Why is libertarianism wrong?

The origins, background, values, effects, and defects of libertarianism. Some sections are unavoidably abstract, but at the end some irreducible value conflicts are clearly stated. Note that this is not intended as a formal argument with libertarians: as explained below, there are no shared premises for such an argument. If you are a libertarian, it is pointless for you to read this: go somewhere else.


Libertarianism is part of the Anglo-American liberal tradition in political philosophy. It is a development of classic liberalism, and not a separate category from it. It is specifically associated with the United States, and to a lesser extent with Britain and its former 'white colonies' (Canada, Australia, New Zealand). Many libertarian authors know only North American political culture and society. They claim universal application for libertarianism, but it remains culture-bound. For instance, some libertarians argue by quoting the US Constitution - apparently without realising that it only applies in the USA. Most online material on libertarianism contrasts it to 'liberalism', but that is also culturally specific. In the USA, 'liberal' means 'left-of-centre', or roughly the left wing of the Democratic Party. Here, the word 'liberal' is used in the European sense: libertarians are a sub-category of liberals. As a political philosophy, liberalism includes John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Isaiah Berlin, and John Rawls. As a political movement, it is represented by the continental-European liberal parties in the Liberal International.

At this point, you might expect a definition of libertarianism. However, most were written by libertarians themselves, and they are often useless. Libertarianism is freedom! is a slogan, not a definition. Besides, libertarians generally believe that market forces override individual liberty. With so many inaccurate, propagandistic definitions, I have avoided a futile redefinition. Libertarianism is described here through its values, claims, and effects.


The values of libertarianism can not be rationally grounded. It is a system of belief, a 'worldview'. If you are a libertarian, then there is no point in reading any further. There is no attempt here to convert you: your belief is simply rejected. The rejection is comprehensive, meaning that all the starting points of libertarian argument (premises) are also rejected. There is no shared ground from which to conduct an argument.

The libertarian belief system includes the values listed in this section, which are affirmed by most libertarians. Certainly, no libertarian rejects them all...

the claims and self-image of libertarianism

Libertarians tend to speak in slogans - "we want freedom", "we are against bureaucracy" - and not in political programmes. Even when they give a direct definition of libertarianism, it is not necessarily true.

The differences between libertarian image and libertarian reality are summarised in this table.

libertarian image libertarian reality
Image: non-coercion, no initiation of force Reality: libertarians legitimise economic injustice, by refusing to define it as coercion or initiated force
Image: moral autonomy of the individual Reality: libertarians demand that the individual accept the outcome of market forces
Image: political freedom Reality: some form of libertarian government, imposing libertarian policies on non-libertarians
Image: libertarians condemn existing states as oppressive Reality: libertarians use the political process in existing states to implement their policies
Image: benefits of libertarianism Reality: libertarians claim the right to decide for others, what constitutes a 'benefit'

political structures in a libertarian society

Values do not enforce their own existence in the social world. The values of libertarianism would have to be enforced, like those of any other political ideology. These political structures would be found in most libertarian societies....


The effects of a libertarian world flow from the values it enforces.

what is libertarianism?

With the values and effects listed above, the general characteristics of libertarianism can be summarised.

Firstly, libertarianism is a legitimation of the existing order, at least in the United States. All political regimes have a legitimising ideology, which gives an ethical justification for the exercise of political power. The European absolute monarchies, for instance, appealed to the doctrine of legitimate descent. The King was the son of a previous King, and therefore (so the story went), entitled to be king. In turn, a comprehensive opposition to a regime will have a comprehensive justification for abolishing it. Libertarianism is not a 'revolutionary ideology' in that sense, seeking to overthrow fundamental values of the society around it. In fact, most US libertarians have a traditionalist attitude to American core values. Libertarianism legitimises primarily the free-market, and the resulting social inequalities.

Specifically libertarianism is a legitimation for the rich - the second defining characteristic. If Bill Gates wants to defend his great personal wealth (while others are starving) then libertarianism is a comprehensive option. His critics will accuse him of greed. They will say he does not need the money and that others desperately need it. They will say his wealth is an injustice, and insist that the government redistribute it. Liberalism (classic liberal philosophy) offers a defence for all these criticisms, but libertarianism is sharper in its rejection. That is not to say that Bill Gates 'pays all the libertarians'. (He would pay the Republican Party instead, which is much better organised, and capable of winning elections). Libertarianism is not necessarily invented or financed by those who benefit from the ideology. In the USA and certainly in Europe, self-declared libertarians are a minority within market-liberal and neoliberal politics - also legitimising ideologies. To put it crudely, Bill Gates and his companies do not need the libertarians - although they are among his few consistent defenders.

Thirdly, libertarians are conservatives. Many are openly conservative, others are evasive about the issue. But in the case of openly conservative libertarians, the intense commitment to conservatism forms the apparent core of their beliefs. I suggest this applies to most libertarians: they are not really interested in the free market or the non-coercion principle or limited government as such, but in their effects. Perhaps what libertarians really want is to prevent innovation, to reverse social change, or in some way to return to the past. Certainly conservative ideals are easy to find among libertarians. Charles Murray, for instance, writes in What it means to be a Libertarian (p. 138):

The triumph of an earlier America was that it has set all the right trends in motion, at a time when the world was first coming out of millennia of poverty into an era of plenty. The tragedy of contemporary America is that it abandonned that course. Libertarians want to return to it.

