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Selected Criticisms of Libertarianism

[Paul Levy © 2019]

Part 5 of Fifty Years describes the Movement’s Libertarian and Far Right Ideology.  This essay responds to that description by identifying a number of general and specific criticisms of it.  Some criticisms are those of others, notably staff at the Niskanen Center, and some are my own. 


Some General Criticism

In Part 1 of Fifty Years, I noted Ominous Politics, a book written in 1984 by moderate Republican John Saloma.  The book was an early description of the radical right movement and revealed many of the features of the movement that have endured.  The eminent historian Henry Steele Commager wrote an introduction to the book.  Like Saloma, he was deeply disturbed by the movement, and his primary concerns were with the affluent movement’s escalation of campaign funding (a trend he dated to the election of 1896) and with the ideology driving the movement.

•    An ideological political party destroys the pragmatism
 that makes American democracy work. 

Commager believed that American democracy depends on a two-party system in which parties are composed of broad constituencies.  This arrangement invites a politics of pragmatism rather than ideology – parties have to work together to solve problems.  Certainly parties contain “factions,” but these have been based on such things as “geography and tradition,” not on ideology.  The only moment in American history when ideology ruled politics involved the slavery issue which was resolvable only by civil war.

The movement promotes this sort of ideological split.  Such a split will destroy the ability for parties to practice pragmatism.  He sees “the new ‘conservative’ network (as) self-righteously ideological: it links together and coordinates:

Neo-conservatives, neo-liberals, military-corporate interests, the disciples of that Social Darwinism that was discredited a century ago, rapt irredntists of the Confederacy… and religious and moral fundamentalists…. 

Commager concludes that the movement’s ideology and money create “the threat to American democracy from well-heeled special-interest grouips whose activities are both government-free and fancy-free.” [1]

The Niskanen Center

In 2015, several longtime staff members at the Cato Institute left Cato to create another Libertarian think tank, the Niskanen Center.  Cato, established in 1977, is the premier Libertarian think tank in the nation and William Niskanen was its director for 23 years (retiring in 2008 and dying in 2011). 

Surprisingly, soon after founding the Center and after lives and careers embracing Libertarianism, the founders denounced that ideology.  In fact, the founders rejected all ideologies and adopted a much more eclectic approach to public policy.  Various materials produced by the Center and its founders explain their problems with Libertarianism and with single ideologies generally, and I borrow from these in my assessment.

The Center, with its non-ideological stance, recognizes that both free markets and expansive social welfare are vital to a free and prosperous society; that they are vital partners rather than mortal enemies.  It takes this stance not as some middle ground to bridge America’s contentious left-right divide, although it hopes to do that. Rather, it believes that much evidence from history, from social, economic, and political research, and from pragmatism and common sense supports its basic position. 

Conservative columnist David Brooks recently applauded the Center for its middle road vision and particularly noted its central argument.  [2] 


The nations that have the freest markets also generally have the most generous welfare states.  The two are not in opposition.  In the real world they go together.

A Policy Statement by four senior Center staff details the prime arguments for the compatibility of social welfare and free market initiatives. [3] 

In an article, Center President, Jerry Taylor explained that he began to question Libertarianism in connection with climate change.  As an ideology, Libertarianism has nothing to add to the science of climate change and nothing that would lead Libertarians to argue one way or another about global warming.  Yet Libertarians – notably Cato – took a stand denying human influences on global warming.  They simply worried that recognizing human influences would lead to regulation of private enterprise.

That is, prompted by ideology, rather than address a real problem, they opted to deny it.  Taylor found this dynamic in other Libertarian positions and came to see it as a normal response by adherents of any single ideology.   More specifically, Taylor seemed to identify the following broad problems with any single ideology [4] such as Libertarianism:


•    Elevating one human value like liberty above the rest and 
applying it across a vast array of human problems is simplistic

Taylor asks:

“Why, after all, is liberty objectively more important than other considerations that millions of people in this country hold dear, such as the pursuit of social justice, equity, community, virtue, pluralism, material well-being, of any number of concerns that animate people in politics?  

