Ethical Spectacle, August 1997

Libertarianism Makes You Stupid

Seth Finkelstein
August 1997

What is Libertarianism? - a critic's view

People who venture into electronic discussion areas will invariable encounter an ideology called Libertarianism. In fact, it is said
Libertarianism (pro, con, and internal faction fights) is *the* primordial netnews discussion topic. Anytime the debate shifts somewhere else, it must eventually return to this fuel source.
So what is this belief-set, and why is it so popular in certain subcultures? The following is an outsiders view of Libertarianism.

From proponents, you might be told

The Libertarian way is a logically consistent approach to politics based on the moral principle of self-ownership. Each individual has the right to control his or her own body, action, speech, and property. Government's only role is to help individuals defend themselves from force and fraud.
However, I regard the Libertarianism as a kind of business-worshiping cultish religion, which churns out annoying flamers who resemble nothing so much as street-preachers on the Information Sidewalk.

In order to understand how one gets from the "moral principles" above to the sort of fanatical proselytizing seen everyday on discussion lists, it's important to grasp how the ideology actually works out, from theory to practice.

To start off, Libertarianism is highly axiomatic. Note how the above quote touts its logically consistent approach. There's a set of rules to be applied to evaluate what is proper, and the outcome given is the answer which is correct in terms of the moral principle of the theory. Are the religious thinking connections starting to become evident? This doesn't mean there can't be religious-type schisms in applying the axioms (for example, there's one regarding abortion). But in practice, the rules are simple and tight enough to produce surprisingly uniform positions compared to common political philosophies.

Libertarian proselytizers will preach some warm-and-fuzzy story such as

We believe that respect for individual rights is the essential precondition for a free and prosperous world, that force and fraud must be banished from human relationships, and that only through freedom can peace and prosperity be realized.
Now, how many ideologies have you ever heard state anything like
We believe that disrespect for individual rights is the essential precondition for a free and prosperous world, that force and fraud are good things in human relationships, and that only through slavery can peace and prosperity be realized.
Libertarians are for "individual rights", and against "force" and "fraud" - just as THEY define it. Their use of these words, however, when examined in detail, is not likely to accord with the common meanings of these terms. What person would proclaim themselves in favor of "force and fraud"? One of the little tricks Libertarians use in debate is to confuse the ordinary sense of these words with the meaning as "terms of art" in Libertarian axioms. They try to set up a situation where if you say you're against "force and fraud", then obviously you must agree with Libertarian ideology, since those are the definitions. If you are in favor of "force and fraud", well, isn't that highly immoral? So you're either one of them, or some sort of degenerate (note the cultish aspect again), one who doesn't think "force and fraud must be banished from human relationships".

In a phrase I'll probably find myself repeating "I am not making this up". It's important to realized that what might sound like hyperbole or overstatement really, truly, will be found when dealing with Libertarian arguments.

Just to pick an example from one public exchange (directed to me)

Too complicated. All you need is one proposition:

No person should initiate the use of force against another person.

All libertarian thought flows logically from this. For instance, taxation is undesirable since it is backed by the coercive force of the state. Naturally the key word is "initiate."

So, the question is, does Seth agree with this proposition or not? Of course he will say there have to be certain exceptions. This is the difference between him and a libertarian. Libertarians (like free speech advocated!) prefer not to make exceptions.

Note that this is the only political movement, so far as I know, rooted in one simple ethical statement about human rights. This alone biases me in its favor.

My reply to this point was to ask if he agreed "No person should do anything evil". I get to define evil, "evil" is taken according to "Sethism". The response:
Seth, you have not answered the question. Do you agree, or do you disagree, that it is always wrong for one person to initiate force against another? If you disagree, then you disagree with the fundamental concept of libertarianism, ...

On the other hand, if you agree with the proposition, yet you still don't like the conclusions that libertarians draw from it, then we can refocus our attention on the chain of logic that leads to those conclusions and find where you feel the weak link is.

