His Master’s Voice

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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116 Responses

  1. Uncular1 says:


    You make some good points here. Unfortunately libertarianism is a very big tent so you do get people who claim to be libertarians because they want no taxes or corporate regulations but are very much in favor of social controls (i.e. drug war, anti-abortion, anti-pornography, etc.) and you also get those who want no social controls but indeed support corporate regulations and a ‘progressive’ tax scheme. It’s always hard to build a coalition based on changing things, everyone has different priorities based on what they see as the most imminent threat to their concept of personal freedom.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Uncular1 says:

      I take this to be a variant on objection (5), but I’m not really aware of any libertarians, self-described, who would not at least greatly reduce the penalties on nonviolent drug possession. The same goes for looking the other way on pornography. If you will. (While I’m with you on abortion, I don’t see it as a defining issue for libertarians.)

      Maybe a deeper problem here is that we can either do a class analysis of a political program, or of a coalition. Results vary accordingly, and how one defines the coalition is both largely up to you, and often determinative of the result.Report

      • > Results vary accordingly, and how one defines
        > the coalition is both largely up to you, and often
        > determinative of the result.

        The tea party is actually largely just a populist movement of anti-tax independents and Republicans. They’re not actually Libertarians. Similarly, not everyone who has read Ayn Rand is a Libertarian.

        Honestly, Jason, I think Ms. Rand is a large part of the problem for Libertarians. She’s like Nietzsche, she attracts a lot of kooks and you get tarred by association, because… well obviously Objectivists are all Libertarians, right?

        You’re in a hard space, because you’re trying to defend a set vs. a bad set definition, and your intellectual opponents can always just say you’re pulling a No True Scotsman. I can sympathize.Report

        • Chris in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

          Rand may have liked Nietzsche. I see no evidence that Rand understood Nietzsche. Just wanted to throw that out there.

          Oh, and it seems strange that Rand, or any Objectivists, would consider Nietzsche, staunch anti-capitalist that he was, an ally in any way.Report

          • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris says:

            My understanding is that in her earlier writings she was much more pro-Nietzsche, and later she backpedaled a lot. Among other things, she removed before publication an epigram from Nietzsche that appeared in the manuscript of The Fountainhead. Subsequent editions of We, the Living were likewise changed in some minor ways so the text had a less Nietzschean flavor.

            To read her explanation, Rand’s own break with Nietzsche wasn’t because he rejected capitalism, but because he was an anti-rationalist. There’s good reason for someone with Rand’s belief system to reject him on both counts, I think.Report

            • Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              Where can I find her explanation?

              Also, by anti-rationalist, do you mean anti-Rationalist, as in anti-philosophical rationalism, the position that paces the intellect and Reason over the senses and the empirical as a (or perhaps in its extreme form, the) source of knowledge, or do you mean simply anti-reason. If it’s the latter, then see the second sentence in my previous comment. If it’s the former, then eh. Nietzsche was an empiricst, even a naturalist (particularly in his later works), and not an enemy of reason, though he felt it too should be the subject of critique (his major criticism of Kant was that his critique of reason didn’t go far enough: it stopped just when it was on the point of actually accomplishing something). He was, however, certainly an enemy of Rationalism. I’ve always been under the impression that Rand had significant Rationalist tendencies, but wasn’t full-blown Rationalist ala Leibniz. I could be wrong, though.Report

  2. Jack says:

    Nicely put. I even managed to fight my tl;dr impulse. I will push back, mildly, on your answer to “So whats going on here” #5. I dont think it hard at all to find self sescribed libertarians that staunchly support any number of distincly conservative, rather than liberty oriented, ideas: Self styled patriotic libertarian republicans that support all our wars as well as give the fed a pass on the security state. Ron Paul endorsing both DADT and the horrific Chuck Baldwin’s Constitution Party. The wider issue of economic libertarians of a socially conservative bent supporting any number of intrusions by the state into the private lives of citizens, as long as such intursion is culture war driven moral legislation. Bob Barr down in Haiti serving as a spokesman for former corrupt disctator Jean-Claude Duvalier. The large swath of libertarians that would willingly replace federal protection of civil liberties with state level restrictions on the same. The LP’s embrace of Wayne Allyn Root doesn’t help either.
    And while the specific names I list are “just individuals”, they are individuals that represent leading voices in the libertrian sphere. I don’t by any stretch support libertarian purity tests, I merely point out that those looking for examples of libertarians violating core tenants of supposed libertarian principles (as defined by, say Cato and Reason) don’t have far to look.

    Anyway, I’m in wide agreement with your post, but it is my nature to nitpick the areas where I disagree.Report

  3. I like this post, and although I don’t identify as a libertarian, I find I am increasingly asking myself, “why not?”Report

  4. RTod says:


    A good post with good points. But I wonder if the issue is not class-interest, but self-interest?

    The eminent domain is a good example. Where I live, most of the vocal libertarians I know are – overwhelmingly – white, male, pretty young (20s through 40s), and a surprising amount work in the high tech industry, and mostly as contractors for larger corporations. (And before everyone jumps down my throat about this African American guy or this old lady is a libertarian – stop. I’m not claiming this is the Way It Is, I’m just saying what it looks like on my street.)

    Most of the points you describe don’t have these libertarians fall into traditional class camps, but they do sort of form a micro-class, if you will, and their positions often seem as directed by self-interest as my stock broker friends that push corporatist ideas or my lower-income friends that push for more government assistance. My vocal libertarian friends are against affirmative action – but then again they are young white and male. They are against eminent domain to make gyms for families in their communities – but most of them don’t have families or work out. They are against eminent domain to give land to corporations – but then they don’t own the kinds of corporations that get land given to them. They don’t support the financial bail out – but them none of them are bankers or stock/commodity traders.

    I would even argue that, despite not belonging to a traditional “class,” when arguing politics they do use traditional class warfare hyperbole. (Oh, the times I’ve heard Pol Pot mentioned as an argument against healthcare reform.)

