A critique of libertarianism

Since we’ve been on a bit of a political kick, I thought I would post another political comment.  Coming off a discussion of gay marriage here, it is not big secret that I am generally conservative on many issues.  I am a conservative for at least two reasons:

a) We’ve arrived at a ridiculous state of affairs where inferior intellects put themselves forth as critics of the greatest minds, books, and ideas of our tradition.  This undermines the deposit of wisdom left by the tradition, particularly in the intelligentsia.

b)  I think moderation is the most important virtue in politics.  Reform is preferable to revolution.  Our government is designed to be conservative – in virtue of having 3 branches (the legislative branch split in two), it is slow moving and inefficient, and so is reform minded instead of revolution minded.  Increasingly, the left is dominated by an immoderate desire for cultural revolution.

But I am not a conservative ideologue.  I am seriously bothered by the radical libertarian movement of the Tea Party.  I disagree with the Tea Party for three main reasons.  (i) Libertarianism depends upon a false anthropology of radical individualism.  I am an Aristotelian on this – man is a social animal.  (ii) Libertarianism is ideological and so does not allow for the practice of prudence.  (iii) There is a strident anti-intellectualism in the Tea Party movement.

I got more than a few chuckles reading this recent letter to the editor in the Utah Statesman (our student newspaper).  It concerns the upcoming vote on a county-wide public library system here in Cache Valley.  He claims that the county-wide library system is “largely viewed as a socialist power grab”.  Huh?  Here is my question: Since when did the conservative desire for limited government turn into opposition to all government at any level?

My complaint is that there is no prudence in this.  To me, the conservative principle is not limited government per se, but the principle of subsidarity.  The principle of subsidiarity is a principle that suggests that matters should be handled at the most local and smallest possible level.  At what level issues should be handled is always, then, a question of prudence rather than ideology.  Immigration reform, for instance, appears to be the sort of thing that even conservatives, in accordance with subsidiarity, should think is best handled at the federal level.  Other issues could be well-handled at a more local level.  Prudence.

But the letter to the editor that rants against the county library does not allow for prudence.  As I  understand it, most counties do have county-wide library systems because the county level is the proper level of authority – in accordance with subsidiarity – for the effective delivery of library services.

While I am not registered with either party (and have never voted a straight ticket), I hope that the Republican Party does not get co-opted by this libertarian Tea Party wing.  What they need is someone like Buckley, who rid the party of unsavory elements like the John Birchers.


Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

16 thoughts on “A critique of libertarianism”

  1. Most of my thoughts on this will be colored by the use of words that seem to be in open dispute.

    Liberal — interested in the freedom and expression of human ends.
    Continental Liberal — people who believe that in most issues a bias toward the market solution preserves the liberal tradition.
    American Liberal — people that believe human freedom is to be equated with human progress, which in its most simple form is the rejection of tradition.
    Libertarian — an attempt to rescue the liberal idea in the American political context from the conservatives. The focus is on constrained economic policy and generous social tolerance.

    Now, to my mind it makes no sense to conflate libertarian ideas with the tea party or with the republicans. Rand Paul, who has the best libertarian credibility of all the tea party candidates is certainly no consistent libertarian, even the briefest reading of his views would prove that:
    Most notably his view on abortion is where he differs from the old-line libertarians.

    On (ii), I find the most incoherence: Libertarianism is ideological, therefore it is not prudent. — Why would using methodological individualism not allow for prudence? What definition of libertarianism do you offer that excludes prudence? It seems to me that libertarians are constrained by the fact that they are trying to allow for human flourishing and they must then accept government roles that aid in these ends. The most commonly cited libertarian stance is the role of government to enforce contracts. Defense is only necessary such that there is a threat to the individual. Both of these things specifically depend on a social institution, but what methodological individualism suggests is not atomistic individuals, but individuals who are the irreducible level of preference formation. We think of an individual that has two distinct personalities at war with one another as being ill. We think of a normal individual as a coherent whole who resolves conflicting thoughts and acts through these momentary choices. Thinking of society as acting, I would argue is incoherent since there are always people in a minority who dispute, reject, or act differently.

    None of these requires a rejection of Aristotle’s social animal or political animal, either way you interpret it. What it does recognize is that the Master’s preferences are not sufficient to generalize to the whole community. I would reject any anthropology as false that courts Aristotle’s false philosopher:

    “Even among philosophers there is a difference of opinion. The origin of the dispute, and what makes the views invade each other’s territory, is as follows: in some sense virtue, when furnished with means, has actually the greatest power of exercising force; and as superior power is only found where there is superior excellence of some kind… […] Hence, where the relation of master and slave between them is natural they are friends and have a common interest, but where it rests merely on law and force the reverse is true. ”

    Aristotle cautions us to view reason as the highest form of force of our will over other people. We cannot have a good community of individuals when we think we have a solution for the group that transcends the need to use reason and allows us to resort to force.


