What is libertarianism?


Be it resolved that wikipedia’s description is accurate enough for everyone to accept.

Inspired by this thread. http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=489237

Thing is that it covers such a broad spectrum. From capitalist types to left-libertarians like me who fundamentally reject capitalism. And those are never ever going be meet. We view too much in completely different ways

Something that has tripped me up is just what counts as “intervention.” Is outlawing protection rackets intervening in the free market? I’ve heard answers like, no, because libertarianism depends critically on non-coercion. But then, what counts as coercion? And why this sudden shift from economics to morality?

Do libertarians deny the existence of externalities, or do they merely suggest that intervention is not the way to deal with them?

I am still strongly sympathetic to libertarianism, but over the years I’ve found less and less in it that makes me feel like it is a sound political system and more and more that it is some kind of moral code masquerading as an economic system. If you argue with a libertarian on their terms, you will always be wrong. I think libertarians have set up a rhetorical iron trap. That’s good, not a criticism. But whenever I have attempted to probe the walls, I find them more like swiss cheese than iron grills. Arguments are made on economic terms, ostensibly with the force of mathematics behind them, but when pressed to understand the motivation for certain ideals, the libertarian retreats to moral pronouncements. In fact I find–in popular discourse, mind–that libertarianism conflates morality and economic activity to a startlingly high degree, for reasons that I cannot quite understand. That’s ok, I don’t expect everyone to be a master of every belief they hold.

In short, I can only quote Hume, who has layed the problem out succinctly in decidedly more general terms.

I seem to recall Ayn Rand and Peikoff taking great pains to counter the is-ought gap argument, or render it as a non-problem, for reasons that I’ve always understood (though I’ve not felt were successful). Of course, I know that Rand, et al, are not hallmarks of libertarianism, but nevertheless they aren’t idiots (IMO) and recognized that unless this problem is addressed, or deconstructed, the link between ideal economic activity and morality is non-existent.

Excellent contribution, thank you. The issues of “ideal economic activity” and the link between economic activity and morality (my phrasing) seem to be worthy subjects of examining in the future, or maybe even first. And maybe as one issue and not two. It has always seemed to me that economics as I was taught in college pretended it had nothing to do with morality, yet adopted a theistic method of reasoning masquerading as an evolutionary science for the purpose of justifying laissez-faire. The whole thing was built on a house of cards that assumed a single actor “rationally acted in its best interests” and that errors in this assumption would certainly be cancelled out by members of the whole group making outliers irrelevant. Ha. I’ve never met a completely rational person, and the irrationality of individuals is only not laughable when compared to the mobbed idiocy of the group.

“Be it resolved that wikipedia’s description is accurate enough for everyone to accept.”

The links leads to an article that doesn’t exist. That maybe be entirely appropriate.

I’ve heard Libertarians characterized as, “Republicans who smoke pot.” :wink:

I don’t think you can exactly call yourself a Libertarian, though. I mean, you can reject capitalism for your own self, but no version of it even remotely like anything I’ve ever heard of claims that no one ought to be able to choose it.

I characterise Libertarianism as the anti-Anarchism for the “Fuck you, I got mine!” set…

Then try this, instead:


The OP simply had the colon within the link field, instead of just outside it. But I doubt that anyone had any real trouble following the page that did come up to the real deal, assuming that they really wanted to read the Wiki article.

But, of course, we really need our resident expert on all things of a political spectrum vein to sound off, and set us all straight…

Der Trihs?


  • “Jack”

True Blue Jack has the correct link. I know how to cut and paste a link. I know how to do that. Honest. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarianism

Heh. No need to get defensive, 2nd. We all mess up these things sooner or later. I’ve put out at least bad link myself. Heck, once I even started a diatribe against the latest Jack T. Chick tract, completely forgetting to link to it.

You’ll notice that I even spelled Der Trihs incorrectly at first. But look at the editing note. I placed an x in Correcting, making it Correxcting. Actually I spotted that one as soon as I seen it, and I had plenty of time to fix it, but I thought it would be funny to leave it in.

Seen what I mean?

(Oh well, nobody has ever accused me of having a “normal” sense of humor.)

  • “Jack”

You would think that I could cut and past without screwing it up. But no. I think I’ll go with either: it was intentional because the definition of Libertarianism is NSFW; or, nobody agrees on what Libertarianism means so wikipedia couldn’t possibly have a definitive link, thereby proving that Libertarianism _________________________.

Voluntary association and noncoercion. Anything beyond is a matter of taste.

