Caricatures of libertarianism again

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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67 Responses

  1. gregiank says:

    A couple points: Everybody legislates morality. Raising personal freedom or non-coercion to the highest value and to be protected by minimizing the state is certainly A) a moral value and B) a desire to have the state apply that value to all. It seems libertarians don’t see it that way but, none the less, it is.

    I’m not sure i’ve ever seen a person of libertarian bent or Libertarian sympathetic ever think a criticism of libertarianism is fair or not a caricature. You certainly point to a good critique which is more then just about anybody ever does so you can take one free internet out of petty cash.Report

    • Forgive my lack of formal education in rhetoric, but I imagine there is some Latin-termed fallacy for saying that “no imposition of universal values” is an attempt to impose universal values.

      I think we’re getting to the cutting edge of some crazy Wittgenstein problems here.Report

  2. Aaron W says:

    I like how he brought out that whole public fire department not putting out a fire = libertarians are crazy argument. Way to go.Report

  3. D. C. Sessions says:

    The fundamental problem with any discussion of “libertarianism” per seis that there’s no consensus about what “libertarianism” is or who is a “libertarian.” Scottsmen have nothing on libertarians in that regard.Report

  4. Jason Kuznicki says:

    I’m not going to reply to the essay itself, because I think a lot of other replies have already appeared that more or less say what I’d have said. I’ll just point out this one line:

    It’s no coincidence that most libertarians discover the philosophy as teenagers.

    Which differentiates libertarianism from precisely zero other philosophies held by thinking adults.Report

  5. The libertarian response so far seems to be dismay that talking to a handful of libertarians while writing a story about them didn’t somehow leave Beam more sympathetic to the faith than your typical mainstream political reporter.Report

  6. Mike Farmer says:

    If it takes an act of legislation to repeal other legislation and limit the power of government so as to expand liberty and protect individual rights, then, yes, I’m for legislating that morality. Guilty as charged. It’s not legislation of morality, per se, but what’s being legislated that counts. From my perspective, legislation which expands government power to restrict freedom and violate rights is immoral, and legislation which limits the power of government, expands freedom and protects individual rights is moral. You can say it’s relative, but then I’d have a problem with that.Report

  7. RTod says:

    I agree with what ED (and practically everybody else) says about the article; but isn’t this just an inherent issue with political writing these days?

    I know lot’s of progressives, and none of them is a We-Want-the-Government-to-Control-Everything-Utopian – but much of even the writing on this beloved site writes off liberalism as a whole for this exact reason. Similarly, I don’t actually personally know any conservatives that want to take away all social services, or put White People First, or think there is a War On Christmas.

    I think, then, that libertarianism doesn’t have an extra burden that other political philosophies somehow dodge; I think that we are just more inclined to notice how the caricature doesn’t hold up to our own philosophy.

    Maybe getting pigeonholed this badly suggests we’ve kind of arrived?Report

    • Mike Farmer in reply to RTod says:

      ” but much of even the writing on this beloved site writes off liberalism as a whole for this exact reason. ”

      I hardly see any of this here, if at all, not anyone claiming that progressives want to control everything — however, government expansion does touch about every area of our lives, but it doesn’t want, I’m sure, to control everything. I’d be interested in seeing samples of this writing from this site — I’m missing a kindred spirit.Report

      • RTod in reply to Mike Farmer says:

        “I’d be interested in seeing samples of this writing from this site — I’m missing a kindred spirit.”

        Does that mean I can’t quote you? 😉

        Also, I should have said that my impression about this is less from posters and more from commenters. That said, your challenge makes me doubt myself, so I’ll go back and see if I was correct.

