How To Not Explain Things To Libertarians

Chris Clarke, at Pandagon, has written a long article about How To Explain Things To Libertarians. As you might expect, as he leads into all of this, he gets some things wrong. The things he gets wrong are the traditional propaganda of the left related to why we need social democracy. For example:

If those don’t work, sometimes these people [ed: Libertarians] are persuaded when it’s pointed out to them that back in the late 19th century, the US essentially was the Libertarian state they now advocate, and a very few people got very wealthy while the rest of us died of food poisoning or coal mine collapses or shirtwaist factory fires.

Well, now, there is some truth to the fact that the owners of industrial corporations were getting very wealthy in that time period. There is also some truth to the fact that people were more likely to die of things like his examples than they are now. There are some inconvenient facts left out, though. Like:

  1. The US in the late 19th century was not functioning the way a classic liberal would want it to. It was not a capitalist society. Rather, it was corporatist, the government provided all sorts of benefits to corporations and the wealthy, taxed imports fairly heavily and even made the guns of the government available to the corporate owners to coerce their workers. This is hardly the stuff of classic liberal (or libertarian) philosophy, where we advocate an even playing field; i.e. equality of opportunity.
  2. Another inconvenient fact. Although, by our standards today, the average worker’s life was pretty bad, it was much better than when they had been a subsistence farmer in South Dakota. There is a reason why people left the farm, went to the city and got a job in a factory. They made more money, had more leisure time and lived longer. And they knew it. Does that mean all was sweetness and light? No, but it was better than being a farmer, which was their alternative. And it generated wealth that allowed more people to buy things, increasing the demand for industrial output, increasing the demand for workers, etc. This cycle was wealth creating, farming never could be.
  3. Those factory workers his heart bleeds for were wealthier than the previous generation. Chris is raising the typical cry of socialists in favor of equality of outcome. I haven’t the time to show why that is unworkable except with totalitarianism, but Hayek did. So, I suggest reading Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” to understand why equality of outcome leads to totalitarianism.

After this quite brilliant beginning where Chris uses a variety of strawmen to show why Libertarians are just absolutist whackos that don’t live in the real world, he then goes on to show you how to “make their heads explode with simple, fact-based declarative sentences.” I thought it would be interesting to see if my head would explode. I’m not actually a Libertarian, but I’m close enough that my head should explode if he’s right.

“Libertarianism originated in the philosophy of a left-wing French political philosopher (ed: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon) who also influenced Karl Marx.”

First, it’s quite likely that Clarke is referring to the core Libertarian Party folks. There is some truth to his statement. However, the folks who haunt this site would quibble that American libertarianism traces its historical roots to Adam Smith, David Hume, and the rest of the Scottish Enlightenment, with the American Revolutionary philosophers as the midwives of American Individualism. Interesting that Clarke doesn’t know that. Very interesting that Clarke doesn’t know that Rand and Heinlein both counted Jefferson as a far more important influence than Proudhon. Even more interesting that he doesn’t recognize that it is quite possible to pick up good ideas from someone that you generally don’t agree with. Even more interesting that he doesn’t see that Libertarians are individual anarchists who oppose both statism and corporatism, as did, more or less, Proudhon. Especially in his later years.

Alright, so far my head is far from exploding. In fact, I’m finding that Clarke’s “fact-based, declarative sentences” are much more declarative than fact-based. But who knows, maybe it gets better as we move onwards.

Despite the Libertarians’ historically illiterate insistence that socialism is synonymous with totalitarianism, much of current left thought is libertarian at its root, which provides us with the useful sentence:

“I’m a libertarian socialist.”

First, we have plenty of examples of socialism ending in totalitarianism, so the claim that it is otherwise is just that, a claim. Whether we look at the outcome of socialism in Germany or in Russia or in China, it is simply obvious that socialism has ended in totalitarianism any number of obvious times. Moreover, the countries that are currently “social democracies” or “democratic socialist” (France, Sweden, Germany, Italy, etc.) have far less in the way of individual rights than those countries which are more on the individualist side of the coin. His claim that so-called libertarian socialism allows the largest number of people to have the largest input into the policy by which we run the world has two interesting components. First, he appears to be betraying an Internationalist (as opposed to Globalism advocate) position in this. Second, it’s patently false. In Germany and France, for example, policy is set primarily by bureaucrats, not citizens.

More inaccuracy and very little in the way of head exploding. Hmmmmm.

