What do the “libertarians” want?

No, not the United States Libertarian Party this time, which still has to find itself a presidential candidate after Justin Amash, whom we talked about last week, decided not to seek the nomination.

I’m thinking instead about the “libertarians” – those who call themselves libertarians and adopt a posture of warriors for freedom, but who over the last few years have disgraced themselves and tarnished the brand by their more or less open embrace of Trumpism.

It’s no surprise that in recent weeks many of these people have been at the forefront of opposition to quarantine measures imposed due to Covid-19. Some have veered into outright conspiracy-theory territory, maintaining that the virus is a fiction devised by governments as an excuse to implement their tyrannical policies.

The majority, however, have not gone that far: they accept that the health crisis is real, but argue that it still does not justify the restrictions on individual liberty that have been imposed. They also maintain that the restrictions will do more damage to the economy than the virus would do in their absence. (Interestingly, actual economists seem not to buy this argument.)

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using both a moral and a practical argument for the same conclusion. Opponents of drug prohibition, for example, may argue that it is both wrong in principle and counter-productive in practice. But one of the unfortunate habits of the “libertarians” is to run the two things together – to stubbornly assume that the facts must support their philosophical views.

Hence with the debate on climate change: because they are philosophically opposed to certain measures necessary to combat global warming, “libertarians” dogmatically assert that it either isn’t happening or isn’t serious. Attempts to get them to engage with the issue, along the lines of “Well, if you were convinced that climate change was real, what would you say we should do about it?”, are invariably unsuccessful.

It’s the same with the coronavirus. Because they don’t want government-enforced quarantine, they’re driven to assume that the facts that might justify it are not real.

And it’s worse than that, because the reference there to “government” is a red herring. Of course if you’re opposed to the state in principle (as I am), you’ll think it’s not the ideal agency to be handling this particular task. That’s a truism, but it’s an unhelpful one. It would be better if we had decentralised voluntary agencies to enforce quarantine, but we don’t: in the actual world we live in, government is the agency that does these things, so we have to make the best of it.

For comparison, it’s as if we were travelling on a particular (government-owned) railway and arguing about whether or not the service should have a dining car. To say “I don’t believe the government should be running railways at all” may be quite legitimate, but it’s not engaging with that argument. It’s completely beside the point.

The “libertarians” in this case are saying that they don’t believe in dining cars enforced quarantine at all, regardless of who’s doing it. They only support “voluntary” measures, although on closer examination many of them make it clear that they don’t support those either.

So if the government is not to enforce quarantine, what should it be doing? How would the “libertarians” have our actual existing governments behave instead? There seem to be three broad possibilities:

(a) While not coercing anyone, the government should tell people that quarantine measures are necessary and justified, and encourage them to adopt them.

(b) The government should avoid expressing any view either way about quarantine, doing no more than provide bare factual information (if that).

(c) The government should encourage people, on a voluntary basis, to ignore quarantine and engage in normal social and economic activity.

A case can be made that (b) is the most libertarian option, since it maintains government neutrality. Equally a case can be made for (a), since it involves respecting science and promoting public well-being, which are supposed to be important libertarian values.

But from the “libertarian” point of view, (a) and (b) are subject to the same basic flaw: they wouldn’t actually do much to re-open the economy, because, as numerous analysts have found (including real libertarians), fear of the virus rather than government controls was the main thing driving physical distancing and economic shutdown.

So “libertarians” gravitate towards (c). The government should treat quarantine as a greater enemy than the virus, because that must be what the science says (actual science to the contrary notwithstanding), because otherwise it would support “un-libertarian” conclusions.

As a result, “libertarians”, who are supposed to be mostly concerned about government power, spend a surprisingly large amount of their time arguing about what look like scientific questions. But it’s a peculiarly politicised science, where apparently factual questions have ideological answers. For those of a certain historical bent, the name of Trofim Lysenko might come to mind.

It’s again reminiscent of the climate change debate, where “libertarians” spend most of their time not talking about coercion at all, but attacking renewable energy and promoting fossil fuels (and also nuclear power, which doesn’t contribute to global warming but for historical reasons engages the same tribal enmities).