Observe the aspects pointed out above. It's an "agree or disagree" where implicitly "initiate force" is taken to be that of the Libertarian ideology. And it's justified by the axioms, the "chain of logic".

Note the rhetoric is made further meaningless by the "initiate force" concept. When Libertarians think using force is justified, they just call it retaliatory force. It's a bit like "war of aggression" versus "war of defense". Rare is the country in history which has ever claimed to be initiating a "war of aggression", they're always retaliating in a "war of defense".

The idea that Libertarians don't believe in the initiation of force is pure propaganda. They believe in using force as much as anyone else, if they think the application is morally correct. "initiation of force" is Libertarian term of art, meaning essentially "do something improper according to Libertarian ideology". It isn't even connected much to the actions we normally think of as "force". The question being asked above was really agree or disagree, that it is always wrong for one person to do something improper according to Libertarian ideology. It was just phrased in their preaching way.

While you might be told Libertarianism is about individual rights and freedom, fundamentally, it's about business. The words "individual rights", in a civil-society context, are often Libertarian-ese for "business". That's what what they derive as the inevitable meaning of rights and freedom, as a statement of principles:

Since governments, when instituted, must not violate individual rights, we oppose all interference by government in the areas of voluntary and contractual relations among individuals.
The whole idea of a contract is that government enforces relations among individuals. The above sentence is a nonsensical, it's conceptually that they oppose all interference by government in the areas of government enforcing relations among individuals.

The key to understanding this, and to understanding Libertarianism itself, is to realize that their concept of individual freedom is the "whopper" of "right to have the State back up business". That's a wild definition of freedom. If you voluntarily contract to sell all your future income for $1, they then oppose all government "interference" with your "right" to do this. It's a completely twisted, utterly inverted, perfectly Orwellian statement, almost exactly "Freedom is Slavery".

This is not at all obvious or what people tend to think when they're told the song and dance about rights and freedoms. This point about contract and Libertarianism needs to be stressed. Often, the "chain of logic" used by a Libertarian will be a fairly valid set of deductions. But along the way, there will be very subtle assumptions slipped in, such as "contract" (meaning business) as a fundamental right. It can be quite difficult to spot, such as a redefinition of terms, or a whopper like the above. But again, it's very "logical", very "axiomatic".

Libertarianism Makes You Stupid: from 2+2=5 to 1=2

The whole thing reminds me of joke "proofs" that one equals two, e.g. (these come from the University of Toronto Mathematics Network "Classic Fallacies" pages)

                   1=2: A Proof using Beginning Algebra
   The Fallacious Proof:

     * Step 1: Let a=b. 
     * Step 2: Then a^2 = ab,
     * Step 3: a^2 + a^2 = a^2 + ab,
     * Step 4: 2 a^2 = a^2 + ab,
     * Step 5: 2 a^2 - 2 ab = a^2 + ab - 2 ab,
     * Step 6: and 2 a^2 - 2 ab = a^2 - ab.
     * Step 7: This can be written as 2 (a^2 - a b) = 1 (a^2 - a b),   
     * Step 8: and cancelling the (a^2 - ab) from both sides gives 1=2. 
Now, the proselytizer might say, isn't every one of those steps a perfectly justified statement backed up by hundreds of years of mathematical thought? Here is a stack of great algebra books, read through the pile before criticizing the conclusion.

Then, if someone points out the fallacy (and I won't do so, to underline the difficulty of even this skeleton of an example) they can come at you again and say "Well, that had a problem, but here's a proof by a completely different method" (isn't it just amazing how these come out the same?)

