The first election in which I voted was the 2004 race between the Democrat challenger John Kerry and the Republican incumbent George W. Bush. I voted for Kerry primarily because I was against the war in Iraq. In 2008 I voted for Barack Obama, again because of the war (and because I didn’t like McCain’s hawkishness), but also because I believed Obama to be the candidate that would best preserve the civil liberties that Bush had been attempting to dismantle during his tenure. By 2012, though, I had become disillusioned with the Democratic party – Obama did not deliver on the things I felt were important (getting out of our Middle Eastern wars and upholding civil liberties at home). I could never bring myself to vote Republican, though, since in my mind they were (and still are) the party of neocon war hawks and pearl-clutching social conservatives. So, in 2012 I voted for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian party candidate (which I did again in 2016; I voted for the Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen in 2020).
My immersion into libertarianism only deepened as I began reading the literature on libertarian philosophy and regularly visiting blogs like Reason.com. But, what really catalyzed my conversion was the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013. That year, I even briefly flirted with anarcho-capitalism. You can read more about my political story here.
What is the Philosophy of Libertarianism?
I have always been someone drawn towards elegant, internally coherent systems of logic (which is why I also like mathematics and physics), and the philosophical underpinnings of libertarianism satisfied that craving of mine for logical consistency. The whole of the philosophy can be constructed on a single seemingly self-evident axiom: every individual person owns themselves (i.e. individual A is the sole legitimate sovereign over individual A‘s mind and body). The corollary to this is that no individual A owns (the mind and body of) another individual B, since it is the case that B owns themselves. From this the non-aggression principle can be derived: one individual or group of individuals initiating force (or threatening to initiate force) on any other individual is morally wrong, since this would infringe on the self-ownership of the recipient (i.e. the victim) of aggression.
The rest of libertarianism is simply applying the non-aggression principle to different things, most notably the government. For instance, taxes are extracted by the government with the implicit threat of violence (i.e. if you don’t pay your taxes, armed agents of the government will come and initiate force against you) and therefore immoral. As a result, everything the government does is backed by violence (it is funded by the violent extraction of people’s property and backed by the threat of violence against those who do not comply) and therefore the government is immoral.
Self-ownership and the non-aggression principle are also the root of the libertarian’s strong advocacy of property rights. Private ownership of property stems from the fact that an individual either 1) created, modified, or tended to some previously unowned object or plot of land, thereby imbuing that object or plot of land with ownership by virtue of the individual’s body and mind having gone into the creation, modification, or attentiveness to that object or plot of land (i.e. the object or plot of land, in an ethical sense, become an extension of the individual, who owns themselves and therefore owns this extension of themselves); or 2) the individual voluntarily traded some other legitimately acquired property in their possession (such as money) with another freely acting individual, thereby transferring ownership via the voluntary and mutual exchange. As a result, say I open a business using either property I already own and/or by exchanging some property I own (which includes money) with another freely acting individual, then that business is my private property (and so, in a sense, an extension of myself). As a result, it is an infringement of the non-aggression principle, and therefore immoral, for anyone else to force me to do with my property what I don’t wish to do, or to prevent me from doing with my property what I do wish to do with it.
Further, within libertarian philosophy comes the ethos of personal responsibility. Since it is immoral for the government to regulate business (because it is my private property), for instance, then the onus is on each individual to decide whether or not to be a customer or client of that business. If you don’t like the products or business practices of the business, or you dislike the owner’s opinions on certain issues, then it is your own responsibility not to continue entering into business associations with that firm. If the firm is bad enough – selling goods or services that are too low quality or too high-priced, or their business practices are unsavory or unethical – then enough people will discontinue giving that firm their business and the firm will end up going out of business. Those firms with products or services that are good enough that people are willing to continue giving them their business will succeed. This is the underlying mechanism of free market economics in the libertarian worldview.