    So the fact that libertarians don’t fight traditional class warfare battles seems a bit of a “duh,” since most of the ones I know are neither corporate shills or poor. I’d be more interested to see you tackle the question of whether or not libertarianism, despite it’s terrific appeal as a “everybody gets what they deserve by their own sweat and brains,” is not (on paper aside) as much about getting government to work in their self-interest as anyone else.

    Don’t know that I’m arguing that it is; I have never really thought about it until your post. But now it seems like a thing worth talking about, and more than anyone I’d like to hear your thoughts on it.Report

    • RTod in reply to RTod says:

      I should add a quick note about the flip side of what libertarians I know are for/against. They all vocally oppose Oregon switching to a toll booth system to pay for highway maintenance, but then they all drive highways regularly. They don’t seem to oppose when our governor makes “sister city” deals with China, but then they often benefit from those subsequent contracts. Anyway, you get the idea.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to RTod says:

        I find toll roads the obviously better solution when compared to taxes. It’s a shame that more of our roads can’t be paid for that way.

        I don’t understand what you are getting at with the “sister city” program. More details please?Report

        • RTod in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          awww, but i wanted to here you talk about my larger point!

          Anyway, a couple of times over the last decade Oregon’s Governor was gone to some city in China to make Sister City deals – essentially to broker unofficial trade relationships between Portland or Hillsboro or Eugene with a corresponding Chinese city. These often lead to one city’s companies agreeing to buy a lot of products/services from the other city. And we usually get a cheap manufacturing from them for hiring lots of programming work from us deal.Report

        • Jason:

          You being in favor of toll roads actually somewhat works in favor of RTod’s point since, IIRC, you pretty much take the train everywhere and don’t do a ton of driving.

          I agree with your original post more probably than I do with RTod’s theory, though I suspect the truth is probably somewhere along the lines of “yeah, it’s ultimately about self-interest, but advancement of ideological/philosophical commitments is a part of how one defines one’s self-interest. For most self-identified libertarians, it’s an abnormally large part.”Report

          • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mark Thompson says:

            For a theory to be respectable, we must be able to state it in more than self-regarding terms, and it must be able to stand in that form.

            There is no requirement that for a theory to be respectable, it must be against my self-interest.

            Looking at the issues I consider the most important right now — our foreign wars and the Drug War — I can say of the first that it has no impact on me at all. Even if there were a draft, I’m too old and too asthmatic. None of my family is serving overseas. I’m not a defense contractor, and my aerospace engineer husband is a pacifist who has vowed never to work on weapons systems, ever. So I have nothing to lose or gain here as far as I can tell.

            As for the Drug War, if pot were legal I might smoke up once in a while. (Not often; the asthma.) That’s a slight bit of self-interest, but it’s not much of one. Certainly not enough to bump it to the top of my priorities list, I’d think.Report

            • Just to clarify: I was saying that for most libertarians, the advancement of ideological/philosophical commitments is an abnormally large part of how we define our self-interest, so what you’re saying would be consistent with this.

              But I get your point about this theory being too self-regarding.

              What I’m trying to get at is that as libertarians we derive an unusual amount of satisfaction/emotional well-being out of fighting for certain causes that most epitomize our ideological program. The Drug War is important to us, even though its effects on most individual libertarians is minimal, because it epitomizes everything that libertarianism is supposed to be against: huge numbers of people in prison, abuse of property rights, violence, etc., etc. We really do I think care passionately about the victims of the Drug War, but the reason we even take the time to learn about them in the first place is because opposing the Drug War provides us so much emotional satisfaction.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to RTod says:

      I’d be more interested to see you tackle the question of whether or not libertarianism, despite it’s terrific appeal as a “everybody gets what they deserve by their own sweat and brains,” is not (on paper aside) as much about getting government to work in their self-interest as anyone else.

      This gets quickly to a very big question — is there ever such a thing as equality before the law? What would it even mean to be equal before the law, in a world of unequal talents, luck, and holdings?

      If there is no such thing, then all politics is mere self-interest. Or it might as well be. Still, I think we can recognize, sometimes, when we have sufficiently violated the ideal, and when it’s time to change things, not for personal interest, but because principle demands it.Report

      • RTod in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Agreed. But I would argue that more often than not, the ideas of ideals (if you will) are used to get us to make changes that are neither necessary nor warranted. Libertarianism included.Report

    • iluvcapra in reply to RTod says:

      libertarianism, despite it’s terrific appeal as a “everybody gets what they deserve by their own sweat and brains,” is not (on paper aside) as much about getting government to work in their self-interest as anyone else.

      Libertarianism does not promise this, at least if you follow Nozick’s program — libertarianism only promises that everyone gets what they can obtain through free exchange. If they get rewards through sweat and brains, fine; if they get rewards from inheritance, fine; if once you have something you can be permitted to keep it, never using it or selling it, while the lack of it immiserates thousands of others, fine.

      Nobody, liberal, conservative, progressive, libertarian disagrees about the sweat-and-brains thing, it’s the other things that drive away supporters.Report

  5. Jason Kuznicki says:

    To those arguing that I face a No True Scotsman problem:

    I’d agree with you if I were trying to include all libertarians — and I’d especially agree if I were trying to include all people who have invoked some libertarian ideas as part of a mixed political program. But that’s not what I’m doing.

    What I’m pointing out here are positions that are (a) very, very common among libertarians and (b) rare to nonexistent elsewhere. (Seriously, progressives, what happened to you guys on the antiwar stuff?)Report

    • RTod in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      “Seriously, progressives, what happened to you guys on the antiwar stuff?”

      What the… is there a war going on?Report

    • I didn’t say you faced a NTS problem. I said you faced the issue that an opposing person could claim that you had a NTS problem.

      Not that I’d agree, but from a marketing standpoint (not to mention a group identification standpoint) it does represent in some ways a frustrating pain in the ass 🙂Report

  6. BlaiseP says:

    Caveat: I am not a Libertarian, but I’m drinking a lot of beer with a bunch of them these days, teaching John Stuart Mill. I will shortly utter some fatuous inanities, larded with a long quote from Isaiah Berlin, make of them what you will. If Libertarians are perceived as a black box, their opacity might be revealed in my own stupid summations.

