human brain is “nothing but” cells and electro-chemical events.
Refutation of this keystone of libertarianism is simple and
straightforward. If we can cite cases in which advantages to each
individual harms the interest of all individuals, and conversely
that harm to each individual benefits all individuals,
then, by distinguishing “each” and “all” we have demonstrated the
existence of an “all-entity,” “society,” that is distinct from a
summation of “each” individual. Because I have devoted
chapters of my book in progress to proving that society is more than
the sum of its component members (“good for each, bad for all,” and “bad
for each, good for all”) I will let just two examples suffice here.
Antibiotics: The over-use of antibiotics "selects" resistant
"super-bugs," decreasing the effectiveness of antibiotics for all. But
just one more anti-biotic prescription for a trivial, "self-limiting"
bronchial infection won't make a significant difference "in general,"
while it will clearly benefit the individual patient. But multiply that
individual doctor's prescription by the millions, and we have a serious
problem. "Good for each patient, bad for the general population." The
solution: restrict the use of antibiotics to the seriously ill.
Individuals with trivial and non-life-threatening ailments must “tough
it out.” “Bad for each, good for all.”
Traffic laws: We all agree that traffic laws can be a nuisance.
But if you believe that traffic lights constrain your freedom of
movement, try to drive across Manhattan during a power outage! In the
blackouts of 1965 and 1977 in the eastern United States and Canada,
traffic began to move only after the police and a few citizen volunteers
stood at the intersections and directed traffic. (I was in Manhattan
during both events). The decision of each driver to accept constraints
worked to the advantage of all. So too with the traffic lights and stop
signs that we encounter daily. We are all freer to move about only
because we have collectively agreed to restrict our individual freedom
of movement. “Bad for each, good for all.”
To sum up: “society” is not, as the libertarians would have us believe,
simply a physical location where autonomous private individuals “do
their own thing,” from which activity somehow, “as if by an invisible
hand” (Adam Smith), benefits for all accrue without foresight or
planning. On the contrary, the liberal insists, a society is more than
the sum of its individual parts. A society is, as John Rawls puts it, “a
cooperative venture for mutual advantage [which] makes possible a better
life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own
efforts.” As the anti-biotics and traffic examples illustrate, common
goods are achieved through individual constraint and sacrifice. “ Bad
for each, good for all.” Conversely, unconstrained self-serving behavior
by each individual can harm society as a whole. “Good for Each, Bad for
The liberal does not deny that self-serving individual behavior, for
example by scientists, entrepreneurs and artists, often or even usually
results in benefits for all. (“Good for each, good for all”). Instead,
the liberal insists that this is not a universal rule. In innumerable
instances, such as the two presented above, it can be clearly shown that
social benefit requires individual constraint and sacrifice.
Concerning Rights. The libertarian recognizes three fundamental
rights: to life, liberty and property. All three are “negative rights” –
rights to non-interference by others. From these rights are derived the
only legitimate functions of government: protection of life, liberty and
property from within (the police), from abroad (the military), and the
adjudication of property disputes (the civil courts). And because these
are the only legitimate functions of government, all other existing
government services and property should be privatized.
The liberal, while accepting the libertarian triad of negative rights,
also proclaims the citizens’ “positive rights” – to an education, to
employment with a living wage and safe working conditions, to a clean
and safe environment, etc. These rights arise from the fact that the
liberal, unlike the libertarian, recognizes social benefits and public
interests. Communities flourish, the liberal insists, when they include
an educated work force, when the citizens are assured that their basic
needs for livelihood and health-care are met, and when the citizens
share the conviction that
society is their society and that they have a role in its
governance. And because the communal activity produces more wealth than
would be obtained by the sum of individual efforts, members of the
community have positive rights to a share of that wealth, and to
community assistance in case of misfortune.
Accordingly, Ayn Rand’s
ubermensch, John Galt, is a fantasy.
There is no fully “self-made man,” morally free of all responsibility
and obligation to the society that nurtured him and sustains him. On the
contrary, as the nineteenth century sociologist, W. T. Hobhouse
The organizer of industry who thinks he has 'made'
himself and his business has found a whole social system ready to
his hand in skilled workers, machinery, a market, peace and order --
a vast apparatus and a pervasive atmosphere, the joint creation of
millions of men and scores of generations. Take away the whole
social factor, and we have not Robinson Crusoe with his salvage from
the wreck and his acquired knowledge, but the native savage living
on roots, berries and vermin.
