Libertarianism And Society

When a Libertarian is making their case they usually frame it from the view of individual rights. They argue that individuals have certain rights, such as property rights and the freedom to choose. They reject any attempt by the government to force people to do what they otherwise wouldn’t have done. So a libertarian would argue that helping the poor is fine, but the government shouldn’t force people to do so. On its own grounds this is a plausible stance with a certain degree of logic behind it. However, it only holds so long as you view matters from an individual rights point of view. If you concede that we have responsibilities towards the rest of society, then the libertarian argument crumbles.

Humans are social animals and we define ourselves as part of groups. People define themselves by their nationality, religion (or lack of it), occupation, age, sex, race, hometown, political party, sports activities, hobbies and a wide range of social activities. Libertarians fail by viewing people solely in a vacuum as opposed to part of a community. We are not only individuals; we also exist as part of a society. Focusing on individual pursuits on wealth is not enough; people only use money as a means to an end, namely happiness and joy. Studies find that it is the sense of community spirit that greatly affects our sense of wellbeing, which is why increases in a country’s wealth may make its people less happy if it disrupts the community. Simply saying everyone should mind their own business is not enough, society is interconnected so that my life and wellbeing is connected to my co-workers and my happiness is linked to those of my friends and neighbours.

People view themselves as part of a society with corresponding duties and responsibilities. These often compel people to do things that are not in their direct individual interest, but beneficial to the group as a whole. People go to the time and effort of following political events and voting, even though each individual effort is too small to affect the overall outcome. People pick up litter that isn’t theirs and clean up land that does not belong to them, not because they have a financial incentive, but because they view themselves as part of a larger society. People support their local community by volunteering their time or buying from local businesses even if they are more expensive. In fact nationalism makes people willing to do a lot of things that cost them as individuals while only society as a whole gains. People do things for their nation that no libertarian worldview can explain.

Libertarians speak a lot about rights, but not about responsibility. In their world, you have the right to your money, the right to choose where you work and live and government action is a violation of these rights. However, if you instead people as citizens of a society then you must acknowledge that they have responsibilities as well as rights. We have responsibilities to the poor, the sick, the elderly, the disabled and children and we must use government to help them, even at a cost to ourselves. This world view (let’s call it communal), which is just as plausible as the libertarian view, leads to radically different conclusions. The first leads to one with minimal government intervention with everything being done by individuals and the market. The second leads to an activist government engaging with society and intervening in the market.

Some examples should suffice. A libertarian may complain about taxes used for government healthcare. To them this is the government forcing them to give up their hard earned cash to spend on something they do not want. They view it as a violation of their liberty and claim individuals should chose themselves how much they do or do not contribute towards healthcare in proportion to how much they value it. The communal view is that society has responsibilities towards the sick and must care for them. Note how the debate revolves around completely different views of the same issue. A supporter of the communal view may agree with the libertarian about disliking having to give up their money to help others and may prefer to keep it themselves. However, they believe that we have to help others and that the needs of the society sometimes outweigh the needs of the individual. A libertarian may see a dying man on the street and think nothing of it; however a communal believes they are compelled to give assistance.

Now I can imagine libertarians recoiling in horror. Did he really just say that? Society outweighing being more important than individuals? Isn’t that what Stalin and Hitler believed? What sort of Communist is this Nielsen? Let me explain. I am not an extremist and am not a 100% communal person. I believe we need a balance between the needs of society and individuals and that danger lies at either extreme. Hence I would follow a course of moderation and practicality based on the issue at hand. I find the libertarian policy of one-size-fits-all, same-solution-to-every-problem, all-or-nothing viewpoint very frustrating. Just because one government policy didn’t work doesn’t mean we should abolish it or abolish all government policies. This is the damaging kind of extremism we must avoid.

Let me continue. A libertarian would argue for private education where consumers could choose the school that best suits their preferences and none would be forced to go to a school they opposed. A communal view is that society requires an educated population in order to function as a peaceful, law abiding democracy with a well functioning market. Thus education is seen as socially good and something to be encouraged or even made compulsory. Likewise, it may be view that society may best prosper where its people are on a relatively equal level, rather than vastly divided. Therefore mandatory public education may be instituted to promote equality and a cohesive society.

This can be applied to all issues, such as pollution where all of society suffers and only the polluting individual gains. There is little incentive for an individual to donate even a large amount of money to charity, because they are too small to seriously change the underlying problem. Whereas if everyone in society contributes even a minuscule amount, they can completely eliminate the problem. The problem with merely individual action is that no one wants to be the only one to pay and therefore no one pays. Subsidised electricity and heating is supported because people believe that no member of society should be forced to shiver in the dark. It is mandatory to pay taxes towards pensions because we, as a society, have decided that taking care of the elderly is a priority for us.

