Recently I was invited to give a lecture on libertarianism at a prestigious Christian college. The large lecture hall was packed with bright-eyed, wholesome-looking Christian students, a number of whom lingered afterward to press their case for . . . libertarianism.
Only ten years ago, this scene would have been unlikely. Most people had never heard of libertarianism, and for those who had, the idea consisted of not much more than vague associations with pot-smoking atheism and adolescent rebellion. No more. Once an eccentric and uneasy uncle within the American conservative movement, libertarianism has become the smart, disciplined, and well-dressed son, ready to claim his inheritance from his declining, if not doddering, father.
Modern liberals tend to call anyone who defends the free market and limited government a “libertarian,” but this is incorrect, and serves merely to protect them from seriously engaging the issues. Whereas modern liberals relegate economic liberty to a secondary status, libertarians root it in self-ownership and regard it as the most fundamental right, without which no other rights are meaningful. Libertarians therefore are “minarchists.” They believe that the only legitimate use of the state power is to prevent coercion.
At the same time, libertarians differ from classical liberals, who also hold economic liberty in high regard but place it within a social order that gives equal value to civil and political liberty. Classical liberals therefore recognize a wider range of public goods than security—such goods as roads, education, and assistance to the poor, all of which can justify state action. Libertarians also differ from anarchists (or “anarcho-capitalists”), who believe that the state is unnecessary and illegitimate and should be abolished altogether and replaced by private, voluntary associations.
Tellingly, just as modern liberals tend to regard anyone who defends the free market as a libertarian, so libertarians tend to regard anyone who defends anything other than minarchy as a “statist.” Libertarians and modern liberals are like two people gazing at one another through opposite ends of a telescope, which distorts the image of each side while obscuring from view any alternatives but the extremes.
Although libertarian ideas date back to the nineteenth century (particularly the writings of Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker), the mainstreaming of libertarianism is relatively recent, perhaps not sooner than Ron Paul’s popular run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. (Who remembers Paul’s presidential run on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1988?) The interesting question is: Why has libertarianism become so popular, especially among social conservatives and Christians?
There are many possible answers to this question, but before resorting to psychological or sociological explanations, we must understand the ideas themselves. For surely one attraction of libertarianism is the clear, principled answers it provides to difficult social problems. Consider, for example, three powerful arguments for libertarianism.
First, libertarians claim that every human person owns him- or herself. According to them, the alternative is ownership by another. This is called slavery, and it is wrong precisely because it violates the principle of self-ownership. (Or why else is slavery wrong?) But slavery was not abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment. It exists every time persons are coerced who have not themselves threatened or violated the self-ownership principles of another.
Against that background, libertarian Robert Nozick in his classic work Anarchy, State, and Utopia baldly declares that “taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.” To some this claim may sound absurd, but the argument is simple: Taking someone’s earnings from hours of labor (by taxation) = taking someone’s hours of labor = making someone work for someone else. It does not matter that we could avoid the tax by refusing to work, because the tax still coercively limits our alternatives. Even my best non-libertarian students have difficulty meeting Murray Rothbard’s challenge: How can you define taxation in a way that makes it different from robbery?
The principle of self-ownership places strict moral limits on the use of coercion: Coercion may be used only to prevent coercion (that is, to prevent force and fraud, and to enforce contracts). Libertarians grudgingly concede the necessity of “the state” to prevent unjust coercion, defining the state as an institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force (e.g., coercion) within a given territory. Although the free market is the best means for providing most goods, a free market for security services would result in persistent and violent warfare, as competing agencies sought to protect their clients and increase their shares in the “market.” Life without the state, therefore, would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” in the memorable words of Thomas Hobbes. And so libertarianism affirms a minimal state. The protection of property rights (first over oneself and then, by extension, to the things one has justly acquired) exhausts the scope of legitimate coercive authority.
The second attraction of libertarianism is a consequence of the first. The state, which exists to prevent unjust coercion, is bound by the same moral requirements as are private individuals. It may not initiate coercion except to prevent coercion. This means that the state must be neutral with respect to how different individuals understand and pursue what is good (so long as those pursuits do not involve unjust coercion). Such neutrality is attractive because it promises to depoliticize the bitter, exhausting, and seemingly unending culture wars over such matters as pornography, homosexuality, and marriage that have divided Americans.
Note that I have said “depoliticize,” not “privatize.” Individuals in the libertarian state are free not only to organize their lives around their own perceptions of the good but to attempt to persuade others to do so as well. Here it should be emphasized that libertarianism is not a comprehensive moral theory but only a limited theory about the rightful use of coercion.Libertarians claim that it is compatible with a wide range of ethical, philosophical, and religious viewpoints, so long as these do not involve coercion. And in fact there are utilitarian libertarians (Ludwig von Mises), natural-rights libertarians (Robert Nozick), public-choice libertarians (James Buchanan), and “objectivist” libertarians (Ayn Rand). There are Christian libertarians (D. Eric Schansberg) and atheist libertarians (Penn Jillette), individualist libertarians (Herbert Spencer) and communitarian libertarians (Charles Fourier).