        I still stand by my main point, however.Report

      • Besides, “utopia” is a word that obscures criticism of both sides. Utopia is a world that can’t exist even if you try. Libertarianism and progressivism can exist, it’s just a matter of how hard it would be to implement, what kind of society they would create, and whether it’s desirable to live in either society. Once we know that both are possible, and not just utopian impossibilities, then making a choice about direction is real. The mixed approach hasn’t been working too well, so it appears that solid sides are forming to control direction — toward more government intervention and management, so that plans can be pushed through in full form, or limited government and empowerment of the private sector, so that private sector actions aren’t thwarted by regulation.Report

        • Will H. in reply to Mike Farmer says:

          Good call.
          We don’t measure the feasibility of liberalism or conservatism based solely on the enactment of all of the associated policy agendas.
          Libertarians are somehow special in this regard.Report

          • Mike Farmer in reply to Will H. says:

            Plus, it appears Beam read the cliff notes on libertarianism — his critique of minarchism was particularly weak in that he automatically framed the private solutions as necessarily failing without giving an account of the rich libertarian history of innovative private solutions. My problem with writing off libertarianism according to its most extreme elements is that innovation in governance is ground to a halt. Private industry has experienced much creativity and innovation, but governance has been stuck in alternating two party power for decades. At least searching for innovative private solutions seems to warrant serious consideration — caricatures, writing off libertarianism as adolescent fanatasy and pretending the problem with creeping-statism is not that serious are all non-serious responses to our problems. The State power–players, however, are serious. We could never go from the freedom we’ve enjoyed to complete tyranny overnight, but gradualism under statism is a situation where regulations call for more regulations and more regulations to protect and force the continuation of the gains in power and control — if we ignore the gradualism we’ll suffer the fate of the famous boiled frog.Report

  8. So, having now read the article in question, along with several of the critiques thereof, I find myself pretty well agreeing with Balko’s critique in particular – I really have no problem with the first two-thirds of the article, and I’d even go so far as to say it’s pretty good.

    I mostly agree that the last third of the article is a fairly typical caricature of libertarianism, but really it’s worse than that: it’s a fairly typical caricature of a particular strain of libertarianism, minarchism. One particular flaw that I found grating was the implication that orthodox libertarianism requires a firm belief in states’ rights; to the contrary, I think you’d find many libertarians – myself included – who will proudly stand for the principle that “states don’t have rights; only people do.”

    That he falls into the trap of using the Obion County firefighting fooferaw as his central piece of evidence is likewise frustrating, given the numerous facts about that case which make it uniquely peculiar, none of which he mentions, and which were the central element of most libertarian arguments about that occurence.

    That said, I thought his attack on minarchism a little earlier in the article was pretty fair, and paralleled a lot of my own thoughts about that particular strain, which I’ve been meaning to argue for a long time winds up being completely indistinguishable from paleoconservatism (which, I jump to add, is generally preferable to other forms of conservatism as far as I’m concerned).

    The whole article reads as if he put together a pretty solid piece, but then his editor reviewed it and said, “This is a nice piece and all, but it’s missing something to make it worthwhile and relatable for our readers. Surely you know that our readers have a particular understanding of libertarianism, maybe even one that you share. Maybe you should remind them of that understanding just to, you know, provide some context for them.”

    This is the only conclusion I can reach. Otherwise, the last third of the article is utterly incompatible with the first two-thirds, in which it is pointed out that a majority of Americans would be classified as libertarian by some measures.Report

    • I was pretty much with you Mark but I think the second half of the piece invaders the first half basically meaningless. Also he doesn’t focus on minarchism as a subset of libertarianism but as the end goal of all libertarians.Report

    • 62across in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      I find it telling that Balko’s critique notes the Beam is (in his estimation) a “genuinely inquisitive and curious” writer with honest intentions. Yet, in the end, Beam is a writer who was unable to do right by libertarianism as Balko sees it. E.D. and multiple commenters reiterate this idea here.

      Why is it that a fair writer can’t or won’t do justice to libertarianism? I imagine D.C. Sessions is on to something when he acknowledges the lack of consensus on what libertarianism is. I know I frequent this blog as someone who is inquisitive and curious about what libertarianism portends to be (I strive to be genuinely so), yet I’m at a loss to the answer. I’m left with the impression that libertarianism is a political philosophy in search of a constituency. That is to say, libertarianism only exists in people’s minds and it manifests itself somewhat differently in most every mind that holds it.

