Randal John Meyer*
Salon’s ongoing critique of libertarianism stands to do to more harm than good, and to further polarize the American political community for no good reason. This isn't because of the harshness of its critique. It’s because they consistently make the same mistakes about libertarian theory and practice.
Richard Eskow’s The Seven Strangest Libertarian Ideas is the paradigmatic example of the issues I’m talking about. In a generous reading, it’s riddled with mistakes about what mainstream modern libertarians believe and value. In a less generous reading, it portrays libertarians as unpragmatic, misanthropic, anarchist child killers with distaste for democracy. Thus, I've decided to write about the seven biggest misunderstandings Salon writers—and progressives generally—have about libertarian beliefs. My purpose is to engage in useful dialogue that might help progressives understand libertarianism as a movement. The idea being, similar to the one in Ralph Nader’s new book, that it is more fruitful to expound on the large areas of common ground than to quibble over differences.
Mistake One: “Libertarianism” Refers to One School of Ideologically Uniform Thought
Often libertarianism is presented as a uniform and unreasonable ideology. This is a particularly pernicious fallacy. It associates an entire ideological movement with one extreme reading of an extreme idea held by an extreme philosopher. For example, Eskow implies it's a libertarian idea that parents should be allowed to let their children starve.
The fact that Eskow represents this as a genuine reading of libertarianism, or an example of something libertarians ever even discuss as relevant, is insane. The overwhelming majority of libertarians would resolve the issue by noting that a child is incompetent to consent to the social compact, and the obligation for the child’s existence rests with the parents. Indeed, no libertarian in a position of power advocates Eskow’s “modern” libertarian notion. In brief, libertarians do not try to justify child starving as a theoretical linchpin.
Libertarianism has conservative veins—no one with a television can deny that—but it has liberal veins as well. Left-leaning libertarians generally view the social compact as able to encroach more on personal liberties (like property rights) than those in the conservative veins. Between them there are large categories of common ground, and among the various schools of thought there are majority views and (a few) universally held principles. Where they overlap is mainstream libertarianism. That is what is described here: an aim at a minimal, simple, and efficient state that generally allows people to live their lives how they choose. At least to me, nothing seems outlandish about that notion; it seems pragmatic.
Mistake Two: Libertarianism is Incompatible With Any Kind of Social Welfare
Libertarians do not categorically oppose welfare. Two foundational libertarian thinkers, F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, were okay with a form of welfare. (Law, Legislation, and Liberty (Volume 3) and Capitalism and Freedom, respectively). Today, the idea that there is a place for welfare in libertarian policy has mainstream momentum: Just last December, Professor Matt Zwolinski published an article entitled “The Libertarian Case for a Basic Income” on Libertarianism.org.
Chicago School libertarian Milton Friedman believed that the personal income tax should run into negative percentages so those at the bottom received a check instead of paying taxes. This is commonly called the Negative Income Tax. A model of it could be adapted to the complex American tax scheme. Hayek advocated a Guaranteed Minimum Income: “minimum income for everyone . . . a sort of floor below which nobody need fall.”
This now debunked association between libertarians and “no welfare ever” comes from three things. The first is the modern Austrian school, a minority economic school within libertarian theory whose followers can be read as denying welfare. In the seventies, there was a split in the old Austrian school. Mainstream economists follow Hayek and the more liberal neoclassical model. Others follow Murray Rothbard and the more conservative, anti-empirical Austrian model. Statistically speaking, despite the disproportionate amount of airtime they get, the Rothbard vein is a minority. Neoclassicism is the dominant economic philosophy in modern libertarianism. This does not speak to the merits of either outlook, simply the dissonance between perception and the numerical representativeness.
Second is the association of libertarianism with the ideas of objectivist Ayn Rand, who is not a libertarian, as I will discuss below. The third reason is the fact that most libertarians want to end (or at least, reform) Social Security and Medicaid. Whatever other reasons may apply, libertarians generally don’t like these systems because they are inefficient. However, that is not to say a libertarian in favor of minimum income wouldn't want to take into account the cost of healthcare (among other basic living costs) in constructing that income. Opposition to inefficiency is typically pragmatic, regardless of ideology.
Mistake Three: Ayn Rand is a Libertarian, or Represents Libertarian Philosophy
Ayn Rand is not a libertarian; she is an objectivist. Just because Rand’s literary work happens to appeal to some libertarians, and her philosophy has a certain degree of overlap, does not make her philosophy libertarian. The relationship between the two is more akin to the relationship between communism and socialism: similar ideologies with similar precepts and goals—a good bit of overlap—but not the same thing.
In fact, she hated libertarians. She said she had more common ground with Marxists, called libertarians her enemies and plagiarists, and said that libertarianism isn’t worthy of being used as a means to spread her philosophy. Not that her feelings are dispositive towards the matter, but the philosophies have serious, substantive divisions.
Here is an example of one serious division, among the many: libertarians are advocates of private charity to replace the functional results of taxes, typically believing taxes to be lawfully justified forcible takings. Ayn Rand advocates against private charity and for replacing taxes with public charity (gifts to the government) because there can never be a justification for taxes.