    Libertarians as political animals could do worse than to return to first principles and re-preach the Gospel of Locke’s Second Treatise. The Libertarians require rebranding in a big way. Nozick made a dog’s dinner of Locke. Like the Marxists of old (who were capitalists to the core) the Libertarians fell out among themselves and failed to deliver a coherent message thereafter.

    John Stuart Mill is far more accessible, grounded in outcomes. The Libertarian ought to resort to Mill more often. He’s simply easier to digest, more common sense, less specialized vocabulary. But Mill is only a starting point. The next important bit of reading is Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty, where Mill’s simplistic (if hugely important) assertions are expanded and given context:

    ‘The nature of things does not madden us, only ill will does’, said Rousseau. The criterion of oppression is the part that I believe to be played by other human beings, directly or indirectly, with or without the intention of doing so, in frustrating my wishes. By being free in this sense I mean not being interfered with by others. The wider the area of noninterference, the wider is my freedom.

    “This is what the classical English political philosophers meant when they used this word. They disagreed about how wide the area could or should be. They supposed that it could not, as things were, be unlimited, because if it were, it would entail a state in which all men could boundlessly interfere with all other men; and this kind of ‘natural’ freedom would lead to social chaos in which men’s minimum needs would not be satisfied; or else the liberties of the weak would be suppressed by the strong. Because they perceived that human purposes and activities do not automatically harmonize with one another; and, because (whatever their official doctrines) they put high value on other goals, such as justice, or happiness, or culture, or security, or varying degrees of equality, they were prepared to curtail freedom in the interests of other values and, indeed, of freedom itself. For, without this, it was impossible to create the kind of association that they thought desirable. Consequently, it is assumed by these thinkers that the area of men’s free action must be limited by law. But equally it is assumed, especially by such libertarians as Locke and Mill in England, and Constant and Tocqueville in France, that there ought to exist a certain minimum area of personal freedom which must on no account be violated; for if it is overstepped, the individual will find himself in an area too narrow for even that minimum development of his natural faculties which alone makes it possible to pursue, and even to conceive, the various ends which men hold good or right or sacred. It follows that a frontier must be drawn between the area of private life and that of public authority. Where it is to be drawn is a matter of argument, indeed of haggling. Men are largely interdependent, and no man’s activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’; the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others. Still, a practical compromise has to be found.”

    And that’s where the Libertarians are strongest, because they recognize the complexity of the problem. It will not be solved with high-minded theoretical pronouncements: Mill tells us the simple truth: think or die.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

      You know, I think you’re mostly right.

      To my mind, there are two libertarian thinkers who possessed great theoretical clarity, extraordinary devotion to principle… and a rigidity that makes them almost useless when dealing with anyone else — Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard.

      I do think highly of them, but they’re not winning many battles for us on the margin. The longer I work in DC, the more I see how people respond to different messages, the more I’m drawn to relatively anti-dogmatic thinkers. People willing to work on the margins, make incremental improvements, and recognize that a Great Libertarian Revolution would probably just eat its children like every other Great Revolution has done before.

      So while Rand and Rothbard have fallen a bit in my esteem, Mill and Tocqueville have risen. Hayek too, and perhaps especially, but you knew that already.Report

      • I don’t think it’s just an issue of messaging and winning battles, though. I think the clarity and extraordinary devotion to principle of Rand and Rothbard (but especially Rand) winds up completely contradicting their initial (and, IMHO, extremely valuable) insights. Taking them beyond those initial insights* leads one to exactly the opposite point that their initial insights claim to want.

        It’s not just that the Hayeks, etc of the world were more pragmatic and willing to make incremental changes, it’s also that they recognized the very validity of their insights hinged on lacking certainty about those insights.

        The central insight of libertarianism is that human society and really the world as a whole is extraordinarily complex and attempts to control it are borne out of hubris and arrogance. To pair this insight with inflexible certainty about its correctness and -especially – its implications is to destroy it with precisely the same hubris and arrogance with which that insight is concerned.

        *For the most part, these initial insights are covered at least equally well by others, at least in terms of their political implications. However, I do think that Rand’s initial insights (ie, her insights stripped of her certainty and hubris) also extend to the personal sphere in a way that others’ do not, and in a very valuable way that complements and extends Ralph Waldo Emerson quite nicely. But you have to be careful to strip away the certainty and hubris to see this.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Mark Thompson says:

          One of Rand’s most famous scenes celebrates the death in what amounts to a gas chamber of people guilty of disagreeing with her. Whatever is left of her “insights” after you strip away the certainty, hubris, and bloodthirstiness of this, I want nothing to do with.Report

          • RTod in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            True. I read a really fascinating biography of her by Jennifer Burns last summer. It was hard not to see her as a living enactment of Animal Farm.Report

          • Mike:

            The scene of which you speak is precisely the result of the certainty and hubris that I think must be stripped away.Report

            • Mike Schilling in reply to Mark Thompson says:

              Leaving what besides hatred, paranoia, and a complete absence of literary ability?Report

              • Simon K in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                I hate to defend Ayn Rand, but that goes a step too far, even though I agree with you about the appalling hubris of the train scene in Atlas Shrugged. There are positive ideas in there. In particular:

                1. Actual reality as the only arbiter of truth and falsehood.
                2. Reason as the only way of getting anywhere useful, given (1).
                3. Self interest as not only okay, but as the only sensible foundation for any kind of caring for others, or indeed ethics of any kind.
                4. Political and economic freedom as necessary for any kind of cooperation, given that 1-3 imply individuals will have different interests and different ideas need to be tried against reality.

                At least that’s what I get from it. There’s a great deal of nastiness and outright whackjobbery too, not to mention pretensions to doing analytic philosophy of a kind she didn’t really understand.

