‘Libertarianism is [not] a philosophy of individual freedom’

At Crooked Timber, Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch have collaborated on a post for the ages: “Let It Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace.”

Here is their thesis, succinctly stated in the first paragraph:

Libertarianism is a philosophy of individual freedom. Or so its adherents claim. But with their single-minded defense of the rights of property and contract, libertarians cannot come to grips with the systemic denial of freedom in private regimes of power, particularly the workplace. When they do try to address that unfreedom, as a group of academic libertarians calling themselves “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” have done in recent months, they wind up traveling down one of two paths: Either they give up their exclusive focus on the state and become something like garden-variety liberals or they reveal that they are not the defenders of freedom they claim to be.

The rest of the essay is excellent, developing this thesis and applying it to several examples and objections. Read the whole thing. It’s an expansive and forceful exploration of those essential points above.

With their single-minded defense of the rights of property and contract, libertarians cannot come to grips with the systemic denial of freedom in private regimes of power. … Either they give up their exclusive focus on the state and become something like garden-variety liberals or they reveal that they are not the defenders of freedom they claim to be.

That’s going to leave a mark. In fact, the last nine words of that paragraph could nicely serve to summarize the effect of this essay:


"My Mom has read all of those, this isn't a set up to a joke ..."

Standing by
"Fuck the NRA."

Standing by
"Whelp I wasn't getting sleep tonight anyways. So guess I'll start making copies of Fred."

Standing by
"There can be only a hole in one?"

Standing by

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • aunursa- seriously, update your talking points. Its absurd to say stuff like that in 2012. You can be pro Israel without sounding like John Hagee

  • aunursa

    Your reponse to my point about the reasons for the September 11th attack on the U.S. is to assign to me a “talking point” that I did not say or suggest. 

    Your response to my points about minority rights in Israel is to copy a lengthy song or poem about Rachel Corrie with video link.

    And I’m the one who needs to update my “talking points”?  LOL

  • Yes

  • PJ Evans

    They hate us because we represent a threat to their ultimate goal.  They also hate Russia and China

    And they hate Muslims who don’t agree with their particular religious views, and will cheerfully destroy anything they don’t like, even if it’s older than Islam.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Can’t comment with Disqus while at work, but I
    can still get subscribed-to-thread emails, and I can sure as hell
    compose a comment.


    In a free market, it is much easier to
    attain money and it’s much easier to receive a job. I would ask why
    your not being hired, and any reason I can think of derives from
    government policy. Now, there is the possibility of a lack of
    intelligence, and in that case, charities can exist in a free market as
    well. If you don’t have the intellect to receive a job or money, and
    don’t have the ability to get food or water as a result, the
    responsibility of your death would not be on the government, it would be
    on the members of your family and your friends that were too selfish to
    help someone in need. Expecting somebody who you don’t know from who
    knows where to help you by giving money to the government through taxes
    is stealing and is immoral.


