Defining Libertarianism

While I have not yet read Z&T’s developed account of what constitutes the libertarian family, I think Z&T’s conception of libertarianism as a family of ideas/figures is interesting, and at a basic level true, but from their description,[1] I want to push back on using this framework to demarcate (or not demarcate) libertarianism. A family is defined exclusively by the people within it and who the family chooses to welcome into it.[2] The libertarian tradition, though, is not simply the people we welcome into the scholarship. There must be some strain of intellectual unity to the tradition that brings everyone together. This is where principles come in. By recognizing the libertarian tradition as a commitment to a common set of principles, we can admit the diversity of justifications and policy prescriptions to the libertarian tradition, but also identify an intellectual commonality among libertarians that separates our school of thought from others in a sounder manner than “we say so,” or being invited to the same conferences, receptions, and book releases as other libertarians.

To clarify my point in response to Roderick Long,[3] I don’t mean to suggest we cannot say that a philosophy is more or less libertarian than another. However, I believe the standard to employ in doing so takes place at the level of principles. To say someone is not libertarian is to claim they are not committed to libertarian principles, whether explicitly or implicitly.[4] To say someone is more libertarian than another is to say their principles are more aligned with libertarianism. However, I will add two important caveats to this: First, I am sympathetic to Z&T’s worry about defining libertarianism in a sentence. I pointed out in my first post that even identifying the principles that constitute libertarianism is difficult and is sure to rouse debate amongst libertarians. I am not about to offer the gold-standard philosophical definition of libertarianism, and would be skeptical of anyone who said they were. But that doesn’t mean this is not the right place to look for what differentiates libertarianism or make progress on clarifying those principles. Second, debates over whether certain justifications or policies are more libertarian than others may be possible if it could be shown that it was logically necessary to hold justification X to achieve libertarian principles (or a particular libertarian principle), or that policy Y was the logical application of libertarian principles.

However, I think this is a very difficult thing to do. An easier task would be to show that libertarian principles logically preclude certain policy prescriptions, for example that libertarian principles logically preclude the adoption of a communist state. Or, one could also argue that a certain justification could not lead to libertarian principles.[5] But I would expect these efforts to, at best, exclude extreme views rather than offering substantial contributions.

What Morally Justifies an Economic System?

Based on Z&T’s first article it seems as though there are five potential criteria for moral justification of an economic system other than one based strictly on deontic rights protection:

  1. The system delivers the greatest payout to most well-off in society.
  2. The system delivers the greatest payout to the average members in society
  3. The system delivers the greatest payout to the least well-off in society
  4. The system delivers the greatest payout to everyone in society (i.e. including the least, average, and most well-off)
  5. The system is possible

While I do not think there is anyone who endorses #1 in today’s world, Z&T’s first article seems as though it was written to refute that standard. David Friedman seems to be advocating #2 with his defense of utilitarianism.[6] Using this demarcation, I find Roderick Long’s point (e), “the moral justification of free market institutions is logically independent from any claims about the effects of those institutions on the material holdings of the poor,” to be an odd position. As written, none of the authors Z&T use as foils would embrace (e), since it would seem to require them to embrace either #1 or #2, which none do.

If what Roderick had meant, and what Z&T want to defend, is that “the moral justification of free market institutions is logically dependent on the effects of those institutions on the material holdings of the poor,” then we would have an intellectually intriguing position to debate. This version contains a two-step analysis: First, that the standard for moral justification of an economic system is its effect on the material holdings of the poor. Second, that the free market does better on this standard than others and so is the most moral system. I think Roderick, David, and I would agree to the latter point. The first is the real question at hand: should our standard of justification for an economic system be the advancement of the welfare of those least well-off (i.e. #3)?

At times, Z&T seem to want #3 and #4 to mean the same thing, but they are separate standards.[7] #4 argues that we should be concerned with the impact of an economic system on everyone without claiming one type of person deserves greater moral consideration. #3 argues that we should grant greater moral weight to the interests of the poor than to others. I am interested in asking Z&T to clarify which of these standards they think is most appropriate for evaluating an economic system. Do they want to argue that we must give greater moral weight the least well-off or do they want to argue that we should treat everyone with equal moral weight, which includes the least-well off?

