The Black Heart of Libertarianism

The best thing on the Web today is by Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch at Crooked Timber. It begins:

Libertarianism is a philosophy of individual freedom. Or so its adherents claim. But with their single-minded defense of the rights of property and contract, libertarians cannot come to grips with the systemic denial of freedom in private regimes of power, particularly the workplace. When they do try to address that unfreedom, as a group of academic libertarians calling themselves “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” have done in recent months, they wind up traveling down one of two paths: Either they give up their exclusive focus on the state and become something like garden-variety liberals or they reveal that they are not the defenders of freedom they claim to be.

This is a long post full of links to libertarians who are cranking out counter-arguments. The basic point, though, is libertarianism’s massive blind spot regarding coercion and oppression in the workplace. Basically, the same people who shriek that taxation is slavery wave away, for example, sexual harassment as someone else’s personal relationship problem.

I haven’t had a chance to click through all the links to all the arguments and counter-arguments. But we’re basically looking at a discussion among mostly (if not entirely) white men, who mostly work in think tanks and academia. These are not people who have had the personal experience of working for some soul-sucking martinet while being a couple of missed paychecks away from eviction. The Crooked Timber crew “gets it,” but once again I am struck that libertarian theory is mostly embraced by the relatively privileged, for whom genuine oppression is something they’ve only read about in textbooks.

I’ve written before that current political libertarianism, which sometimes parts company with theoretical/academic libertarianism, grew mostly as a pushback to court-ordered desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. Libertarianism in the U.S. seems to have always been more about maintaining privilege than about actual civil liberties. In particular, they refuse to see that it is through democratic government that ordinary people are able to protect themselves from oppression by the privileged. Take that away, and most of us revert to being serfs.

That Libertarians have wrapped themselves in the mantle of Patrick Henry while arguing for the rights of King George’s aristocracy is brilliant. That they themselves can’t see that’s what they are doing is pathological.

37 thoughts on “The Black Heart of Libertarianism

  1. I’d love to see a study that breaks Libertarians down into what order they were born.
    In other words, how many are only children, how many are the oldest sibling, and how many are the youngest?
    Libertarians eem to have major issues with sharing.

    And only children,and the youngest child, are the ones least likely to have to share their things (though the youngest may have to get older siblings hand-me-downs, and then resent that the rest of their lives). And older siblings have a period of time where they’re the center of their parents universe, and then have to share the limelight when someone else comes on the scene.

    Maybe this is a stupid idea.
    After all, I’m the oldest of two, and, though my sister’s pretty Liberal, and a lot of my family is fairly Liberal, I’m the most Liberal member of my entire family by a long shot.

    I’d still be interested in seeing a survey like that, though – if for nothing else – just for sh*ts and giggles..

  2. This is a point that cannot be overemphasized by liberals, who for far too long have stood idle and uncomprehending, mouths stupidly agape, while right-wingers have stolen, lock, stock and barrel, the concept of “liberty” in the service of fundamentally authoritarian values. It is positively absurd, for example, for the Catholic bishops to be getting away with framing their quest to control and dominate women by denying them access to contraception as some sort of blow for “liberty.” The media will not challenge this bullshit for us.

  3. Ruh-roh, Rastro!

    OT – An article from the great David Corn:
    “Romney Invested in Medical-Waste Firm That Disposed of Aborted Fetuses, Government Documents Show
    And these documents challenge Romney’s claim that he left Bain Capital in early 1999.”

    I wonder how the Domionist Christianista base will feel about Mitt’s company taking once precious “live” and disposing of it like it was garbage?
    They’ll have to figure out how to treat the gravedigger at a Concentration Camp. Isn’t he, to some degree, as culpable as they guy who drew-up the plans, and the one who released the Zyklon B?

    Of course, being religious means that you can forgive – those you like.
    And being Conservative, means an endless ability to rationalize, and having a bottomless well of self-deception.

  4. Stratplayer’s point cannot be emphasized enough:

    If you believe that personal liberty prevents people from banding together and curtailing your rights without your consent, then you are, at best, rationally inconsistent and at worst, indistinguishable from an authoritarian who dislikes having authority above him if you do not also apply those standards to the workplace.

  5. That’s an interesting thought, Gulag. I am also by far the most Liberal of my family and the oldest child.

  6. “That’s an interesting thought, Gulag. I am also by far the most Liberal of my family and the oldest child”

    I’m the youngest and also the most liberal?