“Even if you … wish to hold fast to one principled concern above all others, you would still have to confront the fact that your attachment to that primary concern – whatever it is – is largely personal and subjective. I cannot, after all, objectively and conclusively demonstrate that you should care more about individual liberty than other reasonable concerns.  Brilliant philosophers … have disagreed with each other about which principles could best rule society … since the beginning of time.”

•    Single ideologies fall victim to narrowness and blindness

Single ideologies need the world to fit their worldview.  Therefore they squeeze as much of the world as they can into their narrow view and discard -- ignore, deny, or spin – what doesn’t fit.

    Narrow vision.  Libertarians work incessantly to rationalize a worldview that sees “liberty” as the supreme societal value and unfettered markets and highly fettered government as the critical societal institutions to accomplish this.  For example, they imagine Nature and human nature to fit this view; see the Founding Fathers as essentially pre-Libertarians and the Constitution as establishing the key tenets of Libertarianism; they promote only the wonders of free markets and the faults of government; and, they see history as proof of their vision. 

    Blinders.  Libertarians often work incessantly to deny, ignore, denigrate, or spin evidence that fails to fit their ideology.  For example, they denigrate such human values as compassion and collaboration and declare them to be dangerous.  They ignore obvious social advances produced by government with respect, for example, to civil and human rights, universal education, and public health.  They downplay failures of free markets such as their exploitation of the environment or the vast inequities they produce.  They ignore the fact that our perceptive forefathers often modified their beliefs substantially over the course of their lives, and would surely have modified them even further had they experienced the profound changes that have occurred over the past two centuries.


•    Single ideologies invite “obsession”

One general problem is that ideology often leads to “obsession” (Taylor calls it “fanaticism”).  In the case of climate change, the idea that government would require private enterprises to reduce carbon emissions was so anathema to the core anti-regulatory belief of Libertarians that they -- notably including Cato itself -- opted to shape and promote climate change denial even though Libertarian tenets have absolutely nothing to say about the existence or cause of climate change. 

Specific Criticisms

Part 5 described Libertarianism by its views with respect to:  Human Nature, Liberty, Unfettered Markets, and Restricted Government.  The criticisms below adopt that organization.  Each subpart begins with a Brief Review of Part 5 points before raising criticisms. 

Human Nature

Brief Review:  Orthodox Libertarians see the individual as the pre-eminent social unit, self-interest as that individual’s motivation, and survival and the free pursuit of happiness as the goals and natural rights of all individuals.  They see the unique human trait of rationality as the prime tool individuals use to shape their pursuit of happiness, deciding among options by cost-benefit analysis.  And, they see competitiveness and aggression as largely indelible, human traits that dominate the pursuit of happiness and need to be channeled by any successful society.  

Those of us to the left of Libertarians – progressives and moderate conservatives – recognize some important truths in these beliefs but find them simplistic or overly narrow or too all-encompassing.  More specifically: 

•    Human Nature encompasses multiple emotions and motivations.  Progressives and moderate conservatives acknowledge that greed, competition, and aggression are among important ingredients of human nature, but they also recognize other ingredients, for example, compassion, love, self-sacrifice, concern for others, and awe.  Nathan Schleuter, a Conservative, succinctly highlighted this narrow description of human nature in a critique of Libertarianism when he said, “It fails to give proper weight to the full range of human motives.” [5]   If a society is shaped essentially from the limited set of Libertarian traits, it will be a very selfish society. 

•    Nurture modifies Human Nature.  Beyond recognizing the more complex mix of human traits, it is vital to acknowledge that the strength of certain traits seems to be largely a function of Nurture, not Nature.  That is why a great deal of attention is given to such matters as up-bringing, education, instilling cultural norms, coaching, and organizational management.  These mechanisms can greatly amplify or modulate the intensity of particular natural traits. 

Ironically this lesson is not lost on Libertarians even as they consider human traits as self-interest or aggression to be indelible.  Their Right-Wing movement pursues a wide and well-funded array of Nurture tools such as media, schools, and think tanks that are intended to promote our sense of self-interest, for example, or to avoid our sense of compassion. 

