Criticism of libertarianism

Main article: Libertarianism

Criticism of libertarianism includes ethical, economic, environmental, and pragmatic concerns. Critics have claimed the political philosophy does not satisfy collectivist values, and that private property does not create an egalitarian distribution. It has also been argued that a laissez-faire economy would not produce the most desirable or most efficient outcomes, and that deregulation fails to prevent the abuse of natural resources.

Ethical criticisms

Aggression and coercion

The validity of libertarian notions of liberty and economic freedom have been questioned by critics such as Robert Hale, who points out that laissez-faire capitalism is in fact a system of aggressive coercion and restriction by property owners against others:

Adam Smith's "obvious and simple system of natural liberty" is not a system of liberty at all, but a complicated network of restraints, imposed in part by individuals, but very largely by the government itself at the behest of others on the freedom of the "some"... What in fact distinguishes this counterfeit system of "laissez-faire" (the market) from paternalism, is not the absence of restraint, but the absence of any conscious purpose of the part of the officials who administer the restraint, and of any responsibility or unanimity on the part of the numerous owners at whose discretion the restraint is administered.[1]

Other critics, including John Rawls in Justice as Fairness, argue that implied social contracts justify government actions that violate the rights of some individuals as they are beneficial for society overall. This concept is related to philosophical collectivism as opposed to individualism.[2]

Libertarian philosophers such as Michael Huemer have raised criticisms targeted at the social contract theory.[3]


In his essay "From Liberty to Welfare," philosopher James P. Sterba argues that a morally consistent application of libertarian premises, including that of negative liberty, requires that a libertarian must endorse "the equality in the distribution of goods and resources required by a socialist state." Sterba presents the example of a typical conflict situation between the rich and poor "in order to see why libertarians are mistaken about what their ideal requires." He argues that such a situation is correctly seen as a conflict of negative liberties: the right of the rich not to be interfered with in the satisfaction of their luxury needs is morally trumped by the right of the poor "not to be interfered with in taking from the surplus possessions of the rich what is necessary to satisfy their basic needs."

According to Sterba, the liberty of the poor should be morally prioritized in light of the fundamental ethical principle "ought implies can" from which it follows that it would be unreasonable to ask the poor to relinquish their liberty not be interfered with, noting that "in the extreme case it would involve asking or requiring the poor to sit back and starve to death" and that "by contrast it would not be unreasonable to ask and require the rich to sacrifice their liberty to meet some of their needs so that the poor can have the liberty to meet their basic needs." Having argued that "ought implies can" establishes the reasonability of asking the rich to sacrifice their luxuries for the basic needs of the poor, Sterba invokes a second fundamental principle, "The Conflict Resolution Principle," to argue that it is reasonable to make it an ethical requirement. He concludes by arguing that the application of these principles to the international context makes a compelling case for socialist distribution on a world scale.[4]

Jeffrey Friedman argues that natural law libertarianism's justification for the primacy of property is incoherent:

[W]e can press on from [the observation that libertarianism is egalitarian] to ask why, if [...] the liberty of a human being to own another should be trumped by equal human rights, the liberty to own large amounts of property [at the expense of others] should not also be trumped by equal human rights. This alone would seem definitively to lay to rest the philosophical case for libertarianism. [...] The very idea of ownership contains the relativistic seeds of arbitrary authority: the arbitrary authority of the individual's "right to do wrong."[5]

Robert Hale has argued that the concept of coercion in libertarian theory is applied inconsistently, insofar as it is applied to government actions but is not applied to the coercive acts of property owners to preserve their own property rights.[6]

Standards of well-being

Jeffrey Friedman has criticized libertarians for often relying on the unproven assumption that economic growth and affluence inevitably result in happiness and increased quality of life.[7]

Economic criticisms

Further information: Laissez-faire

Critics of laissez-faire capitalism, the economic system favored by some libertarians, argue that market failures justify government intervention in the economy, that nonintervention leads to monopolies and stifled innovation, or that unregulated markets are economically unstable. They argue that markets do not always produce the best or most efficient outcome, that redistribution of wealth can improve economic health, and that humans involved in markets do not always act rationally.

Other economic criticisms concern the transition to a libertarian society: Jonathan Chait argues that privatizing Social Security would cause a fiscal crisis in the short-term and damage individuals' economic stability in the long-term.[8]

Environmental criticisms

Further information: Natural environment

Environmentalists on the left who support regulations designed to reduce carbon emissions, such as cap and trade, argue that many libertarians currently have no method of dealing with problems like environmental degradation and natural resource depletion because of their rejection of regulation and collective control.[7] They see natural resources as too difficult to privatize, as well as legal responsibility for pollution or degrading biodiversity as too difficult to trace.[2]

Pragmatic criticisms

Government decentralization

Further information: Decentralization

John Donahue argues that if political power were radically shifted to local authorities, parochial local interests would predominate at the expense of the whole, and that this would exacerbate current problems with collective action.[9]

Lack of real-world examples of libertarianism

Michael Lind has observed that, of the 195 countries in the world today, none have fully actualized a libertarian society:

If libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn't at least one country have tried it? Wouldn't there be at least one country, out of nearly two hundred, with minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system?[10]

See also


  1. Fried, Barbara (2009). The Progressive Assault on Laissez Faire: Robert Hale and the first law and economics movement. Harvard University Press. p. 50. ISBN 9780674037304.
  2. 1 2 Partridge, Ernest. (2004). "With Liberty and Justice for Some." In Michael Zimmerman, Baird Callicott, Karen Warren, Irene Klaver, and John Clark. Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology (4th Edition). ISBN 978-0-1311-2695-4
  3. Huemer, Michael (2013). The Problem of Political Authority.
  4. Sterba, James P. (October 1994). "From Liberty to Welfare." Ethics. (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell) 105 (1): pp. 237–41
  5. Friedman, Jeffrey. (1993). "What's Wrong with Libertarianism." Critical Review. 11 (3): p. 427.
  6. Bruenig, Matt. (28 October 2013). "Libertarians Are Huge Fans of Economic Coercion."
  7. 1 2 Friedman, Jeffrey. (1993). "Politics or Scholarship?" Critical Review. 6 (2-3): pp. 429–45
  8. Chait, Jonathan. (21 March 2005). "Blocking Move." The New Republic.
  9. Donahue, John. (1 May 1997). "The Devil in Devolution." American Prospect. 8 (32).
  10. Lind, Michael. (4 June 2013.). "The Question Libertarians Just Can't Answer." Salon.

Further reading

External links

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