  7. One of the ‘arguments’ recently posed by Republicans around Affordable Healthcare is that people should be allowed to choose their own health insurance provider. Other than I don’t believe the Act disallows that choice, millions of Americans’ only ‘choice’ is none-of-the-above. Free to choose the one you want? Right. Millions of us can’t ‘afford’ any of them. Where’s the choice again?

  8. OT – But LOL funny!!!

    Remember that 13 year-old Conservative wunderkind who spoke so eloquently in defense of Conservatism at the 2009 CPAC convention – Jonathan Krohn?
    He even got a book published!

    Well, it turns out, he’s NO LONGER a Conservative. It seems he outgrew it! ROTFLMAO!!!

    Here’s the link:

    And, here’s the money-quote for those who don’t have the time, or hate linking to Politico:
    “I think it was naive,” Krohn now says of the speech. “It’s a 13-year-old kid saying stuff that he had heard for a long time.… I live in Georgia. We’re inundated with conservative talk in Georgia.… The speech was something that a 13-year-old does. You haven’t formed all your opinions. You’re really defeating yourself if you think you have all of your ideas in your head when you were 12 or 13. It’s impossible. You haven’t done enough.”

    Too bad there aren’t more 30+ year-old Conservative politicians who are as mature as this now 17 year-old.

    Conservatism – a mentality and political ideology for those who never outgrew the throes of puberty.

  9. Okay, here’s where I’m having trouble with Libertarians. According to my old profs, a philosophy lacks validity if it cannot maintain consistency with regard to all three of its major divisions–what is real, what is true, and what is good — because you can’t know what’s true if you don’t first know what is real, and you can’t know what is good if you don’t know what is true.

    Kinda seems to me that Libertarians start with a shotgun approach to “good” and try to cherry pick backwards to make it all fit. Except sound philosophies simply don’t work that way. If you hold two diametrically opposed beliefs, they cancel each other out. If your values are inconsistent with your understanding of truth and reality, you’re engaging in wishful thinking. If you cannot clearly define the differences between freedom, liberty and license, do you even know what you’re talking about?

    As a kid, I practiced my own version of libertarianism — “Nobody is the boss of me!” — but saying that didn’t make it so, and things seldom ended in my favor.

  10. Thanks, muldoon. Kinda makes me think of Roberts and his ‘decision’ on the Affordable Healthcare Act. What is real and therefore true is that millions of people will suffer without access to health care. Under the Affordable Healthcare Act they will have access. Access to health care can’t be anything but good.

    (Of course, unfortunate that he used the government’s right to tax to support his decision.)

  11. muldoon–I agree. For instance, they take the sacredness of private property rights as a given, and then work from there. I once asked a libertarian friend of mine to explain where property rights come from in the first place. We agreed that one can acquire rights to certain types of property through occupation and use, but what about land? How do you acquire a right to put up a fence around a bunch of land that you aren’t using and say no one can go there?

    And I live in California, where most of the land, as in most of the United States, has been stolen several times over. The current owners’ rights are generally recognized as valid, so apparently one way you can acquire property rights is through violence and fraud. Is that cool? Maybe there is a good libertarian answer to that question, but my friend certainly didn’t have it.

  12. You don’t have to read a lot of european history to know that libertarianism is the road to serfdom. Between 700 and 1000 there was massive privatization in Europe, of justice, of the military, of ownership. The remnants of the old Roman idea of a citizen not being tied to the land, capable of owning land, capable of fighting in the military, having the right to appeal to the high court were destroyed as private property rights grew. It took a fair bit of work to undo, but the libertarians with their worship of ownership and contract, somehow mystically enforced, have never been happy with it. They are like the people who want to go back to ancient Egypt as pharaoh or Cleopatra, when they’d be lucky to be a free fellahin.

  13. U.S. conservativism is based on a politics of resentment. I got into something of debate the other night with a co-worker, who simply doesn’t like the fact that she has to work and pay taxes, while other people are ‘freeloaders’ who ‘work the system.’ For those people who aren’t the 1%, this is how the appeal to conservativism must be made: by arousing resentment. I wrote about this on my blog the other night, my argument against this as such:

    …Why highlight those instances [of freeloaders] instead of the vast majority of people who try to do ‘the right thing’ and get nowhere? What matters more: helping people in genuine need or allowing your resentment to steer your own life and the lives of others?

    Of course, under much of that resentment is something even uglier, racism. But even on the surface, resentment by itself is petty, selfish, and narcissistic. Should we let such an ugly human trait determine how we govern a society? Is it not better to cultivate generosity, to aspire the best part of ourselves rather than our worst?