Libertarians can on occasion sound persuasive when seen from their viewpoint. But once you move away from a solely individual view and towards a broader societal viewpoint, it no longer holds sway. If we are citizens of a group, then we have duties towards our fellow citizens. If are not just individuals but also members of society then we have responsibilities as well as rights. It is for this reason that libertarianism has remained confined to the fringes and never caught on in Europe where communal feeling is much stronger. It is not enough to speak of I, there is also We.


Filed under Economics

28 responses to “Libertarianism And Society

  1. Great post.🙂 I keep waiting for Libertarians to take the pledge.

    Most don’t, funny that.

    • I wouldn’t hold your breath. I think many libertarians dislike the idea of the government in theory, but in practice support it. Take government military spending or claims to keep the government away from Medicare. Even Ayn Rand accepted Social Security when she retired.

      • The American brand of libertarianism is, for the most part, been corrupted by corporate interests. Like the tea party they have good reason to be mad as hell, but have been purposefully misdirected to blame the institutions that, in theory, are supposed to protect the public.

        Their attentions, usually, are not focused on the military industrial complex and the burgeoning inverted totalitarianism that currently *is* diminishing their personal freedoms and liberty.

        • Absolutely. The Tea Party has basically ceased to exist having served its purpose as a cover for corporate interests. Gullible angry people looking for someone to blame were manipulated and then discarded.

  2. Sounds like the conservative vs liberal debate here in the US, much of it around central gov’t, states rights, and so on. Personally, I think auto manufacture, roads, pollution outfall, banks, insurance companies, investment firms, things that affect the population at large, fall under central gov’t oversight. My view. Nice article !

  3. Communal argument is usually lost on them, as many of them don’t imagine themselves to be sick, disabled or in any way asking others for help. I wonder if their ideal, in their quest for individualism, would be to become a billionaire on a deserted island, with his wealth intact and no weak/sick/old to protect.

  4. Libertarians differ from communitarians in believing the extent of coercion needed for — not rejection of — community, the common good, and other achievements only attainable together.

    • But my point was that somethings are not simply a matter of whether or not we choose it. Some things we have to do even if we would rather not. We have an obligation to help the poor, sick elderly etc even if we would rather spend the money on a bigger TV.

  5. I also think Libertarians don’t understand the concept of the “Tragedy of the Commons” (, the situation that arises where a group of private individuals using a shared limited resource, by each acting in their own rational best interest, will deplete the resource even though it is clearly not in anybody’s best interest for it to be depleted. The only way to prevent this is to create some sort of authority to keep people from taking more than their share.

  6. GM

    Your understanding of libertarianism has improved a little bit, but there is a lot of room for improvement.

    As you know, there are different strands of libertarianism. Ayn Rand (who did not call herself a libertarian), believed that individual rights were a matter of philosophical necessity. She believed that altruism was a philosophical crime and therefore some of the criticisms you make in this article might apply to her and her followers.

    Believe it or not, there aren’t all that many Randians out there these days. They’re outnumbered by Misesians and other classical liberals who think that the market is imperfect, but that the government offers no improvement. In other words, socialism and interventionism fail even according to the stated objectives of the socialists and the interventionists. These are utilitarian/consequentialist points of view.

    Murray Rothbard created a natural rights theory which went beyond those perspectives, but even according to that theory there is absolutely nothing wrong with altruism. The critical distinction to be made was between peaceful and violent relationships. Peaceful relationships allow for the maximum happiness of everybody in accordance with the extent to which we wish to co-operatte, while violent relationships necessarily subjugate the desires of some to the desires of others. Even according to this natural rights theory, it is the greater good which is claimed to be the outcome.

    If I could nail one thing into your head right now, it would be an acknowledgement that libertarians simply don’t share the perception that society is the same thing as the state. The state is a violent, anti-social institution which destroys the fabric of peaceful society and voluntary relationships. A stronger defense of the state is required than the simple-minded claim that not supporting it is the same thing as not wanting to help our fellow man, because most libertarians think that eliminating or at least severely curtailing the power of the state is precisely what would help our fellow man the most.

    • Of course there are many kinds of libertarians just as there are many kinds of leftists, though I have not the time to discuss each one and thus have to generalise. As far as I can see, all libertarians have a basic belief in common and they only differ in how far they take it.

