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What about Libertarianism? 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
June 29, 2018

Most of us in public administration believe government programs provide important services to the public. We do not believe in extremely small or limited government. We believe the opposite of what President Reagan declared in his first inaugural speech: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Here are some counters to common libertarian arguments.

Metaphysical Arguments

Libertarians tend to argue they have natural rights to maximum liberty and minimal government. They argue they have rights beyond what is given in the constitution and laws of their country. They believe that morality requires extremely small government.

Britannica.com’s entry for Robert Nozick, a leading proponent of libertarianism, says he believed “the minimal state, and only the minimal state, is morally justified. By a minimal state Nozick means a state that functions essentially as a ‘night watchman’ with powers limited to those necessary to protect citizens against violence, theft, and fraud.”

I would counter that metaphysical arguments that rely on natural rights or moral claims cannot be proven one way or the other and should be dismissed out of hand. I could just as easily argue that people have a natural right to large or medium sized government. How could such ideas ever be proven or disproven?

Metaphysical claims from the left (e.g., people have a right to high quality health insurance) are equally invalid.

What we can verify for sure is that each state on the planet creates the rights for its citizens and enforces (or fails to enforce) them. The rights you have under the constitution and laws of the U.S. are different from what you would experience in France or Iran or any other country. The state is the source of all rights.

Factual Arguments

Libertarians argue that the growth of government ultimately threatens liberty itself or even civilization. The argument seems to be that the sheer number of laws and regulations and ever-higher taxation can eventually overwhelm and eliminate individual liberty. This argument is a factual argument capable of being tested.

Do we find that totalitarian governments that suppress liberty become that way because of gradually increasing laws and regulations? No, we find that totalitarian governments occur when small, extremely violent groups take over a government and marginalize other institutions – the courts, the legislature, the press, etc. What about high tax states like California or high tax nations like Denmark? Is there any indication the citizens in those places feel they have lost liberty? And if they do feel that way, they can institute a tax revolt and reduce the size of their government if they want to.

Libertarian politicians often argue against government programs by arguing “we would rather do it ourselves.” The implication is that government programs are just duplicating what individuals could do for themselves. This is just factually wrong in most cases. Government services from Social Security to Amtrak do not exactly duplicate what the private sector provides.

Take Medicare for example. Medicare benefits are exactly the same whether you are a millionaire or you have a modest income. If we replaced Medicare with private medical savings accounts with contributions equal to Medicare taxes, the results would be very different than what current Medicare provides. High-income people would earn much, much higher medical benefits for their retirement than low-income people would earn.

Value Arguments

Libertarians place liberty above all other values. They want extremely low taxes and low government spending so that individuals don’t lose the liberty of enjoying their full income. Libertarians are skeptical of allowing the government to invade privacy even to prevent possibly severe terrorist attacks.

Libertarians tend to believe market results should be left alone. People worth compensation of hundreds of millions of dollars in the market place should receive such compensation; people worth $10 an hour should receive that compensation and so on. If a person is worth zero, they should receive zero plus any private charity or gifts that may come their way. Government should not redistribute income. Private charities can do that.

We can’t say that libertarian values are wrong. Values aren’t right or wrong in my view. We can point out the problems resulting from adopting libertarian values.  Income inequality would be vastly greater than at present if we did away with progressive income taxes, welfare state programs such as Medicaid and Section 8 housing and entitlement programs with a welfare component (such as Social Security or Medicare).

If we want to prevent homelessness or people living in substandard housing, it takes government programs to accomplish these things. Churches and private charity groups simply have not come close to solving these problems on their own. The same is true with health insurance. Universal coverage with high quality insurance simply doesn’t result from a free market in health insurance or from the efforts of churches or charities. It requires government programs.

Final Thought

We should stress to libertarians that in democracies the size and scope of government is continually subject to review by the voters. If enough people want smaller government, politicians will respond.

Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [email protected].

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3 Responses to What about Libertarianism? 

  1. John Pearson Reply

    December 27, 2018 at 4:40 pm

    I would like to respond briefly to Mathew Phinney’s comments. Libertarians mix facts with metaphysical arguments. There is no factual evidence that people have any rights other than what their government provides them. Mr Phinney says, “the simple act of BEING is what endows a human with rights–whether or not government chooses to recognize these rights, respect them and protect them is entirely another matter.” How is this statement verified? Humans are part of the biology on this planet. Our species has evolved gradually over a 6 million year period from an ape ancestor. When during this period did our ancestors start having all of these rights and how do libertarians know this?

