Strange Things Allegedly Believed by Others

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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41 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    “Libertarians,” said the Stoic gravely, “want to enslave us all.”

    This made me cackle.

    The whole thing is sweet, dude. Well done.Report

  2. Francis says:

    Isn’t the lack of foreknowledge as to whether a contract is enforceable or not a serious deprivation of liberty and right to contract?

    After all, the whole point of libertarianism is to develop mechanisms whereby everybody agrees in advance that the state will NOT have general police powers. So if you want me to buy into this approach, I need to know the precise boundaries of the state’s power. Otherwise, you’re just a bunch of statists luring me and Mr. Galt into bringing our capital into your community, then depriving us of it by invalidating our contracts ex post facto.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Francis says:


      Isn’t the lack of foreknowledge as to whether a contract is enforceable or not a serious deprivation of liberty and right to contract?

      I am presuming that at bare minimum there would be a system of precedential or common law in place, in which you would have an increasingly clear idea over time about which contracts were likely to be enforced and which were not. I certainly should have been clearer here. I actually had a bit about slavery and the common law in an earlier draft, but I axed it because it was so similar to a comment I’d made just recently.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        @Jason Kuznicki, I’d love to see a serious digression into a slavery contract/lemon problem argument, myself.Report

      • Francis in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        @Jason Kuznicki, Common law comes from merrie old England, which famously has an unwritten constitution. If the community gets to vote on which contracts are enforceable and which are not, on a case-by-case basis, you’ll very soon end up in the post-Lochner era in which certain employment contracts are struck down as being inherently abhorrent.

        The only way libertarianism actually works is with a strong Constitution limiting the regulatory power of the State (a feature notably absent from every State constitution). Then Mr. Galt can be sure that his contracts with his bakers won’t be invalidated simply because the community thinks he’s making them work too hard.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Francis says:


          I’ve been giving this one some thought, and one principle that might allow significant freedoms for both workers and employers, while avoiding even voluntary slavery, could be very simply stated: Employment contracts are at-will for both employer and employee. Which is what libertarians of the more sensible strain have always said all along.

          But then, we really are reinventing the wheel here.Report

  3. North says:

    I always enjoy listening in on these committee meetings.Report

  4. Freddie says:

    The right to be defined only by one’s own personal politics, and not by some vague notion of what is our affiliation, our ideology, our party or our group, is a right that (on the Internet) is desired by all but extended by very few. I daresay I usually fail to extend it to the degree to which I desire it, and so much the worse for me.

    Now, from my perspective, (on the Internet) there is no group that comes close to having their views elided with some evil mass, or that has to endure more collective punishment, than the left– the actual left, not establishmentarian liberals. Anyone that has any affiliation with a genuinely socialist, Marxist or international leftist ideology is immediately lumped into the ranks of the forbidden “communism,” and expected to be fairly taken to task for, among other things, the crimes of Stalin, the oppression of civil liberties by Hugo Chavez, poverty in Havana, and how Che t-shirts are, like, totally support for genocide. In our opponents, we see gross generalizations; in ourselves, we see vast complexity.

    I would think that the actual left is the side most subject to this kind of generalization and collective punishment, being a leftist and all. But even aside from my own bias, it seems that way.

    The only thing to do is for me to be better about not talking about “libertarians” and rather about individual libertarians, and to expect the same of others in their conduct towards me. But that’s really hard; it makes the conduct of democracy much, much harder if we can’t talk in gross terms of competing ideologies.

    In the meantime, baby, I’m ultra-gauche, but first I’m all me.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

      @Freddie, the crimes of Stalin, the oppression of civil liberties by Hugo Chavez, poverty in Havana, and how Che t-shirts are, like, totally support for genocide.

      I don’t understand how this last part wouldn’t completely undercut the first part.Report

      • Freddie in reply to Jaybird says:

        @Jaybird, I’m not sure I follow you– I’m just listing some usual responses to anyone who says that they are a part of the internationalist left, or Marxian or Marxist. “Stalin was bad/Castro is bad/Chavez is bad/Che was bad,” etc.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

          @Freddie, the arguments with which I am most familiar are something to the following:

          “Those guys, those leaders, were No True Marxists. At best, they were Bastard Children of Marx and, at worst, they had nothing to do with his ideologies but used his ideologies to dupe the innocent and naive in order to accumulate power for themselves. They shouldn’t be considered under the umbrella of the authentic left at all… anymore than the priests that molest children ought be considered exemplars of Christianity.”


          But then you have to deal with the whole fact that one of these bastard children/power-hungry mongrels is a symbol of “authentic” leftism to the point where his picture is on shirts.

          Are the people who wear the shirts supposed to be automatically understood to be callow youths who ought not be taken seriously and, let’s face it, have heads full of mush and they’re probably just trying to freak the normals?Report

          • Freddie in reply to Jaybird says:


            I have no idea who the true Marxists or leftists are. I wouldn’t even particularly know what such a thing means. And who cares, really?

