I was recently asked on Twitter whether my libertarianism is of the consequentialist or deontological variety. For those not hip to the terminology, the question is about what sort of moral theory underpins my political theory. Those two — consequentialism and deontology — are, for many, the default choices when it comes to libertarianism. You can believe in political liberty because free people in free markets lead to the most wealth and happiness — and so liberty is valuable because of that, in which case you’re a consequentialist. Or you believe that there exist hard and fast, unavoidable moral rules — about obligations or prohibitions or rights — that we must respect, and doing so demands, at least in part, respecting the liberty of individuals. If that’s your line of thinking, you’re a deontologist.
My answer to the question-as-framed is “Neither.” I’m not a consequentialist, nor am I a deontologist. I believe, of course, that the consequences of actions and of political systems matter a great deal. But I don’t believe that consequences are all that matters in moral or political considerations. And I believe, of course, that we live with certain obligations towards others, among these a respect for rights. But I don’t believe that articulating a set of rules and then following them is the most fruitful or psychologically authentic way to think about morality.
If a consequentialist believes that what matters when faced with a moral choice is which option creates the best consequences or results in the most overall happiness, and a deontologist believes that the correct action is the one that follows from a set of moral rules, a virtue ethicist says the right action is whatever a truly virtuous person would do when faced with a similar choice.
What, then, is a virtuous person? It’s a person who has cultivated and possesses the traits of virtuous character. She’s honest, benevolent, generous, courageous, has great integrity and wisdom, and so on. She is, in other words, the best person you can imagine, the kind of person you ought to strive to be yourself.
As such, virtue ethics is less focused on how to decide the right action at any given time — though of course it cares about that — and instead looks to what sort of traits a virtuous person possesses, and how we can develop those traits in ourselves. In a sense, once we are virtuous, the moral choices will take care of themselves. We’ll do what’s right, and we’ll do it naturally.
The Aristotelian portion of my answer speaks to the kind of virtue ethics I find most appealing, namely one grounded in the ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and having to do with the relationship between virtue and eudaimonia, or the sort of happiness and flourishing we imagine when we think of “a good life.” The intuitionist tendencies are about the fact that I think our moral intuitions are an important source of knowledge in filling out the content of the virtues and their application.
My libertarianism, with its virtue ethical foundations, thus boils down to a deep conviction that good people, acting out of virtue, will treat each other will kindness, benevolence, respect, and so on. They will seek to engage each other through our most human of faculties, namely conversation and persuasion, and will not seek to get their way as animals do, with violence and threats. A political system built on that will be one of liberty, not coercion. That’s the kind of libertarian I am.
Decentralization will bring about a radically freer and more dynamic world, and without waiting for the blessing of government.
Decentralized, DIY Beginnings
I got my start when I was 14, dialing into local BBSes to play text games, post to FidoNet, and download warez. This would’ve been 1993. For those of you born about that time, these just someone’s personal computer, running software like Tag or Renegade, and plugged into a phone line via a modem. They’d sit waiting for guys like me to dial in when our parents were out of the house or asleep, because a parent picking up the phone would sever the connection.
More centralized, “professional” online services existed, which is why everything anyone ever bought at that time included an AOL CD. But, to be honest, they offered little of interest over the BBS scene, with its uncensored message boards, pirated softwares downloads, and low res pornographic images.
I grew up, then, with a decentralized network. Even as the early web became more widespread, this decentralization persisted. Websites were personal. If you wanted one, you either bought space on a server and uploaded HTML and Perl scripts. Or you went to Geocities, and that place was basically the Wild West.
Centralization vs. Political Liberty
Centralization displaced this delightful chaos in stages. Even as AOL was dying, ICQ came along, and we moved our communication from distributed email servers to a single service. Blogs got eaten up by Blogger. Then came the social networks, and before we knew it, only businesses and the hardcore ran their own websites or hosted their own communications tech. Everyone else — which amounted to very nearly everyone — moved to AIM, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever else the kids are into these days.
Of course, centralization brings benefits. The services do more, are more reliable, and the barrier to entry way lower. But they also hold us at their mercy. Innovation slows because you have to wait for them to decide something’s a good idea, and a profitable one, too. Your data belongs to them, which means they can do what they want with it, but also they can give it, or be compelled to give it, to people we’d rather not have it, like agents of government who’d like to be sure we’re not up to subversive activities.
From the perspective of an advocate for radical political liberty, this is troubling, to say the least. For the same reasons it’s bad to turn over increasing power to the state, and to shift more and more of our economy from free market dynamism to nationalized services, it’s bad to do the same to Facebook et al, though in less acute ways. The digital world increasingly simply is the world. We exist within it, communicate through it, engage each other in exchange for goods and services via it, define ourselves and create and grow through use of its tools. If Hayek was right about the problems of centralization in government, we ought to at the least be somewhat concerned about problems of centralization in tech, and for the same reasons.
This is not to ignore a difference between Facebook and the state. The state, as Max Weber noted, gets to use coercive physical force, and claims a monopoly on legitimately doing so. Facebook can make it hard for you to delete your account, but it can’t hold a gun to your head and pull the trigger if you persist. That’s a big deal. Those on the political left too easily believe corporations are as powerful as governments, and so to treat them as just as much of a threat — or as threats that can only be reined in by giving government (i.e., the guys with the actual guns) even more power. At the same time, however, if the state gets its way and these centralized services become every more heavily regulated, ever more burdened with requirements of cooperation with law enforcement and intelligence agencies, or even nationalized outright, the lines will blur or disappear entirely. The digital world enables many amazing things but, particularly when as centralized as it is today, it also enables many awful things because it makes so much of what we do scrutable and legible to those who want more and more control over our lives.
Reclaiming Our Freedom
That’s why I’m so excited about all these emerging techs that point the way to a return to a decentralized internet. We’re fast approaching a point where the benefits of the centralized services aren’t as unique to their particular architecture as they once were, and where decentralization can bring us more security and more innovation, with fewer trade-offs.
Senator Al Franken recently gave a speech calling for more direct government regulation of social media. These companies are too big to be left to their own devices, he said.
“Everyone is rightfully focused on Russian manipulation of social media, but as lawmakers it is incumbent on us to ask the broader questions: How did big tech come to control so many aspects of our lives?” Franken asked in a speech to a Washington think tank. A handful of companies decide what Americans “see, read, and buy,” dominating access to information and facilitating the spread of disinformation, he added.
