Find Your Way Back: Confessions of a (Seriously) Confused Ex-Libertarian

I don’t consider myself a libertarian any more, and am not sure I ever was one in a wholehearted way, but I can say this much: once upon a time, I held a more clearly libertarian position about politics than I currently do. I heard a story on NPR yesterday that reminded me of a puzzle that my libertarian commitments generated (in combination with some of the commitments that I took to cohere with it), but that I never ended up resolving. Maybe some reader can resolve the puzzle and tell me where I went wrong.

Let’s call the two basic commitments neo-Aristotelian welfarism and libertarianism, both of Objectivist inspiration. Neo-Aristotelian welfarism says that survival qua human, understood on a virtue-ethical account, is the ultimate human value. Libertarianism says that force ought never to be initiated. One policy implication of libertarianism is what we may call roll back: the privatization or abolition of those parts of the state that exceed the limits set by libertarianism. I’m going to glide over a huge host of complications here, including how exactly the two commitments fit together,  whether they lead to a minimal state or anarchism, what counts as a force-initiation, etc. There’s more than enough material here to generate the aporia that led me to normative paralysis. The relevant issue here is simply how to reconcile libertarian roll back with welfarism.

Given the preceding, I inferred the following:

  1. If libertarianism is to be put into practice, the state has to be “rolled back.”

  2. If libertarianism is to be put into practice consistently with welfarism, libertarian roll back must not violate welfarism.

  3. Any policy that leads to a net loss of life violates welfarism.

  4. Hence if libertarianism is to be put into practice consistently with welfarism, roll back cannot lead to net loss of life.

  5. If libertarianism is true, it must (somehow) be put into practice.

  6. If libertarianism’s truth is underwritten by neo-Aristotelian welfarism, it must be put into practice consistently with (that) welfarism.

Having assumed the antecedents of (5) and (6) from the start, the rest followed. So (4) became a stricture (one of many, as I saw it) on libertarian roll back. But (4) also became a source of paralysis.

Here’s an example of why, from the NPR story I mentioned before. From the opening to the story:

New hope this week for tens of thousands of patients living with cystic fibrosis. Scientists have unveiled a promising therapy – a combination of three drugs that target a genetic mutation that causes cystic fibrosis, which affects the lungs and can cause respiratory failure. This new therapy could benefit 90% of patients with the disease.

Dr. Francis Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health, and he’s one of the scientists who discovered the gene defect behind cystic fibrosis 30 years ago.

Apply the roll back argument above, and you quickly hit paralysis. The research in question was funded by the NIH. Suppose that libertarianism entails that the NIH’s existence exceeds libertarian bounds. Then libertarian roll back entails the privatization or abolition (or both, in part) of the NIH. But now suppose that privatizating or abolishing the NIH would lead (or might plausibly be thought to lead) to a net increase* in lives lost, relative to keeping the NIH in place and continuing the research in question (or better yet, keeping it in place and increasing the funding for that research). Then the argument above implies that the NIH should be kept in place, at least at its current levels of funding. Now imagine that there are lots of examples like this one. Then a libertarian like Earlier Me will be led to a lot of normative paralysis, as I was.**

Notice that part of the issue here involves transition costs under path dependent circumstances. The question we face is not simply: which institutional arrangement leads, in the abstract, to better results (bracketing how we conceptualize “leads to better results” so as not to lapse into a problematic form of consequentialism)? The question is: given path dependency, would the transition costs of a move from where we are to libertarianism lead to costs that wouldn’t be incurred if we didn’t make that move? Call me a wimp, but whenever I answered “yes,” I backpedaled on my libertarian commitments. And call me paranoid, but I often answered “yes.”

Notice, also, that stricture (4) might be one of a set of similar strictures, some more stringent than (4). You might think that “net loss of life” is too low a bar to function as the only stricture on libertarian roll back. A more stringent one might be:

(4*) If libertarianism is to be put into practice consistently with welfarism, roll back cannot lead to a net diminution in human progress (understood in welfarist terms).

