Liberals and Libertarians

The Problem with Both

At the outset of my professional career in the Sixties, I lived and worked in New York City and its suburbs. There I witnessed the rise of libertarianism as Ayn Rand and her disciples frequently appeared on TV, talk radio and public forums, at which I was an occasional participant. (Rand was in fact a libertarian who rejected the label, as many self-described “libertarians” failed to subscribe fully to her “objectivist” catechism).

This was, at the same time, the high tide of liberalism as Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” rolled through Congress and as Barry Goldwater, the “conscience of conservatism” suffered a crushing defeat in the 1964 election.

The clash between the liberals and the libertarians generated heated and exciting debates, whereby both contesting ideologies were refined and clarified.

Little did the liberals suspect then that three and four decades hence, libertarianism would become a significant player in American politics.

Today, many liberals insist (and I concur), that the ascendance of libertarianism is the result, not of the cogency of its ideology, but of the overwhelming financial and media resources that have promoted it.


Where liberals and libertarians meet — and part.
Libertarianism does not fit in comfortably with either the Democrats or the Republicans, which explains the determined, if futile, persistence of the Libertarian Party. However, when faced with the forced choice of the lesser of two evils, most Libertarians have sided with the Republicans.

Now that is beginning to change, as many libertarians are deserting the GOP and joining the liberal Democrats in a fragile alliance of convenience. They are doing so as they find their principles of minimal government, personal autonomy, fiscal responsibility and church-state separation massively betrayed by the theocrats and crypto-fascists that have taken control of the Republican Party. At the same time, the Republicans continue to proclaim the libertarian ideals of the free market and privatization, as they cut back on government services.

The common ground between the liberals and libertarians is found in their endorsement of personal autonomy, as articulated by John Stuart Mill: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” (On Liberty, Ch. 1). Accordingly, the libertarians (and less enthusiastically, the liberals), oppose the criminalization of so-called “victimless crimes,” such as prostitution, homosexuality, and “recreational” drug use, and both insist that the government has no business interfering with a woman’s personal decision whether or not to continue a pregnancy.

Notwithstanding this ground of common agreement, the differences between liberalism and libertarianism are fundamental and irreconcilable.

To begin, the libertarian’s advocacy of completely unfettered individual “sovereignty” extends to property rights and economic activity. Thus the libertarian is steadfastly opposed to zoning restrictions or to seizure of property by eminent domain. And the libertarian endorses, without qualification, the unrestricted free market, confident that the summation of individual “capitalist acts by consenting adults” (Robert Nozick) will result in optimal results for all.

On the other hand, the liberal, while not hostile to free markets and private property, insists that both must be regulated and occasionally be curtailed “in the public interest.”

And why shouldn’t one extend unrestricted personal liberty to include property and a liberty of economic activity? What justifies the liberal’s insistence upon government regulation of the economy? The answer lies in two principles endorsed by both liberals and libertarians. First, the “no harm principle:” “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised … is to prevent harm to others. (J. S. Mill). And second, the “like liberty principle:” “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.” (John Rawls)

The liberal will argue that the libertarian fails to recognize the full implications of these principles, for, if he did, the libertarian would find that an unconstrained free market results in harm to others and to a loss of their liberties. Furthermore, unconstrained free markets are self-eliminating, since they lead to cartels and monopolies. Thus the necessity for regulation and anti-trust laws.

The liberal’s insistence that unrestricted property rights and unregulated free markets can be socially harmful and contrary to the public interest leads to another fundamental and irreconcilable difference with the libertarian:

Society and “The Public.” Simply stated, the libertarian denies the existence of “society” and “the public.” If this sounds outlandish, consider the following observations by three prominent libertarians. First, Margaret Thatcher: “There is no such thing as society – there are individuals and there are families.” Next Ayn Rand: “There is no such entity as ‘the public,’ since the public is merely a number of individuals.” Finally, Frank Chodorov: “Society is a collective concept and nothing else; it is a convenience for designating a number of people.”

The implications of these pronouncements are radical in the extreme, for if there is no such thing as “a public,” it follows that there are no “public goods” or “public interest,” apart from summation of private goods and interests. Moreover, if there is no society, it follows that there are no “social problems,” there is no “social injustice,” and there are no “victims of society.” The poor presumably choose their condition; poverty is the result of “laziness” or, as the religious right would put it, a “sin.” There are further implications. Since there is no such thing as a “public,” taxation for the support of such “so-called” public institutions as education, libraries, the arts, parks and recreation, is coercive seizure of private property, or “theft.”

The liberal replies that this denial of the very existence of “society” and “the public” is reductionism, plain and simple — what the Brits call “nothing-buttery.” It is comparable to saying that Hamlet is “nothing but” words, that Beethoven’s music is “nothing but” notes, and that the human brain is “nothing but” cells and electro-chemical events.

