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The Libertarian Idea

Introduction Historical origins Libertarian philosophy Nonaggression axiom Power Individualism Spontaneous order Free markets Rule of law Limited government International relations Contemporary libertarianism Criticism. Written By: David Boaz. See Article History. Load Next Page. More About. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Libertarianism. View Cart Check Out. In his analysis of the philosophy of libertarianism, Jan Narveson distinguishes it from conservatism, with which it is often confounded, and asks if the libertarian position is really as extreme as is generally thought.

A controversial theory that equates moral legitimacy with maximum individual freedom, libertarianism appears to have radical social and political implications. In his discussion of the essentials of libertarian theory, Narveson weighs major arguments that have been advanced for and against it and considers the difficulties encountered in applying the principle to real-life situations and in the formulation of public policy. Asserting that this is the pure form of liberalism, the author provides an exposition and defense of the coherence of libertarian theory and examines the question of its foundations.

After addressing the questions "Is libertarianism possible? Treating such diverse issues as abortion, the rights of children, public education, freedom of speech, the legalization of drugs, public property and zoning laws, discrimination in hiring, and questions of defense and international relations, he shows both the merits and the limitations of the position. Consumers can respond to this price increase by continuing to use the resource at the now-higher price, switching to a substitute good, or discontinuing use of that sort of resource altogether.

Each individual's decision is both affected by the price of the relevant resources, and affects the price insofar as it adds to or subtracts from aggregate supply and demand. Thus, though they generally do not know it, each person's decision is a response to the decisions of millions of other consumers and producers of the resource, each of whom bases her decision on her own specialized, local knowledge about that resource. And although all they are trying to do is maximize their own utility, each individual will be led to act in a way that leads the resource toward its highest-valued use.

Those who derive the most utility from the good will outbid others for its use, and others will be led to look for cheaper substitutes. On this account, one deeply influenced by the Austrian School of Economics, the market is a constantly churning process of competition, discovery, and innovation. Market prices represent aggregates of information and so generally represent an advance over what any one individual could hope to know on his own, but the individual decisions out of which market prices arise are themselves based on imperfect information.

There are always opportunities that nobody has discovered, and the passage of time, the changing of people's preferences, and the development of new technological possibilities ensures that this ignorance will never be fully overcome. The market is thus never in a state of competitive equilibrium, and it will always "fail" by the test of perfect efficiency.

But it is precisely today's market failures that provide the opportunities for tomorrow's entrepreneurs to profit by new innovation Kirzner Competition is a process, not a goal to be reached, and it is a process driven by the particular decisions of individuals who are mostly unaware of the overall and long-term tendencies of their decisions taken as a whole. Even if no market actor cares about increasing the aggregate level of utility in society, he will be, as Adam Smith wrote, "led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention" Smith The dispersed knowledge of millions of market actors will be taken into account in producing a distribution that comes as close as practically possible to that which would be selected by a benign, omniscient, and omnipotent despot.

In reality, however, all that government is required to do in order to achieve this effect is to define and enforce clear property rights and to allow the price system to freely adjust in response to changing conditions. The above two arguments, if successful, demonstrate that free markets and private property generate good utilitarian outcomes. But even if this is true, it remains possible that selective government intervention in the economy could produce outcomes that are even better.

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Governments might use taxation and coercion for the provision of public goods, or to prevent other sorts of market failures like monopolies. Or governments might engage in redistributive taxation on the grounds that given the diminishing marginal utility of wealth, doing so will provide higher levels of overall utility. In order to maintain their opposition to government intervention, then, libertarians must produce arguments to show that such policies will not produce greater utility than a policy of laissez-faire.

Producing such arguments is something of a cottage industry among libertarian economists, and so we cannot hope to provide a complete summary here. Two main categories of argument, however, have been especially influential. We can call them incentive-based arguments and public choice arguments. Incentive arguments proceed by claiming that government policies designed to promote utility actually produce incentives for individuals to act in ways that run contrary to promotion of utility.

Public choice arguments, on the other hand, are often employed by libertarians to undermine the assumption that government will use its powers to promote the public interest in the way its proponents claim it will.

Public choice as a field is based on the assumption that the model of rational self-interest typically employed by economists to predict the behavior of market agents can also be used to predict the behavior of government agents. Rather than trying to maximize profit, however, government agents are thought to be aiming at re-election in the case of elected officials or maintenance or expansion of budget and influence in the case of bureaucrats.

