Fun Times With Libertarianism

Yesterday, Demos announced the Gordon Gamm Initiative, which seeks to critique the rise of libertarianism. Naturally, I have interpreted that announcement as greenlighting me to rehash a bunch of comical libertarian philosophical debates, a great pastime of mine over at

Before jumping in here, a little introduction to actually-existing libertarianism is worth indulging. And for that, you can't really do much better than Connor Kilpatrick's "It's Hip! It's Cool! It's Libertarianism" over at The Exiled. As far as demographics go, Pew reports that libertarians constitute 9% of the adult population, are 85% white, 67% male, and on the affluent side of things (39% had incomes above $75,000). That rich white men are super-passionate about institutions that favor rich white men is an old story in America of course. That modern-day libertarian heros flirt with neo-confederate racists and survivalist militia nutters tells you all you really need to know about how modern that old story really is.

On the philosophical side of things, libertarians come in two main flavors: utilitarian and procedural. Within the utilitarian camp, you have folks like Milton Friedman and Ronald Coase. These utilitarian libertarians argue that 1) society should be organized to maximize utility (utility roughly means welfare), 2) as an empirical matter, libertarian economic institutions maximize utility, and therefore 3) libertarianism is the way to go. The problem of course is that (2) is entirely wrong.

Owing in part to the empirical deficits of utility-focused libertarianism, procedural libertarianism (e.g. that of Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Murray Rothbard) is ascendant. When they aren't creating hilarious spectacles by asking Ben Bernanke whether gold is money, this is the brand of libertarianism the Paul clan generally pushes. According to this philosophy, society is not supposed to concern itself with utility or welfare, but with the following of certain just procedures. For the most part, those just procedures basically amount to absolutist enforcement of property rights and little more. Violently imposing and enforcing a system of property ownership is claimed by these sorts of libertarians to be the only way to adhere to the non-aggression principle.

This proceduralist version of libertarianism is internally incoherent, but most people won't ever see it as such because we all behave and pretend as if property institutions are private things, even though they are easily the most pervasive form of Big Government in history. But I don't really want to get into that right now because I promised to do some amusing rehashing, and I want to deliver on that.

So here is a fun riddle. Imagine that my friend owns this big plot of land out in the country. He offers to sell me a part of this land right in the middle of his plot, and I accept his offer. This middle plot of land is totally surrounded by other land that he owns. The only way for me to get to and from my plot of land is through his property. We are buddies though and he let's me come and go over his land as I please.

Now one day I am sitting on my little plot of land and I go to leave it and find myself totally fenced in with guard towers every 20 feet. It turns out that while I was hanging out on my plot of land, my friend sold his land to someone else, and this someone else is really serious about no one crossing his land. So what can I do?

The proceduralist libertarian would have to say that I cannot do anything. The new owner has property rights and he is enforcing them. I must literally starve and die there. This strikes most right-thinking people as totally absurd. And in fact, we have exceptions in our property law, called easements, for cases precisely like this.

Of course, a libertarian could say that they believe in easements for situations like this, but doing so would unravel the foundations of their entire philosophical system. Consider why anyone would make an exception to property rights in cases like this. It is because they believe that it is wrong to force someone to starve and die in order to honor property rights in this kind of absolutist way. That is, they believe that we should make exceptions to property rights when enforcing those rights ends up being extremely harmful to the well-being of others. But once you've conceded that, there is no principled distinction between allowing easements and any other kind of welfare-enhancing exception to private property rights, including regulations, taxes, public goods, eminent domain, and all the other things libertarians claim to hate so much.

This is just one example, but hundreds more can be presented. On the philosophical side of things, proceduralist libertarians end up forced into scenario after scenario where they must choose between totally absurd outcomes or ad-hoc exceptions to their procedural rules that are totally inconsistent with their core theory. It's an amusing thing to watch to say the least.