How To Argue With A Libertarian Wednesday, June 07, 2006This list is based on my own observation of the most astute critics of libertarianism.
1. Attack libertarians for their motives. Advertise your own in the process.
Example: "You just recite propaganda against high taxes and social programs because of greed! I support such things out of a concern for those in need." This particular example is most effective if "need," "greed" and "propaganda" are left undefined.
2. Arguments are like taxicabs. Take them as far as you actually plan to go and pay no mind to wherever else they might lead.
Example: "When you drive on government roads, you enter into a social contract with the government and that contract obligates you to pay any tax that the government demands." Don't worry about the implications of this argument when an IRS agent drives on a privately paved road or pulls up in a privately paved driveway.
3. Conflate the positive concept of capability with the normative definition of rights. This way, you can deny most libertarian claims about rights.
Example: "If there were a natural right to absolute ownership of property, there would be evidence of it. But what makes it possible for you to own anything is the reality of government force that can be used to defend your property." Continue as though this undermines any and all normative arguments based on people's rights.
4. Criticize capitalism by its worst cases. But do not (ever!) compare these to the worst cases of statism.
Example: "The Enron scandal was the product of unfettered profit seeking under capitalism." If a libertarian replies that Stalin's brutality was the product of a statist program, change the subject or claim that your brand of statism precludes such abuses. Better still, try to argue that Stalinism was actually a kind of capitalism.
5. Always interpret any criticism of government programs as a demand for perfection and attack such a demand as unrealistic.
Example: A libertarian might argue that the benefits of the FDA keeping some drugs off the market are outweighed by the costs of keeping other drugs off the market. Engaging this argument directly can be a real quagmire. Instead, accuse the libertarian of using perfection as the standard for evaluating government activities.
6. Be a pragmatist. Avoid "theory" in favor of what "works."
Example: "Theoretical arguments for libertarianism are no basis for policy selection. We have to go with the policies that work in practice, the ones that are most productive." Do not get caught up in discussing the ends toward which any policy ought to work or the outcomes that productive policies out to be producing.
7. Diversity of beliefs about a subject imply that no beliefs about that subject are objectively true.
Example: "Libertarians argue that taxation is immoral. But countless groups claim to know what true morality is but their beliefs vary widely." Continue as though this shows that claims about ethics are a poor basis for policy selection.
8. Criticize libertarians for whatever interaction or noninteraction they have had with the state.
Example: "Yet another libertarian that went to a state school. What a hypocrite!" Alternately: "Yet another libertarian that went to a private university. Of course the super rich can afford to be libertarian." Since the government is involved in just about every aspect of our lives, it should be easy enough to find a similar charge to make against any libertarian. Whatever the personal activities of a libertarian may be, be sure to find fault.
9. No policy should ever be tried until it has already been tried.
Example: "Let libertarians point to a successful example of their policies being implemented before we consider implementing them." Be sure to use this argument like a taxicab, however, as it implies that no government program should ever have been implemented in the first place.
10. Claim to favor whatever policies generate the best outcomes. Never explain the method by which you make the comparison.
Example: "A purely free market in health care might result in the development of better technologies, but they would only be available to those who could pay for them. A system where everyone had guaranteed access would be better even if it meant less development of new technologies." With regard to either availability or technological advancement, more is better than less so avoid these simple comparisons. When there is a tradeoff, insist that the option involving government invention is better. But never explain your method of comparison.
11. The complexity of the world is always and everywhere an argument in favor of government intervention.
Example: A libertarian might argue that price ceilings will lead to shortages. Do not waste time discusing the interplay of supply and demand. Istead, try an argument like "Society is too complex for simplistic supply and demand arguments to be taken seriously. So the government should implement price ceilings." Characterizing libertarian arguments as simplistic is helpful too, as it makes statists seem to be the more sophisticated group.
12. When all else fails, claim that a government intervention is justified because it promotes some unquestionable goal.
Example: "This tax increase may seem unpleasant, but we have to remember that taxes are necessary as a way to promote the greater good. Sometimes individuals need to sacrifice for the benefit of society." Sometimes it helps to define "greater good" and "benefit of society." Other times it's better not to do so. Decide based on the particulars of the situation.
13. Make whatever mixed behavioral assumptions best support your claims.
Example: "Private theft is bad not because of any libertarian argument based on rights. It's bad because if people are free to just take the belongings of others, the consequences would be terrible." Alternately: "The government must be able to collect taxes because the consequences are so good." Do not be afraid to have it both ways.
14. Disregard the possibility that libertarians make tradeoffs in their own lives.
Example: "You claim to oppose taxation but you live in a place with taxes." The libertarian in question will argue that he opposes taxation but remains in his present place of residence to avoid other things that are worse than taxes, such as even higher taxes or the costs of leaving the country. Disregard any such protest. Call the libertarian a hypocrite.
15. Use logic, but do so with discretion.
Example: If a libertarian points out that there is an inconsistency in some statist argument, argue that, "Libertarians are too axiomatic. That's fine for mathematics but not for real world issues that don't fit precisely into neat logical categories." Needless to say, the same kind of thinking need not apply if a libertarian even appears to be guilty of some inconsistency.