“Corporations are governments.”

Since, by mainstream Libertarian AND Anarchist thinking, a government is defined as the group of people that hold a monopoly on the use of force, that really is quite wrong. His thinking is that corporations are governments because they regulate their workplace. However, a corporation has no monopoly on the use of force. The coercion of a corporate regulation ends at the moment that I choose to leave that job. I won’t bother to defend Guantanamo, although that seems to be what Clarke thinks I will do. Instead, I will point out that the end result of giving government extensive and intrusive power over the economy and individuals, which is what “libertarian socialists” advocate will result in corporations and labor unions having extensive power, through financial influence, over the government. Much of the corporate regulation he decries is a result of the regulation of government, although he seems not to see it. Or the intervention of the government’s judges into the workplace, resulting in corporations needing to regulate the workplace to avoid the costly litigation that government regulation and judgments have resulted in.

Well, it seems that Clarke isn’t able to ask why more than once. To get to a root understanding of an issue, it is almost always necessary to ask why 3, 4, or more times. Head not exploding, having trouble seeing the validity of his points. The fact-based thing seems to be missing still.

A couple of more comments. Those of us who understand what classical liberalism is don’t consider Libertarianism, Indivualist Anarchism and Classical Liberalism to be at all the same. In fact, I don’t know many people in the “libertarian blogosphere” that would agree with Clarke’s assertion that individualist anarchism is now called classical liberalism.

Clarke continuously asserts throughout his polemic, as do his commenters, many things about Libertarians that are not true. He, and they, clearly have never met any of the Friedmans, corresponded with Heinlein, talked with any of the contributors here, or at Catallarchy, and have outright ignored the writings on Coyote Blog, Reason or Cato. In fact, it seems to me that they deliberately seek out the obvious and ludicrous stereotypes, ignore the truly thoughtful thinkers, and then categorize all of libertarian and classic liberal philosophy by those stereotypes. In doing so, they simply make the stereotype of the left come to life, sadly.

Perhaps this will start a real dialogue, although that seems doubtful.

Update: It should be noted that Clarke claims that Libertarians derive their philosophy from Ayn Rand and Heinlein. This is just silly. Clearly he is talking to some stereotypes. Objectivists (followers of Ayn Rand) can’t stand Libertarians. Later he rightly identifies some of the important thinkers that underpin the ideas of libertarianism, such as Rothbard, Friedman and von Mises. Interestingly, he totally misses Hayek and Rockwell and ignores folks like Ron Paul who are demonstrating libertarian ideas in a practical manner every day. Worse yet, as I point out above, he completely misses the historical descent from the Enlightenment and American Revolution thinkers. This is what happens when you attack a strawman rather than dealing with the reality.

Update 2: Logan Feree, at Freedom Democrats, has an excellent post on this same topic, How To Explain Things To [Vulgar] Libertarians. He traces the history and development of Individualist Anarchism and Libertarianism nicely and points out, as I did, that Clarke is responding to the stereotype, which he refers to as a vulgar libertarian.

  • LoganFerree

    On the one hand . . .

    “Even more interesting that he doesn’t see that Libertarians are individual anarchists who oppose both statism and corporatism.”

    And on the other . . .

    “Those of us who understand what classical liberalism is don’t consider Libertarianism, Indivualist Anarchism and Classical Liberalism to be at all the same.”

    So the distinction between the three being . . . ?

  • Adam Selene

    Classical Liberalism derives from the Scottish Enlightenment. As a general rule, a strictly interpreted US Constitution is considered to be one of the finer examples of how to set up a liberal government by classic liberals.

    Libertarians are, by and large, Anarcho-Capitalists who want little, to no, government and believe in the idea of competitive, private enforcement of rights and contracts. Read David Friedman, Lew Rockwell or Murray Rothbard.

    See Proudhon, Trotsky, Marx for Individualist Anarchism. That is, generally opposed to government, capitalism and private property ownership.

    On a side note, none of these three groups would consider Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein as founders of their philosophies. They would, generally, consider them to be interesting writers, strong thinkers and pro-liberty, but going down paths (Objectivism and Rational Anarchy) that are divergent from theirs.

  • Don Lloyd


    “…This is hardly the stuff of classic liberal (or libertarian) philosophy, where we advocate an even playing field; i.e. equality of opportunity.”

