How to Argue with a Libertarian

January 31, 2009 at 12:00 am 13 comments

ron paul

Libertarians come in two flavors: Sociopath and Confused. With the latter, it is possible to argue; the former should best seek professional help.

What is a Libertarian? A person who believes that a so-called free market will cure all of the world’s woes. Government, and in particular, taxation, is wasteful and prevents the fruition of individual merit and recompense.

If our Libertarian is clear thinking about his or her position, and thus a sociopath, she will be ready to admit that because she is economically comfortable, or would be without those pesky taxes, everyone else can go to hell. She’ll say things like it’s the victims of hurricane Katrina’s own fault that they chose not to leave. Certainly she would have left… And will be quite clear in asserting that she matters more than other people because she is more competent than other people in some way that is particularly valuable to her. While it may be diverting to question her moral culpability, the argument doesn’t have legs to move forward. You’re starting from too divergent a base premise: that people do owe something to each other and should use the government toward that end, or, everyone can go to hell.

The Confused class are more salvageable. They’re uncomfortable (on a sliding scale) with writing other people off. This tortures their argument. For example, this afternoon I was arguing with an acquaintance from undergrad who has since gone IT Libertarian. J. is well intentioned but believes, amongst other things, that without taxes we’d have no FEMA, and without FEMA there would be no one to bungle New Orleans. All you have to do to beat a well intentioned Libertarian is follow their logic.

Okay, I’ll admit, obviously, that FEMA was a disaster in New Orleans, but, would the absence of any government help be preferable? Here our soft libertarian will dodge, and offer something like “well the people in New Orleans knew in advance and should have gotten out. It’s their own fault if they didn’t.” And for the poor without cars? “Well…we still don’t need FEMA, it was the other states that really helped.” This is where you pin him: And where did the other states get the money to do that? The answer: taxes.

It’s likely your libertarian will have begun by complaining about taxes, and may even have said something with which you generally agree, like: your taxes are being spent to fund genocide in Gaza. Here too suggest that they’re right about Gaza/Iraq/Afghanistan/whatever, but it doesn’t logically follow to abolish all taxes because taxes also fund education, medicare, social security. All of those services, however inefficient and in need of repair, are preferable to their absence. If our well intentioned Lib is to be honest with himself, he’ll see that his argument is either sociopathic because he has to write off caring for others, or leads back to the need for taxes and a government.

If, on the topic of Katrina, he mentions Blackwater taking away peoples guns (another Libertarian no-no) you can point him to this article on vigilante lynching in New Orleans. And anyway, isn’t Blackwater the free market in force? They don’t get to complain about that one.


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13 Comments Add your own

  • […] meme project (I wonder how they are going to track it and adjust the pic). I on my part am tagging Harvey, Luca and Schimäre (3 countries, 3 bloggers, 2 […]

  • 2. skunkcabbage  |  February 16, 2009 at 11:18 am

    alas, i drew a bunny, but my phone is not taking pictures these days, or rather, not sending them.


    a poor substitute, but something? not ignoring you, friend. 🙂

  • 3. digiom  |  February 16, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Un lapin plus extraordinaire minimaliste!

  • 4. chris davis  |  March 1, 2009 at 2:12 am

    I don’t think you’ve defined a libertarian very well. A libertarian is someone who believes in freedom to do as they wish as long as their actions don’t harm others. Libertarians believe in a peacefull and prosperous world full of people helping their neighbours, if they have the resources to do so (but not being forced to do so). This is diametrically opposed to the current system where you are forced to help someone half a world away even if you can’t afford to. Not to mention that this help generally involves the forced kind at the end of the barrel of a gun.

    Libertarians believe that taxes are wrong since they violate the principle of doing no harm to others. Ie taking from others without their consent is wrong. Libertarians also believe that there is sufficient charity in the world to care for people who are needy. This charity is not witnessed in the current system because people are forced to give a large proportion of their income in taxes and have little left over to give. If one word could sum up libertarianism, that word would be respect.

  • 5. chris davis  |  March 1, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    I found it interesting that you regard some libertarians as sociopaths. I looked up sociopath on the internet, and found this definition:

    I don’t really know why you think that libertarians are sociopaths, but I guess that this point would be the main one:

    Grandiose Sense of Self
    Feels entitled to certain things as “their right.”

    Since I understand that you believe that libertarians are only in it for themselves and have no thoughts for the welfare of others.

    As it happens this is exactly what libertarians think of non libertarians.

    After all will a libertarian ever demand your help (financial or otherwise) as a right. No, he may ask, but will never be under the delusion that he has a right to anything that belongs to you.