    For the 1%, it really comes down to greed. In order to get everyone else on board, they must appeal to resentment (‘welfare queens,’ etc.). Add a little fear in there as well, and unthinking people will jump on that bandwagon, even if it is actually to thier own detriment.

  14. Pingback: Liberty and Private Power

  15. Good grief! The Crooked Timber guys spent a lot of time on this issue, to good effect. Just reading the first 10% of the comments was exhausting! I found Iosue’s comment here to be quite penetrating on the most commonly expressed motivation for ‘liberservaracim’ as I usually encounter it. But the comments on the supposedly more academic Cato article by Sanchez were sometimes just the same stuff with occasionally slightly better language and a thin veneer of philosophical depth. (And yes, I meant “thin” and “depth” together.)

  16. When I discovered the blogisphere several years ago, I was quite impressed with several Libertarian sites that I happened to land on, two being and That was during the reign of little Bush when the war in Iraq had just started, and America had a near fatal case of war fever.
    I still visit both sites daily, but have noticed that Lewrockwell seems more concerned with taxes, medical scams, guns, and being a tight wad than anything else.
    I guess it is a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” sort of things.
    I’ve come to realize that the more extreme Libertarians ( the Neil Boorts Variety) are scared of their own shadow, everything is fear based, and THAT’s a big turnoff.
    Libertarians talk a good game, claiming to want peacs and trade with everyone, but the reality of mankind ain’t so. It eventually boils down to who dominates who, and western civilization has ALWAYS been about domination. Regard the European colonials; The Spanish, Dutch, French, Germans,Portugese,and even the Belgians; all foreign powers seeking to exploit lesser people throughout Africa and Asia.
    Those powers, the British in particular, carved up much of Asia and Africa during the colonial days and created the geopolitical migrains we are now faced with ( not to mention U.S. meddling).

  17. In a lifetime of not trying I have known several libertarians – only a few of them Randians – pretty well self-educated in the details of that view.

    Only one was not from a working class background.

    I have never personally known even one progressive, liberal, or democratic socialist who had such well-defined, well elaborated, well defended views.

    And yet, of course, you are right that libertarianism is essentially a plutocrat’s excuse, a tool to justify taking as much power over crucial aspects of the economy as possible out of the reach of popular, democratic control and putting it into the hands of those privileged to be capitalists or their front men.

    When the government is too small and limited – that is, when the people are unable through their government – to set the minimum wage in the public interest employers will set it in their own interest.

    When the government is too small and limited to set product safety standards in the public interest corporations will set them in their own interest.

    When the government is too small and limited to socialize distribution, if not also production, of certain crucial goods and services such as education or health care according to need private enterprise will produce and distribute them according to ability to pay, making sure the privilege of being rich is as special, important, and valuable as possible.

    And so on, and so on, and so on.

    And yet I would guess between a hundred and a thousand kids have read “Atlas Shrugged” for every kid who has read “The Iron Heel.”

    • In a lifetime of not trying I have known several libertarians – only a few of them Randians – pretty well self-educated in the details of that view.

      Only one was not from a working class background.

      The political libertarians, meaning people who plug libertarianism into their political views but aren’t really into the high-flown academic discussions of it, do tend to be working class. But today’s political libertarianism is rooted in the court-ordered desegregation fights of the 1950s and 1960s. The good ol’ boys haven’t had any use for Big Gubmint ever since.

      I have never personally known even one progressive, liberal, or democratic socialist who had such well-defined, well elaborated, well defended views.

      I have never seen libertarianism well defended, by anyone, ever. And I’ve been exposed to it almost daily for many years. What I see are lot of internalized talking points spewed out with little critical thought or grounding in the real world.

      And yet I would guess between a hundred and a thousand kids have read “Atlas Shrugged” for every kid who has read “The Iron Heel.”

      I had to look up The Iron Heel. I’d never heard of it. The only book by Jack London I believe I have ever read was Call of the Wild, and that was so long ago I don’t really remember it, except that there was a dog in it somewhere. And it was cold.

      But it’s one thing for an 18-year-old to read some utopian novel and take away some simplistic world views from it. If one still thinks that way past the age of 40, it’s way pathetic.

  18. maha,
    “The Iron Heel” is a terrific book – a bit of a slog in spots, but well worth reading.

    At the end – the Liberals WIN!!!
    It takes a long time, though.

