TCS Daily

The Trouble with Libertarianism

By Edward Feser - July 20, 2004 12:00 AM

"Libertarianism" is usually defined as the view in political philosophy that the only legitimate function of a government is to protect its citizens from force, fraud, theft, and breach of contract, and that it otherwise ought not to interfere with its citizens' dealings with one another, either to make them more economically equal or to make them more morally virtuous. Most libertarian theorists emphasize that their position is not intended to be a complete system of ethics, but merely a doctrine about the proper scope of state power: their claim is not that either egalitarian views about the distribution of wealth or traditional attitudes about sexuality, drug use, and the like are necessarily incorrect, but only that such moral views ought not to guide public policy. A libertarian society is in their view compatible with any particular moral or religious outlook one might be committed to, and this is taken to be one of its great strengths: people of all persuasions in a pluralistic society can have reason to support a libertarian polity, precisely because it does not favor any particular persuasion over another. A libertarian society is, it is claimed, genuinely neutral between diverse moral and religious worldviews.

In this respect, as in others, libertarians take their creed to be superior to that political philosophy that most prides itself on its purported tolerance and neutrality, namely egalitarian liberalism. The liberal philosopher John Rawls characterized the various moral and religious worldviews represented in modern pluralistic societies as "comprehensive doctrines," and he argued that his own brand of liberalism was compatible with all reasonable comprehensive doctrines. Libertarians have objected that the details of Rawls's theory so incorporate his social and economic egalitarianism into what he counts as "reasonable" that his claim to neutrality between actually existing worldviews is disingenuous; for Rawlsians are ultimately prepared to apply that honorific only to those comprehensive doctrines compatible with an extensive regime of anti-discrimination laws, forced income redistribution, and whatever other consequences are taken to follow from Rawls's famous "difference principle" (which holds that no inequalities can be permitted in a just society unless they benefit its least well-off members). The "comprehensive doctrines" of moral traditionalists and individualist free spirits alike, doctrines having millions of adherents, end up being effectively written off as "unreasonable" from the egalitarian liberal point of view. Libertarianism is truly neutral where Rawls and other liberals only pretend to be.

Or so it seems. I want to suggest, however, that many libertarians are - no doubt unwittingly - guilty of the very same sort of disingenuousness as Rawls. For it simply isn't true that libertarianism is neutral between various moral and religious worldviews, notwithstanding that most libertarians would like to believe (indeed do believe) that it is. The reason, as it turns out, is that there is no such thing as "libertarianism" in the first place: it would be more accurate to speak in the plural of "libertarianisms," a variety of doctrines each often described as "libertarian," but having no common core, and each of which tends in either theory or practice to favor some moral worldviews to the exclusion of others. It also turns out that the illusion that there is such a thing as "libertarianism" - a basic set of beliefs and values that all so-called "libertarians" have in common - is the source of the illusion that a libertarian society would be a truly neutral one. When one gets clear on exactly which version of libertarianism one is talking about, it will be seen that what one is talking about is a doctrine with substantial moral commitments, commitments which cannot fail to promote some worldviews and to push others into the margins of social life.

Classical liberalism

To see that this is so, we need only look at some specific and paradigmatic examples of libertarian political theories, and there is no more appropriate place to start than at the beginning, with the early classical liberal (as opposed to modern, egalitarian liberal) political thinkers whom libertarians typically regard as their intellectual forebears. Take John Locke (1632-1704), who famously argued that the primary function of a government was to protect the property rights of its citizens, with the most fundamental property right being that of self-ownership. That we own ourselves entails, in Locke's view, that we own our labor and its fruits, and this in turn entails that we can (with certain qualifications) come to own whatever previously unowned natural resources we "mix" our labor with. Self-ownership thus grounds the right to private property, and with it the basic rights that determine the proper scope and functions of state power.

