The Trouble with Libertarianism?

Edward Feser, writing at Tech Central Station, concludes that “The Trouble with Libertarianism”

is that many of its adherents have for too long labored under the illusion that…their creed is a single unified political philosophy that does not, and need not, take a stand on the most contentious moral issues dividing contemporary society. This has led to confusion both at the level of theory and at the level of policy. Libertarians need to get clear about exactly what they believe and why. And when they do, they might find that their particular version of libertarianism commits them – or ought to commit them – to regard as rivals those they might once have considered allies.

I will come to Feser’s challenge at the end of this post, after I give the main points of his argument.

Feser posits two main strands of libertarianism. Those strands differ in how their proponents arrive at what Feser describes, accurately, as the libertarian position:

[T]he only legitimate function of a government is to protect its citizens from force, fraud, theft, and breach of contract, and that it otherwise ought not to interfere with its citizens’ dealings with one another, either to make them more economically equal or to make them more morally virtuous.

On the one hand, there are “conservative” libertarians — most notably Locke, Smith, and Hayek (with Nozick lurking at the fringes) — who argue from God-given rights or, in Hayek’s case, the indispensability of moral tradition and social stability to liberty.

On the other hand, there are those who believe libertarianism is grounded in contractarianism, utilitarianism, and “economism”. Contractarianism amounts to a mutual hands-off agreement: “I’ll leave you alone if you’ll leave me alone.” Utilitarianism is an extension of contractarianism; that is, each of us will be better off if we’re left alone. “Economism” is really an economic interpretation of utilitarianism; as Feser observes:

At its most extreme, the results are artifacts like Richard Posner’s book Sex and Reason, which attempts to account for all human sexual behavior in terms of perceived costs and benefits.

Feser then argues that these two strands of libertarianism are irreconcilable; that is, contractarianism, utilitarianism, and “economism”

do not treat conservative views as truly moral views at all; they treat them instead as mere prejudices: at best matters of taste, like one’s preference for this or that flavor of ice cream, and at worst rank superstitions that pose a constant danger of leading those holding them to try to restrict the freedoms of those practicing non-traditional lifestyles. Libertarians of the contractarian, utilitarian, or “economistic” bent must therefore treat the conservative the way the egalitarian liberal treats the racist, i.e. as someone who can be permitted to hold and practice his views, but only provided he and his views are widely regarded as of the crackpot variety. Just as the Lockean, Smithian, Hayekian, and Aristotelian versions of libertarianism entail a social marginalization of those who flout bourgeois moral standards, so too do these unconservative versions of libertarianism entail a social marginalization of those who defend bourgeois moral standards. Neither kind of libertarianism is truly neutral between moral worldviews.

Feser then explains:

There are two dramatic consequences of this difference between these kinds of libertarianism. The first is that a society self-consciously guided by principles of the Lockean, Smithian, Hayekian, or Aristotelian sort will, obviously, be a society of a generally conservative character, while a society self-consciously guided by principles of a contractarian, utilitarian, or “economistic” sort will, equally obviously, be a society of a generally anti-conservative character….

The second dramatic consequence is that there are also bound to be differences in the public policy recommendations made by the different versions of libertarianism. Take, for example, the issue of abortion. Those whose libertarianism is grounded in Lockean, Aristotelian, or Hayekian thinking are far more likely to take a conservative line on the matter….

By contrast, libertarians influenced by contractarianism are very unlikely to oppose abortion….

There are also bound to be differences over the question of “same-sex marriage.”…

In the end, these differing conceptions of libertarianism are irreconcilable because

none of these doctrines takes liberty or freedom to be fundamental. What is taken to be fundamental is rather natural rights, or tradition, or a social contract, or utility, or efficiency; “freedom” falls out only as a consequence of the libertarian’s more basic commitment to one of these other values, and the content of that “freedom” differs radically depending on precisely which of these fundamental values he is committed to. For the Aristotelian-natural law theorist, freedom includes not only freedom from excessive state power, but also freedom from those moral vices which prevent the realization of our natural end; for the contractarian or utilitarian, however, freedom may well include freedom from the very concepts of moral vice and natural ends. Freedom would also entail for the latter the right to commit suicide, while for the Lockean, there can be no such right, since suicide would itself violate the rights of the God who created and owns us.

As Feser sees it:

This difference in the understanding of freedom has its parallel in a difference in what we might call the tone in which various libertarians assert the right of self-ownership. In the mouth of some libertarians, what self-ownership is fundamentally about is something like this: “Other human beings have an intrinsic dignity and moral value, and this entails a duty on my part not to use them as means to my own ends; I therefore have no right to the fruits of another man’s labor.” In the mouths of other libertarians, what it means is, at bottom, rather this: “I can do whatever what I want to do, as long as I let everyone else do what they want to do too; there are no grounds for preventing any of us from doing, in general, what we want to do.” The first view expresses an attitude of deference, the second an attitude of self-assertion; the first reflects a commitment to strong moral realism and a rich conception of human nature, the second a thin conception of human nature and a tendency toward moral minimalism or even moral skepticism. And the first, I would submit, is more characteristic of libertarians of a Lockean, Hayekian, or Aristotelian bent, while the latter is more typical of libertarians influenced by contractarianism, utilitarianism, or “economism.”


contemporary libertarianism…comprises an uneasy alliance, an association between incompatible factions committed to very different conceptions of freedom.

Which is why Feser seems to think (hope?) that libertarianism would splinter if we libertarians were to examine our premises more closely.

But the differences Feser writes about come as no news to libertarians, who are now engaged in a fairly acerbic intramural debate about the legitimacy of the war in Iraq, in particular, and about the propriety of pre-emptive warfare, in general. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the pro-war libertarians were of the “conservative” variety and most of the anti-war libertarians were of the utilitarian variety.

The fact that libertarians arrive at their libertarianism by different routes simply means that libertarians — like all humans — arrive at their beliefs in rather convoluted and, really, inexplicable ways having to do with nature, nurture, experience, observation, and reason. It seems to me, however, that libertarians bring to the journey a larger portion of observation and reason than do the adherents of other coherent political philosophies. (Republicans and Democrats, per se, are not adherents of coherent political philosophies; they are merely partisans with somewhat different sets of preferred political outcomes.)

Here, then, is my answer to Feser. Conservative libertarians weigh their values and choose to be libertarians rather than conservatives, just as utilitarian libertarians weigh their values and choose to be libertarians rather than, say, anarchists. Even if these disparate libertarians are joined “only” in their commitment to the liberty afforded by the minimal state, that surely distinguishes them from those on the left and right who — separately and differently — seek the shelter of the regulatory-welfare state. Whatever divides libertarians is less significant than what unites them.