Refutation of this keystone of libertarianism is simple and straightforward. If we can cite cases in which advantages to each individual harms the interest of all individuals, and conversely that harm to each individual benefits all individuals, then, by distinguishing “each” and “all” we have demonstrated the existence of an “all-entity,” “society,” that is distinct from a summation of “each” individual. Because I have devoted two chapters of my book in progress to proving that society is more than the sum of its component members (“good for each, bad for all,” and “bad for each, good for all”) I will let just two examples suffice here.

Antibiotics: The over-use of antibiotics “selects” resistant “super-bugs,” decreasing the effectiveness of antibiotics for all. But just one more anti-biotic prescription for a trivial, “self-limiting” bronchial infection won’t make a significant difference “in general,” while it will clearly benefit the individual patient. But multiply that individual doctor’s prescription by the millions, and we have a serious problem. “Good for each patient, bad for the general population.” The solution: restrict the use of antibiotics to the seriously ill. Individuals with trivial and non-life-threatening ailments must “tough it out.” “Bad for each, good for all.”

Traffic laws: We all agree that traffic laws can be a nuisance. But if you believe that traffic lights constrain your freedom of movement, try to drive across Manhattan during a power outage! In the blackouts of 1965 and 1977 in the eastern United States and Canada, traffic began to move only after the police and a few citizen volunteers stood at the intersections and directed traffic. (I was in Manhattan during both events). The decision of each driver to accept constraints worked to the advantage of all. So too with the traffic lights and stop signs that we encounter daily. We are all freer to move about only because we have collectively agreed to restrict our individual freedom of movement. “Bad for each, good for all.”

To sum up: “society” is not, as the libertarians would have us believe, simply a physical location where autonomous private individuals “do their own thing,” from which activity somehow, “as if by an invisible hand” (Adam Smith), benefits for all accrue without foresight or planning. On the contrary, the liberal insists, a society is more than the sum of its individual parts. A society is, as John Rawls puts it, “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage [which] makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts.” As the anti-biotics and traffic examples illustrate, common goods are achieved through individual constraint and sacrifice. “ Bad for each, good for all.” Conversely, unconstrained self-serving behavior by each individual can harm society as a whole. “Good for Each, Bad for all.”

The liberal does not deny that self-serving individual behavior, for example by scientists, entrepreneurs and artists, often or even usually results in benefits for all. (“Good for each, good for all”). Instead, the liberal insists that this is not a universal rule. In innumerable instances, such as the two presented above, it can be clearly shown that social benefit requires individual constraint and sacrifice.

Concerning Rights. The libertarian recognizes three fundamental rights: to life, liberty and property. All three are “negative rights” — rights to non-interference by others. From these rights are derived the only legitimate functions of government: protection of life, liberty and property from within (the police), from abroad (the military), and the adjudication of property disputes (the civil courts). And because these are the only legitimate functions of government, all other existing government services and property should be privatized.

The liberal, while accepting the libertarian triad of negative rights, also proclaims the citizens’ “positive rights” — to an education, to employment with a living wage and safe working conditions, to a clean and safe environment, etc. These rights arise from the fact that the liberal, unlike the libertarian, recognizes social benefits and public interests. Communities flourish, the liberal insists, when they include an educated work force, when the citizens are assured that their basic needs for livelihood and health-care are met, and when the citizens share the conviction that the society is their society and that they have a role in its governance. And because the communal activity produces more wealth than would be obtained by the sum of individual efforts, members of the community have positive rights to a share of that wealth, and to community assistance in case of misfortune.

Accordingly, Ayn Rand’s ubermensch, John Galt, is a fantasy. There is no fully “self-made man,” morally free of all responsibility and obligation to the society that nurtured him and sustains him. On the contrary, as the nineteenth century sociologist, W. T. Hobhouse observed:

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.

Moral perspective. As we have noted above, human rights are at the center of both the libertarian and the liberal ideologies. And from this pivotal center, the two ideologies diverge.

They diverge because libertarians and progressives articulate their moral and political philosophies from radically different perspectives.

*The Libertarian: From the point of view of the individual (“the egocentric point of view”). “Good for each.” From this perspective, the individual is enjoined to “ live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” (Ayn Rand).

*The Progressive: From the perspective of an unbiased benevolent spectator of society (“the moral point of view”). “Good for all.”

Thus the libertarian (who, recall, denies the very existence of “society”) advocates the maximum liberty for each individual. The liberal, on the other hand, seeks to maximize the amount of liberty extant in the society.

The liberal argues that, paradoxically, the egocentric point of view can not accomplish the libertarian goal of maximizing individual liberty. It fails, because individual liberties, and especially the liberties enjoyed by the privileged, powerful and wealthy, constrain the liberties and diminish the welfare of others. In other words, they violate the “no harm” and “like liberty” principles.” “Good for each, bad for all.”

