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A Dim View of Libertarianism, Part VII – Some Concluding Questions

Part VII of a seven part series. Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V & Part VI.

Our critical examination of libertarianism has left us with some provocative questions, the responses to which will serve as a summary of these essays.

Copyright 2010 by Ernest Partridge. Published here with permission of the author.

Is a Well-Ordered Society a Free Gift?

The libertarian regards a morally well-ordered society as a free gift, to which nothing is owed for its maintenance. Accordingly, they argue against the liberals that redistribution of wealth, care for the weak and unfortunate, support of education, the arts and the environment, the promotion of civic pride – none of these is required of the citizen.  Presumably, all these will be cared for “spontaneously” as each individual goes about his or her private business. True, private donations to charities and private organizations that aid these unfortunates and support these amenities are morally praiseworthy, but they cannot legitimately be supported by required tax assessments. To do so, the libertarians argue, would constitute involuntary appropriation of private property – in a word, “theft.”

In reply, the liberal cites an additional concept in John Locke’s political writings, conveniently overlooked by libertarian theorists; this is the concept of the social contract. Contract theorists such as Locke, and the contemporary liberal moral philosopher, John Rawls, point out that secure possession of the rights of life, liberty and property, and the orderly functioning of the free market, are only possible in what John Rawls calls a “well ordered society.” Such a society exists he writes:

[W]hen it is not only designed to advance the good of its members but when it is also effectively regulated by a public conception of justice. That is, it is a society in which (1) everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the same principles of justice, and (2) the basic social institutions generally satisfy and are generally known to satisfy these principles… Among individuals with disparate aims and purposes a shared conception of justice establishes the bonds of civic friendship…”1

Such a society is not the libertarian’s mere aggregate of “social atoms” — of private individuals, seeking merely to maximize their own self-interest. Rather, the liberal contends, it is a well-knit community of citizens, with loyalties to the community, and with an active understanding that rights must correlate with duties. For example, no citizen can consistently claim his right to a jury trial while at the same time deny his duty to serve on a jury. In a well ordered society, every citizen, without exception and whatever his accomplishment, bears an enormous burden of moral debt to both predecessors and contemporaries. The liberal insists that in a democratic society one appropriate and indispensible institution for the management and payment of that debt is the government.

To appreciate the scope of this debt, imagine an American libertarian entrepreneur, characteristically “fed up with big government interference,” who calls his travel agent to book a flight for a business meeting in Europe. That simple transaction would have been impossible without the “interference” (in part) of the National Weather Service, the Air Traffic Control system, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Reserve System, and countless additional “government bureaucracies.” Because these agencies oversee the public “commons” and serve as referees of private commerce, they can not be privatized, any more than courts can be privatized.

Equally significant as these public agencies is the “moral tone” of the “well ordered society;” the sense of safety and well-being which accompanies the implicit and widespread expectation among the citizenry of fair-play, trustworthiness, and empathy — a condition founded upon the general acknowledgment that all citizens “have a stake” in the existing politico-economic order. It is not a mere accident of good fortune that the United States and other stable nation-states are not like Somalia or Uganda. It is not without reason that the citizens of these peaceful countries enjoy, by contrast with those failed states, the benefits of what Rawls calls “civic friendship.” These benefits have been and must forever be purchased, in part, through the citizens’ support of public institutions that maintain education, culture, popular government, and publicly owned natural areas – all familiar items in the liberal agenda. Probably no pre-supposition of libertarianism, concludes the liberal, is more misguided and more dangerous than the assumption of the “free gift of the well-ordered society.”

The British sociologist, L. T. Hobhouse, made the point supremely well, when he wrote:

The organizer of industry who thinks he has ‘made’ himself and his business has found a whole social system ready to his hand in skilled workers, machinery, a market, peace and order — a vast apparatus and a pervasive atmosphere, the joint creation of millions of men and scores of generations. Take away the whole social factor, and we have not Robinson Crusoe with his salvage from the wreck and his acquired knowledge, but the native savage living on roots, berries and vermin.2

Thus Ayn Rand’s totally self-made and self directed John Galt type of entrepreneur is a myth. As even Bill Gates must appreciate, there is no Microsoft without the myriad of publicly educated “micro-serfs” on the payroll.

