Sunday, November 13, 2022

Two Cheers for Radical Libertarianism

Guest Blogger

For the Balkinization Symposium on Andrew Koppelman, Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed  (St. Martin’s Press, 2022).

Matt Zwolinski

Ed Crane, one of the co-founders of the libertarian Cato Institute, once quipped that as a libertarian he always knew that it was important to be tolerant of alternative lifestyles, but until he walked into the conventional hall of the Libertarian Party, he had no idea just how many alternatives there were.

In the course of writing our book on the history of libertarian thought, The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism, John Tomasi and I had much the same experience. Both of us were already familiar with the main libertarian thinkers of the 20th century: Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises. But neither of us had sufficiently appreciated just how many differences there were between these thinkers. And we certainly didn’t realize how much deeper, messier, and more interesting this diversity would become once we expanded the scope of our vision. Libertarianism, we came to realize, was not the creation of 20th century American intellectuals. Libertarianism was born in the 19th century, and first came on to the scene in Britain and France, only later making its way to the United States, where it took on a strikingly different form.

In some of its manifestations, as Andrew Koppelman notes in his book, libertarianism has taken a conservative, even reactionary cast. Libertarians have fought against the progressive redistribution of wealth; they have fought against environmental regulation; and they have even in some cases lent their support to witch-hunts against the supposed communist infiltration of Hollywood.

In contrast, Koppelman identifies Friedrich Hayek as a libertarian whose libertarianism takes a more progressive form, or at least as someone whose ideas lend themselves to a kind of progressive reinterpretation. Whereas the libertarianism of Rothbard and Rand is radical and absolutist, Hayek’s libertarianism is pragmatic and moderate. Hayek opposed state socialism and praised the free market, but he did not view markets as morally sacrosanct, and even his most polemical work, The Road to Serfdom, is replete with exceptions to the principle of laissez-faire.

It would be easy to come away from this sort of contrast believing that moderate forms of libertarianism are inherently friendlier to progressive ends than more radical ones. This would be a mistake, but it is a mistake that becomes clearest only when we look beyond 20th century libertarianism to its 19th century antecedents.

Consider, for example, the 19th century American libertarian Lysander Spooner. Spooner is about as radical and uncompromising a libertarian as one is likely to find. But his radicalism is, as I have argued elsewhere, almost always directed against systems of privilege and power. Not only was Spooner a strident opponent of his slavery, but he was also a powerful critic of the wage-labor system, which he regarded as the product of illegitimate state restrictions on the availability of capital.

Or consider the British reformer Richard Cobden, and his French counterpart Frédéric Bastiat, both of whom devoted the greater part of their careers to the fight against economic protectionism. Both men regarded protectionist policies as economically inefficient. But more important for both of them was the manifest injustice of policies which, in their context, raised the price of basic necessities for the poor in order to further enrich small but economically and politically powerful groups of domestic producers.

Even the much-maligned Herbert Spencer often deployed his libertarianism toward progressive purposes, from arguing against the legitimacy of private ownership of land, to criticizing British imperialism, to decrying the restriction of suffrage to the propertied classes.

Nineteenth century libertarians were often progressive not in spite of their radicalism but because of it. One of the most seductive aspects of libertarianism is its apparent simplicity. At its core, libertarianism seems simply to say that what is wrong for individuals to do is wrong for states to do too – a view that Tomasi and I describe in our book as the “moral parity thesis.” According to this idea, if it’s wrong for a private person to steal from their neighbor, to beat them up, or to force them to work or fight for you against their will, then it’s wrong for governments to do these things too. As Murray Rothbard pithily put the point: “War is Mass Murder, Conscription is Slavery, and Taxation is Robbery.” When the state uses its power to commit flagrant injustice, as it so often did in the 19th century, libertarianism can help us to pierce the veil of authority in order to see things as they really are.

But the simple libertarian perspective can often be misleading, too. Consider, as an example, the issue of environmental pollution. Most individual acts of pollution cause zero tangible harm to anybody else, by themselves. The emissions I produce by driving my car to work are, considered on their own, too insignificant to make anybody sick or affect the earth’s climate. Even the pollution created by a single firm generally only becomes dangerous when added to the large amount of pollution created by other firms.

What, then, should a libertarian say about pollution? Is individually harmless pollution a violation of others’ rights, in the same way that someone’s harmlessly trespassing through your house would be? If so, and if we are to apply libertarianism’s typically absolutist stance to this particular form of trespass, then the libertarian stance on pollution would seem to be quite radical indeed – prohibiting not just gross industrial pollution but even the relatively minor pollution involved in driving, cooking, and even breathing. On the other hand, ignoring individually harmless pollution seems implausible too, since the cumulative effects of such pollution can be catastrophic.

Environmental pollution is simply one example of a problem where large-scale injustice fails to map neatly onto individual acts of injustice. But there are many others, including the spread of contagious disease and the problem of structural racism. In cases like these, the radical libertarian view embodied in the moral parity thesis simply fails to provide a helpful understanding of the problem, let alone useful guidance for dealing with it.

Still, I don’t think this means that radical libertarianism is useless, or fundamentally deluded. It is a well-known truth among moral philosophers that every major moral theory from Kantianism to utilitarianism to Aristotelean virtue ethics is subject to glaring counterexamples. The same is true, I suspect, of the major political theories. If moral and political theories were only useful to the extent that they could provide unambiguous answers to every question that falls within their domain, this would be a devastating problem. But this is almost certainly not the right way to think about such theories. Moral and political theories are better thought of as maps, and just as different maps are better-suited for different contexts and different purposes (a perfectly accurate globe would not be helpful if your goal is to find the quickest route across town), so too are different moral and political theories helpful for understanding and grappling with different kinds of problems.

Radical libertarianism gets some questions glaringly wrong. But it also provides a lens through which to see the world that helps us get a certain class of important questions right – questions that we might have mis-answered, or not even noticed at all, had we been looking through a different lens. In reading through the history of libertarian thought, as John Tomasi and I did in researching our book, readers will often be frustrated, disappointed, and even enraged by the errors and blindspots of various libertarians. But, we think, they will often also be delighted, surprised, and enlightened. That’s about as much as we can ask for, from any political theory.

Matt Zwolinski is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego. You can reach him by e-mail at

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