That’s why decentralization, blockchains, and strong encryption are so exciting. Yes, they will enable new avenues of economic growth and new ways for people to earn a living. Yes, they will enable us to experiment more and innovate faster. But this emerging tech will also allow us to more easily and safely ignore people like Al Franken, and get on with the business of communicating, exploring, learning, buying, selling, organizing, and self-defining, free from the possibility of officious or authoritarian interference.
Bitcoin gives us money without the state, and sidechains and level 2 tech will help us make that money more efficient and more private. Filecoin and IPFS will enable us to keep our data private, secure, and inaccessible to regimes who want to see what we’re up to and want to punish us if we don’t toe their line. The Orchid Protocol promises to hide all of this activity behind a distributed VPN, making it not only invisible to snooping eyes, but also unblockable unless a state takes the drastic step of turning off the Internet entirely. We’ll soon have distributed organizations that can self-govern and pay contributors, without the need to let the state in on any of it. We’ll be able to ditch centrally run social media networks, replace them with encrypted peer-to-peer services, and not have to worry about whether the feds can force Facebook and Twitter to turn over our data.
The result will be a freer, more dynamic, wealthier, and safer world.
Technology and Our Libertarian Future
It will also be a world truer to the principles I’ve built my Cato Institute career championing, and which provide the mission for Libertarianism.org. Our statement of principles on the site reads,
Liberty. It’s a simple idea and the linchpin of a complex system of values and practices: justice, prosperity, responsibility, toleration, cooperation, and peace. Many people believe that liberty is the core political value of modern civilization itself, the one that gives substance and form to all the other values of social life. They’re called libertarians.
Permissionless innovation matters, not just because it’s what gave us Uber, but because it’s what will give us our freedom from unnecessarily large and unjustifiably intrusive governments. Unbreachable privacy matters, not just because it means we can talk to each other without fear of embarrassment, but because it will let us think thoughts and exchange ideas that will become the foundation of a radically better world, without the crippling worry that governments opposed to that world will hunt us down and punish us to silence our voices.
This is not to say technology is always good, always a force for freedom. It’s clearly not, and we can go wrong with it in countless ways. But the technologies of encryption and decentralization and private exchange of ideas and resources put a heavy thumb on the right side of the scale. We need to work to ensure that the people developing and deploying those technologies do so consciously, with virtue, and a healthy respect for human dignity and rights. That’s why I’ll keep doing the moral and political philosophy work I do at Libertarianism.org. But I have faith in the technology community, and I’m more hopeful about humanity’s future than I’ve been in a long, long time.
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.
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.
A guide to books on the history of liberty and libertarianism.
The history of libertarianism is more than a series of scholarly statements on philosophy, economics, and the social sciences. It is the history of courageous men and women struggling to bring freedom to the lives of those living without it. The works on this list give important context to the ideas found on the others.
A first step
“A History of Libertarianism” by David Boaz
This essay, reprinted from Libertarianism: A Primer, covers the sweep of libertarian and pre-libertarian history, from Lao Tzu in the sixth century B.C. to the latest developments of the 21st century. Because it’s available for free on Libertarianism.org, the essay also includes numerous links to more information about major thinkers and their works. For a general sense of the rich history of the movement for liberty, this is easily the best place to start.
The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn
Bernard Bailyn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the ideas that influenced the American Revolution had a profound influence on our understanding of the republic’s origin by exposing its deeply libertarian foundations. Bailyn studied the many political pamphlets published between 1750 and 1776 and identified patterns of language, argument, and references to figures such as the radical Whigs and Cato the Younger. Because these were “notions which men often saw little need to explain because they were so obvious,” their understanding was assumed by the Founders and thus not immediately obvious to modern readers. When the Revolution is reexamined with Bailyn’s findings in mind, there’s no way to escape the conclusion that America was always steeped in libertarian principles.
Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty
The libertarian movement in America in the 20th century is the focus of this delightful history from Brian Dorhety. Radicals for Capitalism is more the story of the men and women who fought for freedom and limited government than it is an intellectual history of libertarian ideas. But it is an important story because it helps to place the contemporary debate about the place of libertarianism in American politics within the context of a major and long-lived social movement.
The Decline of American Liberalism by Arthur A. Ekirch Jr.
Ekirch traces the history of the liberal idea in the United States from the founding through World War II. He places the high point of true liberalism in the years immediately following the American Revolution, before the federal government began its long march of ever more centralized control over the country. And he shows how this shift has negatively impacted everything from global peace to the economy to individual autonomy.
Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade by Douglas A. Irwin
Ever since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations appeared in 1776, the case for free trade — both its economic benefits and its moral footing — seemed settled. Yet in the ensuing two centuries, many have attempted to restrict freedom of trade with claims about its deleterious effects. Irwin’s Against the Tide traces the intellectual history of free trade from the early mercantilists, through Smith and the neoclassical economists, and to the present. He shows how free trade has withstood theoretical assaults from protectionists of all stripes — and how it remains the most effective means for bringing prosperity and peace to people throughout the world.
The Triumph of Liberty: A 2,000 Year History Told Through the Lives of Freedom’s Greatest Champions by Jim Powell
If Radicals for Capitalism is the tale of the men and women who fought for liberty in the 20th century, Jim Powell’s The Triumph of Liberty fills in the backstory. The book is an exhaustive collection of biographical articles on 65 major figures, from Marcus Tullius Cicero to Martin Luther King, Jr., summarizing their lives, thought, and impact. While not all of them were strictly libertarian, every one of the people Powell covers was instrumental in making the world a freer. For a grand sweep of liberty’s history through the lives of those who struggled in its name, there’s no better source than The Triumph of Liberty.
How The West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation Of The Industrial World by Nathan Rosenberg and L. E. Birdzell Jr.
The central question that How the West Grew Rich addresses is precisely what its title implies. For thousands of years, human beings lived in unrelieved misery: hunger, famine, illiteracy, superstition, ignorance, pestilence and worse have been their lot. How did things change? How did a relatively few people — those in what we call “the West” — escape from grinding poverty into sustained economic growth and material well-being when most other societies remained trapped in an endless cycle of birth, hardship, and death? This fascinating book tells that story. The explanations that many historians have offered — claiming that it was all due to science, or luck, or natural resources, or exploitations or imperialism — are refuted at the outset, in the book’s opening chapter. Rosenberg and Birdzell are then free to provide an explanation that makes much more sense.