    So in libertarian paradise, there’s no such
    thing as long-term unemployed, and everyone who loses a job has the resources to tide them and their dependents over until they get a new job. There’s no such thing as more job seekers
    than job openings. There’s no such thing as low IQ or learning
    disability, nor physical disability, nor mental illness, nor being too
    old to work without having saved enough in one’s younger years to
    support oneself in one’s old age, nor having neither friends nor family
    willing and able to support one. Nobody fires or refuses to hire
    pregnant women on the grounds that the woman will be taking time off to
    care for the child, and nobody refuses to provide paid parental leave,
    even though paid parental leave is not mandatory and employment
    discrimination against pregnant women is not illegal. No one makes
    sleeping with the boss a condition of getting or keeping employment.
    Nobody fires or refuses to hire gay or trans people on the grounds that
    they’re gay or trans, even though employment discrimination against gay
    and trans people is not illegal. Everyone has the time, ability,
    inclination, and expertise necessary to personally inspect an assortment
    of food production facilities and car production facilities and
    everything production facilities in order to ensure product safety
    before consumption. Everyone can afford private education, and private
    education never puts anyone in danger by telling them that condoms are
    unreliable, nor disadvantages the future scientists by telling them
    evolution doesn’t occur. Everyone can afford to drive on all the toll
    roads, which is all the roads. No one is put at risk of lung cancer by
    venturing into public places filled with secondhand smoke, because no
    one smokes in public places, even though it is not illegal to do so.
    Anyone who does get lung cancer can certainly afford the treatment.
    There is no such thing as a lifetime limit on health insurance payouts,
    even though there is no law against such a thing. Startup costs for a
    new business are never an insurmountable obstacle. Established
    businesses welcome competition from new businesses, rather than buying
    them out, rather than lowering prices and putting up with a smaller
    profit or a loss for as long as it takes for the lower prices to drive
    the new competitor out of business. No one pays their workers less than a
    living wage, even though profits would go up if wages went down, and
    there is never so much as a penny’s difference between what a worker has
    earned in a given pay period and what the worker gets that payday. And
    if anyone suffers a misfortune, everyone around them loves nothing
    better than to help them up from the fall, and absolutely nobody says
    that the unfortunate person deserved the fall and/or doesn’t deserve the
    help, and certainly nobody says that the unfortunate person deserved
    the fall and/or doesn’t deserve the help because the unfortunate person
    is female and out alone at night, or is producing a baby without having
    enough income to support a baby, or is gay or trans or whatever and
    insists on existing, or was born to the wrong parents. And for bonus points, the movie and TV industries are aware that people other than 18-35 straight white men have money, and these industries therefore produce media that caters to demographics other than 18-35 straight white men.


    Gee, I’d really love to live in libertarian
    paradise. Too bad we can’t get there from here without dramatically
    changing human nature. Because if human nature remains the same, history
    has proven that libertarian policies leave a lot of people suffering
    and a lot of people dead. Case in point, that factory fire, Triangle
    Shirtwaist, I think it was. There were no laws against locking the
    stairwells so that people couldn’t sneak too far away from their
    workstations, so the stairwells were all locked, so when the place caught fire, it was burn to death or
    jump to death or die of smoke inhalation. Other case in point, all the
    many many places that inspired “Sixteen Tons”. Other other case in
    point, lots and lots of medicines sold before it was illegal to put
    opium or cocaine or whatever in medicines–they must work because they
    made the consumer feel better, and if they kept the consumer coming back
    for more that was just good business sense on the part of the producer,
    and if they didn’t actually cure the original complaint, who cared?


    I repeat: libertarian policies, given current human nature, lead to much suffering and much death.


    I like life much better when I can believe that nobody I am interacting with thinks I should be among those suffering or dead.

  • Mens0117

     Yes, guest, i would say that I have worked for what I received. You can make the  point of the rich guy who inherits all of his money, but if you don’t know what to do with that money, you won’t get anywhere in life. I would say that ultimately, intelligence and the work you put into life is what you will get out of life. People who receive welfare from government programs are stealing from those smart and successful people who have worked hard to get where they are.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Paris Hilton. Your argument is invalid.

    “You haul sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt–Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store!” Your other argument is invalid.

  • Not just opium and cocaine — poison.

    Memorable quote:  “We have been supplying a legitimate professional demand and not once could have foreseen the unlooked-for results. I do not feel that there was any responsibility on our part.”

  • His argument would be invalid anyway — nobody changed their own diapers.

  • guest

    If you were the same person, and worked just as hard, but were born a citizen of Liberia, would you have received as much?  Does what you receive depend entirely on intelligence and the work you put into life?  (Someone once wrote that if that were true Africa would be full of female millionaires.)

  • Lawsuits cost money. I don’t have any money if my means of livelihood keeps getting lost in the mail.

