Friday, November 10, 2006

Why I Am Not a Libertarian

In this weekend’s theory posts, I am tackling two topics that came up in discussion during the week.

In a response to my “Comment on the Election,” Inquisitor suggested that I might be a libertarian. So, I am going to use one of my theory posts this weekend to explain why I am not a libertarian.

The second topic that I will write about concerns the relationship between moral and economic value.

Why I Am Not a Libertarian

I was, once, a libertarian. I believed that the libertarian ideology was so obviously true that no rational person could doubt it. However, against this, I had to deal with the fact that there were a lot of intelligent people out there at least as rational as me (I was not so arrogant as to assume otherwise) who rejected the libertarian ideology.

This created a paradox.

I should say a few words about libertarianism, for any readers who do not know.

Libertarianism is an ideology that argues for maximum individual freedom and minimum government involvement in the lives of the people. "Libertarianism" actually identifies a range of views that include such things as anarcho-libertarian (people do not need any government at all) and minimal governmentists (the government should run the courts and the military and that is all).

One of these libertarian subgroups follows the ideas of the 20th century writer Ayn Rand called Objectivists. Objectivists hold that moral truths are objective and that they can be deduced by reason, and that these moral truths yield a set of conclusions consistent with maximum individual freedom and minimum government.

I was a member of this sub-group of libertarians.

However, I had this puzzle that I described at the start of the article. I could not see how any rational person could question libertarianism. Yet, clearly, come rational people did.

I asked one of my libertarian friends one day if he knew of a scholarly work that suggested that there might be problems with libertarian theory. He handed me a magazine with an article (I cannot remember the magazine or the article today) that argued that there was a flaw in Ayn Rand’s argument.

His objection applied David Hume's 'is'/'ought' distinction. Hume argued, as I have written about in the past, that he found it an inconceivable leap of logic to go from a set of purely 'is' premises to an 'ought' conclusion. He wrote that a person who was aware of this problem could see that it defeated all 'vulgar' systems of morality.

When I looked at the Objectivist argument, I found this leap.

In abbreviated form, the Objectivists argued, "Man is a rational animal; therefore, man ought to always be rational."

This has about the same logical validity as, "Man is an animal without wings; therefore, man ought not to fly."

An Objectivist reading this will likely argue that I have constructed a straw man, and that he knows a way across this gap. I have seen a number of attempts. Yet, in every case, I have been able to trace the argument through a series of ‘is’ claims, then into a series of ‘ought’ claims, with no explanation as to how the arguer made this leap from ‘is’ to ‘ought.’ At the point that this leap is made, the Objectivist is begging the question – inserting, without justification or explanation, exactly those conclusions that he is trying to prove.

Still, those who used Hume to attack the Objectivists appeared to be making a mistake as well. If we look at Hume’s argument closely, Hume did not say that ‘ought’ cannot be derived from ‘is’. He only said that he cannot conceive of how it can be done – and that any who claim that it is possible must explain how. If we interpret Hume has having proved that ‘ought’ cannot be derived from ‘is’, then we must interpret Hume as committing a logical fallacy himself – an argument from ignorance. “I am ignorant of a way of deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’; therefore, it is not possible to make such a derivation.”

In order to turn Hume’s objection into something stronger than an argument from ignorance, we must explain why it is impossible to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’.

I think that I have come up with an answer to that question.

The reason that ‘ought’ cannot be derived from ‘is’ is that an ‘ought’ statement is a statement about reasons for action. The premises must contain a statement about reasons for action, or the conclusion can say nothing about reasons for action. You cannot derive a ‘reasons for action’ statement from premises that are about everything but reasons for action.

The libertarian argument, like other arguments of its type – the ‘vulgar systems of morality’ that Hume talked about – begin with a set of ‘is’ statements. However, sooner or later, to get an ‘ought’ conclusion, it needs to assert a reason for action in the premises. When the argument gets to that point, it simply asserts a reason for action – a reason for action that happens (by coincidence?) to support the Objectivist’s desired conclusions.

This is where the libertarian argument fails. The libertarian argument needs a theory of “reasons for action” to make its argument complete. Once it has a theory of “reasons for action,” it can put those reasons for action in the premises of its argument, and see what conclusions follow from it.

The way that libertarians smuggle reasons for action into their argument is through the use of the term ‘rationality.’ They say that man is a rational animal. But what does it mean to be rational?

