Why I Am Not a Libertarian

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Table of Contents
What Is Libertarianism?
Coercion Is Not a Government Monopoly
Common Property
Free Markets and Monopolies
Too Many Decisions
Some Other Items

"...this remissness will point out the necessity of establishing some form of government to supply the defect of moral virtue."

 Thomas Paine

Last changed on $Date: 2005/08/23 06:57:38 $.

I'm not a libertarian. Libertarian ideas are widespread on various Internet discussion groups, although perhaps less so now than they once were. Every so often I get caught in a discussion with somebody pushing libertarian ideas. I wrote this essay to capture some of the ways in which I think libertarian ideas are flawed. I'll start with a brief description of libertarianism, and then list some of the problems I see with it.

There are a number of critiques of libertarianism on the net, and it's not my intent to repeat them. If you're interested, a good starting place is Mike Huben's Critiques of Libertarianism page.

What Is Libertarianism?

I'm not going to claim that I can fully describe libertarianism, but here is my attempt at a brief sketch.

Libertarianism is a not a single idea. It is a constellation of political and philosophical ideas centered around the notions that personal freedom of action is paramount, and that government should be minimized or eliminated. There are many different variations of libertarianism, and not all libertarians agree on everything.

In general, libertarians stress the notion of individual liberty, and argue that governments interfere with that liberty through taxation and regulation. In general, libertarians argue that any action should be permitted except the use of force, and they argue that government actions such as taxation only work because they are backed by force. In general, libertarians believe strongly in private property rights and in rights of contract.

Coercion Is Not a Government Monopoly

A key reason that libertarians give for their dislike of government is that government action constrains personal liberty. Taxation is a typical example: if you don't pay your taxes, the government will send men with guns to collect them. Libertarians consider this to be an unacceptable form of coercion.

However, there are many types of coercion which come from the private sector. For example, your employer may tell you that you must start working mandatory unpaid overtime. This effectively lowers your hourly wage. Naturally, you can quit, but there may not be any other jobs in town, and you may not be able to afford to move, or to get training for another type of job. (I didn't just make up this example--there is a class action lawsuit against Walmart about this).

For another example, your landlord may decide to raise the rent, or to stop doing maintenance on the heating system, unless you agree to do some personal chores. Naturally, you can move elsewhere, but there may not be any other place available which is close enough to your work, or all the other places may be more expensive.

These and other typical examples of coercion by the private sector have a greater effect on people who happen to be poor. Poor people generally have fewer options. Many people become poor through no fault of their own, for reasons such as an unexpected death in the family or being laid off. Such people are very vulnerable to many types of private sector coercion.

In general, in daily life in the U.S., coercion by the private sector is much more obvious day to day than coercion by the government. The government normally leaves people alone other than garnishing their paycheck. The private sector rarely leaves people alone, and limits our choices every day--most obviously at our jobs. The fact that private sector coercion is not backed by the threat of direct violence does not mean that it is not coercion. Indirect violence, in the form of loss of income, shelter, or food, is just as effective as direct violence.

People sometimes cite a couple of reasons why private sector coercion seems different from government coercion: you can refuse to take part, or you can move somewhere else. However, those reasons are misleading. Refusing to take part can mean losing your job and/or becoming homeless. Moving elsewhere, besides being expensive in itself, is only possible if there is a job elsewhere. It's true that in principle, if everything works out, you have a choice. But in practice, if something goes wrong, you do not.

Moreover, you actually have the same choices with a government. If you refuse to pay your taxes, you may eventually be put in jail. But at least you will be fed and sheltered. Or you can always move to a different country. There are countries with very minimal governments, such as Afghanistan or Somalia. While those choices may not seem appealing, they are just as real as the choices you have to avoid private sector coercion.

Another way in which private sector coercion differs from public sector coercion is that the free market may create additional opportunities in the private sector. However, large initial expenses may make this unlikely. It costs a lot to build an apartment building, and it takes a long time, so there may not be any choices when you need them. Moreover, while a new government is unlikely to be founded, it is entirely possible to use elections to create a new government. So again the public and private sectors are not so very different.

In fact, while there are obvious differences between the public and private sectors, on the specific issue of constraining our personal liberty I think that the government essentially acts like a large corporation. It's interesting to note that while corporations have an essential interest in constraining our behaviour--they want us to buy their products--government does not. Government has an essential interest in getting reelected; constraints on behaviour are secondary.

To my mind, the belief that government is particularly bad while private enterprise is good is the oddest aspect of libertarianism. Our actions in society are constrained in innumerable ways, not least by simple custom. To pick out one thread and label it as bad seems to me to be a gross simplification of the reality of our lives.

Common Property

Many libertarians stress the notion of private property. They argue that only private ownership gives any incentive to preserve the property. They claim that something which is owned by everyone is valued by no one.

Current society, on the other hand, supports many things which are held in common by groups of people or by the population at large, such as public roads, public parks, community gardens, the air we breathe, natural resources, scientific knowledge, and free software. It's true that one must pay attention to the structure of common property in order to ensure that it is maintained in an appropriate manner. However, there is no obvious reason why private property is better than other types of property.