  • Mens0117

     none of those examples are valid…the internet is falling apart because people don’t want the government spying on them, our roads are crap and we pay too much for them, the FAA and the TSA have decreased the quality of aviation secuirty, just look at 9/11. The national weather service is useless, because its paid for through taxes and some people would care less if it was rainy one day and sunny the next – its like saying there wouldn’t be science without government and thats not true at all, you dont need the national weather service to put weather on the news. The VA hospital system is complete crap- veterans don’t get nearly the same quality of health care as in a private service. Government currency will destroy the economy since the government will keep printing money in order to liquidate its debt resulting in an incredible amount of inflation and the US dollar crashing.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Okay, we’ll pretend that you’re right that none of cminus’s examples are valid.

    Universal health care. Everything that came out of NASA, including but not limited to velcro and Tang.

  • Mens0117

     …if you knew your history, you would know that the US didnt have income tax until the 1920’s

  • AnonymousSam

    To be fair, Tang contributed to my severe stomach problems. I drank myself to an ulcer on Tang. :p

  • The national weather service is useless, because its paid for through
    taxes and some people would care less if it was rainy one day and sunny
    the next

    Wow. O_O

    This is about the most shiningest example of the extreme pettiness to which I’ve seen libertarians get when they start carping about how USELESS111!!!oneone government-thingies are.

    I guess airline pilots, fishing companies, tourist agencies, um – how about Hurricane Alley residents or Tornado Alley residents …. none of these people need good weather forecasting at all, do they?

    One big hint: The military especially relies on good weather forecasting. Why? Because some military campaigns depend on knowing if weather will be good or bad. Why else?

    Nuclear explosions have a habit of causing serious unintended issues with fallout if the weather goes funny. A classic example is the Castle Bravo test. A combination of an imperfect understanding of nuclear reactions on light nuclei plus wind shear effects (which hadn’t been accounted f0r) resulted in a pretty nasty spread of more fallout than anticipated.

    So the military has a pretty vested interest, if ever they use nukes again, to know exactly what’s going to happen in terms of post-blast effects, including what the weather will do to fallout distribution.

  • Kropotkinbeard

    There is no such category as “anarcho”-capitalist, or for that matter “libertarian-capitalist”. These terms are oxymorons, and anyone knowing anything about the history of either anarchism or libertarianism are well aware of this. The only ones who actually think of themselves as falling into either of these categories are clueless. But then again few have ever read a single book on anarchism. At least Rothbard, despite his own cluelessness about such matters, was at least aware that one couldn’t be an anarchist and a capitalist. Or at least that’s what he himself said.

  • Kropotkinbeard

    “An Anarchist FAQ spends some time explaining, probably in far too much detail given their small size and corresponding importance, why “anarcho”-capitalism is not a form of anarchism. Ironically, its founder Murray Rothbard once agreed!An Anarchist FAQ explains how anarchism, in all its many forms, is fundamentally a socialist (anti-capitalist) theory and movement. This has caused it to be, well, hated with a passion in certain right-wing circles. It is somewhat ironic, then, to discover that the founder of “anarcho”-capitalism, Murray Rothbard, also concluded that “that we are not anarchists, and that those who call us anarchists are not on firm etymological ground, and are being completely unhistorical”. This was because “all” anarchists had “socialistic elements in their doctrines” and “possessed socialistic economic doctrines in common.” It is hard to disagree…
    In a sadly unpublished article from the 1950s entitled “Are Libertarians ‘Anarchists’?”, leading “anarcho”-capitalist Murray Rothbard came to the same conclusion that almost all anarchists have done, namely that “anarcho”-capitalists are not anarchists. The article itself is notable not only for its correct conclusion, namely “We must therefore conclude that we are not anarchists” but also for its ill-informed diatribes against anarchism, particularly what Rothbard terms “left-wing” anarchism (i.e., social anarchism). As such, it is useful to highlight its mistakes and flaws.”

  • Donalbain

     name one government policy that both decreased costs and increased quality, or for that matter, was economically efficient.

