Freedom Civilized: The Liberal Case Against Libertarianism

Rule of law and the scales of justice. liberal case against libertarianism

NOTE: This article originally appeared on the author’s blog, which can be found by clicking here. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Project Liberal. View other articles about liberalism on our blog by clicking here.

I have written previously on the subject of my transition from libertarian to liberal and briefly on what I see as the crucial difference in perspective between the two. Here I aim to do something more comprehensive, albeit at a high level; I aim to dismantle the libertarian argument via liberal principles and offer an alternative liberal vision for politics.

I will start by outlining what I think are good, basic descriptions of libertarianism and liberalism. Given that these are both contentious terms, I would ask the reader, if they find themselves at odds with my descriptions, to grant them to me for the sake of this piece. I am using both terms to describe real things, even if the reader would use different terminology.

I will then attempt to build a basic meta-political foundation on liberal principles. My aim then will be to show that libertarianism is at odds with this foundation, and that the libertarian alternative is inferior to liberalism.

“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” – John Stuart Mill

What is Libertarianism?

Libertarianism, in the American sense of the term that I will be using in this piece, arose during the mid-20th century in the United States. It began as little more than liberalism, but as the meaning of the term liberal began to distort in America, many liberal writers began to use the term libertarian to describe themselves instead. In Why I Am Not a Conservative, published in 1960, Friedrich Hayek wrote:

In the United States, where it has become almost impossible to use “liberal” in the sense in which I have used it, the term “libertarian” has been used instead. It may be the answer; but for my part I find it singularly unattractive. For my taste it carries too much the flavor of a manufactured term and of a substitute. What I should want is a word which describes the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution. But I have racked my brain unsuccessfully to find a descriptive term which commends itself.

Because of this, many ideological libertarians in America today believe that their philosophy is simply the philosophy of the original liberals rebranded with a new label. This is not so; after the coining of the term in its modern usage, American libertarianism continued to grow and mutate into its own distinct political philosophy.

Austrian School of Economics

The first major deviation from liberalism came in the form of the Austrian School. This school of economics emerged in the late 19th century but really flourished in the early 20th century and argues for a radical form of unregulated free-market capitalism. The most extreme versions of this school reject empiricism outright, declaring empirical knowledge of economics impossible and the attempt a form of scientism, arguing that all valid knowledge about economics can only be inferred by reasoning from self-evident first principles.

The Austrian School gave modern libertarianism its unique focus on economics and property rights. While liberalism has always defended capitalism and property rights, going all the way back to Adam Smith, economics were never as fundamental to the liberal ethos as it is to libertarianism, nor does liberalism have a dogmatic attachment to total absense of state interference in the economy. Note how the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence doesn’t even mention property rights.

Ayn Rand

The other major influence that pushed libertarianism away from its liberal roots was Russian-born American philosopher Ayn Rand. While Austrian School provided the focus on economics, Ayn Rand, with her philosophy of Objectivism, introduced a moral ethos to the movement by articulating the Non-Aggression Principle:

The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. No man—or group or society or government—has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man. Men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. The ethical principle involved is simple and clear-cut: it is the difference between murder and self-defense. A holdup man seeks to gain a value, wealth, by killing his victim; the victim does not grow richer by killing a holdup man. The principle is: no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force.

While Ayn Rand had a lot more to say on many more subjects, her opinions on other topics, such as epistemology, did not have much influence on the broader libertarian movement. In adopting the radical pro-capitalist stance of the Austrian School and attaching it to an explicit ethical principle, Ayn Rand helped to further solidify the American libertarian movement, despite her personal disdain for that movement.

Murray Rothbard

The central intellectual figure of modern American libertarianism is Murray Rothbard. In Rothbard, the various influences of the movement up to that point finally coalesced into a coherent, consistent philosophy of politics that would form the foundation of libertarianism going forward.

Rothbard, being an Austrian economist, shared their disdain for economic empiricism and their support for radical capitalism. His chief economic influence was the Austrian school economist Ludwig von Mises, the namesake of the paleolibertarianMises Institute, on whose leadership team he briefly served.

