Unless You’re An Atom, Principled Libertarianism Is Not For You

I’m currently considering rejoining Libertarianism. Or rather, my attorneys are in negotiations with the gods of Libertarianism to determine the terms and conditions of my potential adherence to that ideology. As an apostate, I’m under a certain bit of suspicion, but Libertarianism still seems relatively friendly, especially since it concerns itself entirely with what I do rather than what I think. “Believe what you will; only obey” is not exactly my favorite rallying cry, but during uncertain times, it’s one I can get behind.

What the libertarian gods would consider ideal is to recruit me as a principled libertarian, one whose commitment to libertarianism is grounded not in mere self-interest but in higher feelings like compassionate humanitarianism or belief in the absolute and eternal truth of libertarianism. You see, self-interest is a finicky thing, especially since short-run self-interest often conflicts with libertarianism. This fact is what explains the relative weakness of libertarianism in politics and why so many people choose to be statists—people who’ve traded their souls for filthy lucre—rather than libertarians.

Consider the following scenario: a man has worked as a plumber for much of his life and is pretty good at his job. He makes a decent living, enough to support himself and his family. Additionally, he lives and works under a system of rules established by a government, one of those rules being a restriction on who can come into the country and settle there. This government is ostensibly democratic, allowing its subjects to express their opinions on matters of public concern and taking those opinions into account when formulating plans of action, but while our plumber friend regularly attends town hall meetings, has never taken a serious interest in politics.

Until, that is, a movement springs up to loosen immigration restrictions. Proponents claim that plumbing repair costs too much on account of a small domestic supply of plumbers, while there are numerous would-be plumbers outside the country who are forbidden to immigrate. Lowering the cost of plumbing, they say, will improve everyone’s standard of living by freeing up resources currently tied up in the plumbing sector. Advocates produce detailed forecasts of economic conditions proving their case.

Our plumber friend takes note of this proposal since it affects him personally. He examines the forecasts and finds that not only will his income shrink on account of falling prices for his services, but the general increase in living standards will not make up for this loss. On top of this, his daughter has recently come down with a serious illness, and his wife is already working in order to cover her medical costs. Even assuming generous family and friends, the plumber calculates that he will not be able to keep his house; he will have to move out of his neighborhood to one with more crime, fewer amenities, and worse schools for his children. In short, the plumber and his family will suffer greatly if the new immigration proposal is carried out.

The prayer of the principled Libertarian, “The MARKET giveth, and the MARKET taketh away; blessed be the name of the MARKET,” is a little hard to swallow.

Note that what is at issue is not the effects of the immigration proposal, whether it really would improve people’s lives in general or not, nor whether the plumber’s calculations are correct. What is at issue is what our friend does at the next town hall meeting when the proposal is brought up for discussion: does he keep quiet or stand and raise objection? Libertarianism commands the former; his dedication to his family commands the latter; which loyalty commands precedence?

This conflict is not merely between deontology and consequentialism; Libertarianism has arguments in both categories. If one takes a consequentialist approach, we have one moral code which demands a man do everything he reasonably can to look after his family and one which expects him to put the good of everyone except his family first. Deontologically, libertarianism demands a stronger loyalty from a man than that which he gives his family. The gods of libertarianism are jealous gods.

It’s an easy thing to say that you’re willing to make sacrifices for the sake of your principles; indeed, your principles don’t amount to much if you aren’t willing to sacrifice for them. It is quite another thing, however, to say that you will sacrifice the good of others for the sake of your principles. Still, when people come into conflict, someone’s pursuit of happiness must be thwarted. When hundreds of young men in the street start eying dozens of women, should we prioritize the good of many or of the few? There is no set of principles that will not require you to sacrifice someone’s good for another’s sake. The question is “Whom are you willing to sacrifice?”

Hold up. I just got a message from my attorneys. They want me to stop talking about “Who does what to whom.” Apparently the libertarian gods are disturbed by this way of speaking, so in order for negotiations to proceed, I need to make some adjustments. Libertarianism only accepts as Whos and Whoms “someone” and “someone else.” We cannot allow our judgment of an action to be influenced by the identity of the acting or acted-upon person. Plural and collective singular nouns are licit only as shorthand descriptions of concrete instances.

So let’s now consider the recent attacks in Germany and elsewhere. Libertarianism condemns these attacks because it condemns all sexual assault. So far so good, but what should be done in response to these attacks? I hope the gods won’t mind if I lapse briefly and ask what the government should do and what private citizens should do.

Private citizens should arm themselves, travel in groups at night, and form mutual-protection organizations. They may also move to gated communities, hire private defense organizations to guard them, and actively exclude from their communities groups prone to criminal activity or whose presence would otherwise be disruptive.

The government, on the other hand, should do the exact opposite. The police are already over-militarized and need to downsize; armed thugs roaming the streets at night is what we want to avoid; and the less the government inserts itself into the lives of its subjects the better. The government absolutely must not build walls around its territory, establish surveillance programs, or put restrictions on immigration. All of these measures might be wise when taken by private individuals, but when the government does them, they become oppressive and tyrannical.