Granted, the very stringency of (4*) puts it in danger of begging the question against libertarianism. If roll back is not just instrumental to but constitutive of human progress (and in some cases, I agree that it is), then apparent gains in progress that are produced by state action are all ill-gotten. In that case, (4*) becomes hard to conceptualize, much less to put into practice. If the state produces human progress, but does so by illegitimate means, and roll back is progress, then it’s not clear how to proceed. On the one hand, we could think of the state’s (supposed) contribution to progress as pseudo-progress, and think of roll back as an attempt to harvest the “real” progress illegitimately captured by it. But we could also, on the other hand, think of the state’s contributions as real progress, and think of roll back as potentially setting that progress back in unacceptable ways. As I see it, reflection on different cases leads to different verdicts without a clear overall verdict on all of them at once.

This last issue is what I never resolved, partly because I never resolved the fundamental issue at the heart of it–how welfarism coheres with libertarianism in the first place. The only route to coherence seemed to be a Stoic-Objectivist interpretation of welfarism that I couldn’t bring myself to accept.*** On this hypothetical view, force-initiations never lead to anything of value, and are always unjust, so that nothing is ever lost in abolishing them. Whereas my view is that even if force-initiations are wrong, it can be just to free-ride on them, and just to leave them in place. There are further questions about whether they all are wrong, and what counts as a force-initiation to begin with.

So go back to the NPR story about cystic fibrosis. The recent breakthrough discussed in the story seems an enormous triumph by welfarist standards, well worth the celebration described there. As I see it, rolling back the NIH would either violate (4) or a plausible version of (4*). So would I roll back the NIH? No. Would I vote to increase its funding? I might. Does that put me in a weird position, normatively speaking? Yes. Should I find a way out, and a way back to the libertarian position I once held? You tell me.

*Fixed a math error there after posting. I had originally written “decrease.”

**Put differently, I was led to paralysis on some issues but not others, which entailed a change of emphasis from cases where roll back violated welfarist strictures to cases where it clearly seemed not to. But there was more than enough paralysis there to set me apart from libertarians eager to abolish or privatize large swatches of the state.

***See Richard Kraut, “Aristotelianism and Libertarianism,” Critical Review 11:3 (1997). See also Tara Smith’s Viable Values, pp. 167-174. In fairness to her, Smith doesn’t explicitly deal with the problem mentioned in the text, but in fairness to what I say in the text, that’s part of what I take to be the problem with both orthodox Objectivism and standard-issue libertarianism.

(Yes, I realize that Jefferson Starship has almost nothing to do with the topic of this post.)

10 thoughts on “Find Your Way Back: Confessions of a (Seriously) Confused Ex-Libertarian

  1. Here are at least some pieces of a possible answer:

    – At a theoretical level, while [imagine my usual unity-of-virtue dance here] pre-unification considerations of justice play a role in determining the post-unification content of welfare (and so what you call the Stoic-Objectivist approach [though it’s actually the Aristotelean position too: see Politics 1325 a 34-b 7] has one side of the truth), at the same time pre-unification considerations of welfare play a role in determining the post-unification content of justice (and so your resistance to the Stoic-Objectivist approach has the other side of the truth). (This point doesn’t itself do much to resolve you problem, but it does specify that an acceptable solution should give each side its due, and thus that no purely one-direction adjustment approach is likely to be the right one.)