                In short, she’s like many Continental philosophers in having a particularly view of how to live that was kind of coherent but never well enough explicated to be satisfactory to people raised on more rigorous stuff. Like Mill, for instance. That’s why the novels are interesting (especially the ones not called “Atlas Shrugged”) – because they let her explore that view of how people should be without having to indulge in ponderous philosophical ineptitude.Report

              • ThatPirateGuy in reply to Simon K says:

                I always get very uncomfortable when someone starts using the word parasite to describe people. Especially when they use it to describe people without much power.

                That is what freaks me out the most about the Randians that freak me out.Report

              • Simon K in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

                Indeed. That is creepy. Really, the whole element of Randianism that holds whole swathes of people in contempt, I can do without. Its a reflection of Rand’s personality, sadly.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Simon K says:

                But besides the four or five things that cause anything with either a brain or a sense of human decency to hold her in contempt, she’s worthwhile. Uh-huh,Report

              • Simon K in reply to Simon K says:

                I just said there are interesting and positive ideas in there. None of them are unique. You could get the same out of reading some combination of Hayek, Stirner and Burke or similar. But there’s no other fiction writer or “continental” philosopher who combines them, so in that sense she left something unique. I don’t think very many people deserve to be held in contempt. Including Ayn Rand.Report

              • Murali in reply to Simon K says:

                There are positive ideas in there. In particular: …

                A few notes on the particulars of 1-4

                1. I’m pretty much down with a correspondence theory of truth, but it doesnt have the straightforward implications that Rand and other empiricists believe that such a theory has. Neither does Randian epistemology follow from it.

                … more to follow….Report

              • Murali in reply to Simon K says:

                2. One thing that does not sit well with me is the conflation of rightness and usefullness…Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Mark Thompson says:

          This, I suppose, depends on the nature of the battle itself. Messaging is hugely important: the Libertarians are at a political crossroad. If their intellectuals cannot snatch the microphone back from Glenn Beck and Ron Paul, they will suffer the fate of the GOP, which unwisely let the mouthbreathers and Neocons onto their own stage. The Neocons, we must remember, were disillusioned Pinkos and Trotskyists; they were never Conservatives by any definition, especially not that maniac Irving Kristol. They aped certain Conservative tropes and some of the rubes were taken in, but the Conservatives never had a coherent message after the death of William F Buckley. I’ve read every issue of Weekly Standard since it began publication: the current crop of writers resemble nothing so much as a bunch of New Guinea savages worshipping a crashed C-47 in a cargo cult ceremony.

          The Libertarians need a messenger. They do not have one. They’d better get one, and quick.Report

          • Mark Thompson in reply to BlaiseP says:

            To a large extent I agree. My point is more that the reason the messaging is so bad is that the philosophy of most of the messengers is often destructive of the very goals it purports to advance.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Mark Thompson says:

              How did Eliot put it?

              We shall not cease from exploration.
              And the end of all our exploring.
              Will be to arrive where we started.
              And know the place for the first time.

              Mark Twain observes that after he’d run away from home and come back after many years, it was amazing how his father had smartened up in the interval. If we’re honest with ourselves, we admit the holes in our own arguments, see our theoretical opposition to certain things as a reaction to some actual injustice we have seen. That’s why it’s always best to start and end with Gnothi Seauton proposition: nobody wakes up in the middle of the night, shaking with rage, his fists clenched thinking about the atrocities of Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot. The things which outrage us, which provoke us to argument are things and people we want to change, to come around to our side of the argument.

              I used to despise Libertarians. I remember reading Ayn Rand when I guess I was about 14 and thinking, wow, this is heady stuff. What would happen if thinking people banded together and began to control the world? Then I thought about it for a few minutes and talked about it with an old French guy I knew, who laughed and said “If all the thinking people got together in the same room, they’d start killing each other.” That was the end of Ayn Rand for me, right there.

              Libertarians, as I have said about Hayek in particular, are rather like Marxists when they get all Normative. They just look silly. They are an entirely necessary force in both economic theory and politics, but they need to start with the premise of “Hey, take another look at us, because we’re results-oriented. Look, here’s JS Mill, and Hayek and they’re actually a lot more sensible than you might be led to believe. Big Gummint has not proven to be your Good Buddy and neither has Big Business. They’re wrecked your world, folks. It’s time you stood up for your own goddamn selves. Think or die.”Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Since they both share the same need, maybe the libertarians and the Muslims can pool their resources to hire a kickass PR firm.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        I began my little set of beer hall lectures on the cynical assertion these Tea Partiers were inchoate Libertarians: their anger lacked focus. See, I can’t be a Libertarian, not because I disagree with them at a fundamental level, it’s just gets too messy at a practical level, which is why I started in with John Stuart Mill.

        As a Liberal, I see the need for government to apply the rules to everyone: in an increasingly risky world, the need for regulation has only risen. The Libertarians (as presently manifested in outfits like Cato Institute, sorry, but it’s true) are hell-bent on slapdash deregulation, knowing the consequences and caring not a whit how it affects the have-nots. This I suppose to be an unfair generalization but given the policy papers I see emerging from the Libertarian camp these days, that’s my reaction.

        Gerald Cohen, a thoroughgoing analytical Marxist, made a point about socialism: it should quit acting as if it has any normative lessons to teach. The same goes for the Libertarians, and Cohen cuts Nozick a New One. Every time the Libertarians start preaching virtues and natural law and the rest of that manifest bullshit, they sound just like the idiotic Marxists of old, who never actually read Das Kapital but sure had some big ideas on how they could right the wrongs of the world. The Nozickian (and for that matter, Rothbard) needs to quit preaching about the putative Libertarian Paradise: their only solutions at present seems to involve dividing the shortages among the peasants.