He also took Rand to task with his rationalist approach; while Rand grounded the non-aggression principle in ethical egoism, Rothbard took a Kantian aproach, arguing for a non-aggression axiom1 that was self-evidently true if one accepted his a prioripremises. He also reduced all individual rights to property rights, arguing that other rights, such as the right to one’s own life and to have one’s own body unmolested by others, were simply derived from one’s ownership of oneself as a form of intrinsic property.

The result was the birth of anarcho-capitalism, the most extreme and consistent form of libertarianism. This political philosophy argues for a complete dismantling of all coercive institutions, including government, in order for form a stateless anarchic social order. The one and only universal ethical principle of such a society is radical respect for property rights grounded in the non-aggression axiom; all other considerations are of secondary importance, and anything that violates the non-aggression axiom is considered an intolerable evil regardless of any other factors.

We have at this intellectual juncture travelled a great distance from the likes of Adam SmithJohn Locke, and John Stuart Mill. While libertarianism of this sort has its foundational roots in liberalism, deep beneath the surface somewhere, so does communism, and neither can be credibly argued to be meaningfully liberal in the broad sense of the term despite their ideological origins, both having dispensed with core liberal ideas. We now turn our attention to the task of building a liberal foundation to politics to contrast this with.

What is Liberalism?

Liberalism is a political tradition that arose during the Enlightenment, a period in Western history, following the Renaissance, in which traditional attitudes and power structures were under extreme pressure and critique. In this highly active intellectual environment, people began to question the Church, the King, and the relationship between these power structures and the people more generally.

Liberalism posits that the purpose of government is to protect the interests of the people generally rather than an aristocracy or other privileged class. As such, in contrast to monarchy or imperialism, the moral validity of a government is grounded not in the divine right of kings or simple might-makes-right, but in the consent of the governed. This is most famously and eloquently exemplified in the American Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

It is important to note that liberalism is not a dogma. There is no specific book or text that outlines “the correct liberalism”. Liberalism better describes a broad group of thinkers and ideas that share a focus on the above, but vary in the details.


The central pillar of liberalism is political freedom, but before we can talk of political freedom, we must establish what we actually mean by freedom in the most general sense. To this end, I offer the following:

Freedom is the ability of a willful being to successfully exert control over reality in order to satisfy its ends.

A willful being is a being that has a will to do things. Will is essentially another word for intentionality; willful action is intentional action. Many animals would qualify as willful beings by this definition, but the abstract, conscious will relevant to politics is something only observed in human beings. A dog certainly has intent when it eats its dinner, but it cannot reflect on that intent, and its intentions are entirely a consequence of instinct and not influenced by abstract thought at all.

Ends are novel states of reality that the will intends to obtain; if the end is achieved, reality is different than it was before in a way that satisfies the will. If one intends to open a closed door, the end is a state of reality in which the door is open.

Control describes the physical interaction of the will with reality to achieve intended ends. If your intended end is an open door, control describes using your physical body to grasp the door knob and open the door. Successful exertion of control occurs when everything goes according to plan; if the door opens, and this was the intent behind willful action, we can say that the will has successfully exerted control over reality.

Freedom As Moral Good

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” – Aristotle

While it may seem self-evident, it’s worthwhile to take a moment to defend the idea that freedom, as described above, is a moral good. After all, various individuals and philosophies throughout history have been anti-freedom, with arguably the most explicitly anti-freedom philosophy being that of Mussolini’s fascism:

“The Truth Apparent, apparent to everyone’s eyes who are not blinded by dogmatism, is that men are perhaps weary of liberty. They have a surfeit of it. Liberty is no longer the virgin, chaste and severe, to be fought for … we have buried the putrid corpse of liberty … the Italian people are a race of sheep.” – Benito Mussolini

If there is anything like an objective definition of the good for a willful being, the good is the achievement of intended ends. This is not to say that all ends are equally good, or that someone can’t be mistaken in their belief that the end they are seeking is what they really want. The only argument being made here is that, practically by definition, “a good” is something that a willful being perceives as a benefit, and that willful beings design their ends based on perceived benefit.