  2. “Immoderate desire for cultural revolution” best describes the right, not the left. What today is called the American left was actually centrist in the mid-20th century. It pretty much realized its goals with the New Deal, the Great Society, and Roe v Wade. There is no need for revolutionary change. Today’s right, on the other hand, which yesterday would have been called the loony right, wants to either effect a radical rollback of leftist social gains, or impose theocracy to one degree or another. A immoderate and revolutionary agenda, indeed.


    1. It is interesting that you talk in terms of time — now is better than the past, the worst thing that could happen is to do something that was done in the past.

      “radical rollback of leftist social gains” — this language points to a theory of whig history of progression. Things will always get better.

      The Pre-Socratics are better on this. In a very meaningful sense reordering is not progress. What this implies is a debate over ends.

      If this were true, what is the purpose of a theory of change and progress among the left — if we are already in utopia?


  3. Just a quick addition to Michael’s post. Along with the false correlation between the Tea Party and libertarianism (the Tea Partiers are social conservatives who see a political opportunity in shifting the focus towards taxes and limited government; their vocal absence during the Bush administration show’s social issues to be their true concern) any anti-intellectualism is an unfortunate (not dominant) characteristic of conservatism, not libertarianism. It was, in fact, one of the critiques found in Hayek’s essay “Why I am not a Conservative”.
    Calling classical liberalism anti-intellectual reveals a vast lack of exposure to actual libertarian thought.

    To a different point, I think there is a much greater synthesis between your principle of subsidarity and methodological individualism than you care to acknowledge. The best book of which I am aware on this point is “The Political Theory of a Compound Republic” by Vincent Ostrom (the late husband of the the Nobel Laureate, Elinor Ostrom). The book is an analysis of the Federalist Papers, in which Ostrom argues for methodological individualism and compound republicanism (a more sophisticated form of the principle of subsidarity).


  4. Well, I would first like to agree with Michael and Andrew. I don’t, in all truth, know what to make of this post. I find it to be anything but a critique of libertarianism. I find his comparison amid the tea party and libertarians to be misguided. First, ideologically speaking the tea party and libertarianism only share on thing in common “less government intervention on an economic plane”. Moreover, libertarianism does not -in any way- assume some type solipsistic world view or radical individualist world view devoid of social dependency or meaningful cooperation.


  5. Let me first say that my post was sloppy. “Libertarianism” has many meanings. And the Tea Party is not a monolithic movement with a particular ideology, though I surmise that many Tea Partiers would either sympathize with or self-identify as “libertarian”.

    First a few remarks on some side issues: I disagree with Andrew’s suggestion that the Tea Party is a social conservative movement using fiscal conservatism as mere political cover. I think it just as easy to explain the silence on fiscal responsibility issues during W’s term by pointing out that we were not in a huge economic crisis at that time along with the fact that many conservatives were preoccupied with national security during those years. And, to Andrew: I said that there is a strident anti-intellectualism in the Tea Party, not in libertarianism. I think this is obvious enough from the public face of the Tea Party (Sarah Palin). Finally, Beelzebub’s suggestion that the right in America is interested in “imposing theocracy” is just ridiculous.

    Now to the meat of it: My post was motivated by my experience with Utah politics and my students. Ayn Rand is frequently mentioned in my classes as a philosophical hero of my students. This is the sort of view I had in mind, and which seems just below the surface of the letter I cited. (I know that Rand’s relationship with libertarianism is complicated). Those that hold this view often self-identify as “libertarian” and “Tea Partier”, so I used those terms myself.

    Let’s start with the most basic core of libertarianism. It is the belief that individuals have the right to pursue their own good in their own way (do whatever they want with themselves or their property) so long as they do not infringe on the right of others to pursue their own good in their own way.

    While I know that some read Aristotle and find libertarianism in there, I must say that I just do not see it. Libertarianism, at its most basic, has no substantive metaphysics of man. It is a belief in the value of liberty, the liberty to choose your own good and pursue it with the only responsibility of not getting in the way of anyone else pursuing their own good. It is, at its most basic formulation, not a view that says anything concrete about ends. This because it has only a negative conception of freedom (liberty, absence from constraint). A positive conception would require a thicker anthropology. For Aristotle, politics has nothing to do with people “pursing their own good in their own way” in this sense. It is no accident that, in his Politics, Aristotle begins with a social anthropology.

    Libertarianism, as I understand it, begins with “state of nature politics”. The State arises out of a social contract, not naturally out of the social ontology of man. The anthropology that emerges out of this is inherently individualistic. In other words, when I think about libertarianism I think about Locke, not Aristotle.