        Which is why JS Mill is still so relevant, all these years later. Do the experiment first, then derive your conclusions. The results of willy-nilly deregulation were catastrophic. Let’s not go down that road again, eh?Report

    • James Vonder Haar in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Do you have any suggestions for where a student of Mill should proceed after On Liberty? I don’t know much about the other things he’s written, though I know I’d prefer to read his political stuff as opposed to his works on utilitarianism.Report

  7. b-psycho says:

    BlaiseP: “As a Liberal, I see the need for government to apply the rules to everyone”

    Problem is, no one seems able to reliably insure that whoever obtains the power of government also has the rules applied to them

    It’s said that a lot of libertarians are idealists when it comes to humanity. I’m actually not. I don’t expect some sort of utopia without the state. However, what I’ve learned to expect from the practice of government is that assembling from the public an elite, granting them the power to initiate force, and then expecting that elite to act in the interests of “the people” — as opposed to, y’know, themselves — backfires on a regular basis.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to b-psycho says:

      Well, good on you for saying so. It’s high time the Libertarians climbed out of the Ivory Tower and exhibited some humility about their positions. Anyone preaching a Utopia ought to provoke every sane person to reach for his wallet and hold on firmly, because there’s always a sales pitch at the end of that sermon, if not a strongarm robbery. Speaking as a Liberal, I’ll go so far as to say all this Hopey-Changey bullshit was emitted by people who knew they could deliver neither. Campaigns are all songs and torchlight parades and music, but Governance is four semesters of tax accounting, very few words and a torrent of numbers.

      See, that’s where the Libertarians shine. They don’t make any pretense of solving your problems. They’re likely to create a whole lot more, because you’re responsible for the government you elect, and if all you want is a Bullshit Artiste, the gods answer the prayers of the stupid.Report

      • James K in reply to BlaiseP says:

        This is the reason why I’m a big fan of Milton Friedman. If you read his major political work (Capitalism and Freedom) he doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to develop a first-principles account of the proper role of government, he just goes through a series of issues of the day, explaining what he thinks the problem is in each case, and what he would do to fix it.

        I think the reason for the difference is that unlike Rand or Rothbard or even Hayek, Friedman started out in government. He understood at a visceral level that the “size of government” is just a convenient handle for thousands of individual policy decisions.

        That’s not to say that high-level thinking is without merit, you need some kind of principles to determine what qualifies as good and bad. But once you have your evaluative criteria, there’s no substitute for getting to the details.Report

  8. “It’s the working class that is forced to supply urine on demand as a condition of mere employment.”

    I was drug tested as a condition of my employment at one of the hospitals where I worked as a physician. While this burden may fall more frequently on the working class, it is not exclusive to it.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Russell Saunders says:

      Was the top management of that hospital also drug-tested? If not, we’re simply seeing an outlying instance of “working class”.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        So doctors are part of the working class, now?

        How about rocket scientists? I (and everyone I work with now, and worked with in the past) had to submit a urine sample prior to employment. We don’t have to keep doing it, but it’s not as though our wee has never gone through a gas chromatograph. (And yes, people being hired for management positions have to do it too.)

        I know that this is a very small thing, but the OP made such a big deal about “piss test = class war” that I think it’s worth pointing out counterexamples.Report

      • Indeed. Mr. Kuznicki wrote this:

        In the process, it delivers the ruling class a population of docile, reliable, obedient workers. The man who will pee into a cup on demand is as tractable as you could possibly want him. What else will he do? Any goddamn thing you ask.

        This is preposterous. I was not particularly bothered by the mild inconvenience of this requirement for my employment. Had the hospital in question trespassed on prerogatives I cared more about, I would have resisted. (In fact, there were plenty of instances during my time at that hospital when I did so.) I was in no way docile during my period of employment. Moreover, I enjoyed the privileges of being a professional, salaried employee of the hospital, which were notably different from those in “working class” jobs. It is absurd to say that something as picayune as a urine drug test defines one’s class, fortunes or temperament.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Russell Saunders says:

          I was not particularly bothered by the mild inconvenience of this requirement for my employment.

          May I just suggest that this proves my point? The way bio-political power works is precisely to rearrange your sense of propriety. That’s what it does. That’s the whole point.Report

          • But you imply that I should have been bothered. That it some freer, more proper state I should have recognized this as an unwarranted intrusion. I disagree. It seemed not unreasonable to me that my potential employer wanted to know that its physicians (a relatively high-risk group) would not be practicing under the influence of drugs. I thought it was silly, but not egregious.

            You may have a point about what liberties our employers should be able to take with our bodies (or their effluents), but I think you drastically overstate your case.Report

            • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Russell Saunders says:

              I could actually charge that hill, and say that liberty really is about creating a particular kind of person — one who cares for his dignity and privacy and such. But I don’t have to.

              Here’s what I think is remarkable: Not so long ago, no one submitted to urine screening. Urinating was private. Or at least we mostly agreed it should be. Now it’s held up for medical scrutiny. Why? Because of a moral panic over in the political sphere.

              I find that disturbing, anyway.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                I needed to pee in a jar when I applied for a job at Blockbuster. When I applied for a job at (Multi-national Conglomerate) or at (Military Contractor), peeing in a jar was never mentioned.Report

              • ThatPirateGuy in reply to Jaybird says:

                I had to pee for every job prior to my government job.Report

              • RTod in reply to Jaybird says:

                That you were asked to pee in a jar and not a cup confirms me suspicion of you being a man of very impressive stature.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to RTod says:

                Just an impressive bladder.

                “Hey, I’m done with this one. I’m going to need another four or five.”

                “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

                I did not need to pee in a jar when I worked for Large Oil Company, because I was a white-collar worker. The union guys whom I worked alongside did. There was some logic in this, since they could cause stuff to blow up directly and I only at one remove (though given our primitive approach to software testing, it wasn’t a big remove.) I understand that after I left, the “professional” exemption went away.

                As far as I know, the testing was only for illegal drugs, and the culture of heavy drinking that went way up the management chain was quietly ignored.Report

  9. Pat Cahalan says:

    Mark sez up above: “The central insight of libertarianism is that human society and really the world as a whole is extraordinarily complex and attempts to control it are borne out of hubris and arrogance.”

