What’s Wrong With Libertarianism

Craig Bolton left a comment beneath my post, “Recovering from Rationalism.” While Bolton claims to defend libertarianism, his claims actually demonstrate what is wrong with libertarianism.

I do not wish to address Bolton’s bizarre claim that “there is no such thing as ‘induction’.” I don’t even know what he could possibly mean by such a statement. So let’s move on to his politics.

Bolton wishes to separate voluntarist society from politics and political ideology. Opposed to “society” is government, which “is essentially about coercive force,” even though government “may be useful” in suppressing violent individuals.

Thus, Bolton affirms that libertarianism is precisely what Objectivists say it is: a political or social goal explicitly detached from a moral theory.

However, it is impossible to define what properly falls within the bounds of voluntarism without a political ideology that flows from a moral ideology. Following are just a few examples.

* If a 10 year old boy “voluntarily” agrees to have sex with a 40 year old man, is that okay with libertarians? This issue has in fact been seriously debated in libertarian circles. Yet, apart from political and moral theory, libertarians have no way to resolve the issue. Objectivists, though, have a ready response that is consistent with the common view: the concept of voluntarism rests on the rationality of adult people. A child has not yet developed into a fully rational person. Therefore, a child is not in the position to consent to certain things, such as sex, marriage, business contracts, and the purchase of dangerous objects. The extent to which libertarians answer the question (in a non-crazy way) is the extent to which they abandon libertarianism.

* Let us say that you are throwing a barbecue party in your back yard, and either there is no fence or the gate is open. Then an uninvited religious nut comes into the yard and starts delivering a sermon. Is this “voluntary?” Did the nut initiate any force? If so, how? All he did is go on a walk and start talking. Where’s the force? Is the answer property rights? But “Libertarianism is not about… asserting that ‘people have rights’.” A theory of property rights requires an overarching political theory that rests on a moral theory as to why people have a right to their property. And any reasonable person will call the police — agents of the government — if the nut refuses to leave.

* What about people who “voluntarily” offer copyrighted music for “free” downloading? The legitimacy of copyright is often debated among libertarians.

* Does abortion limit the voluntary behavior of an embryo, or does a ban on abortion limit the voluntary behavior of the mother? Libertarianism has no answer.

Bolton also shows that libertarianism, as I’ve argued, tends to descend into anti-state reactionism. For Bolton, coercive government is fundamentally at odds with voluntary society, even though he thinks that government can be useful. Because libertarians dismiss moral theory as the foundation for politics, they assume that everything would be fine, if only nasty government would leave people alone. Yet libertarians are inconsistent about this, because most of them realize at some level that we need a government to protect our rights, and that we do need a moral and political theory of rights. The reactionism of libertarianism manifests in a variety of ways, from conspiracy theories about 9/11 to anarchism. Libertarians who do not hate government tend to become pragmatists, for they have already dismissed moral principles as the basis for politics.

I understand that this post is brief, so any reader who does not follow my arguments here is encouraged to read my lengthier critiques, starting with “More Libertarians Against Liberty,” which in turn links to additional articles.

A condensed version of Peter Schwartz’s essay, “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty,” is published in Ayn Rand’s The Voice of Reason.