The State by Franz Oppenheimer
Much political philosophy begins with a “social concept” theory of the state. Mankind originally existed in a “state of nature,” and the state only arose when people came together and agreed to give up some of their liberties in exchange for protection of others. Oppenheimer rejects this rosy picture and replaces it with his much more realistic “conquest theory,” which finds the genesis of states in roving bands of marauders who eventually settled down and turned to taxation when they realized it was easier than perpetual raiding. The State also features Oppenheimer’s influential distinction between the two means by which man can set about fulfilling his needs: “I propose in the following discussion to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the ‘economic means’ for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the ‘political means.’”
Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World by Deirdre McCloskey
In Bourgeois Dignity, McCloskey offers a different story of economic growth from the common one of capitalism and markets. The West grew rich, she argues, not simply because it embraced trade, but because its cultural ideas shifted, specifically in granting a sense of dignity to the bourgeoisie. It is that dignity — and the rhetoric surrounding it — that sparked the Industrial Revolution and, in turn, lead to the modern world. Bourgeois Dignity traces the influence of these changing ideas — and uses them to explain not just the rise of the West but also the recent, monumental growth of India and China. The book is the second in a four-volume series, “The Bourgeois Era.”
A selection of books to take readers beyond the basics of libertarianism and into the philosophy and economics that provide its foundations.
If you’re already familiar with the basics of libertarian thought and are interested in exploring deeper, the books on this list provide a thorough overview of the rich fundamentals. A mixture of established classics and modern contributions, these books are a bit more demanding than those on the “Introducing Libertarianism” list. But for the serious student of liberty, these works greatly reward careful study.
A first step
The Libertarian Reader: Classic and Contemporary Writings from Lao Tzu to Milton Friedman by David Boaz
The scope of libertarian philosophy can be overwhelming. With countless thinkers stretching back thousands of years, it’s difficult to know where to start. David Boaz’s The Libertarian Reader is a great source for the major works, including essays and selections from books. Divided thematically and featuring both classics and newer contributions, it’s the perfect first step in exploring libertarian theory. By reading The Libertarian Reader, you’ll come away with an appreciation of the full reach and complexity of libertarian thought — as well as a sense of where to focus future exploration.
The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law by Randy E. Barnett
In The Structure of Liberty, Randy Barnett tackles the problem of justifying a complete libertarian philosophy. Starting with a clear, compelling, and secular account of natural law and natural rights, Barnett moves on to address three significant problems with power, government, and central control: the problem of knowledge, the problem of interest, and the problem of power. Barnett explains how a decentralized markets and polycentric legal orders can best deal with these fundamental limitations of human institutions.
The Bastiat Collection by Frédéric Bastiat
More than 150 years after his death, the works of Frédéric Bastiat remain some of the most incisive critiques of protectionism and big government — was well as the most thoughtful and clear articulations of the benefits of free trade. Bastiat possessed a remarkable ability to make economic analysis clear and compelling and he is unmatched as a popularizer of economic thinking. Highlights include “That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen,” which features the now-famous “broken window” fallacy, and “A PETITION From the Manufacturers of Candles,” a terribly funny satire of protectionism, which has a coalition of lighting manufacturers petitioning the government because, they say, “We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price.” They are speaking, of course, of the sun.
Simple Rules for a Complex World by Richard A. Epstein
Richard Epstein is one of the most important contemporary consequentialist libertarian thinkers. His scholarship focuses on the intersection of law and economics, and Simple Rules is no exception. The book sets out a powerful argument for reducing the scope of law to a handful of “simple rules” (autonomy, first possession, consensual exchange) and defines a simple rule as one that generates more benefits than harm. Thus streamlined, law will be more efficient and more conducive to a flourishing society.
Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman
Capitalism and Freedom is the book that introduced Milton Friedman to general audiences. In it, Friedman, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, shows how political freedom depends upon economic freedom. He develops this argument through examinations of education, discrimination, the regulation of monopoly, occupational licensing, and poverty. And he shows how free markets, and the incentives they unleash, can address many of the social concerns governments have failed to solve.
The Constitution of Liberty by F. A. Hayek
The Constitution of Liberty is Hayek’s monumental restatement of the principles of classical liberalism. Hayek is arguably the most important libertarian thinker of the 20th century, and The Constitution of Liberty is the most thorough and accessible summary of his thought. Hayek’s major contribution is in understanding the way that knowledge operates within a society and how unplanned and emergent behaviors and institutions are better able to draw upon knowledge held by individuals than are bureaucrats and central-planners. The Constitution of Liberty sets out his vision for what a free society respecting these principles would look like.
Second Treatise of Civil Government by John Locke
One of history’s most important works of political philosophy, John Locke’s Second Treatise is a classic and timeless statement of the principles of individual liberty and limited government, one that had a major influence on the founding of the American republic. By starting with a hypothetical “state of nature,” Locke develops a system of human rights, including a right to property, and shows how governments are created by men in order to protect those rights. He argues that, because governments are so limited, citizens are justified in rebelling when the rulers overstep their bounds — an idea that found clear expression in the Declaration of Independence.
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection,” John Stuart Mill writes in his classic utilitarian defense of liberalism, On Liberty. This very libertarian argument leads Mill to defend a great many rights against state incursion, including liberty of conscience, freedom of thought and expression, association, freedom to choose one’s own path in life, and more. On Liberty is a powerful — and beautifully written — defense of the core beliefs of libertarianism.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick
Robert Nozick’s book, released to widespread critical and popular acclaim in 1974, was almost single-handedly responsible for making libertarianism a force in modern academic philosophy. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick shows how a minimal state — one that acts only to protect its citizens from violence and fraud — can arise within a state of nature, and without violating any rights. He then goes on to argue that such a minimal state is the only morally legitimate form of government and that it is also the form most conducive to human happiness and a pluralistic conception of the good. Anarchy, State, and Utopia retains a proud place in the canon of political philosophy.
Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand
Rand’s collection of essays — which also includes pieces from Nathaniel Branden, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Hessen — represents an extended defense of laissez-faire capitalism, which Rand considers the only system compatible with man’s rational nature. The book’s first section addresses the fundamental theories supporting capitalism, as well as its history. The second section applies these ideas to then-contemporary political issues. Taken as a whole, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal offers a thorough application of the ideas of Objectivism to politics and the economy. The book closes with an appendix republishing two major essays, “Man’s Rights” and “The Nature of Government,” which first appeared in The Virtue of Selfishness.
