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[Paul Levy © 2019]

Part 5:  Movement Ideology

Libertarianism and Far Right Conservatism


I.    Introduction

[Note:  If you’ve read Part 1 of Fifty Years, you can skim some of this introduction.  It repeats some information about Movement history.]

A.    A War of Ideas

For at least 50 years, there has been a strong Right Wing Movement in America.  Recent exposés, notably Jane Mayer’s Dark Money and Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, have helped us recognize this Movement.  It is essential for concerned Left and Center-Right activists to understand its history, dimensions, strategies, and initiatives in some depth, for its achievements – including its capture of the Republican Party -- have been, and continue to be, substantial.[1] 


A vital prerequisite is to understand the core ideology that underlies this Movement.  From early on, Movement leaders envisioned their struggle as a war of ideas, a battle of ideologies.  To fight that war, they raised a massive war fund, assembled a brigade of activist think tanks and academic centers, built extensive communications networks, and amassed platoons of law firms and grassroots organizations to pursue a broad agenda of cultural and legal changes commanded by their ideology.
From its inception, the war has pitted Far Right conservatives against both liberals and moderate conservatives.  The first broad exposé of the Movement, for example, was a 1984 book entitled “Ominous Politics” written by a moderate Republican, John Saloma, who was extremely troubled by what he termed “the new conservative labyrinth.” 

All social movements are essentially wars of ideas.  They seek to change prevailing beliefs in a society (the culture) and to change the public policies that embody these beliefs (the law).  The Civil Rights Movement, for example, with its focus on EQUALITY, challenged the culture’s prevailing racial stereotypes and promoted new civil rights laws advancing a new culture. 

The 50-year old, Right Wing Conservative Movement (I’ll refer to it simply as “the Movement”) focuses on LIBERTY and challenges cultural views and laws that it believes have seriously undermined American liberty.  Its core mission is to promote a culture that reinstates and honors personal freedom and two societal institutions that it believes would maximize it:

    An unregulated free market economy, and
    A highly constrained government.

The Right Wing Conservative IDEOLOGY behind this mission is perhaps stated in its purest and clearest form by Libertarians.  Therefore this pamphlet describes the essence of orthodox Libertarianism and ends with a critique of some of its tenets. 

B.    A Common Origin

As you read, you may be surprised to find common ground with many Libertarian beliefs such as its worries about government power, its focus on the individual, its concern for minorities, its commitment to “private property,” its acknowledgement of certain key aspects of human nature, and its commitment to liberty.  

One reason for this is that most of us, Liberals and Conservatives alike, are products of several centuries of Liberalism.  Our core beliefs arise from the same roots, from philosophers such as Locke, Jefferson, and Adam Smith, and from documents such as our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  In his primer on Libertarianism, David Boaz acknowledges these roots.  He says, 

It may be appropriate to acknowledge at this point the reader’s likely suspicion that libertarianism seems to be just the standard framework of modern thought – individualism, private property, capitalism, equality under law….

But Boaz goes on to pinpoint and laud what he considers to be the difference between Libertarians and others, that:

Libertarianism applies these principles fully and consistently, far more so than most modern thinkers and certainly more so than any modern government.

I urge readers to watch for bothersome aspects of Libertarianism.  I suspect, for example, that you will find its “full and consistent” commitment to individualism, private property, and capitalism to be over-emphases, and its limited attention to equality as a problematic under-emphasis.  Or again, I suspect you will be bothered by the use and meaning of certain terms commonly used in right-wing ideology such as theft, minority, coercion, and liberty itself.  

But I also urge readers to hold judgments in abeyance and try simply to enter the Libertarian and Right Wing mind-set, to inhale its logic.  Then, at the end of the Pamphlet, you can add your own critiques to mine. 

C.    The Seeds of War

The Declaration of War that launched the Movement was, many feel, the Powell Memorandum of 1971.  Lewis Powell, within a few months of becoming Supreme Court Justice Powell, submitted a memorandum to the National Chamber of Commerce that strongly urged big business to defend itself and private enterprise against big government, and then went on to outline ways to accomplish this.  

Why did an all-out defense of big business and private enterprise and an all-out attack on government seem so vital to Powell and others at that time?  After all, key issues in a Liberal-Conservative war had been argued for centuries -- issues surrounding human nature, the proper size of government, the blessings and dangers of democratic government, the blessings and dangers of free enterprise, the appropriate social welfare role of government.  A quick snapshot of Modern American history suggests the answer.

