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Blog: Humanist Voices

Sacred Heart RandThe Tea Party has libertarian roots, according to one analysis. Famous skeptics like Michael Shermer and Penn Jillette are self-declared libertarians. The sixth-most conservative US senator, Rand Paul, identifies with libertarianism. One could argue that libertarianism is at an historical high tide in terms of visibility and popularity. On the surface libertarianism seems compatible with the atheist/agnostic/humanist movement's discourse of skepticism, reason and secularism in government. Also, who can look at the drug war, our convoluted tax system, an excessive regulation here or there, or US foreign policy blunders, and not think that maybe we could use a little less government?

This wouldn't necessarily make you a libertarian, however. A healthy desire for personal freedom plus a suspicion of any concentration of power or authority is normal for the reasonably educated and self-actualized person. Libertarianism is quite another thing.[1]

Libertarianism asks, "Who doesn't want to be free?" But there is no widespread agreement on its very particular and lopsided definition of freedom. Further, freedom isn't the only song libertarianism sings. Turn over the libertarian log and you'll also find economic theories that are severely challenged by critics; a hyper-individualist ethical foundation that passes neither moral muster nor philosophical analysis[2]; little to no critique of power outside of state power, and many other problems to boot. The ideological bait of "freedom" has been remarkably effective at covering up the switch it inevitably contains.

Libertarianism rests on a set of claims that on their objective merits have nowhere near the validity and rigor most libertarians have convinced themselves that they do. Libertarianism is simply not a conceptually valid account of the world or how to order it. But even putting it like that doesn't really capture the full sail of its errors. To me libertarianism is the secular movement's equivalent to young earth creationism, and arguably causes more harm in many instances.

Whatever political/economic flag you fly, ask yourself if it's a philosophy that grows and learns. Is your political philosophy capable of self-correction? Does it take into account everything we now know, our best evidence, about the human experiment up to this point? Is it intellectually serious enough such that it actively learns from all disciplines, and from all locales and historical periods of lived human experience (and not just Silicon Valley, e.g.)? Is its basic moral impulse strongly humanitarian or is it quick to establish categories of otherness that relinquish moral obligation? Does it honor ALL of what makes us human and not just parts of us? Does it seek to hold all abuses of power accountable, and not just those of the state? Does it solve problems of suffering for everyone and not just a few?

I take the foregoing to be a minimal, if incomplete, conception of reasonableness for any political/economic philosophy, which is why I emphatically reject libertarianism as a serious alternative.  

So what is my intent with this interview? It is clearly not to provide an exhaustive critique or settle once and for all to any reasonable person the collapse of libertarianism as a serious intellectual effort. It is not to banish anything from discussion. It is to draw the reader's attention to a superb online resource for debunking libertarian claims, a treasure-trove of anti-libertarianism for the skeptic, the conservative and the progressive. 


Eric Snyder: With the Critiques of Libertarianism website you've compiled what is likely the single best resource to be found anywhere. It's really an incredible achievement. You've been reflecting on this political-economic ideology for many years and likely have a more nuanced and learned perspective on libertarianism than probably the vast majority of either its critics or adherents. What stands out for you over the years you've been learning and thinking about libertarianism? What are the major insights you've gained? What has changed most in your understanding of it?

Mike Huben: Actually, it is still two websites: I've hardly begun bringing over the old links from the old site to the new wiki-based site. I've been so busy building infrastructure and entering new information as I find it that I haven't had time to bring over the 500+ links form the old site. The new site already has 600+ links. I also have more than a thousand candidate links in my bookmarks and 250+ books to enter. Slow work, since everything needs to be categorized meaningfully.

Every few years I start looking at libertarianism from a new angle. The two angles that are really significant to me right now are:

(1) Libertarianism is an astroturf ideology created to serve the interests of plutocrats. This has been largely funded and directed (over the past 30+ years) by the Koch brothers. The Kochtopus is their enormous network of organizations that they control through board membership, funding, and other methods. Without their public relations efforts to put libertarianism in the media, in the think-tanks and in the smoke-filled rooms, libertarianism would be as prominent as Marxism. They've followed the Creationist playbook to make crank beliefs major players in our society, except that they've been vastly more effective and thorough than the pathetic Creationists. The big difference though is that Creationism is truly populist, with roughly half the population endorsing it. Libertarianism is astroturf: only a very few percent of the population is libertarian in outlook, though there are endless attempts to inflate the measure. Libertarianism is obviously designed for plutocrats: while it claims to be in favor of liberty (a glittering generality that specifies nothing), what characterizes libertarianism is being pro-property and anti-government. Plutocrats exist because of property, and the less the people direct government, the more powerful plutocrats are. That's why libertarians put out indexes of "economic freedom", the things multinational corporations want most, rather than indexes of the freedoms that the populace wants. 