Can a Nation be Both Ignorant and Free?

A libertarian reader of The Crisis Papers, disagrees with Hobhouse, as he writes:

People would want to be educated even if there were no public education and would educate themselves, if necessary, as they did in days past. It is the Ayn Rand hero who would take the root-eating savages and educate them so that he could build a factory in their barren land and thus produce a good living for himself and them.

Once again, the libertarian unwittingly gives us a powerful self-refutation. For on reflection, this proposal is both malevolent and absurd.

We are asked to imagine Ayn Rand’s “John Galt” or his surrogates strolling through the village of savages, picking out a few children and offering to educate them to work in Galt’s factories. This would, of course, require several years of education, and capitalists are not renowned for their willingness to await long-term returns on their investments. But let that pass. More serious problems arise. Would these selected “students” be required to work for Galt to pay off their debt? What if, during their education, they developed other career aspirations? Would they nonetheless be indentured servants to Galt? What kind of “liberty” is this? And if, on the other hand, the chosen students were accorded the right to take their Galt-supported education elsewhere, what entrepreneur would take such a risk on his investment in their education? And what would be the content of that education? Presumably, only the specific skills needed to enhance Galt’s profits. If so, forget about literature, history, philosophy, or any of the “liberating” liberal arts. Instead, the selected students would train to be skilled workers, “human capital,” and not free citizens of a democratic society.

Once again, we find in this proposal the libertarian disregard of the essential “like liberty principle,” defended by such great liberals as John Stuart Mill: the principle that each individual is entitled the maximum liberty, consistent with the same liberty for others. The above education scheme exacts a heavy “freedom penalty” and “welfare penalty” on others, all to the exclusive advantage of the “sponsoring” entrepreneurs.

Another reason why I should support public education, at all levels from Kindergarten through university graduate schools, is that this support is “payback” to all those who paid for my own public education. This payback is quite justly assessed and taxed throughout my lifetime, since I benefit from the advantages of that public education throughout my life.

But this is a paradoxical sort of “payback,” since I cannot directly “return the favor” to my patrons. Those individuals who built and sustained the institutions that I attended, and those teachers whom I encountered in innumerable classrooms, are either dead or in their dotage. My debt is payable to abstractions: to society and civilization. By this I mean, payable to those fragile institutions that secure, sustain and enrich the lives of us all: our Constitutional government, our laws, civic peace and tolerance, our common history, our sciences and arts. I “pay back” those who paid for my education by preserving those institutions and by enhancing the public good.3

“The public good?” The libertarian will have none of it. For, to recall once again, as Ayn Rand once wrote, “there is no such entity as ‘the tribe‘ or ‘the public‘; the tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of individual men.”4

Accordingly, the libertarian argues, educational institutions exist only to benefit each individual person who is educated, and thus should be paid for only by that individual’s family.

This is an absurdity that only a doctrinaire libertarian could believe. For in fact, the education of each individual benefits the public at large, and thus should be supported by the public at large. In particular, as libertarian supporters of the “corporatocracy” so easily forget, public education supplies the literate and skilled work force that is the foundation of corporate affluence.

When I entered the University campuses, first as a student and later as a professor, I found magnificent institutions at my disposal: buildings and grounds, faculties, libraries, and traditions – all these supported, refined, added-upon over the decades at great public expense, only a small fraction of which consisted of student tuition and fees. Yet the returns of this public investment to the public are incalculably lavish: scientific advances issuing from university laboratories, the accumulation and integration of knowledge from the many separate disciplines, the public service of the scholars, teachers, engineers, business people, lawyers, doctors, etc. that graduate from these public institutions.