•    Families and communities, not just individuals, are important social units.  Progressives and moderate conservatives recognize that people are social animals, not isolated individuals.  We form families, communities, and societies which shape and pursue collective visions.  These groups  have the ability to decide to value and promote not only individual liberty and wealth-making, but also public health, non-discrimination, love of nature, civil discourse, literacy, protecting the earth, or infinite other visions and combinations of visions.

    Community pursuits.  Communal pursuits are rarely agreeable to everyone in the community and therefore constrain individual liberty as Libertarians define it.  So, if people are to pursue both their individual liberty and their social commitment, they need to find ways to balance the two.  But the Libertarian insistence on individual liberty strangles the entire swath of human nature that leads us to seek and value such traits as caring, collaboration, and community-building.  And it also precludes any societal efforts to promote societal values such as non-discrimination, protecting the earth, etc. 

    Seeking balance. Of course, our most prominent mechanism for achieving balances of individual liberty and social values is democracy.  It allows majorities to pursue various social values while protecting liberty.  Libertarians raise important questions about the fairness and effectiveness of democracy, but they do this to further circumscribe democracy since it endangers personal liberty, not to advance societal decision-making.  See the essays entitled, Human Compassion: Grounds for Hope or Fear and Public Choice Theory.



Brief Review:  To Libertarians, “Liberty” is an individual’s right to define and pursue personal happiness without constraint.  The primary constraints that concern Libertarians are government intrusions such as taxation and regulation, and intrusions by private people such as through fraud and theft.  For Libertarians, when liberty is maximized and constraints minimized, individuals become fully and personally responsible for their success or failure to attain happiness, including – most importantly -- their success or failure to achieve prosperity in the free market. 


Those of us to the left of the Far Right define “liberty” and “coercion” quite differently. 

•    “Liberty” has various meanings.  For example, the Niskanen Center agrees with Libertarians that “freedom” means, “free entry (to markets), free exit,… freedom to hire and fire….”  But to the Center, liberty specifically “does not mean unregulated markets.”  This is because “The benefits of economic freedom are secured only within the … framework of rules designed to link the pursuit of private profit to the service of the public interest.”  [6]

The Libertarian vision is an instance of the narrowness of insisting on one dominant value, “liberty.”  Most people hold other values high, including for example values of nondiscrimination, security, respect, and equity.   So, when free markets allow these other values to be violated as they often do, it makes sense to address them through regulations and other approaches such as social security and unemployment insurance. 

•    Powerful coercive forces abound.  Constraints on individual opportunity and achievement are not limited to government and personal coercion.  Circumstances such as growing up poor, not receiving needed health care, the size of one’s inheritance, the reach of one’s family connections, the quality of one’s education, and racial discrimination may be particularly powerful influences on one’s chances of material success.  We all know that the lazy adult child of a billionaire has nearly a 100% chance of enjoying a high material standard of living while the hardworking adult child of a poor person has a small chance.

The Niskanen Center reminds us that “capitalism is creative and destructive at the same time” for example as new technologies replace old ones.  They see “social insurance programs … (as) the chief mechanism societies have developed for promoting economic security in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the dynamism of the market.” [7]
•    Fairness requires us to take social responsibility for people’s well-being.  Progressives and moderate conservatives value personal responsibility, but also recognize that one’s fortunes are often influenced by forces beyond one’s own effort and skill.  These forces include inheritance and where one is born and grows up.  They also include market forces such as one’s employer moving off-shore, automation taking one’s job, and one’s lack of power in negotiating wages.  These forces impel those to the left of the Far Right to support social responsibility – in conjunction with personal responsibility -- for the circumstances that people face.

Unfettered Market Economy

Brief Review:   Libertarians consider unregulated free markets to be natural and the ideal way to harness human greed, aggression, and competitiveness in order to maximize liberty.  They see free markets as places where individuals are free to pursue the material components of personal happiness -- through entrepreneurship, employment, investment, and consumption.  And they see markets as places where individuals are also free from government coercion and from coercion of other market participants -- since all market transactions occur only if they are consensual.  