Moral Principles and Political Obligations by A. John Simmons
Most political philosophy begins by assuming the existence of the state and the duty of its subjects to obey its rules. In Moral Principles and Political Obligations, Simmons asks us to take a step back and first address the question of what duty — if any — do we have to obey the state? He examines the most common arguments for state authority — including consent, gratitude, fair play, and natural duty — and finds them either uncompelling or unrealistic when applied to existing governments. His conclusion is “philosophical anarchy,” the idea that we don’t have a moral duty to obey the government — but that there may be other, non-moral reasons for doing so. Political authority is an important issue paid far too little attention by both libertarian and non-libertarian thinkers.
Do libertarians want to destroy social bonds so we can live in a world without cooperation?
If you believe Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu, libertarians are nuts. In a recent commentary, they gave a litany of reasons for “Why libertarian society is doomed to fail.” The trouble is, they’ve managed not only to misunderstand libertarianism, but also to ignore the very problems libertarians see in the authors’ own preferred big government solutions.
Hanauer and Liu attack “radical libertarianism,” which they define as “the ideology that holds that individual liberty trumps all other values.” Yet this isn’t quite right, whether we’re talking about moderate or radical libertarianism. Liberty isn’t the ultimate value. But it is the ultimate political value. It holds this status not because we shouldn’t care about other values, but because a state that aims at liberty will enable us to realize much more of what we value than one that aims at something else. Whether the goal is wealth, happiness, health, culture or any other value we hold dear, political liberty will bring us more of it than officious government.
The authors then call out libertarians for our “defective” theory of human nature. They tell us libertarians believe “humans are wired only to be selfish, when in fact cooperation is the height of human evolution.” But libertarians embrace free markets and voluntary association, which both require and encourage cooperation. What libertarians are skeptical of is not cooperation, but the use of, and threat of, force to coerce people into taking part in schemes they don’t approve of, or that harm them, or that aren’t as efficient or effective as other means. Is it “cooperation” when the state forces poor, minority children into failing schools? Is it “cooperation” when politically connected businesses get regulators and legislators to craft rules in their favor? Is it “cooperation” when politicians send young men and women to die in unnecessary wars? Cooperation, far from being anathema to libertarianism, is in fact a core libertarian value.
Hanauer and Liu tell us that libertarians believe “societies are efficient mechanisms requiring no rules or enforcers.” Yet no libertarian thinks society can function without codes of conduct and methods for enforcing them. Libertarians believe strongly in the rule of law — much more so, in fact, than many on the left and right who would carve out exceptions in statutes and regulations to benefit political friends and powerful interest groups.
The authors also make a mistake when they claim that libertarians believe rolling back the state is the solution to every problem. It’s not. Rather, it is often the way we can enable solutions, in whatever form they may take. Private individuals are capable of amazing things if given the opportunity to exercise their ingenuity. Too often, the state stands in the way, protecting established industries and special interests by preventing the growth of new and better ones.
This isn’t a path to progress Hanauer and Liu are willing to entertain, however. Instead, they see the very act of shifting power from government to private citizens as destructive and necessarily at odds with the very idea of creation. Yet we need only look at the inventions and discoveries that have radically improved our lives to see how much creation occurs outside of the direct control of the state. Libertarians demand policies to accelerate that, not to undermine it.
Defenders of the status quo are always quick to label as unreasonable those who advocate for a different and better world. There was a time when activists for democracy were called unreasonable, and told that turning over power to the people was a laughable idea. “Reasonable people” argued for solutions within the systems of monarchy and theocracy. Hanauer and Liu are just modern versions of these “reasonable people.”
Libertarians believe the status quo isn’t good enough. Not because we’re selfish or destructive or anti-community, but because we want to make the world better for everyone — and believe freedom is the best catalyst for progress.
The eight books on this list offer a thorough but accessible introduction to libertarianism.
Libertarianism — its theory, its practice — is an awfully big topic. This reading list gives you a place to start. A combination of newcomers and established classics, these books offer accessible introductions to variety of libertarian thought, from philosophy to history to economics.
The Libertarian Mind by David Boaz
Boaz’s The Libertarian Mind is a quick and easy read, but it’s also a remarkably thorough introduction to libertarianism. It covers the historical roots of libertarianism and the basics of libertarian political philosophy and economic thinking. Boaz then applies these ideas to major policy areas, showing how free association and free markets, not government coercion and bureaucracy, can solve our most pressing social issues.
The Law by Frédéric Bastiat
Everything this 19th century Frenchman wrote is worth reading — and The Law is a great place to start. Bastiat’s knack is tackling head-on, with great wit and clarity, the fundamental errors and hidden interests behind much economic and political thinking. With The Law, published in 1850, his target is “legal plunder” or state-authorized confiscation of property. The law exists to protect our basic rights, Bastiat argues. When it instead becomes a means of coerced redistribution, “the law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others.”
The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism by David Friedman
Libertarianism represents a spectrum of political philosophies, all sharing a general presumption of liberty. These philosophies vary in how much of a role they grant the state. Classical liberals, for instance, allow government to tax for the provision of many services, including education and social safety nets. Minarchists see government’s only legitimate role as providing rights protection in the form of police, courts, and national defense. At the extreme are the anarcho-capitalists, who would abolish the state altogether and replace it with purely private and voluntary provision of services, including for the law itself. David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom offers an introduction to anarcho-capitalism, arguing from a “consequentialist” perspective that the state is both unnecessary for achieving a desirable society and that it in fact makes the world worse through its actions. The questions Friedman raises and the analysis he offers will benefit any student of liberty.
Free to Choose: A Personal Statement by Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman
Published as the companion volume to the 10-hour documentary of the same name, Free to Choose was one of the bestselling books of 1980. Here Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose, give a spirited and readable critique of the interventionist state, focusing on concrete examples and explanations. Free to Choose is an excellent introduction to the productive power unleashed by freedom — and also a primer on the economic analysis of public policy. The Friedmans examine the workings of markets, look at how well-meaning policies like the minimum wage hurt the poor, and explain the causes of the Great Depression. Covering much the same ground as the documentary series, though in more depth, Free to Choose is a perfect introduction not only to the thought of Milton Friedman, one of the 20th century’s foremost champions of liberty, but also to the under-appreciated and often misunderstood benefits of laissez faire.
Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics by P. J. O’Rourke
Proving that economics need not be a dry, textbook affair, P. J. O’Rourke’s Eat the Rich sets out to answer the critical question, “Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck?” O’Rourke, one of America’s premier humorists, travels the world, visiting Wall Street, Albania, Sweden, Cuba, Russia, Tanzania, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, and uses his experiences to untangle the relationship between markets, political institutions, and culture. While Eat the Rich is a breezy and hilarious read, it is far from facile. O’Rourke’s explorations and the insights he draws from them make the book live up to its subtitle, “A Treatise on Economics.” If you’ve never taken Econ 101 and the thought of supply and demand curves makes you want to nod off, Eat the Richis a perfect book.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
A perennial bestseller since its publication in 1957, Ayn Rand’s mammoth novel Atlas Shrugged has probably turned more people on to libertarianism than any other book. Atlas Shrugged explores a dystopian future, where the government has enthusiastically embraced collectivism in the name of fairness and equality and leading innovators, industrialists, and artists have begun disappearing. The book served as Rand’s platform for promoting Objectivism, her comprehensive philosophy of “rational selfishness.” While Rand’s philosophy remains deeply divisive to this day, it is impossible to deny the enormous impact she’s had on promoting the benefits of free markets and dynamic capitalism.
The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley
The newest book on this list, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimistemploys the grand sweep of human history and pre-history to argue for the incredible significance of free trade — and against those who would seek to restrict it. In so doing, Ridley offers what amounts to a book-length answer to the question, “Why are people rich?” Most humans who have ever lived did so in unimaginable poverty. It was only recently that standards of living began their remarkable — and accelerating — climb. What happened? Free exchange. “Just as sex made biological evolution cumulative,” Ridley writes, “so exchange made cultural evolution cumulative and intelligence collective, and that there is therefore an inexorable tide in the affairs of men and women discernible beneath the chaos of their actions.”
Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell
While the libertarian vision is much more than just free markets, economic thinking greatly informs the libertarian approach to public policy. When you’re ready to move beyond the brief introduction provided by P. J. O’Rourke’s Eat the Rich, Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics is the ideal place to turn. Sowell presents the fundamentals of economic reasoning in clear, jargon-free prose. He addresses everything from incentives and the role of prices, to international trade, monetary policy, and the banking system. Sowell shows how so many government programs, enacted with the best of intentions, run afoul of simple economic truths and, as a result, often do far more harm than good.
The virtue of humility is found in recognizing our limits — and that humility ought to make fans of limited government.
I could be wrong about pretty much anything. What I don’t know so outweighs what I do that my actual knowledge appears as little more than a small raft on an ocean of ignorance.
I suffer no shame admitting this unflattering fact, not only because there’s never any shame in acknowledging the truth, but also because everyone else is in the same boat. Our ignorance — what we don’t know — always and enormously outweighs our knowledge. It’s true of even the smartest and most educated.
Recognizing that fact ought to humble us. And that humility, informed by a realistic picture of how government operates, ought to make us libertarians. Libertarianism is a philosophy of humility. It’s one that takes us as we are and grants us the freedom to make as much of ourselves as we can. And it’s a philosophy that understands just how damaging human failings can be when coupled with the coercive force of government. Libertarianism limits rulers because it recognizes that rulers are just ordinary people who exercise extraordinary power — and that the harm that power can inflict more often than not outweighs any good it might achieve. Libertarianism rests on humility and refuses to tolerate the hubris of those who would consider themselves higher and mightier than others.
Let’s start by looking at what it means to have humility in our claims to knowledge. Each of us certainly seems to know quite a lot, from what we ate this morning to the number of moons circling Mars. We know that George Washington was the first president of the United States of America, that Boris Yeltsin was the first president of the Russian Federation, and that driving while drunk is a bad idea.
But if we look to the whole of intellectual history, we see one overturned conviction after another. What was scientific truth three hundred years ago is balderdash today. Our brightest once believed that you could understand a person’s mind and character by studying the bumps on his or her head. (It was given the scientific sounding name of “phrenology.”) The wise and the great were once certain that the Earth sat at the center of the universe.
It’s not just science that can’t seem to finally and forever get it right. Very smart people have argued about deep philosophical problems for as long as there have been very smart people. Two and a half millennia ago, Plato thought he’d figured out what justice is. Most philosophers since have disagreed — but none have offered an alternative that wasn’t itself open to strong counter-argument.
We ought to always be skeptical of claims to absolute knowledge. If you believe a philosophical point is settled, you’re almost certainly wrong. If you believe science today understands a topic fully, you’re likely to find in just a few years that it didn’t. Furthermore, if we’re properly skeptical about humanity’s knowledge in general, we ought to be even more skeptical about proclamations of certainty from individual members of our species.
But all of that doesn’t stop many of us from often feeling like there’s just no way we could be wrong.
It was in college that I first began to understand how common such intellectual hubris is. I was baffled by how broadly many of my professors saw their own expertise. A PhD in early twentieth-century American comedic film felt qualified to critique the cutting edge of physics research and to lecture his students on which types of cancer ought to get the most funding. It happens outside the university, too, especially in politics. How many Americans look at the fantastic complexity of our health care delivery system and say, “Oh, I know how to fix that”? How many voters without even basic knowledge of economics think it’s clear which candidate’s proposals will promote prosperity? It takes some effort to admit that we could be wrong about the things we think we have good reason to believe. But at the very least, it ought to be easier to recognize when we clearly know nothing about a topic.
Furthermore, many of us aren’t adequately skeptical about the move from knowledge of facts to knowledge of values. Take nutritionists, for example. They believe they know which foods are most healthy, that is, which give us the most nutrients with the least harmful other stuff. If we consume substance X, we can expect result Y. (Of course, even that knowledge has changed dramatically in recent years.) But notice this “is” doesn’t get us to an “ought.” What’s healthy is a different question entirely from what I ought to eat.
I can recognize that fried potatoes aren’t as healthy as steamed broccoli while still being right that I ought to eat French fries for dinner tonight. That’s because what I ought to eat doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as what’s healthiest for me. “Ought” can include other values, too, such as the pleasure I’ll get, the varying prices of the alternatives, and so on. Nutrition speaks to the one value (what’s healthy), but it has nothing to say about the rest.
Proper skepticism applies to both others and to us. I should be skeptical about your claims of absolute certainty, and I should likewise be skeptical about the veracity of my own. Such skepticism shouldn’t make us abandon all claims to knowledge, of course. But it should lead us to adopt an attitude of humility. Knowing others face the same difficulties in ascertaining truth, we should expect humility from them, as well.
This is where humility urges us in the direction of libertarianism. If we embrace legitimate skepticism about our knowledge of both truth and values, then we should hesitate before compelling people who may disagree with us to live by our convictions. We should hesitate, in other words, before reaching for a club or calling on the police to use their nightsticks.