                      1=2: A Proof using Complex Numbers
   The Fallacious Proof:

     * Step 1: -1/1 = 1/-1 
     * Step 2: Taking the square root of both sides: sqrt(-1/1) = sqrt(1/-1)
     * Step 3: Simplifying: sqrt(-1) / sqrt(1) = sqrt(1) / sqrt(-1)  
     * Step 4: In other words, i/1 = 1/i.
     * Step 5: Therefore, i / 2 = 1 / (2i),
     * Step 6: i/2 + 3/(2i) = 1/(2i) + 3/(2i),
     * Step 7: i (i/2 + 3/(2i) ) = i ( 1/(2i) + 3/(2i) ),
     * Step 8: (i^2)/2 + (3i)/2i = i/(2i) + (3i)/(2i),
     * Step 9: (-1)/2 + 3/2 = 1/2 + 3/2,
     * Step 10: and this shows that 1=2. 
Even more advanced! Complex numbers have been used for centuries, who can doubt the soundness of their principles?

This is why, as a pure matter of tactics, it's dangerous to get into preaching contests with Libertarians. Sometimes it's better to say "1=2 is utter nonsense, and if you believe that from the Libertarian Mathematics, you've had your mind rotted". Now, this does leave an opening for a reply "Nyah, nyah, you didn't go over every line of that proof and find the error, you have to do that, or you're close-minded". But someone could do more good at times by pointing out that there are people walking around spouting the political equivalent of "1=2" than getting into an involved discussion about part x of step y. This is where Libertarianism Makes You Stupid, the grip of subtly flawed logic can overwhelm everything else.

In part why Libertarian is a disease of techno-geeks is that you have to be fairly intelligent to find that sort of long axiomatic proof at all convincing. Of course, the task is easier when they are "proving" that you don't have to pay taxes, but it gets harder when they try to prove anti-discriminations laws are bad, as we'll see below.

Note this is not an attack on Mathematics, Algebra, Logical Reasoning, and all that, which would be another rhetorical tactic they could use as an accusation. This is the basic reasoning problem of Libertarianism. There's a lot of platitudes (against big government), but every once in a while they slip in some kickers (virtually absolute contract). Whenever anyone points out the kickers, they can revert to the platitudes, saying that's *really* what the philosophy's about. And try to smuggle in the kickers via some other route.

Consider, how long would to take you to find - and explain - the fallacies in the "proofs" above? Now think about doing this in a political philosophy, much vaguer, with a bunch of cultists proselytizing over it.

Libertarianism and civil-rights laws - a case study

One of the seamiest and ugliest aspects of Libertarianism is its support of turning back the civil-rights clock to pre-1964 legal situation for businesses. "I am not making this up". They're very explicit about it:
Consequently, we oppose any government attempts to regulate private discrimination, including choices and preferences, in employment, housing, and privately owned businesses. The right to trade includes the right not to trade -- for any reasons whatsoever; the right of association includes the right not to associate, for exercise of the right depends upon mutual consent.
That's "rights" according to Libertarianism. Whites-only lunch counters, "No Jews or dogs" hotels, "we don't serve your kind here", "No Irish need apply", "This is man's job", etc. All this is a "right of association" in Libertarian theology.

Such a weird position is not just the purview of some position-writers in a corner, but a surprisingly common trait of Libertarians. It's one of the surest way of identifying one, if they justify such a reactionary position from abstract considerations.

It must be stressed that a) Libertarians ARE NOT racists, sexists, etc. and b) The above is not meant to comment either way on the much more controversial affirmative-action debate. Libertarians can go to town whenever they're called racist, sexist, and so on for the above (gee, how could anyone ever get that idea?), proclaiming their great personal but private commitment to equality. Of course, they never have to do anything much in this regard since events have passed them by. But they want make sure you know they fully support the ideals, even if they think that all the past decades legal effort should be repealed as immoral and unprincipled. They also love to switch the debate to affirmative action, because that's far more contentious than anti-discrimination. But the position's very plain. Drinking from the wrong water fountain would presumably be "initiation of force", allowing retaliation of force to eject the malefactor.