Those of us to the left of Libertarians often recognize the power and great values of free markets, but we also see many shortcomings of them that need to be addressed.

•    Markets are not natural but creations of human design.  As the Niskanen Center states, “… markets are creatures of regulation, law, and custom, not just the natural and spontaneous consequences of government inaction.”  They are designed by people, and when “well-designed, they can produce enormous advances in human welfare.  But markets are very easy to design poorly.”  The key point is that people (societies) can establish the values they want markets to meet – perhaps liberty, non-discrimination, shared wealth, security, etc. -- and shape markets to pursue them.

•    Free markets aren’t coercion-free.  The “consent” required by free market transactions may indicate non-coercion, but it also may simply be a cry of “uncle.”  People who consent to a job and its salary and benefits may only have an illusory freedom to say “no.”  Realistically they may be compelled to accept work and its terms for any of many reasons.  For example, there are few jobs where they live and moving would create major harm to their family; or, they are in a large and desperate labor pool and must accept a paltry wage or watch their employer move the factory to Indonesia; or, they will soon be replaced by a robot but can’t afford re-training.  Forces like these on workers give an employer huge leverage (coercive power) over them that makes exploitation look like consent.

Brief Review:   Libertarians also believe that free markets have major benefits beyond maximizing liberty.  They believe that free markets produce widespread prosperity; maximize production, creativity, and hard work; promote fairness and equal opportunity; and assure peace and tranquility.  


Progressive and moderate conservatives observe that many of these claims are highly misleading and overblown.

•    Free markets don’t spread wealth equitably.  Markets are powerful producers of wealth but poor distributors of that wealth if a society wants its workers to afford the modern basics.  Most households would be unable to afford the average costs of a home, health care, education, food, transportation, retirement savings, unemployment security, and pay an average share of defense and public safety costs if they had to buy these items themselves.  So it makes sense -- but is quite shocking, nonetheless -- that three-quarters of American households get back more from government (federal, state, and local) than they pay for in taxes, according to a recent analysis by Gerald Prante and Scott A. Hodge at the conservative Tax Foundation. [8]   Their finding means that most Americans are what Libertarians call “takers” or “parasites.” 

•    Free Markets provide many income opportunities but very unequally.  Free markets promote production and wealth creation, but they do not create a level playing field.  Some people have huge competitive advantages over others because of such factors as inheritance, family connections, education, and health.  If equitable opportunity is a goal, government must intervene in markets to accomplish it. 

•    Markets often contribute to hostility, unrest, and war, not peace and tranquility.  Free markets often have generated a great deal of strife, hostility, and hardship rather than domestic tranquility; for example, the worker exploitation of the late 1800s that led to massive strikes and violent police suppression of strikers, or the poverty and unemployment and unrest accompanying depression years in the boom-bust cycles that characterize free markets.  I haven’t focused on international positions of Libertarians, but their claim that free markets engender peace [9]  seems quite exaggerated given that economic factors have long been a major cause of most wars.

•    Markets Create Other Problems.  Beyond problems mentioned above, markets may create what economists call “negative externalities” and they may amplify or reduce various values held collectively by society.

    Unfettered markets can create “negative externalities,” acts by a company that produce uncompensated costs to third parties.  So for example, if coal is a cheap fuel, an industry that burns it can save money without paying for societal damages from pollution and global warming.  Those costs are “externalized,” in this case, paid for by society.  In the absence of government intervention, social damages from negative externalities can be substantial.


    Unfettered markets can undermine a whole range of values that a society might hold dear.  For example, unfettered markets often create deep insecurity but a society might wish to expand security.  Unfettered markets often result in the exploitation of nature and depletion of natural resources but a society might want to preserve nature and inculcate a respect for it.  Unfettered markets exaggerate greed and competition but a society may wish to promote caring and cooperation.  In a free market economy, government has to intervene to balance competing values. 