That’s a swinger’s party.

This Wiki Article on Austrian Economics indicates that they downplay the role of externalities:

However, I have seen self-proclaimed libertarians argue for the use of the court system to contain externalities, as an externality would be an infringement on the property rights of a third party.

Or the ‘I’ve Got Mine’ Party.

That’s a feature, not a bug. :wink:

But seriously, IMO the reason libertarians focus so much on the free market is that at bottom, libertarianism is a theory about the limits of coercive authority. Any transfer of wealth from party A to party B is immoral if it is coerced. Thus, the only transfers of wealth that are permissible are voluntary exchanges* (wherein person A and person B decide how much of what to give each other). Thus, you get from morality to the free market in easy steps.

Of course this is why many libertarians are social liberals as well, since they don’t want government coercively restricting other sorts of private behaviors.

  • And gifts, of course.

Possibly the “I’ve earned mine, now go earn yours” group… ?

Who is John Gault?

Fascinating. I’m sure they’re way smarter than me, but to my possibly naive mind, it takes rather strong preconditions to guarantee that an exchange has been “mutually voluntary,” unless they also cast no eye towards a Hobson’s choice situation (which, after all, they might not), or feel that preexisting power imbalances are beyond reproach, or etc.

Maybe so for negative externalities, but positive externalities have the opposite problem: good things get underproduced. This hurts everyone, but not because someone has been “coercing” someone else.

Quite as I envision it.

In what way do you suppose this distinguishes libertarians? To me it is like being against puppy-kicking. Of course coercion is not a good thing. Most societies, however, have decided that there are other not-good-things that are worse than coercion, like social unrest, extreme poverty, being killed by other countries, and so on. When I hear something about non-coercion, I identify with it, because, frankly, most everyone in a free country agrees with it. The difference is, I can probe someone’s criteria about whether coercion in some particular case is a greater or lesser evil, so to speak; or, better yet, that they have some kind of normative theory, even implicit, that helps them render the judgment about when to coerce and when not to. A non-coercion principle is not a guiding principle, it is a watered down mission statement, until I can use it to guide action. So let’s examine three scenarios, and see if we can ferret out which are coercive, in hopes of discovering some kind of theory of coercion:

  1. The free market will not produce enough education because a portion of the benefits of education do not accrue directly to those that provide education. Therefore, society seeks to promote education through a subsidy. The funds for this come from taxation. Who is being coerced? Is this ok for a libertarian society to do?

  2. I live on my farm and pay no taxes. All our libertarian society has is a consumption tax, and in my rugged, individualistic wisdom I have created a situation where my farm is self-sustaining, so I engage in no consumption with the rest of the economy and therefore pay no taxes. Our libertarian society uses consumption taxes to pay for national defense; I am now a free rider. You are paying to defend my farm. Is the consumption tax coercion which the farmer is shrewdly avoiding, or is the consumption tax not coercion, but my free riding is, by forcing you to pay for my defense?

  3. Companies are compelled to leave a position available for any employee serving on a jury. Is this OK for a) the juror to be drafted to serve on a jury, b) the employer to be coerced to leave a job open? If (b) is ok, what about leave for pregnancy or other medical condition?

First, I don’t think you get to a free market as most people understand the term, you get to a laissez faire economy.

Second, it does not explain why the principle of non-coercion is a standard we should adopt, it only illustrates a perceived consequence. Am I to assume that this is a consequentialist doctrine, that a laissez faire market is good, therefore non-coercion is good (or anything else that leads to a laissez faire economy)? If not, the non-coercion principle is the standard by which we judge other things, then a laissez faire economy is incidental to the point, which is, the non-coercion principle just is good, but then, again, what actually counts as coercion? So maybe we can’t say that the non-coercion principle is the standard, because there can be good and bad forms of coercion, e.g., retributive coercion versus initial coercion–in which case, there is a deeper underlying standard and non-coercion is something we analyze, not something that analyzes.

I would agree. From my perspective, libertarians aren’t really focused on economic efficiency or utilitarian arguments, but rather on individual property rights.

Here’s a rather lengthy libertarian argument against intellectual property rights (intellectual property rights being a solution to a positive externality problem). The author, John Perry Barlow, argues that ancillary products (such as technical support) would provide monetary renumeration and that certain rights could be enforced through social networks and the like. I don’t really buy a lot of his argument, but given how increasingly difficult intellectual property rights are becoming to enforce through legal regimens, it’s worth a gander. He doesn’t really frame his arguments in non-coercion terminology, though.