    That’s a good point. And it’s a valuable insight. However, it’s also a more than little bit wrong from my standpoint when taken past “insight” to “point of dogma”. Which is probably one other reason why
    I’m not a Hayekean (?)

    Compare these two statements:

    “The global economy of nations is a complex system. Attempts to channel or shape this complex system are doomed to always have horrible unforeseen consequences, which outweigh any temporary advantages we may get out of those modifications.”

    “The global biosphere is a complex system. Attempts to channel biodiversity or engage in planned agriculture are doomed to always have horrible unforeseen consequences, which outweigh any temporary advantages we may get out of those modifications.”

    Sure, there’s examples of horrible unforeseen consequences with human beings tinkering with the biosphere via our 10,000+ year experimentation with genetic engineering and terraforming.

    And make no mistake, the history of agriculture is genetic engineering and terraforming, even if we didn’t know that’s what we were doing or why it worked for the first 9,500 years of that 10,000+.

    There’s also serious problems with the way we currently engage in the terraforming bit, to be certain.

    However, I don’t think one can look at the body of agriculture and claim that it isn’t, in fact, injecting useful order on a complex system that has in the main worked out okay for homo sapiens.

    Similarly, I don’t think that one can look at all government interventions in the economy (global or otherwise) and claim that it isn’t, in fact, injecting useful order on a complex system that has in the main worked out okay for homo sapiens.

    That said, hubris and arrogance do often correlate very highly with the badness of those unintended consequences when they do occur… which is, also, damn frequently.

    Still, not a reason to damn the whole kit and kaboodle.Report

  10. Francis says:

    The problem I have with the foregoing is that war, drug policy and eminent domain abuse are the easy cases for the upper middle class liberals (like me) who comment here. There are much harder cases out there that sharply split mainstream liberalism from mainstream libertarianism, like:

    1. Progressive rates of taxation
    2. Privatization /.elimination of Social Security;
    3. Access to and funding of health care;
    4. Regulation of the finance industry;
    5. Private ownership and profit from public goods (like roads).Report

  11. DensityDuck says:

    The problem with class analysis is that it’s far too easy to answer criticisms with “well, that just shows we didn’t define our classes properly! Redefine the classes and the problem goes away!” (Like the post above, where someone suggests that doctors are part of the working class.)Report

  12. E.C. Gach says:

    Excellent post Jason!

    I can’t argue you on a single point you’ve made.

    My own conclusion for why this misunderstanding persists comes out to two things. First, there just aren’t that many libertarians out there, and many more Republicans in libertarians’ clothing (because it makes them look/feel less partisan/establishment and more principled/grass roots). Two, because libertarians support stricter limitations on the role and reach of government, they often support policy to that effect, which usually has the unwelcome (and unintended) consequence of turning that responsibility/market over to some corporate monopoly (e.g. how often does “privitization” actually lead to “free-market” privitization and not just a giveaway to the largest most politically influential corporate group).

    Great stuff!Report

  13. Jaybird says:

    This was an awesome post.

    My Libertarianism, fundamentally, comes from a fairly uncomplicated thought experiment.

    I ask “do I have the right to stop you from doing X?”

    From there, I can usually get to “well, would someone else have the right to stop you from doing X?” and get to a similar answer.

    After that, I find that I am appalled at the attitudes that say that the police should be kicking down doors and shooting dogs to prevent people from doing X… as if the police weren’t functionally identical to “someone else”. (I don’t see how saying “we, as a society, have decided that police should prevent Xing” doesn’t get me there from here.)

    There are a great many arguments that make sense to me, mind. I’ve used them in arguments and hold them close to my heart… but they aren’t *MINE* in the way that the above is mine. I don’t see how people have the right to prevent other folks from doing so much that we, as a society, have agreed they shouldn’t be doing.Report

  14. Currents says:

    “That’s because I was born upper-middle class, I went to good schools, I earned the right degrees, and now I have a cushy intellectual job.”

    …and you’re male.

    Looks like a guy’s club, this discussion.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Currents says:

      Be the change you want to see in the world. If there is a gender topic that you feel libertarians are bad on, throw it in there!

      Title IX? That’s a fun can of worms.Report

    • CRW in reply to Currents says:

      I’ve noticed the y chromosome imbalance as well, not just in this post and thread, but in libertarianism in general (despite Rand, who novels I too read as an adolescent, and recoiled from in distaste–to put it mildly–at her really weird ideas on relations between men and women).

      Libertarian comes across to this feminist grandmother as a political philosophy for well-off, technically educated young white guys who look forward to being the next masters of the universe. Good work when you can get it.Report

    • Leah in reply to Currents says:

      I’m a pretty staunch (small l) libertarian and am female, married, and a mother of 3 small kids. I agree that it can be annoying to deal with the sausagefest of libertarianism sometimes and having to standard-bear against stereotypes on a regular basis, but that is not exclusive to this political affiliation. I homebrew, which is a giant sausagefest of a hobby. As is photography (though perhaps less so that brewing, but still). It is tough, particularly that many of my female friends are liberal to the point that they refuse to see any other sides at all, it is just “if you are a good person you are liberal and otherwise you must hate poor people.” But I try to raise my kids to see authority with a skeptical eye and perhaps that may have a bigger effect than trying to change minds that are already made up.Report

    • I’m a libertarian chick.Report

  15. Bob says:

    Just to let everyone know, I am a liberal. A San Francisco bay area, unapologetic liberal. I also majored in philosophy in college though I haven’t done much rigorous philosophical work since. I don’t usually engage in conversations with libertarians, but I just felt like trying something new.

    I have always thought that there is plenty of room for agreement between libertarians and liberals, but I wouldn’t mind hearing the libertarian responses to some of the reasons why I think that no real liberal would ever adopt the libertarian flag for a single second.

    And even in your 3 examples I find some room to quibble.

    For the drug war there is plenty of room for agreement. I am young, white, and have never smoked pot once, so it has had very nearly zero affect on me personally.
    I think it is pretty clear empirically that the current regime for fighting it has been a complete failure and waste of resources and lives.

