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The Problem with Libertarianism, Revisited | Race-Talk | 20

The Problem with Libertarianism, Revisited

Filed under: Opinion,Politics,US |


After a spate of new libertarian-leaning organizations appeared at Ohio State’s student involvement fair last year, I critiqued some of the precepts of Libertarianism and speculated as to the appeal of the ideology on Race-Talk.   My blog generated a number of responses across the web.   One thoughtful, well-written essay critiqued my linking social alienation through technological isolation with the appeal of libertarianism.  Another author launched a vitriolic, hyperbolic critique without really addressing any of the main points presented.   Given the fact that we are now in the heat of a Presidential election cycle, in which at least one leading candidate (Ron Paul) is advancing serious libertarian ideas, it’s worthwhile to re-examine the issue, and respond to the points raised by the critics of my previous blog entry.

My fundamental criticism of libertarianism as a political ideology is the lack of means-end fit.   The goal of the libertarian is to enhance individual liberty.  But the target of the libertarian’s wrath (and policy prescriptions) is the state.  Generally speaking, libertarians assert a zero-sum, inverse relationship between state power and individual liberty: the greater the power and scope of the state, the more diminished individual liberty.   In short, fewer laws mean more individual liberty, as a general matter.   For that reason, libertarians often advocate for decriminalization of some classes of drugs (a policy I happen to agree with), lower taxes, and smaller government.

The overarching problem with this myopic focus on the state is the overemphasis on laws and state action as inhibiting individual liberty.  Laws are merely one form of social control.   Government is merely the institutionalization of social control over its citizens.   Libertarians seem to believe – if their policy prescriptions are supposed to achieve their desired ends – that a greatly reduced role for the state would necessarily enhance individual liberty.

In his seminal monograph, The Behavior of Law, Yale Law Professor Donald Black comprehensively surveyed societies ancient and modern, from ancient Mesopotamia to the Neur of Suden and the Ifugao of the Philippines.   His fundamental thesis is that the quantity of law varies directly with certain forms of social life, most prominently the degree of other forms of social control in society.   As he points out:

“Law itself is social control, but many other kinds of social control also appear in social life, in families, friendships, neighborhoods, tribes, occupations, organizations, and groups of all kinds. […] For instance, [we should] predict, all else constant, more law in societies where other social control is comparatively weak, and this applies to the history of a single society as well as across societies at a single point in time.”

Taking all of his causal propositions together, Black asserts that as societies become more stratified, organizationally complex, increase in cultural diversity, and other forms of social control become less influential, law increases.   He then supports each of these propositions with numerous examples.

By focusing almost exclusively on the state and institutionalized forms of social control (laws), libertarian policies are not well tailored to achieve libertarian goals.   Law is merely one form of social control that tends to increase in certain forms of societies.   In societies with less law or a smaller state, other forms of social control are no less prevalent.  As, for example, families have greater social control over juveniles or tribes/communities have greater control over behavioral norms, then law tends to decrease.  The litany of smaller, tribal societies described by Donald Black vividly illustrate this.   The anthropological survey makes it abundantly evident that social order and other forms of social control historically predate any kind of state order, and that the state is the natural evolution of these forms of control to manage increasingly complex societies.

By myopically focusing on the state, libertarians miss the fact that law is merely one form of social control that varies inversely with other forms present in any given society.   Decreasing the reach or power of the state does not reduce the influence of social control, it merely makes other forms of social control more prevalent.   In other words, individual liberty does not necessarily increase if you reduce the quantity of law.

One obvious consequence of this myopia is that libertarians overlook the fact that private tyranny can be just as coercive as state-based tyranny.  Libertarianism’s obsession with the state completely overlooks the coercive behavior of parents, neighbors, community leaders, cartels, mafia, and corporations, none of which are acting on behalf of the state or under color of law.

Libertarians, like most market fundamentalist ideologies, are quick to decry the centralization of coercive political power, but rarely seem to be concerned about the centralization of coercive economic power, often in corporate form.   Yet, it would seem to me, any complete account of individual liberty would make these concerns just as salient as those that critique the state.  Yet, it is the state that serves, through antitrust regulation, to check excessive corporate power.  This paradox is rarely reconciled by the ideologically pure libertarian.   This enormous blind spot is visible to most non-libertarians, which is why most mainstream Americans desire market regulations such as safe working conditions and antitrust laws to serve as a check on private tyranny.