So far, the politicisation of coronavirus science has not fully flowed through to public opinion. Polling suggests that while there is (not surprisingly) a partisan divide as to how particular public figures are performing, quarantine measures have broadly bipartisan support.

But not if the “libertarians” have their way.


10 thoughts on “What do the “libertarians” want?

  1. Much of the confusion arises because libertarians most often denounce “government” so outsiders hear this and assume, reasonably enough, that what libertarians fear most is “government”; if so, why don’t they become anarchists? if they don’t, it shows they’re not fair dinkum.
    This misses the point because what libertarians consider the greatest evil – indeed, the only moral evil that society and its laws should tackle – is unprovoked coercion. They are certainly not okay about private individuals robbing, beating or raping each other. To that end, they are willing to let individuals retaliate against such coercion (self-defence), and to sign over their individual rights of self-defence to a more efficient collective agency (the state). The state acts legitimately when it uses force against unprovoked uses of force. However, because it has tanks and missiles and SWAT teams, it presents a greater danger if it goes bad. A “private” criminal is always acting wrongly if they put you in the ICU or the morgue. A government SWAT team may be acting justly, if you really are molesting children or plotting terrorism in your remote compound, but if they get it wrong – kill you, kill your entire family, and (often overlooked but still, I think, potent) blacken your reputation so you’re later remembered as “Charles Richardson? Oh, that white-supremacist polygamist terrorist weirdo in the compound that time?” – they do far more damage. Smaller risk on the “probability” axis but greater risk along the “severity” axis. Anarchists would respond “well, smash the state or at least defund the police” but libertarians would counter that that only substitutes a risk of unjust public violence with a certainty of unjust private violence and that the real solution is to limit the capacity of the state to act unjustly.
    Casual observers also miss this because libertarians are fine with private violence provided it can be framed as “self-defence” (even if this very easily shades into de facto aggression – “kill that outsider because he fits my mental preconception of a rapist or burglar” – in ways that “oops, my mistake” doesn’t even begin to cover). Hence militias, the McCloskeys on their porch, etc.They don’t oppose the state having armed employees on principle – rather, they see their own private arsenals as supplementing the police or (in the wildest “Red Dawn” scenarios) the military – and the Second Amendment offers legal and philosophical ways to reconcile the two. But because the state’s armed employees also enforce, eg, zoning laws, taxation laws, environmental protection laws, anti-discrimination laws, and other laws that US libertarians dislike, the spectre of The Government going bad, exceeding its mandate, and deploying unjustified (unprovoked) violence is always on their minds. Indeed, many libertarians would say that “Thou shalt not sack employees because of their sex, pregnancy or sexuality” is already “unprovoked violence” – not something most people would perceive. but libertarians agree with anarchists like Bakunin on one point, at least, that at the end of every statute or regulation is the hangman’s noose.
    I am not, myself, a libertarian but I do think their ideology is often misunderstood and caricatured.


  2. Ie, put another way, imagine one of those multi-panel memes…
    HOW LIBERTARIANS SEE THEMSELVES: Peacefully minding their own business on their own land; carrying weapons they can brandish or even fire if absolutely necessary to stop lazy thugs attacking them or looting them (and if the police are too bureaucratic, too inefficient and/or too politically correct to help). Occasionally they make an honest and reasonable mistake and end up killing someone who was technically innocent but high on drugs and a troublemaker anyway; regrettable, but the alternative would be a socialistic police state that confiscates your guns and denies your right to self defence – or even worse, taxes you heavier to hand welfare cheques and free healthcare to these lazy thugs.
    HOW OTHER PEOPLE SEE LIBERTARIANS: Rich, entitled white (or wannabe-white) people who are clueless about the impact of poverty and discrimination; who inherited their money (or at least the advantages that helped them make money) from ancestors who were unashamed, discriminatory racists; who arm themselves to the teeth so they can react violently with lethal force against people who don’t fit their prejudices; but who think that laws against tree-clearing are a gateway to full-blown Stalinism.
    Libertarians may think they are against everyone – law-maker or law-breaker alike – who initiates violence/ coercion, but in practice they sure look a hell of a lot like they think almost all government action is “unjustified violence” but their own lethal force is only self-defence. A right-wing version of the (sadly, not untrue) leftwing trope of “My violence is speech, your speech is violence”.