    So here was my target: The view that I commonly encounter here is not methodological individualism, but is atomistic individualism. It is rooted in modern understanding of the individual and voluntarism. This view, not atypically referred to as “libertarian”, rejects the social (dare I say “Trinitarian”) quality of all existence and particularly human “inter-dividuality”. It is this view that I encounter with my students, and which is embedded in the attached letter to the editor. It is this view that was the target of my critique. My particular complaint was the Tea Party tendency (exhibited in the letter) to absolutize the good of limited government. This leaves little room for prudence on questions of subsidiarity (like, say, whether or not consolidating libraries at the county level is a good idea).

    One last bash on libertarianism, while I am at it: Strangely enough, libertarians are also guilty of what I accuse the left of in my initial post – insufficient fidelity to tradition. They have no sense of the need for a culture to keep liberty from getting dissociated from tradition. De Tocqueville is awesome on this point. And Burke recognized the same point – the need for liberty to be connected to civility and thick tradition. He went so far as to say that the French project could not succeed because they were not continuing a tradition in the way that the Americans were (the American “revolution” was really a “reform” of a British tradition begun in 1215). So libertarians are cut off from tradition as much as progressives. I say both are dead ends.


    1. Libertarianism has largely devolved into anti-statism. On the other hand, the size of the state has become dependent on either servicing corporate interests, or protecting the people against corporate interests. Either way, the size of the state is a direct reaction to the power of corporations. If you’re serious about limiting the power of government, limit the power of corporate business. There is no other way. Typically, libertarians can’t bring themselves to realize this. They retain a fetish-like idolization of private business of any kind, and an irrational hatred of government of any kind. Liberals are pretty much opposite. As they gain better perspectives, the liberal and libertarian converge to the same philosophy.


      1. I really like the appeal to rationality here. That people only disagree because of a matter of ignorance. It is a nice idea. The only problem, I have is that I think there are reasons people disagree that do not result from ignorance only. In economics we have a meaningful space called preference. I think this actually is where Kleiner and I would agree the most, where this context dependent space exists. As Vincent Ostrom calls it, “The miracle of people and place.” Or put another way, ideology matters.


  6. I would like to first point out that the characterization of libertarianism in terms of negative freedom I would agree with 100%. To my own mind this is the most coherent understanding of freedom. After thinking about it for 5 years, I still don’t get the idea of positive freedom as anything other than a power play. A force of Nietzsche-ian will over a less articulate or less savvy group of [untermensch].

    Libertarianism searches for a space where highly moral individuals have a common ground that is based on reason and rule rather than instinct and repugnance. To say that the tea party calls themselves libertarian and therefore the world means something different than what is seen in the intellectual tradition — is a very strange argument.

    My first paper in history of economic ideas class was on the methodological individual. I compared Adam Smith’s critiques of the mob in Theory of Moral Sentiments with Kierkegaard’s critiques of the mob in “The Present Age.” In that essay Kierkegaard has three “dialectics” The ancient, the Christian, and the present age. The dialectic of the present age is criticized because it is a moving target. It’s leveling does not deliver what it promises.

    I try to argue that Kenneth Arrow’s impossibility theorem is just an mathematical updating of Kierkegaard’s point in this essay, that the social whole is always intransitive (unless there is a dictator / read ancient dialectic). In order to combat this Kierkegaard claims that the Christian dialectic forces people to recognize the legitimacy of the other, the individuality. I then claim that the space created by the Methodological Individual is properly understood as Kierkegaard’s Christian “Hero” which is similar to Smith’s economic actor.

    I hope this telling both clarifies the socially embedded individual [which to me seems very Aristotelian], and the incoherence of the appeals to community as the source of authority.

    I also recognize that I am basic my entire reading on the existential, hardly a zoon politikon traditionally conceptualized.


    1. Very interesting argument with Kierkeggard and Smith. I am teaching some Kierkegaard next term in my Contemporary Euro Class. If you’d be interested, I’d love to have you give a talk on this. Drop me an email if you are interested.

      I won’t develop this here, but as much as I love Kierkegaard I think he is also working with a modern concept of the individual that is ultimately erroneous. Even if you can recover “social embeddedness” on the back end, it is going to be thin sociability compared to what is in Aristotle. While we could debate Derrida’s reading of Kierkegaard, the ease with which Kierkegaard is appropriated into the “impossibility of community” strain of pomo philosophy is noteworthy.
      To put it another way, Kierkegaard is, in the end, just too Protestant for my tastes.


    2. I love this post, even though I would strongly encourage a reading of Smith’s various works because you don’t capture him well.

      I think you are absolutely right in terms of the modern plutocracy though. Where we disagree is on the specifics of the matter.

      Smith’s economic actor is socially embedded in a particular, but recognizes the stoic insights which remind the individual of his own insignificance (remember that Smith is prior to Kierkegaard, so he goes to the stoics). This is how I think Smith gets to a universal, but one that is not dominated with a particular cultural norm.


  7. If you’re anything like me, I just become disgruntled and apathetic with the ignorance and foolishness of the Tea Party. I find no use in arguing against their slurs or ideas; it’s all empty and spoon-fed to them.


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