A half century ago, when liberalism was ascendant in the
Kennedy and Johnson administrations, libertarianism was a fringe curiosity.
Now it has become a formidable political and economic force in the United
No existing democratic governments fully endorse and implement libertarian
doctrine, for no national electorate would tolerate so radical a system of
political economy. (The Libertarian Party in the United States has never
attracted more than one percent of the votes in a Presidential election).
Nonetheless, libertarianism deserves careful critical analysis since in
theory, if not in practice, it is the ideological "spear-point" of "free
market reform" throughout the world. Furthermore, many of its prominent
exponents, such as Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Robert
Nozick, are highly esteemed by scholars throughout the world. Thus, while
its principles may appear stark, unqualified and unyielding and its
proposals over-simplistic, because of its widespread and growing influence,
libertarianism must be taken very seriously.
For all its acquired respectability in contemporary political discourse, I
will argue in these essays that libertarianism is a grave threat to the very
existence of the American system of justice and representative democracy as
we have come to know it. Libertarianism poses this threat not because of the
cogency of its doctrines but rather because of the enormous financial and
media resources that promote it.
These are serious accusations that require careful and extended
justification. I will attempt to provide that justification in these essays.
It is important to note at the outset that libertarianism divides neatly
into two aspects: personal libertarianism and economic libertarianism. This
division puts the libertarians at odds with both the political right and the
political left. I hesitate to use the terms “liberal” and “conservative”
since the public media have abused both terms to the point that they are
essentially meaningless. In the American political scene today,
self-described “conservatives” are more accurately identified as
“regressives,” since they seek to return society and government to the
conditions of earlier times. Accordingly, I will favor the word “regressive”
in place of “conservative.” I will use the essentially synonymous words
“liberal” and “progressive” interchangeably. (See
Chapter 1 and
Chapter 2 of my
book in progress,
Conscience of a Progressive, to which I will frequently refer in these
The liberal (or progressive) tends to agree with libertarian insistence that
law and government are not justified in interfering with the personal lives
of individuals. They agree that in a free society there is no place for laws
regarding sexual preference, abortion, drug use, euthanasia, etc. Liberals
and libertarians thus endorse John Stuart Mill’s proclamation that “over
himself, over his own mind body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”1
To the contrary, the right, and especially the religious right, has no
trouble endorsing government interference regarding these matters of
On the other hand, the liberal left strongly opposes, and the right
endorses, the libertarian positions regarding market fundamentalism,
deregulation of commercial activity, minimal government, and privatization.
Economic libertarianism has for all practical purposes been adopted into the
platform of the Republican Party, even though that party is reluctant to
embrace the term “libertarianism.”
Because economic libertarianism poses the greater threat to the American
system of government and traditions of justice, I will devote most of my
attention to that aspect of libertarianism.
These are the essential doctrines of libertarianism.
While not all individuals who describe
themselves as libertarians will fully agree with all of these stipulations,
(there are, after all, several varieties of libertarianism), the following
formulations will identify the “targets” of my analyses in these essays.
Natural Rights. There are three
fundamental human rights: to life, liberty and property. These rights
are all “negative rights,” in that they all stipulate “freedom from”
interference from other persons or from governments. There are no
natural “positive rights:” i.e., rights to receive, e.g., an education,
a livelihood, health care, etc.
The like liberty principle: All
persons are entitled to maximum freedom consistent with equal liberty
Minimal government: The only
legitimate function of government is the protections of each
individual’s rights to life, liberty and property All other functions of
government are illegitimate. Taxation to support these illegitimate
functions amounts to a theft of private property.
Spontaneous Order. The
fundamental social institutions arise “spontaneously” out of individual
voluntary associations. No planning or regulation “from the top down” is
Social atomism. There are no
separate entities called “society” or “the public.” These are simply
aggregates of individuals.
Privatism. Private ownership is
always preferable to public ownership.
Market Fundamentalism: The
“free market” – the unregulated and undirected summation of all private
buyer/seller transactions – is always “wiser” than centralized economic
Now, to an elaboration of these doctrines:
Individualism and Social Atomism: Libertarianism is a
radically individualistic doctrine. The optimal libertarian society (if
"society" is the correct word) is an aggregate of individuals in voluntary
association, secure in their "natural rights" to life, liberty and property.
(Thus, as we have noted, the only legitimate function of the "minimal
government" is to protect these rights). Since, in A. Myrick Freeman's
words, "each individual is the best judge of how well-off he or she is in a
there is no agency (government or otherwise) entitled to curtail an
individual's liberty to pursue his own welfare, provided that pursuit does
not interfere with the equivalent liberty of others. (Once again, the "like
liberty principle." ) Thus "society," ideally, is a simple summation of
individuals, in voluntary association, privately optimizing their
Natural Rights: To the libertarian, the Lockean rights of the
individual to life, liberty, and property are fundamental. Because these
rights reside in the individual, the only legitimate function of government
is to protect these rights from usurpation by other individuals or
institutions -- especially the government itself which, according to John
Hospers, is "the most dangerous institution known to man."3
Accordingly, the scope of government must be scrupulously confined to the
protection of life, liberty and property from foreign enemies (through the
military), from domestic enemies (through the police and criminal courts),
and from the private activities of others (through the civil courts). This
last function of government is justified by the maxim that each individual
is entitled to maximum liberty consistent with "like liberty" of others;
i.e., that I am forbidden only to constrain the liberty of my fellow
citizens. We shall later argue that “the like liberty principle,” embraced
in the abstract by libertarians, proves in practice to be both the undoing
of libertarianism, and the foundation of liberal politics..