But what grounds the right of self-ownership itself? The answer, according to Locke, was that it derives from God. How? God, being the creator of everything that exists other than Himself - including us - is the ultimate owner of everything that exists - including us. Therefore, when a person harms another person by killing him, stealing from him, and so forth, he in effect violates the rights of God, because he damages what is God's property. To respect God's rights over us, therefore, we must recognize our duty not to kill, harm, or steal from each other, which entails treating each other as having certain rights relative to each other - the rights to life, liberty, and property. And these rights can usefully be summed up as rights of self-ownership. But ultimately, as it turns out, we don't really own ourselves: God does. Relative to Him, we are merely "leasing" ourselves, as it were, and are accountable to Him for how we use His property. Relative to other human beings, however, we are in effect self-owners; we must treat others as if they owned themselves, and not use them as if they were our property.

That Locke's version of classical liberalism favors a decidedly religious social order should be obvious. Of course, Locke is also famous for promoting the idea of religious toleration, and would vehemently reject the suggestion that any particular denomination or its teachings ought to be promoted by government. But Locke was nevertheless very far in his thinking from the interpretation of the doctrine of the separation of church and state favored by the ACLU. For he also held that toleration cannot be extended to atheists, precisely because their denial of the existence of God amounted, in his view, to the denial of the very foundations of the moral order in general, and the classical liberal political order in particular. In Locke's estimation, if the suggestion that liberalism entails a right of toleration of atheism isn't exactly a self-contradiction, it will do until the real thing comes along; for the existence of any rights at all presupposes the falsity of atheism.

Locke is also commonly thought to have denied that Roman Catholics had a right to toleration, on the grounds that their loyalty to a foreign power - the Pope - was incompatible with allegiance to a classical liberal state (though scholars like Jeremy Waldron have argued that Locke has been misinterpreted here). Now as both a Roman Catholic and an admirer of Locke (and, I suppose, as a former atheist too), it is with some trepidation that I note these aspects of his views. But whatever one thinks of their ultimate defensibility, Locke's position does at least arguably form a coherent and systematic whole; and, more to the present point, it quite obviously is not, and does not pretend to be, consistent with any claim to "neutrality" between all moral and religious worldviews.

This commitment to a particular moral view of the world was typical of the early classical liberals. Adam Smith (1723-1790) favored modern liberal capitalist society precisely because of what he took to be its moral advantages: it provided an unprecedented degree of material well-being for the masses, and it promoted such bourgeois virtues as sobriety, moderation, and diligence. Moreover, because in Smith's view capitalist society failed to promote certain other virtues (namely martial and aristocratic ones), and even tended positively to undermine some of them (insofar as consumerism and the hyper-specialization entailed by the division of labor oriented men's minds away from learning), there was an urgent need for government to foster institutions outside the market - a professional military and publicly financed education, for example - that would make up for its deficiencies.

Tradition and natural rights

It ought not to be supposed that the moralism of these early classical liberals was merely an artifact of their having written in a less secularist age. Indeed, one finds many of the same themes in their recent successors. F.A. Hayek (1899-1992) was perhaps the foremost champion of the free society and the market economy in the 20th century. He was also firmly committed to the proposition that market society has certain moral presuppositions that can only be preserved through the power of social stigma. In his later work especially, he made it clear that these presuppositions concern the sanctity of property and of the family, protected by traditional moral rules which restrain our natural impulses and tell us that "you must neither wish to possess any woman you see, nor wish to possess any material goods you see."[1]

"[T]he great moral conflict... which has been taking place over the last hundred years or even the last three hundred years," according to Hayek, "is essentially a conflict between the defenders of property and the family and the critics of property and the family,"[2] with the latter comprising an alliance of socialists and libertines committed to "a planned economy with a just distribution, a freeing of ourselves from repressions and conventional morals, of permissive education as a way to freedom, and the replacement of the market by a rational arrangement of a body with coercive powers."[3] The former, by contrast, comprise an alliance of those committed to the more conservative form of classical liberalism represented by writers like Smith and Hayek himself with those committed to traditional forms of religious belief. Among the benefits of such religious belief in Hayek's view is its "strengthening [of] respect for marriage," its enforcement of "stricter observance of rules of sexual morality among both married and unmarried," and its creation of a socially beneficial "taboo" against the taking of another's property.[4] Indeed, though he was personally an agnostic, Hayek held that the value of religion for shoring up the moral presuppositions of a free society cannot be overestimated:

"We owe it partly to mystical and religious beliefs, and, I believe, particularly to the main monotheistic ones, that beneficial traditions have been preserved and transmitted... If we bear these things in mind, we can better understand and appreciate those clerics who are said to have become somewhat sceptical of the validity of some of their teachings and who yet continued to teach them because they feared that a loss of faith would lead to a decline in morals. No doubt they were right..."[5]

For these reasons, Hayek, though like Locke a great defender of the classical liberal belief in toleration of diverse moral and religious points of view, also held that such toleration must have its limits if a free society is to maintain itself, as the following passages illustrate:

"I doubt whether any moral rule could be preserved without the exclusion of those who regularly infringe it from decent company - or even without people not allowing their children to mix with those who have bad manners. It is by the separation of groups and their distinctive principles of admission to them that sanctions of moral behavior operate."[6]

"It is not by conceding 'a right to equal concern and respect' to those who break the code that civilization is maintained. Nor can we, for the purpose of maintaining our society, accept all moral beliefs which are held with equal conviction as morally legitimate, and recognize a right to blood feud or infanticide or even theft, or any other moral beliefs contrary to those on which the working of our society rests... For the science of anthropology all cultures or morals may be equally good, but we maintain our society by treating others as less so."[7]

"Morals must be... restraints on complete freedom, they must determine what is permissible and what not... [T]he difficulties begin when we ask whether tolerance requires that we permit in our community the observance of a wholly different system of morals, even if a person does so entirely consistently and conscientiously. I am afraid I rather doubt whether we can tolerate a wholly different system of morals within our community, although it is no concern of ours what moral rules some other community obeys internally. I am afraid that there must be limits even to tolerance..."[8]

It is significant that Hayek's view was as conservative and moralistic as it was despite its not being, like Locke's view, based on theological premises or even on the notion of natural rights. And as might be expected, contemporary natural rights theories have a tendency to imply no less conservative a moralism. To be sure, Robert Nozick (1938-2002), the most influential proponent of natural rights libertarianism in recent political philosophy, was no conservative, and was also a proponent of the idea that libertarianism is neutral between moral and religious worldviews. Indeed, given that his predecessors included people like Locke, Smith, and Hayek, Nozick might even have the distinction of being the first major classical liberal or libertarian theorist to suggest such a thing. The trouble is, Nozick is also notoriously unclear about where natural rights, and in particular the right of self-ownership, come from. But surely what we take to be the source of rights cannot fail to imply, as it does in Locke, a specific moral view of the world. So if Nozick's position seems to allow for neutrality between all worldviews, this is arguably precisely because he is so vague about the grounds of natural rights.

The history of recent libertarian theorizing about natural rights only confirms this suspicion, in my view. From the work of Ayn Rand (1905-1982) onward, such theorizing has been dominated by Aristotelianism, and in particular by some version or other of the idea that natural rights are ultimately to be grounded in the sort of natural end or purpose that Aristotle held all human beings to have. Now sometimes libertarian theorists try to cash out the idea of a "natural end" in only the thinnest of terms - in Rand's case, in terms of the need to survive as a rational being. Notoriously, however, such an approach fails plausibly to yield a distinctively libertarian conception of rights: one might need some sort of rights in order to survive, but it is hard to see why one would need the extremely strong rights to liberty and private property (rights strong enough to rule out an egalitarian redistribution of wealth, say) libertarians want to affirm. So to make this sort of attempt to justify a libertarian conception of natural rights work, the libertarian needs to appeal to a much "thicker" conception of the natural end or purpose human beings have. In that case, though, it is very hard to see how anyone committed to this sort of approach can consistently avoid committing himself also to the very conservative moral views Aristotelian "natural end" theories are usually thought to entail, especially when worked out systematically after the manner of St. Thomas Aquinas and other natural law theorists.

Contractarianism, utilitarianism, and "economism"

So far my examples have all been cases where the failure of libertarianism to be neutral between all the moral and religious worldviews that exist within a modern pluralistic society involves a bias in favor of decidedly conservative points of view. Do I mean to imply, then, that all versions of libertarianism entail moral conservatism? By no means. Some versions in fact entail exactly the opposite; and in this very different way, they too fail to be neutral between moral and religious points of view.