Community gardens are a useful example of the difference between private and common property. A community garden typically has lots which are available on a first-come first-serve basis to members of the community. The land is typically owned by the community--often the town where the garden is located. If the community garden is privately owned, then the existence of the garden depends upon the whim of the owner. Placing the ownership with the town means that the garden will exist unless and until a majority of voters in the town choose to change it. (Another alternative is creating a trust to own the garden, but how do you decide who controls the trust? If you make every resident of the town a member, you have simply recreated a government function.)

The existence of common property typically relies on restrictions placed on other people. For example, the existence of public parks implies that people are not permitted to build houses on that land. Of course, this is also true of private property. Property is meaningless unless somebody is prepared to enforce restrictions on that property. These restrictions must ultimately rely on an appeal to force.

When people think of common property, they often think of the tragedy of the commons. This is the problem which libertarians are trying to solve by requiring private ownership. However, as can be seen by the examples above, there are many cases of common property which do not suffer from any tragedy.

On the other hand, there are real cases of a tragedy of the commons which are difficult to solve using only the notion of private property. Air pollution, for example, is a case in which for a single corporation the benefits of creating pollution are much greater than the costs. Simply assigning every person a property interest in the air is unlikely to help--if my air is polluted by a factor 100 miles away, how will I know who to blame? If I do know who to blame, how much should I charge them? If I spend a great deal of effort getting them to clean up their act, that also benefits my neighbor, who didn't have to do anything--the free rider problem.

For that matter, discussing these ideas avoids the notion that owning the air is a very strange notion. Clearly I don't own particular molecules. Do I own a particular space? Does it travel with me as I travel about town? Does cigarette smoke, or car exhaust, violate my property rights?

An interesting modern approach to air pollution is to invent a new type of property, the right to pollute a certain amount, and assign that property to corporations. Corporations are free to exchange their pollution rights. This permits corporations to make cost benefit decisions as to whether to buy pollution rights or decrease pollution. Over time, the pollution rights are decreased; in principle, this leads to an overall decrease in pollution. This is an example of bundling common property into private property. Note that it implies that somebody owns the common property, and is able to enforce restrictions on the resulting private property. In current society, the owner is the government on behalf of the people at large. I don't know how this approach could be implemented in a libertarian society without an unacceptable threat of force.

For a final example of the tragedy of the commons, consider fish in the ocean. Fish are an example of a natural resource which are easily over-exploited. When the number of fish are reduced below some level, it is no longer possible for fishermen (and -women) to make a living. Fishermen as a group are better off if they cooperate to not over-exploit the fish in the area. However, for a fisherman who doesn't mind switching to a different job, it is rational to not cooperate, but to instead catch as much fish as possible before switching. Thus, any cooperation must be enforced by a threat of force. The libertarian approach would presumably be to assign private ownership of the fishery to some person. But would that person own the ocean, or the fish? How can that ownership be split up among different people? How do we get there from here?

To sum up, in practice today there are many different types of property ownership. Many libertarians stress only a single type: private ownership by an individual or corporation. This is a simplification of how things work today, and it's not clear why it is a beneficial one.

Free Markets and Monopolies

Viewed in market terms, the government is a monopoly provider of certain services. Many libertarians want to break up that monopoly, and permit private firms to compete for services such as road building and maintenance, police protection, etc. The argument is that the free market encourages competition, and leads to greater efficiency.

However, it's important to remember that in many areas the free market leads not to competition, but to monopoly. In areas which require large initial investment, but which have economies of scale once you get big, once one company gets established, it's very hard for another company to enter the market. That company will tend to dominate the market until a new cycle of technology changes the basic economics of the business. The reason we don't see more monopolies in today's markets is, of course, that the government breaks them up. In the U.S., before the anti-trust acts were passed starting in 1890, there were plenty of monopolies.

Not surprisingly, many of the services which the government provides today lend themselves to becoming monopolies in a market scheme. So in practice we have a choice of monopoly providers. The advantage of the government is that it is inherently accountable via elections. A private monopoly provider has very little accountability.

Too Many Decisions

In an extreme libertarian society we would each have to choose our police protection provider, our water and sewage service, our road vendor, our fire protection service, our home inspection service, etc. We would have to make these decisions based on the information they provided, but since there would be no Truth in Advertising Act (who would enforce it?) we would also have to study reports from different consumer organizations. We would have to decide what information was most trust-worthy and make our choices on that basis. We would have to review those choices regularly. We would have to learn a great deal about many different things.

Frankly, to me, it all sounds too complicated. One of the reasons to elect a government is to find smart people to look into different issues and make the right decision. Current U.S. government certainly has problems with corruption and undue corporate influence, but lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The principle of collectively hiring people to make good decisions, while avoiding the free rider problem, sounds good to me.

Some Other Items

I'll list off a few other things which bother me about libertarianism, without discussing them in detail.


In the end, the government is not an external force imposed upon us. We choose the people who compose the government. They are us. There are certainly many difficulties with government. But we can see societies with no government. We call them failed states, and we don't want to live there.

The ideal libertarian society is a utopia, one created by ignoring the complexities of real life. It will almost certainly never exist. I don't think it's even desirable. I wouldn't want to live there. I wouldn't even want to visit.


This essay incorporates suggestions from Elisabeth Ross.