            Are the people who wear the shirts supposed to be automatically understood to be callow youths who ought not be taken seriously and, let’s face it, have heads full of mush and they’re probably just trying to freak the normals?

            No, of course not. How could wearing a t-shirt ever say such a thing? Sure, some kinds wear Che shirts without a genuine understanding of who he was, historically or ideologically. I personally have conflicted feelings towards El Che. But I couldn’t sort the people I agree with by t-shirt; only by talking.

            I am making exactly the same claim that Jason is making: however much Jason may self-identify under the broad banner of “libertarianism,” that term can never fully or fairly describe his personal views, and the fact that both he and a John Birch type might self-describe by that name, it in no way means he has to have exactly or largely the same views as such a person.

            So with me; I have terms of art I use to describe myself, but they aren’t straitjackets that compel me to feel any particular way about any particular thing.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

              @Freddie, you say “Anyone that has any affiliation with a genuinely socialist, Marxist or international leftist ideology” but you also say “I have no idea who the true Marxists or leftists are”.

              I’m confused.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                @Freddie, okay, if you want to play that way, fine.

                You understand the problems with the Confederate Flag, do you not? Sure, there are people who claim that it’s not a symbol of racism but merely “Southern Pride”, right?

                And you understand how there are people who look at the Confederate Flag and do not see merely Southern Pride but White Supremacy, Antebellum Southern Nostalgia, and Slavery. Right?

                You are aware of that, correct?

                Can you be so friggin’ obtuse that you cannot see how people respond identically to “Marxism” and have *EXACTLY* as much justification as those who see the Confederate Flag and see White Supremacy?

                Or is that so completely different that it’s not worth discussing with someone who might see it as a comparison worth making?Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Freddie says:

              @Freddie, But that doesn’t relieve Jason of the task of defining what libertarianism is; the more powerful a doctrine he holds it to be the more compulsory and the higher standard he needs to meet in so doing. I count myself as a liberal only because from available terms of which I am aware, I think it is the one that most fairly describes me. If I am wrong, it is really no skin off my nose; the term does very little work for me personally (though I have ideas about what I think it means quasi-universally). Regardless, I believe what I believe (and, to be honest, it doesn’t stay the same, and I don’t think ultimately what I believe probably fits within any one descriptor very well). The more normatively compelling and instrumentally valuable Jason considers libertarianism to be, and the more tightly he identifies himself with it — i.e. the more work it does for him — the more precisely he is required to define it (or otherwise state just what the views are he finds so compelling that he thinks we should all hold them, if so he thinks) and define it (them) correctly.Report

              • Bob Cheeks in reply to Michael Drew says:

                @Michael Drew, That “Confederate Flag” that Jaybird’s referring to is the Confederate battleflag that was used in Lee’s Army of NOrthern Virginia and only occasionally in the West (Army of Tennessee).
                Now, as a border man inclined toward minimalist gummint, I do get a little flutter when I see it but it isn’t based on racism rather on the courage of men who out fought, out marched their foes on slim rations, limited ammunition, and threadbare clothing; men who only had to cry out “yip, yip, yip” on regiment front as they came crashing through the woods to scatter Yankees before them!
                Yeah, I get a little chill.Report

            • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Freddie says:


              Terms like “libertarian” or “leftist” or “progressive” ultimately point at large unwieldy groups of people.

              I believe that I have within my mind a workable idea of the ground rules for a good society. Whether everyone who has the sound “libertarian” articulated in their direction shares my idea or not, it is the sound that will always be made in my direction, too, owing to institutional affiliations, broad policy goals, and a common intellectual background (it usually begins with Ayn Rand, usw…).

              Rather than argue about the accuracy of one single term — a dispute that will be settled not by me but by popular consensus — I’m going to simply articulate what I believe.

              Hence in my above post, “one libertarian answer might look like this.” I deliberated a lot over those two words, believe it or not.Report

    • Mike Farmer in reply to Freddie says:


      Yes, the left has a hard time of it in the U.S. — practically an oppressed group. Free the lefties! Free the lefties!Report

  5. Matt Kuznicki says:

    interesting. in the quoted selection:
    “Now: suppose we drop, experimentally, just the libertarian ‘self-ownership’ assumption”
    Is this not similar to saying:
    “Now: suppose we drop, experimentally, just the capitalist ‘free-market’ concept. without free markets capitalism is not capitalism.

    it seems to me that without the “self-ownership’ assumption” libertarianism is not libertarianism.

    i understand that i am on the verge of falling into the “No true Scotsman” fallacy, but when you take this assumption away, arguably the core principle of libertarianism, you have moved from the realm of libertarianism.
    does this not negate the entire argument?Report

  6. A powerful response, Jason. This I think winds up largely obviating the post I’ve been working on, which is probably for the best because my thoughts are kind of all over the map.