There is no better evidence of the social and economic benefits of public education, than the GI Bill of Rights (1944) that offered free college education to veterans of World War II. This bill, steadfastly opposed by the Congressional Republicans at the time, was the foundation of the middle class that emerged from that war, and a springboard to the unprecedented economic growth that followed. Thus the GI Bill is regarded by many as the most significant federal legislation of the twentieth century.

Universal support of public education affirms the principle that We the People of the United States are a community, and not, as the libertarian right would have us believe, a mere aggregate of disconnected, self-interested individuals and families, the sum of whose private activity is somehow mysteriously, and without need of planning or management, transformed into the public good. On the contrary, the fabric of our national community has been woven, to a significant degree, by the public schools as they took in immigrants from numerous nations and transformed them, in a single generation, into Americans – e pluribus unum. They did so by teaching a common language, our national history, and our founding political principles. Of late, the teaching of history and civics in the public schools has been downgraded, and we are now paying a terrible price for this neglect, as a generation of Americans emerges that is ignorant of their heritage and of their rights, and thus ill prepared and ill-motivated to protect them when threatened.

Because we are all continuing beneficiaries of our system of public education, that system deserves universal support – whether or not we happen to have children currently in school. Our very freedom depends upon a flourishing educational establishment, for, as Jefferson correctly observed, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Or as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote in his Aims of Education:

In the conditions of modern life the rule is absolute, the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed. Not all your heroism, not all your social charm, not all your wit, not all your victories on land or at sea, can move back the finger of fate. Today we maintain ourselves. Tomorrow science will have moved forward yet one more step, and there will be no appeal from the judgment which will then be pronounced on the uneducated.5

Can there be Freedom Without Order?

The liberal proclaims, with John Rawls, that “[A] society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage…  [S]ocial cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts.”6

To which the libertarian replies, “How can personal liberty and autonomy thrive in your ‘cooperative venture for mutual advantage’?”

A wise answer was told to me by a Russian friend, a professor at Moscow University, during the “cowboy capitalism” days following the collapse of Soviet communism. “Under communism,” she observed, “we had order without freedom. Then we had freedom without order, only to discover that without order, there is no freedom.”

The libertarian and the liberal concur in their desire to maximize personal liberty. However, the libertarian advocates freedom without order – without, that is, an institutional structure that will ensure freedom for all.  Absent such a structure, liberty, like wealth, will “percolate up” to those in charge, “with liberty for some,” leaving the masses with nothing but their squalor and oppression.

The liberal, on the other hand, strives to establish and maintain the social, economic and political order without which there is no freedom. The liberal understands that the economic output and the civil liberties of a society are the products of the joint contributions of all members of society – of the plus-sum cooperative, rule governed and goal oriented efforts of all. Because no social order operates without some “friction,” there are inevitably victims of social and economic misfortune: the unemployed, the bankrupt, the abandoned. Add to these, the victims of natural misfortunes – accidents, disease, birth defects, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, etc.

Voluntary charity to these unfortunates, as advocated by the libertarians, is commendable. But it is insufficient. Good for the souls of the charitable, but not very helpful to those in need. There are just too many of them. Moreover, voluntary charity is a “tax on virtue,” as are private donations to education, museums, libraries, concerts and parks. Most citizens correctly reflect, “I might contribute, but even if I do, my one contribution will not abolish poverty and ignorance, nor will it add significantly to civic excellence.” To accomplish these common benefits, all must contribute through taxes. And with this understanding, most enlightened citizens will pay their taxes willingly, as they likewise support legislation designed to relieve suffering and to promote the common good.

“Taxes,” wrote Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, “are the price we pay for civilization” — the very civilization that is prerequisite to any and all personal wealth. Accordingly, it is not unjust to require the beneficiaries of civilization to share in the burden of its maintenance. However, there may be justifiable reasons to complain about the distribution of this burden.

“Necessitous men are not free men,” Franklin Roosevelt observed in 1936. The liberal realizes, as the libertarian does not, that if personal liberty is to be maximized in society, it is not enough merely to guarantee the life, liberty and property of each individual. In a just society, as John Rawls put it, the citizens implicitly agree to share each others’ fate.