    This doesn’t seem right. Advocating equality of opportunity could be used to mean almost anything, including stunting the growth of healthy babies. There must be a more nuanced description of what is intended.

    Regards, Don

  • LoganFerree


    I think viewing Marx as an Individualist Anarchist is far off mark. Anarchism out to have some fundamental features of anti-statism and I think is correctly viewed as the anti-statis alternative to Marxism, which is state socialism. So there’s a relationship, but they are not one in the same. And Individual Anarchism would be only one subset of Anarchism, which in Europe stayed very close to its Marxist ties.

    In your view, is it fair to say that Libertarianism, or Anarcho-Capitalism, traces itself back to both Classical Liberalism and Individual Anarchism? That it borrows ideas from each, but is not entirely one or the other.

  • Adam Selene

    I didn’t say Marx was an Individual Anarchist. I was in a rush and should have said more. Marx is one of the folks that heavily influenced anarchism, especially Individualist Anarchism. I just read your post on this topic and comments about Proudhon, et al. It’s interesting and had a couple things I didn’t know. Thanks for that.

    Yes, it is entirely fair to say that Libertarianism traces its ideas to both Classical Liberalism and Individual Anarchism. But claiming that Libertarianism is somehow invalidated because some of the ideas are derived from Proudhon is intellectually sloppy. Your points about the post and the comments thread are good ones. Although, interestingly, there are some good comments happening now.

  • Adam Selene

    Don, here’s my stab at something more nuanced, for what it’s worth. Equality of opportunity, from a classic liberal perspective, comes after the foundational ideas of negative rights and Rule of Law. Given that, it would not be taken to mean “stunting the growth of healthy babies”, don’t you think? Equality of opportunity should be understood to mean that, every person has the same opportunity to use their intellect, capability and motivation to accomplish something and that, to the greatest extent possible, society and law will not give an individual a privilege to make it easier to gain wealth, status or position.

  • LoganFerree

    I can see how Marx influenced the left-wing of anarchism, but I’d call this Collective Anarchism: anarcho-syndicalism, anarchist communism, or anarcho-collectivism. I do not see Individualist Anarchism as left-wing in anarchism. If anything it’s more to the right, but not nearly as far to the right as anarcho-capitalism.

    I can see how the pro-capitalist viewpoint that Libertarianism has is one of the major features that distinguishes it from Individual Anarchism. What is a major feature that in your opinion distinguishes it from Classical Liberalism?

    I’m curious because I’ve been dealing with these questions for some time now as I try to understand which pro-liberty ideology I fit in most with, and how best to explain them all to outsiders.

  • Adam Selene

    Classic Liberalism is distinct from Libertarianism in a couple of ways, I think, Logan.

    1. CL is not opposed to the idea of a government, nor to the idea that government should be involved in such things as Rule of Law and Equality of Opportunity (Hayek lays some of this out quite well in Serfdom).

    2. Libertarianism is, in my opinion, much more doctrinaire than CL. CL believes in a pragmatic, evolving approach to society and government.

    Am I making sense?

  • LoganFerree

    You’re making a lot of sense Adam. I would note, however, that because of the meaning that Liberalism now contains within the American public, few people refer to themselves as Classical Liberals and I’m sure that a number of people who self-identify as Libertarian are more likely Classical Liberals.

    Ron Paul, for instance, may certainly self identify as Libertarian, but he’s not nearly as doctrinaire as other Libertarians. His own deviation from what would be called the Libertarian standard seems to classify him more as a Classical Liberal.

  • Adam Selene

    A lot of folks that are liberals in the classic (i.e. Scottish Enlightenment and Victorian England) sense of the word call themselves small l libertarians. I agree that it is difficult to use the term Classical Liberalism because of the association of the word liberal with progressive and socialist ideas.

  • Jason Pye

    Great post, Adam.

  • Kevin

    His own deviation from what would be called the Libertarian standard seems to classify him more as a Classical Liberal.

    Paul’s deviations from the libertarian ideology (trade, immigration, cultural issues, state’s rights) would make him more of a paleo-conservative than a classical liberal.

  • Patrick

    Sometimes I’m completely miffed by the distortion on this site regarding Ron Paul. First a vote regarding the implementation details of an already socialized health care system is intentionally distorted and it’s claimed that he is supporting price controls. Clearly he wouldn’t knowingly do such a thing, but it was stated as such regardless.