One form of rationality is means-ends rationality. This is the form of rationality that says, “If one has a reason to bring about X (as an end), and doing Y will help bring about X, then one has a reason to do Y.” Libertarians recognize (though some seem to speak as if they are the only ones who recognize) that it is an objective matter of fact as to whether a particular means Y will actually bring about a desired end X. Somehow, they think that questioning libertarianism means questioning means-ends rationality; which, they argue, it makes no sense to criticize.

Actually, the type of reasons for action that one needs to write into the premises of an argument to get an ‘ought’ conclusion are reasons to bring about X as an end. This is the true sticking point to most ‘vulgar’ moral theories – their inability to explain how they have selected the particular ends that they put into the premises of their arguments.

It is just as much an invalid leap of logic to be speaking one moment about the rationality of Y as a means, and then leap to the value of X as an end, as it is to make a leap from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. Value as a means, and value as an end, simply are not the same thing; and the objectivity of value as a means does not prove or even infer the objectivity of value as an end.

The final part of my objection to libertarianism comes from the question of what is the best theory of “reasons for action” as ends, rather than means. On this issue, I hold that desires are the only “reasons for action” that actually exist. As a result, the value of states of affairs (and of means) depends entirely on their tendency to bring about the fulfillment of desires. Even the value of a desires themselves depends on their tendency to fulfill or to thwart (other) desires.

This means such things as property rights are great, to the degree that a system of property rights fulfills desires. However, the instant that it can be shown that some other institution better fulfills desires, at that moment we leave the libertarian ‘property rights’ system behind and enter into this better system.

To illustrate where this system takes us away from libertarianism, I typically invite my readers to imagine a case in which an airplane crashes in the desert, just outside of a gated private house in the desert. The airplane survivors will die of thirst unless they get some water. The owner of the building has water, but does not wish to share it with the survivors.

Libertarian theory says that he does not have to do so, because there exists a system of natural rights and duties that yield an absolute prohibition on using force (depriving another of life, health, liberty, or property) without their consent. The owner of the water has an absolute property right in that water, and the survivors of the airplane crash have no right to demand that the water-wealth be redistributed among those who crashed in the airplane.

I deny that a “reason for action” that prohibits redistributing the water wealth exists. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist – where good desires tend to fulfill the desires of others, and evil desires tend to thwart the desires of others. The property owner in this case has desires that tend to thwart the desires of others. He is evil. Good desires would seek to redistribute the water wealth from the rich property owner who does not need it, to the airplane survivors who will die without it.

Now, good desires may prefer to have the water redistributed by the owner of the water charging a fair price – a price that will compensate the owner for the loss. However, failing that, a forceful redistribution of the water wealth to save the lives of the crash survivors is not out of the question.

This “forceful redistribution of wealth to save lives” also works when the objective is to save others from grave discomfort. It is an argument that comes out in favor of government redistribution of wealth from those who have it to those who need it – a conclusion that libertarians tend to reject.

Because the only “reasons for action” that actually exist are not property rights or some intrinsic duty not to initiate force against another. The only reasons for action that actually exist are desires; and property rights or prohibitions on initiating force only have value to the degree that they can be a part of the set of institutions that best fulfills desires.

I have nothing against taxing the rich to help the poor. Because of this, I cannot be a libertarian.


Anonymous said...

Forced "Charity" is not charity at all but, the redistribution of wealth. No, you are not libertarian - That much I agree.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm not a libertarian by this definition either.

But I think the hypothetical thirsty people dying outside a mansion example is a bit flawed, because the owner is not doing what "ought" to be done by hoarding his water (which is presumably a lavish supply, given his remote location) either -

Do libertarians hold that the people outside are bound to behave as libertarians "ought" when confronted by a person who is not behaving as a libertarian "ought"?

It seems a fragile philosophy, if a betrayal of the ideaological principles can only be met with shrugged shoulders and an "Oh, well, I guess I'll go over there and die of thirst, then. Sorry to have bothered you."

Anonymous said...