(2) The most sophisticated fallacies conceal their lies in their very first assumptions. Usually, we examine assumptions and say "yeah, that looks OK to me" because we are not experience in questioning assumptions. Or worse, the assumptions are unstated or simply presumed without being identified as assumptions, so we don't think to question them. Pretty much all of libertarian philosophy I've examined simply presumes "rights" without examining what they really are. Usually as silly "natural rights". And this is the huge failure of libertarianism, including its leading light Robert Nozick. Critics of Nozick have long held that he does not have any basis for rights. Here's the big problem with rights for libertarians: rights create duties (to respect the rights) and nobody willingly accepts duties without either being paid or coerced. Libertarians don't want to pay for their rights, and they want to pretend that they don't coerce. All rights (and freedoms) in society are fundamentally coercive, including property rights. So if libertarians are whining about government being coercive, it is hypocritical because they rely on coercion for their treasured rights and freedoms. Contra Locke, property is not made by mixing labor: it is made by mixing coercion. 


ES: In my own encounters with libertarianism I've been struck repeatedly by a moral callousness and lack of ethical seriousness. For instance, I recall a libertarian discussant arguing that it would be better to not pay taxes even if the result were people dying because they couldn't afford, let's say, dialysis or medications. One libertarian with whom I debated stated that the latter part of 19th century America was a high point of freedom in the country, an ideal towards which we should return. But I noticed that when I mentioned brutal and dangerous working conditions, savage racism and violence, gender inequality, he was unphased. None of that mattered nearly as much as the government not doing all that much. There's Ayn Rand herself, in particular her admiration of a sociopath, about whom she said "Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should." "He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel other people." I'm reluctant to make generalizations based on my necessarily limited experience and knowledge, but there does seem to be quite a lot of evidence for--call it the--moral callousness thesis. What's your take on this?

MH: Upton Sinclair wrote: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" Likewise, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his ideology or prior beliefs depend upon it. Some libertarians, the Bleeding Heart Libertarians, admit this is a big problem for libertarianism. Then they attempt to wiggle through all sorts of pseudo-academic contortions to resolve this in-your-face problem. 

These callous arguments are based in a propaganda technique called "glittering generality". A word, such as "liberty" sounds really good to everybody because everybody can think of how they might benefit individually. Most people don't realize that those benefits can't be the same for everybody. "Liberty to own slaves" can sound good to everybody except the ones who are slaves, and we ignore those losers. "Liberty to be a multibillionaire" can sound good except to those who exercise their corresponding "liberty to be impoverished", and we don't listen to them. Everybody wants to think they will be a winner, not a loser, and so they focus on what the winners can get. The real answer to this problem is that every liberty claim should be complete: "liberty for whom to do what" along with any corresponding claims. That's what's so great about the Rawlsian "veil of ignorance": it gives you reason to look at a liberty from the viewpoints of winners and losers. 


ES: In his Development as Freedom, economist Amartya Sen notes how conditions of human degradation, suffering and death are perfectly compatible with a libertarian conception of rights: " is shown in my Poverty and Famines, even gigantic famines can result without anyone's libertarian rights (including property rights) being violated. The destitutes such as the unemployed or the impoverished may starve precisely because their "entitlements"--legitimate as they are--do not give them enough food. This might look like a special case of a "catastrophic moral horror," but horrors of any degree of seriousness--all the way from gigantic famines to regular undernourishment and endemic but nonextreme hunger--can be shown to be consistent with a system in which no one's libertarian rights are violated. Similarly, deprivation of other types (for example, the lack of medical care for curable illnesses) can coexist with all libertarian rights (including rights of property ownership) being fully satisfied."[3] I trust we both find this basic criticism correct and quite obvious. And yet here we have a political philosophy that either refuses to see the limitations of its theory of rights and freedom or, if it does see it, is not particularly troubled by it. Perhaps both. How are we to understand this?

MH: First, Amartya Sen is one of my great heroes. His Capability Approach (with Martha Nussman) is a huge leap beyond the usual rights talk because it is pragmatic, progressive and not utopian. I wish progressives would seize upon it and smash the rigid ideology of rights in the US.

How can libertarians ignore the limitations of their ideology? The exact same way fundamentalists do: they train themselves to perceive the world as matching their ideology and they train themselves to counter the arguments of the infidels. Fundamentalists train themselves to see god in all the good happenings of the world and the devil in all the bad. Likewise libertarians see the invisible hand of the market in the good and the demon government in the bad. Very Manichean. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Krishnas spend long periods of their lives preparing to argue with and convert non-believers: so do libertarians, who have vast volumes of argument to choose from and an internet to argue in. My first few years arguing on networks (in the 70's) were spent arguing with Christians. I tired of that in the early days of Usenet, and switched to arguing with libertarians; and lo, it was the same thing. 