The social contract of a just community also requires that if the citizens are to enjoy “the blessings of liberty,” the pre-conditions of liberty must be attended to: namely, public education, economic opportunity, equal opportunity, the protection of common resources, and the promotion of civic institutions.

As the English conservative, Edmund Burke observed:

[Society is] a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.7

Is Not Libertarianism a Nietzschean “Master Morality”?

One of the books of the libertarian economist and Nobel Prize winner, Milton Friedman, is titled “Free to Choose.”8 That title reflects the libertarian conviction that the ideal state enshrines the conviction that the individual is the best judge of his own welfare, and that the welfare of all will be best realize through an exchange of personal and private “preferences” in the free market and through the assured security of one’s life, liberty and property.

The system sounds just fine for those with a super-abundance of wealth and power. But what of all the others in society? Not to worry, say the libertarians. Citing Adam Smith, the libertarian assures us that the enterprising entrepreneur who “intends only his own gain” will, in the course of maximizing his satisfactions, be “led by an invisible hand to promote… the public interest.” “The invisible hand” metaphor has familiar variants, such as “the rising tide that lifts all boats” and “the trickle down effect”. (As noted above, those who celebrate the “trickling down” of wealth from the most to the least advantaged, seem disinclined to notice that wealth also “percolates up” from the labor of the less advantaged, and from public adherence to a “well ordered” system of justice). By invoking, through “the invisible hand” and “the rising tide,” the advantage to all which accrues from the self-motivated search for private wealth by each, the libertarian conveniently (if temporarily and inconsistently) puts aside his “social atomism” in favor of an ad hoc theory of an integrated system of society.

In response to Milton Friedman’s celebration of the “freedom to choose,” one is immediately led to ask: “freedom of whom to ‘choose’ — and at whose expense?” Given the libertarian’s uncompromising fidelity to property rights and his faith in the free market, those with property and with the wealth to enter the market have the “freedom to choose,” in direct proportion to their wealth. And at whose expense? Presumably, those without the tickets (i.e., cash) to enter the marketplace or to own property. This would include the very young, the very poor, other species, ecosystems, and future generations.. Thus it would appear that the libertarian morality embraces the cynic’s version of “the golden rule:” “Those with the gold, get to rule.”  Accordingly, libertarian doctrine might be regarded in large part as a rationalization for the wealth, social status and political power of the privileged elite.  Small wonder that libertarian think-tanks, publications and mass media are lavishly funded by that privileged elite.

To the philosophically educated, libertarianism is reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “master morality,” which he thus characterizes in Beyond Good and Evil: “the noble type of man regards himself as a determiner of values; he does not require to be approved of; he passes the judgment: ‘What is injurious to me is injurious in itself;’ he knows that it is he himself only who confers honor on things; he is a creator of values. He honors whatever he recognizes in himself: such morality is self-glorification.”9  Clearly, according to this formulation libertarianism is a “master morality.” (For more, see Chapter Four, “A Master Morality,” in Conscience of a Progressive).

Can an Abstract Theory be Fairly Compared With Policies at Work?

Libertarians routinely trot out horror stories about government waste, fraud, and abuse, and compare these sorry anecdotes with an unrealizable ideal of a “perfectly functioning market.” However, as Mark Sagoff correctly points out, this argument “commits the fallacy of disparate comparison. It compares what the perfect market would do in theory with what imperfect governmental agencies, at their worst, have done in fact.”10  No thoughtful defender of public regulation of the environment in liberal democracies will pretend that this approach is perfect. In fact, as everyone knows, regulatory agencies are under constant assault and their public service is constantly compromised, usually by the very free market forces and private interests that are celebrated by the libertarians. But if the libertarians have a better alternative, then it must be shown to be preferable in practice, rather than in ideal theory. However, as I have suggested already, the unconstrained free market, privatization and the absence of “government interference” gave us opium in cough medicine, spoiled meat, child labor, mine disasters and black lung, air and water pollution, depletion of natural resources, and now the collapse of the financial markets.