  3. News: The US Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, Dr Jo Jorgensen, has been, um, bitten by a bat:
    Which sounds like either a “Betoota Advocate”-style quasi-“Onion” parody –
    – or else a Christopher Nolan-esque multi-layered postmodern allusion to something something Commissioner Gordon something Gotham Police Force inefficient something something only benevolent billionaires with military hardware lying idle in inventory can save the polis something.


  4. The difference between the progressive and the reactionary libertarians is not over “Should governments be allowed to use coercion only against people who initiate force and fraud?’ but more over two other issues:
    (a) “Can a government justly use methods that are not directly coercive [eg, subsidies and tax incentives; “nudge” regulations] but that derive their force indirectly from coercion [taxation; the gov’s power to regulate; the gov’s “bully pulpit” and social visibility], to deal with threats that are at least as dangerous as deliberate force and fraud, but that aren’t the result of deliberate individual malevolence?” [eg, poverty; global warming and the environment generally] and
    (b) “Given that (i) truly libertarian societies have never existed for long, and (ii) we libertarians put high value on private property rights, including the right to give or bequeath your property to whomever you like, which 80%+ of the time means fortunes accumulate via family inheritance… what do we do in the real-world case where actually-existing rich people much more often than not have money directly or indirectly because their ancestors gained their wealth, not by Nozickean free voluntary exchanges, but by exploiting slaves and serfs at swordpoint? If we can send police to seize the money of a bank robber, why should the robbers’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren be immune from seizure if they manage to evade arrest for generations?”


  5. Re (a) above and the “bully pulpit” problem: “… for a government knows only how to dictate precise rules; it imposes the sentiments and the ideas that it favors, and it is always hard to distinguish its counsels from its orders”. (Tocqueville)


    1. I think the tree in the middle of the ski slope at (a) is what did in Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater was a consistent, principled minimal-state libertarian. He had supported, eg, anti-segregation campaigns and Planned Parenthood in Arizona. He genuinely believed that federal laws against private discrimination were an overreach.
      Of course, the Confederate (and to a less nakedly vicious extent many Union) States had not just left white individuals free to discriminate by withholding their voluntary cooperation from African Americans, but had imposed a regime of slavery and subjugation by brutal force – both “under colo[u]r of law”, as the Americans call it, and by turning a blind eye to supposedly illegal private violence. Simply declaring 1954 or 1964 to be a Year Zero, a blank slate after which governments would only recognise transactions that met Robert Nozick’s standard of mutual consent in a free market, still left the robbers, kidnappers, rapists and murderers, and their heirs and beneficiaries, in possession of enormous amounts of undeserved wealth. Goldwater genuinely did not seem to see this. I believe he was not racist but he had a huge blind spot. To him, “We need to take some property rights and associational freedoms off white people, because in the past their ancestors did the same thing on a much bigger scale to black people” would have sounded as vengeful and misguided as “Let’s execute murderers” sounds to a modern western left-liberal. If you view it as just compensation for past crimes and torts, it makes sense; if you view it in either retributive or purely utilitarian terms, a libertarian of the Goldwater stripe will reject it.
      Of course, a lot of those who voted for Goldwater and coasted off his moral authority had no interest in resetting society to a libertarian, voluntary-exchanges-only level playing field; they just wanted whatever constitutional theory favoured their ethic tribe and their financial interests. Originally when the federal government was dominated by the Slave Power, they were all about the law recognising natural inequalities and enforcing the Judaeo-Christian foundations of America, particularly… to take one random example… the Curse of Ham. Then, when the federal government was dominated by Northern abolitionists and later by Cold Water liberals, they suddenly discovered the harm-consent principle and the dangers of the leviathan state. Almost always without any self-awareness or sense of irony.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Err, “by Cold War” liberals. “Cold Water liberals” (eg, Moynihan?) would’ve been a clever pun if only I had intended it.


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