From this basic analytical model, public choice theorists have argued that a the fact that the costs of many policies are widely dispersed among taxpayers, while their benefits are often concentrated in the hands of a few beneficiaries, means that even grossly inefficient policies will be enacted and, once enacted, very difficult to remove, b politicians and bureaucrats will engage in "rent-seeking" behavior by exploiting the powers of their office for personal gain rather than public good, and c certain public goods will be over-supplied by political processes, while others will be under-supplied, since government agents lack both knowledge and incentives necessary to provide such goods at efficient levels Mitchell and Simmons These problems are held to be endemic to political processes, and not easily subject to legislative or constitutional correction.

Hence, many conclude that the only way to minimize the problems of political power is to minimize the scope of political power itself by subjecting as few areas of life as possible to political regulation. The quantitative utilitarians are often both rationalist and radical in their approach to social reform. For them, the maximization of utility serves as an axiomatic first principle, from which policy conclusions can be straightforwardly deduced once empirical or quasi-empirical assessments of causal relationships in the world have been made.

From Jeremy Bentham to Peter Singer, quantitative utilitarians have advocated dramatic changes in social institutions, all justified in the name of reason and the morality it gives rise to.

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There is, however, another strain of consequentialism that is less confident in the ability of human reason to radically reform social institutions for the better. For these consequentialists, social institutions are the product of an evolutionary process that itself is the product of the decisions of millions of discrete individuals.

Each of these individuals in turn possess knowledge that, though by itself is insignificant, in the aggregate represents more than any single social reformer could ever hope to match. Humility, not radicalism, is counseled by this variety of consequentialism. Though it has its affinities with conservative doctrines such as those of Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott, and Russell Kirk, this strain of consequentialism had its greatest influence on libertarianism through the work of Friedrich Hayek. Hayek, however, takes pains to distance himself from conservative ideology, noting that his respect for tradition is not grounded in a fetish for the status quo or an opposition to change as such, but in deeper, distinctively liberal principles Hayek For Hayek, tradition is valuable because, and only to the extent that, it evolves in a peaceful, decentralized way.

Social norms that are chosen by free individuals and survive competition from competing norms without being maintained by coercion are, for that reason, worthy of respect even if we are not consciously aware of all the reasons that the institution has survived. Somewhat paradoxically then, Hayek believes that we can rationally support institutions even when we lack substantive justifying reasons for supporting them. The reason this can be rational is that even when we lack substantive justifying reasons, we nevertheless have justifying reasons in a procedural sense—the fact that the institution is the result of an evolutionary procedure of a certain sort gives us reason to believe that there are substantive justifying reasons for it, even if we do not know what they are Gaus For Hayek, the procedures that lend justifying force to institutions are, essentially, ones that leave individuals free to act as they wish so long as they do not act aggressively toward others.

For Hayek, however, this principle is not a moral axiom but rather follows from his beliefs regarding the limits and uses of knowledge in society. A crucial piece of Hayek's arguments regarding the price system, see above is his claim that each individual possesses a unique set of knowledge about his or her local circumstances, special interests, desires, abilities, and so forth.

The Libertarian Idea

The price system, if allowed to function freely without artificial floors or ceilings, will reflect this knowledge and transmit it to other interested individuals, thus allowing society to make effective use of dispersed knowledge. But Hayek's defense of the price system is only one application of a more general point. The fact that knowledge of all sorts exists in dispersed form among many individuals is a fundamental fact about human existence.

And since this knowledge is constantly changing in response to changing circumstances and cannot therefore be collected and acted upon by any central authority, the only way to make use of this knowledge effectively is to allow individuals the freedom to act on it themselves. This means that government must disallow individuals from coercing one another, and also must refrain from coercing them themselves. The social order that such voluntary actions produce is one that, given the complexity of social and economic systems and radical limitations on our ability to acquire knowledge about its particular details Gaus , cannot be imposed by fiat, but must evolve spontaneously in a bottom-up manner.

Hayek, like Mill before him Mill , thus celebrates the fact that a free society allows individuals to engage in "experiments in living" and therefore, as Nozick argued in the neglected third part of his Anarchy, State, and Utopia , can serve as a "utopia of utopias" where individuals are at liberty to organize their own conception of the good life with others who voluntarily choose to share their vision Hayek Hayek's ideas about the relationship between knowledge, freedom, and a constitutional order were first developed at length in The Constitution of Liberty , later developed in his series Law, Legislation and Liberty , and given their last, and most accessible though not necessarily most reliable Caldwell statement in The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism Since then, the most extensive integration of these ideas into a libertarian framework is in Randy Barnett's The Structure of Liberty , wherein Barnett argues that a "polycentric constitutional order" see below regarding anarcho-capitalism is best suited to solve not only the Hayekian problem of the use of knowledge in society, but also what he calls the problems of "interest" and "power" Barnett More recently, Hayekian insights have been put to use by contemporary philosophers Chandran Kukathas ; and Gerald Gaus ; Consequentialist defenses of libertarianism are, of course, varieties of consequentialist moral argument, and are susceptible therefore to the same kinds of criticisms leveled against consequentialist moral arguments in general.