  19. I only recently came across a book called “Albion’s Seed,” which was published over 20 years ago (1991). And while I haven’t read it, the summaries and reviews of it seem to offer TREMENDOUS explanatory power for understanding how “freedom” is conceived and discussed in the US.

    Fischer’s thesis is that four distinct British folk groups brought with them four distinct notions of freedom to the colonies. Our competing notions of freedom can be traced to these groups. Here’s an excerpt of a summary/review from a Mr. Wilson at Amazon:

    “Their contrasting concepts of liberty are among the most visible today. The Puritan concept of liberty, “ordered liberty” in Fischer’s terminology, focused on the “freedom” to conform to the policies of the Puritan Church and local government. The Virginia concept of liberty, “hegemonic liberty”, was hierarchical in nature, ranging from the great freedom of those in positions of power and wealth down to the total lack of freedom accorded to slaves. The Quaker concept of liberty, “reciprocal liberty”, focused on the aspects of freedom that were held equally by all people as opposed to the unequal and asymmetric freedoms of the Puritans and Virginians. Finally, the Scotch-Irish concept of liberty, “natural liberty”, focused on the natural rights of the individual and his freedom from government coercion.”

    It seems easy to trace the modern libertarian movement to the Virginia concept and the modern Tea Party’s antipathy toward all government to the Scots-Irish concept. Further, it isn’t hard to see how and why these two groups could find common ground as they seem to today.

    Again, I haven’t read it, but am eager to, and am surprised I haven’t heard of it before now.

  20. Well, Gulag’s birth order theory would not apply in my case. I’m an only child and I see Libertarianism as impractical and highly unrealistic at best, a self-absorbed and self-rationalizing form of Social Darwinism at worst. I consider myself a progressive (one of the few, if not the only, in a family of fairly moderate conservatives).

  21. It’s been interesting to watch the “liberals/progressives” pretend to buy in to the Republicans = Libertarians meme. If the liberal/progressive ideology was worth a damn the republicans could always be discredited by reminding everyone that the rebublicans are accomplices to Bush’s murders. But, since Obama is no better than Bush, the attempt is made to discredit Libertarianism.
    My understanding of Libertarianism is that it’s main axiom is the NAP (Non Aggression Principle). It seems to me that anyone against NAP must be for the PAP (Pro Aggression Principle). From where I sit, it’s PAP that has the black heart.

    • Ed — First of all, the post was not about Republicans = Libertarians, but you’d have to be blind and deaf to not notice that the Republican Party has largely been taken over by people who spout libertarian talking points to excuse whatever it is they are doing. You could argue, and you’d often be correct, that the politicians apply libertarian ideas inconsistently to suit their purposes. But the bottom line is that at the core of most Republican policy ideas these days is the libertarian view of “freedom,” which always seems to favor the “freedom” of some powerful establishment over ordinary folks.

      My understanding of Libertarianism is that it’s main axiom is the NAP (Non Aggression Principle). It seems to me that anyone against NAP must be for the PAP (Pro Aggression Principle). From where I sit, it’s PAP that has the black heart.

      This is “reasoning” typical of people who don’t actually think. Libertarianism includes plenty of aggression; it just gives the power to do harm to the private sector instead of to the government. So, a mine owner has the right to run an unsafe mine that gets miners killed, because if they don’t like it they could quit, never mind they might not get another job anywhere. That’s aggression, son.

      The liberal view is that government is of the people, by the people, and for the people, and if you can keep the corruption factor down to a dull roar government answers to the will of the people. The protections of the Bill of Rights prevents majoritarian factions from depriving minorities of their rights. And no, it doesn’t always work, but when it does work it’s a great thing. And no, it does not give you the right to do whatever the hell you want, but it provides something much closer to real individual liberty to the largest number of people than does the false promise of libertarianism.

      By taking away the ability of people to use government to protect them from the predations of a powerful few, you’re slowly turning most of us into serfs. Libertarianism is the real road to serfdom.

  22. Ed,
    “Republicans = Libertarians meme” that’s not what the article is about, nor the comments. It seems that you have pulled that straight out of your arse.

    ” If the liberal/progressive ideology was worth a damn the republicans could always be discredited by reminding everyone that the rebublicans are accomplices to Bush’s murders”

    This post isn’t about Republicans. You seem to want it to be. Why is that?

    Furthermore, Republicans are routinely discredited. By liberals, by libertarians, by themselves. The people that choose to ignore that are simply willfully ignorant (a kinder way of saying “stupid”). There are always stupid people. That’s why there are Republicans.