Ludwig von Mises doesn’t seem to be appropriately categorized as either an advocate of social justice or in the same camp of absolute property rights advocates. Rather, I think it’s most accurate to claim he employs standard #5. Z&T quote from Liberalism on the question of providing for the least well off, but in the sections surrounding this quote, Mises is explicitly arguing for the importance of having an economic order in general. He argues that there can be no social organization or economic progress without a defense of property rights and liberalism. Yes, the poor will benefit in this system, as will everyone else, but the standard he is employing is simply whether that order can exist or not. He defends liberalism on the grounds of defending the structure itself. And by defending the structure, the poor benefit.

As Z&T recognize, Rothbard and Rand both also invoke the beneficial impacts of the free market on the least well off in society in their justifications for the system. They certainly do not embrace #3 as the standard for moral justification, but they also certainly reject #1 and #2. For different reasons (as I intend to explain for Rand below), they seem to embrace a version of #4 where everyone benefits from rights protections as a standard for moral justification.

Was Rand a Property Rights Absolutist?

Z&T claim that “For contemporary libertarians, the question of social justice is simple. Any conception of social justice that requires the violation of property rights through redistributive policies is a non-starter. There is no issue of balancing competing moral values, no distinction (often) between more or less morally weighty types of property, no question of the relative urgency of the need to be met compared with the seriousness of the infringement upon property rights involved.” They then comment in their response that they did not name Robert Nozick as an opponent of theirs because he was not a property rights absolutist. But if that’s the case, then, as Roderick Long briefly mentions,[8] Ayn Rand should not be a target of their criticism either. I want to develop this point more thoroughly here because Z&T seem to be responding to the strawman version of Objectivism.

The right to property is not primary in Objectivism. The right to life is. The right to property is dependent upon a legitimate claim to the right to life and can be overridden by claims of the right to life. For example, a standard right to property is overridden in cases of emergency where standard forms of interaction do not apply. If someone becomes shipwrecked and manages to swim to an island only to find a chain link fence all around it with the island’s owner saying, “you can’t come in here,” there is no violation of rights when the shipwrecked scales the fence and climbs safely to land.[9] The right to life is the origin of all other human rights.

Property rights depend upon a standard, predictable system of interaction with others. When that system is in place, property rights ought to be protected. But when that system is not in place, those rights do not exist as they normally would. The same could be said of the watering hole in the desert if an emergency situation existed.

The point of pushback that Objectivism would offer is that we are rarely in these emergency scenarios. A finite supply of watering holes is not the same thing as there only being one watering hole. A limited number of islands is not the same thing as there only being one island. A stagnant economy does not mean people have a right to a job. In a standard world, standard rights protections apply. If things get bad, but we are still living standard lives, rights protects apply. Only when we are in a truly emergency situation do normal rights protections not apply. And these emergencies don’t happen often.

Now this limitation to the force of property rights is not grounded in an abstract, and so more flexible, concept of “harm.” It may not lead to the rejection of property rights claims as frequently as the Lockean Proviso’s limitation. And it is not principally about a concern for the poor qua poor. It is a concern for those who are in non-standard situations, which preclude normal derivations of the right to life. But it is a limitation on property rights.[10] And that exempts Rand from the main thrust of Z&T’s criticism of property rights absolutism.

On Anarchism

Finally, in response to David’s question of whether I was excluding anarchism from libertarianism:[11] I did not mean to exclude anarchists from libertarian thought. Note that I said “the need for minimal government” rather than “a minimal government,” as in it is a libertarian value in general to have less government than more government. The purpose was to encompass both minarchism and anarchism. However, what I am challenging is the notion that anarchism is the logical outcome of libertarianism or the idea that the “truest” libertarians are anarchists, which as I mentioned in a footnote last time, I think is an argumentative strategy employed by many anarchists. For example, I recently saw a Facebook question amongst a group of my friends that asked, “How far do you take libertarianism?” The options provided listed four types of anarchism and minarchism. The question itself suggests that the logical conclusion of libertarianism is anarchism, and the only thing stopping people from being anarchist is a willingness to compromise their libertarianism.[12] But if we treat libertarianism as a commitment to a set of principles rather than set of policies, the question itself does not make sense. Whether one is minarchist or anarchist is not a consequence of “how libertarian” they are, but their endorsement of libertarian principles.[13] And I believe that is a great advantage of my interpretation, both as a descriptive and normative assessment of the libertarian tradition.