      I will acknowledge that Libertarianism on its own grounds has some appeal. If you view the world solely in terms of individuals, then it does not make sense that one individual should be forced to give its money to another individual. If people want to help the poor they should do so themselves and not be forced by the government. In this view, there is no basis for the welfare state.

      However, in this post I sought to point out where this view failed, namely in pointing out that we have responsibilities as well as rights. So if you believe that we have to help other individuals who are poor, sick, elderly etc then the welfare state is the logical conclusion.

      • GM

        It’s not the logical conclustion, because it’s not the only way to help the disadvantaged. The question is whether it’s an advantage over what would occur otherwise.

        I believe I have to wear clothes, but I don’t demand the nationalisation of clothes retailers. Do you?

        • No but in a private market, the rich will always have a far greater access to resources and the poor will run the risk of the being excluded or less than necessary.

          So if there was a famine and the price of food rose rapidly, would you have any problem with some people getting fat while others starved? If poor people couldn’t afford food would you do nothing?

          • GM

            “the rich will always have a far greater access to resources and the poor will run the risk of the being excluded or less than necessary.” – isn’t this just the definition of rich and poor?

            No, I wouldn’t do nothing if there was a famine.

            Funny how there is no logical conclusion for statism, isn’t it?

  7. macsnafu

    This is the post I should have read first. It says so much about your political worldview, and informs your later posts on libertarianism.

    First point. Just because libertarians emphasize individual rights doesn’t mean that they are atomists, isolationists, or hermits. Of course people are social animals. Libertarianism is merely stressing the importance of treating other people voluntarily. Rights are universal, and each of us ought to respect the rights of other people. This does not mean that friends and family and other group associations aren’t important; merely that they are not important from a *political* standpoint. Libertarianism is merely a political philosophy, and has little to say about things outside of political interactions.

    Freedom of association merely means that how you interact with other people should be voluntary. The market is all about voluntary exchanges with other people, be it buying or selling, employee or employer. But even that is only economic–that is it really only pertains to the allocation of scarce resources in society. That still leaves large areas of human life untouched. Art, metaphysics, religion, sports, music, language, holidays, and many other social functions and customs are rarely overtly political issues. Again, it doesn’t mean that these things aren’t important–they’re very important and make a real difference in people’s lives–just that they usually aren’t important politically.

    Thus, the idea that a libertarian society would be filled with lonely hermits who rarely interact with other people is a clear misconception or misrepresentation of libertarianism.

  8. macsnafu

    More fundamental is your view on rights and responsibilities. I’d be the first to say that rights and responsibilities are important; that they are not only complementary, but that they are really just two sides to the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. Rights without responsibilities is merely license or privilege. Responsibilities without rights is oppression. So when you say that we have certain responsibilities and obligations to society or other people, my question is to wonder what’s the flip side? What rights do we have that go with these responsibilities?

    You say, for example, that society benefits from having an educated population, and guess what? I agree. Who could *possibly* be against education? The fallacy here is that because people in society benefits from education, then people must be compelled to support public education, as a public duty or responsibility. If you stick to merely using peer pressure to encourage support for education, then you have not violated any libertarian principle.

    But benefits are not rights. If there’s no corresponding right, then it is unjust to coercively impose the obligation or responsibility. Furthermore, if people benefit from education, then why do you think that people have to be compelled to support it? Poor parents especially know the importance of their children getting a good education so that they can improve their economic situation.

    Of course, you might say that education benefits society as a whole, in ways that a self-interested might not see or recognize, and it is for this benefit that people are justly compelled to support education. But this is still a fallacy. The benefit to society is still no more than the accumulation of the benefits to each individual to get an education.

    More importantly, you assume that a public education, that is government-provided schools, not only provides a good education, but that it somehow serves the public in some way that private education does not. I believe you made an incoherent point about equality of education, but it is not very clear how this particular point is beneficial to society. Minimal educational requirements make sense, but would you say that society is better off if everyone is taught calculus, for example? And is that fair to people who have trouble passing algebra or geometry classes? Has the individual failed in his duty to society if he doesn’t understand trigonometry?

    The usual argument is that public education is necessary to educate poorer people in society, but this is problematic in a variety of ways. For one thing, it “crowds out” private schools that cater to poorer people, providing a stronger incentive for private schools to target wealthier people. And while parents are free to put their kids in private schools, they do not get a refund or rebate on their portion of taxes that goes towards public schools, so they get to pay twice for their child’s education, doubly ensuring that private schools are only for wealthier people, and making it harder for poorer parents to afford to put their children in private education.