Modern America emerged at the end of the 19th Century in an era commonly called the Gilded Age.  Suddenly America industrialized and urbanized; its population exploded especially with immigrants; its economy regionalized and then nationalized; it became dominated by massive corporations that deposited untold wealth into the hands of a few.  This shift was accompanied by an array of new problems as well as a new magnitude of old ones.  The Gilded Age was an era of exploitation -- of factory workers particularly women, immigrants, blacks, and children.  It was an era of poverty -- urban and rural, and massive and growing wealth disparity.  It was an era of insecurity – of strikes, fraud, and erratic boom-bust cycles.  It was an era of extensive government intervention on behalf of big business in the forms of pro-business legislation, police action to prevent or bust unions, high protective tariffs, major subsidies to big business, and military protection of American businesses abroad.  

As resistance to these conditions grew, the class of suddenly rich capitalists and their apologists shaped an ideology in their own defense.  Called Social Darwinism, it was an amalgam of science (evolution and its survival of the fittest), religion (Protestantism and its work ethic), and economics (free market capitalism).  Here are some voices of this ideology:[2] 

The millionaires are a product of natural selection…. It is because they are thus selected that wealth… aggregates under their hands….  They get high wages and live in luxury, but the bargain is a good one for society.  [William Graham Sumner, 1912]

In the long run, it is only to the man of morality that wealth comes… Godliness is in league with riches.  [The Right Reverend William Lawrence, 1892]

Thus is the problem of rich and poor to be solved.  The laws of accumulation will be left free; the laws of distribution free.  Individualism will continue, but the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; intrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself.  [Andrew Carnegie, 1889]

The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for, not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom, has given control of the property interests of the country.  [George F. Baer, President, Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, 1902]

But the resistance began to make inroads, and often government became its tool for reform.  The first wave of inroads was the Progressive Era punctuated by government regulation (e.g. of monopolies, child labor, and impure foods and drugs).  The second wave began in the Great Depression and addressed economic insecurity by adopting social welfare programs (e.g. Social Security, minimum wages, and unemployment compensation).  The third wave began after World War II and added civil rights protections (e.g. school desegregation, the Voting Rights Act, and civil rights acts for African Americans, somewhat later for women and people with disabilities, and most recently for the LGBTQ community).  That post-war era also expanded government regulation (e.g. environmental and consumer protection) and government social welfare (e.g. Medicare, Medicaid, and anti-poverty programs). 

In that post-WWII period, Right and Left, Moderate Republicans and Democrats, seemed to reach a consensus of sorts, a mutual belief that the modern world needs a considerable amount of big government regulation, civil rights, and social welfare with substantial tax support for it.  They bickered considerably over the amount of big government and taxes, but there was a rough consensus.

At the margins, during this period, there were voices on the Far Right that maligned the consensus and warned about the dangers of big government and the harm produced by government regulation, social welfare, civil rights, and high taxes.  These voices framed their critique as a defense of liberty.  Libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek was a key voice, for example, as were conservatives William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater.  Goldwater’s failed presidential bid in 1964 was a setback for conservatives, but soon additional liberal reforms in the 1960s made it ripe to launch another effort.  

The Powell Memo provided the spark for that effort.  Rather than start at the top with a presidential bid, it built from a base of big business and wealth – people bothered by high taxes and growing regulations of such things as clean air, clean water, and cigarettes (Powell himself was an attorney for tobacco interests and sat on the board of Phillip-Morris).  Soon it reached out to a grassroots base of people upset by government, notably people bothered by civil rights and particularly school integration in both the South and North, and, after Roe v. Wade, to religious groups upset by that decision.  Less than a decade into their effort, they would find a golden voice for their cause in Ronald Reagan. 

The new Movement adopted a Far Right Conservative ideology best expressed, I believe, by Libertarians.  

II.  Libertarianism

There is a wide array of beliefs among Libertarians and Right-Wing Conservatives, but all adopt a core commitment to maximize personal liberty and minimize coercion, and a core belief that this outcome is best achieved in society through unregulated (free) markets and strictly confined government.  The description of Libertarianism that follows is organized by those elements – Liberty, Economy, and Government.