Bzzzt. It’s my attorneys again. The gods of libertarianism are calling off the negotiations. They don’t seem to think I’m taking this matter seriously; something about my tone puts them off. I must protest this injustice: anyone who proclaims that they are diligently plotting to take over the world and leave me alone as long as I follow all of their rules to the letter is worth taking seriously, especially on grave matters of public controversy. Some people just can’t take a joke, I guess.

When the government is unjustly out to get you, libertarianism is quite attractive. But unless you’re an atom, principled libertarianism is not for you. Like all Grand Philosophical Systems, libertarianism will keep you on track so long as you stick to certain paths but lead you astray when you go into territory for which it was not designed. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, cousins, even friends must all cast aside their personal ties whenever their ideology calls. If you must have a god, be sure to choose one which places next after himself family and people.

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  1. One can always rely on Grant for some thoughtful metapolitical critiques. I would say this was similar to what I was critiqueing when I discussed Capitalism and Tradition. Having capital as the base of the society (and Libertarianism I suppose would call it ‘the sacred private property’) allows for exactly the scenario you describe with the plumber. Now, one might say that the proposal’s forecasts are too short-sighted, but the fact is people are short-sighted. They only live, what, 75 years on average? Even if in consequentialist terms, the mass migration would be harmful, nobody would know, nor care. They will vote their economic interests within this framework.

    This kind of thing is exactly why you need other overriding societal powers who can shut down economic ploys that could damage the health of the nation. Things like a strong sense of ethnic loyalty or exclusivism, and religion as well.

    In fact, let me go further and say the plumber’s welfare is guaranteed only by that dreaded thing Liberals and Libertarians hate, ‘irrational xenophobia’. The plumber relies on his neighbors suspicion and unease towards laborers of other races and religions to secure his livelihood. He can further secure it in fact by cultivating trust in his community, and doing a good job, being a familiar character. The more positively his potential customers feel towards him, the more negative they will feel about a potential replacement.

  2. But what if instead of a plumber it’s a butter churn business and now technology has made churns nearly obsolete. Should the government ban churns and save his business too? Cheaper plumbing (and cheaper butter production) means more people can afford plumbing and butter, which boosts standards of living. That’s the free market argument, but it does not take into account the individual who may lose his job.

  3. The Dairy Farmer would simply apply for a loan and purchase the new butter churn machine and thus remain competitive in the Butter Business. The only real downside would be to flood the market with cheap overseas butter through a disastrous “free” trade agreement. Forcing prices to low for the farmer to compete despite the better technology and higher quality butter he can produce.

    I often wondered why Libertarians want us to trade freely with countries that do the COMPLETE opposite of what they believe. It’s as if the whole movement is made up of socially liberal non-outsourceable office jobs and pot-heads.

    1. Conservatarian April 16, 2016 at 8:08 pm

      It is pretty much the case. It’s made of white collar males with borderline autistic sense of empathy.

  4. Libertarian Apologist January 14, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    Allow me to respond on behalf of libertarianism:

    1. “The government, on the other hand, should do the exact opposite.” This isn’t an inconsistency with libertarianism, because libertarians would deny that the government legitimately “owns” anything or that there’s any such thing as “its territory”. Any action whatsoever that the government takes with regard to “public” (i.e. taxpayer-supported) resources is bound to be regarded as coercive by those taxpayers that disagree with it. (On the other hand, if they’re all in agreement, then the government is superfluous anyway.) Libertarianism aims to avoid this unfortunate situation by eliminating government involvement in these things as much as possible (some would say, entirely). Whether or not these actions would end up being done anyway, for the government to do them would be at best unnecessary, and at worst immoral.

    2. “If you must have a god, be sure to choose one which places next after himself family and people.” Libertarianism is a rule for conduct in society. The essence of such a rule is that, if followed, it avoids violent conflict. Not all such rules will necessarily be libertarian, e.g. “Always obey the dictator”; but the rule that you propose (“Put the interests of your family/people first”) fails even to pass this test, and so cannot be regarded as a “rule for conduct in society”. People may follow this rule in their personal lives, but such people are inevitably going to come into conflict, since the interests of my family are often directly opposed to the interest of yours. What then? Someone’s going to have to demote their personal values, if social life is to be possible at all. This is why libertarianism must rank itself above any merely personal preferences.

  5. Libertarian Apostate January 22, 2016 at 11:53 pm

    Allow me to respond to the above on behalf of apostates: In a propertarian world, territory can be owned either by an individual (e.g., a monarch), a people (in the form of collective ownership), or a corporate person. A government can be understood as the latter or as an employee of either of the former. From a propertarian perspective, while a particular government might illegitimately possess a territory, there is nothing inherently illegitimate about the maintenance of territories by governments — since the governments might own it as corporations or be contracted as stewards by the owners. When “libertarians” claim that no one has a right to oppose the “free flow of people” into a territory they are, effectively, claiming that no one owns the territory — because either they reject propertarianism or because they feel that certain land rights are unsettled. It usually turns out to be the former, but they do their best to obfuscate. Propertarianism is the general principle, and the body of theories related to it, that individuals, peoples and corporations can own property. General rules for deciding what is “mine/ours/yours/theirs” have been adopted to preclude conflict over this ownership. “Libertarianism” simply denies certain legal persons e.g., corporate governments the right to territorial ownership. They end up rationalizing this denial in terms of — typically unprincipled — utilitarianism (consequentialist egalitarianism) or an egalitarian deontology.

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