Thus Libertarians stress so-called negative rights (or "liberty rights")
which entail duties of forbearance on the part of others. For example, my
right to free speech entails your duty not to prevent that speech. However,
to the libertarian, there are no "positive" or "welfare rights," which
entail the duty of individuals or of government to positively provide
benefits or sustenance to others. The poor have no "rights" to welfare
support, and the only children that have a right to our support are our own.
expresses the essence of libertarianism with admirable clarity:
The freedom to engage in any type of
enterprise, to produce, to own and control property, to buy and sell on
the free market, is derived from the rights to life, liberty, and
property ... [but] when a government guarantees a "right" to an
education or parity on farm products or a guaranteed annual income, it
is staking a claim on the property of one group of citizens for the sake
of another group. In short, it is violating one of the fundamental
rights it was instituted to protect...
All that which an individual possesses by right (including his life and
property) are morally his to use, dispose of and even destroy, as he
Where do my rights end? Where yours begin. I may do anything I wish with
my own life, liberty and property without your consent; but I may do
nothing with your life, liberty an property without your consent....
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 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 the 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, the liberal insists that 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
Privatization, Environment, and the Commons Problem: According
to the libertarians, all environmental problems derive from common ownership
of such natural resources as pasturage, fisheries, and even air, water and
wildlife. The solution? Privatization of all such resources. Does this sound
extreme? Consider the following from Robert J. Smith (my emphases): “The
problems of environmental degradation, pollution, overexploitation of
natural resources, and depletion of wildlife all derive from their
being treated as common property resources. Whenever we find an
approach to the extension of private property rights in these areas, we find
The environmental devastation in the former communist countries, the
libertarians argue, proves the rule: that which is the property of everyone
(i.e., the state) is the responsibility of no one. In contrast, they argue,
resources will be best protected when the costs of environmental degradation
fall upon the property owner. Accordingly, when the environment and its
resources are privately owned, there is no need to urge the owners to
practice "good ecological citizenship" for abstract altruistic reasons or
through the threat of government sanctions. Instead, the libertarian
believes, self interest and economic incentives will suffice to motivate the
property owner to maximize the long-term value of his property.
Public Accommodations and Property Rights. Because property
rights are inviolable, the owner of a restaurant or motel or other “public
accommodation” is entitled to refuse service to anyone at the owners’ sole
discretion, which means that the owner has the right to discriminate on the
basis of race, religion, national origin, or whatever. Thus the public
accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 constitutes an
illegitimate violation of personal property rights. The libertarian might
agree that discrimination is morally indefensible, and that private citizens
are fully entitled to protest and to boycott establishments that elect to
discriminate. Nonetheless, the property rights of the owners are inviolable.
Property Rights and Public Accommodations).
Spontaneous Order. “The
great insight of libertarian social analysis,” writes David Boaz, “is that
order in society arises spontaneously, out of actions of thousands or
millions of individuals who coordinate their actions with those of others in
order to achieve their purposes.”6
Because an orderly society arises “spontaneously” out of the free
associations and activities of individuals, without the support, investment
or coordination of any overarching institutions (e.g., governments), a
well-ordered society is a “free gift,” for which nothing is owed (i.e.,
taxes ) by the component individuals for its maintenance.
Minimal Government. Accordingly, it follows that government
has no function other than to protect and secure each individual’s natural
and inalienable rights to life, liberty and property. Any additional
functions of government, for example public education, public parks,
museums, support for the arts, scientific research, welfare payments,
foreign aid, are illegitimate, and taxes levied to support these functions
constitute theft of private property.
Market Fundamentalism. “The wisdom of the market place” –
prices that arise out of the numerous free transactions between autonomous
individuals – will always exceed the “wisdom” of regulated markets,
controlled and coordinated by superordinate (namely government)
agencies. Milton and Rose Friedman clearly enunciate this central dogma of
A free market [co-ordinates] the
activity of millions of people, each seeking his own interest, in such a
way as to make everyone better off... Economic order can emerge as the
unintended consequence of the actions of many people, each seeking his
In the phrase “the activity of millions of
people, each seeking his own interest...” we see the concept of social
atomism at work. And in the clause, “economic order can emerge as the
unintended consequence...” we find a reiteration of the concept of
In the essays that follow, we will critically examine these fundamental
doctrines of libertarianism, with the goal of proving our opening assertion
that libertarianism is both false and dangerous. We turn our attention
first to "social atomism" -- the radical reductionist claim by the
libertarians that, strictly speaking, "there is no such thing as "society"
or "the public."
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.
2. Freeman, A. Myrick (1983), “The
Ethical Basis of the Economic View of the Environment,” The Center for the
Study of Values and Social Policy, University of Colorado.
3. John Hospers, “What Libertarianism Is,” The Libertarian Alternative,
(ed.) Tibor R. Machan, New York: Nelson Hall. 1974.
4. Bayes, William W. 1970). “What is Property?,” The Freeman, July
1970, p. 348.
5. Smith, Robert J., "Privatizing the Environment," Policy Review,
Spring, 1982, p. 11.
6. David Boas, Libertarianism: A Primer, New York: The Free Press,
1997, p. 16.
7. Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to
Choose, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980, pp.13-14.
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 .