More Libertarian Than Thou

Alexander argues that while it may be possible to describe one view as more libertarian than another, such comparisons hold only at the level of principles, not of policies. In particular, he denies that anarchism is more libertarian than minarchism. One cannot describe one policy as more libertarian than an alternative, he maintains, unless that policy is “logically required by libertarian principles.”

This position strikes me as unduly restrictive. Suppose two different policies are each minimally consistent with libertarian principles, but one more fully embodies the spirit of those principles than the other does; doesn’t this fact entitle the first to be considered the more libertarian of the two – just as, of two beautiful landscapes, one may be more beautiful than the other; or of two large animals, one may be larger than the other; or of two brilliant theories, one may be more brilliant than the other; or (to cite a eudaimonist example) of two human modes of life, one may be more human than the other?

Whether anarchism is logically required by libertarian principles is going to depend on what those principles are, a question I’ll let stand for now. But even granting arguendo that anarchism is not thus logically required, I think there are still good reasons to consider anarchism as being at least prima facie more libertarian than minarchism.

Libertarians surely favour, in general, opening up coercively monopolistic industries to free competition – typically both for consequentialist reasons (competition renders industries more efficient and less prone to abuses) and for natural-rights reasons (whatever one has a right to do, all have a right to do). If theorist A favoured competition in the clothing industry generally, while theorist B favoured competition for most items of clothing but made an exception for shoes, holding that the manufacture and sale of shoes should be a coercive monopoly, then all other things being equal it would be natural to say that theorist A is more libertarian than theorist B.

Since anarchists want to open up the provision of security (including legal adjudication and rights protection) to competition, while minarchists prefer to leave these services under state monopoly, then all other things being equal it again seems natural to say the anarchists are more libertarian than the minarchists.

Admittedly such a conclusion is in principle defeasible. If it could be shown that there is something special about security such that free competition here is unworkable, or unstable, or likely to lead to a breakdown of social order, then I do not think it would be obviously right to say that anarchism is more libertarian than minarchism. So the question of which positions are most libertarian cannot always be settled independently from questions about how they would work if implemented. That’s why I applied the term prima facie to anarchism’s status as more thoroughgoingly libertarian.

But suppose it turns out (as so far it seems to have done) that the arguments for security’s being a special case fail, and that there is no inherent reason to treat the market for security as different from the market for shoes or insurance. In that case, the question of whether to be an anarchist as opposed to a minarchist will simply be one of deciding to open up one more monopolised field to competition. In that case, could one seriously claim that anarchism is no more libertarian than minarchism?

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.