    – Even apart from the above point, what looks like a decrease in aggression (as libertarians define it) may not always be so, depending on the context. For example, if the government gives group X massive privileges at the expense of group Y, and then offers group Y some sort of assistance or protection to partly ameliorate this harm done to Y, eliminating the assistance to group Y while leaving the privilege to X in place is not actually a decrease in the government’s overall aggression.
    Examples: a) The government gives S&Ls deposit-insurance protection, i.e. the right to gamble with deposits at the taxpayers’ risk rather than their own, but then puts restrictions on the degree of risk the S&Ls can take on; subsequently, the Reagan “deregulation” removes the restrictions but not the deposit insurance. In this case the “deregulation” consists in giving the privileged S&Ls more freedom to put taxpayers’ rather than their own money at risk. Decreasing restrictions on the state’s favoured cronies’ ability to aggress is an increase, not a decrease, in state aggression. (See Kevin C.’s distinction between primary and secondary interventions, here: )
    b) The state advances medical research with one hand (by funding it) while retarding it with the other hand (by such specific aggressions as an IP regime that makes research artificially expensive, plus the general depressive effect, via its myriad restrictions, on the economic growth that would otherwise have made still more research possible, faster). Likewise, the government helps people afford medical care with one hand (via various transfer programs) and constrains their ability to afford it with the other hand (via regulations cartelising the medical profession and keeping prices artificially high, along with the same IP regime that makes drugs artificially expensive, plus the generally impoverishing effect of, again, the state’s myriad interventions). (See my rants here: and here: and Kevin C.’s fuller analysis here: ) So withdrawing the government’s medically helpful interventions while leaving in place the medically harmful ones that make the medically helpful ones necessary is not obviously a diminution in the state’s overall aggression.
    (And for further examples, see acres of C4SS literature I’ll be only too happy to inflict on you.)
    So even without making any welfarist adjustments in the content of aggression, the traditional libertarian has good reason to take your concerns seriously.

    – That said, the traditional libertarian still presents some worries for you. Let’s say the NIH does more good than harm, and so if you were in charge of the state you would be disinclined to eliminate tax funding for it. Well, that means keeping some version of the current tax enforcement system in place. And in concrete terms, that means inflicting bad stuff on innocent people who don’t pay — jailing them, seizing their assets, making their life hell. How much of that are you willing to do?
    This is both a moral worry and a pragmatic one. You see the better and the worse things the state does, and you think “why not keep the better things while eliminating the worse ones?” But in practice the better and worse bits are deeply mutually entangled; to keep the better bits, you have to keep the regulatory and bureaucratic structures in place that support them — the very same regulatory and bureaucratic structures whose incentives led to the cronyist capture that created the worst bits in the first place. And to enforce the funding for all of it, you have to rely, ultimately, on cops — touchy bureaucrats with guns, a sense of entitlement, and a license to kill — and expect good results to come from leaving more power in their hands.

    – In any case, from a LWMA perspective this whole discussion is somewhat misframed. The question you’re asking is essentially “If libertarians were in charge of the government, what would be the most morally permissible way for them to proceed? Granting that they shouldn’t eliminate the ameliorative interventions (the state-funded crutch) while leaving the primary interventions (the state-induced lameness) in place, should they eliminate both simultaneously (leaving themselves open to the welfarist objection that people need time to recover from state-induced lameness before removing the state-funded crutch) or should they keep the ameliorative interventions going for as long as the recovery process needs to take (leaving themselves open to the justice-oriented objection that there is no way to keep running a massive state without still committing rights-violations left and right, plus the welfarist objection that keeping it running indefinitely runs the risk either of corrupting the current libertarian administrators or of attracting new, less libertarian power-seekers)?”
    That’s an interesting question or set of questions to debate, but in practical terms it’s largely irrelevant, because libertarians are never going to be in effective charge of the state. We’re never going to be in a position to decree “eliminate X but keep Y” or “eliminate both X and Y,” or any of it. Because given the current political culture, plus the structures that those in power have set up to maintain their power, there’s no way that libertarians could gain sufficient political power to accomplish any substantial version of their agenda. (That’s consistent with libertarians being potentially useful as parts of lobbying blocs for specific reforms, as they have been with marijuana and are trying to be with immigration.)
    Moreover, in any imagined future where the general culture has grown libertarian enough, and the entrenched power structures have grown weak enough, that libertarians could come to power, it would be very little power to come to, because a culture libertarian enough to support libertarians in power would also be libertarian enough to ignore and route around whatever state interventions the libertarian rulers decided to keep.

    – That’s the bad news for libertarian political activists. The good news is that there’s an alternative libertarian strategy, that of bypassing the state to create alternative structures, to dissolve the state from below:

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    • Thanks. So there’s a lot there, and I can’t do justice to all of it. But a few responses. I’ll refer to each paragraph after a dash as a “point” (your first point, your second point, etc.)