Some of the most amazingly idiotic things will be said by Libertarians in defense of the above ideas of "rights" and the evils of anti-discrimination law. A few of my favorites, from debates on this topic:

The "Why is a raven different from a writing desk?" question

What is it about the "lunch counter" that is different from a date? ... is it violence to be overtly racist in selecting a romantic interest? If so, how should we prevent it? If not, why not. Is it because the relationship is not primarily economical, in the narrow sense?
The "Business is a personal matter" approach
Most non-libertarians are not in favor of the American Nazi Party marching in Skokie, nor in favor of misguided marriages, or poor business investments, but very few think that this should be illegal.
The "no distinction between anything" sneer
I guess that if a fat, ugly, smelly female entered your immediate space (slobbered on top of you) and requested sexual favors, and if by some wild chance you refused, that it would be proper to take you away to a state mental health clinic and have your discriminatory ideas expunged. Is this correct?
What sort of brain-damage does it take to argue this with a straight face? Do they really, really, think someone will say "My god, a lunch counter is JUST LIKE a romantic interest. There's no way to someone could tell them apart. If a business doesn't want to serve any blacks, that's just like not having sex with someone". But apparently, this is all part of the "right of association" in Libertarianism.

Libertarianism Makes You Stupid: the house of cards

The fanatical opposition of Libertarians to anti-discrimination laws also illuminates a crucial aspects of the stupid-making effects of the philosophy. They can never admit even one instance of government intervention doing good overall for society as opposed to the effects of the market. This isn't a matter of preference, it's absolutely crucial to the function of the ideology. If they ever do that, then it's an admission that social engineering can work, the market can fail, and it's just a matter of figuring out what is the proper mixture to have the best society.

This is what sets it apart from Liberalism, Conservatism, and so on. One outcome against prediction will not send those intellectual foundations crashing down, because they aren't based so heavily on absolute rules applications. Libertarianism, by contrast, if it ever concedes a market failure fixed by a government law, is in deep trouble.

So this in turn leads Libertarians into amazing flights of fancy, for example, to deny the success of civil-rights laws. They must say institutional segregation was somehow all the government's fault, or it would have gone away anyway, or something like that. Rather than racism, it's being made stupid by ideology-poisoning.

Libertarian logic is an axiomatic system that bears very little resemblance to standard deductive thought - which is in part why it's so debilitating to people. It's a little like one of those non-Euclidean geometries, internally valid results can be derived from the postulates, but they sound extremely weird when applied to the real world.

The Libertarian Playbook: fantasy and free rides

What Libertarians have the luxury of doing is sitting back and saying "All the problems will be solved if we just let Jesus, err, property into our hearts, err, politics". What they do tactically is to focus on incidents or areas where the political process is at its worst, and peddle their snake-oil theory, contrasting the gritty reality with their pristine fantasy. Of course the fantasy looks better then!

The reason they get away with this is partly that there is no Libertopia, so we don't have a constant series of rile-'em-up stories to point out where Libertopia is an atrocity. Sometimes I think of writing a fictitious "Dispatches from Libertopia" for this sort of stuff. Such as:

"Today, Judge Rand ruled that the so-called "child-slavery" provision of the standard employment contract between MegaCorp and all employees was valid. As parents have the control of their children until eighteen, the signing-over of their labor until age 18 to MegaCorp was ruled a valid exercise of parental authority. Judge Rand, in his opinion, stated "The government is not to interfere with economic arrangements, absent a showing of fraud or force, as per the Fundamental Law of Libertopia. All parties with the legal right to contract consented, and that is the sole standard of evaluation. The fact that MegaCorp said it would fire any worker who did not agree to this provision is of no consequence, as that is entirely the right of MegaCorp."

"The separate individual child contracts were also ruled to be valid. Although the children were told if they did not sign, Mommy and Daddy would lose their jobs and the whole family might starve, this was regarded as simply the employer's right to hire and fire as he or she sees fit. No force, coercion, or fraud within the meaning of Libertopia Law was applied." Junior Warbucks, a MegaCorp spokesman, said "Do you make your children do chores? What's the difference?"

