The Paternalism of Libertarianism

Matt BruenigAbout a week ago, Matt Bruenig wrote, A Note on Libertarian Anti-Paternalism. It was about this curious fact that the philosophical basis for libertarianism is paternalistic. He went back to Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and looked at the argument for private property. And Nozick’s argument is utilitarian: yes, private property reduces freedom, but that’s okay because it leads to a society in which everyone is better off. So there’s the libertarian answer to the question, “Why can’t I have the liberty to go wherever I want?” And the answer is, “Because depriving you of that liberty is the best thing for you.” In other words: paternalism.

This is a good example of why Nozick is one of the very few libertarians worth reading. At least he understands that private property is something that has to be argued. Whenever I talk to libertarians, they take private property as a given — a matter of faith. This is why arguing with them is usually so frustrating. Given their unstated assumptions, their arguments are relatively straightforward — still full of problems, but at least they can be argued against directly. It is apparently beyond most libertarians’ comprehension that private property mightn’t be a given. It’s especially ironic considering that libertarians are fond of talking about how “rights imply responsibilities,” but according to them, property rights don’t imply any responsibilities at all.

Bruenig noted another irony. Libertarians commonly complain about state paternalism, but the paternalism of private property is far more powerful:

Under the paternalism of property, you have no choice. The propertarians declare that the system is for your own good, and if you disagree, too bad. You can’t go on ignoring property systems. If you do, violence will visit you shortly.

Under the paternalism of modern-day nudges, you do have a choice though. Laws that put cigarettes behind counters out of sight do not forbid you from buying them. Laws that limit the cup size of sodas does not prevent you from drinking as much soda as you want. Laws that put gruesome labels on cigarettes also do not prevent you from buying them. Conceivable laws that would forbid putting sugary impulse buys near registers also would not prevent you from buying the things usually featured on those shelves. In all these kinds of cases, choice is entirely preserved. The paternalism only changes the decisional environment in which the choices are made. This is done “for your own good” in the same sense as keeping you off appropriated property is done “for your own good,” but again different because property paternalism is choice-destroying while nudging paternalism is choice-preserving.

Of course, when I was a libertarian, I didn’t go around complaining that buying cigarettes wasn’t convenient enough. I complained that the government put me in jail if they caught me anywhere around those particular drugs that it had decided were so bad. (Note: this is not an argument for libertarianism!) But a libertarian commenter, Dr J, responded with this astoundingly fatuous remark, “The ‘nudging paternalism’ of New York’s cigarette taxes ended up choking Eric Garner. It’s difficult to see what libertarians are advocating that’s harder or more problematic than that.” Check out the comments on Bruenig’s article for a full refutation of that. (But is it really necessary? The problem is obvious.)

One of the threads in the comments is worth highlighting, however. It was between the very same Dr J and Matt (not Bruenig). It had to do with something that Bruenig has written about a lot: the non-aggression principle. Following on his ridiculous argument, Dr J said that he didn’t think that police should attack peaceful people. I think we can all agree on that, which pretty much makes it a comment not worth making. But Matt decided to press on just what he meant by the this whole “peaceful” business.

Dr J was constantly about two questions behind in the dialog. Matt asked what about people who peacefully walk into a building and take things. Dr J said they should be charged for the item. Matt then asked what if the people wouldn’t pay for the item. And so on. I’m sure you can see where he’s going, even if Dr J couldn’t. This led to this clear knockdown:

Dr J: Well, that’s the cool thing about being the cops. There are hundreds of thousands of distinct crimes out there, and the list keeps getting longer. If you’re of a mind to choke someone, you can probably find a rationale.

Matt: Ok great, so you’ve admitted your appeal to Eric Garner was disingenuous.

Dr J: Huh?

Matt: You’ve just admitted that if cops want to choke people, they will find a reason to choke people, whether that’s over cigarette taxes or trespassing on “property.” So what was the point of appealing to the cigarette taxes as an example of deadly paternalism?

And it all begins again with Dr J claiming that the problem is that there are too many laws. But of course most of those laws are related to property rights. And on and on. Eventually, Matt gets Dr J to sort of understand the question, at least. But Dr J is still deeply confused, “So you’d be okay with me exercising my freedom to peacefully break your window, walk through your home, and take your computer?” And that, my friends, begs the question in the mostly clueless way imaginable. All Dr J has managed is to argue himself in a circle: property rights are not paternalistic because property rights are not paternalistic. Or something.

The thing is that Dr J is clearly smart. In general, I find that libertarians are smart — subgeniuses. As I’ve explained before, this term refers to smart people, but not really smart people — ones who don’t understand what they don’t understand. Dr J must have commented at least 30 times on that article, with responses to them all. Yet I doubt he went away any the wiser. There’s a reason why I say that libertarianism is a theology. Libertarians just have faith — it all makes sense to them. And that’s fine. But it is no different than the thinking that comes from a born against Christian.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “The Paternalism of Libertarianism

  1. I’ve actually seen much dumber argument threads.

    At the bottom there’s one post which sums things up, kawnger saying “I would presume the core values of libertarianism, much less anyone who disagrees with them, would ultimately be utility.”

    That’s the difference between liberalism and libertarianism. Liberalsm is utilitarian, but sometimes admits that utility should be overlooked (for example, if a racial caste system benefits the majority — which I don’t think it does — liberals would be against it regardless.) Libertarianism starts from a philosophical set of premises, and uses fake utilitarian arguments to back those premises up. Then when the utility of their proposals is proven nonexistent, they go back to the philosophical premises.

    It’s like Rand Paul’s fake foreign policy stances. He’ll say some of our past wars are expensive and destructive. But would he be against any war being pimped by the right? Not likely. Maybe those other wars were a mistake, but the next one will always be necessary to protect us from the Scourge Of The Day.

    • Well put. I think that the reason I am a liberal is because it represents the right balance of utilitarian and categorical reasoning. Most of the time, it is utilitarian, but it is always on the lookout for categorical issues. The problem with libertarians is twofold. First, much of its categorical reasoning is contested or just plain wrong. That’s especially true with regard to their simplistic view of property rights. (Funny that they claim taxes are theft at the point of a gun, but they don’t see that property rights are exactly the same thing!)

      Second, you can’t be categorical and then not care if your system — as a practical matter — destroys your categorical rights. If libertarianism leads to slavery by another name (and I believe it does), then your categorical rights mean nothing. I love a common libertarian dodges, “You don’t have to work for that guy; you can go somewhere else…” Not if all the property is already owned. And for most people, it is, as a practical matter. People don’t choose to be homeless in Minnesota; they are stuck there. There are far better places to be homeless — like California!

      Regarding Paul: and that makes him just like everyone else. It is hard to find a person who thinks past wars are good, but they always get on board with the next one. One of my concerns about Hillary Clinton is that, as a woman, she will feel like she has to compensate because people will claim she’s weak. But roughly the same thing would happen with Paul. At least Clinton is smart.

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