Explain libertarianism and why so many people dislike it

I hear a lot about libertarianism and I hear a lot of criticism of it. I should know more about it, but I don’t. Rather than reading an established source for information about it, I want to hear a wide variety of opinions about it. I don’t know if Great Debates is the right forum for this, so I figured I’d try here first (move it if you want.)

My basic questions are as follows:

What is libertarianism’s connection to Ayn Rand and her writings (which I have not read or even glanced at?)

Why are many people opposed to it? It sounds, on the surface, like a good idea to me. Let the government stay out of the peoples’ lives and let everyone have civil liberties. What’s wrong with that? There must be some deeper problem with it that I don’t understand.

I’m sorry if I sound like a complete moron asking these questions. I really just want to know though.

I agree with conservative Jonah Goldberg: Libertarianism is a philosophy for teenagers.


Theoretically none. Rand felt that Libertarians were simply emotional goobs.
Libertarians themselves probably read Rand and see cases of government existing largely as a large leach on society–without paying much attention to the fact that she is talking specifically of politicians of the kind who would lead a country into communism, not government as a whole–from there they fill in the rest with what some friend told them.

A political party devoted only to “Piss off govy pigs!” just isn’t terribly well rounded. Certainly there are cases where the government might be best to withdraw from a certain area, but there are other areas where one might prefer that more was being done. But saying that government is inherently bad, and should just back off and let the civilians decide what is right and wrong all for themselves isn’t a call for freedom, but rather for anarchy.
Socialism and Libertarianism both look great on paper: “Man desires only to be honorable and moral. But the vagaries of government/industry force him into an unnatural position where he is forced to do immoral things. If we simply got rid of government/industry, man’s inherent goodness would show through and we would have an eternity of peace!” Except, the idea that mankind, left to himself, will just naturally want to and in fact will behave ethically without watchpersons forcing him to do so; it just hasn’t held up.

If you mean by libertarianism the belief that government should stay out of people’s lives as much as possible, then I’m with you. If you mean that government should not own any property and should not provide any services then you’re off to looneyville. Then when you talk about how some magically gifted arbiters could replace the judicial system you’re into serious hallucinations.

If you want to read some serious delusions, just look at the US Lib party’s web site. Despite its gross overrepresentation on these boards, in the US it always has been and always will be a fringe splinter group at best.

Disclaimer: I’m not very well versed in Libertarianism, so my concern may have good responses, which I am of course eager to hear.

My biggest concern with Libertarianism is the free reign it gives companies to destroy the environment. What in a Libertarian society would prevent every natural resource from being bought and hoarded by rich companies, for every river to be polluted to the point they all light on fire on a regular basis? It’s cheaper and more cost effective to pollute, so the most successful companies will be those that pollute the most.

The rich would live in their mansions with well-scrubbed air and distilled water, and the middle and lower classes would mostly die of cancer by the time they hit age 30. The upper class won’t care until people are so unhealthy that the work force isn’t getting properly replenished.

I’m slipping from Libertarianism to Conservative. The current stance of the Libertarian Party is that we should pull all financial aid from other countries and not stick our noses in their politics, a la Switzerland. After all, there aren’t terrorist bombs going off in Switzerland, are there?

There is going to be a world power on this planet. It’s the nature of humanity that someone/thing has to be dominant. Quite frankly, I’d rather it be us than say…China.

I no longer consider the Libertarians practical on foreign policy. We can’t stick our head in the sand and pretend what’s going on in the world doesn’t concern us. As Jeb Bartlet said on West Wing “When you can build a bomb in your country and bring it over to mine, then what you do definitely becomes my business.”

To me it sounds like a good idea on paper but a lousy one in practice. It makes the naive assumption that big business, when left alone, will ultimately serve humanity and the environment in the best way possible. When you consider the robber barons of the 19th century, you can see the folly of this. Personally, I don’t want to drive on Pepsi Presents Interstate 95, I don’t want to send my kids to Enron Middle School, and I don’t want national security to depend on Haliburton Oil Conquest version 2.0.

As a philosophy, there is a lot to recommend Libertarianism. For example, I really like the idea of keeping the money that I earn, and I really do think that I would be a lot better at deciding how I spend it than the government.

However, in some ways it seems to me to be a philosophy that is better suited to a time when the world was not so populated, interconnected and urbanized. Take welfare and social programs as an example. On a personal level, if every single one of them were to be eliminated this instant it would not impact me directly. I don’t use Food Stamps, Medicare or Medicaid, I am not on Social Security or Welfare and so forth. The problem is that all of the Libertarians that I know are only looking at the “I get to keep my money” side of things, and not the unintended consequences of such an act. I would guess that at best you would have a huge crime wave, and probably an explosion of police powers due to all of the cops that would be needed to protect the folks that are engaging in legitimate commerce and interaction. Ignoring the sheer cost in human misery, I just don’t see this as a formula for greater freedoms.

The other major issue that I have is that I often see the Libertarians siding with the Neo-Conservatives when it comes to policy because they make the right tax cut noises. As I see Neo-Conservatives as a direct and grave threat to personal freedom, I can’t help but see most Libertarians as inherently selfish, as in action they seem pretty happy to put their financial agenda before their freedom agenda.

In theory, an informed and responsible public would refuse to do business with companies that destroyed the environment, if it was important to them. The trouble, of course, is that there is no such thing as an informed and responsible public.

Libertarians base their philosophy on some very tenous premises.