      I guess it’s obvious enough that I agree with your first point. I’m not sure I’ve read anything by you on unity of virtue, but I take your point.

      I do see the relevance of the Politics passage you mention (Politics VII.3, 1325a30 etc.), but there’s one important difference of context between what it’s talking about and what I’m talking about. I take it that the relevant passage is “So the transgressor could never make up later for the deviation from virtue he has already committed.” I can accept that principle and still wonder whether someone else might make up for it. The generic version of the thesis we’re discussing says that ill-gotten gains lack value. But there’s an ambiguity there. Do they lack value for the transgressor, or do they lack value for anyone? In other words, suppose I steal $100. Aristotle’s thesis implies that no beneficial use of the $100 by me will make up for my having stolen it.

      Fair enough. But suppose that we can’t return the $100 to its rightful owner. It doesn’t follow that you can’t use the $100 for some genuinely valuable purpose. Your spending it on a beneficial purpose may not “make up for” the act of theft, but it can still have a genuinely valuable outcome. The fact that the $100 is “dirty money” doesn’t literally nullify its value. This is the point involved in your saying (in the context of our discussion of NEH money elsewhere) that you’re willing to accept state largesse without qualms. You didn’t steal it, after all, and you can put it to a good purpose–hence the lack of qualms. It’s a different matter for the “transgressor.” But ex hypothesi, that’s not you.

      Something similar applies to redistributions of state largesse to others than ourselves. Suppose that I would not have taken $x from its owners, but I know that $x will be taken regardless of what I do. I also know that budget cuts are in the offing. If these facts are fixed, I may still have a stake in influencing the overall outcome in the direction of moral desert: the deserving should get the redistributed money, not the undeserving (however that works out). If I can legitimately have no qualms about accepting state money (on the premise that I deserve it), perhaps I ought not to have qualms about directing state money (on the premise that others deserve it even more than I do).

      I can’t pretend to have read all of the links you’ve provided in your second and third points, but to take wide-angle perspective: I can accept all of the points you’re making there but still think that the point is more epistemic than a matter of questioning the truth of my (4) or (4*). Even if I grant everything you’re saying there, the implication is that (4) and (4*) are in practice hard to apply, not that they’re false. Fair enough. I agree. I just want to say that they’re true: if and when their application is clear, they do apply.

      Example: There’s a dangerous intersection in town. Part of what makes it dangerous is that it lacks a traffic light. A traffic light would demonstrably solve the problem. But a traffic light is more expensive than the confusing traffic sign that’s at the intersection. If we leave the traffic sign, we violate (4). If we put up a traffic light, we satisfy (4) but at a cost in increased tax revenue and enforcement. It is possible that if we install the new light and raise taxes, someone might resist the tax authorities, be raided by the authorities, and be killed in a shootout. But it’s far more likely that if we don’t install the new light, several people will get into accidents at the intersection and die. This strikes me as a clear case where traffic safety trumps rollback. It also bypasses your worry about being “in control of the state.” You don’t have to be “in control of the state” to participate in and materially influence a democratic discussion over local traffic safety. I’ve done it, and I’m just one person. Perhaps this is an argument for democratic engagement at the local rather than national level, but even so, it’s inconsistent with quietism about democratic engagement as such, including piecemeal, micro-level engagement.

      One puzzle I have about your fourth point (granting some significant agreement) is that you regard my formulation as “largely irrelevant because libertarians are never going to be in effective charge of the state.” My first response is that they don’t have to be; they just have to have enough of a voice to influence outcomes in an important way. My second response is that libertarians are never going to be charge of the culture, either. And yet your view imagines a future “where the general culture has grown libertarian enough, and the entrenched power structures have grown weak enough, that libertarians could come to power,” though “very little power to come to.”