    If ONLY there was some government policy that has transformed commerce, making it more efficient, with more choice for consumers. Some policy that enabled people to communicate in ways they never imagined before, leading to revolutionary new models of business.

    I wish there was such a policy. Maybe someone should network a lot of computers together, and then have some sort of inter-network communication protocol, and we could come up with such a policy.

    Oh. And also; smallpox and polio eradication, you dishonest piece of shit.

  • Donalbain


    our roads are crap and we pay too much for them

    Ladies and gentlemen, the “mind” of the libertarian. Stuff doesnt work as well as I would like! Pay to have it fixed? Never!

  • Kropotkinbeard

    “The freedom of the individual is secure only when it rests on the economic and social well-being of all . . . The personality of the individual stands the higher, the more deeply it is rooted in the community, from which arise the richest sources of its moral strength. Only in freedom does there arise in man the consciousness of responsibility for his acts and regard for the rights of others; only in freedom can there unfold in its full strength that most precious of social instinct: man’s sympathy for the joys and sorrows of his fellow men and the resultant impulse toward mutual aid and in which are rooted all social ethics, all ideas of social justice.” [Nationalism and Culture, pp. 147-8]”
    – Rudolph Rocker –

  • Kropotkinbeard

    If you were reading Mises, and believe that there exists something resembling “libertarian” there, you were mistaken. Sorry. There are no “Libertarians” on Mises, nor are there any anarchists, two terms which are interchageable, and both from the beginning being anti-capitalist. If you are a Mises disciple, you are neither libertarian nor anarchist.

  • friendly reader
  • cminus

    Let’s start with “government currency”.  Setting aside your implicit support for a
    gold standard and the claim that the government is somehow inflating
    its way out of its debts despite its inability to actually order the printing of any more money (that’s the Federal Reserve’s job, precisely to stop this scenario from ever happening), as well as very minimal actual inflation, “standardized currency” is not the same thing
    as going off the gold standard.  Standardized currency refers to
    currency that can be accepted over an entire country, or even
    internationally, as opposed to private money, which was historically not
    accepted outside of its local market, because people were unable to tell the soundness of even reality of unfamiliar private money.  The wider circulation did much to improve trade.  What’s more, standardized
    currency is independent of whether it is backed by gold or not, or even
    made of paper.  Standardized currency includes the introduction of
    reeding on coin edges, an innovation that greatly cut down on
    counterfeiting and almost completely eliminated coin clipping, coin
    sweating, and other ways of adulterating coinage.  The private sector
    didn’t think of it; the government (in the person of English government
    official Isaac Newton — yes, that one) did.

    Your other objections are similarly invalid.  The Internet wouldn’t exist without a government policy.  An Internet that people have objections to is still more productive than one that doesn’t exist at all.  The interstate highway system serves more areas more effectively than what came before, which was nothing.  The FAA was founded in 1926, well before 9/11.  It was given the job of promoting air travel by improving safety following a string of crashes under the previous air traffic control system, which was entirely private.  Airline travel now costs far less in real terms than it did in 1926, and travels much faster with far fewer accidents.  The National Weather Service is critically important for those industries that do care what the weather is going to be tomorrow — agriculture, aviation, shipping, power generation, etcetera.  A proposal to get rid of the National Weather Service during the Bush administration failed because the private sector could not provide the same services without charging a great deal more money.  The VA hospital system is, in fact, the most efficient hospital system in the country, with the best patient reviews.

    All of these have reduced business costs and increased quality.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    sgt pepper’s- My point was that people who are interested in monetary policy and watch,say, CNBC or Bloomberg are welcomed by libertarianism most of which is after all based on Austrian economics. and again, people are tired of holding their tongue re: Israel.

    Nope, still can’t understand your syntax and not sure where Israel came in and if you think lefties are fussed about Israel you haven’t met any lefties.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Yeah, you’re terribly courageous. Were I in your position I might worry that dismissing the concerns of minor interest groups such as Women and Brown People and Gays might affect how people saw me and my arguments about principle and courage and freedom, but clearly you aren’t worried about that.