“The theory is beautiful, but reality is a bitch,” is a maxim that should be carved above the entrance of every college of economics, not to mention The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Analyses of competing theories in academic journals and seminar rooms is appropriate, as is a comparative evaluation of competing policies in action (e.g., murder rates in states with capital punishment vs. states without). But untried utopian schemes can not be fairly compared with worst-case anecdotes of policies-in-action, in this case government regulation of market forces. For history has taught us, time and again, that idealized abstract concepts such as “the free market,” “the profit motive” and privatization of the commons, inevitably come a-cropper when applied uncompromisingly to actual, ongoing, practical circumstances. Theory is best applied empirically and pragmatically, as reality “feeds back” information that prompts alterations and improvements of policy. This is why the New Deal succeeded, while utopian communities usually fail.

Does History Support Libertarian Doctrine?

The rise and persistence of government regulation of “capitalistic acts by consenting adults” is no accident; it is an invention born of necessity. No industrial society is without government, and constraints upon legitimate governmental powers can open opportunities for private exploitation. The threat of suits after the fact (“courts and torts”) did not prevent the contamination of food or the abundance of unsafe and ineffective drugs prior to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration. Moreover, even private interests recognize the necessity of impartial “referees.” Thus, for example, United States history discloses that many of the regulatory agencies of the Federal Government were established by petition from private industry; notably, the Federal Communications Commission, which was created in 1934 to oversee “traffic control” of the electro-magnetic spectrum, without which the industry could not function. No one who has attempted to drive across Manhattan during a power outage is inclined to believe that traffic signals are an unwarranted governmental intrusion upon their personal freedom.

Even “the free market,” that cornerstone of libertarian theory, cannot survive without a governmental referee, for the unconstrained and unregulated “free market” contains the seeds of its own destruction. Though free market theorists are reluctant to admit it, capitalists are not fond of free markets, since open and fair competition forces them to invest in product development while they cut their prices. Monopoly and the destruction of competition is the ideal condition for the entrepreneur, and he will strive to achieve it unless restrained not by conscience but by an outside agency enforcing “anti-trust” laws. That agency, necessary for the maintenance of the free market is, of course, the “government,” so despised by the libertarians. Evidence? Look to history. Then it was John D. Rockefeller, now it is Bill Gates.

Of course there is a sad history of governmental exploitation (usually on behalf of the powerful); but the remedy is better government, not no government. How many of us who travel abroad would prefer that international air traffic be operated by private for-profit firms, rather than national and international government agencies? Who would we rather have safeguarding our environmental health; state agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency, or private industry? Once again, look to history for the answer.

When, during a football game, a referee makes a call against the home team, the fans are often heard to shout: “Kill the Ref!” — forgetting, for that moment, that without referees, the game could not continue.

Similarly, “abolish government” is another cry that issues from frustration. Without a doubt, governments can be damned nuisances. They require us to pay taxes, often for services that do not benefit us or for benefits which we take for granted. Governments tell us that we can’t build homes and factories on public lands, that we can’t throw junk into the air and rivers, that we can’t drive at any speed we wish, and that we can’t sell medicines without first testing their safety and efficacy. All this curtails the freedom and the wealth of some. But at the same time, such “government interference” promotes the welfare of the others: of consumers, travelers, ordinary citizens and, yes, property owners. Interestingly, among the liberal democracies, the constraints of “big government” tend to burden the wealthy and powerful, while those same constraints protect the poor and the weak, all of whom, in a just polity, are equal citizens before the law.

Thus libertarianism does not qualify as a just system for all members of society. On the contrary, as we noted above, it is a Nietzschean “master morality,” reflecting the preferences and protecting the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Complaints against “big government” and “over-regulation,” though often justified, also issue from the privileged who are frustrated at finding that their quest for still greater privileges at the expense of their community is curtailed by a government which, ideally, represents that community. Pure food and drug laws curtail profits and mandate tests as they protect the general public. And environmental protection regulations “internalize” the costs of pollution, thus properly burdening the corporations and their investors as a direct result of these regulations relieving the unconsenting public of the previously externalized costs.