Libertarian social and religious conservatives can (so they claim) be committed to both a robust, traditional moral order and a state limited to the prevention of unjust coercion. Indeed, libertarians will insist, because moral and religious principles are valuable only insofar as they are freely chosen, social and religious conservatism requires libertarianism. (Libertarianism is compatible with state prohibition of abortion, which constitutes unjust coercion against the unborn child.) The libertarian order can coexist with a plurality of voluntary, cooperative associations organized around traditional moral and religious principles.
The third attraction of libertarianism rests in its consistent application of the same behavioral expectations and standards to everyone, whether he holds positions in public office or works in the private sector. However human beings behave, libertarians argue, that behavior will be the same in both political and nonpolitical life. Why should we expect the same person who behaves poorly in his private life to suddenly become virtuous when he assumes political office? If in fact a magical transformation in human nature does occur when sinful, fallible human beings attain political office, it is usually for the worse, given the greatly expanded power and prestige that political authority entails.
While it is true that the free market sometimes fails to work efficiently and justly, libertarians insist that any account of “market failure” must be balanced by an equally sober recognition of “government failure.” Those who believe that government is the solution to admittedly real problems that arise in the free market, and in the culture more generally, commit the “nirvana fallacy”: They compare the realistic imperfections of society to the unrealistic perfections that government action aspires to.
This observation is the core insight of public-choice theory, a recent and influential school of thought. Launched by Nobel laureate James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and others in the 1960s, public-choice theory applies the assumptions about human behavior in economics to the study of political behavior.
Seen through the (more realistic) lens of economics, political activity is a form of economic exchange, and the state is an external means for realizing private and individual values. Public-choice theory purports to explain political action not as we would like it to be but as it actually occurs: shady backroom deals, pork-barrel politics, logrolling, administrative abuses of power, etc. The result? Massive amounts of unproductive wealth spent in political action ($1 billion on the last presidential election alone), uncontrolled and unsustainable spending (Social Security and Medicare), special-interest legislation that imposes high costs on others (taxes, tariffs, subsidies, mandates), and innocent lives sacrificed in unnecessary wars.
Taken together, these three arguments—the moral foundation of self-ownership, the promise of a way to depoliticize the culture wars without conceding moral relativism, and the commitment to a realistic account of political behavior—add up to a strong case for libertarianism. What can be said against them?
There are strong counterarguments to each. But before laying them out, as I shall do in a moment, we should not lose sight of the forest for the trees. Libertarians are not, like classical liberals, merely proposing a more limited political order; they are proposing the elimination of politics altogether. This is not only both logically and practically impossible. It also profoundly undermines our ability to resist the encroaching tyranny of modern liberalism.
Let us turn then to the counterarguments, beginning with the principle of self-ownership. There is something powerfully intuitive in this principle, something that captures our moral judgment that human persons have an intrinsic dignity and therefore must never be used by anyone simply as a means. But on closer examination, the defects in this principle become clear.
Some readers will notice that the language I have just used comes from Immanuel Kant, and indeed it is to Kant that Robert Nozick appeals in making his case for the principle. Nevertheless, Kant himself explicitly repudiated this principle. In the first place, Kant regarded the notion of self-ownership as self-contradictory: Persons are subjects of ownership, whereas ownership is of things. Were persons to own themselves, they would be simultaneously persons and things, which is impossible.
The only way to avoid this self-contradiction, Kant suggested, is to divide the self partly into a person (such as the conscious, thinking part of the self) and partly into a thing (such as the body part). But this entails an untenable body–self dualism. As Robert George has written, “The dualistic view of the human person makes nonsense of the experience all of us have in our activities of being dynamically unified actors—of being, that is, embodied persons, and not persons who merely ‘inhabit’ our bodies and direct them as extrinsic instruments under our control, like automobiles.”
Another difficulty with the principle of self-ownership is that it makes all forms of rule without consent equivalent to slavery. But surely there is a difference between the rule of parents over their children (though the children do not consent to it) and the rule of the master over the slave? At least Rothbard is consistent when he declares that parents may not physically restrain their small children from running away. For his part, Nozick, in over three hundred pages of densely elaborated arguments on the principle of self-ownership, dedicates barely a page to this problem, and only then to show why John Locke’s argument against the ownership of children is problematic. As with many defenders of same-sex marriage, ignoring the children seems to be a common practice of libertarianism.
