Intellectual Hipsters: Libertarians

by Benjamin Studebaker

There’s another upstart group of intellectual hipsters in addition to the sceptics and the lovers of Nietzsche–the libertarians. You’ve definitely met these hipsters before. They wax romantically about Ron Paul, some of them voted for Gary Johnson, they tend to like theorists like Nozick and Locke, and some of them are Ayn Rand-embracing objectivists. You know the type. Like all hipsters, their ideas are much less sophisticated and clever than they imagine, and their position is neither novel nor socially helpful. Of course, I cannot merely assert these things, I have to prove them. Let’s go.

There are two central ideas in libertarianism:

  1. Taxation is theft.
  2. All coercion (except perhaps to protect property and prevent murder) is wrong.

How do they reach these positions? Here’s a logical reconstruction of each:

Taxation is Theft:

  1. People deserve everything they acquire justly (without stealing or killing people–through free and fair market interactions).
  2. Theft is when someone takes something deserved away from someone else without consent.
  3. Taxes take things people deserve away from them without their consent and are therefore theft.

Coercion is Wrong:

  1. People have the right to do anything they want as long as it does not harm other people.
  2. Only direct harm (theft, murder) counts as harm.
  3. All other forms of coercion consequently violate people’s rights and are therefore always wrong.

These are two very simple ideas, and that’s why they appeal to so many people–libertarians imagine that those of us who do not accept these concepts are so thoroughly absorbed with our complex theories of justice that we have ignored the obvious. In reality, the obvious is not obvious, because the social sciences are not like the natural sciences. In the natural sciences, Occam’s Razor applies–the simplest solution is usually the correct one. Here, reverse Occam’s Razor applies–the simplest solution is almost never the correct one.

Why? Because both arguments are wrong from first principle:

  1. It is extremely easy to challenge whether people deserve everything they acquire through market relations.
  2. It is extremely easy to challenge the strict interpretation of harm.

You can argue that people do not deserve everything they acquire through market relations for any of these reasons and more:

  1. Inheritance: the children of the poor have not done anything to deserve to be poor, yet their poverty reduces their economic opportunity.
  2. Determinism: human behaviour is the product of genetics and socialisation and therefore the poor do not deserve to be miserable due to factors outside their control.
  3. Utilitarianism: in the long-run, everyone benefits from redistribution through Fordism and Keynesian economics.

Personally, I think all three are excellent objections, and I’m sure many of you have others.

You can argue against the strict interpretation of harm through many means as well:

  1. A person’s health choices can result in higher medical costs which must be born by society via higher prices for insurance.
  2. A person’s economic choices can result in limited economic opportunity for other people or reduced economic utility for all.
  3. A person’s social choices can damage the well-being of family and friends.

All of these are reducible to the wider point, that human beings are, broadly speaking, quite interconnected to one another. Consider how many human beings, over how many generations, it has taken simply to permit you to read the words I’m writing, and you’ll see what I mean.

The libertarians are flatly denying the existence of distributive justice and of communitarian or collective welfare. That’s not “wise” or “clever”, it’s just small-minded and medieval. We may not like taxes, we may not like the government coercing us through law to behave in ways in which we would not choose, but, when our behaviour impacts other people (which it almost always does) and when we are benefiting from being part of a community, that produces obligations to obey just laws.

This is not to say that all laws and rules are just or that all should be obeyed–we still have to evaluate them for whether or not they are just–but it does mean that we cannot reject just laws on the basis of “I’m a free person, coercion and taxes are evil”.

I would however offer to amend the punishment for violating laws for libertarians. Since libertarians are so thoroughly convinced that their actions do not have communal impacts, that they are entitled to everything they themselves produce, it is only sensible that, when libertarians break laws for libertarian reasons, we make their assumptions true for them. How would we make it such that libertarians had no impact on other people and were entitled to everything they produced? We would send them into the middle of the wilderness naked with absolutely no resources whatsoever completely alone and forbid anyone to contact them ever again. I would also suggest that we give them lobotomies that eliminate all knowledge they gained with the help of other people, but that sounds a bit cruel and unusual to me. If you want to be a rugged individual, be a rugged individual for real. Don’t go around using arguments appealing to rugged individualism when you’re more likely than not on a laptop, using the internet, been educated by other people, been raised by parents, been taught a communal language, have the use of indoor plumbing, and so on down the line.

I would very much like to see what these libertarians could accomplish left to themselves with no resources, no language, no education, with no one to help them. I would compare them to the cavemen of ancient times and suggest that it would take them thousands of years to catch back up to where modern society presently is, but those cavemen have advantages that these rugged individuals would be denied–other people, communication, and the possibility of reproducing, for instance. The most likely outcome would probably be psychological breakdown followed by death.

So let me put the statist case very simply:

  1. Everyone needs other people.
  2. People naturally do not get along with each other perfectly.
  3. We need taxes and rules to correct for the injustices that inherent incompatibility produces.
  4. Taxes and rules need to be enforced to be effective, so we need to coerce people sometimes.

So the next time you meet a libertarian, don’t be impressed. Don’t allow yourself to be painted as a tyrant because you want a society in which cooperation is feasible and to everyone’s benefit. A libertarian is an anarchist in a cheap suit. Libertarians are swindlers, who paint attractive portraits of freedom which, however, have nothing to do with reality. They are the very picture of unrealistic idealists, in the same category as the hard-core Marxists. Do not be fooled, do not be taken in, avoid the hipsters.


I wrote as a companion piece to this post, “Libertarian Party Platform” in which the actual platform and policy proposals of the Libertarian Party are examined, verifying and supporting in greater detail the theoretical claims here made.