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.

18 thoughts on “Beyond the Libertarian Worldview

  1. That “poor Chinese factory worker” also probably wasn’t welcome at Yale, or Harvard, or Columbia – or, the Chinese equivalent – as a legacy student.

    Look, Libertarians and Conservatives, not everyone was born on 3rd base, and gets to stroll towards home when the pitcher has the bases loaded, and walks the batter.

    Some of us struggled to get to 1st Base.
    Then, hopefully, 2nd.
    Most of us never reached 3rd Base, because of… well… for lack of a better term: LIFE!

    You were born on 3rd?
    Good for you.
    Now STFU, because MOST of us barely even get a look at 2nd Base!
    And some of us, who worked damn hard to get to it, get picked-off that base we final got to.
    That’s life.
    It can suck.
    We accept it.

    What we don’t have to accept, is privileged assholes who tell us we should have done better, when the most traumatic voyages they had, was the sperm swimming upstream, and then, as an infant, breaking through their mother’s water.

  2. Very good, maha. I thought the libertarians had it right until I realized their opposition to war is more about saving money than lives. You certainly have the intellectual and moral maturity idea right. Some people never reach that point.

  3. I enjoyed Moyer’s essay, and learned a bit about libertarianism. What’s so frightening to me, is that theirs, and the entire conservative and anarchist project is entirely about demolishing the state. Not one bit of thought is given to what comes next, just a belief in utopia. It reminds me a lot of the participants in the French Revolution.

  4. The word “libertarian” is best understood as a contraction of “liberal contrarian”. The prototypical libertarian tends to agree with classical liberal policies, but gets too much enjoyment out of hippie punching to call himself a liberal.

    Hence, libertarians tend to support liberal goals that benefit them personally (relaxing drug laws), and revert to dismissing people as libtards when they support something that doesn’t (abortion rights).

  5. Is it just me, or are libertarians basically a bunch of selfish pricks?

    This whole idea of a level playing field between the powerless and the powerful—WTF?

    The fantasy of enjoying all the benefits of civilization without any cost. The fact that this has never happened in all of human history is simply ignored.

    What they really want is to be rich and have everybody else to pay their taxes.

    Fuck ’em all and the unicorn they rode in on.

  6. ” It reminds me a lot of the participants in the French Revolution.”

    In what way? The French Revolution wasn’t exactly a libertarian free-for-all–it was fomented by middle-to-upper middle class bourgoisie leftists who established a highly bureaucratic, class-consciously hostile punitive state in the wake of the destruction of the monarchy.

    • Red Rocks — read up on how the French Revolution eventually consumed itself, because that was the logical consequence of their ideology. (Dismissing that crew as bourgeoisie leftist bureaucrats tells me you don’t completely grasp what they were about; look up the Reign of Terror.) Likewise, the logical consequences of libertarianism, if actually put into practice, would be to destroy itself rather quickly, giving way either to an authoritarian dictatorship or mob rule.

  7. I reckon all societies limit individual freedom. All interactions with other people have rules (explicit or implicit, legal or cultural) that inevitably limit freedom. Of course, some societies are more strangling in their limitations and some societies are lethal in their enforcement, so I am not trying to make a moral equivalency between say North Korea and Sweden because both have social and legal norms that limit the individual.

    What I dislike about libertarianism is not so much their political goals (which I disagree with it) but with their narrow and unquestioned definition of freedom. They have a framework of freedom defined through capitalism and any deviation is dismissed as stupidity or totalitarian drift. The idea that in some ways the French have more freedom because their government mandates a short work week and generous vacations than Americans whose lives are often consumed by work, is incomprehensible. The French system has its pluses and minuses and its limitations on freedom as does the American system. But instead of allowing the society discourse on what type of freedom it wants, only one definition is recognized and the others condemned as communistic.

    But I do think that liberals can be narrow minded as well. I had an argument with a liberal about whether corporations run the government. My point was that corporations and the wealthy have disproportionate power and influence but that some political events like bank regulation bill, Obamacare, government shutdown, and that idiotic time when some congressmen contemplated defaulting on national debt show that the levers of corporate power down have a flawless connection with Washington.

    I live in a world where people don’t watch Fox News or vote for Tea Party candidates because corporations forced them to but because they have a radically different worldview and freedom priorities than liberals (of which I am one). But my opponent patronizingly dismissed me as naive and kept telling me to do more research referring me to some Princeton study about money in politics.

    Politics demands enemies. For libertarians the enemy is the state and its tentacles. For some liberals the enemy are corporations and their influence. But the reality of democracy as a messy process where people shove each other ideologically to arrive at the slippery throne of power to define what freedom is overlooked because that view presents a reality without an end point. Without a moment when enemies will be exposed and vanquished and real freedom will reign. As I see it, true freedom will never reign not because of corporate interests or big government bureaucrats but because people don’t and never will agree on what freedom actually is.