Why I Am No Longer a Libertarian
There are some basic assumptions in libertarianism that I have come to disagree with. One is the assumption of libertarian free will. I have come to believe in determinism in its strongest sense. However, I am of the assumption that in people’s everyday lives, we at least have to pretend as if we make our own decisions in order to hold people morally and legally responsible for their actions (why we ought to do this and how to justify it are topics that could fill an entire series of books, so I won’t go into it here). As such, I don’t necessarily see our lack of libertarian free will as a defeater for the libertarian philosophy in general for me.
I have also come to view natural rights as a (perhaps useful) fiction. Once again, this is not necessarily a defeater of libertarian philosophy in general for me, but it does make libertarianism more difficult to justify insofar as there is no way to firmly ground the axiom of self-ownership.
There are four reasons that have caused me to rethink my position on the libertarian philosophy. The first is the assumption that humans are rational agents, the second is what happens in the absence of institutions, the third is that it is impossible to consider an individual human being outside the context of the individual’s geographical, temporal, and social environment, and the fourth is that humans are by our very nature hierarchical creatures.
First Reason: Humans are Fundamentally irrational
The first flaw stems from my autodidactic researches into things like cognitive psychology and behavioral economics, as well as my reflections on human nature (both via observation of others and introspection into myself). Human thinking is absolutely lousy with irrationality. Most people don’t know what makes them happy and as a result usually do those things that make them less happy (at least in the long run). This isn’t due to some (in principle correctable) flaw or deviation from an idealized way of thinking, but is due to cognitive biases baked into our very modes of thinking and the contradictions between our evolved nature and the world we have created for ourselves.
Libertarian economic theory likes to view free market economics as a sort of judo, which economists must study through the lenses of praxeology and analyses of incentives, which can redirect people’s innate greed and selfishness toward what are ultimately socially positive outcomes. Person A is greedy, and in order to fulfill that greed person A will produce a product (a tangible good, a service, or even their own labor in the case of employees selling their labor (time and effort) to employers who wish to purchase the labor) that can be sold for the money that person A desires more than the product person A can produce. This benefits person B who desires the product more than the money person A is charging for the product. Person B is also greedy, wanting to hold onto as much of their own money as they can while acquiring the best goods and services. As such, person A must make sure to produce and sell a product that hits some intersection where product quality and price meet in order to out-compete person C who also sells that same product. This benefits person B because this competition will ensure that the best confluence of quality and price will always intersect (i.e. the market is perfectly efficient). Thus, it is all about subjective value: person A values money more than product, person B values product more than money, and as such an exchange is mutually beneficial.
The problem is that, if people are irrational, then they will not know what it is that will be best for themselves – an assumption made in libertarian economics being that people are assumed to have rational self-interest. But as psychologists and behavior economists like Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely have demonstrated is that people are very much not rational. We routinely do things that are worse for ourselves and avoid things that are better for ourselves, and even when we are aware of the errors we make, we cannot avoid them. These cognitive biases are like illusions that all human beings are subject to, and we cannot see past them.
Or, perhaps, a better analogy would be that libertarianism is a philosophy that can only be run on an operating system of rational self-interest, but we humans have the wrong operation system (we have the one cobbled together for us by evolution). If we try running libertarianism on the operating system we in fact have, things will crash. Our empathy blinds us to real problems (and solutions). Our tribalism makes us all fearful, hateful, and violent. Our selfishness causes us to lie, cheat, and deceive; justice only means whatever we can get away with. Our hypocrisy and shortsightedness prevents us from doing what is best for ourselves and those around us and usually results in doing what is harmful. This is the operating system we have.
Additionally, as Jonathan Haidt has detailed, humans are motivated reasoners. Haidt uses the analogy of a person riding an elephant, with the elephant being our decision making apparatus and the rider being our faculty of reason. The elephant will simply go where it pleases and the rider will then be left to justify why they had gone that way. I personally prefer the metaphor of the difference between a scientist and a lawyer. A scientist (at least ideally) will gather evidence and run experiments and only after the data are in will the scientist come to a conclusion; conversely, a lawyer must start with a conclusion (either their client is not guilty if they are a defender, or the defendant is guilty if they are a prosecutor), and then look for evidence that supports this conclusion. Human beings reason like lawyers, not scientists. We have beliefs and go in search of things that support these presupposed beliefs. This is how we end up with so many echo chambers and absurd conspiracies. Even if all of the best information was available to people (which it definitely is not), we would still make bad decisions due to our irrationality – emotions, sentimentality, our confirmation bias, and the host of other cognitive biases evolution has saddled us with.
