Sunday, December 17, 2017

Friedman on Libertarianism

In his critique of libertarianism [PDF; link fixed], Jeffrey Friedman (1997) argues that libertarianism can be justified either morally or consequentially and that libertarian advocates fail to do either. I don't want to summarize Friedman's argument except to say that he uses almost 60 pages to fault the logical arguments for libertarianism as circular and the empirical arguments as unevidenced. I agree with both of Friedman's points, and I've written on them extensively myself. Rather, I want to examine two essays critical of Friedman's arguments.

Tom G. Palmer (1998) spends several pages establishing that libertarianism must be justified consequentially; he denies that libertarianism is an a priori truth or categorical imperative. However, he does not, as the alert reader might expect, then turn to making an actual consequentialist or utilitarian argument for libertarianism. Palmer asserts (mistakenly, I think) that Friedman demands an impossibly high standard of proof. But in rebuttal, Palmer fails to offer any sort of evidence. If an author argues for an alternative standard of proof — and his standard is reasonable — then I expect evidence meeting the alternative standard. Palmer fails to even cite any empirical justification for libertarianism. I'm not saying such evidence does not exist, but I have degrees in both political science and economics, and I know the empirical case for libertarianism is not common knowledge in these disciplines; if the evidence is there, show me.

Instead, Palmer focuses on Friedman's supposed errors of logic. Palmer first faults Friedman's definition of "freedom". But Palmer does not seem to understand Friedman's argument, that by definition, all rules of behavior coercively take away some rights. Palmer's counterexample does not address Friedman's argument:
If that were true, then using force to prevent another person from having sexual congress with yourself . . . would be just as much a use of force as is using force to have sexual congress with another person. Therefore there must be no difference between the two, at least with respect to whether one approach is more or less coercive or free than the other.
But this is true. Both rape and resisting (or punishing) rape are equally coercive. It is just that socially, we have constructed the standard that coercion is justified in the former case and not justified in the second case. I will reiterate the point I've made many times before: the libertarian's moral case always seems to be that coercion for things they don't like is wrong because it is coercive, and coercion for things they do like is not coercion because it is for what they like.

Palmer quotes Algernon Sidney's (1990) definition of liberty, which "solely consists of in an independency upon the will of another" (p. 346; emphasis added) and quotes Locke at greater length in the same vein. Even if we are to accept that there is no "natural" right for one person to impose their will on another by violence, for a person to do whatever else they like seems to be identical with being independent of another's will. Alas, Palmer does not make any explicit connection between this rather banal definition to libertarian philosophy. The quoted passage of Locke seems to suborn some degree of interventionism: Locke asserts that disposing of one's property "within the Allowance of those Laws under which he is" (qtd. in Palmer 1998, p. 346) does not compromise liberty. Thus, it is unclear how Palmer would differentiate libertarianism from ordinary liberalism.

Palmer continues with a disquisition on morality in which I can see neither a substantive criticism of Friedman nor illumination of libertarianism, and closes with a few trivial quibbles. Nowhere in his response does he engage with either of Friedman's claims, regarding the circularity of the libertarian moral argument or the lack of evidence for the empirical argument.

J. C. Lester at least admits that many libertarians make deficient a priori arguments. He makes an argument similar to Palmer's for a reasonable empirical standard of evidence. And then, like Palmer, fails to offer any, handwaving vaguely that "libertarians have read of research and economic theory that appear to refute all the assertions that the state is the solution, rather than the problem" (p. 2; emphasis added). Again, this research and economic theory is not common knowledge in academia, and the lack of specifics fails to persuade. (There is evidence and theory that some kinds of state interventions do more harm than good, but there's a lot of evidence and theory that other kinds of state intervention are not only useful but seem indispensable.) And, like Palmer, Lester immediately switches to arguments that are meaningful only in an a priori context.

Lester argues that the true essence of libertarianism is "the absence of proactive impositions," which he claims is "what libertarians intuitively grasp" (p. 3). In addition to the question of whether this absence is morally or empirically justified, Lester's formulation suffers from the defect that not only do I not understand it at all, Lester himself does not understand it clearly: he admits that he cannot say it is "perspicuously clear and without philosophical problems" (p. 3). Indeed.

If you're going to make an a priori case, make it. If a person criticizes the a priori case, it is not enough to simply say they have misunderstood or made a logical error, even if such an assertion is true. You still have to go over the original argument and show me not that the criticism is bad but that the original argument survives the criticism.

As to the evidentiary case, when evidence is common knowledge (as with evolution or anthropogenic climate change), it is not unjustified to say so, and direct readers to the appropriate evidence. But the empirical evidence for libertarianism is not common knowledge, even in academia. So show me. I'm happy to apply an ordinarily scientific interpretation of the evidence: I do not expect perfection, but I insist on good enough.


Friedman, Jeffrey (1997). What's wrong with libertarianism. Critical Review 11.3: 407-467. doi: 10.1080/08913819708443469

Lester. J. C. (2012). What's wrong with "What's wrong with libertarianism": A reply to Jeffrey Friedman.

Palmer, Tom G. (1998). What's not wrong with libertarianism: Reply to Friedman. Critical Review 12.3: 337-358. doi: 10.1080/08913819808443507


  1. The link to the Friedman PDF is broken.

  2. What really kills me about libertarians and especially randroids is the constant refrain in (but certainly not limited to) Atlas Shrugged that life is about self-actualization. That it's about doing productive things that you love. But in reality, they only care about this freedom for those who are rich enough to be independently wealthy (all of the Atlas Shrugged "heroes" fell into this category).

    In my family, money was used as a control mechanism. The threat of being kicked out of the house and having to go live under a bridge during the Great Recession was used as a control mechanism by my parents. In Ireland up until recently, and still today in many traditionalist parts of the Catholic world, every family wanted a priest. Today, many families want a university professor, for much the same reason. My family was/is one of these.

    9 years ago while working on windmill designs after failing (like so many others of my generation) to land a job during the Great Recession after getting out of college , I was handed a list of four graduate schools by my parents. I was told that I would have to apply to each of these four schools, and that I could have the "choice" out of which of these schools I got into, to go to for graduate school.

    The implicit threat was if I didn't go along with it, I could be kicked out of the house and forced to go live under a bridge or something during the Great Recession. So I did, I caved in, even though I wanted to continue working on my windmills.

    Had I become that "barefoot bum" living under a bridge living off of scraps, building windmills out of scraps and parts bought from beggared money, what would I have been according to the randroids? A "moocher". A "looter". A "parasite".

    But during the Great Recession, I will never forget, clever people in "tent cities", the solar power systems that they built out of "useless scraps". I will never forget. It was them, and not the "Galt's Gulchers", who were at the forefront of that sort of thing.


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