      Until libertarians actually govern something, be it a state or a county or a municipality, and there is a working example that you can point to and say “that is, at least somewhat, what libertarianism is”, I don’t see how caricature can be avoided.Report

      • Will H. in reply to 62across says:

        What a crock.
        Of course, I mean that in the nicest possible way.
        Look, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, poops in the park like a duck, etc., it could darned well be a duck.
        Watch a few cartoons, and see if you can pick that out.
        Everybody already has a general idea of what “a bird” is.
        Even when they don’t have someone from the Audobon Society to scrape one’s guts out right in front of them.
        Due to my third-grade education, I am able to grasp this easily.
        (I did really well in the third grade.)
        Same with libertarians.
        Everyone wonders “Does it include this?” or “Does it exclude that?” but everyone already knows what it is.
        Or, I should say, “What it means.”
        Because I really don’t think Libertarianism (fanfare) is a thing-in-itself so much as a methodology; as color relates to form, but is itself formless.
        So, there.
        I state that Libertarianism (fanfare) is plain and obvious, but only long enough to deny its existence, while dragging the Audobon Society into it in the process.
        I must be feeling grumpier than usual today.Report

        • 62across in reply to Will H. says:

          In the nicest possible way… wha?

          Erik’s post and most of this comment thread is a lament on yet another mischaracterization of libertarianism and you come back with its plain and obvious, but also not a thing-in-itself and formless?

          So, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules?

          Look, I can weigh a duck, time how fast a duck can fly and observe how its feathers uniquely suits its life on the water. I can come up with empirical data showing how the duck is significantly different than a goose. Show me a libertarian policy agenda enacted (partially if you wish, per your point further up the thread, but an agenda and not just a libertarian influenced policy) and we can collect data on what it can and can not do. Absent the data, it all remains open to interpretation.

          Like some ducks are drawn dressed as sailors with no pants.Report

          • Will H. in reply to 62across says:

            I’m saying that is a pretty good one; as in, “What a fine crock it is!”
            You should be thrilled.
            I’ll get back to you on the pantless duck later.
            I need to check the Audobon Society calendar.
            But libertarians (small ‘l,’ no fanfare) are always this or that thing, and never solely by themselves.
            It’s not that it’s not possible.
            It could turn out to be a big thing at some point.
            But for these times, the libertarian policies are essentially conservative or liberal policies revisited. And that will continue for the foreseeable future, to a point.
            And really, I see that as its strength; that it is not reliant on either conservative or liberal methodology. It can draw from either side, so it should come in handy in a showdown.
            But still, libertarianism is more of a tendency which occurs in conservatives, liberals, and moderates rather than one distinct cohesive philosophy. It’s more of a set of core principles.Report

          • Mike Farmer in reply to 62across says:


            The criticisms of the article are mainly aimed at the author’s failure to understand and address the history of libertarian ideas which requires more than simple dismissal because they are “Utopian”. Anyone who has read the libertarian literature will be turned off by this high school essay that appeared to rely on Google searches. The thing about libertarianism is it’s not a political alternative to conservatism or progressivism, a different batch of policy positions — it’s a call to stop relying on the State for all the answers and allow creative private sector solutions to arise. You are right — there are no five year plans. However, for those who’ve studied history, there’s plenty of evidence that shows governments which have loosened up regulation and control — Russia and NEP — Britain under the influence of Hayek — Reagan in the 80s — Italy under Gaspari after WWII — Germany under Adenaur — market reforms in China and all over Asia — they have grown economically, improved culturally and raised the standard of living for all. There are problems with all these examples, but they are mostly related to powerful State actions which eventually thwarted the progress. Conversely, when powerful States took complete control, horrible things have happened. So it’s not like there has been no testing of libertarian ideas — there is simply never been a society operating off mostly libertarian ideas — America comes the closest. This might all be beside the point — if we continue to go further in debt, we might be forced to try libertarian ideas — by “libertarian ideas” I mean only that society might have to work together to solve its own problems. A big part of what I promote is to go in the directon of private sector solutions, making private sector solutions the default choice — if there is no way to solve a certain problem through the myriad minds operating in a free, emergent order, then go to government if you must — I have a feeling we’d be too busy to worry much about government. We have made government the default problem solver, and it’s not working.Report

            • 62across in reply to Mike Farmer says:

              Thank you for the sober response. I’ll have to dig through some of that history.