    And why would parents want to put their children in private education rather than public education? Because of the perceived inequality between the two. Instead of providing an equality of education, public schools actually exacerbate the inequality of education between the poor and the wealthy. So even if “equality of education” is a beneficial thing to society, government provision of schools fails to achieve the desired result.

    Furthermore, the provision of education is clearly a service. You need teachers, classrooms, books, chalkboards, and other educational materials to teach students, so it clearly falls under the economic view of allocation of scarce resources in society. We all know that private markets generally provide better quality goods at lower prices than the public provision of goods and services, and the service of education would be no different than any other on the market. Oh, wait. Maybe you think you don’t know that, in spite of the evidence that surrounds you every day. Even though people like John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Sam Walton made huge fortunes by reducing costs and making their products more affordable to poorer people.

    This is getting long, and I’ve hardly touched upon many other things you’ve raised in this article. By the way, your view is often called “communitarianism”, although “communal” is not such a mouthful to say. 😉

  9. macsnafu

    Let me try to focus on the heart of your view. You claim that simply being part of society or part of any particular group imposes obligations and duties upon the individual. I say that that is only true if you voluntarily join the group. When you join a private organization, any type of organization, such as a church, a civic group, a fan club, a housing association, etc., it’s essentially a voluntary contractual agreement. The organization agrees to provide certain benefits to its members, and the members agree to certain duties and obligations towards the group. But you have no obligations to the group, except for basic respect of its members rights, until you decide to join. Even once you join, either you or the other members of the group are free to terminate the association or contractual agreement. A member can decide he no longer wants to be a member, or the other members of the association can follow the procedures of the organization to kick out a member they no longer desire to associate with. At that point, of course, the individual’s duties and obligations to the group also cease.

    Thus, only obligations voluntarily incurred are valid, beyond some basic legal respect of other people’s rights. When you were a kid, for example, you may have begged your parents for a puppy dog. They may have agreed, but said that it would be your responsibility to take care of the dog, to feed him, and walk him, and play with him, etc. In other words, they were saying you had a right to the puppy only if you accepted the obligations of ownership.

    Similarly, I think a person has a right to own a gun, but he only incurs the responsibilities of gun ownership if he chooses to own a gun. By acquiring a gun, the person is implicitly accepting the responsibility to safely handle a gun, and to securely store it when he’s not using it. A person who left a loaded gun on his living room coffee table, for example, might rightfully be considered negligent, especially if an accident occurs with the gun and somebody gets shot.

    More importantly, you don’t seem to make much distinction between people who think they have an obligation to other people, for their own personally considered reasons, and people who are compelled to support or help other people against their will, but there is a huge difference. Charity is where someone willingly helps someone else. It’s not charity if an armed robber takes my money, or even only a portion of my money, and then gives it to someone else that *he* decides is worthy or in need of it. As someone else has already pointed out in one of these posts, government is not necessarily a good representative of society in general. The “people” do not clearly express their wishes and desires through representation, electoral politics or government policies in general.

    If I feel compelled to help my parents as they get older and have health problems, it’s not the coercive compulsion of government that makes me feel that way, merely the reciprocal recognition of how they treated me as I grew up, raising me, and supporting me when I needed help. If my parents had mistreated or abused me as a child, or if they put me up for adoption, I’d feel much less compelled to help them as they get older. it’s still a voluntary feeling, not a legally-enforced duty or obligation.

    Just as in education, duties and obligations compelled by government, besides being morally wrong, can have unintended consequences and fail to achieve the desired results. Unjustifiable government-coerced duties and obligations often do not work as intended, be it education, health care, welfare, or whatever. I may be stretching things a bit and making an unwarranted assumption myself, but I believe that initiating force against other people always tends to result in unintended consequences and undesirable results. Hey, if you can have an assumption or two in your arguments and assertions, then surely I’m entitled to one, right?

  10. macsnafu

    There are certain assumptions implicit in your arguments. For example, that government somehow represents society in general or the wishes and desires of “the people” or the majority. But as I kept trying to point out in your recent post on the free market: , you also assume that government action is both beneficial and efficacious. I have already pointed out above how public education fails to achieve any sort of equality in education. You might say that my point justifies the prohibition of private education altogether, equality is too important. But in addition to the rights violations and enforcement issues involved, I don’t think that equality is so important that everyone should be reduced to the lowest-common denominator in society. This would not be beneficial to society as a whole.

    Not being a U.S. citizen, you may not be overly-interested in the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, but it provides such a good example of the fallacy of your assumption that government action is beneficial and efficacious. It’s one of those huge omnibus bills with a lot of stuff in it, but two major provisions essentially required health insurance companies to cover all comers, regardless of their current health, and that all Americans were required to have health insurance in one form or another.