The idea that eliminating government will foster individual liberty works only if you believe that governments are the only threat to individual liberty. History has shown there are plenty of other groups and individuals who are willing to oppress people and are held in check by a government.

The idea of essentially not having a foreign policy only works if you believe that no country has ever been attacked for no reason except that another country thought it could get away with it. Do I need to point out examples of how false this premise is?

The idea that all disputes can be settled by impartial arbitrators presumes that the parties in a dispute will somehow manage to agree on an arbitration process despite their inablity to agree on anything else. There is, after all, nothing to prevent most disputes that exist now from being solved by arbitration, except the lack of willingness of the people in the dispute.

Robert Heinlein once said that for every problem there’s an answer that is simple, obvious, and wrong. Forming a system that allows millions of people to live together is a complex undertaking and requires a lot of work from a lot of people. Libertarianism is a simple, obvious, and wrong shortcut.

Even an informed person might decide to do business with a polluter. I might decide that I’m 40 years old and I don’t have kids; there’s no benefit to me personally in having drinkable water or breathable air around in a hundred years. So I’ll buy from the company that offers the lowest price, even if they do so by polluting.

Or maybe I have kids and I love them very much. So I want them to live in a clean environment. So I only buy from the Empire State Corporation that promises to never dump its wastes in New York where I live. Of course ESC isn’t as popular in North Dakota where they do dump their waste and that’s why everybody in North Dakota refuses to buy anything from them. But as long as everyone in New York is happy, ESC can afford to ignore the loss of business in North Dakota.

Or maybe I just look at the big picture. Sure, World Commons Tech might pollute. But each customer who buys from them only increases pollution by 1/10 of 1% each year - a negligible amount. And their prices are 20% lower - a real savings. So it makes sense for me as an individual to decide to save the 20% cost and accept the .1 % increased pollution. And it makes the same sense for a million other individuals to make the same decision - and when the cumulative pollution increase reaches 1000% a year all of us are going to notice it.

Here is one of the better essays I found exposing just some of what I dislike about libertarianism.

As long as we’re on the subject, there’s something I’ve been wondering about Libertarian government–at least, of the sort espoused by Liberal.

Libertarians basically believe that one has the right to do whatever one likes, as long as it doesn’t prevent one’s neighor from doing whatever he likes. Right? But this does not apply to children, as they are not “rights bearing entites” until they come of age.

What I’m curious about is, when does a child become a rights bearing entity? Currently, one becomes a legal adult at an arbitrary age set by the state government. Would a libertarian government retain that system or try something else?

I think you need to add to the last phrase * and as long as one bears the responsibility for one’s actions*.

Call me crazy; but once you’ve paid the water bill, electric bill, phone bill, road tolls (every road would be a toll road, mind you), police bill, fire protection bill, and all the various insurance bills attendent thereto, your average Joe would be out quite a bit more money than he would be under the current system. You can’t tell me a wholly-privately-owned police system wouldn’t let it be known to certain people that your police bill wasn’t paid up. Rural Electrification would have never happened.

Not to mention the fact that there’d be no health inspectors for restaurants and no equivalent of OSHA. Things would be worse than Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Touche. Thanks.

Just a quick reminder: a significant degree of your high standard of living*, personal safety and ability to earn much money (rather than live in subsistance-only mode) is made possible only because of the stability of your national, state and local governments. They need a lot of revenue to be able to provide an economic and social atmosphere condusive to your enjoying of the good life. If no one paid for this stability you would have almost no money and probably die at the age of 23.

Taxes are the dues you pay to live in a rich, prosperous society. Most countries actually undertax. For example, in the USA many citizens have little access to good medical care. That is barbarous and to remedy it we’d need to raise our taxes.
*I don’t know about you but if you have the means and the time to post on this message board and have clean running water delivered right into your home, then you have a high standard of living.

I agree with much of what you’ve said here. I, too, find much to like about the fundamental principles of libertartianism, but think that as a working system it would have far more flaws than most of its adherents are willing to admit.

I’ve noticed this too. And i actually asked our best-known libertarian, Liberal, about it in this thread. My question was:

To which the asnwer was given:

Something that occurred to me later, and that i never pointed out in that thread, is that argument (1) was provided by Liberal as a blueprint for libertarianism, but it could just as easily serve as a convincing rationale for socialism or some form of wealth redistribution.

After all, if you adopt the premise, as Liberal has here, that true freedom and the pursuit of happiness requires a certain minimum level of economic security, then why not make sure that everyone attains that minimum level through, say, a system of progressive taxation?

I suspect that many people dislike libertarianism because so many libertarians are so goddamn obnoxious. They act like born-again Christians with their received truth and treat their half-baked ideas (like taxation is “violence”) as obvious facts in discussions, dripping with contempt for those who won’t accept these “truths”.

Of course there are obnoxious people, myself included, of every political stripe, but in my experience the proportions are quite higher with libertarians.

All of the good points have already been made. The general tenor of my lack of regard for libertarianism, however, is probably best captured here:

The general idea of libertarianism is that people should be free to do whatever they want, and this is not a bad principle at all. The problem is that the typical libertarian doesn’t extend the logic; he makes that statement with the implicit underlying intent of “I want to do whatever I want” without remembering that everybody else will be allowed to do whatever they want. And as history shows us, people, in general, taken collectively, pretty much suck.

There’s a lot to learn from the philosophy of libertarianism, and it’s an ideal we should keep in mind as we structure our society to permit as much freedom as possible to as many people as possible. But implementing this idealized framework as an actual practical system of government? Not so much.