An Ethical Rebuttal of Libertarianism?

The article “Why I left libertarianism: An ethical critique of a limited ideology” contains what the author,  , specifically calls an ethical rebuttal of the philosophy. I recommend reading the whole article. I’m going to examine only his rebuttal. He begins it with an opening summary of libertarian morality.

Libertarians confine their moral reasoning to … property rights and the non-aggression principle, the cornerstone of libertarian morality. But it is an intentionally limited moral framework. Libertarians typically push matters outside of property rights and violence into the realm of aesthetics, which Rothbard described as “personal” morality. On these issues of personal morality, libertarian theory is silent.

I largely agree. The author goes on to quote Murray Rothbard on parental obligations to children:

The parent … may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive. (Again, whether or not a parent has a moral rather than a legally enforceable obligation to keep his child alive is a completely separate question.)

I would argue that starving a child is an act of aggression because children are dependent. I understand the libertarian thinking on this issue. Once you allow the state to step in for the good of the child, you can very quickly end up with worse problems, like sexual abuse of children taken from their parents and put in residential schools.

Walter Block, another prominent libertarian theorist, has attempted to narrow the case where abandonment is permissible (no one is willing to “homestead” the abandoned baby), but rejects that the non-aggression principle applies to children. Why? Because children aren’t full humans with all the same rights as adults. They exist in a superposition between animals and humans. Which means it’s permissible to aggress against children.

I’ve never heard an opinion remotely like this. I would argue that the NAP does apply to children. The only exception I imagine is that if a child, not knowing any better, is going to do something to endanger themself, it is acceptable to forcibly restrain them, whereas it would not be if they were an adult.

What constitutes abuse represents a “continuum problem” for libertarians. Some attacks on children are okay but not too much. It’s a big gray area.

So what? There are always grey areas, the prime example being the point at which it is morally unacceptable to discard/abort/kill a gamete/fetus/baby.

It’s embarrassing that many libertarians have so little moral clarity on this issue. Especially when compared to a website like Jezebel, which has no problem taking a hard stance on aggression against children.

Facts don’t care about your embarrassment. Jezebel is also a website that takes a hard stance on the existence of a patriarchal conspiracy against women, among other ideological “alternative facts”. Pointing to it as a comparison is laughable. The author also claims the libertarian position on child abuse is equivalent to being pro-spanking, which is similarly ridiculous.

Treatment of animals is also outside of the political ethic. There are no animal rights  —  unless the animals request them  —  so humans are free to treat animals however they want. The same is true of the planet in general. In order for the Earth itself to be considered under libertarian philosophy, it must be private property.

I believe that the NAP does apply to animals, though in a limited way because they do not themselves have agency. Again, I can understand the libertarian reluctance to give the government power over animal rights. For example, this has led to people having to euthanize their pit-bulls because they were a banned species.

Lew Rockwell affirms that Libertarianism is concerned with the use of violence in society. That is all. It is not anything else. It is not feminism. It is not egalitarianism (except in a functional sense: everyone equally lacks the authority to aggress against anyone else). It has nothing to say about aesthetics. It has nothing to say about religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation.

Since the NAP prevents one from imposing religion or persecuting by force based on race or sexual orientation, I would argue it has plenty to say. I do think that, unless all nations become libertarian (I’m not holding my breath), the state will have to remain to protect its citizens from aggression by non-libertarian states.

Of religion, Rothbard says there is no necessary connection between … libertarianism and one’s position on religion. … Libertarians believe that liberty is a natural right embedded in a natural law of what is proper for mankind, in accordance with man’s nature. Where this set of natural laws comes from, whether it is purely natural or originated by a creator, is an important ontological question but is irrelevant to social or political philosophy.

The author rejects this statement, but I entirely agree. If atheists and Christians can both agree on the non-aggression principle, I don’t care whether the Christians think it was laid down in the law of Moses, or atheist think it was not.

Libertarianism  —  as a body of thought  —  doesn’t have to comment on every social issue. It can say nothing of race and gender and class. It can be silent on nonviolent forms of hierarchy and inequality. But then it stands incomplete as a social philosophy.

This is the author’s opinion. IMO, it says plenty on race, gender, and especially class. Currently, the state is a tool of the privileged class, used to suppress the middle and lower classes. Libertarianism seeks to remedy this. It also says that hierarchy and inequality cannot be perpetuated by force. What specific element of social philosophy is lacking?

Libertarians who are outspoken against aggression against children, take strong stances on religion, or analyze other social issues have faced resistance from others who would prefer to cleave only to the foundations of “true” libertarianism.

So what? There are always purists.

Jeffrey Tucker describes these libertarians as brutalists. They reject larger humanistic social perspectives in favor of the strict and narrow adherence to the libertarian core.

They aren’t rejecting humanistic social perspectives, only the use of force based on them.

Libertarianism is … supposed to be an ideology that describes and prescribes human social behavior. But to that end, its core framework is inadequate.

In what way? The author gives no specific inadequacy.

Within the libertarian ethical framework, … either something was consented to voluntarily or it was not. This conception of consent marks the line between good and evil… Theft, rape, murder and fraud all lie on the nonconsensual side and are therefore not good. The other side includes all forms of voluntary human interaction which, again because we’re limited to a political ethic, we can’t really say much about. It’s all fine.

You can say as much as you like about any voluntary human interaction. You simply can’t use (state) force to interfere with it. So, for example, libertarians would not throw prostitutes in jail, unless perhaps they were infecting their customers with STDs. They would not jail drug dealers, unless they were selling to children or selling products that could inflict harm on their users.

But there is some gray on the good side. Is a rich CEO really in the same ethical position as a poor Chinese factory worker? In the libertarian view, yes. There are plenty of differences, but if that Chinese worker voluntarily chose to work for that factory, they’re not ethical differences.

And this is as it should be. If someone works hard, becomes a CEO, and gets rich without using aggression or the coercive power of the state, how does that make them morally inferior to a factory worker?

Choice isn’t binary. It’s a spectrum. There’s a gradient that we can use to measure how constrained a choice really is. On one end is outright force and on the other is pure, unconstrained freedom. But in between is a fuzzy gray area where economic, psychological, cultural, biological and social forces are leaning on human decision making.

This is fairly incoherent. People’s life circumstances vary. We can’t give everyone an equal starting point. All we can do is prevent the strong from taking advantage of the weak by force. Libertarians are merely pointing out that the state is the strongest player on the board, and the most prone to use force (i.e. law).

Most libertarians would admit that this spectrum exists, but there is still strong sentiment within libertarianism that any non-coercive relationship is … permissible. That’s why you see libertarians defending sweatshops.

If someone is truly voluntarily working in a sweatshop, then I understand why a libertarian would defend it. Giving the government power to impose working conditions by force can have negative consequences. Minimum wages, for example, can put some people out of work. Its like free speech: sometimes you have to defend things you disagree with.

A poor Chinese factory worker is far more constrained than a rich white businessman. His range of possible options is tiny in comparison. He is less free. The same may be true depending on your race, gender, class or sexual orientation. The way you were treated growing up  —  by your parents, teachers and peers  —  may contribute. The way people like you are represented in media and entertainment may contribute. Social prejudices and cultural norms may contribute. These factors don’t mean people are being outright forced to do anything, but simply that they’re constrained by their environment. We all are, in different ways.

How is this an argument against libertarianism? It could easily be seen as an argument for giving the government power to interfere to level the playing field by force.


About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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