It necessarily follows that freedom is good, since freedom simply describes the ability of willful beings to successfully obtain the good, whatever it may be. It would be incoherent to argue that an end is good but the ability to obtain that end is not good. This would amount to arguing that “hungry people being fed” is good, but “being able to feed hungry people” is not.

What Constrains Freedom?

If freedom is the ability of a willful being to successfully exert control over reality in order to satisfy its ends, absence of freedom is necessarily the lack of this ability. Whenever a willful being is not able to obtain an end that it desires, we can say that freedom is constrained. Such constraints can be roughly sorted into the following categories:

  • Constrained by internal capacity. When someone is unable to achieve an end due to limitations in their being directly. For example, lacking the cognitive ability to solve a problem or lacking the physical strength to move an object.
  • Constrained by material circumstance. When someone is unable to achieve an end due to lack of available resources. For example, being unable to power a motor vehicle due to a lack of available fuel or being unable to purchase a good or service due to insufficient funds.
  • Constrained by other people. When someone is unable to achieve an end due to interference from others. For example, being unable to enter a building due to armed guards posted at the door.

To be very clear, none of these are mutually exclusive. Reality is complex, and in real-world situations, it is usually the case that all of the above are at play in a given situation.

The Liberal Ethos

Liberalism is the politics of freedom as defined above. Liberals seek to create and maintain political institutions that maximize the ability of people to achieve their desired ends. This ethos underpins all of its more concrete and specific claims, and colors all debate that occurs within the context of liberalism.

Since people naturally seek their desired ends when they have the freedom to do so, liberalism is not focused on providing them with their ends but with ensuring they have the ability to do so. As such, liberalism is negative in the sense that its primary focus is removing constraints on freedom rather than providing positive goods. This does not mean liberalism is broadly anti-coercion; only that coercion, since it is necessarily a constraint on the freedom of some, must be justified in terms of the constraints it lifts from others. A straight-forward example would be a law against murder, which constrains the freedom of would-be murderers while granting much more freedom to the majority of mankind that prefer to remain alive.

If we apply this ethos to the various categories of constraints on freedom, we get the following political goals:

  • Removing constraints of internal capacity. The liberal values the extension of human capacity in themselves and others, both physically and cognitively, such that they are more capable of achieving their desired ends.
  • Removing constraints of material circumstance. The liberal values helping the impoverished so that they are not blocked from participation in the benefits of civilized society and legitimately have the capacity to achieve their desired ends.
  • Removing constraints of other people. The liberal values protecting the person and property of the individual from coercive interference by other people.

Since these categories are not mutually exclusive, and removing constraints from one person can impose constraints on another, the actual business of building a liberal social order is necessarily a complex one. This is where the focus on the institutions comes in.

Liberal Institutions

Freedom is a kind of utility, and liberalism is about maximizing that utility across the general population. That said, maintaining the balance of so many kinds of freedom across a large population of people is no simple ask. One is constrained not only by the limits of human intellect and knowledge to have a complete enough picture of reality to always select the most utility-maximizing option in a given situation, but by the fact that reality is in a constant state of change.

To this end, liberalism puts a focus on building the right institutions. Properly designed institutions in good working order provide a means by which the people can ensure that government is acting in their interests, being corrected both as circumstances change and as errors are found.

One can write entire books (and many have) on individual liberal institutions, and I don’t intend to provide a full-throated defense of all of them here. Instead, I will provide a brief description of some of the most important liberal institutions, couched in the terms described above, to show how they are implied by the base assumptions of liberalism. They are not presented in order of importance, apart from the first item, which is foundational.