A.     Liberty and Human Nature

To Libertarians and others on the Far Right, the right to Liberty is (along with the right to life itself) the pre-eminent right.  What is meant by “liberty” and where does the right to it come from?   Here are several statements that suggest answers:

The preamble to the Libertarian Party Platform (2016) says:

As libertarians, we seek a world of liberty, a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others.

We believe that respect for individual rights is the essential precondition for a free and prosperous world, that force and fraud must be banished from human relationships, and that only through freedom can peace and prosperity be realized. 

Consequently, we defend each person’s right to engage in any activity that is peaceful and honest, and welcome the diversity that freedom brings.  The world we seek to build is one where individuals are free to follow their own dreams in their own ways, without interference from government or any authoritarian power.

The Sharon Statement (1960) was a one-page mission statement adopted at the founding of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a group organized by leading conservative, William F. Buckley, Jr.   It is considered a seminal conservative document and states a series of “eternal truths” the first of which is:

That foremost among transcendent (human) values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force.

Here are two excerpts on liberty from Atlas Shrugged (1957) by popular Libertarian, Ayn Rand: 

Since men are neither omniscient nor infallible, they must be free to … pursue their own independent course, each according to his own rational judgment.  Freedom is the fundamental requirement of man’s mind.

By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man -- every man -- is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.

The Meaning of Liberty

Each selection above focuses on the individual and sees liberty essentially as the freedom of individuals to live their lives -- follow their dreams, use their free will, pursue happiness as they see it -- without coercion.  A word commonly used by Libertarians to refer to this liberty is “self-ownership.”  The only legitimate restraint on one’s freedom of self-ownership is a prohibition against interfering with anyone else’s freedom of self-ownership.  Simply put, liberty is the freedom of individuals to seek happiness without interference from others and without interfering with the same right in others.

Sources of Liberty

The quotations above suggest several different sources of the right to liberty.  The Sharon statement sees liberty as emanating from God’s gift of free-will.  The Platform sees liberty pragmatically, as a practical necessity for achieving peace and prosperity in the world.  Ayn Rand sees liberty as inherent in human nature.  In addition, Libertarians ground Liberty in the words of the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence (unalienable right to Liberty) and the Constitution (secure the blessings of liberty). 

Human Nature

Libertarians look to human nature to shape the right to liberty.  They recognize the social nature of people, but see the individual as the basic unit of society:  “Only individuals make choices and are responsible for their actions (Boaz, 1999).” [3] 


The choices and actions that individuals take are efforts to secure their own survival and their own happiness (to survive and thrive).  That is, humans are first and foremost self-interested.  In fact, all acts of individuals are efforts to serve their own self-interest.  Humans are also, by nature, competitive and aggressive – traits that are essential to surviving and thriving since other humans and animals are aggressive, and since surviving and thriving often depend upon obtaining scarce resources

Often major religions and much of society view traits such as these – self interest (greed), aggression, and competitiveness -- as character flaws, perhaps even sins, which need to be suppressed or altered.  They prefer to claim other traits such as love, caring, and cooperation as more dominant human tendencies.  Libertarians see such views as naïve, romantic, and unrealistic, and they insist on realism. 

Ayn Rand was particularly vocal along these lines.  She shaped a philosophy, called Objectivism based on this realistic vision of humans as self-interested beings.  She believed that we should embrace this dominant trait, not denigrate it, and celebrate it as part of human nobility.  In Atlas Shrugged, she briefly described Objectivism:  

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute. 

Libertarians also see humans as having freewill.  Freewill impels us to determine for ourselves how to survive, what makes us happy, and how to pursue that happiness.  In a word, human nature has provided us with the personal right of self-determination.

Human nature has also given us a unique trait among animals, rationality.  Through rationality, individuals can understand themselves (their own capabilities, needs, and desires) as well as the world around them (its threats and opportunities).  Then, also through rationality, individuals can fulfill their capacity for self-determination, freely and rationally identifying how to navigate life in pursuit of their personal survival and happiness.  

Rationality enables individuals to identify options and then select ones that best satisfy their self-interest.  Selections are made by weighing the pros and cons or costs and benefits of options.  This vision of humans aligns with the way economists have traditionally explained human behavior in markets.  They have imagined individuals as “Economic Men,” rationally seeking to maximize their own self-interest.