[1] Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi, “Property Absolutism and Social Justice,” Cato Unbound, April 16, 2012.

[2] Some may argue that families are determined by blood relation, but non-blood relatives can enter the family whenever we embrace them as one of the family. The standard for familial relation is solely the recognition of someone as part of the family by some part of those who are already in the family (what part or how much is not something appropriate to explore here).

[3] Roderick Long, “The Bleeding Heart Absolutist Strikes Back,” Cato Unbound, April 23, 2012.

[4] Frédéric Bastiat makes this point most strongly in The Law when he recounts: “Mr. de Lamartine once wrote to me thusly: ‘Your doctrine is only the half of my program. You have stopped at liberty; I go on to fraternity.’ I answered him: ‘The second half of your program will destroy the first.’” In considering what principles we are committed to, we must be careful to examine which principles cohere and which contradict.

[5] Which is the strategy typically employed by opponents of libertarianism: “If you care about Z, you cannot be a libertarian.” One thing I greatly admire about Bleeding Heart Libertarianism is that it is doing a strong job refuting this argument where Z is “the least well-off in society.”

[6] David Friedman, “Why ‘Social’ Justice? More Questions for Zwolinski and Tomasi,” Cato Unbound, April 17, 2012.

[7] This point is similar to and builds upon David’s distinction between “concern for” and “concern especially for” the poor, in ibid.

[8] Roderick Long, “The Bleeding Heart Absolutist Strikes Back,” Cato Unbound, April 23, 2012.

[9] Ayn Rand, “The Ethics of Emergencies,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1964.

[10] In my mind, it is a very strong one at that.

[11] David Friedman, “Some Questions for the Panel,” Cato Unbound, April 10, 2012.

[12] The intuition behind this being an idea that libertarianism is defined by opposition to the state before anything else. I reject this idea.

[13] With the caveat from above that if a policy can be shown to be logically required by libertarian principles, then it is a requirement of libertarianism. However, I have not been persuaded by the arguments that anarchism is necessary to meet this requirement.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi propose to refocus the libertarian movement. Although they agree that individual property rights are important, they propose to return libertarianism to its nineteenth-century intellectual roots. They argue that the classical liberals valued property rights for different reasons, perhaps, than we in the movement value them now: Property rights were intended to protect the least well-off workers in society. A “neoclassical liberal” would not advocate a welfare state, but would certainly value social justice; his means of attaining it would be through the institutions of property and contract.

Response Essays

  • Roderick T. Long criticizes the sharp distinctions drawn by Zwolinski and Tomasi between nineteenth-century classical liberals and the “Unholy Trinity” of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. He suggests many areas in which the earlier thinkers were not as Zwolinski and Tomasi characterize them, as well as several where Mises, Rand, and Rothbard don’t conform either. Long stresses the importance of class analysis in the thought of nineteenth-century classical liberals and points to its resurrection as a key aspect of Rothbard’s thought in particular. This, he suggests, points the way toward a “bleeding-heart absolutism” – an ideology critical of every form of state power, yet also prioritizing the moral claims of the poorest in society.

  • David Friedman argues that the pre-twentieth century classical liberals were motivated not by a concern for the poor per se, but by utilitarian reasoning. The “working poor” were a large majority of society in their time, and authors like Adam Smith must be read in their historical context. Doing so reveals Smith to be a progenitor of Jeremy Bentham, not John Rawls. Utilitarianism brings problems of its own, of course, but it should not be confused with social justice.

  • Alexander McCobin argues that libertarians often engage in unproductive debates about who or what is “more” libertarian. One thing lost in these debates is that, across the wide sweep of intellectual history, significant libertarian figures have usually felt free to draw from a wide array of justifications and policy approaches. Each was a product of a particular historical era, and there is no reason to find fault with any of them simply on that account. To advance liberty, we should think and write about libertarian principles in terms that unbiased observers will find persuasive today.