  • Monopolistic Government. This is the foundation that all other government institutions are built from. By granting a government monopoly over a geographic area, one constrains the legitimate use of force to a body answerable to the people. 
  • Democracy. In order for a government to be answerable to the people, the people must be able to concretely influence the operation of government, even if indirectly through electing representatives to a legislature. Democracy is the institutionalization of this idea, providing a mechanism for exactly this. 
  • Rule of Law. Law is the codification of the constraints government imposes on the people. In a liberal society, the only valid laws are laws that impose minor constraints on the freedom of some to remove greater constraints on the freedom of others. In order for the law to be fair and just, it must be written down, clearly accessible to and understandable by everyone, and enforced equally across all classes of society.
  • Checks and Balances. While governments are intended to represent all of the people, the day to day operations of government will inevitably be conducted by a small few. In order to reduce the risk that anyone operating in government might exploit such power for their own ends at the expense of society as a whole, and to reduce the risk of a majority of society crushing the freedom of a minority via government institutions, government power should be distributed and constrained, with various branches of government providing checks against each other and balancing each other’s power.
  • Private Property. Few things constrain one’s freedom more directly than denying one’s ability to own property at all. The ability to own property and direct its use as one sees fit is foundational to a free society and a flourishing economy.
  • Contract Enforcement. In order for people to engage in meaningful social and economic activity, they must be able to make agreements with others with reasonable confidence that such agreements will be honored.

Where Libertarianism Errs

The cardinal sin of libertarianism, from which most of its other errors follow, is in the reduction of human freedom to mere property rights. Rather than property rights being an institution that is one of many means toward the removal of many possible constraints on human freedom, libertarianism defines freedom as property rights, and either throws out all other concerns or renders them entirely subservient to property rights, such that no end can ever trump property rights.

This reduction of all freedom to property rights gives the libertarian an overestimated confidence in his individual ability to know what policies maximize freedom. After all, the libertarian is no longer tasked with balancing a complex set of institutions and freedoms in order to maximize a form of utility. All he has to do is take his one very simple principle and apply it consistently, and what follows is necessary and definitionally freedom.

As a consequence, the libertarian no longer has any reason to value liberal institutions like monopolistic government, democracy, rule of law, etc. These institutions are for a practical political philosophy that understands that the world is too complex for any one person to know the right answer to everything. A dogmatic man with a simple narrative does not see a complex world, and as a consequence, has no reason to value any tools intended for dealing with complexity.

Another unfortunate consequence is that the libertarian simply does not concern himself with any other constraint on human freedom. On a surface level, he might care that someone is critically impoverished, and even aim to help them, but he does not consider that impoverishment a constraint on freedom, and therefore, he has written off any use of coercion to solve that problem. It may be that a trivial amount of wealth, coercively taken from others, would greatly improve this man’s actual freedom by enabling him to begin the process of obtaining work and a place to live, while minimally impacting everyone else, but this line of thinking is verboten when freedom is not defined in its more important and general sense.

A related problem for libertarianism is its naked deontological outlook. Rothbard’s non-aggression axiom is a deontological moral principle, which is to say, a moral principle one has a duty to follow and is (in the eyes of the deontologist) self-evidently true. Deontology dismisses the notion that outcomes or consequences have anything to say about morality.

Since the good is not defined in terms of any kind of outcome apart from adherence to principle, libertarianism as a practical political philosophy is unfalsifiable. If a libertarian society were to come into being and was, by some objective measurement, worse to live in than a liberal society, this would not be seen as a refutation, because the good is not defined in terms of any particular result but in terms of adherence to a principle.

The other problem caused by libertarian deontology is that it leaves one with a political philosophy without any grounding in deeper values. As long as one follows the non-aggression axiom, any value system is as good as any other. Want to create a racially-segregated micro-community to get the “benefits” of an ethnostate? As long as nobody is violating the non-aggression axiom, the libertarian has no basis to offer a moral critique. If racial segregation became the norm across society, with a minority race being denied access to many of the basic institutions of civilization, this would not be seen as a reduction in freedom for that minority as long as, on paper, the non-aggression axiom were followed and nobody’s property rights have been violated.

There are also numerous practical arguments to be presented against a number of libertarian and anarcho-capitalist premises, but those are outside of the scope of this piece. The aim here was to show a foundational problem with libertarianism’s core premises. 

Liberalism, by contrast, builds itself on a much more complete vision of human freedom, recognizes that freedom is multi-faceted and complex, understands the need for freedom to be manifested as an outcome in reality, and sees government institutions as a means to enable those outcomes in the most effective way possible. This is why liberalism has produced the wealthiest and most stable socities in human history, and libertarianism remains the pipedream of a small number of ideologues.

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