Beyond the Libertarian Worldview

One of the points I try to make my My Book — Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World — is that we all live in a fog of cognitive bias and we all tend to navigate the world by means of artificial models and conceptual interfaces. Genuine wisdom requires recognizing this.

Until we do recognize this, we are doomed to living life in a mental state removed from reality. It’s difficult to see that our conceptual models are not “real,” because our cognitive biases and conceptual filters “edit” reality for us so that it fits our models and interfaces. On those rare occasions we perceive that some part of the conceptual box we live is is not true, we nearly always patch up the hole with another artificially contrived bit of ideological plaster. To be able to completely step outside the box is a very rare thing. Most people live their entire lives without ever doing this even once.

I thought of this when I read this essay “Why I left libertarianism: An ethical critique of a limited ideology” by a young man named Will Moyer. The young man is in the process of re-plastering his conceptual box and is not yet ready to step out of it entirely. Give him another thirty years, though, and he may be able to do it. And I’m not saying that to put him down; I see the potential. It takes most of us until we’re well into our 40s and 50s before we can even begin to demolish the box, if we do it at all.

Moyer perceived that libertarian ideology is rigid and limited, and as an interface to reality it simply does not “work” in a lot of real-world situations. It’s like a navigation app with skimpy maps. He writes,

Granted, libertarianism? —? as a body of thought? — ?doesn’t have to comment on every social issue. It can say nothing of race and gender and class. It can be silent on nonviolent forms of hierarchy and inequality. But then it stands incomplete as a social philosophy. That’s fine, especially if that is a conscious and intentional choice on the part of libertarians. We will focus our ideological work on this area and let other systems of thought cover everything else. But it certainly wasn’t something I was aware of when I considered myself a libertarian. On the contrary, I thought libertarianism offered a robust and complete analysis of society. I suspect others do, too.

And here we are:

Within the libertarian ethical framework, choice is binary. Either something was consented to voluntarily or it was not. This conception of consent marks the line between good and evil. On one side of the line are socially acceptable behaviors and on the other side are impermissible behaviors.

Theft, rape, murder and fraud all lie on the nonconsensual side and are therefore not good. The other side includes all forms of voluntary human interaction which, again because we’re limited to a political ethic, we can’t really say much about. It’s all fine.

But there is some gray on the good side. Is a rich CEO really in the same ethical position as a poor Chinese factory worker? In the libertarian view, yes. There are plenty of differences, but if that Chinese worker voluntarily chose to work for that factory, they’re not ethical differences.

Like the starving-your-child issue, any moral objections you might have are outside the scope of the libertarian ethic. They reflect your personal morality, which has no business being used to dictate social behaviors.

But choice isn’t binary. It’s a spectrum. There’s a gradient that we can use to measure how constrained a choice really is. On one end is outright force and on the other is pure, unconstrained freedom. But in between is a fuzzy gray area where economic, psychological, cultural, biological and social forces are leaning on human decision making.

Most libertarians would admit that this spectrum exists, but there is still strong sentiment within libertarianism that any non-coercive relationship is good. And? — ?within the political ethic ?— ?even if it isn’t “good,” it’s still permissible. That’s why you see libertarians defending sweatshops.

A poor Chinese factory worker is far more constrained than a rich white businessman. His range of possible options is tiny in comparison. He is less free. The same may be true depending on your race, gender, class or sexual orientation. The way you were treated growing up? —? by your parents, teachers and peers? — ?may contribute. The way people like you are represented in media and entertainment may contribute. Social prejudices and cultural norms may contribute. These factors don’t mean people are being outright forced to do anything, but simply that they’re constrained by their environment. We all are, in different ways.

We don’t lose any ground or sacrifice any claims to a rational moral framework by admitting that. We can still say that one side of the spectrum? —? the unconstrained one ?—? is good for human beings and the other side is bad. And we can still conclude that the use of force is only a legitimate response to human behavior that falls on the far end of that bad side (theft, rape, murder). But by accepting the spectrum we can examine other relationships that, while they may not include force, can be exploitive, hierarchical and authoritarian.

As before, without admitting that this spectrum exists, libertarianism leaves an entire range of human social behavior off the table.


Obviously Moyer is working through the difference between libertarianism and liberalism, in the American sense of the word. Liberals see that the sweatshop worker isn’t “free” if his choices consist of remaining in the sweatshop or starving to death. A liberal can perceive that someone with a chronic, debilitating illness and no access to decent health care is not “free”; a libertarian only sees the lack of “freedom” of being mandated to buy health insurance so that the health care system works better for all of us. And, of course, some variation of single payer is even more objectionable to libertarians. This represents one of the huge blind spots of libertarian ideology that many of us have noticed. Granted Moyer is still dismissive of liberalism, but I suspect he doesn’t yet know what it is. Like I said, he’s still working through things.

Like most ideologies libertarianism and reality do match up here and there. If it didn’t match up at all no one would ever adopt it. The problem is that those who become True Believers lack the will or ability to notice when it doesn’t match. In the words of the great Eric Hoffer,

To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. The true believer is without wonder and hesitation. “Who knows Jesus knows the reason for all things.” The true doctrine is the master key to all the world’s problems. With it the world can be taken apart and put together. [The True Believer, p. 82]

Part of the libertarian pathology is an inability to think things through to logical consequences. Of course, if they could do that they might see (as Moyer did) that their simple binary interface is not reality but is instead an artificial order superimposed over what is really an infinitely complicated mess. Maintaining the comforting fiction that they actual understand anything requires not seeing this. So they hardly ever do.

I realized yesterday that my “David Brat in La-La Land” post had been linked in a National Review article defending Brat. The link actually did not send much traffic here, which might tell us something about NRO’s readership, or lack thereof. But the libertarians who came over here to defend Brat and call me an idiot all exhibited the same dreary inability to see outside their conceptual box to the logical implications of what they were arguing. You can read some of this if you like. I got home last night and found seven more comments repeating the same arguments, and I deleted them and closed comments because I didn’t have the energy to argue with a brick wall any further. But the blindness all boils down to an inability to perceive the implications of their “truths” or an appreciation of how badly their interface actually fits the real world.