Why? Any policy may turn out to be bad or ineffective, but can’t we always go back and fix it? And what of the gains to be had in trying to make the world better by coercing others, either by our own force, or via state action, even if it means occasionally making things worse for some people? If we’re pretty sure our values are correct and our facts support them, then what’s the harm in using politics to make everyone else comply?
To show what’s wrong with that line of thinking, it may help to think about the purpose of life. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed the only thing desired for its own sake is the achievement of eudaimonia — usually translated as “happiness” or “flourishing.”
Aristotle believed that eudaimonia isn’t something found in discrete moments of pleasure or pain (what we often mean when we say, “I’m happy”) but instead is found only in an assessment of a life taken as a whole. At the end of a life, we look back and ask, “Was it good?” Everything we are, every reason we have for being, is bound up in being able to answer “yes” when our time comes.
Aristotle had his own idea of the best life, the life that exhibited eudaimonia to the highest degree. He thought it meant living in accord with that which is uniquely human: our capacity to reason — and from this he concluded that the highest and best life was one spent in contemplation. Perhaps it is not surprising that one of the world’s greatest philosophers thought happiness flowed from a life of philosophy.
For Aristotle, of course, it did. But just as we need to recognize the limits of our knowledge about the external world, we must also be humble in our prescriptions of the recipe for the good life. Happiness for me may not be the same thing as happiness for you. There is no generic “human being” who is happy, but billions of very diverse human beings. Happiness may be found in contemplation, but it can also come through raising children, experiencing great art, building a successful business, becoming an athlete, or helping those less fortunate. And if the good life for each individual is bound up in the specific features of their lives, so too are the paths to achieving it. How I go about making my life good can vary from the way you do — not just in the goals we each aim at but also in the ways we assure our aim is true.
While Aristotle may have gotten some of the details wrong, I think he was right about the broad picture. Most people want to live good, satisfying lives — and a good life is, we might say, a life lived in pursuit of the good life. As the American founders put it in the Declaration of Independence, it’s “the pursuit of happiness.” Our various pursuits may take different paths, depending on our circumstances, interests, and values. It’s the pursuit that matters.
Respecting each other — recognizing each other’s dignity as self-directing (what the philosophers call “autonomous”) beings — means respecting different forms of that quest. It means not actively inhibiting each other in our pursuits of the good — and recognizing the right each of us has to choose his or her own path.
I’ve come to the conclusion that that necessarily entails a state that is radically limited, certainly compared to the actual states we see around the world. To understand why, we need to have a realistic view of how governments operate.
In their private lives, people often act poorly, or pursue their own selfish interests, even when it means harming others. Sometimes they hurt other people just for the thrill of it. Pickpockets steal from strangers, scam artists prey on the elderly. Many people, when they think about government, assume that those undesirable traits vanish when someone enters public office. Politicians abandon selfishness and become motivated only by a desire to promote the public good.
That’s silly, of course. People remain themselves, even when given fancy titles and power over the lives of others. Being a politician or a bureaucrat doesn’t automatically make one better informed — or better — than the rest of us. There is a group of thinkers who take the realistic approach to understanding government, that people don’t change their natures when they enter government; they just change the institutional constraints they face, because they have powers that the rest of us lack. Their school of thought is known as “public choice.”
Public choice teaches us that politicians and state officials use the knowledge they have available to make the best decisions they can, with “best” being a product of their own judgment and also of their own interests. Those interests could, of course, include money and fame, but more often mean simply staying in power.
The result is that politics frequently means helping the most vocal — the people most visible to politicians — and doing so at the expense of everyone else. That’s why the state enacts and maintains such truly awful policies — such as agricultural subsidies that raise food prices and lead to wasteful misuse of resources — that fly in the face of evidence and reason. Few politicians actively want bad policies. Instead, they’re motivated by the people who show up: the farmers benefiting from these programs. And, because they can’t see as directly the harmful effects their laws and regulations have on everyone else (higher prices of food, reduced variety, etc.), they continue to support policies most of us would be better off without.
Moreover, even those harmed frequently remain unaware of the harm being done. It would cost too much to become informed — more than we could recoup even if we were able to repeal those bad policies. So we remain, as public choice economists say, “rationally ignorant,” and since we remain ignorant of the burdens those policies place on us, we aren’t able to inform the politicians whom we vote into office. The special interests tend to be “squeakier wheels” than the rest of us.
It’s important to recognize that this isn’t the result of having “the wrong people” in office. It’s not something that can be fixed by electing better leaders. Instead, it’s just the way government works when it grows beyond certain narrow limits.
Another fact about government that ought to trouble the humble is just how far its reach extends. Imagine I have very particular values when it comes to educating children, and that I have certain beliefs about the best way to achieve those values. If I don’t control the state, my reach extends no further than my kids — and any children whose parents voluntarily participate in my program.
But if I can flex the state’s muscle in support of my values and beliefs, I can extend my reach to all the children in my town, or in my region, or even in my entire country. Nobody will have any choice but to bring their children up with the educational values I prefer.
If we’re good skeptics, this should concern us deeply, because those beliefs about the best way to educate children may turn out to be incorrect, in which case it’s not just a handful of kids harmed, but all of them. And what if parents disagree — as they do — on what “best” even means in this case? What if they simply have different values when it comes to education? A state without the proper limits forces us into a one-size-fits-all approach — one that assumes some person or group can definitively know what’s good for everyone. We should all be skeptical of such claims. We should all take a good dose of humility.
So what are those limits to government? What would a state based on a proper level of skepticism look like? It would be one restricted to providing an environment in which its citizens are free to pursue the good life as each understands it.
We can’t meaningfully pursue the good under constant threat of violence, so the state should protect us from others who would do us bodily harm. And we can’t acquire and make full use of the resources we need to lead good lives if we aren’t secure in our holdings, so the state should act to limit theft — and require thieves to compensate us for those thefts that do occur.
When the state does those things — when it protects us from violence, fraud, and theft — then it fulfills the role of freeing each citizen to pursue the good life in ways as personal and unique as his or her own values.
When the state does more, however — when it takes resources from us beyond what it needs to meet those duties and when it flexes its coercive might to force some of us to live by the values of others — it fails to grant us the dignity we deserve as rational, autonomous human beings. It substitutes its judgments for our own and places barriers in our pursuit of the good life.
In the end, if we need a state, we need it because of its usefulness to us in our pursuits of happiness. We need it for that, and no more. Having the proper degree of humility means recognizing that, no matter how certain we may feel that we have things figured out, we cannot use the state to force others into whichever mold we might prefer. To do so is to succumb to hubris and to abandon the lessons of history. What seems obvious today will very likely come off as risible tomorrow.