Now, Murray is an easy target: he is not only an open conservative, but also a racist. (As co-author of The Bell Curve he is probably the most influential western academic theorist of racial inferiority). But most US libertarians share his nostalgia for the early years of the United States, although it was a slave-owning society. Libertarianism, however, is also structurally conservative in its rejection of revolutionary force (or any innovative force). Without destruction there can be no long-term social change: a world entirely without coercion and force would be a static world.

the real value conflicts with libertarians

The descriptions of libertarianism above are abstract, and criticise its internal inconsistency. Many libertarian texts are insubstantial - just simple propaganda tricks, and misleading appeals to emotion. But there are irreducible differences in fundamental values, between libertarians and their opponents. Because they are irreducible, no common ground of shared values exists: discussion is fruitless. The non-libertarian alternative values include these...

the alternative: what should the state do?

The fundamental task of the state, in a world of liberal market-democratic nation states, is to innovate. To innovate in contravention of national tradition, to innovate when necessary in defiance of the 'will of the people', and to innovate in defiance of market forces and market logic. Libertarians reject any such draconian role for the state - but then libertarians are not the carriers of absolute truth.

The state is not inherently perfect: on the contrary, the perversion of the state is a recurrent historical phenomenon. For much of history, the state served as an instrument of oligarchic regimes (aristocracies, nominal monarchies and empires). The modern state, which has a greater impact on society, is also liable to perversion in this sense. It is often used to defend privilege, and occasionally to create privileges for a new elite, as in the European transition states of the 1990's. In the past, the state was used for witch-hunts against unpopular minorities, and anti-immigrant nationalism has restored that perverse function. Nationalists - who see the state as an instrument of ethnic purity and cultural survival - have given the state as such a bad name. But none of that is inherent in the state: none of it is comparable to the inherent defects of the market.

Theoretical works on public administration often list standard tasks and functions of the state, for instance the protective function and the judiciary function. In the Netherlands, the state maintains the dikes, to protect the community from flooding: a classic example of the protective function. The state acts as final arbiter of disputes, with highest authority, to avoid endless arbitration process. Many libertarians seek partial or total privatisation of these tasks, but that is not the only issue. Paradoxically to enforce such privatisation of the state would require the exercise of state power by libertarians, and a functionally libertarian state. Equally, a contra-libertarian state is possible, exercising contra-libertarian functions, or a contra-market state. The state goals below are derived from contra-libertarian values:

  1. to restrict tradition and heritage, to limit transgenerational culture and transgenerational community - especially if they inhibit innovation
  2. to restrict 'national values', that is the imposition of an ethnic or nation-specific morality
  3. to permit the individual to secede from the nation state, the primary transgenerational community
  4. to limit market forces, and their effects
  5. to permit the individual to secede from the free market
These goals are unacceptable to libertarians, and conversely, if libertarians shaped the world, the state would do none of these things. The issue of the state is not simply the extent of its powers - most libertarians would prefer capitalist Big Government to Bolshevik Small Government. The preferred state tasks derive from the underlying value system, and here too there is no common ground between libertarians and their opponents.

relevant links

my index page: liberalism

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Liberalism - the mainstream definitions of liberalism.

Liberal Manifesto of Oxford (1947), European political liberalism. Some elements, such as "Loyal adherence to a world organisation of all nations..." would now be rejected by the same liberal parties.

Libertäre Ideologie - a series of articles on the libertarian ideology at the online magazine Telepolis. Even if you can not read German, it is useful as a source of links, to libertarian and related sites.

Libertarian NL, a Dutch libertarian homepage. Libertarianism in the Netherlands is openly conservative, and like much of the Dutch right, increasingly obsessed with one issue: Islamic immigration.

Libertarisme FAQ: explicit about the conservative effects of libertarianism: "Je zou echter wel kunnen stellen dat het libertarisme conservatief is in die zin dat zij mensen in hun waarde laat en geen progressieve experimenten door de overheid toelaat. Het libertarisme is dus heel goed verenigbaar met het koesteren van tradities of andere overgeleverde manieren van leven."

The advantage of capitalist trucks, David Friedman

Critiques Of Libertarianism, the best-known anti-libertarian site, but almost exclusively US-American in content.

Networking in the Mind Age: Alexander Chislenko on a network global-brain. "The infomorph society will be built on new organizational principles and will represent a blend of a superliquid economy, cyberspace anarchy and advanced consciousness".

Gigantism in Soviet Space: the Soviet Union's state-organised mega-projects are a horror for all liberals. They contravene almost every libertarian precept.

The Right to Discriminate, from the libertarian "Constitution of Oceania". Few libertarians are so explicit about this, but logically it fits. The Right to Own a Business also provides that "Mandatory disability benefits for transvestites, pedophiles, pyromaniacs, kleptomaniacs, drug addicts, and compulsive gamblers are obviously forbidden."

Virtual Canton Constitution, from the former Free Nation Foundation. Although they claim to be anti-statists, libertarians write many and detailed Constitutions. This one re-appears in the generally libertarian Amsterdam 2.0 urban design project.

The Unlikeliest Cult in History - and that's the only mention they get here.