The libertarian trust in “the wisdom of the free market” is likewise attractive to the wealthy and powerful, since one’s involvement with markets — the libertarians’ preferred instrument of social adaptation and change — is proportional to one’s access to cash. The Golden Rule – “those with the gold get to rule” – is one of the first principles of both “the master morality” and of libertarianism.

If libertarian doctrine is a “master morality,” reflecting and serving the interests of the wealthy and powerful elites, how does one explain its attractiveness to those less well served by this ideology? In the first place, the foundational principles of libertarianism – the rights to life, liberty, and property – are, in the abstract, compellingly attractive. So much so that the liberal critics of libertarianism rarely dispute this triad of principles – in the abstract. But the libertarians embrace another principle, “the like liberty principle,” that proves to be the undoing of their ideology. For the exercise of the “right to property” can threaten the life and liberty of others, as in the case of the segregation laws in the American south, prior to the enactment of the “liberal” public accommodation laws. In general, the powerful and wealthy individual’s “freedom to choose” is routinely found to constrain the same freedom in others. Then, as one attempts to comprehend this tangle of inconsistent and competing rights and claims, one discovers what most students of human society, psychology and history already know and that defenders of political liberalism affirm: that human beings are not merely isolated bundles of “preferences,” but rather are fundamentally social creatures. Accordingly, one also discovers that successful human communities are characterized not simply by competition and market exchanges, but also by shared ideals and the paradoxical achievement of individual self-fulfillment through self-sacrifice and other-directed concern.

In short, libertarianism fails, not because it is wrong, but because it is insufficiently and over-simplistically right. It correctly celebrates the rights of life, liberty and property, and then fails to acknowledge and examine the conflicts and paradoxes that issue from these rights. Moreover, the libertarian fails to appreciate that a just system of adjudication of these rights and claims of presumably equal citizens would necessarily restore much of the very governmental structure that the libertarians would abolish and that the liberals defend.

If the libertarian scheme of free markets, absolute property rights and torts will not suffice to protect the rights of all citizens and the integrity of the natural environment, then what will?

Here’s a modest, if familiar, proposal. Let the public in general establish an agent to act in its behalf, and as the guarantor of the commonly held values and aspirations of the polity. And then let that agent first determine and then enforce rules for the optimum sustainable use of the necessarily “common resources” (e.g. the atmosphere, the hydrological cycle, migrating wildlife, etc.), and the for the preservation and maintenance of the shared institutions, traditions and values. And if the public is not satisfied with how that agent is acting in its behalf, it then has the right to replace that agent with another.

Such a system is in fact in place: the “agent” is called “government,” the rules are called “the rule of law,” and the system of checks against the abuse of power is called “democracy.” In the United States Constitution, as well as the supreme law of numerous other liberal democracies, the freedom and integrity of the individual (i.e., one’s rights to life, liberty and property) are protected, even from “the tyranny of the majority.” But these assurances by the government will not suffice for the libertarians. They assume a priori that “government,” even popularly elected and under the rule of law, will invariably behave as if it were an occupying foreign power. This, they tell us, is the source of all our problems.

In conclusion, we have found that in numerous cases the libertarian doctrines of social atomism, unfettered free markets, and unconfined personal liberty, bear morally atrocious and practically unmanageable implications. In contrast, these implications are avoided by the liberal assumptions:

  • that human beings are essentially social creatures,
  • that morality and justice are independent of, and indeed the foundations of, ideal market mechanisms,
  • that in readily identifiable instances, advantages to each result in ruin for all,
  • that, conversely, advantages to all exact sacrifices (e.g. taxes) upon each,
  • and finally that, accordingly, optimal social policies are assessed from “the moral point of view” – from the perspective of the “ideal disinterested spectator.”