  2. Matthew C. Phinney Reply

    October 28, 2018 at 9:37 am

    This article is a terrible misunderstanding of Libertarianism for a lot of reasons. I will highlight three.

    1. Rights are not granted by government.
    2. Libertarian governmental thought is overwhelmingly broad, but generally seeks to infringe minimally on the private live of citizens unless actual gain can be objectively measured.
    3. Government can only infringe on rights through force or coercion, or the threat thereof.

    1. Rights can not be granted by government because the person presupposes government. Government does not create the individual, does not breathe life into a person, nor grant them the ontological level of “personhood.” This is done organically and biologically and government is a method of ordering interactions within society. Societies are built by the organic and biological people that live in it, and the fact that despotism is prevalent in the world is not a natural course of natural freedom, but the natural course of government.
    A mother and father are required to biologically create an individual. That individual is then raised by a community commonly referred to as a family and instilled with values that encourage conformity or nonconformity to societal norms, the simple act of BEING is what endows a human with rights–whether or not government chooses to recognize these rights, respect them and protect them is entirely another matter.

    2. According to the first ten Federalist Papers, the advantage of federalized American government is common defense, protection of individual rights–protection–and the guarantee of internal trade without overbearing barriers to commerce. Common defense is achieved through taxation, a taking of income from the people that makes them have available for their own use less than 100% of their earned employed value.
    Government taking and expenditure use must add to the overall liberty of a society in some way, whether that is security from internal threats through law enforcement or external ones through common defense. If one earns 100% of their income and 100% at liberty to use those earnings how they see fit, they have natural freedom, but without defense of some sort this liberty is uncertain for the long term posterity of the individual. However, to avoid infringement from another government or internal marauding, government provides security and distribution to those under privileged making the socio-economic decision to engage in crime. By a taking of 10% of the income of the individual to ensure security in their liberty, liberty and freedom can be compounded, and the individual can then be said to possess 110% freedom–100% reflecting their freedom in the present and 10% reflecting the high likelihood of continued freedom for the future.

    3. According to Luther Gulick and Max Weber, the power of government is predicated on the monopolized use of force. Someone must have the power to use force in society to prevent any individual or corporate member of society from usurping that power from the rest of society. This works like a piggy bank, where interactions between people can be said to occur on a contractual basis (the purchasing of goods and services in return for a receipt) and when one side or the other in the contractual agreement violates the terms, the government can arbitrate the dispute using the reservation of force by both sides in it as the neutral arbiter.
    As a result of these reservations of power, liberties may only be constrained through regulation. One common misunderstanding of Libertarianism is that “without government there would be people/corporations taking advantage of people,” which violates the core premise of philosophical liberal anarchism, benevolence. Pragmatic libertarians understand this issue and is the main reason libertarians are not anti government, but pro necessary government. The Non-Aggression Principle states that force should only be used in response to force and that force itself is morally objectionable because the settlement of disagreements should be done by a neutral body that possess the power to use force and coercion in order to achieve compliance. This force should not rest in any one person, but in the common government.
    Finally, As a point of fact, there are certain limitations we must have on the gray area in which SOME liberties exist–like the “right” to own a big and polluting vehicle, or the right to keep and bear arms. Both of these must be limited in the interest of the common good and safety, but only reasonably so and in the name of co-existing in areas of dense population. The only way to limit these rights is through the actual use or implied use of force, “we will come throw you in jail or fine you if you violate these rules.”

    Real Libertarian politics seeks to reconcile disagreements of the “left” and “right” by infringing minimally on the people to achieve the necessary balance between the responsibilities of the individual and the “collective.” Attempting to discredit Libertarian ideas with minimal philosophical knowledge of the basis upon which it is built is dangerous.

  3. Robert G. Joyce Reply

    June 29, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    Excellent response to libertarian arguments with one exception: libertarians are frauds. Are Danish, Swedish, French, or Chilean “libertarians” the same as U.S. libertarians? No, each group starts with distinct social status with a legal and community framework that provides flowering privilege and then complains about the political and social framework that permits the status enjoyed. Amen.

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