      I don’t find that plausible. It seems to me that your envisioned future can only come to pass through a combination of political and cultural activism. Your way of putting things over-emphasizes the cultural and also adopts too utopian an account of what it can accomplish. It would take a very strong cultural-political mechanism to weaken the power of the state. For better or worse, too many people’s lives depend on the state in too many significant ways for libertarians to rely so heavily on culture in the way you suggest. People can only be convinced of practical claims if they see them translated into practical effect. People would somehow have to be convinced, en masse, that rollback of the welfare state was in their interests. But then the rollbacks themselves have to be in their interests (which is what [4] and [4*] crudely try to capture). If we can’t engineer rollbacks that satisfy that description, my view is that we have to content ourselves with life in a welfare state, and re-direct its regulatory and redistributive activity in the right direction.

      On agorism, I agree with a lot of what you say in that very last link you provide, “Looking for Daylight.” I definitely agree with the critique of Gillespie. I’m not sure how to comment on your critique of Mangu-Ward, because her essay is too brief and vague to give determinate content to this crucial claim:

      I assure you, the lowest-priority items on my government-smashing to-do list are the elements of the night watchman state that most minarchist libertarians would like to preserve.

      I’m not sure what those priorities are, so I’m not sure who I agree with in that go-round.

      I have no objection to agorism (to understate the point), but I don’t think it can be effective without a parallel strategy of specifically political activism. At a minimum, agorism needs a strategy of self-defense against the state (or other hostile forces, whether or not they are “the state”). Like all things, agorism is vulnerable to state aggression. It also has to compete with anti-libertarian versions of itself, as in “white nationalist meta-politics.” In other words, it has to defend itself against the state as well as against non-state-based fascisms. I’ve seen this in a vivid way in my visits to the West Bank. There is a Palestinian brand of agorism, but it faces threats from the Israeli occupation, the settlers, and the Palestinian Authority. Short of defending every agorist enterprise with a militia (dangerous and impossible), we’re left with some version of traditional political activism. Despair-inducing, to be sure. Over there, anyway.

      Paradoxical as it may sound, the only way to achieve that is to reform the state into something less dangerous than it is, and call on the state for protection against fascist terrorism. I don’t mean that self-help isn’t an option. But it gives out at some point. For that reason, I don’t see agorism as literally incompatible with incrementalist democratic engagement. The bad news doesn’t have to be that bad. Until it gets that bad.


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  7. Irfan, don’t go back. The system(s) of standard-issue libertarianism (Objectivist political phi is a variety of that, notwithstanding shouting to the contrary) was simply wrong upon wrong upon wrong. The theory of property rights and their relation to the state was wrong. The the analysis of the state and its funding and rationale for its legitimate functions (or for them being zero) was wrong.

    That is not to say that liberty (and non-initiation of force) was the wrong ideal nor even that it was wrong to take it as the top political value, only that that concept of liberty was wrong.

    My study of and activism for libertarianism began in the late 60’s and continued to the mid 80’s. (In founding the journal OBJECTIVITY in 1990, I deliberately excluded political philosophy from it, and I don’t intend to return to study of political phi further—so much other phi regions in stronger calling for me.) John Hospers’ book LIBERTARIANISM was subtitled “A Political Philosophy for Tomorrow.” It is not.

    All those libertarian books are nevertheless important to study (ASU will endure at top of that league, pretty sure), I should say, for the intellectually honest student of political philosophy. REPUBLIC too.


    • “Find my way back” was more of an exaggeration designed to give me an excuse to insert the Jefferson Starship song than it was an accurate description of anything. I was never a wholehearted libertarian, and my commitment to Objectivism was always idiosyncratic precisely for that reason. I was never entirely sold on the politics. So I can’t really go back to a place I never occupied. (This makes me glad that I didn’t insert REM’s “Stand.”)

      Right now, I’m probably more engaged by political philosophy than by any other branch of philosophy. I’m glad I encountered libertarianism, and have been strongly influenced by it, but I’m a fellow traveler at best. Politically, I think of myself as either a liberal with a libertarian streak, or a libertarian whose libertarianism is more than merely streaked with liberalism. Philosophically, I think there are more questions out there than answers for them. Libertarianism has to be taken seriously (more seriously than many philosophers and journalists do) in the dialectic en route to the answers, but I don’t think it has any monopoly on the answers.

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