Many libertarian theorists eschew any suggestion that rights are "natural," and with it any appeal to God or human nature as the source of rights. They take our rights to be in some way artificial - historically contingent conventions, say, or the products of some kind of "social contract." The latter approach is an application to the defense of libertarianism of a view in moral theory sometimes called "contractarianism," which holds that moral obligations in general and rights in particular can only be grounded in a kind of implicit agreement between all the members of society. Contrary to Locke, who held that our rights, being natural, pre-exist and put absolute conditions on any contract that can be made between human beings, the contractarian view is that rights only come into existence after, and as a result of, a social contract, and that their content is determined by the details of the contract. Libertarian contractarians argue that the details of such a social contract, when rightly understood, will be seen to entail libertarianism.

Now since any such contract can only ever be purely hypothetical (the claim is not that we literally have ever made or could make such an agreement), the contractarian approach raises all sorts of philosophical questions. Moreover, the claim that the details of the contract would favor libertarianism is by no means uncontroversial. (The non-libertarian Rawls, after all, also appeals to a kind of social contract theory.) But since the libertarian social contract theorist typically denies that there is any robust conception of human nature which can plausibly determine the content of morality, and typically characterizes what he regards as a "rational" party to the social contract as refusing to agree to any rule that he does not personally see as in his self-interest (where his "self-interest" is typically defined in terms of whatever desires or preferences he actually happens to have), it is easy to see how conservative moral views are going to be ruled out as indefensible from a contractarian point of view: not all parties to the social contract will agree to them, and so they cannot be regarded as morally binding.

Utilitarianism is another moral theory libertarians have sometimes appealed to in defense of their position. This is, to oversimplify, the view that what is morally required is whatever promotes "the best consequences," where this is usually understood to entail maximizing the satisfaction of individual desires or preferences. Here too, whether either utilitarianism as a general moral philosophy or the strategy of using it to defend libertarianism in particular is defensible are matters of great controversy. But just as utilitarianism in general tends to be radically unconservative (as it is in the work of Peter Singer, perhaps the best known contemporary utilitarian) so too is it when applied to a defense of libertarianism. For any view that appeals merely to what people happen in fact to desire or prefer - without asking, after the fashion of Aristotelianism or natural law theory, what desires or preferences we ought to have given our nature - is bound not to sit well with the conservative moralist's tendency to see certain kinds of desires and preferences as intrinsically disordered and immoral, so that there can be no question of maximizing their satisfaction.

Of course, the expression "utilitarian" is sometimes used by libertarians in a much looser way, to refer, not to utilitarianism as a general moral philosophy, but merely to a defense of libertarianism which emphasizes certain practical economic benefits of the free market, such as its ability to generate wealth and technological innovation. Now by itself, this sort of economic approach doesn't count as a complete defense of libertarianism, since many egalitarian liberals and non-libertarian conservatives would acknowledge these benefits of the market but deny that such considerations address all their concerns, such as moral ones. But there is a tendency among some economics-oriented defenders of libertarianism to go well beyond this modest appeal to what are generally recognized to be economic considerations - a tendency to try to analyze all human behavior and social institutions in economic terms, and thereby to reduce all considerations to purely economic ones. At its most extreme, the results are artifacts like Richard Posner's book Sex and Reason, which attempts to account for all human sexual behavior in terms of perceived costs and benefits.

This sort of thing is exactly what Pope John Paul II has in mind when he criticizes contemporary capitalist society for its tendency toward what he calls "economism," and while many libertarians would regard it as merely a regrettable bit of over-enthusiasm, it does have a tendency to confirm in the minds of non-libertarians the caricature they have of the free marketer as a vulgar philistine bent on the total commoditization of human life. Moreover, it is clearly and utterly incompatible with a conservative understanding of our moral situation. As the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton argues:

"Posner proceeds to consider hypothetical cases: for example, the case where a man sets a 'value' of 'twenty' on 'sex' with a 'woman of average attractiveness,' and a 'value' of 'two' on 'sex' with a 'male substitute.' If you adopt such language, then you have made woman (and man too) into a sex object and sex into a commodity. You have redescribed the human world as a world of things; you have abolished the sacred, the prohibited, and the protected, and presented sex as a relation between aliens... Posner's language... reduces the other person to an instrument of pleasure, a means of obtaining something that could have been provided equally by another person, by an animal, by a rubber doll or a piece of Kleenex."[9]