I like the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. But to me, these are literary works that happen to touch on a good number of the ideas I hold about business and free markets. They are not philosophical treatises on the specific tenets of objectivism. That I like them is not a wholesale acceptance of her beliefs. I think most libertarians are caught in that trap of agreeing with her on a good bit, but not agreeing with her extreme views.
Mistake Four: Libertarianism is Incompatible With Democracy and Mainstream Political Theory
In his piece, Eksow wrote that it “isn’t a fringe idea” in libertarian theory that “democracy is unacceptable.” But the mainstream view is that democracy is better at protecting rights than non-democratic forms of government, or anarchy.
Government acceptability is predicated on its ability to secure freedom. For most libertarians, the foundation of government is the consent of the people. But for the consent of the people, which seems very democratic, there can be no legitimate government.
Where there are issues is when democratic majorities infringe on what libertarians consider fundamental rights. Here, libertarians seek the refuge of counter-majoritarian and anti-democratic institutions, like the Supreme Court or written constitutions. But this does not mean that libertarians fundamentally reject democracy. They simply place a higher value on fundamental rights than pure majority rule (as does the U.S. Constitution).
Mistake Five: There is No Place in Libertarian Theory for Regulation of Business
Libertarians generally disfavor regulation. However, that should not be mistaken for a lack of diversity of opinion as to the limits and extent of a principle. The government certainly can regulate against the unauthorized use of force, fraud, or theft. Additionally, the concept of market failure is prominent in modern Libertarian theory, and directly allows for government regulation.
Market failure is the idea that although the free market is usually efficient, it can have discrete failures that are inefficient and thus a possible target for regulation. The existence of externalities—costs not borne by the person or entity creating them, e.g., pollution—is one example. Modern libertarians thinkers, like Richard Epstein, support regulation of pollution. Many do so on the theory that a person should not be able to impose uncompensated costs on another.
So, it is possible for a libertarian government to have a role in correcting the market. Milton Friedman was careful to note, however, that government failure could be, and often is, worse than market failure. Thus, libertarians generally insist that the (not unusual) possibility of government failure be considered in deciding whether to regulate.
Mistake Six: That “Taxes are Legalized Theft” Is Anything But a Mainstream Idea
Some commentators decry the fact that some libertarians refer to forced takings as legalized theft. But libertarians merely use the term to refer to the concept of forced takings. This is a mostly semantic dispute, as the concept taxes are forced takings one way or another underlies all American legal philosophy, not just libertarianism.
To illustrate how semantic this is, take the following example: If the government had no authority to forcibly exact a fee in exchange for providing “security” and basic fairness in business dealings, it would be the Mafia. That would be theft. Instead of accepting that idea, libertarians go to great lengths to find a basis—like a social contract—for government to have taxing authority. The taking becomes legalized by that authority.
All mainstream philosophies view taxes as forced takings by the government that require a justification—a legitimate public purpose. Some libertarians use a provocative and paradoxical phraseology, “legalized theft,” as a rhetorical device to stress the requirement of a special justification for taxation. A more neutral vehicle for libertarians that accomplishes approximately the same goal would be “forced taking,” but still, arguments should not rest on largely semantic points.
Mistake Seven: Libertarianism Can Be Dismissed as a Fringe Movement
Once they put libertarian Senator Rand Paul on the cover of the New York Times, twice, it was game over. Once libertarian legal scholar Randy Barnett’s interpretation of the Commerce Clause was accepted by the Supreme Court in Sibelius, it was game over. Once the paternalist libertarian Cass Sunstein was appointed to the Obama administration, it was game over. Once the libertarian law professor blog the Volokh Conspiracy was added to the Washington Post . . . you get the idea. Within at least twenty or thirty years, there will be a professed libertarian in the White House—too much of the 18-35 age group associates with it. For progressives who still want America to view libertarianism as extremist and fringe, that day has gone.
Libertarianism, in its mainstream and practical form, must be met out in the open, with intellectual argument and without straw men or picking odd positions. If progressives want modern mainstream libertarian thinkers to criticize, look at Gregory Mankiw, Burt Neuborne and Cass Sunstein on the left, and Richard Epstein, Eugene Volokh, Randy Barnett, and Ilya Somin on the right. The Volokh Conspiracy and Bleeding Heart Libertarians are two great libertarian academic blogs.
A better approach for progressives would be to make academic arguments about how a Hayekian Basic Guaranteed Income structure or Friedman Negative Income Tax structure could be adapted to America. Also, point out socially progressive ends that libertarians pursue; for instance, the Institute of Justice fights civil forfeiture, for free, on behalf of the poor and underrepresented. Raise the level of debate. Forcing people to eat their own intellectuals’ words is much more effective than calling them crazy.
* Randal John Meyer is a Research Fellow at Brooklyn Law School. Randal was born in Rochester, New York. He has a J.D. from Brooklyn Law School, where he was an articles editor on the Brooklyn Law Review, and he has a B.A. in General Philosophy and in Philosophy, Politics, and Law from SUNY Binghamton. He has been cited for his published work on constitutional law, terrorism, and civil liberties, which has appeared in the Brooklyn Law Review, New York Journal of Law and Liberty Blog, and Brooklyn Law Review Practicum.