Strictly Limited Government

Brief Review:   Libertarians believe that government is dangerous and must be strictly limited to activities that establish and protect free market economies and their pivotal institution of private property.  They particularly worry about democracies because majorities can constrain minorities, most notably, minorities of rich people whose wealth can be regulated or taxed and redistributed by jealous, lazy, or compassionate majorities.  In addition, Libertarians believe that there is no such motive as serving the public interest, that politicians and civil servants are self-interested like everyone else (the central persuasion of public choice theory), and that government is unable to inspire or demand the efficient, hard work that occurs naturally in  private enterprise.

Many of us to the left of Libertarians see government and its workers very differently:

•    Governments pose great dangers but also offer great possibilities.  Progressives and moderate conservatives are well aware of dangers posed by government.  After all, most progressive reforms like eliminating Jim Crow laws, securing the right of women to vote, and reversing discrimination in welfare administration, have targeted government.  But we also recognize that government has done much good.  For example, it has provided universal education, built interstate highways, and promoted health research.


The same is true with economic matters.  The Niskanen Center, for example, rejects the wholesale antipathy of Libertarians toward market regulation because it fails to recognize important differences that might allow regulation to be used wisely rather than discarded entirely.  The Center says that “all regulations are not created equal.”  In general, it supports “market-perfecting regulations” (ones that correct market failures) and opposes “market-distorting regulations” (ones that block entry into markets or limit competition). [10]

The emergence of rich and powerful global corporations and of widespread and complex issues such as air and water pollution, racial discrimination, monopolies, income inequality, and infrastructure maintenance – require that regulation be done by governments with appropriate jurisdiction and adequate power and resources.  In the modern world, much of this needed regulation can only be done by big government.
•    Public workers are often hard-working, creative, and committed to the public good.  Although it is important to recognize that some government workers might be essentially self-serving, it is also important to recognize that most public workers are competent, hard-working, and dedicated to the public interest.  The Far Right seems to recognize this in soldiers and police, but often these traits are just as evident in teachers, aid workers, public defenders, politicians, and others. 


America’s Radical Right-Wing Movement is impelled in part by ideology.  The assessment in this essay identifies a number of broad and specific criticisms of it.  

It is important, however, to recognize that ideology is not the central appeal for many Movement followers.  Some are motivated primarily by self-interest such as protecting their oil rights from regulation, and they adopt an ideology simply because it offers a convenient rationale or foil.  Others are bumper-sticker ideologues, in love with simplistic beliefs – government is bad, markets are good, liberty is pre-eminent, taxes are theft – without any understanding of even the rudimentary arguments for those generalities.

That said, ideology is pivotal to this Movement, and it is important for those who want to understand the Movement to recognize and critique that ideology, as this essay begins to do.



 [1]  Henry Steele Commager, Introduction to John Saloma, III (1984). Ominous Politics, page xi-xv.

 [2]  David Brooks (2018).  A new center being born: The market and the welfare state go together.  December 20, 2018.  New York Times.

 [3]   Niskanen Center (Policy Essay) (December, 2018). The center can hold: Public policy for an age of extremes, at: 

 [4]  Jerry Taylor (2018). "The Alternative to Ideology," at:

 [5]   Nathan Schleuter (2012). Why I am not a Libertarian at  In this article, Schleuter, a Conservative professor at largely Libertarian Hillsdale College, distinguishes Conservatism and Libertarianism by raising ten arguments that challenge Libertarianism.

 [6]  Niskanen Center (Policy Essay), Supra, p. 5.


 [7]  Niskanen Center (Policy Essay), Supra, pp. 7-8.

 [8]   Gerald Prante and Scott A. Hodge (2013). The distribution of tax and spending policies in the United States, at:

 [9]  See the argument of conservative economist Ludwig von Mises who greatly influenced Libertarian ideology.  He argued during World War II that free markets and democracy would end war.  Ludwig von Mises (1944).  The Economic Causes of War at:

 [10]  Niskanen Center (Policy Essay), Supra, p. 10.



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