    However non libertarians believe that what is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine too. Doesn’t that match more closely the definition of a sociopath?

  • 6. skunkcabbage  |  March 6, 2009 at 1:59 am

    Dear Chris Davis,

    Thank you for your interest. Shall we?

    1.) A libertarian, on your count, “believes in freedom to do as they wish as long as their actions don’t harm others.” Does this definition strike you as a bit vague? Does each libertarian determine what constitutes harm? What if they get it wrong? Isn’t it a bit arrogant to presume that he or she can even determine what is or is not harmful for someone who, for example, has been historically disenfranchised? Your libertarian is of the kinder softer variety. Very good, but I have little faith in her conscience or intentions. Not doing harm is not the same as doing good. At best, it’s burying one’s head in the sand.

    2.) Libertarians may believe in a peaceful, prosperous world. The rest of us have to live in this one.

    3.) Your third point is a bit muddled. Let’s try to make sense of it.
    You (meaning citizens of the United States?) “are forced to help someone half a world away.” But this help is really hurt because it is “generally forced at the barrel of a gun” and “you can’t afford” it. Here is where, I think, you begin to discuss taxation. It’s true that your tax dollars buy bullets. Can you think of any good things that they buy? True, some uses of tax dollars are bad, but to reject taxes tout court seems, well, kind of silly. People who get assistance with healthcare (Medicare), who rely on the government to partially subsidize housing, or provide unemployment when they are laid off through no fault of their own may be harmed by a lack of tax revenue. Also, the kids in public schools will miss their teachers. Will the affluent step in to meet all these needs? Really? In this world?

    4.) Doesn’t the libertarian idea about taxes being wrong because they “do harm to others” result in a pissing match about what constitutes harm? In other words, how do we evaluate what “harm” has precedence? The recently unemployed person who wants to eat, and maybe keep their home, or the imaginary tax payer who, well, pays a portion of their income. Seems to me like taxes are an excellent example of “people who have the resources to do so helping their neighbors.” If the tax payer couldn’t pay taxes, she wouldn’t. Seems like taxes bring into being a state of affairs the libertarian already imagines present. So, if people out of freedom will help each other, what’s the objection when the state does the same? That good old fashioned libertarian benevolence is starting to smell fishy.

    So, if people weren’t forced to pay taxes, libertarians would take care of the people who are taken care of by the taxes libertarians pay. How is this not reassuring?

    If one phrase could sum up libertarianism, it might be self-respect for property. The kind of thing that’s nice when you have it.

    I looked at the definition of sociopath that you cite. I’ll stand by the claim that a libertarian who puts the accent on “not doing harm” is deluded. A libertarian who simply is against taxes, and believes other people can go to hell is a sociopath. My post is clear on this point. Lacking empathy = sociopath.

    Of the soft libertarians, it’s not that they have no thoughts for others, it’s that their thoughts for others only ever come after thoughts for themselves.

    I think a fellow human being should demand my help as a right. And I am obligated to give it.

    Your last point about demanding “what is yours is mine too” may or may not apply to non-libertarians on a case by case basis. Here our roles are reversed. Is justice the hallmark of a sociopath?

  • 7. sledpress  |  May 12, 2009 at 4:05 am

    Oh my goodness, I’m delighted to have stumbled across this, since libertarians alternately edify and frustrate me. I sympathize with many Libertarian arguments, but then when they crash head-on into real life…

    I actually had one lady tell me with a straight face that privately funded libraries charging membership fees were a better substitute for the public libraries we have in most communities. How the child of a post-literate alcoholic, say, that is a parent uninterested in buying his child admission to the advantages of a library, might access such a collection seemed not to have crossed her mind.

    As my 2 cents, I sense that most avowed Libertarians I have met are those individuals who were bright and adept at schoolwork yet, miraculously, did not bring down the abusive wrath of their peers, and thus have survived to adulthood with an absurd faith in the universal benevolence of their fellow man.

  • 8. skunkcabbage  |  June 15, 2009 at 1:00 am

    Thanks for your thoughts, sledpress. 🙂

    I would wager that the absurd faith you mention is the endowment of privilege. Real fellow feeling involves rubbing elbows with the fellows. And that is something I doubt many libertarians can do if they hope to maintain their abstraction.

    Be that as it may, I appreciate your generous reading, both of libertarians, and my post.

    • 9. sledpress  |  June 15, 2009 at 1:41 am

      I would say that the Libertarians I have met fall into the Confused category. But alas, some find themselves cast back upon the company of hardcore conspiracy theorists and the like in order to have any sort of social circle at all. Which leads to fearful philosophical contortions.

