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Aug 15, 2013

How Not to Argue Against Libertarianism

Cogently attacking libertarianism means, at the very least, wrestling with what libertarians actually believe.

Over at Psychology Today, Peter Corning has penned an attack on libertarianism. This is nothing remarkable, as attacks on libertarians, especially attacks aimed at showing how psychologically damaged we must be, are a dime a dozen. But Corning’s diatribe so neatly fits the archetype of an academic pointing out that “Libertarians Just Don’t Get It” while evincing a profound misunderstanding of libertarianism, that it’s worth taking a moment to look at. Specifically, like far too many who dismiss libertarians, Corning fails to recognize how we distinguish society from state.

“All philosophies must ultimately confront reality,” Corning writes, “and the more radical versions of libertarianism … rely on terminally deficient models of human nature and society.” What’s this libertarian model? Homo economicus, which holds that “[o]ur motivations can be reduced to the single-minded pursuit of our (mostly material) self-interests.”

“One problem with this (utopian) model is we now have overwhelming evidence that the individualistic, acquisitive, selfish-gene model of human nature is seriously deficient,” Corning says.

We evolved as intensely interdependent social animals, and our sense of empathy toward others, our sensitivity to reciprocity, our desire for inclusion and our loyalty to the groups we bond with, the intrinsic satisfaction we derive from cooperative activities, and our concern for having the respect and approval of others all evolved in humankind to temper and constrain our individualistic, selfish impulses…

Libertarians reject this, we’re told, and instead believe that every man should look out only for himself, reject notions of reciprocity, eschew social ties, feel no empathy, and do nothing to help others until we stand to directly profit from it (and then only do it because we directly profit from it).

His evidence for this remarkable claim comes from citing (and misrepresenting) libertarian thinkers such as Robert Nozick, F. A. Hayek, and Ayn Rand. Regarding Nozick, Corning has this to say:

A line from libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s path-breaking book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, says it all: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group [or state] may do to them without violating their rights.” (When asked to specify what those rights are, libertarians often cite philosopher John Locke’s mantra “life, liberty, and property.”) Not to worry, though. Through the “magic” of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” the efficient pursuit of our self interests in “free markets” will ensure the greatest good for the greatest number.

From this Corning concludes that Nozick is in favor of a dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself world. Which would no doubt come as a surprise to Nozick himself, as it’s completely at odds with his own writing, including the entire final section of Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Corning attacks Hayek for rejecting socialism, believing that this amounts to a rejection of society. And, unsurprisingly, he misunderstands Rand in precisely the way a great many intellectuals misunderstand Rand: Corning believes her claim that we should never use each other (and particularly never employ violence in order to use each other) is instead a claim that we should always see each other as morally insignificant at best—and more often as outright enemies.

The common thread linking these misinterpretations is Corning’s inability (or unwillingness) to distinguish society from state. Because Nozick says the state ought to be limited, Corning believes he must have an impoverished view of society. Because Hayek thinks state economic planning violates our freedoms and makes us worse off, Corning believes he must also think robust social ties violate our freedoms and make us worse off. Because Rand adopts an Aristole-influenced conception of man’s purpose (i.e., his own eudiamonia), Corning believes she thinks we should never form meaningful relationships and never help those worse off than us.

Stripped to its essentials, Corning’s argument (which I stress is quite common among intellectuals who reject libertarianism) looks like this:

  1. Humans are social animals, require deep social connections in order to thrive, and develop much of their sense of self through the social environment they’re raised in. Humans cannot live well in isolation, and live best when working together within a framework of mutual respect and reciprocity.
  2. Big government is the only political system compatible with (1).
  3. Libertarians oppose big government.
  4. Therefore libertarians reject (1).

Set out like this, the absurdity of these anti-libertarian arguments becomes clear. Libertarians don’t dispute (1). In fact, many of us are libertarians because we believe libertarianism (broadly defined as strong respect for liberty, private property, and free markets) will best facilitate the sort of human flourishing (1) describes. Further, we believe the evidence supports this claim.

So instead of rejecting (1), libertarians in fact reject (2). Not only do we reject (2) by claiming that there are other political systems compatible with (1), but we take it a step further by saying that big government isn’t just unnecessary for a rich, social environment, but in fact undermines the very sort of flourishing (1) describes.

Whether we’re right about that is an argument worth having. But it’s not the argument Corning seems interested in. Instead, like so many others, he believes big government’s link to human flourishing is so obvious that the only way one could reject big government is to quite literally reject human flourishing.

This is, put simply, a failure of the imagination, coupled with profound status-quo bias. Corning just can’t envision how a society where the state isn’t free to use violence to compel nonviolent citizens to do its bidding can function. And maybe that is difficult to imagine. But so was democracy, as economist Bryan Caplan notes.

Imagine advocating democracy a thousand years ago. You sketch your basic idea: “Every few years we’ll have a free election. Anyone who wants power can run for office, every adult gets a vote, and whoever gets the most votes runs the government until the next election.” How would your contemporaries react?

They would probably call you “crazy.” Why? Before you could even get to the second paragraph in your sales pitch, they’d interrupt: “Do you seriously mean to tell us that if the ruling government loses the election, they’ll peacefully hand the reins of power over to their rivals?! Yeah, right!”

Corning, and so many like him, could learn a little humility from history. Just because violent nation states engaging in social engineering and forced redistribution are the flavor of the day doesn’t mean they’re the best system for enabling people to lead rich and rewarding lives.

But having that discussion demands much more than painting your opponents as moral monsters who reject the very foundations of what it means to be human. In other words, it demands more careful study than Peter Corning appears ready to muster.