    • Ivan — most of us liberals are more than painfully aware that the functions of our government have been corrupted by the influence of big money and corporate interests. Any who haven’t notice this are an anomaly.

      The interesting thing about the debt ceiling brinksmanship is that the big corporations DO NOT WANT the debt defaulted on. Ultimately this would hurt them, and they know it. The politicians who don’t get that are so far down a right-wing ideological rabbit hole they have no idea what’s going on here in Real World Land.

  8. “how badly their interface actually fits the real world. “

    This is the phrase Barbara closes an excellent post with. It’s the key idea to take home, IMO. The libertarian philosophy is childish in it’s contempt for authority. How many times have I heard (and been amazed) by the resentment of libertarians and republicans that the IRS collects taxes by force!

    The flip side of the suggestion that it’s unethical for the government to seize property for non-payment is inescapable. The libertarian is proposing that mandatory taxes be paid on a voluntary basis. Press a kook on this point and you will get a bunch of doubletalk. Either they will claim that all rich people will pay fair taxes (but they oppose unfair taxes), implying a universal code of ethics among the rich which runs contrary to all reality OR (and this is where the double-speak gets fun) the libertarian will concede that there has to be a legal basis to collect taxes from those who won’t pay and ultimately that system has to use force to seize the property of those who refuse to pay. Which requires you establish the same system that they previously said they were committed to demolish.

    Over and over, I have asked, “Where as this been tried, and with what result?” Because that’s the first best indicator of how it would work (or fail) if you hold to the previous design. If it’s never been tried, that’s not automatically bad, but you have to apply realistic, not fanciful, projections of what the result would be. If you look at the libertarian ideas for privatizing all waterways (selling the rights to rivers and bays) privatizing the justice system, privatizing emergency services, (the fire department won’t put out a fire at your house if you aren’t paid up) It’s hard to know if libertarian ideas are a comedy or a horror story, or maybe just bad fantasy.

    Draw them out on the Civil Rights Act and you will find they aren’t racist – and as a group, they aren’t. But they think that racism was/is economically inefficient and the interference by the state which coerced business owners into non-racist practices was unnecessary – racism would have ended on its own. But the reality is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 happened almost exactly 100 years after the end of the Civil War. The economic inefficiency or racism hadn’t changed racist policies in a century. On what basis do you project that racism was on the verge of straightening itself out without interference by the federal government?

    Apply the libertarian proposal tn the real world, and you won’t convince the libertarian, but if there is an audience, they will wake up. The fire department would let homes burn down (with people) sometimes. If you bought a boat and you haven’t bought a lake or river, you will have to PAY someone rent to use what has always been public. This is how you blow libertarian ideas into the same realm as Harry Potter and Hobbits – with real world examples.

  9. “read up on how the French Revolution eventually consumed itself, because that was the logical consequence of their ideology.”

    Implying that their ideology was libertarian is a stretch. In fact, it isn’t even historically accurate. A libertarian would not wish to impose a “Cult of Reason” on the population at large, nor establish dozens of government ministries or enforce full-throated nationalism.

    “Likewise, the logical consequences of libertarianism, if actually put into practice, would be to destroy itself rather quickly, giving way either to an authoritarian dictatorship or mob rule.”

    This is simply question-begging and false analogy. Considering that there’s divisions within libertarian thought that range from republican-style government to outright anarcho-capitalism (the label most leftists seem to wish to pin on them), you really have no way of predicting how a libertarian-based society would play out. It probably wouldn’t survive on anything large scale, because its success is dependent on strong trust bonds and a level of cultural homogeny that don’t necessarily exist outside of small communities, but as Tainter demonstrated, that’s true of any society that scales beyond its ability to constrain social and economic dysfunction.

    ” (Dismissing that crew as bourgeoisie leftist bureaucrats tells me you don’t completely grasp what they were about; look up the Reign of Terror.) ”

    I said they were leftists, not marxists. At the time, leftist ideology was perfectly consistent with the goals of the Revolution’s leaders. That it devolved into the Reign of Terror was the consequence of those individuals getting drunk with power and not understanding how to contain it, other than trying to direct the aggression they

    • “Implying that their ideology was libertarian is a stretch”

      That wasn’t the implication. You are missing the point even after I pointed it out to you. You are very dull. I don’t care to discuss anything with dull people. Good-bye.

  10. That should read, “other than trying to redirect the aggression they had encouraged towards foreign powers or random victims that 100 years later would be known as “counter-revolutionaries,” “kulaks,” “wreckers,” and “hoarders.”

  11. Yes, by all means don’t let even the mildest of rebukes penetrate the hugbox you’ve constructed for yourself.

    • Yes, by all means don’t let even the mildest of rebukes penetrate the hugbox you’ve constructed for yourself.

      One of the qualifiers for being allowed to comment here is to demonstrate you have a clue what the rest of us are talking about. You didn’t. You completely missed the point, which made your comments irrelevant. And, remarkably, you continued to miss the point even after I explained the point to you, which makes you tiresome.

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