      “Endowment of privilege,” in one form or another, counts for a good deal. There are gay guys who count themselves Libertarians and affirm with a strange self-scarifying delight: “But marriage is not a civil right!” One intuits they have never had to rush to a hospital bedside or try to insure the one they love.

  • 10. skunkcabbage  |  June 15, 2009 at 2:05 am

    A fine point. And a pity if catastrophe proves needful to make it.

  • 11. Jon Munson  |  October 3, 2010 at 3:30 am

    Well, I have to say, I’m a conservative Libertarian, and none of the things you said coincide with my opinions. I know that taxes are the sustenance for all government, but, there are some taxes that I’m against. The income tax is a good example. Not only is it expressly prohibited in our constitution, but when it was instated, it was supposed to be temporary. When you think about it, how does the government have a right to that money? I can see the property tax, because your paying the government to protect your property from all threats, foreign and domestic, and the wheel tax, on the occasion that it actually goes to maintain our roads, I’m happy to pay it. The government has every right to collect those taxes, because they earn them. From my viewpoint that seems to be the prevailing opinion in my party, and yes, just as in every party, we have radicals too, who think that we shouldn’t pay taxes or have any sort of welfare. I’m just saying that it’s not really fair that you represent us like this, you know what I mean? I could do the same thing and say that all Republicans think we should have a theocracy, and all Democrats think we should outlaw cars, but that’s just not the case. So, please, think before you say these things, because the majority of us are good, hardworking people, just like you.

  • 12. Richard Wall  |  March 13, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    In the world we have, there is no such thing as “the free market.” What is often called the free market is the arrangement (or rigging) of a sector or industry in the interests of its dominant players, who interact with the government (often using the so-called “revolving door”) to “regulate” that sector, passing legislation which in fact reinforces their own dominant position or to obtain grants of privilege for themselves (e.g. pharmaceutical patents, radio station licenses).

    A classic example of the revolving door in action might be Dick Cheney of Halliburton, who became Vice-President of the USA under the younger Bush. Another example is the bailing out of the Wall Street banks by their very own men in government.

    In other words, businesses and professions use the power of the state to regulate matters in their own interest. They then call the result “the free market”, but it is nothing of the sort. The media unthinkingly or deliberately buy into and perpetuate the mythology of this false “free market”.

    Because this false “free market” is the only one that is discussed, written of, or read about, the libertarian ideal of truly voluntary interactions, the nearest approximation to which might be found, perhaps, in an open-air farmers’ or peasants’ market, gets thrown out of any debate as well. (Of course, even the farmers’ or peasants’ market is not a “free market”. There is no “clean slate” on which everyone involved in the market transactions is starting out on an equal footing. As I said above, in the world we have, the “free market” does not exist).

    Most people can agree, however, that human beings are permanently dependent on food, clothing, and shelter for survival. There are only two means of obtaining the “goods” required for survival – the economic means, which include the voluntary exchange of one’s labor for monetary or other compensation, and the political means, which is force. The state, to which libertarians are opposed, is the supreme form of collective organization of the political means. It ultimately relies on coercion. To the extent that corporations (or other collectives) engage the power of the state to further their own interests, they too are organizations of the political means.

    The libertarian “utopia” is a society where interactions are based entirely on the economic means to survival. The principle of “non-harm” (or, in other words, the ethics of liberty) requires that such use of the economic means should not be coercive or exploitative. But how do you ensure that one person or group does not exploit others? In other words, we are back at the old problem of how to achieve effective sanctions for unethical (harmful) behavior. In the nineteenth-century classical liberal tradition, such sanctions were provided by religious or moral codes of behavior, however partial or arbitrary. In modernity, people look to the state as a neutral actor who can enforce those sanctions.

    Libertarians regard as misguided such reliance on the state as moral arbiter. In general, libertarianism as a political philosophy requires an overlay of morality and responsibility in some form (for example, religious belief, mutualism, communitarianism, voluntarism) in order successfully to refute the accusations of being either sociopathic or confused. But in the modern world as we have it, and particularly because “goods” (positive values) have come to be defined in terms of progress or growth towards ever higher levels of material welfare and consumption, many live in an ethical vacuum.

    It is a common assumption that libertarians by definition live in that ethical vacuum, but the assumption is wrong. Those who do live in an ethical vacuum are properly called “libertines” – they believe in license,
    not liberty.

  • 13. Zach  |  July 31, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Actually, the only way the people of New Orleans knew of the impending disaster was from weather reports issued by the NOAA, an organization that gets funding from taxes. Otherwise, the people of New Orleans wouldn’t have had a clue.


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