Market behavior, as we will see in a moment, is a special focus of Libertarians.  They acknowledge that personal happiness entails non-material, non-market items such as personal values, spiritual beliefs, and opinions; and they believe that freewill and self-determination require that people be free to shape these items for themselves.  But when they address freedom and happiness, they usually are envisioning scarce material items – scarce goods and services -- and the economy that produces and distributes them. 

The Societal Challenge

Humans are not exclusively individual beings.  We are also social animals and need to interact with other humans, for example, in families, tribes, companies, and communities.  So the ultimate question addressed by Libertarians is this:  given our human propensity for aggression, greed, and self-interest, how do we best organize a society in which individuals are free to determine and pursue their own survival and vision of happiness without infringing on the right of others to do the same?  Or perhaps more narrowly:  

What social arrangements best promote Liberty and which ones impede it?

The two-pronged, Right Wing answer to this question was identified earlier:  A society with an unfettered free market ECONOMY and a highly restricted GOVERNMENT.  The next two subparts look at each of these components separately to see how Libertarians reach these conclusions.


B.    An Unfettered, Free-Market Economy

As noted earlier, an “economy” is a societal arrangement in which goods and services are produced and distributed.  A free market economy carries out both of these tasks, production and consumption, through “markets.”  Markets consist of many competing entities (people and companies) that produce and distribute goods and services (producers), and they also consist of many entities that buy these goods and services (consumers).  

If you are uncomfortable with economics, bear with me briefly as I set out the basic dynamics of markets.  The textbook version of markets, essentially adopted by Libertarians, assumes that each entity in a market pursues its own self-interest:  producers seek the highest profits and consumers seek the best buy.  They each determine their own self-interest by rationally assessing options and deciding which option is best.  Their judgments are essentially cost-benefit analyses.  

The most vital institution in markets is private property.  Each element of production – land, factories, machinery, raw materials, etc. -- is privately owned as are the goods and services produced.  Ownership grants owners the exclusive right to retain, use, and dispose of (sell, donate, consume, or waste) the property they own including the profits they obtain by selling it.  In turn, recipients of property – buyers, heirs, beneficiaries, etc. -- become owners of the goods they obtain. 

Labor is usually needed to produce goods and services.  Workers who use their own means of production to produce their goods and services – that is, single proprietors or self-employed workers – become owners of their products and of any profits from the sale of them.  Workers who are hired by employers to produce goods and services using their employer’s means of production are not owners of those products.  They own their own compensation, but their employers own the products and any profit accruing from their sale.   

The critical decisions in any economy are: what to produce -- by whom, and in what quantities? and what will be distributed -- to whom and in what quantities?  In pure (textbook) free markets, these decisions are arrived at through the laws of supply and demand and its system of prices.  I’ll assume here that readers have a basic sense of these “laws” and dynamics.

Liberty in Unfettered Free Markets

Given this vision of free markets, what sorts of freedom do Libertarians find in unfettered free markets?

•    Freedom to Choose.  One type of personal freedom embodied by markets is free choice, the freedom of individuals (and companies) to seek goods and services they desire or the money to obtain them.  Individuals may pursue any line of work they wish, produce any good or service they wish, use their property in any way they wish, and use their money to buy any item they desire.  That is, they are free to seek wealth however they wish and free to use wealth they accumulate as they wish.

Of course, there are personal constraints that influence the scope of one’s available choices and the results of one’s decisions, constraints such as one’s wealth, place of birth, education, competency, and work ethic.  Libertarians recognize these constraints but tend to dismiss them.  After all, everyone faces constraints of some sort, and most of these constraints are minor in comparison to the freedom and vast opportunity offered by free markets.

•    Freedom from Coercion.  Another set of personal freedoms advanced in markets involves interactions that people (including companies) engage in.  People interact with one another as employers and employees, investors and borrowers, sellers and buyers.  In these relationships, all parties are free to seek any arrangements or terms that best fulfill their self-interest; for example, investors are free to seek a high rate of return and borrowers a low rate; employers can offer a low wage and those seeking employment can seek a high one; sellers are free to sell at a high price and consumers to find a low one.  And in pursuit of their personal desires, people are also free to try to influence one another – to try to persuade, entice, cajole… others – so long as they don’t coerce others.

Ultimately, though, Libertarians argue that, in markets, there can be no coercion because both parties must agree before an investment, a hiring, or a sale can occur.  All agreements must be mutual or they can’t be finalized.  Hence all market transactions (agreements) are inherently voluntary, free, un-coerced.  