Man, you are going for a long-post record over here or something! I can sum up why I am not a libertarian quite simply with two observations. First, government has an important role in enforcing laws (e.g., murder as in the case of Christian extremists killing atheists) and regulations (e.g., preventing pollution). Second, the notion of maximum individual freedom is problematic as soon as people are in a situation where they must live together, share resources, and not kill each other. The continued existence of religion and the conflicts over it demonstrate that humans are not ready for more individual freedom. Finally, Psychology teaches us that humans are nowhere near as rational as we'd like to believe.

Regarding taxation, I look at it this way: I want the services the government offers to continue to be offered. Therefore, I view my taxes as my investment in America.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


In most versions of libertarian theory, it is not the case that the man ought to share his water with the survivors. He is morally permitted from killing them, but he is permitted to use his water as he sees fit. It is, after all, his water. This means it is wrong for others (including the airplane survivors) to take it from him by force.

Please notice the degree to which, in the real world, we expect people to say, "Oh well,I guess I'll go over there and die of malaria, or AIDS, or starvation. Sorry to have bothered you."

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Actually, this post was not particularly long.

To be honest, the "theory weekend" posts tend to be longer than the "practice weekday" posts. Theory takes a bit more work.

In this case, I sought to present my case as if I were writing to a libertarian. Most libertarians do believe that government has an important role in enforcing laws against crimes of victimization and national defense. Many hold that pollution is a violation of property rights - damaging the life, health, and property of others without their consent. So, pollution is not a victimless crime.

And the fact that you may want the services the government offers, this does not give you the right to demand that others pay for it or go to jail. I would like to have the services of a good computer programmer to fix up my web site and make it look as good as yours. However, this does not give me the right to hire the government to go to my neighbor, take his money, and give me the services of a 'free' computer programmer.

My post was meant to show the cracks in the foundation of the most common types of libertarian thought - the 'natural rights and duties' version.

beepbeepitsme said...

Most of the "forced charity" flows into corporate welfare.

Anonymous said...

You might want to read

Anonymous said...

I currently consider myself a libertarian, but the foundations are shaky in my mind as well. I've been trying to work my way through Natural Rights, which are as good as saying God-given rights.

The whole "ought" thing, which I haven't really considered explicitly, would bother me in the sense of who says what ought to be? This, of course, leads to a kind of nihilism and might-makes-right kind of rights philosophy.

So I then turned to a market approach ("might" having the appearence of being equal amoung participants to an "exchange") of why everybodyy's approximate and individual moral codes are so similar; i.e. murder is bad...mmmkay?.

Needless to say, I'm still working on it and trying to figure it out. In the meantime, I decided that I didn't need an a priori reason why I believed in human rights and other libertarian stuff; I just chose that to be my credo. Anyway, I'll have to come back and read more when I get time.

Anonymous said...

I am a libertarian and dont think people stealing for survival are doing something morally wrong, but this is not morally equivalent to government coercion. If i create an organisation, that tells people "you will give us x amount of your income, or we will kidnap you and lock you up" this is not survival stealing, this is a professional extortion racket. Under the principle of moral universality (the same moral principles apply for everyone including government) the income tax is extortion under threat of imprisonment not survival stealing and if an extortionist donates money to charity what difference does that make? If im the leader of extortionists and donate money to unicef what difference does that make to the morality of extorting people under threat of imprisonment? If there was somekind of emergency and government agents just confliscated food and water and rationed it to people who would otherwise have died, then that might perhaps be comparable to the situation of the people in the desert, but the income tax is more similar to criminal extortion(you will give us what we want or we will kidnap you and lock you up), than a normally peaceful individual in some desperate situation, so the people in the desert are not a valid example, when it comes to libertarians opposing the income tax. Actually it could be argued that governments arent morally equivalent to normally peaceful individuals at all, since they are monopolies in force.
Personally I think libertarianism is a conlusion from moral universalism, if the same moral principles that are held to apply to individuals are applied equally to those who hold political power, then libertarianism follows. If im not justified in starting a charity that extorts people under threat of imprisonment neither is government. It is morally good to help people but if im not justified in kidnapping you for refusing to conribute to my cause then government isnt justified in doing the same either. If my company cant find enough workers and we use threats of force to get people to work for us this is slavery, again with moral universality the military draft is slavery.
What is being rejected by libertarians is an enforcable obligation to participate in causes, not that it cant be good to help people, but attempting to enforce this violates a higher principle of individual autonomy or self-ownership. Only the obligation not to violate the body liberty or property of others is justly enforcable.