What all this comes down to, though, is that even if we accept the deontological claim that each individual is the sole sovereign over their own body and mind, if we truly and fully abide by this principle, it will inevitably (and for all we know, swiftly) make life worse for most people. In this case, I think the consequentialist evils that the full adoption of libertarian philosophy would incur outweigh some level of infringement of the non-aggression principle. What level of infringement on our self-ownership we as a society are willing to accept is an ongoing debate carried out in our politics and culture, and likely one that will not soon be settled.
Second Reason: The unwelcome return of honor culture
Speaking of consequentialism and human irrationality, what can we say, empirically, happens when we lose or significantly weaken our institutions? Humans still require some way of mediating disputes and ensuring security. I am going to quote part of my review of Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay:
Campbell and Manning point out how these Postmodern ideas have caused a shift in Western culture. Where once people lived by honor culture – valorizing strength and honor, resulting in aggressive responses to perceived slights – and then, through social progress, people adopted, along with liberalism, what is called dignity culture – not overreacting to slights, instead attempting to talk things out, and when that doesn’t work, go to the authorities – but now, in the past decade or two, we have moved on to victimhood culture. This finds people valorizing weakness, as opposed to strength in honor culture, but once again brings back the overly reactive response to perceived slights while maintaining the dignity culture means of appealing to authorities to right the perceived wrongs.
What I am interested in here is what Campbell and Manning call honor culture. This is a phenomenon observed in times and places that have weak or absent institutions. Places like war-torn Middle Eastern countries and gangland Chicago or Baltimore. To maintain security, people have to maintain honor. A slight made against a person cannot go unanswered or they may be seen as weak, and therefore vulnerable. The cowboy who shoots someone suspected of cheating at cards or the gangster who shoots someone for looking at them the wrong way are both following this sort of honor culture.
Within a society that has strong institutions (not strong in the sense of repressive or overreaching, but in that they are seen as legitimate by the vast majority of people and that they are fair and just, i.e. not corrupt or arbitrary or unable to carry out their duties), laws (at least ideally) act as a deterrence against crime and seek to rectify or punish wrongdoing that does occur. In an honor culture, where such institutions cannot be relied upon (they’re overly corrupt, arbitrary, or unable to carry out their duties), then the onus is on each individual to deter crime by being feared by any would-be offenders and having a reputation of being unafraid to exact retribution for even the slightest offense. Thus, honor culture is an inevitable outcome of living in a society with weak or non-existent institutions.
The point I am making here is that, if we fully adopt the libertarian philosophy and either drastically weaken or jettison completely all government institutions, we are likely to see the resurrection of honor culture. This, I don’t think, is unexpected or even unwelcome among many libertarian types, and it is why they jealously defend the right to bear arms: a person is only as safe as what they can do to protect themselves in any situation. Most people, I imagine, including myself, would not welcome the return of honor culture. (Not that victimhood culture is a good alternative; I would prefer dignity culture).
Third Reason: We Live in a Society!
Or, more accurately, we live in a particular geographical, temporal, and social environment. One that is not of our choosing. Even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that all people truly are rational, we cannot separate the opportunities a person has available to them from their particular situation. Based on accidents of birth, some people have more opportunity available to them than others. Even if people were the mythical “econs” of rational economics, some people are destined to fail while others are destined to succeed, based purely on the particular situation into which they were born. Thus, success and failure cannot be attributed purely to personal responsibility. As such, the idea of the self-made person is untenable.
We could go further and look at genetic predispositions, various disabilities, and any number of illnesses or injuries incurred in the course of life as contingencies that contribute to “failure” in an economic sense that have nothing to do with personal responsibility. The usual libertarian response would be that people could find the support of charities if they are unable to care for themselves. This takes a rosy view of humans that does not accord with reality – indeed, many charity-based ways of taking care of the sick and injured end up being scams as a result of the same greed that libertarianism takes as given.