    The results so far have been far from desirable. The costs to the health insurance companies have exceeded expectations, forcing them to keep increasing the costs of health insurance, and millions of Americans have still not complied with getting insurance. For me personally, the cost is too high to be affordable on my budget, and for some reason I don’t understand I don’t qualify for the subsidies to poorer people that are included in the legislation. The cost of paying the penalty is far cheaper than the cost of actually buying health insurance!

    You can’t merely assume that government activity has the desired result. The FBI, for example, keeps statistics on crimes in the U.S. that are cleared (definition of “cleared” on the site).

    If you look at it, you can see that a burglar or car thief has a very good chance of getting away with it and never being caught or punished. Even murderers have a 1 in 3 chance of escaping detection. These results have been surprisingly consistent for some period of time, too. If the government gets those kinds of results for something that minarchist libertarians believe government ought to be doing, imagine what kind of results government gets in education, health care, and welfare. Of course, it would be better to find actual evidence of the results, instead of merely assuming, but such clear evidence is not necessarily readily available, and may be difficult or even impossible in some cases to determine. But it should be obvious that government actions are no guarantee of achieving a desired result.

    Government represents the will of the people? Most Americans were against the bank bailouts after the economic crisis of 2008. I’m not sure if I can say that it was a majority, but many Americans were against the U.S. war in Iraq. A more persistent example is the continued tariffs on imported sugar in the U.S. U.S. sugar companies love it, because it makes it harder for foreign sugar companies to compete against them. But how many Americans really support paying higher prices on sugar and sugar-containing products in order to limit foreign sugar in the U.S.? How can this be considered as representing the will of the people? Was limiting foreign competition even the actual intention of the tariffs? Maybe it was intended to do something else, but this is actual result. Do only intentions count, or is it incumbent upon us to consider the actual consequences and results, as well?

    Furthermore, besides having to worry about the unintended consequences of government actions, we also have to worry when governments try to achieve conflicting goals. For example, the U.S. has enacted policies both to make buying a house more affordable for lower income people AND to prop up property values and keep housing prices from going down. These are mutually exclusive goals, and even assuming that the policies might actually work, you can’t really achieve one without sacrificing the other. No amount of political will or representation can determine the right balance between affordability and home values. Only a market can do that, by allowing the continual give and take of supply and demand to work.

    You want to help poor people? You support government-provided education, health care, pensions, and welfare, and the like? Then why don’t we help poor people by not making it harder for them to take care of themselves? Minimum wage laws, for example, make it harder for the young and unskilled to get jobs and get started in careers. Licensing and various other government regulations make it harder for businesses to expand or for people to start new businesses, thus restricting available jobs for the unemployed. As Obamacare shows, government interference in the health care industry generally makes health care more expensive and less available. Public education makes alternative educational opportunities less affordable and less readily available.

    Perhaps society wouldn’t need so much charity if government didn’t make it so hard for people to support themselves. And it doesn’t matter if it’s harder because government did it deliberately or if they did it unintentionally. The results were still caused by government policies, laws, and regulations. If you actually do the research, instead of merely making an assumption, I think you will find that government activities are often NOT beneficial and efficacious, that they often have, on balance, negative results that are harmful to society in general.

  11. I think you’re framing it wrong.
    I don’t agree with libertarian ideals however to present this argument to them will be pointless and I think unchallenging.

    I think the best way to present this issue is challenging the idea that freedom is the only intrinsic good thing we should aim for.

    A moral experiment would be this:

    If a thirsty kid is dying two blocks away from home and he can’t get there to drink water by himself and some another person is passing by with a glass of water, enough to save the child or at least enough so he can recover and go home and drink more, is it moral to force that person to give the kid water if he refuses in the first place?

    A fucked up person would say that it would be inmoral regardless of the kid’s death. However most would agree that losing one’s liberty or property to save a life is better because you can get material posession’s back but you can’t get your life back.
    By putting rights on a balance, the right not to die and the right to not be coerced into giving your property away, you can notice that freedom is a good thing however in certain cases other rights are more important.
    This balance for example helps us to come up with rules like penalties against defamation. The right not to be defamed is more important than free-speech. Also you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a closed space. Other people’s right not to be scared in a way they will probably hurt others or themselves is more important than the right to free-speech.

    So challenging the principle of no-agression with thought experiments is the right way to let them admit that freedom isn’t always the only right nor the most important to take into account.

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