    On the other hand, is the correct strict libertarian position the theory that no drugs of any kind should be regulated? That alcohol and tobacco should not have either their content or marketing regulated at all? Or that they can be regulated locally but not federally? I don’t think any liberal would agree with those propositions and so can not align themselves perfectly with libertarians here. And I am not sure that the libertarian position is particularly brave or interesting if it doesn’t engage in honest reasoning about the consequences of their policies, pro and con.

    On eminent domain. Do I like to hear that homes are being destroyed to make room for corporate strip malls? No I do not. Do I accept this consequence when it allows for the governor to more quickly and cheaply develop our states high speed rail system? There is room for debate, and once again the agreement is imperfect.

    As for the wars overseas. I never thought the wars on terrorism were possible to win, or our purported enemy a credible threat. Liberals knew that neither candidate for president was any sort of dove, and we pretty much gave up on this issue when there was obviously no chance of success. For the past few wars libertarians probably win the debate on foreign policy. But should liberals be inclined to unite with libertarians in the future on these issues?

    Would libertarians have prevented us from fighting in world war two? I don’t know, I will assume for the rest of my argument that the libertarian position is complete nonintervention when US interests are not affected significantly.

    Both republicans and democrats at least leave room in their rhetoric for genuine humanitarian interventions, where I believe libertarians do not. Has our foreign policy of the last few decades been terrible, yes it has. but would complete nonintervention have been better? Who can say.

    On foreign policy I just have to do a thought experiment that to me fully explains why libertarianism will never be adopted in America.

    If I was walking home from work and saw a 12 year girl being brutally raped by a gang, and I chose to do nothing, that might not make me a completely evil human being, or it might. It certainly would be something I would have on my conscience and soul for the rest of my life. If we acted that way as a country we might be realists, we might theoretically even be better off in the long term. But we also might not be human anymore.

    I know none of the major parties present themselves well on interventions overseas, but I can just imagine the libertarians all lifting their voices. Instead of hearing “never again” after Rwanda type genocide, we might hear, again, again.

    And I will just completely skip over economic development, food aid, and ant-malaria campaigns. I am sure their effectiveness can be questioned honestly, but I don’t have the inclination to argue with moral reasoning why we ought to do such things as a country. Not even mentioning how it may also be in our own long-term interest.

    And maybe I just hear all my libertarians filtered through republican speakers but I assume that at least on deregulation the two are pretty closely aligned. Probably not on oil subsidies, but perhaps on eliminating the FDA, EPA and the like.

    It seems to me that the fundamental problem with libertarianism as I understand it is that it assumes that in the face of great complexity we should simply stop trying to understand or bring order to the world. In spite of the fact that our actions have already had irreversible consequences, and will continue to have them under a business as usual scenario.

    I am pretty sure if we tried we could cut or burn down just about every acre of forest in the country in a relatively short period of time. We could probably even profit handsomely by doing so. Do libertarians honestly argue that this would have no consequences for the earth or its ecosystems? On local weather, species, habitability of the soil for humans?

    It just seems to me that libertarians say that since we can never understand the consequences of our actions we should never invest ourselves collectively in a single plan of development or mitigation. This seems entirely incoherent to me in the face of science demonstrating that business as usual is infinitely worse than any possible deliberate intervention we could attempt. And in the face of examples like CA which show that investment in green technologies and the like have virtually no effect on GDP.

    It seems to me that most libertarians I hear in public are arguing in favor of a system that has as a consequence the complete removal of all protections of the poor against the wealthy. This might be equality under the law, but in practice it would obviously be the exact opposite. If the 10% of the country that already controls 90% or so of the wealth never had to pay estate taxes again, nothing would prevent them from acquiring the other 10% as well.

    If Ron Paul had is way I am sure we would quite directly return to the days of child labor, burning rivers, and arsenic in drinking water. Since we already have those things as examples of the absence of regulation, I simply do not understand how any theoretical libertarian utopia, or un-utopia would possibly be any better than the imperfect system we have today.

    If humans have the power to destroy nine tenths of our population in a day of nuclear fire, can it really be argued that regulations of human activities by governments are always wrong?Report

    • tom van dyke in reply to Bob says:

      Bob: To add to your laundry list of liberal shibboleths, there’s taxing the bejesus out of the rich, the public union political cartel, school choice, “green” tax/industrial policy, race-based preferences and policy, busting the Amish for selling raw milk


      [heh heh, I liked that one]

      forcing people to buy health insurance, hating on Walmart, blowing billions on public rail that nobody rides, hamstringing the US oil business, using public money to fund partisan public broadcasting, and using the Commerce Clause as carte blanche for virtually any desirable end.

      But besides those minor issues, liberals and libertarians have a lot in common. Mostly sex, drugs and rock & roll. The important things in life.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Bob says:

      It is very difficult to say what “the” libertarian position is on most issues, because libertarians, like all others, are a diverse group.
      But I’ll answer briefly what I think about several of the topics you mention.

      Would I deregulate alcohol and tobacco? In some ways, yes. But I would still want it sold only to adults and still want it taxed.

      Would I have fought World War II? Yes. We were directly attacked without provocation. It’s ot a difficult call that we need to respond. I’d even go as far as supporting the first Gulf War, because I think it is very important to preserve the principle of territorial integrity and to de-legitimize wars of conquest.

      Does that answer your gang rape thought experiment? I’m curious. I hope you can understand that it’s hard not to take that one as a really low reproach. Particularly followed by this:

      I am pretty sure if we tried we could cut or burn down just about every acre of forest in the country in a relatively short period of time. We could probably even profit handsomely by doing so. Do libertarians honestly argue that this would have no consequences for the earth or its ecosystems? On local weather, species, habitability of the soil for humans?

      Yes, I really don’t care if we do burn down all the forests. And liberals wouldn’t care if everyone got smallpox. I mean, it’s just obvious… right?

      Seriously, where did you get this bizarre idea?