But it is not just the way that society affects and individual, but also the way an individual affects a society. According to libertarianism, I can do with my property as I please, and it is immoral for the government or my neighbor to dictate (through force or threat of force) what I can do with my property. But this is often taken as being things I do to the ground enclosed by property markers – I am free to build a shed or dig a pool or store old car parts or grow a garden or whatever else I want to do with my property. But what about if I make a giant compost heap on my yard and add all my excrement to it, resulting in the horrible smell wafting across the property line onto my neighbor’s property? Or if I want to setup a stage in my yard and play loud death metal all night long, with the sound inevitably traveling over into my neighbor’s house?
And these examples are simply microcosms of bigger issues. The reason that libertarians like to deny or downplay climate change is because it is inconvenient to the libertarian philosophy (there is that reasoning like a lawyer – the conclusion they want is that libertarian philosophy tells us the best mode to arrange society, therefore anything that is inconvenient for this conclusion must be wrong or not really a problem). Climate change is essentially people polluting their neighbors’ back yards writ large.
The COVID-19 pandemic was another incredibly inconvenient phenomenon for libertarians, and so just like with climate change, it had to be denied or downplayed. But when it comes to issues like this – climate change and global pandemics – then the fact that humans are situated among other humans does and should affect what we ought to do with our property and our selves. A common refrain among the libertarian-minded is “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” But greenhouse gas emissions into the air shared by everyone on the planet and the spread of disease to those around us is hitting us in the nose – figuratively and literally.
Fourth Reason: Humans are Hierarchical Creatures
Ever notice how susceptible people are to the siren songs of, charlatans, strongmen, and cults of personality? That is another aspect of our evolutionary operating system. Most humans seek leadership from other humans and some humans seek to lead other humans. The natural inclination for human beings is to rally around or latch onto someone else. This is the operating system from which governments first arose, and it has not been updated since then.
What this means, essentially, is that erecting governments is as natural to humans as sex and warfare. The United States is a case in point. The U.S. was founded on principles that today we would recognize as being libertarian (or at least proto-libertarian), which is why libertarians talk about the constitution quite often. The U.S. government has since evolved into a bloated bureaucracy that cannot help but involve itself in the personal and economic lives of not only its own citizens, but the citizens of other countries as well. Power has concentrated in the executive, and not just because of the cravenness of congress, but because people want a single strongman who will give them what they want. When its “my” strongman in power, then executive overreach isn’t just ignored, but applauded. This only gives more power to the executive when the next person comes to power.
There will always be some warlord, strongman, or cult of personality that people will rally behind and to whom they will willingly give over their ‘rights’ and liberties in exchange for esteem, favor, and privileges. Whether it is in order to conquer or to prevent oneself from being conquered, human beings will construct a government.
The point I am making is that humans will always and inevitably end up with a powerful government. Perhaps this isn’t a defeater for libertarian philosophy as such, but it is a defeater for any practical implementation of libertarian philosophy.
This post is not meant to be an exhaustive argument making a case against libertarian philosophy, or as a polemic attempting to convince others. It would take a much longer post (or series of posts) to make an argument similar to the post I’ve made on arguments against the existence of God. This was merely an exposition on why I personally no longer subscribe to the libertarian philosophy.
That being said, I have not become a Marxist or fascist or “woke” progressive or had any other about-face shift in my political outlook. I would still consider myself as leaning toward the ancestral classical liberalism of which libertarianism is a direct descendant. However, my philosophical pessimism, cynicism, misanthropy, and general nihilism leads me to believe that something resembling classical liberalism is not a good philosophy, simply the least bad out of all the choices available to us. I also find myself in a similar unenviable position to that of the Underground Man from Dostoevky’s “Notes from Underground” in that I recognize the merit in arguments for all sides of most of the salient political, economic, and social antinomies, which leaves me in a state of anomie, ennui, and ultimately indecision. I envy those who can maintain their passionate adherence to any ideology.