              Though we’d likely disagree on the point at which we’d make the call that the private sector solutions were inadequate and government action was called for, I agree that giving the private sector first go at solving societal problems would be preferred. The fact that America comes the closest to a society based on libertarian ideas is likely due to the private sector getting the first crack more than you are admitting.Report

              • Mike Farmer in reply to 62across says:

                No, I agree, that’s why I said America is the closest, because we have allowed the private sector leeway, but I’m afraid the direction is changing — this is my main point. Especially in fear, people grab for and demand solutions, and over the past recent decades, there has been the tendency to rely on government, and government has been too happy to provide solutions. I jut fear this is a dangerous direction — another big “emergency” and there’s no telling what solutions will be offered and what the public will latch on to. Authoritarians love to provide solutions.Report

              • 62across in reply to Mike Farmer says:

                I don’t disagree with the dangers you claim in people’s reaction to fear – Iraq, Afghanistan, TSA groping and the Patriot Act all came from this place – I just don’t see this direction as anything new. It’s more ebb and flow.Report

              • Mike Farmer in reply to 62across says:

                Perhaps if we ignore the fate of republics, we can have faith that it always bounces back, but I think we ignore that history at our peril. What I see is a nation struggling against decline because we’re making all the mistakes Tocqueville warned against. Once we start cutting government out of necessity, the reaction will likely be explosive, pushing us further to the edge. The stakes get higher with each ebb and flow. The next two years will tell a lot about America.Report

  9. James K says:

    One of the things that bugs me about critiques of libertarianism is that it tends to focus at the minarchist end (privatising roads, abolishing welfare), rather than at the current policy margins (free trade, school vouchers, ending the war on drugs).

    Regardless of the merits of minarchism, there’s no feasible way to jump to it from a modern Western state in one jump. So why argue over a non-option? Why not argue about libertarian-aligned policies that could be implemented feasibly under current governance structures?Report

    • That’s a great point, and one that is seldom considered by anyone. If today’s crop of libertarians were all around during Oliver Twist and Hard Times, we might all be socialists.Report

      • James K in reply to Christopher Carr says:

        I think to an extent the problem is that people like to think in terms of broad strokes when it comes to politics: Big Government vs. Small Government, or adherence to some specific ideological model.

        I’m a policy wonk by trade, so I prefer to get into the details. Even if some form of libertarianism can’t be implemented wholesale (and I’m not ready to concede that for all forms of libertarianism), libertarians may still be able to contribute on specific policies.Report

    • Simon K in reply to James K says:

      I agree James, although I think its also a problem with Libertarians, as well as with critics of Libertarianism. With a few honorable exceptions, like Radley Balko and Will Wilkinson (hi Will), there’s a lot of people writing devastating critiques of every government policy on the basis that its, y’know, government, and therefore bad, m’kay? or rambling about what would and wouldn’t be allowed in their particular ideal scheme, and very, very few saying anything much about policies that could actually be implemented now and command some kind of popular support.Report

  10. Freddie says:

    Honestly… look, I’m not a libertarian, obviously, and most of the people here are, and that’s the context. But seriously – toughen up, guys.

    Look at me. I’m on the fringe, but really, there isn’t a much larger number of genuine libertarians than genuine revolutionary anti-capitalists in this country. Not really. What libertarians do have is the cover of respectability, which they’ve bought, with Cato and Reason and the libertarian think-tank and media establishment. And good for them. Me, I’m a part of an ideology that point blank gets me and my arguments assumed out of respectability and seriousness before I start arguing.