One of the authors critiquing my blog said: “My suspicion is that Menendian has conflated the idea of society with the idea of government.”  The author does not seem to appreciate how closely related society and law is. Law (governmental social control) is merely the salient form of social control that emerges in complex, stratified, and cultural diverse societies.   Societies without government are no less socially coercive.  The same social controls just take different form.  That’s what libertarians don’t seem to understand or appreciate.   As I said before, “the libertarian error is in thinking that they can do away with or dramatically restrict the ambit of the state and have all of the freedom they desire.”

Stephen Menendian



The author for the blog for the Competitive Enterprise Institute claimed to identify five errors in my original blog.  I will address each criticism in order.

The first error Mr. Menendian makes is conflating the Tea Party with libertarianism.

For the first ‘error’ identified in my essay, this is a curious one.   First of all, the only reference I made to the Tea Party movement was in passing, and in asserting that some anxiety about American’s changing demography is visible in that movement.   Nowhere in my original essay did I state that the Tea Party is a libertarian movement or even link the Tea Party to libertarianism.   It’s puzzling, not only that the author would contend that I was making such a conflation, but that they would make that point their first criticism of my essay.

That said, I would argue that the fundamental tenant of the Tea Party is market fundamentalism in the form of lower taxes and less government regulation.   To that extent, the Tea Party’s basic tenants are libertarian precepts.

This is Mr. Menendian’s second error: he seems to think that libertarians oppose a liberal immigration policy.

This is even more puzzling.  Nowhere did I assert or even imply that libertarians are anti-immigration.   The so-called errors being identified are simply straw men, and misrepresentations of my position unsupported by statements in my essay.   The only reference to immigration in my original essay was in connection with the idea that there is growing anxiety in American on account of changing demography, and the way in which this anxiety contributes to the atomization of social life and communal bonds in America generally.  I never ascribed an anti-immigration position to libertarians.   The only implications one could reasonably infer from what I said was that some of the appeal of libertarianism may derive from some of this underlying anxiety.  But that does not logically lead to an anti-immigrant policy position.   In fact, the implication of what I was suggesting is that libertarians would seek, not an anti-immigrant policy, but policies that tend to dissolve public space and forced communal bonds.

Mr. Menendian’s third error is this: “I don’t need society, neither do you,” claims his libertarian, a pretty weak straw man.

Again, the author missed a fundamental linkage in my argument.  In the section of my essay the author quoted, I was explaining factors that generate the appeal of libertarianism, not ascribing a view to libertarians.   My later point that “libertarians try to escape society,” was not to say that libertarians oppose markets or forms of exchange often present in society, but that libertarians wish to escape the coercive forms of social control (law most prominently among them) always found in organized societies.   I perhaps could have been a bit clearer in my meaning.

Mr. Menendian’s fourth error is his implicit assumption that government is the best means to achieve the ends of wealth, equity, and efficient use of resources (see his comment on public schools). Mr. Menendian appears to think that government institutions and their agents are inherently superior to other institutions…

It’s ironic that the author’s title says that I’m straw-manning libertarianism, because nowhere in my essay do either of the claims that the author ascribes to me here appear, either explicitly or implicitly.   Nowhere did I say that government institutions are inherently superior to other institutions, nor that government is the best means to achieve the efficient use of resources.   This is a flat out misrepresentation of my essay.

The fifth error Menendian makes is implying that libertarians are racist (see his comments on “national identity”).

Again, this is simply untrue.   The author apparently failed to comprehend the logic of my blog.   My argument was not that libertarians are racist.   My argument was that the appeal of the libertarian ideology may be explained in part by factors such as the interaction of technological isolation, social alienation, and communal atomization and fragmentation (which is driven, in part, by both the fact of changing demographics and anxiety over those demographics).   Taken together, these factors would have their greatest persuasive force on white males.   In no way was I saying that libertarians are racist or harbor animus towards non-white groups, any more than I was saying that libertarians are more likely to be sexist (It’s curious that I wasn’t attacked for arguing that libertarians are sexist…).

The author also added: “It is actually quite impressive that someone could author an article with as many errors as Mr. Menendian managed with his “Problem with Libertarianism.”

What’s remarkable to me is that almost all of the so called errors the author identifies are actually claims my essay doesn’t make!