Beyond these standard criticisms, moreover, consequentialist defenses of libertarianism are subject to four special difficulties. First, consequentialist arguments seem unlikely to lead one to full-fledged libertarianism, as opposed to more moderate forms of classical liberalism. Intuitively, it seems implausible that simple protection of individual negative liberties would do a better job than any alternative institutional arrangement at maximizing utility or peace and prosperity or whatever.

And this intuitive doubt is buttressed by economic analyses showing that unregulated capitalist markets suffer from production of negative externalities, from monopoly power, and from undersupply of certain public goods, all of which cry out for some form of government protection Buchanan Even granting libertarian claims that a these problems are vastly overstated, b often caused by previous failures of government to adequately respect or enforce private property rights, and c government ability to correct these is not as great as one might think, it's nevertheless implausible to suppose, a priori , that it will never be the case that government can do a better job than the market by interfering with strict libertarian rights.

Second, consequentialist defenses of libertarianism are subject to objections when a great deal of benefit can be had at a very low cost. So-called cases of "easy rescue," for instance, challenge the wisdom of adhering to absolute prohibitions on coercive conduct. After all, if the majority of the world's population lives in dire poverty and suffer from easily preventable diseases and deaths, couldn't utility be increased by increasing taxes slightly on wealthy Americans and using that surplus to provide basic medical aid to those in desperate need?

The prevalence of such cases is an empirical question, but their possibility points at least to a "fragility" in the consequentialist case for libertarian prohibitions on redistributive taxation. Third, the consequentialist theories at the root of these libertarian arguments are often seriously under-theorized.


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For instance, Randy Barnett bases his defense of libertarian natural rights on the claim that they promote the end of "happiness, peace and prosperity" Barnett But this leaves a host of difficult questions unaddressed. The meaning of each of these terms, for instance, has been subject to intense philosophical debate. Which sense of happiness, then, does libertarianism promote? What happens when these ends conflict—when we have to choose, say, between peace and prosperity? And in what sense do libertarian rights "promote" these ends?

Are they supposed to maximize happiness in the aggregate? Or to maximize each person's happiness? Or to maximize the weighted sum of happiness, peace, and prosperity? Richard Epstein is on more familiar and hence, perhaps, firmer ground when he says that his version of classical liberalism is meant to maximize utility, but even here the claim that utility maximization is the proper end of political action is asserted without argument.

The lesson is that while consequentialist political arguments might seem less abstract and philosophical in the pejorative sense than deontological arguments, consequentialism is still, nevertheless, a moral theory, and needs to be clearly articulated and defended as any other moral theory. Possibly because consequentialist defenses of libertarianism have been put forward mainly by non-philosophers, this challenge has yet to be met. A fourth and related point has to do with issues surrounding the distribution of wealth, happiness, opportunities, and other goods allegedly promoted by libertarian rights.

In part, this is a worry common to all maximizing versions of consequentialism, but it is of special relevance in this context given the close relation between economic systems and distributional issues.

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The worry is that morality, or justice, requires more than simply producing an abundance of wealth, happiness, or whatever. It requires that each person gets a fair share—whether that is defined as an equal share, a share sufficient for living a good life, or something else. Intuitively fair distributions are simply not something that libertarian institutions can guarantee, devoid as they are of any means for redistributing these goods from the well-off to the less well-off.

Furthermore, once it is granted that libertarianism is likely to produce unequal distributions of wealth, the Hayekian argument for relying on the free price system to allocate goods no longer holds as strongly as it appeared to. For we cannot simply assume that a free price system will lead to goods being allocated to their most valued use if some people have an abundance of wealth and others very little at all.

A free market of self-interested persons will not distribute bread to the starving man, no matter how much utility he would derive from it, if he cannot pay for it. And a wealthy person, such as Bill Gates, will still always be able to outbid a poor person for season tickets to the Mariners, even if the poor person values the tickets much more highly than he, since the marginal value of the dollars he spends on the tickets is much lower to him than the marginal value of the poor person's dollars.

Both by an external standard of fairness and by an internal standard of utility-maximization, then, unregulated free markets seem to fall short. Anarcho-capitalists claim that no state is morally justified hence their anarchism , and that the traditional functions of the state ought to be provided by voluntary production and trade instead hence their capitalism.

