Critics of Liberty: A Reading List

A guide to the books and essays containing the most powerful arguments against libertarianism.

It’s not enough to be familiar with the major libertarian thinkers and their arguments. A well-informed advocate of liberty must also understand and appreciate the positions of those thinkers who disagree with libertarianism. The works on this list offer a comprehensive introduction to many of the most intriguing, enduring, and forceful attacks on libertarianism — as well as positive arguments for visions incompatible with the philosophy of liberty.

A first step

Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction by Will Kymlicka

Kymlicka’s book tops this list for two reasons. First, it contains an excellent — and highly critical — chapter on libertarianism, one that clearly presents several strong critiques of libertarian philosophy, particularly that of Robert Nozick. Second, it offers equally excellent overviews of the other major schools of modern political thought — utilitarianism, liberal egalitarianism, Marxism, communitarianism, citizenship theory, multiculturalism, and feminism. Each of these schools has something to offer the curious libertarian seeking a better and more nuanced view of political philosophy.

Further reading

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

Rawls’s monumental A Theory of Justice is very likely the most important work of political philosophy in the last hundred years. It’s often said that all political philosophy published after A Theory of Justice came out in 1971 is, in one way or another, a reaction to it. The theory Rawls lays out isn’t a direct attack on libertarianism — some have even argued it can be interpreted as a powerful foundation for a libertarian society. But it forms much of the background for all contemporary debate, especially within the liberal tradition, making it crucial that any student of libertarian thought understand Rawls.

Liberalism and the Limits of Justice by Michael J. Sandel

Sandel represents one version of the rich school of political philosophy known as communitarianism. At its core, communitarianism is a reaction against philosophical liberalism’s focus on the individual. Communitarians believe that individuals can only be understood as members of a community, and that the community should be a — if not the — focus of political theory. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice takes this so far as to claim that, if the community is given enough weight within a society, there will be no need for considerations of justice. Justice is only needed, Sandel thinks, as a remedy when people are not sufficiently concerned with love and shared goals.

Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality by G. A. Cohen

This is Cohen’s classic response to Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Cohen, a Marxist, agrees with Nozick — and other libertarians — that self-ownership and private property lead to libertarianism. His response is not to abandon Marxism, but to abandon self-ownership and private property. He argues that neither, at least in the strong form Nozick endorses, can be defended. In the area of private ownership of land, for example, Cohen argues that land does not begin in the “unowned” state John Locke and Robert Nozick assume but, rather, that all land is at all times owned by all people. Many outside of libertarianism have found Cohen’s critique perfectly fatal to Nozick’s project. Libertarians, of course, would no longer be libertarians if they agreed.

The Concept of the Political by Carl Schmitt

Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political comes from a perspective so far removed from a libertarian’s view of politics — and even what it means to be human — that it can be a profoundly difficult book to wrestle with. For Schmitt, politics defines humanity. This means that the liberal ideal of reducing or doing away with the sphere of politics means reducing or doing away with humanity itself. Even more troubling, politics only exists because of friend-enemy distinctions. A people genuinely without enemies is a people without politics — and so not really a people at all. The liberal project of toleration and scaling back the power of the state is thus doomed, Schmitt thinks, because it is impossible to abandon our nature, meaning we cannot abandon politics — or enemies. Perhaps even more distressing than the details of Schmitt’s argument is the deep and continuing influence it has had on much modern political thought, particularly that of the neoconservatives and the more radical, collectivist strains of the Left.

Anti-libertarianism: Markets, Philosophy, and Myth by Alan Haworth

If libertarianism is the political philosophy that holds freedom of central importance, then libertarians, Alan Haworth argues, are actually anti-libertarian. In this short book, he sets out to expose the shaky foundations of what Haworth sees as the three principles of libertarianism: the belief in moral good of free markets, the moral evil of the state, and the supreme importance of freedom. Anti-libertarianism is written clearly and passionately, and many of Haworth’s arguments will force libertarians to more closely examine their own beliefs and the reasons they have for holding them. For that reason alone, this book is valuable, even if it ultimately fails in wiping libertarianism from the field.

“What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty” by Charles Taylor

A focus of many critiques of libertarianism, especially from the left, is the idea that libertarians advocate a hyper-individualist, dog-eat-dog morality. Charles Taylor, one of our most important contemporary philosophers, develops this argument by way of attacking “negative liberty.” Negative liberty is the idea, held by most libertarians, that freedom can only be conceived as freedom from something external to the individual. The state’s only legitimate role is to protect us from violations of our negative liberty by others. Taylor argues that this isn’t good enough. “Freedom cannot just be the absence of external obstacles, for there may also be internal ones. Nor may the internal obstacles be confined to those the subject identifies as such, for he may be profoundly mistaken about his purposes and about what he wants to repudiate. And if so, he is less capable of freedom in the meaningful sense of the word.” Even if libertarians are inclined to accept some of Taylor’s argument, they draw a bright line between voluntary, non-coercive efforts to help others achieve freedom in this “meaningful sense,” and state-based, coercive efforts to force us to be free. The imperfect exercise of freedom (in Taylor’s sense of the term) may be the price we pay to avoid tyranny.

“Libertarians: The Chirping Sectaries” by Russell Kirk

Twentieth century conservative icon Russell Kirk really didn’t like libertarians — and he set out his reasons why in this essay. The piece is valuable not so much as a compelling critique but as an exemplar of the way libertarianism is often seen by non-libertarians, especially conservatives. For example, Kirk accuses libertarians of being in favor of “exalting an absolute and indefinable ‘liberty’ at the expense of order.” Libertarians, he argues, assume human nature is overwhelmingly good, and the state is an oppressor. But the conservative,” he writes, “finds that the state is ordained of God.” Broadly speaking, Kirk sees libertarians as irresponsible and childish hedonists who lack the realist and tragic view of humanity of the conservative. Most of Kirk’s volleys miss the truth of libertarianism entirely, but his characterization remains one that libertarians must work to expose the inaccuracy of.

Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality by Robert George

The libertarian view of the state’s proper role is that it should protect rights but not legislate or enforce morality, particularly when it comes to victimless crimes. Robert George disagrees. Morals legislation, George argues, is crucial in establishing the moral environment necessary for citizens to lead good and virtuous lives. He spends much of the book critiquing several liberal philosophers in the non-perfectionist tradition, a strain of thought that, like libertarianism, holds that it isn’t proper for the state to force a particular conception of morality (beyond the morality of respecting rights) upon its citizens. From George’s perspective, it is very much the state’s role to morally perfect its subjects. This view ought to deeply concern libertarians — and isn’t one they can safely ignore.