Accordingly, the liberal concludes, human excellence, social harmony and, yes, personal liberty for all, can best be accomplished through the agency of a government answerable to the people, and through the rule of law, applied impartially and equally to all.

Admittedly, the liberal democracy and regulated capitalism that I would recommend is not perfect — nor is any human institution under the sun. But an anecdotal inventory of the shortcomings of public regulation does not, by itself, constitute a repudiation of the existing system.. What is required is a clear and persuasive presentation of a better alternative. This the libertarians have not offered us. Nor can they, so long as anyone pays more than casual attention to human psychology, ecological necessities, and the lessons of history.

The Libertarian Menace

Libertarianism appears, at last, to be succumbing to the consequences of its own “success.” As this theory is being put into practice, we are discovering at last that this stark and simple dogma cannot accommodate itself to social and political realities. For there is, in fact, such a thing as a “society,” and there is a “public interest.” Social problems are not solved, and social justice is not obtained, through the egocentric point of view — the pursuit of self-interest by each individual in a mythical “free market,” unconstrained by rules and sanctions and heedless of the effects thereof on unconsenting “third parties.” Instead, as we have seen and as the liberal insists, the public interest is best perceived through the “moral point of view” – the perspective of the unbiased benevolent observer” of society – and the public interest is best secured by an agency acting in behalf of the public and with the consent of the public – democratic government, of course.

The core doctrines of libertarianism are false, and dangerously so. The just society simply cannot arise “spontaneously” out of the separate and uncoordinated self-promoting activities of individual persons and family units. The liberal insists that successful communities and nations are comprised of individuals that share common resources, cherish a common loyalty to their shared institutions, and act toward the realization of common goals. As the founding documents of the American republic proclaim, to accomplish all this, “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” And what common goals? To “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Libertarianism, a fascinating intellectual diversion and challenge in the sixties, has become a menace in this new century. The denial of the very existence of society and the public interest is an invitation to chaos, which must result in the unraveling of civilization and the just society, and in its place a government of, by, and for the privileged, the powerful, and the wealthy.

Proving libertarianism wrong and immoral is not difficult. However, removing the libertarians from power and repairing the damage that they have caused, will be horrendously difficult.

And there is no guarantee that these efforts will succeed.

Notes and References:

  1. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press. 1971, pp 4-5. See also pp. 453-462.
  2. L. T. Hobhouse, L. T. (1974). Quoted by Paul Samuelson, Newsweek. December 30, 1974, p. 54.
  3. I argue this point at length in the second half of my “Posthumous Interests and Posthumous Respect,” Ethics, 91:2 (January, 1981).
  4. “What is Capitalism?”, 1965.
  5. Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education, Mentor, 1954. p. 26.
  6. Rawls, op. cit., p. 4.
  7. Reflections on the Revolution in France.


  1. “Take away the whole social factor, and we have not Robinson Crusoe with his salvage from the wreck and his acquired knowledge, but the native savage living on roots, berries and vermin.”

    Why should it be worse to live on roots, berries and vermin, than to live on burgers, Coca Cola and frozen pizza? See:

    The fact is that WE are “the native savage”, every one of us. This is why we should organize our whole society in tribes, or in in-groups, millions of tribal entities. If not, we cannot thrive, neither survive.

  2. ““The public good?” The libertarian will have none of it. For, to recall once again, as Ayn Rand once wrote, “there is no such entity as ‘the tribe‘ or ‘the public‘; the tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of individual men.””

    This is now proven totally wrong by science. The more the science understand of our genetically patterns developed throughout evolution, the more it’s clear there is no such thing as individualism, only tribalism. Our human biology is tribal, not individualistic:

    This is why we have to develop cultural patterns which are in harmony with our genetically tribal patterns.

  3. In the end I want to thanks for these series, as they made my mind clearer. Before these series I see I mixed capitalism with libertarianism, and libertarianism with liberalism. But what I found most interesting was the parts about social atomism!