Moral perspective. As we have noted above, human rights are
at the center of both the libertarian and the liberal ideologies. And
from this pivotal center, the two ideologies diverge.
They diverge because libertarians and progressives articulate their
moral and political philosophies from radically different perspectives.
The Libertarian: From the point of view of
the individual (“the egocentric point of view”). “Good for each.”
From this perspective, the individual is enjoined to “ live for his
own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing
others to himself.” (Ayn Rand).
The Progressive: From the perspective of an
unbiased benevolent spectator of society (“the
moral point of view”). “Good for all.”
Thus the libertarian (who, recall, denies the very
existence of “society”) advocates the maximum liberty for each
individual. The liberal, on the other hand, seeks to maximize the amount
of liberty extant in the society.
The liberal argues that, paradoxically, the egocentric point of view can
not accomplish the libertarian goal of maximizing individual liberty. It
fails, because individual liberties, and especially the liberties
enjoyed by the privileged, powerful and wealthy, constrain the liberties
and diminish the welfare of others. In other words, they violate the "no
harm" and "like liberty" principles." “Good for each, bad for all.”
Furthermore, the libertarian’s egocentric perspective fails because
political and economic problems are not problems of individuals, they
are problems of groups (i.e., of “all”), and therefore the interests of
all affected individuals must be taken into account. The liberal
proposes that these interests are best “taken into account,” fairly and
equally, from the perspective of a hypothetical individual who is
unbiased and benevolent – seeking the best result for all while
respecting the inalienable rights of each.
In fact, no such
neutral observer is actually necessary, for each moral agent, and the
agent’s surrogate, the government, is quite capable of adopting the
point of view of the hypothetical “unbiased benevolent observer.”
Indeed, we did just that as we found solutions to the aforementioned
problems, the use of antibiotics and traffic control,
whereby constraints upon each resulted in benefits to all. There we
found that the astute moral agent would, as a “the unbiased benevolent
observer,” perceive that all would benefit from antibiotics if these
drugs were not prescribed for inconsequential ailments, and the same
observer would conclude that the freedom of vehicular movement for all
is enhance by imposing constraining rules upon each.
The perspective of the “unbiased neutral observer” has a name – in fact,
numerous names, since it is one of the most familiar concepts in the
history of political theory and moral philosophy: “the impartial
spectator” (Adam Smith), “the ideal observer” (John Stuart Mill), “the
general will” (Rousseau), “the view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel), “the
original position” (John Rawls), and my personal favorite,
moral point of view" (Kurt Baier, Kai Nielsen and many more).
And who or what is most appropriately entitled to adopt the perspective
of the “unbiased, benevolent observer?” What else than an agency
selected and acting by the consent of the people, an agency that enacts
and administers laws to the benefit of all, an agency constituted to
“establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common
defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of
That agency has a name: “democratic government.” And in case you didn’t
notice, the above quotation is from the Preamble to the Constitution of
the United States.
The Menace of Libertarianism. Libertarianism appears, at
last, to be succumbing to the consequences of its own "success."
We are discovering at last that this stark and simple theory
cannot accommodate itself to social and political realities.
For there is, in fact, such a thing as a “society,” and there is a
“public interest.” Social problems are not solved, and social
justice is not obtained, through the egocentric point of view -- the
pursuit of self-interest by each individual in a mythical “free market.”
Instead, as we have seen and as the liberal insists, the public interest
is best perceived through the “moral point of view” – the perspective of
the unbiased benevolent observer” of society.
Libertarianism, a fascinating intellectual diversion and challenge in
the sixties, has become a menace in this new century. The denial of the
very existence of society and the public interest is an invitation to
chaos, which must result in the unraveling of civilization and the just
society, and in its place
government of, by, and for the privileged, the powerful, and the
Proving libertarianism wrong and immoral is not difficult. However,
removing the libertarians from power and repairing the damage that they
have caused, will be horrendously difficult.
And there is no guarantee that these efforts will succeed.
A Postscript: Due to space constraints, I have been obliged to
make several bold claims without supporting arguments. However, I
have defended most of these claims at length elsewhere, in works
that I have linked in this essay. There the reader will also find
citations for the quotations in this essay. EP.
Copyright 2007 by Ernest Partridge
Ernest Partridge's Internet Publications
Conscience of a Progressive:
Partridge's Scholarly Publications. (The Online Gadfly)
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field
of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at
the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He
publishes the website, "The Online
Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website,
"The Crisis Papers".
His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org .