•    Freedom from Government.  Free markets are also free from external coercion, particularly from government.  One type of government coercion occurs when government makes core economic decisions such as what goods will be produced, in what quantities, and to whom they will be distributed; e.g. government decides how much health care will be produced and at what price it will be sold.  The economies in which government makes most decisions of this sort are called “command economies.”  They contrast sharply with free market economies in which core economic decisions are made freely, through the processes of competition and the laws of supply and demand; by the “invisible hand” rather than by the coercive, “heavy hand” of government.  

Free markets are also free from other forms of government coercion that are of special interest to Libertarians, namely government taxation and regulation.  Those types of coercion are discussed in the Government sub-section below.  

Other Benefits

Libertarians believe that unfettered free markets have benefits beyond maximizing personal liberty.  They believe that: 

•    Markets maximize hard work, innovation, and production.  Libertarians believe that free market competition and its incentive to obtain wealth (goods, and services and the money to buy them) generate hard work and creativity and, in turn, maximize the production of goods and services and the accumulation of wealth.

•    Maximum wealth enables prosperity for all.  Libertarians believe that the overall wealth generated by free markets – its profits, wages, and returns from investment – are eventually spread to everyone.  Therefore, when prosperity (production and wealth) are maximized, everyone enjoys greater economic security and a higher standard of living. 

•    Markets are fair because decisions are based on rationality and objectivity.  Libertarians believe, for example, that in free markets, hiring is based on competence rather than discrimination, connections, inheritance or patronage because employers with the most competent workers gain a competitive advantage.  They believe that salaries are determined by objective measures of a worker’s productivity (the value s/he adds to an owner’s wealth) rather than by favoritism and subjective criteria.  They believe that prices are set by laws of supply and demand rather than by arbitrary government fiat.  And they believe that sales are made without discrimination to anyone who will pay the going price. 

•    Markets are efficient (prevent waste).  The laws of supply and demand assure that producers won’t produce either an excess of goods or too little to meet demand.  In this way, waste of Nature’s scarce resources is prevented.  Moreover, since parties must consent to any transaction (a purchase or sale, an investment, a hiring and terms of employment), all transactions make both parties better off or at least benefit one party without harming the other (an economic concept called “Pareto efficiency”).[5] 

•    Markets advance peace.  Libertarians believe that markets divert individual aggression away from fighting and war into productive competition and wealth creation and accumulation.  In free markets, the rational choices are to work and produce rather than to fight, and to secure one’s own property rather than risk it in war.  Since market health depends on stability, states with market economies have a powerful incentive to avoid war.

•    Markets promote personal responsibility.  In addition to allowing producers to retain their wealth, Libertarians believe that markets allow people to feel personal satisfaction from producing that wealth.  And they believe the flipside of this, that people should also take personal responsibility for their failures.  

To Libertarians, any forces that curtail free markets dilute liberty as well as these additional benefits of unfettered markets.  The most dangerous threat of this sort is from government itself, so Libertarians believe in a highly limited government.

C.    A Strictly Limited Government

“Because no individual has the right to control the peaceful activities of other self-owning individuals… no such power can be properly delegated to government.  Legitimate government is therefore severely limited in its authority (David Boaz, Libertarianism).”[6]   Libertarians and other Right Wing Conservatives see government as highly dangerous, but recognize a few critical roles for it.  

Legitimate Roles

To Libertarians and right-wing conservatives, there are only three legitimate functions of government:  to provide a militia, a police force, and a system to administer justice.  

The private legal system must perform three functions, all related to property and property rights.  (It) must define property rights (the task of property law); allow for transfer of property (the role of contract law); and protect property rights (the function of tort law and criminal law.   [Paul H. Rubin, Law and Economics (slightly shortened from the original)] [7]  

The purpose of government is to protect [freedom] through the preservation of internal order, the provision of national defense, and the administration of justice (Young Americans for Freedom, Sharon Statement, 1960)

The only proper functions of a government are:  the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1957).

Libertarians interpret the U.S. Constitution as limiting government to these three roles.

Threats of Government 

Ronald Reagan cogently stated the Right Wing vision of government in his famous statement that “government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.”  We all recognize that government can accrue substantial power and use it in ways that undermine life and liberty.  It can, for example, imprison and enslave people or conscript them involuntarily into military service; it can confiscate property without just compensation; it can impose state religions; and so forth.  