There is also the public relations aspect of libertarianism, which is to stay on message. The Kochtopus has created a huge industry for professional libertarians. They make their living by staying on message. When they stray from the message, the funding and access to PR outlets (like CATO and Reason Magazine) is shut off and they are discarded. That's how it is working for Tea Party candidates now: pick people who are too stupid to be independent so that they rely on the flow of cash and propaganda from their corporate masters through the Kochtopus. 


ES: I'm sometimes almost incredulous that libertarianism even exists or is even taken seriously given its many flaws. In the main it seems impervious to evidence. For example, neoclassical economics, a key intellectual foundation for some libertarians, appears to be a theory in terminal crisis (to this non-economist), with challenges from ecological economics, to Steven Keen's Debunking Economics and more. And yet it's the seemingly eternal go-to theory. There's the fact that in some cases 'market liberalization' can have disastrous results for human well-being and life.[4] And yet they still call for more. What do you make of this? Does libertarianism strike you in any way as a kind of secular religion? What explains the dogmatism? And, perhaps more importantly, what can be done? 

MH: Once again, the political face of libertarianism is mostly owned by the Kochtopus. The Koch brothers have profited enormously through regulatory capture, and the small fraction of those billions that they have invested in the Kochtopus have spawned hundreds of think-tanks and other organizations that spew the opinions and support the crank academics that justify their policies to politicians and the law public. For 30+ years they have bought their own "facts": they have sponsored generations of students, training for judges and politicians, departments in universities, revisionist histories, science denialism, dirty tricks, public deception, and a lot more. Because control of politics is highly profitable. This is their profession, concentrating wealth through plutocracy, and they have created massive institutions to serve their profession. The opposition, seeking to democratically spread the wealth, is seriously outgunned, uncoordinated, underfunded, undertrained and mostly volunteer or part time rather than professional. That includes me. 


ES: I'm wondering if you could give readers who might have not spent a lot of time thinking about libertarianism a quick tour of articles and pages you think are most important on Critiques of Libertarianism.

MH: Well, that's the purpose of the Basics section of the welcome page. The "Introduction To Libertarianism" page gives the biggest picture: I divide libertarianism into Political (Koch-sponsored), Individual (the true believers) and Philosophical (non-Koch attempts to convince people.) "The Short, Simple Dismissal Of Libertarianism" gives a mere 20 reasons why libertarianism could be rejected out of hand as undesirable, unlikely, untrue or unacceptable. "A Non-Libertarian FAQ", my first writing about libertarians, is long but has held up very well for over 20 years. I think it largely worked: I don't see the arguments it criticizes used nearly as much any more. Most libertarians who wrote critiques of it said about half of it was good, but none of them agreed on which half. :-) And the "Descriptions Of Libertarianism" index has two good articles with critical descriptions of what libertarianism is. The first gives more than 20 critical views of the nature of libertarianism. The second gives an unusually insightful conservative view of libertarianism and its flaws. 

I'm in the middle of creating even more important basics: that index is not nearly complete. My plan is to get things in close to final outline in time for the 20th anniversary of my site. Then I can start dismantling the old site, and continue adding new material to the new.

ES: Thank you, Mike! 

[1] To be sure, libertarianism is not a monolithic belief system, but this doesn't prevent one from critiquing specific claims typically held by libertarians, or from making general observations.

[2] See, e.g., Bunge, Mario. (Sept., 1999). Ten Modes of Individualism - None of Which Works - And Their Alternatives. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 30 No. 3, 384-406.

[3] Sen, Amartya. (1999). Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books. p 66.

[4] "[Advocates of market liberalization] contended that capital market controls impeded economic efficiency and that, as a result, countries would grow better without these controls. Thailand provides a case in point for why this argument was so flawed. Before liberalization, Thailand had severe limitations on the extent to which banks could lend for speculative real estate. It had imposed these limits because it was a poor country that wanted to grow, and it believed that investing the country's scare capital in manufacturing would both create jobs and enhance growth. It also knew that throughout the world, speculative real estate lending is a major source of economic instability...

The IMF, however, contended that the kinds of restraints that Thailand had imposed to prevent a crisis interfered with the efficient allocation of resources. If the market says, build office buildings, commercial construction must be the highest return activity. If the market says, as it effectively did after liberalization, build empty office buildings, then so be it; again, according to IMF logic, the market must know best. While Thailand was desperate for more public investment to strengthen its infrastructure and relatively weak secondary and university education systems, billions were squandered on commercial real estate. These buildings remain empty today, testimony to the risked posed by excessive market exuberance and the pervasive failures that can arise in the presence of inadequate regulation of financial institutions." Stiglitz, Joseph. (2003). Globalization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton. p 101. 

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