    Don’t forget poor people of all colours, genders and sexualities!

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    if you knew anything about economics, you would know that takings (sic.) someone else’s money and spending it on someone else is not efficient because you dont have incentive to limit your spending

    Demonstrably false

    or incentive to ensure you are getting a good product.

    Demonstrably false.

    It takes much more time for government to get things done than an individual.

    Demonstrable false.

    Also, social programs reduce the quality of goods

    Demonstrably false.

    I would really like to see that argument on efficiency leading to more abuse and more waste, please.

    Demonstrably false. All you want to do is make ideological claims divorced from evidence and insist that they be treated as fact. You’re not interested in arguments at all.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Libertarianism believes that the government’s role is to protect the individual’s life

    Ah, so you do support government-funded healthcare? Good show.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    No, i do not. In this regard, it means people can’t murder you. You do not have a right to free food, shelter, or health care.

    Ah, I see. So the equivalent principle applied to the right to property means that someone can’t burn your house down, but otherwise the government doesn’t need to–nay, mustn’t–give a shit.

  • ” The Internet wouldn’t exist without a government policy.”

    ? So google and Apple’s contributions to the interenet are not really very significant.

    PJ- so you don’t think our presence in the middle east had much to do with 9/11? Even thuogh Bin laden stated very clearly that that was the reason for the attack?

    Sorry, the mujahadeen didn’t drive the Soviets out of  afghanistan because they wanted to start a global caliphate it was because the soviets were foreign occupiers.  India didn’t drive the British out because they hated tea.  

  • MadGastronomer

     You’ve got your causation backwards: Google would not have existed without the internet. Yes, of course, G has made contributions. But those contributions could not have been made if DARPA, a government agency, had not created the original DARPANet, from which the net springs. Apple didn’t contribute to the creations of the net, either. You are full of shit, as usual.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    the one thing you forget here is that, in the society that I have described, there would not be incredibly large legal costs, which only come about due to deviation from the free market.

    Hey, did you guys all know that the only reason shit stinks is deviation from the free market? Yeah, that’s also why it’s cold in winter and why I didn’t get to live with Ernie on the moon.

  • gastronomer- you don’t think anyone else would have had the idea for the internet?

    also = http://www.rt.com/news/israel-police-officer-kicks-palestinian-child-437/

    here are the Israelis dealing with a little kid who is a huge threat

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    name one government policy that both decreased costs and increased quality, or for that matter, was economically efficient.

    Done. Mass vaccination against measles.

  • MadGastronomer

     I think no one else did. DARPA’s research was pretty obscure and out-there stuff at the time. That’s what they were for. Private enterprise wasn’t funding anything like it. It would likely have taken another decade or two before anyone else started playing with the idea.

    None of which is the goddamn POINT. The point is, the government funded the creation of the internet. It did. It’s a fact. It wouldn’t be here, in this form, as advanced as this, now, without the government. Any attempt to deny that is simply another lie. The government started the internet. Get used to the idea, because it is fact.

  • MadGastronomer

     Also, my girlfriend (the programmer) points out that the closest thing to the internet that private enterprise came up with — which still relied on the internet’s prior existence, mind you — was AOL.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Oh God, now there’s three of them…on the other hand they’ve started interacting with each other so maybe we can put a screen around them and leave them be.

    Although I am still curious about the correlation between libertarianism and incorrect apostrophe usage. “No one tells me what punctuation to use! OPPRESSION!”

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    People who receive welfare from government programs are stealing from those smart and successful people who have worked hard to get where they are.

    OK, usually I go for snarky cos mocking your stupidity is fun, but seriously? Fuck you and may your memory of your past opinions haunt you the day someone you love has greater need than you can meet. Fuck you.