      If humans have the power to destroy nine tenths of our population in a day of nuclear fire, can it really be argued that regulations of human activities by governments are always wrong?

      So… regulations on arsenic in tap water keep you safe from nuclear weapons? I’m missing a few steps here.

      I’m not against regulations per se, but it’s still absolutely true that libertarian work on regulation tends to stress the perverse consequences of a lot of it. It’s a good thing that we do, because if we didn’t, no one else would. The answer — way, way, way too often — is that some smart person in an office in Washington can solve your problem. It often just doesn’t work out the way we intend it, however. So, right or wrong, we absolutely need people making the case against. That’s where libertarians come in.Report

      • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        So, if the State can’t tell a person to do what they want with their money (ie. go cut down as much forestry as possible) to gain profit, why can’t the State tell people not to do many other things? After all, doesn’t that person have the freedom to cut down that forestry, whatever the consequences?Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

          I’m not sure I understand this comment. Burning down other people’s forests is criminal. Rightly so. It’s their property. If you were to buy it first, you’d be throwing away your own money. If you were to corner the market, it would be expensive enough that no one would bother.Report

          • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            Actually, there is plenty of regulations on what you can and can’t do to natural resources, even on your own property. See the ole’ spotted owl controversy in Oregon and the requirements to make sure there’s no Indian artifacts below construction and so son.

            If you believe in those restrictions, then why shouldn’t the State have further restrictions on what you can do with your property?

            Or if you believe the opposite that the State shouldn’t restrict those actions, then shouldn’t the State just sell all lands to the highest bidder and let them do with those lands what they will?Report

            • I think the conversation might be a little more productive without use of the word “belief”.

              In defense of the libertarian, attacks on libertarianism often times are nothing more than reducto ad absurdums.

              “Do you believe that everyone should be able to own nuclear weapons? No? Then you must not be a libertarian! Yes? Then you’re crazy!” doesn’t do much to illustrate nuance.

              Talking about believing in “some” restrictions as a meaningful measurement of believing “in” restrictions, as a class, is shortchanging the conversation some.Report

    • b-psycho in reply to Bob says:

      re: libertarians and the environment…That the popular view of libertarianism with regard to environmental issues is “burn it all, who cares?” is due to a designed imbalance in who gets to influence public discussion.

      On one end you have people who will observe that pollution is at root a property rights issue (that is, polluters are violating what is common property — rivers contaminated by chemical runoff, for example) and call for those violated to be compensated. On the other, you have people who will say with a straight face “nobody owns the river” (by which they mean the government has not granted a title explicitly assigning a single owner) & think that settles it all. Which one makes more sense on the basis of stated libertarian philosophy, and which one do you actually hear ad nauseum?Report

      • Jesse Ewiak in reply to b-psycho says:

        Because you can’t compensate someone enough for giving them cancer.Report

        • RTod in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

          But a nice watch with a tasteful card is a thoughtful touch.Report

        • b-psycho in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

          Wasn’t really referring to torts, rather the idea of charging rents for access to common property high enough to discourage screwing it up in the first place.

          That said, since you mention it…there’s this thing called “limited liability”, which makes tort claims much less effective. Look at the BP leak, for one: the scope of what they’ve done to the gulf, if fully calculated, would easily bankrupt the company and its entire board of directors. Yet it won’t, because of a government grant of privilege.Report

          • Jesse Ewiak in reply to b-psycho says:

            Ya’ know, there are those of us who want a larger welfare state and less rights for corporations. Just because we don’t make up the elite of the Democratic Party doesn’t mean we don’t exist.Report

    • Audrey the Liberal in reply to Bob says:

      Some people are bigoted against blacks, some against gays, and some against libertarians.Report

  16. E.D. Kain says:

    This is a terrific post, Jason. I do think Francis raises good points above. After all, on virtually all points listed here you and I are on exactly the same page. But when it comes to issues such as healthcare and progressive taxation, it becomes quite a lot thornier – at least in practice.Report

  17. Michael Drew says:

    I’m don’t see the point in paying so much attention to what people who don’t understand what libertarianism means and entails think about what libertarianism means or entails.Report

  18. Rufus F. says:

    To be honest Jason,when you post stuff, I usually just think “Oh, that’s interesting: Jason thinks ____” and forget about you being a libertarian- or, at least, I don’t think “Jason the Libertarian thinks ___”. It’s the same with all the regulars. It might be different for the newcomers, but most of you guys are pretty idiosyncratic.

    As for class analysis, this actually brings me to an issue I’ve had with Marx. I’ve read pretty much everything he wrote, including (well, 2 and a half volumes of) Kapital, and it does tend to grate on me when people will make glib criticisms like, “Marx just didn’t understand human nature.” So, I dread doing that, but after reading him, I just think he underestimates the state. I don’t know how else to put it. He sort of treats it like the clothes capitalism wears- and likely to fall to the ground once capitalism is removed. But, of course, it’s much stronger than that, and it’s pretty clear at this point that the state can outlive capitalism for good or ill (the reverse is not clear at all in my opinion).

    Maybe this isn’t totally relevant, but I think it comes from the tendency in Marx to treat culture as as epiphenomenon. But, of course, as many wars are fought over ideas as lucre. I’m not an idealist either, mind you, and I get that Marx was trying to flip Hegel on his head. But, no sort of historicism really works because, ultimately, none of experience our thoughts and motivations in a mechanistic sort of way.

    All that’s just a long way of saying that I agree that class analysis can only take you so far.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Rufus F. says:

      I agree about Marx and the state being merely “the clothes capitalism wears.” It’s a great phrase.

      One of the reasons he does this, I suspect, is that his form of class analysis was somewhat derivative of an earlier class analysis, the liberal type I mentioned above.

      In that form, one asks about various classes’ relationship not to the means of production, but to the state: Do you pay taxes? Are you exempt? Are you conscripted? Can you exercise some share of state power, or not, ever? Abbé Sieyès is an example that you’ve no doubt encountered.

      Marx knew many of his readers would be actively looking for this type of thinking, so he eschewed it.Report