    “It seems to me that anyone against NAP must be for the PAP (Pro Aggression Principle).”

    That’s because you are incapable of processing something without engaging in dualism. That’s a hallmark of a small mind.

    The problem with NAP is that it doesn’t work. Show me a society functioning on NAP and I’ll show you a herd of unicorns. NAP flies in the face of how human societies actually work.

    Anyway, despite being out of your league, thanks for playing anyway.

  23. NAP is a mythical construct that suffers from the same basic problem that afflicted Marxism. That of “One True Wayism”. To wit: It conveniently sweeps the messy problems and rough edges of the human condition under the rug in pursuit of ideological purity.

    “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” (h/t Oliver Wendell Holmes) is not a new concept, nor is it exclusive to NAP.

    Liberalism is underpinned with this very concept. The difference between libertarians and liberals is that liberals understand that the people will behave irrationally. “The rational actor” is largely a fallacy. People are often short sighted and will undermine their own long term interests in service to short term goals or emotions.

    You simply cannot have a society where everyone just acts on their best behavior absent coercive force. To think otherwise is to be ignorant of the entire arc of human society and to be oblivious to the workings of every human society that has ever existed. The world quite simply doesn’t work that way.

    So liberals support laws like Affirmative Action, corporate regulation, and programs such as Welfare. We know that absent such things our society would become for feudal, and even fascist. Anyone that has ever cracked a history book should know this. Libertarians remain ignorant by sheer force of will. There is no functioning Libertarian government, there never has been one, and there never will be one.

    Shorter: PONIES!

  24. meh. Corrections:

    This is what I get for posting prior to coffee.

    “To think otherwise is to be ignorant of the entire arc of human society”
    was supposed to read
    “To think otherwise is to be ignorant of the entire arc of human history”

    “We know that absent such things our society would become for feudal, and even fascist”
    was supposed to read
    “We know that absent such things our society would become more feudal, and even fascist”

  25. As to birth order, I am female and the oldest of six. I (1of6) am the most liberal; 2of6 is a male and a racist libertarian; 3of6 was done in by Rx pain killers; 4of6 is a squishy/soft liberal who ignores politics; 5of6 stays aloof from the dueling ideologies of 1/ and 2/; 6of6 is very liberal (she supports Dems, and embraces composting, recycling, etc.) — she just fails to actively engage in politics.

    We were raised in southeastern Michigan, in a Union/bluecollar home. It’s safe to say that Dad would have always housed, fed and clothed us. But our family size would have been a burden on just his paycheck. I can see that our middle class family benefited greatly from collective bargaining. We always had what we needed (and most of what we wanted). There was no barrier/barricade to our higher education. I am eternally grateful to unions.

    As to libertianism, I’ve found the most irrational ones to be drivers in the trucking industry. They hate speed limits, and every other rule on the books. Except for one tiny governmental group: Federal Marshals. To a man, these dingbats believe that calling a marshal from a weigh-station will get the Cloak of Protection from “stoopid, state rule-rats and brown-shirted state troopers”. Their mantra, indeed, is “You’re not the boss of me!” They all whine like nine-year-olds.

    I”ll also mention that these fools are nearly 100% males.

    Great blog post, maha!

  26. I see that danah gaz and maha spend a lot of time trying to justify the initiation of the threat of violence and violence. Not good.

  27. Kaleberg, you have the right of it. Whats hysterical is that the Libertarians all think that, at the end of the day, they’re the ones who will be Caesar, and not the slave.

  28. You should link this over at League of Ordinary Gentlemen. It’s a rat’s nest of a-holes who agree that the Left has no morals and Obama is the worst President EVAH because FREEDOM!!!!! that’s why.

    You’d probably get a large number of posts arguing the No True Libertarian BS.

  29. @Muldoon

    I agree. A perfect example would be the sweethearts of most Libertarians, Ron Paul and his son, Rand. As much as they like to profess freedom for all, they’re against a woman’s right to choose whether to keep or terminate a pregnancy. They like to fall back on the mealy-mouthed “States Issue.” Excuse me but how are medical procedures a state issue?

  30. Libertarians only belief in no other rights but property rights. My question is how will the government protect your property when it has no right to collect taxes. I assume that the government will have the property rights fairy do it. Nature abhors a vaccumn and she also abhors a power vaccumn. If there is no government or a weak government then someone will take control and they won’t give a F**K about property rights or any other rights. A libertarian wish is his worst nightmare. The harder he works to destroy government the more likely he will be enslaved.

Comments are closed.