How the difference makes a difference

Now many of those committed to the sorts of unconservative versions of libertarianism I've just described would insist that their position really is neutral between moral worldviews, since they would not advocate keeping those with conservative sensibilities from living in accordance with their views or expressing them in public. But this misses the point. For the versions of libertarianism described in the last section do not treat conservative views as truly moral views at all; they treat them instead as mere prejudices: at best matters of taste, like one's preference for this or that flavor of ice cream, and at worst rank superstitions that pose a constant danger of leading those holding them to try to restrict the freedoms of those practicing non-traditional lifestyles. Libertarians of the contractarian, utilitarian, or "economistic" bent must therefore treat the conservative the way the egalitarian liberal treats the racist, i.e. as someone who can be permitted to hold and practice his views, but only provided he and his views are widely regarded as of the crackpot variety. Just as the Lockean, Smithian, Hayekian, and Aristotelian versions of libertarianism entail a social marginalization of those who flout bourgeois moral standards, so too do these unconservative versions of libertarianism entail a social marginalization of those who defend bourgeois moral standards. Neither kind of libertarianism is truly neutral between moral worldviews.

There are two dramatic consequences of this difference between these kinds of libertarianism. The first is that a society self-consciously guided by principles of the Lockean, Smithian, Hayekian, or Aristotelian sort will, obviously, be a society of a generally conservative character, while a society self-consciously guided by principles of a contractarian, utilitarian, or "economistic" sort will, equally obviously, be a society of a generally anti-conservative character. The point is not that the former sort of society will explicitly outlaw bohemian behavior or that the latter will explicitly outlaw conservative behavior. The point is rather that the former sort of society is bound to be one in which the bohemian is going to feel out of place, while the latter is one in which the conservative is going to feel out of place. In either case, there will of course be enclaves here and there where the outsider will find those of like mind. But someone is inevitably going to get pushed into the cultural catacombs. In no case is a "libertarian" society going to be genuinely neutral between all the points of view represented within it.

The second dramatic consequence is that there are also bound to be differences in the public policy recommendations made by the different versions of libertarianism. Take, for example, the issue of abortion. Those whose libertarianism is grounded in Lockean, Aristotelian, or Hayekian thinking are far more likely to take a conservative line on the matter. To be sure, there are plenty of "pro-choice" libertarians influenced by Hayek. But by far most of these libertarians are (certainly in my experience anyway) inclined to accept Hayek's economic views while soft-pedaling or even dismissing the Burkean traditionalist foundations he gave for his overall social theory. Those who endorse the latter, however, are going to be hard-pressed not to be at least suspicious of the standard moral and legal arguments offered in defense of abortion. Even more clearly, libertarians of a Lockean or Aristotelian-natural law bent are going to have strong grounds for regarding abortion as no less a violation of individual rights than is the murder of a man, woman, or child: a fetus is no less God's property than is a child or adult; and on the standard Aristotelian-natural law view, the fetus is fully human - not a "potential human being," but rather a human being which hasn't yet fulfilled all its potentials - and thus has all the rights that any other human being has.

By contrast, libertarians influenced by contractarianism are very unlikely to oppose abortion, because fetuses cannot plausibly be counted as parties to the social contract that could provide the only grounds for a prohibition on killing them. Utilitarianism and "economism" too would provide no plausible grounds for a prohibition on abortion, since fetuses would seem to have no preferences or desires which could be factored into our calculations of how best to maximize preference- or desire-satisfaction.

There are also bound to be differences over the question of "same-sex marriage." From a natural rights perspective, whether Lockean or Aristotelian, it is hard to see how the demand for a right to same-sex marriage can be justified. For if there is a natural right to marriage, then marriage must be a natural institution; and the standard defense of marriage as a natural institution appeals to the idea that it is has a natural function, namely procreation, which entails in turn that it is inherently heterosexual. Nor can a Hayekian analysis of social institutions fail to imply anything but skepticism about the case for same-sex marriage. Hayek's position was that traditional moral rules, especially when connected to institutions as fundamental as the family and found nearly universally in human cultures, should be tampered with only with the most extreme caution. The burden of proof is always on the innovator rather than the traditionalist, whether or not the traditionalist can justify his conservatism to the innovator's satisfaction; and change can be justified only by showing that the rule the innovator wants to abandon is in outright contradiction to some other fundamental traditional rule. But that there is any contradiction in this case is simply implausible, especially when one considers the traditional natural law understanding of marriage sketched above.