Just as the principle of self-ownership makes it difficult to justify parental authority, so it also makes it difficult to justify state authority. On what grounds can the state claim exclusive authority over the use of force over those who have never consented to it? And how will the state finance this authority without taxation? And if (as libertarians believe) the state can exercise legitimate authority over non-consenting individuals to prevent coercion, and can tax those individuals to pay for its activity, then why can’t it use this same authority for other reasons? Libertarians rarely face up to this question squarely.
In short, the principle of self-ownership cannot do the work libertarians want it to do. But rejecting the principle of self-ownership does not require one to reject the principle of intrinsic human dignity altogether. Thinkers as diverse as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Jefferson all affirmed basic human equality and dignity without reaching libertarian conclusions. They did so by offering an account of human dignity that corresponds better to the conditions and requirements for human flourishing.
The second argument for libertarianism: that state neutrality will end the culture wars. This offers another tempting fruit, especially for those who feel weakened by ceaseless political fighting over moral principles and are hungry for a way out. But despite the allure of this argument, it is tainted by the tree it hangs from: moral relativism. This may not be clear at first. Libertarianism claims to be exclusively about the just limits of coercion and therefore to be compatible with a wide range of moral judgments so long as they do not entail unjust coercion. Why can’t moral judgments, like other goods, be left to the forces of the market?
The reason has to do with the particular structure of moral judgments. Libertarians often describe them in terms of preferences, and they accuse those who would use the law to support their moral judgments of seeking to impose their preferences on others. To see why this description fails, consider a much-celebrated (though probably apocryphal) conversation between Winston Churchill and a socialite:
Churchill to socialite: “Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?”
Socialite: “My goodness, Mr. Churchill . . . Well, I suppose . . . we would have to discuss terms, of course . . .
Churchill: “Would you sleep with me for five pounds?”?
Socialite: “Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!”
Churchill: “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.”
The humor in the punch line depends on recognizing the difference in natural language between the logic of moral judgments and the logic of preferences. Preferences refer back to the subject and are therefore expressed in the first person (“I don’t like bananas”). Moral judgments, on the other hand, purport to make true statements about the structure of reality and so are expressed in the third person (“rape is wrong”). Whereas the objects of preferences are saleable, the objects of moral judgments are not. And so there can be no market for moral judgments without destroying what a moral judgment is.
The libertarian reduction of the logic of morals to the logic of preferences has absurd results. It makes moral statements like “rape is wrong” into preference statements like “I don’t like rape (but others might).” It equates the statement “rape is wrong and therefore should be prohibited” with the statement “I don’t like eating bananas; therefore, eating bananas should be prohibited.”
But moral judgments are impersonal truth claims about intrinsic goods that are necessary for human flourishing. Those who make moral judgments are committed to offering reasons that everyone can and ought to recognize. Moreover, if, as seems likely, it is true that the making and enacting of sound moral judgments depends on a certain moral character, and if in turn moral character depends on the support of a healthy moral culture, then it is also sometimes reasonable for people to seek support for their moral judgments in the law. For good or ill, the law always educates, even when it is silent. And although the law can never “make men moral,” it can, in a secondary way, profoundly assist or thwart the primary efforts of individuals, parents, spouses, friends, families, churches, and other primary bodies to make men moral.
Religious and socially conservative libertarians have not paid enough attention to the logic of morals and to the delicate moral ecology in which moral judgments are formed and enacted. They have failed to appreciate how state neutrality with respect to competing moral judgments is a myth that has assisted modern liberals in promoting their own moral views. For good or ill, moral judgments are the heart of politics. If the public debates over the Health and Human Services contraception mandate have made anything clear it is this: Retreat from political engagement with moral issues is not an option. Modern liberalism, despite its occasional pretenses, is animated by a moral vision that it seeks to realize in law. The so-called Benedict option—leaving politics to others and retreating into our moral communities—is no option at all. If we do not bring our arguments to modern liberals in the political sphere, theirs will come for us.
As for the third argument for libertarianism, its proponents are right to warn against government failure and the nirvana fallacy, especially as a modern liberal ideology ignorant of both, and incapable of learning from its mistakes, continues to advance government “solutions” like Obamacare. But for libertarians the danger of government failure provides a sufficient reason to oppose state action altogether, not merely one important prudential consideration among others when deliberating about this or that government action. This is because of the particular way libertarians understand government failure and, indeed, the state itself.
Libertarians conceive of individuals as prior to and independent of the state (though not necessarily of society). The state exists merely as an external means for realizing private and individual ends. In the words of James Buchanan, “collective action is viewed as the action of individuals when they choose to accomplish purposes collectively rather than individually, and the government is seen as nothing more than the set of processes, the machine, which allows such collective action to take place.”
Conceived in this way, state action is legitimate only when, like a market exchange, it satisfies the preferences of every individual. Any state action short of unanimous consent suggests government failure. But can politics really be understood in terms of an impersonal “machine” for the realization of individual ends?