If we become humble, we will see the world as an often overwhelmingly complex place, filled with people on personal journeys to pursue happiness. We will be skeptical of calls to give the state power to do more than protect our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As another humble philosopher, John Locke, put it, “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Using violence to shape the lives of others in ways we prefer, but they do not, is anything but humble. Refraining from violence and resorting instead to voluntary persuasion is the humble — and libertarian — alternative.
Wisdom consists not only in realizing one’s powers, but in realizing their limits.
This essay originally appeared in Why Liberty?, an essay collection edited by Tom G. Palmer and published by Students for Liberty and the Atlas Network.
Markets are overwhelmingly good, but the results of market processes aren’t always good for everyone, in every instance.
Markets are overwhelmingly good, but the results of market processes aren’t always good for everyone, in every instance. Pretending otherwise isn’t persuasive.
There’s an unfortunate tendency among some free market advocates to blame the victim: If you can’t find work, it’s because you’re lazy or you somehow screwed up. Hard work’s all that’s necessary to succeed. But of course that’s not true. It’s quite easy to think of counterexamples. We know creative destruction is a necessary part of a well-functioning economy. Market churn means people lose their jobs through no fault of their own, and shifts in technology and consumer preferences mean that skills once lucrative can suddenly become relatively worthless. Markets are overwhelmingly good, yes, and are responsible for the astonishing amelioration of poverty we’ve seen since the Industrial Revolution, but they have their victims.
A changing global economy has meant a changing American economy and a changing American economy has meant that some people who did well in the old pattern are having a harder time in the new. This harder time is felt by, among others, a segment of America’s lower-middle class who used to be able to find decent-paying jobs that demanded physical labor and the kinds of skills you don’t learn in school. That segment increasingly faces a fact about the modern economy: Unless you’re a knowledge worker, it’s become a whole lot harder to find a well-paying, stable, long-term job because the skills you bring to an employer aren’t as in demand as they used to be.
And that’s awful for the people going through it. We can say that free markets change over time and that those changes lead to more prosperity in the long term, and that’s true. But it doesn’t make life better for the machinist or construction worker without a college degree and without much retirement savings. Empathy seems an appropriate response by those of us not facing such hardship.
That even well-functioning markets hurt some people some of the time makes selling market solutions to policy problems often a difficult task. We know that the solution to unemployment or underemployment is more economic freedom. Get rid of the barriers to entry and the protectionist policies keeping afloat what would otherwise be failing firms. Enable private schools to create a robust and successful educational system so more people have the skills needed to succeed in a modern economy. Open trade with the rest of the world, so we can grow our economy, buy goods at lower prices, and sell into more markets.
But here’s the thing. Every one of those solutions ends up sounding, to the person economically hurting now, like saying, “Leave it alone and things will work themselves out. Don’t know quite how or when, but they will.” Market solutions are emergent solutions, and emergence takes time and can’t be planned or predicted. In fact, it’s the attempt to plan and predict that leads so many non-market-based policies to fail. Economists understand this and so largely trust markets. But most Americans aren’t economists.
I think this explains, in part, the appeal of people like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. We see them as misdiagnosing the problems and offering counter-productive, and sometimes abhorrent, “solutions.” Immigrants are taking your jobs. (They aren’t.) So let’s fix it right now but closing the borders. Trade with China is making us poor. (It isn’t.) So let’s fix it now by establishing quotas and tariffs. But to people hurting right now, people like Trump or Sanders offer something free markets can’t: certainty, even if illusory. These people right here are the cause of your problems. Punish or stop them and your problems will go away. America will go back to being great, with “great” meaning the way it was when low-information, low-skill Americans could spend their lives comfortably in the middle class. In other words, before America’s economy became modern. We don’t want that, of course. The economic visions of Trump and Sanders aren’t just backwards, but are dangerously retrograde policies that will hurt everyone without doing much to improve the lives of those who support such policies.
Liberty struggles when confronted with this combination of widespread economic ignorance and the political incentive for politicians to pander and promise solutions that are anything but. And I don’t know how to solve that. Nor do I believe there’s an easy solution. The incentives in politics run against us, and so we somehow need to get better at articulating the story of markets, of the voluntary and the emergent, and do it in a way that’s as compelling and hopeful in its rhetoric as the false hopes sold by those pitching meretricious intervention. Part of that means consciously avoiding a panglossian picture of markets, and recognizing that sometimes people get hurt by them, and that often that hurt is blameless.
Let’s start with the basics. Your vote does not matter. Your Vote. Does not. Matter.
A 2012 Economic Inquiry article by Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin used 2008 poll results to calculate the chance of a randomly selected vote determine the outcome of an election. In that presidential election, it was 1 in 60 million. If you lived in some swing states, that could go to 1 in 10 million. If you were a Republican living in California, it’s 1 in a billion. That, of course, was a relatively close election. In a blowout, like Reagan in 1984 or Roosevelt in 1936 then your vote really doesn’t matter.
No single vote has ever decided a presidential election.
Nor is your vote consequential in margins of victory, or your non-vote consequential in turnout numbers. The calculus is exactly the same.
A 2001 NBER paper by Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter looked at 56,613 contested congressional and state legislative races dating back to 1898. That’s 40,000 state elections, totalling about a billion votes. They found seven that were decided by a single vote. In Buffalo in 1910, there was congressional election decided by one vote, of a total of about 41,000 votes cast.
This was later altered in a recount.
Which gets us to Bush v. Gore. No, that doesn’t prove that your vote matters. In fact, it proves the opposite: if a presidential election ever comes down to even close to one vote, then it will be decided by courts and lawyers, not voters.
These facts are not reasonably up for debate. You’ve not mattered in basically every election you’ve ever voted in. If we did a George Bailey, “It’s a Wonderful Life” replay of the world without your vote, it would be exactly the same. Actually, you might be better off in the non-voting world because you spent your time doing more valuable things.
So, why should libertarians do an unquestionably ineffective activity, at least insofar as outcomes are concerned?
When you think about it that way, there are a lot of reasons not to do an ineffective activity. In fact, doing anything effective is a good reason not to do something ineffective. Rain dances are ineffective. When people ask, “Why don’t you rain dance?,” the answer is obvious: because it doesn’t do anything. But when people ask “Why don’t you vote?,” it’s gauche to say, “because it doesn’t do anything.”
Oddly, the weird ones are those who don’t vote because they understand it doesn’t do anything.
And most people know their votes don’t matter — that’s one reason why so many don’t vote or, if they do, they put little effort into it. That’s rational. But to make the point explicitly is weird.