On the other hand, it is easy to see how contractarianism, utilitarianism, and "economism" might be thought to justify same-sex marriage. If the actual desires or preferences of individuals are all that matter, and some of those individuals desire or prefer to set up a partnership with someone of the same sex and call it "marriage," then there can be no moral objection to their doing so.

Freedom and self-ownership

If these different versions of libertarianism differ so radically in terms of their justifying grounds and implications, why are they usually regarded as variations of the same doctrine? And why are they so commonly held to be neutral between various moral and religious worldviews if, as I have tried to show, they clearly are not? The answer to both questions, I think, is that all these versions of libertarianism are often thought, erroneously, to be committed fundamentally to the value of "freedom": they are versions of libertarianism, after all, so liberty or freedom would seem to be their common core, and this might seem to include the freedom of every person to follow whatever moral or religious view he likes. But in fact none of these doctrines takes liberty or freedom to be fundamental. What is taken to be fundamental is rather natural rights, or tradition, or a social contract, or utility, or efficiency; "freedom" falls out only as a consequence of the libertarian's more basic commitment to one of these other values, and the content of that "freedom" differs radically depending on precisely which of these fundamental values he is committed to. For the Aristotelian-natural law theorist, freedom includes not only freedom from excessive state power, but also freedom from those moral vices which prevent the realization of our natural end; for the contractarian or utilitarian, however, freedom may well include freedom from the very concepts of moral vice and natural ends. Freedom would also entail for the latter the right to commit suicide, while for the Lockean, there can be no such right, since suicide would itself violate the rights of the God who created and owns us.

This difference in the understanding of freedom has its parallel in a difference in what we might call the tone in which various libertarians assert the right of self-ownership. In the mouth of some libertarians, what self-ownership is fundamentally about is something like this: "Other human beings have an intrinsic dignity and moral value, and this entails a duty on my part not to use them as means to my own ends; I therefore have no right to the fruits of another man's labor." In the mouths of other libertarians, what it means is, at bottom, rather this: "I can do whatever what I want to do, as long as I let everyone else do what they want to do too; there are no grounds for preventing any of us from doing, in general, what we want to do." The first view expresses an attitude of deference, the second an attitude of self-assertion; the first reflects a commitment to strong moral realism and a rich conception of human nature, the second a thin conception of human nature and a tendency toward moral minimalism or even moral skepticism. And the first, I would submit, is more characteristic of libertarians of a Lockean, Hayekian, or Aristotelian bent, while the latter is more typical of libertarians influenced by contractarianism, utilitarianism, or "economism."

It is sometimes said that contemporary conservatism is an uneasy alliance between libertarians and traditionalists, and that this alliance is destined eventually to collapse due to the inherent conflict between the two philosophies. But it can with equal or even greater plausibility be argued that it is in fact contemporary libertarianism which comprises an uneasy alliance, an association between incompatible factions committed to very different conceptions of freedom. The trouble with libertarianism is that many of its adherents have for too long labored under the illusion that things are otherwise, that their creed is a single unified political philosophy that does not, and need not, take a stand on the most contentious moral issues dividing contemporary society. This has led to confusion both at the level of theory and at the level of policy. Libertarians need to get clear about exactly what they believe and why. And when they do, they might find that their particular version of libertarianism commits them - or ought to commit them - to regard as rivals those they might once have considered allies.

Edward Feser ( is the author of On Nozick (Wadsworth, 2003).

[1] F.A. Hayek, "Individual and Collective Aims," in Susan Mendus and David Edwards, eds. On Toleration (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 37.

[2] Ibid., p. 38.

[3] F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 3: The Political Order of a Free People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 176.

[4] F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 157.

[5] Ibid., pp. 136-7.

[6] Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, p. 171.

[7] Ibid., p. 172.

[8] Hayek, "Individual and Collective Aims," p. 47.

[9] Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy (London: Duckworth, 1996), p. 135.


TCS Daily Archives