Furthermore, the libertarian’s egocentric perspective fails because political and economic problems are not problems of individuals, they are problems of groups (i.e., of “all”), and therefore the interests of all affected individuals must be taken into account. The liberal proposes that these interests are best “taken into account,” fairly and equally, from the perspective of a hypothetical individual who is unbiased and benevolent — seeking the best result for all while respecting the inalienable rights of each.

In fact, no such neutral observer is actually necessary, for each moral agent, and the agent’s surrogate, the government, is quite capable of adopting the point of view of the hypothetical “unbiased benevolent observer.” Indeed, we did just that as we found solutions to the aforementioned problems, the use of anti-biotics and traffic control, whereby constraints upon each resulted in benefits to all. There we found that the astute moral agent would, as a “the unbiased benevolent observer,” perceive that all would benefit from antibiotics if these drugs were not prescribed for inconsequential ailments, and the same observer would conclude that the freedom of vehicular movement for all is enhance by imposing constraining rules upon each.

The perspective of the “unbiased neutral observer” has a name — in fact, numerous names, since it is one of the most familiar concepts in the history of political theory and moral philosophy: “the impartial spectator” (Adam Smith), “the ideal observer” (John Stuart Mill), “the general will” (Rousseau), “the view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel), “the original position” (John Rawls), and my personal favorite, “the moral point of view” (Kurt Baier, Kai Nielsen and many more).

And who or what is most appropriately entitled to adopt the perspective of the “unbiased, benevolent observer?” What else than an agency selected and acting by the consent of the people, an agency that enacts and administers laws to the benefit of all, an agency constituted to “establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”

That agency has a name: “democratic government.” And in case you didn’t notice, the above quotation is from the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States.

The Menace of Libertarianism. Libertarianism appears, at last, to be succumbing to the consequences of its own “success.” We are discovering at last that this stark and simple theory 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.” 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.

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.

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin and is the co-editor of The Crisis Papers. His e-mail is: gadfly@igc.org. Read other articles by Ernest, or visit Ernest's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. M. Gilson said on May 17th, 2007 at 7:09pm #

    Like most such analyses, it ignores what is reality in the field. Liberals, Progressives, Libertarians and others co-operate routinely, as in the web link on election reform.

    Many parts of the world have traffic laws as guidelines. In NY, last I knew, there was no right of way. Libertarians were the first political group to warn of the antibiotics problem and its real cause in certain regulations.

    Libertarians actually get elected more readily than people of major parties and often lead the bod ies they serve. But at present trained Libertarians do not meet the actual demand. In Florida, Democrats have publically called on members to learn from the LIbs ability to get out there and run candidates.

    Libertarians certainly do believe in public and society concepts in their original, voluntary sense. What the writers quoted reject is the coercive sense that presumes society has a superior right.

  2. CH said on May 18th, 2007 at 6:07am #

    A very good article overall, although I see a lot more criticism of libertarianism than of liberalism. What may be some of your problems with the latter, as you implied in your subtitle?

  3. Andre said on June 3rd, 2007 at 5:07pm #

    Great article, with serious attempts at some genuine and intelligent analysis. I don’t agree with the conclusion that Libertarianism is the problem, but hey, that’s why I’m a Libertarian AND a Republican ;)

    You’re saying: “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” … OR, may I add, the Majority of individuals?

    Nobody, specially Libertarians, wants a one-party system – thanks for the intellectual debate.

    Andre, http://www.CondiPresident.com

  4. In response to Liberals and Libertarians « Good Morning, Economics said on June 24th, 2007 at 4:23pm #

    […] June 24th, 2007 in letter to the editor by jsalvati Reading Liberals and Libertarians by Dr. Ernest Partridge over at Dissenting Voice prompted me to write this letter to Dr. Partridge […]

  5. Presidential Candidates said on January 7th, 2008 at 1:51pm #

    The problem with so called “liberals” that are running for president is that they are not nearly liberal enough when it comes to protecting our civil liberties. I never hear these people talking about ending the war on drugs. The war on drugs is absolutely unacceptable to anyone who believes in true freedom.

    I cannot in good faith support John Edwards, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton over Ron Paul when I know he cares more about my own freedom to do what I want with my own body in my own home.

    I also feel that his foreign policy is so much stronger than the front running Dems as to be … beyond question. The front running Dems foreign policy talk is often dangerously neo-con like. Ron Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy is the right thing to do. It will save us tons of money, is morally correct, and will make us safer.

    I implore all liberals who truly believe in peace & freedom to ditch the Democrats now and vote for peace & freedom while you still have a chance. Vote for Ron Paul.