Posted by: CS | December 11, 2013

The Illogic of Libertarianism

Libertarians consider freedom the highest value and government the greatest restraint on freedom, from which they conclude that government is an evil to be eliminated.

But given human nature, the variability of human desires and the scarcity of resources to satisfy those desires, human existence in the absence of government, or in what Hobbes called a state of nature, will degenerate into a war of all against all:

… there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

This fact, libertarians can never grasp, for if they did, they would not be libertarians.

To deny the miserable lack of freedom under a condition of anarchy, libertarians make claims about rights as though such pious talk would tame the will of those intent on a course that infringes the liberty of others. That their rights, God-given or otherwise, can nowhere be exercised freely except where they are enshrined in law and enforced by government seems beyond libertarian comprehension.

Travellers ambushed during the chaos of the 30 years war.  Sebasrtian Vrancx (1573-1647). Image source.

Travellers ambushed during the chaos of the 30 years war.
Sebasrtian Vrancx (1573-1647). Image source.

Libertarians also like to invoke authority in support of their ideology, Adam Smith being often cited. Indeed, in Edinburgh, the Adam Smith Institute claims to be “Britain’s leading libertarian think tank” ( is there more than one?). But Adam Smith was no anarchist. He was a social scientist whose great work The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was concerned with the factors underlying not liberty but the creation of wealth, and to Smith it was clear that  general prosperity could be achieved only under a government.

Smith devoted an entire section of the Wealth of Nations (Book V) to the nature of good government, identifying four necessary functions:

National Defense:

The first duty, and necessary expense, of the state is defence: protecting the society from the violence or invasion of others.

Justice:

Just as the state must protect people from foreign enemies, so must it protect them against domestic ones. …

Among nations of hunters, there is hardly any property. People usually have nothing to gain from injuring others, and there is little need for any formal administration of justice. But where property exists, things are otherwise. There are potential gains from theft. The avarice and ambition of the rich, or the desire for ease and enjoyment among the poor, can lead to private property being invaded. The acquisition of valuable property – which may take years to build up – necessarily requires the establishment of a civil government and a magistracy to preserve order and justice. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions. It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security.

Thus, according to Smith, the accumulation of wealth, which so many libertarians believe  should occur on a tax-free basis,  is in fact possible only under publicly funded government protection:

Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.

Public Works

The third role for the state is to build and maintain public works that could never yield a profit to individuals: institutions to facilitate commerce, the education of the young and the instruction of people of all ages.

Education

In the matter of public education, Smith, himself the beneficiary of publicly supported schooling, was ambivalent. There was a strict limit, he believed, to the value of education for the masses:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.

But Smith would likely have taken a different view had he lived in a technological age where the returns to investment in education are great but its cost exceeds the means of many students.

Monopoly

Smith made numerous references to the harm inflicted on the public by monopolies, which he described as conspiracies against the public:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Smith may have advocated no laws against monopoly, but he recognized them as an evil inherent in the system of trade regulation that he wished to see replaced by a competitive free market:

Monopoly of one kind or another, indeed, seems to be the sole engine of the mercantile system.

Recognizing the necessity of government, Smith recognized also the necessity of taxation and proposed principles of taxation that any small-government conservatives would approve.  Certainly, he would have considered absurd, the notion that taxation is necessarily theft.

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