    And you know what? Good. Because fuck them. it’s a good check on myself; I don’t want them to be cool with me, and I don’t want to be cool with them. I’m tough and I like it. We don’t have your money or your media or your influence but when you are dismissed out of hand you get a thick skin about things.

    But now I read an article where a guy seems to me to frankly be falling all over himself trying to be even-handed and fair, and I read all these posts from aggrieved libertarians who have had their feelings hurt. For what? For this? Come on. When the Catholic priest scandal flared up again this year, someone emailed me to tell me that because I’m an insufficiently militant atheist, I am partially responsible for child rape. That’s the Internet. It ain’t beanbag, and neither are politics.

    So I don’t know what the wounded attitude accomplishes. It doesn’t make libertarianism look wronged. It just makes it look weak.Report

    • Simon K in reply to Freddie says:

      Not sure I see the gap really Freddie. The soft-centered, insincere, overexcited Republican variety of Libertarianism that plays nicely with the capitalists is respectable, sure, but thats because its about as radical and threatening to the status quo as the soft-centered insincere Left radicalism that consists of wearing Che Guevera T-shirts and buying Fair Trade coffee. Truly radical Libertarianism of the kind you might see Mike Farmer supporting isn’t respectable. Cato and others straddle between the radical and the mainstream, but then so do plenty of Lefty groups.Report

    • Mike Farmer in reply to Freddie says:

      Feelings hurt? I guess that’s one way to spin the responses.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Mike Farmer says:

        Yeah, it’s much more like reading a newspaper article about D&D that makes jokes about 3 hit-dice kobolds.

        The standard response would be something like:
        First off, kobolds are, like, 1 hit die.
        Second off, do you mean bugbears? That’s a 3 hit die monster in the same “family” of creature.

        To respond to this that the nerds are getting their feelings hurt is to miss the point.

        They’re pointing out that the reporter doesn’t even know enough about us to make fun of us the right way to result in our feelings being hurt.

        Which is one of the biggest insults of all, especially from a muggle.Report

        • Simon K in reply to Jaybird says:

          Its been over 15 years, and reading that first paragraph, I was thinking “that’s not right, kobolds only have one hit dice”. Some things just stick in your memory.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

      Me, I’m a part of an ideology that point blank gets me and my arguments assumed out of respectability and seriousness before I start arguing.

      Well, maybe you shouldn’t have killed so many people.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

        Apparently the number of people that died because of the African slave trade doesn’t affect the respectability of Confederate celebrations. Why would that be, I wonder?Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          It doesn’t?

          I was under the impression that it rains condemnation down upon the folks who do such things, inspires essay after essay after essay explaining that the Confederacy was a White Supremacist organization, and that no respectable person would willingly ally him(or her, but probably him)self with such a concept leaving only the racists, bigots, and otherwise unreconstructed.

          Read what Freddie said again:
          He’s part of an ideology that point blank gets him and his arguments assumed out of respectability and seriousness before he starts arguing.

          He obviously isn’t talking about merely being a Democrat. Hell, they won the 2008 elections in landslides and came *THIS* close to a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

          He obviously isn’t talking about merely being Labor or a fan of Social Democracy. They, too, win elections and win them with fairly big margins given the million parties over in Europe.

          What is assumed out of respectability anymore? Well, Marxism.

          And like we hammered out in the Civil War thread, Marxism is a lot like the Confederacy. At best the main adherents are good at compartmentalization. At best.Report

      • Robert Cheeks in reply to Jaybird says:

        Dude, …a little harsh?Report

      • Freddie in reply to Jaybird says:

        This will always be the world in which you live, Jaybird– in one where your positions don’t condemn millions to death from poverty, starvation, and illness, but where I’m supposed to have anything whatsoever to do with communism or Stalinism. But that’s the thing about you, my friend: you are a coward, as a intellect. You refuse to look yourself in the face. Always have.Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to Freddie says:

          Jaybird and Freddie – I see you haven’t missed a beat. Sigh.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

          Sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the projection.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Freddie says:

          I do want to address this:

          one where your positions don’t condemn millions to death from poverty, starvation, and illness, but where I’m supposed to have anything whatsoever to do with communism or Stalinism

          Imagine a universe in which Jaybird was never born. The butterfly in Rio did *NOT* flap its wings and that winter night in February in Michigan was unseasonably warm.

