Why Does Everyone Hate Libertarians?

05/19/2015 02:41 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2016

Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. - Thomas Jefferson

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom. - Bob Dylan

Tim Worstall asks, "So why is it that everyone hates libertarians?"

The gist seems to be (gender role trigger warning!) that conservatives want government to be like your daddy telling you how to behave, liberals want government to be like your mommy clothing and feeding you and taking care of you, and libertarians are just saying "you do you".

Tyler Cowen and Bryan Caplan and Chris Dillow have some thoughts.

The libertarian ideal of as much economic and personal freedom as possible, consistent with the equal liberty of others, is part of the bedrock on which the USA was founded.

But the purists who believe in the stronger forms of libertarianism or objectivism as a comprehensive, workable political ideology are a bit wacko.

The strong-form libertarian strain goes something like, "Government interventions always make everything worse, therefore there should be no government intervention, except for defense, enforcement of property rights, and policing violent crime. All taxes are violent taking of private property, all other laws are infringing on natural rights and freedom, no one can be required to do anything, and all economic coordination must be based on voluntary cooperation. Free market solutions will spontaneously arise where there is a need for activities traditionally performed by governments."

Communists made the unfortunate claim that the individual doesn't matter, everything is the collective. Individual property is illegitimate, every speech or action is good or bad according to its impact on the collective. It was a terrible corruption of an ideal of equality to say individuals don't matter, only the group matters.

Libertarians make the opposite claim, that individual rights and liberty are all that matters. This reaction to a profound error leads to another profound error.

There's a part of The Fountainhead where the genius architect Roark makes a deal that he'll design housing for the masses, if it will be built exactly as he designs it. The guy he makes the deal with can't deliver the goods, and through the political process lots of changes get made. Roark blows up the building, and in his trial says that he had the complete right to dynamite it because it would not have existed without him and it had already been destroyed by the additions made by losers, and he's acquitted.

What about the people who paid for the building? What about the other professionals who worked on the building, engineers and electricians and plumbers? It couldn't have been built without them, did they have an equal claim to destroy it? Isn't it distinctly possible that Roark's great design was an evolution of works by other great masters he learned from? Perhaps they might have marveled at his brilliance, but might some of them have also felt a desire to blow it up as a bastardization of their own work? What about the people who might have been sheltered happily in it? Was Roark trampling on their right to realize themselves by destroying the group's creation?

No, you don't have the moral right to dynamite that. Isn't that a violent taking of someone property? And the sum of all the worst stereotypes of a tortured, narcissistic artist?

And as someone said, you didn't build that (by yourself, anyway).

There is no such thing as a purely private good, or purely public good. Even a sandwich, which is rival and excludable, has public dimensions, as demonstrated by the often-heard question "are you going to finish that?" Never mind Bloomberg and the public-health aspects of second-hand smoke or a large fizzy drink - once you're in a relationship with other people, every choice you make has externalities. The best things in life may not be free, but most of them are public goods.

Communism fails because we humans like to own stuff, express ourselves creatively and realize ourselves as individuals.

Libertarianism is equally misguided, because we do almost everything worth doing as groups. We don't act as purely self-interested individuals. We're genetically hardwired for group identity. If you've been to a football game, you know we're tribal. We seek group identity and status within the group. The fashion industry and advertising and organized religion have lucrative business models based on the desire, not just to distinguish ourselves individually, but also to express affiliations and status, and seek meaning in our lives as part of a larger group. And we do so in ways that are, to an economist, quite irrational. (Yeah, signaling, yada yada yada.)

These are complementary aspects of ourselves. We're individuals, and we're interdependent. Any practical 'ism' has to balance them.

Keynes said that every government action is a tradeoff between liberty, efficiency and fairness. I would say that if you think fairness or equality is all that matters, you're a communist. If you think that all that matters is efficiency in the pursuit of economic growth (or any other goal like the supremacy of your race, or the word of your God as you infallibly know it), then you're a fascist. And if you think liberty is all that matters, you're a libertarian, and as misguided as the first two.

"That government is best that governs least" is just common sense. "The maximum liberty consistent with the equal liberty of others," I'm with you up to there.

But when you take the human value of freedom to an illogical extreme, and say the group has no right to impose norms, values, duties and responsibilities on anyone and restrict their liberty, that all coordination must be based on voluntary cooperation, and all taxation and regulation are illegitimate taking by force, you start to go off the deep end.

The idea that a modern society could function at a high level without a strong and sometimes intrusive state is simply incorrect as a matter of fact. There are laws against things we all agree are immoral, like violence and theft. There are also laws like traffic rules and property zoning, that solve important coordination problems. Then there are government activities around public goods like roads, subways, defense. And there is a strong case that public health (pollution, food safety, transportation safety, medical care) and education fall into those categories as well. Universal education and vaccination programs don't spontaneously emerge without strong governments.

And then, if you create property rights around public goods, and let people form cartels to set up an air traffic control system for airspace or allocate broadcast spectrum, you end up with it somehow being OK for concentrated private power to do things that libertarians find immoral if an elected democratic government does them. Essentially, strong-form libertarianism rejects the legitimacy of democratic government in favor of their notion of natural human rights.

It is all too true that government can often stray over a fine line into paternalism, ignoring market incentives, overreaching beyond activities where government can be effective, and favoring politically privileged groups.

To think unfettered freedom can solve all problems through voluntary cooperation is magical thinking. It seems more likely to give rise to lack of coordination, antisocial behavior, and ultimately feudalism and mafia rule, as the strongest abuse private power, and people are forced to accept rules that entrench powerful interests. The most libertarian states in the world, the ones with no functioning government, are not utopian paradises.

So, that's why I don't identify as a libertarian.

Why do libertarians have a bad rap? Crazy purist libertarians and hypocrites. Crazy purist libertarians, who say parents should be free to starve their kids. Hypocritical Patriot Act libertarians for the death penalty, who make libertarian arguments against social security but think the monopoly on violence is part of the natural order and doesn't need to be reined in. Fake corporate libertarians who are fine with concentrated power, as long as tyranny is by private interests and not democratically elected governments. Selfish libertarians who use ideology to rationalize not having empathy for other people. Entitled libertarian oligarchs who think liberty just means they get to make all the rules.

We need libertarians to defend freedom. They should be constructive in their skepticism of anything that threatens liberty, whether it's government or private interests, and mindful of the tradeoffs. There aren't enough libertarians like that.