    Now he deviates from libertarian and classical liberal ideology on trade!? What is this nonsense? Are you claiming that Ron Paul is not for free trade or are you claiming that libertarians and classical liberals are protectionists. Both are equally absurd.

    I’m not sure how he deviates from libertarian ideology on state’s rights either.

    Kevin, are you of the opinion that the appropriate libertarian position is one which cedes more power to national and supranational organizations than to local governments? That seems to be your position given your seeming criticism of Paul’s opinions on state’s rights and his stance on free trade (I’m assuming you dislike his favoring of unilateral free trade instead of ceding national sovereignty to international “free trade” organizations).

    Of course on those other two issues there is certainly debate as to what is the true libertarian position, but I agree he does diverge from libertarian on those issues to some extent.

  • LoganFerree


    Point well taken. Although, except for the issue of trade, wouldn’t his conservative stances on immigration, culture (like abortion), and states’ rights still put him within the range of classical liberals?

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  • Tom Blanton

    As I gaze into my naval, I wonder what the outcome would be after all of us has been classified, sub-catagorized and labeled. Then what?

    Q – How many libertarians does it take to change a lightbulb?

    A – One, to change the bulb, and an infinite number to classify this one individual and label him or her, after debating the nature of the lightbulb and inventing several thousand “original” ideas about the lightbulb

  • Adam Selene

    Chuckles, nice point Tom. I think that I would rather classify people like Heinlein did.

    Patrick, this site has 12 contributors, some of whom have not written a single word about Ron Paul. We don’t have a policy concerning Ron Paul. We don’t require that all contributors hold precisely the same views. In fact, the range is from Anarcho-Capitalist to libertarian Republican. Maybe you should be miffed at the people that you disagree with, not collectively assign blame.

  • Patrick

    I’m entirely aware that this is a site with many contributors, and I did not collectively assign blame.

    I remain however entirely baffled by some of the things mentioned on the site regarding the man.

    In the future, I’ll be sure to be miffed silently.

  • Patrick

    Just to clarify none of my message was directed at you, and my use of the term ‘distortion’ was indeed directed at the author of that ‘price fixing’ article.

    I was “collectively” however questioning the number of people on this site and elsewhere on the internet who seem to have reached a consensus that Ron Paul is a protectionist. It seems entirely unfounded given the staunch advocacy of free trade in one of his books, many of his articles, and as far as I have seen in his record in congress as well.

  • Adam Selene

    Patrick, I think that there is a position among many libertarians that things like NAFTA and CAFTA are pro free trade and that immigration should not, generally, be restricted. Given that perspective, Paul’s votes against CAFTA and desire for restricted immigration looks un-libertarian, don’t you think? Now, we might disagree about CAFTA, but that is the basis of the argument.

    This site is not a collective, each contributor is asked to write based on their own beliefs and opinions. I’d suggest pointing at a specific contributor, rather than the collective whole. Please don’t keep silent, though.

  • Stephen Littau

    “It should be noted that Clarke claims that Libertarians derive their philosophy from Ayn Rand and Heinlein. This is just silly. Clearly he is talking to some stereotypes. Objectivists (followers of Ayn Rand) can’t stand Libertarians.”

    I am not quite sure I agree with this. I consider myself a libertarain but I have a great deal of admiration for Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism. I have to say that I agree with Objectivism for the most part but I’m not sure I would call myself an ‘Objectivist’ at this point because I don’t think I have taken enough time to study it.

    Perhaps you are right that hard core Objectivists don’t like libertarians but I think that the two philosophies are more alike than they are different (at least my understanding of the two).

  • Adam Selene

    Please note the direction. Most people I know who are “small l” libertarians think that Ayn Rand did some good thinking, that Objectivism is good (as far as it goes) and rather like her books. “Capital O” Objectivists (for lack of a better term) do not like Libertarians or libertarians. Libertarian philosophy doesn’t derive in any great part from Rand or Heinlein, although Heinlein certainly popularized some aspects of libertarian thought (TANSTAAFL, for example). The modern fathers of libertarianism would be Mises, Friedman and Rothbard, with Hayek and Rockwell thrown in for good measure.

    The fact is, Clarke doesn’t even grasp this and is clearly misconstruing Objectivism and Libertarianism.

  • VRB

    Interesting, I have seen someone classify them self as an Objectivist libertarian. I think we need to go back to Tom Blanton on that. I have been at several sites that also have a mix, but the differences do not stand out.