This position poses a serious challenge to both moderate classical liberals and more radical minimal state libertarians, though, as we shall see, the stability of the latter position is especially threatened by the anarchist challenge. Anarcho-capitalism can be defended on either consequentialist or deontological grounds, though usually a mix of both arguments is proffered. On the consequentialist side, it is argued that police protection, court systems, and even law itself can be provided voluntarily for a price like any other market good Friedman ; Rothbard ; Barnett ; Hasnas ; Hasnas And not only is it possible for markets to provide these traditionally state-supplied goods, it is actually more desirable for them to do so given that competitive pressures in this market, as in others, will produce an array of goods that is of higher general quality and that is diverse enough to satisfy individuals' differing preferences Friedman ; Barnett Deontologically, anarcho-capitalists argue that the minimal state necessarily violates individual rights insofar as it 1 claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and thereby prohibits other individuals from exercising force in accordance with their natural rights, and 2 funds its protective services with coercively obtained tax revenue that it sometimes 3 uses redistributively to pay for protection for those who are unable to pay for themselves Rothbard ; Childs Robert Nozick was one of the first academic philosophers to take the anarchist challenge seriously.

In the first part of his Anarchy, State , and Utopia he argued that the minimal state can evolve out of an anarcho-capitalist society through an invisible hand process that does not violate anyone's rights. Competitive pressures and violent conflict, he argued, will provide incentives for competing defensive agencies to merge or collude so that, effectively, monopolies will emerge over certain geographical areas Nozick Since these monopolies are merely de facto , however, the dominant protection agency does not yet constitute a state.

For that to occur, the "dominant protection agency" must claim that it would be morally illegitimate for other protection agencies to operate, and make some reasonably effective attempt to prohibit them from doing so. Nozick's argument that it would be legitimate for the dominant protection agency to do so is one of the most controversial aspects of his argument.

Essentially, he argues that individuals have rights not to be subject to the risk of rights-violation, and that the dominant protection agency may legitimately prohibit the protective activities of its competitors on grounds that their procedures involve the imposition of risk. In claiming and enforcing this monopoly, the dominant protection agency becomes what Nozick calls the "ultraminimal state"—ultraminimal because it does not provide protective services for all persons within its geographical territory, but only those who pay for them.

The transition from the ultraminimal state to the minimal one occurs when the dominant protection agency now state provides protective services to all individuals within its territory, and Nozick argues that the state is morally obligated to do this in order to provide compensation to the individuals who have been disadvantaged by its seizure of monopoly power.

Nozick's arguments against the anarchist have been challenged on a number of grounds. First, the justification for the state it provides is entirely hypothetical—the most he attempts to claim is that a state could arise legitimately from the state of nature, not that any actual state has Rothbard But if hypotheticals were all that mattered, then an equally compelling story could be told of how the minimal state could devolve back into merely one competitive agency among others by a process that violates no one's rights Childs , thus leaving us at a justificatory stalemate.

Second, it is questionable whether prohibiting activities that run the risk of violating rights, but do not actually violate any, is compatible with fundamental liberal principles Rothbard Finally, even if the general principle of prohibition with compensation is legitimate, it is nevertheless doubtful that the proper way to compensate the anarchist who has been harmed by the state's claim of monopoly is to provide him with precisely what he does not want—state police and military services Childs Until decisively rebutted, then, the anarchist position remains a serious challenge for libertarians, especially of the minimal state variety.

This is true regardless of whether their libertarianism is defended on consequentialist or natural rights grounds. For the consequentialist libertarian, the challenge is to explain why law and protective services are the only goods that require state provision in order to maximize utility or whatever the maximandum may be. If, for instance, the consequentialist justification for the state provision of law is that law is a public good, then the question is: Why should other public goods not also be provided?

The claim that only police, courts, and military fit the bill appears to be more an a priori article of faith than a consequence of empirical analysis. This consideration might explain why so many consequentialist libertarians are in fact classical liberals who are willing to grant legitimacy to a larger than minimal state Friedman ; Hayek ; Epstein For deontological libertarians, on the other hand, the challenge is to show why the state is justified in a prohibiting individuals from exercising or purchasing protective activities on their own and b financing protective services through coercive and redistributive taxation.

If this sort of prohibition, and this sort of coercion and redistribution is justified, why not others? Once the bright line of non-aggression has been crossed, it is difficult to find a compelling substitute.

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This is not to say that anarcho-capitalists do not face challenges of their own. First, many have pointed out that there is a paucity of empirical evidence to support the claim that anarcho-capitalism could function in a modern post-industrial society. Pointing to quasi-examples from Medieval Iceland Friedman does little to alleviate this concern Epstein