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8/09/2004

Outline of a Critique of Libertarianism

Libertarianism is a laughable political ideology. Wariness of government power, realistic consideration of the potential for government activity, and respect for markets are important, but they are better represented by typical American liberalism than by libertarianism. With this as my starting position, let me outline my objections to libertarianism. Not all libertarians argue everything I claim they do, but all of the following arguments are made by some libertarians.

1. Moral Objections

Libertarianism undervalues democratic governance and political rights. Libertarians argue that governmental intrusion into markets and private interests are illegitimate infringements of liberty. Such intrusions should be rejected for deontological reasons, as violations of rights. This argument fails to consider the countervailing political rights, which have also been historically considered important aspects of liberty. Libertarians give no credible rationale for valuing economic rights over rights of self governance and political participation. What they do say is that participation in markets can confer democratic legitimacy. This argument, which equates dollars and votes, is revisionist and dystopian. The strong version of this objection is that libertarians hold an authoritarian position against the collective expression, imposing "pure tolerance."

Libertarianism undervalues the threat to human interests posed by "nonstate actors". The state is not the sole source of coercion unless one adopts a decidedly non-libertarian critique of the action/inaction dichotomy. In many cases, it is not the most morally significant source of coercion.

Libertarianism overvalues certain economic activities. Libertarians argue that all market transactions are by definition Pareto superior, and that participation in markets is equivalent with economic freedom. They simply ignore or blithely dismiss the centuries of economic and sociological thought contesting this notion. From Thorstein Veblen to Robert Hale to Horkheimer and Adorno, participation in markets is decidedly mixed morally. They elevate an amoral process of allocation to an ultimate moral good.

2. Methodological Objections

Libertarians are horrible historians. Libertarians argue that America is a Lockean nation. They hold an anachronistic notion of Lockeanism, and they overestimate the significance of Lockean theory to the development of American governmental institutions. They hold an anachronistic, inaccurate understanding of Adam Smith, preferring the revisionist interpretation that originated in the British reaction to the French Revolution. In short, their depiction of American history is poor even for lawyer's history.

Libertarians are poor lawyers. Libertarians are decidedly formalist in their approach to the law. Formalism is an incoherent legal philosophy. In its weak applications it is capable of justifying everything, in its strong nothing. It has antidemocratic and perverse implications.

Libertarians are poor logicians. Libertarians build their ideology on an edifice of indefensible dichotomies. Concepts like a sharp public/private dichotomy can be defended on utilitarian grounds, but unless one reverts to natural law, it is impossible to leap from those utilitarian justifications to the deontological arguments advanced by libertarians. The inaction/action dichotomy suffers similar difficulties, as does state/nonstate.

Libertarians are poor social scientists. Libertarians adopt a radical, Hayekian skepticism about the potential for governmental action. Fedsoc adherents to bowdlerized interpretations of Coase believe government regulation is capable of producing only inefficiencies, despite clear social science contradicting them. Libertarians tend to take as given behavioral characteristics that are decidedly contingent.

3. Political Objections

Libertarians undermine public discourse. The tendency to reduce all activities to rights or liberty considerations forces discourse onto opaque and confused paths. Kneejerk rights discourse renders transparent many important considerations that should be subject to discussion and contestation.

Libertarians undermine their own ends. Many institutions are strengthened by well designed, democratic constraints. Markets are stronger when subjected to democratic control and governmental regulation.

 

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