But to Libertarians, the most dangerous threats of government are taxation and regulation.  Both are considered forms of theft; they take wealth involuntarily from some people and redistribute it for the benefit of others.  Obviously all social welfare programs are of this sort – some people (often primarily rich people and companies) are taxed to support programs for others such as public schools, social security, Medicare, food stamps, veterans’ programs, and public health.

The theft inherent in government regulation is a bit less obvious.  Regulations often require people and businesses to do things that cost money or refrain from doing things that save money.  For example, a company is required to add warning labels to its cigarettes or prohibited from selling cigarettes to minors; an industry is required to pay a minimum wage or prohibited from disposing its waste in the river; a motorcyclist is required to wear a helmet; homeowners are prohibited from converting their homes into factories; a dog owner must license Fido.

Libertarians would prohibit most government theft, equating it with any theft of private property by a common criminal.  They are especially bothered by the strong proclivity toward this sort of theft by citizens in a democracy.  

Theft by Majorities in Democracies 

In democracies, majorities can adopt laws that regulate or tax and redistribute.  Majorities can, for example, adopt Jim Crow laws or segregation laws, or they can adopt progressive income taxes and levy estate taxes.  

•    The propensity for “theft.”  Like all people, those in a majority are self-serving and greedy.  Perhaps out of jealousy or simply the rational desire to get something for nothing, they welcome the chance to reach into the deep pockets of the rich minority to obtain benefits for themselves.  They welcome the chance to regulate others for their own benefit.

Of course, America is a representative democracy, not a true democracy, so majorities must persuade their representatives to adopt particular regulations or taxes and redistribution programs.  This turns out to be an easy matter. 

•    Politicians act in their self-interest, not the “public interest.”  Libertarians believe that political representatives, like everyone else, are self-serving.  They want to get elected or re-elected and will therefore pursue the wishes of a majority or a pivotal minority of constituents.  The idea that they might pursue their vision of the public good is naïve.   Similarly, bureaucrats are self-interested and want to expand their bureaus and power, so they also pursue more money and regulatory authority.  The upshot is continually growing social programs and regulation, as well as taxes required to implement them.

This vision of politicians and bureaucrats was formalized into a Libertarian theory of government known as Public Choice Theory.  Its chief architect, Libertarian economist James Buchanan, received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economics for the theory.  The root of the theory is this notion that politicians and government bureaucrats are motivated by self-interest and greed just like everyone else.  It recognizes that enticements other than majority wishes such as campaign contributions might influence their decisions.

Theft by Minorities in Democracies

Minorities use several tactics to generate majorities which, in turn, can promote government theft.   They can unite into coalitions, and they can persuade compassionate people to join their cause.

•    Minorities unite to support one another.  Minorities with separate interests can agree to support one another’s proposals.  So, for example, labor unions, women’s rights groups, and anti-poverty groups might join together to support proposed legislation to raise the minimum wage, expand day care subsidies, and expand food stamp eligibility. 

•    Minorities gain support from compassionate others.  Various minorities can depict themselves as victims and finagle compassionate people to join their demand for help.  So for example, low wage workers gain the support of others in demanding a minimum wage; older people persuade others to help them expand Medicare; and poor people get help from others in their demand for food stamps. 


Compassion becomes a particularly bothersome human trait to Libertarians since it results in much social welfare, the primary source of government theft.  So Libertarians focus much attention on the evils of compassion.



•    Compassion and a parasitic culture.  Using game theory, Libertarian economist James Buchanan offered “proof” that compassion is dangerous to society.  In democracies, it invites people he called “parasites” to claim to be needy and to persuade majorities to seek expansive aid programs on the parasites’ behalf.  He offered his proof in a paper entitled, The Samaritan’s Dilemma, directly challenging the moral of Jesus’ parable.  In the article, Buchanan envisions that compassion, in time, will destroy Mankind. 