    However, I wonder if Holbo’s feudalism point – at least with respect to a variety of libertarianism that holds property rights as the be-all and end-all – has more merit than libertarians would like to admit. I am by no means an expert on the Dark Ages, but I’ve been doing a good amount of reading on the subject of late, particularly this behemoth:

    What has struck me in my reading and was reinforced by Holbo’s argument is that the Western European societies in the early Dark Ages wind up having quite a bit in common with a property-rights based hypothetical libertarianism. You have weak central governments, a court system particularly geared towards protecting property rights, sporadic (at best) taxation; and more or less unenforceable national legislation.

    This isn’t necessarily the end of the world for property-rights based libertarianism – Wickham argues quite persuasively IMHO that there was in fact a remarkable amount of continuity after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (which he argues was made inevitable when the Romans lost control of their tax infrastructure). And a not-insignificant portion of the peasantry were what we would call “free peasants.”

    The major differences, it would seem, were that trade was drastically reduced due to political fragmentation and that society became more militaristic. But to the extent that society became more militaristic, we’re talking about de facto militia rather than massive armies of professional soldiers. Violence was certainly frequent, but it was also on a very small scale.

    It’s just that such a society has little to do with any conception of classical liberalism. I think – and Holbo appears to concede – that for a lot of libertarians, the divide with liberals is over means rather than ends. However, for the sort of right-libertarianism based in an elevation of property rights that has largely dominated popular perceptions of libertarians, the difference with modern liberals is very much a difference of ends.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mark Thompson says:


      I agree. And I have the feeling that you and I are sort of walking through Hayek’s Law, Legislation, and Liberty, with me cheering him on, and with you dreading every step. But either way, it’s familiar enough territory.

      @Matt Kuznicki,

      The problem is that many libertarians really have been drawn into a very strong conception of the freedom of contract, and at some point, it really does become a problem.

      @Mark Thompson,

      The Inheritance of Rome was a fantastic book, and I had many of the same thoughts. I read it immediately after James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, and the two make a great pair for discussing these issues. I think one problem here is that a certain kind of libertarian prefers to be identified by what he’s against — state violence. My preference is to be identified by what I’m for — individual self-expression, commerce, scientific progress, and toleration among peoples. Small-scale violence hurts these things too. The problem is not the state, but power.Report

  7. dexter45 says:

    I have a question I would like one of the libertarians to answer. I live just outside Baton Rouge and a few years ago the local paper published a letter to the editor from a farmer in Ohio complaining about the amount of paperwork the government made him do to verify the amount of chemicals he was using on his farm. On the same day and in the same paper there was a long article by a local professor whose last paper stated that there was considerable evidence that the dead zone in the gulf was expanding and probably was caused by chemical fertilizers flowing downstream from northern farmers.
    So, here is my question: How do the people of Louisiana stop the farmers in Ohio from killing all the shrimp in the Gulf?Report

    • Mark Thompson in reply to dexter45 says:

      @dexter45, Riparian rights – fun! The solution you tend to hear all the time seems to be private ownership of waterways. Pollution becomes a violation of the owner’s property rights. Presumably the owner of the river section winds up being in a good position to act as an intermediary between the shrimp boats and the Ohio farmers since he is in a reasonable position to trace the flow of chemicals into the river and thus be able to negotiate with the farmers to either pay them not to pollute or to receive payment from them for the right to pollute, while also being in a position to negotiate with the shrimp boats over the minimal quality of water that may leave his section of the stream.

      I am personally skeptical of this, though. It seems like it would only work if there were monopoly ownership of any given waterway, which would make it functionally no different from government ownership, IMHO. Even if you only sold sections of the waterway, it seems like ultimately it would have to result in a monopoly by whoever had the rights to the point furthest upstream. But I haven’t given riparian rights much thought, so I’m willing to be persuaded.Report

      • North in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        @Mark Thompson, My meager 2 cents. I have -never- heard any proposal for assigning ownership of a living body of water (or a portion of one) that doesn’t make me want to grab my wallet and run crying for a Marxist utopia. Now that could be observer bias but I am a very pro-market neoliberal and I have entertained a lot of suggestions on the subject (the tragedy of the commons is my personal pet issue to throw at passionate libertarians).Report

    • Mike Farmer in reply to dexter45 says:


      I don’t know the answer to this particular problem — there are complex problems which require a lof of thought, but it’s good to remember that it’s the overarcing principles involved when working out problems that are important — and it pays to keep in mind that liberarians are concerned with rights violations — it’s not a simple position of the Ohio farmers being free to do what they want to do — they shouldn’t be allowed to violate the rights of others. Then solutions develope with these principles in mind, hoping a fair settlement can reached and creative solutions applied. I don’t know of any libertarians who don’t believe in lawful settlement of disputes when rights violations are concerned. Rather than knee-jerk government regulations, a free society requires we work out our probems guided by principles, reason and fairness.Report