But of course this can be attacked in various ways, because Libertopia is pure fantasy, and the real-world rarely stacks up well to a fantasy, especially a political one.

A Libertarian can blithely argue that all problems would be solved by private charity, by people of goodwill, or if government would just get out of the way. It's a common tactic:

If there's a problem, our first question is not, "How can government solve this problem," but "What government program must be eliminated to improve this situation?"
Since there's no Libertopia, they never have to admit being in error as to what will happen under their proposed regime. That's a great debating advantage.

Common objections and preemptive rebuttals

"There are all kinds of Libertarians"

I call this criticism "X means nothing, except for the good parts". Rare is the person (especially the Libertarian), who will attempt to invalidate a criticism of Communist ideology along the lines of "There are all kinds of Communists - Maoists, Stalinists, Trotskyites, etc.". Yes, Libertarians have factions such as Objectivists and debates on "minarchism vs anarchism" and so on. But such obscure doctrinal divisions over theological points don't make broad descriptions any less valid for an overview. Even a harshly critical overview.

"You quote a lot from the Libertarian Party documents in your essay, but the Party is not the philosophy. They don't speak for all Libertarians. Does every Republican or Democrat agree with every item in their party's platform? It's unfair to tar everyone with the same brush".

My quoting here is mainly to ground my critique in real documents, to establish "I am not making this up". For example, making business segregation legal again is such a kooky position nowadays that Libertarian-naive readers would likely strongly suspect that was a smear. But no, it's very explicitly advocated, completely justified in terms of the internal (il)logic, laid out quite blatantly. The average person hears all about the Republican's problem with abortion issues, or the Democrat's issues with entitlement programs. Libertarianism should not be exempted from criticisms of similar type.

"Any political philosophy has its nuts. Libertarianism no worse than any other in this regard"

I disagree. I think it is. Any sort of ordered approach to thinking forms a kind of philosophical framework, and hence may be termed an "-ism" of some sort. But I don't see them all as equivalent, and I doubt many people do either. Is Feminism as bad for rational thought as Fascism? Every ideology has weaknesses and blind spots, but the specific manifestation of Libertarianism is to make its followers completely unable to deal with any sort of analysis of power other than the most basic sort of government action. Thus, not only do they develop a mental block against the actual functioning of huge portions of our society, but this block then often turns into raving denial when anyone else says something outside their blinders.

It is often said "anything taken to excess is harmful", but this is unnecessarily crude. In medical substance information, there's the concept of lethal dose, average dose, and most importantly ratio of lethal amount to useful amount. For this last, I think a workable analog is a kind of "stupidity/utility" ratio, and informally, Libertarianism is just off the chart in terms of what is commonly seen among educated people.

"Libertarians don't worship business. For example they criticize subsidies or tariffs all the time"

This very frequent objection shows that reader usually hasn't understood the point at all. Liberty and individual freedom is held to be embodied in the ideal conduct of business, much like "building character" is said to be embodied via sports. This doesn't prevent criticism of any particular player as violating the rules of the game. But it does impose a mental block against seeing the *whole system* in a manner any way unfavorable, of examining negative effects from an *institutional* viewpoint.

They're like fanatical sports fans who worship a game in the abstract but also dislike particular athletes for being dirty bums. It's a case of being fans of the concept, not any particular individual. This is also something I go over a lot, but symptomatically, it doesn't get across

And finally: "You're a Communist"

Not at all. I think business and markets are just great in a lot of areas. But I don't think that is the sum total of civil society. Being against business-worship is hardly the same thing as government-worship. It in the inability to understand this idea which is the ultimate proof that Libertarianism Makes You Stupid.

Suggested further reading: Critiques Of Libertarianism

"It is very hard to find any literature about libertarianism that was NOT written by its advocates. "
In particular: A Non-Libertarian FAQ
"Many USENET readers encounter libertarianism for the first time on USENET. Such unfamiliar claims might be quite difficult to judge if we haven't had the time to think of reasons why the claims might be false."