Which itself is weird.
We’ll accept the onus of being the weirdos who say what half the people are thinking.
Of course, if you’re against us, what you’re likely thinking is “Yes, your vote doesn’t matter, but in the aggregate, voting matters.”
That’s trivially true, but there’s not much debate about whether “voting” en masse matters, because it does. The more interesting question is whether it’s wrong for a libertarian to abstain from voting.
The answer is, “No.”
Notice we are not making the case that libertarians should abstain from voting. We are not saying that it is wrong for libertarians to vote. If your vote is mathematically meaningless, we don’t much care what you do.
Instead, we reject the idea that there’s something wrong with choosing not to vote. That choosing to abstain from an election is nothing to be ashamed of. We believe there are reasonable arguments for abstaining.
Vegetarians abstain from eating meat, because they believe there are morally troubling aspects to it that weigh against benefits in tastiness and maybe health. And they do this knowing full well that any individual’s decision to not eat meat likely won’t save the life of a single animal. Yet we don’t take this as evidence that they’re behaving irrationally.
And what about Quakers, many of whom don’t vote? Or Jehovah’s Witnesses, who see voting as clashing with their principles? Do we condemn them for not fulfilling their civic duty? Are their principles stronger or better than libertarians?
We see voting to some extent like Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses do. Yes, your vote has no impact on the direction of the country. Even still, it doesn’t take much time or effort to do it. But that doesn’t make it without costs. Voting can have personal, moral costs to individuals.
We’re weird in large part because we have a fundamentally different view of the state from most people in Washington. We believe in moral limits to the state’s authority. We believe there’s a private sphere of choice government isn’t allowed to penetrate.
Yet voting is often seen as the thing that justifies a government’s intrusion into those private spheres. Voting has deep symbolic meaning in our culture, and that symbolic meaning is both overplayed and wrong-headed.
Very nearly everything we vote on, very nearly everything that most presidential candidates have said they would do, falls outside the bounds of libertarian principle. Voting is symbolically signing on to what those people will do in your name. And given that the outcome will likely be profoundly un-libertarian, that’s not something we’re willing to do.
Like eating meat to the vegetarian, even though we know abstaining won’t directly influence the government in better direction, we also know it won’t make government worse. At the same time, abstaining allows us to maintain my principles. To live our sense of justice.
Which is important, because we owe it to the world to make it better, and we can do that in part by pushing back against the histrionic and incoherent view most Americans have about moral and causal weightiness of voting.
That makes us weird, we admit. But it’s a weirdness we’re happy to embrace. And we wish more people were weird like us.
Furthermore, because it is seen as justifying nearly any government action, voting can also be dangerous. People have been talking about this since America’s founding. James Madison was terrified of voters, so he wanted filtering mechanisms and representatives. The Progressives were terrified of voters, so they built the administrative state to remove some questions from politics.
All the while our government has grown to be the most powerful organization in the history of humankind, controlling our daily lives to an unimaginable and unacceptable degree, and making us hate each other in the process.
And why can it do this? Voting. The fetishization of voting buttresses the idea that voting is adequate check on government and a justification for whatever government does. But many of things we vote on are beyond the legitimate power of government. We need to step back from the fetishizing voting and instead accurately characterize it as a weak and inadequate form of collective choice that cannot effectively support the weight of the governments claiming legitimacy from it.
The fetishization of voting can have real costs. If people raise voting to the pinnacle of civic engagement, which many do, they may ignore other types of more meaningful civic engagement. For many, President Obama entered office with a messiah-like status. He would solve things, fix them, make the country better. The anti-war movement of the left disappeared, partially because of partisanship, but partially because Obama was going to take care of it. For many who voted for him, their vote was the beginning and end of their civic engagement. Obama would take care of the rest.
There’s a reason the most repressive governments in history and today are “people’s republic of X.” They want to claim the legitimacy of voting. But, if the election is Hitler v. Stalin, don’t vote. What if they held an election and no one came? Those who would vote for the “lesser” evil, whoever that may be, are only giving him the ability to say “the people chose me” and claim legitimacy.
A single vote doesn’t matter. Nor does a single non-vote. So let’s agree that both are merely symbolic. You vote because you like the candidate and enjoy the process and feel like you’re doing your duty. We don’t. So we don’t vote, symbolically. And none of it matters.
But it is important to stand up and remind people what’s wrong with voting on the things we do. If there was a national referendum on a new national haircut, and the people grouped together around “the hippie” and “the marine,” people might say, “Why don’t you get involved? Why don’t you make your voice heard? Do you not like democracy?” Someone has to instead point out that we shouldn’t vote about this stuff, and do so loudly, honestly, and without shame.
So is it wrong wrong for a libertarian to abstain from voting? Clearly not.
Don’t vote, do vote. It doesn’t make a difference to us. But if you vote, vote with your wits about you, and vote for something or someone that doesn’t compromise what you stand for. Who cares if it won’t matter? It matters deeply to you, or it should, if you want to have principles that matter.
If you don’t vote, don’t sweat it. Take your kid to the park, help an old lady cross the street, stick it to the man by driving for Uber.
You don’t have to preach the gospel of non-voting, but having a mature conversation about the virtues and vices — the power and limitations — of voting is always beneficial and, in many ways, long overdue.
Principles are a difficult thing to have in the world of politics. In many ways, politics, as the art of the possible, is about compromising your principles. In fact, a principled politician is probably an unemployed one.
If you’re a libertarian, don’t forget what you stand for. Liberty. Democracy — voting — is not the same thing as liberty. Yes, for a variety of reasons — most not having to do with voting — democracies tend promote more liberty than some of the alternatives. But they also can easily go astray and, when they do, those in government usually cite “the people” as justification.
Maybe by consciously not voting, and being able to explain to others why we’re not voting, we can change not just the policies of our existing government, but people’s beliefs about government. We can say that there are better, more meaningful ways to achieve prosperity and peace and justice. That we don’t need to resort to the state every time a see a problem and that the state is very often the wrong way to solve a problem.
In a sense, the problem with voting as practiced today is that people take it too seriously as a means for achieving good governance. They invest it with too much meaning. When abstaining doesn’t make things worse and voting doesn’t make things better, by making the principled choice not to participate in a false show of public spiritedness, we can take some of the air out of big government sales.
Just because everyone else is praising the emperor’s clothes doesn’t mean you have to.
This column a revised version of remarks delivered during a debate at the Cato Institute, Should Libertarians Vote?, on November 2nd, 2016.