  • Someone once posted on here or the old Slacktivist a rather nice article that explained that the equity-efficiency tradeoff (as understood in the economic sense) presented in econ 101 texts is rather overblown.

  • You didn’t say “income taxes”, you said “taxes”.  Now you’re changing your story.  But ok, I’ll bite, instead of what you actually said, you meant income taxes as an example of the “something” in “people  should not be forced or coerced to do something against their will

    How is an income tax an example of forcing or coercing but a non-income tax not an example of those things?

  • aunursa

    here are the Israelis dealing with a little kid who is a huge threat

    In fact the article contradicts the point you are trying to make…

    The police have launched a probe into the incident, documented by an Israeli human rights organization…
    In response to the incident, the Israeli Border Police issued a statement denouncing the policemen’s behavior, which it claims “contrasts the values of the force.”
    “The Border Police commander instructed on setting up a team to investigate the incident immediately and its conclusions are due in the coming days,” the statement said.

    Every nation, including the United States, has its share of abuses by authorities.  The question is, what is the response?  Israel takes such matters seriously.  Israeli soldiers have been punished, including jail time and/or discharge, for violating the rights of Palestinians and others.

    What would Palestinian authorities do if a video showed Palestinians kicking an Israeli child?  They would reprimand the culprits … for not killing the child first.

  • Lori


    maybe we can put a screen around them and leave them be.  

    That really seems like the best idea. As you all know, I love to argue with the ignorant and mean, but this bunch just isn’t worth it.

  • Tonio

    I’ll hazard a guess…because the world is inherently just, and one’s level of income comes solely from one’s level of effort or personal morality, so income taxes are merely taking money from people who deserve it and giving to people who don’t. Am I right?

  • Tonio

     This is the second post where you’ve sounded defensive of Israel and accused the nation’s critics of bias or hypocrisy. Not as noxious as Chris Hadrick’s veiled references to hateful myths about Jewish cabals, but both involve a victim mentality. It doesn’t serve Israel or any other nation to categorize everyone as being either for Israel or against it. That’s Bill Donahue demagoguery.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    “So google and Apple’s contributions to the interenet are not really very significant.”

    It can be both! I keep seeing repsonses where you imply that we want only government run industry. Can you just admit so we know that at least this most obvious of details has gotten though to you that no one here is calling for the eradication of the private sector? That regulating is not the same as replacing? You don’t have to agree on the relative strengths and weaknesses of private and public enterprise or on what the balance between the two should be or even that it is possible for them to coexist. Just let us know that you have some grasp of the fact that most people don’t think this is an either/or situation. I would really appreciate if that baseline can be established.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Hey aunursa, I see you’re around. So I thought I’d let you know that I’m having a hard time treating your engagement in conversation with good faith when you do stuff like post a narky, unexplained jibe at the start of a thread like you did yesterday then saunter off elsewhere without facing your response.

  • He’s using the Hasbara Handbook. His arguments are very familiar and are indicative of the kind of Artful Dodger deflection of argument suggested in that material.

  • EnopoletusHarding

    I was a “Mises disciple” (until 2010-11), and, trust me, the crowd at the Mises Institute is very much “libertarian” and very much “anarchist” (mostly; there are a few minarchists there). While Mises was not an anarchist, he most assuredly was a libertarian (as defined by Dean Russell in 1955, see http://archive.mises.org/18385/the-origin-of-libertarianism/

  • JonathanPelikan

    Six or eight months ago I likened his debate tactics to a torpedo bomber; get in first, release a warhead loaded with conservative Wrong and Lie, and desperately climb away before he’s ripped apart by the response from everybody on the ship.

  • aunursa

    I reject your accusations.

    I have never accused nor suggested that all critics of Israel are guilty of bias or hypocrisy.  I have accused certain critics of employing a double-standard.  There are many critics who provide fair criticism, in context, and who maintain a single standard.

    Nor have I every suggested that everyone is either for Israel or against Israel.  You are assigning opinions to me that I do not hold.