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News Link • Philosophy: Libertarianism

Libertarianism at the Brink


Brink Lindsey, Vice President for Research at the Cato Institute, argues that contemporary libertarianism has followed the siren song of "natural rights," in a way that renders it unable to have a wide public appeal. In a recent article, "The Poverty of Natural Rights Libertarianism," Lindsey writes:

For the half-century or so of the modern libertarian movement, the dominant conception of libertarianism — as shaped by the strong influences of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Nozick — has been based on natural rights. In this conception, individuals possess certain moral rights — to self-ownership and ownership of property — that exist separate and apart from any decision by a government to recognize and uphold them. Protection of these rights is the only legitimate use to which authorized force can be put. When authorities use force to protect rights, they are merely acting as agents of individuals to secure their right of self-defense; when authorities use force for any other purpose, they are violating rights and acting illegitimately. This line of thinking leads to the radical conclusion that only a minimal "night watchman state" or full-on anarcho-capitalism can satisfy the requirements of justice.

If libertarians drastically limit the state, they endanger their popular appeal.

The most obvious objection to radical libertarianism is that many of the specific conclusions it reaches are utterly repugnant to the overwhelming majority of people. The prospect of ending all tax-supported financing of education, care for the poor, and support for the elderly, or of abolishing all health, safety, and environmental regulations, strikes almost everybody as horrific, not too good to be true.

If people would react in the way Lindsey suggests, why would they do so? Is it not that they believe that ending these programs would leave young people without education, the poor and elderly helpless, and the environment unhealthy and unsafe? But this is precisely what libertarians deny. The libertarian view is not that we must "bite the bullet" and accept all these bad things, because of the supposed requirements of the NAP. Rather, the libertarian contention is that all these matters will be much better handled under the free market than under government bureaucracy. Why is the libertarian view "horrific"?

The answer is easy to figure out. Lindsey himself does not believe in a completely free market. He tells us later in the article.

There is a wealth of empirical evidence that shows relatively more market-oriented systems produce better results along many different margins than do more state-controlled economic systems. But radical libertarians are obligated to go beyond merely arguing for less regulation and lower levels of taxation and government spending; they must argue that a complete elimination of preventive regulation and tax-financed redistribution would improve welfare. But there is no convincing evidence for that proposition — first, because there are no real-world examples of such policies in modern times whose results can be evaluated and compared; and second, because there is plentiful evidence that government actions over and above protecting property rights can improve welfare relative to the laissez-faire status quo.

This is an odd argument. Lindsey rejects complete laissez-faire because there are no real-world examples of it; but at the same time he "knows" that government actions can improve welfare relative to the laissez-faire status quo. We cannot evaluate complete laissez-faire because it does not exist; but we know government intervention would be better. Such are the results of Lindsey's deep analysis of radical libertarianism.

Lindsey's claim that government intervention enhances welfare is one he takes as obvious; he does not deign to supply his readers with any evidence for it. Of course, government programs can help those who get money and other benefits from them; but what about the welfare of those who are taxed to pay for these benefits? Why should one think that welfare has gone up overall? Lindsey, elsewhere quite voluble, has nothing to say about this contention, vital to his argument though it is. Readers of Murray Rothbard's classic "Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics" will know what to make of Lindsey's naïve views on welfare.

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