          Are the exact same millions condemned to poverty, starvation, and illness? I go through this thought experiment over and over and come to the conclusion that, yes, they are. There are a handful of changes in that universe and they mostly impact Maribou. Maybe your blood pressure is a little better in that universe. Hell, let’s get all Hitler and use our time machine to go back and kill Rothbard, von Mises, Rockwell, and Uncle Milty.

          Are the exact same millions condemned to poverty, starvation, and illness?

          I’ve run through the thought experiment again and with some exceptions on the margins (Pinochet!), the same people are poor, the same people are starving, and the same people are ill.

          These positions are not what are condemning these people.

          Maybe we should go back and kill Thomas Hobbes…

          On the other hand, let’s say we go back and kill people who, at the time, were defended as being good Socialist leaders who were carrying the flame of Marxism. I can think of a handful… and let’s go back and prevent their existence.

          My thought experiment has *NO* idea what happens next. What if Lenin had never? What if Stalin had never? What if Mao had never? It doesn’t seem right to automatically assume that the exact same people would have died and the vacuums created by these “great men” would have been filled by similar. There’s a couple of scenarios where, maybe, THIS wouldn’t have happened. Or *THAT* wouldn’t have happened. Maybe Germany wouldn’t have had an East Germany. It’s not automatically out of the question.

          Now, as I’ve said elsewhere, of *COURSE* you, Freddie, haven’t killed anybody. My statement was intended as an over-the-top joke and insofar as it wasn’t taken as one, I need to apologize for maligning you. Of course you’re not a murderer. (And so a universe without a Freddie looks very similar to this one… maybe there would have been fewer anti-war rallies.)

          To sum up, if we get rid of “libertarianism”, we don’t really get rid of much of anything from the world. It hasn’t had a whole lot of an impact… and it certainly hasn’t condemned millions to poverty, starvation, and illness. To its credit and shame, it hasn’t done much of anything at all.

          But to get rid of Marxism?

          Golly. I have no idea what the 20th Century would look like.Report

    • Robert Cheeks in reply to Freddie says:

      Freddie, thanks for the above. Seems like I had you over for dinner and a great bs session! And, you’re totally right!Report

  11. BSK says:

    While I generally have some many inherent libertarian leanings, I find there to be too many problems in most of the practical applications I see for instituting these principals to rally behind any libertarian movement or group. I think there are some very legitimate criticism of both libertarian ideologies and movements. Unfortunately, articles like this wade into all the problems discussed here, which limits the opportunity for genuine attempts to address the shortfalls or flaws of libertarianism.Report

  12. b-psycho says:

    Another way to state Jim Manzi’s explanation: American political culture assumes that poverty is mostly, or even entirely, due to irresponsibility, and that teaching & regulating responsibility should thus be part of the package of any assistance.

    Of course, as this assumption comes to be more obviously false, it’ll create another problem. But foresight isn’t exactly our strong suit…Report

  13. big jonny says:

    I’m a bit late to the party. Read this yesterday, and left it open in a browser tab overnight. Now there are 50-something comments already.

    I’ve just two points: 1) An individuals lack of “choice” in elementary and secondary education is of little surprise considering that those under the age of majority (18 yrs in the U.S.) are simply not adults. The responsibility of parenting is both broad and deep, and in loco parentis extends a fair bit of control over the student in the educational environment. Choice aside, a “student” is considered somewhat lesser than a full citizen (or human being, or man, etc.) in many regards. And, 2) we all surrender a bit of ourselves in exchange for membership in society. Where the line is drawn between self and collective is certainly indicative of one’s political leanings and the rest of it, but a sacrifice, however small, is requisite of membership.Report