Libertarians use the parasite metaphor generously.  David Boaz, Vice-President of the Libertarian Cato Institute, believes social welfare programs have created a “parasite economy” in America, a subculture of dependency.[8]   And many people from the Right have urged that these programs have produced a dual society consisting of “makers” and “takers” (“producers and parasites,” “the fit and unfit”).[9] 

•    Compassion and its religious roots.  To many Libertarians, the popularity of compassion is attributable to religion.  This is seen in Buchanan’s direct challenge of the Samaritan’s parable, and it is particularly apparent in the work of noted Libertarian (and atheist) Ayn Rand.  She denigrates religion for preaching a moral duty to help neighbors and strangers and for using self-blame and guilt to promote that duty.  She urges that we accept the reality of human self-interest and consider “any help (a person) gives (as) an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental….”[10]   She also states that the choice to care for someone else should be made rationally, based on knowing and respecting that person, rather than indiscriminately and universally. 

Compassion and its moral corrosion.  Social welfare and compassion are denigrated for their personal impact as well.  They rob recipients of their self-esteem and harm them morally.  Libertarian and Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, said of the School Lunch Program that it leaves poor children with “a full stomach and an empty soul.”[11]   That same notion was expressed in the iconic conservative document, the Sharon Statement (1960): “when (government) takes from one man to bestow on another, it diminishes the incentive of the first, the integrity of the second, and the moral authority 

RELATED ESSAY:  You may wish to read a Related Essay to Part 5 -- Initial Critique of Libertarianism.  It provides a number of criticisms by myself and others of Libertarianism.



 [1]  Among other major achievements are, for example, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United allowing unlimited campaign contributions by big corporations, and the promotion of climate change denial that led overnight to a retraction of American commitment to fossil fuel reduction. 

 [2]  Quotations are from Gail Kennedy (Ed.) (1949). Democracy and the gospel of wealth. From Amherst College, Problems in American Civilization series). 

 [3]   David Boaz (1999). Key concepts of Libertarianism, at:

 [4]   Quote from Atlas Shrugged but at: 

 [5]  Pareto Efficiency (PE) occurs when scarce resources are produced or distributed in such a way that at least one person gains from the action and no one loses.  Gain and loss usually refer to monetary gain and loss.  A common example is, if you and I find ten cookies and we each take five, that is a Pareto efficient distribution because we each are better off and neither of us loses.  But, in that example, if I take all ten cookies and you get none, the distribution is also Pareto efficient because I am better off and you aren’t worse off than your were before finding the cookies,.

Markets are said to be PE because the parties to their transactions won’t enter a transaction unless they feel that they will gain from it.  Seller X can’t raise its price unless Buyer Y feels it is worthwhile paying the increased price.

Examining whether parties affected by an action gain or lose by an action can be a valuable tool in examining that action.  Libertarians like that assessment for at least these two reasons.  First, PE assessments look only at the immediate impact of distribution, not at some external judgment of their fairness (or equitableness).  So, for example, a company’s distribution of profits that gives workers a $1 raise and the CEO a $50 million raise is Pareto efficient but unfair at least to those of us who are concerned with equity.  The starting point for measuring the predicted PE impact on people is their current situation.  So the efficiency of the raises in this example don’t consider that the worker makes $15,000 a year and the CEO $15 million.  Equity is not a factor in efficiency.

Libertarians see government taxation and regulation as “theft,” taking wealth or value from a property owner involuntarily.  PE assessments also assess taxation and regulation that way and, in turn, invite the thieves (government) to reimburse for its “taking.”  So, a PE assessment of a regulation of automobile fuel emission may find that the regulation harms auto manufacturers and helps the public.  This assessment would lead Libertarians either to oppose the regulation or insist that the manufacturer be fully compensated for its loss.

 [6]   David Boaz (1999).  Key Concepts of Libertarianism, Supra.

 [7]  Entry in The Library of Economics and Liberty, at:

 [8]   David Boaz (2015). The parasite economy and the Libertarian mind, (Cato at Liberty, 2-10-15), at:

 [9] The “fit and unfit” was the favored language of Social Darwinists who saw the wealthiest Americans as the “fittest” and urged ways to eliminate the least fit from society.  More currently, many have adopted the term “parasite” (e.g. Ayn Rand, James Buchanan), and many have used the terms “makers and takers” (e.g. Mitt Romney famously in 2012 when he said 47% of Americans are “takers;” e.g. Paul Ryan who once said that 60% of Americans were takers before amending this to say 33%).  If “takers” are people who get more back from government than they put in, the figure is more like 75% of Americans are takers according to tax analyses by the Tax Foundation.

 [10]  From Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, at:

 [11]  Paul Ryan quoted in Nancy MacLean (2017). Democracy in Chains, p. 213

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