Libertarians are fully aware that their conception of the state directly contradicts the natural meaning of politics. According to that meaning, politics is sustained by what Alasdair MacIntyre has aptly called a “rational myth,” which (to borrow a phrase from Eric Voegelin) “organizes” the political association “for action.” That rational myth, grounded in the particular history, symbols, and traditions of a people, is elaborated through common deliberation by citizens about the requirements of the common good. Further, citizens are not merely private parties to a contract. They are members of the political association. They recognize the political association as a constituent part of their personal identity (“I am an American”), and not merely as an external means to private ends. For citizens, therefore, the public good of the political association, the security and just flourishing of all its members, is also their own private good.
Libertarians strongly object to this conception of politics. Buchanan’s fitting description of public-choice theory as “politics without romance” might serve as a description of libertarianism more generally. Rothbard describes the libertarian as “the child in the fable, pointing out insistently that the emperor has no clothes.” It is one of the prime tasks of the libertarian, he writes, “to spread the demystification and desanctification of the State among its hapless subjects. His task is to demonstrate repeatedly and in depth that not only the emperor but even the ‘democratic’ State has no clothes; that all governments subsist by exploitive rule over the public.”
Unfortunately for the public-choice model, a substantial number of people seem to prefer their clothing, acting like citizens rather than pre-political individuals: They honor the important political figures and events of their history; they respect their flag; they learn their national anthem; they take time to vote—even when they know their individual vote has only an infinitesimal chance of affecting the outcome of the election—and often against what libertarians regard as their own individual interests; and, in exceptional cases, they are willing to expend their “last full measure of devotion” in service to their country. Could all of this really be the behavior of alienated suckers brainwashed into false consciousness by exploitative elites?
Even if libertarians think citizenship is for suckers, the libertarian state cannot exist without them. It is fascinating to see Buchanan acknowledge this point twenty-five years after the publication of The Calculus of Consent, his pathbreaking book in public-choice economics. In an insightful essay, “Is Public Choice Immoral? The Case for the ‘Nobel’ Lie,” Buchanan and coauthor Geoffrey Brennan fretted that the individualist model of human behavior used by public-choice theorists to explain that behavior might actually erode the standards for behavior in public life, resulting in worse consequences.
As Buchanan and Brennan put it, “the maintenance of the standards of public life, it could be argued, may require a heroic vision of the ‘statesman’ or ‘public servant,’ because only by holding such a vision can the possibility of public-interested behavior on the part of political agents be increased.” In practice, therefore, “politics without romance” could be a prescription for disaster. Like Rothbard, Buchanan and Brennan apply the story of the emperor without clothing as well, but they draw a different moral from it: “Public choice analysis allows us to see politics without blinders. In that sense, we play the role of the boy who called attention to the emperor’s nakedness. But the familiar story might be given quite a different twist if it went on to relate that the emperor fell into disgrace, that the nobles fought among themselves, that the previously stable political order crumbled into chaos, and that the kingdom was destroyed.” In light of this sober assessment, they conclude that “the moral might then have been not that one should call a spade a spade, whatever the possible consequences, but rather that a sensitivity to consequences might require one to be judicious in exposing functionally useful myths.”
This acknowledgment of the limits of libertarianism by these two libertarian thinkers is commendable. But we should be troubled by their conclusion that politics requires “functionally useful myths.” This claim, reminiscent of Plato’s “noble lie” and the “civil religion” of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, reflects the persistent libertarian doubt that reason can actually guide moral and political judgments, and this doubt is their undoing. Libertarianism seems like a powerful political philosophy, but in failing to provide a competing moral philosophy to modern liberalism, one that reflects the truth about the human person and the conditions for human flourishing, it has inadvertently contributed to the triumph of modern liberalism. For, unlike libertarians, modern liberals speak the language of politics. They appeal to notions of citizenship, social justice, and the common good in ways that ordinary Americans recognize and approve of. Unless and until the opponents of modern liberalism learn to speak this language more truly and more effectively than modern liberals, they will continue to suffer defeat. This in turn will require a better public philosophy than modern liberalism has to offer.
Opponents of modern liberalism need to recover what Jefferson called “the harmonizing sentiments of the day.” For in the end, politics is as inescapable as it is dangerous. Most happy, then, is the arrangement whereby people who have inherited through the great statesmanship and sacrifice of others both a set of political principles and institutions that limit political authority to its rightful ends and moral habits that favor the civil resolution of differences. Most wise are people who regard themselves as stewards of that inheritance. And most foolish are people who would squander that inheritance for a false dream of liberty.
Nathan Schlueter is associate professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College. He is coauthor of the forthcoming Socialist Conservatives and Naïve Libertarians? Foundations of the Libertarian-Conservative Debate. This essay was made possible by the Simon/Hertog Fund for Policy Analysis.