    I agree with Craig, to change the world we need to understand it. How could anyone take me seriously discussing these issues, if I made a big mess out of all these conceptions?

  4. “…’My arguments in support of self-government, as opposed to society under a state, may have little point, of course: if people do not choose the state, but, as I think, simply have it imposed on them, then it makes no practical difference that the state is unnecessary to solve any particular kind of problem and that life without the state would be superior…’ (Holcombe 2004). ”
    ~ Robert Higgs, If Men Were Angels: The Basic Analytics of the State versus Self-government, June 11, 2007

    “…we hvae a great team of people which increases in numbers daily. To empower the powerless and create ‘a million villages’ to replace nation-states is the only safe future for the preservation of the biosphere. Let interedependence and personal resposibility be our aims.”
    ~ Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, second ed.

    ” Lastly, Gandhi developed the concept of nonviolent revolution, to be seen not as a programme for the seizure of power, but as a programme for transforming relationships…

    In its first decade several themes, theories, actions… began to come to the fore and were given intellectual expression…: anti-militarism, the rediscovery of community, community action, radical decentralism, participatory democracy, the organisation of the poor and oppressed inter-racially, and the building of counter-culture and counter-institutions (such as new co-ops, collectives and communes)

    The collapse of the New Left coincided with the exhaustion of the less well-publicised Sarvodaya (welfare of all) movement for nonviolent revolution in India, led by Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan, which had sought through voluntary villagisation of land to realise Gandhi’s dream of an India of village republics.”
    ~ Geoffrey Ostergaard

    ” ‘The medium is the message’ is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.”
    ~ Wikipedia

    Those being quoted, I will suggest that the Internet and its ‘social network’ capabilities may be the wild card in the hands of people, of possibility, as a possibility for a million free-associating, self-governing villages/tribes, where everyone participates and is free to move globally.

    See also:

    Pangaea was a landmass during the Permian period that effectively saw all the present continents as one.

    I hereby propose the consideration of the creation of ‘Permaea’ as a social network (it is a word that doesn’t yet exist according to a Google search) as the internet equivalent of a million-village meeting-house/third place.

    What are we waiting for?

  5. @ Øyvind Holmstad :

    Yes– collective consciousness.

    Over here and elsewhere, we’re all saying/preaching/arriving at the same thing/conclusion that seems to echo elements/modus operandi’s of the tribe, ostensibly the most successful human organization ever.

    I argue that the tribe has gone global via industrial-strength communication that crunches people together enough to create that kind of virtual formation, a telepresence of actual participation.

    I was recently made aware (this week) of PRI’s new site model and just viewed the cool animation (last night) of the sneak preview of the next PRI site version, and it has many elements of the tribe, (which they seem to call ‘swarm’), of where I think this is going.

    I have strong doubts as to whether the current incarnation of the nation-state can survive, try as they will, with this kind of forming Web 2/Open Source dynamic.
    Artificial nation-state borders are bullshit too. Why allow others to lock us up, when even the birds don’t need passports?
    If you use your head, you’ll realise that what we need to live, like water and air, transcends those… But of course I’m preaching to the converted anyway…

    BTW; unsure if it was read hereon in the previous parts of this article, but regarding the so-called tragedy of the commons:
    “…Hardin’s views weren’t, however, based on any experimental or observed evidence, and they ignored history. Despite this disconnection from the past, his essay became one of the most widely cited think pieces of the 20th century…”
    The rest of the Utne article is here:

  6. “This is what nowadays passes for the heart and soul of American democracy. It used to be that citizens in large numbers, mobilized by labor unions or political parties or a single uniting cause, determined the course of American politics. After World War II, a swelling middle class was the most powerful voting bloc, while, in those same decades, the working and middle classes enjoyed comparatively greater economic prosperity than their wealthy counterparts. Kiss all that goodbye. We’re now a country run by rich people.

    Not surprisingly, political power has a way of following wealth. What that means is: you can’t understand how the rich seized control of American politics, and arguably American society, without understanding how a small group of Americans got so much money in the first place.”


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