16. Call policies by names that presuppose their effectiveness.
Example: "I can't believe that libertarians oppose Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). How could they be against programs that aid these people?" The same approach is suitable for "anti-discrimination" laws, "foreign aid," "affirmative" action, price "controls," "guaranteed access" to health care, "fair lending" laws and so on.
Have I missed any?
- At Sat Jun 17, 01:16:00 AM EDT, Cindy said...
Okay, I'll bite.
I know this is below the intellectual level of your readers, but don't forget the oft-cited reason we are libertarians:
We all want drugs to be legalized.
Face it, most of the people we (okay, "I") come into contact with immediately connect to the one thing they "remember" about libertarianism, and that is that we want drugs to be legal.
Personally, I think most illegal drugs are dangerous and self-defeating. But then, so is non-motorcycle-helmet-wearing and non-seatbelt-wearing, and neither are illegal across the board in this country. What is the single, ONLY, danger of dealing drugs? Why, it's getting caught!
Anyway, I know this is probably below most of your readers, but it's a criticism I regularly face and thought it should be added to your list. Thanks.
- At Mon Jul 17, 08:10:00 AM EDT, Felix Benner said...
Create a strawman defense by claiming: Well I don't support everything the government does, but in principle it's a sound idea. By this you can dismiss any example of bad government policies by claiming them to be part of the "negligible part that you don't agree with". Of course if asked to cite an actual example for a good government policy fall back to "Well, there ARE some."
- At Tue Nov 14, 10:47:00 PM EST, doinkicarus said...
brilliant exposition! You are probably already aware how much the works of J.M. Keynes falls into many of your categorizations.
- At Mon Jul 09, 07:42:00 AM EDT, cxx_guy said...
Actually there is only one remaining state without a seatbelt law: New Hampshire.
- At Sat Jan 26, 01:58:00 PM EST, RHJunior said...
Actually, the drug issue is only one reason I, personally, am instinctively averse to full-throated libertarianism.
I'm naturally leery of any utopian screed, no matter whether they get there by leftist or rightist methods.
The libertarian open-borders policy, it's pro-drug stance, and most telling, the fact that every libertarian whose work I have read dreams openly of a world where all religion, but especially Christianity, is neutered and socially toothless, are more than enough to raise a stink.
Libertarians want to believe in moral absolutes, yet somehow remain unburdened by the logical necessity of an absolute moral source. Moreover they claim to be different from the statists-- yet parrot the statist's whiny accusation that Christianity, not human cupidity and perversity, is responsible for the world's suffering, and that we'd all be eating icecream three times a day if we just got rid of the preachers...!
The world has already seen what a nation looks like where the wine and whores flow freely and the churches are in hiding. It was called the French Revolution. Thanks, but no thanks.
- At Tue Jan 29, 08:08:00 PM EST, said...
One need not be an atheist to be a libertarian.
- At Tue Jan 29, 09:07:00 PM EST, TAYLOR said...
Are you trying to say we aren't libertarians here at DoF? Because you seem to have read our works, and we don't ever tackle the topic of religion, so far as I know (James, did you ever?) and I don't think any of us here have ever said that the world must be free of Christianity specifically.
Sounds like a straw-man to me.
By the way, the world has already seen what a nation looks like when it utilizes the Church in an unholy alliance to oppress individuals. It was called Fascist Italy. The world has also already seen what a nation looks like when it's run on theocratic principles according to Christianity: it's called much of European history and its recurrent, religious-based bloodshed from late Roman times until about 1871. The Colony of Massachusetts was always good for a witch-trial every now and then, too.
Sign me up!
- At Fri Oct 03, 06:02:00 PM EDT, Anton Sherwood said...
I spy with my little eye someone who started well and then didn't know when to shut up.
Libertarianism (at least as usually packaged) appeals most to a kind of mind that's also disposed to think theism is among the silliest ideas ever; but I've met several people who said Jesus tells us to oppose statism.
- At Fri Oct 03, 06:04:00 PM EDT, TAYLOR said...
Christianity isn't the only "theism" out there and even if it was, Jesus isn't suddenly an authority on libertarianism or anything else just because he is supposed to be the son of god.
- At Fri Oct 03, 07:34:00 PM EDT, said...
As a rule we don't do religion here, as there seems to be a widespread pair of false beliefs among statists that there is some strong correlation between libertarianism and whichever they find more objectionable, Godless atheism or dogmatic fundamentalism. I don't want to encourage either.
"Moreover they claim to be different from the statists-- yet parrot the statist's whiny accusation that Christianity, not human cupidity and perversity, is responsible for the world's suffering, and that we'd all be eating icecream three times a day if we just got rid of the preachers...!"
is just absurd.
One of the overwhelming reasons I distrust the institutions of the state is that they are such excellent instruments to exacerbate the bad effects of human beings' moral failings.
I doubt that rhjunior will check back, but I'd hope that the rhjuniors of the world will consider that if sin is at the root of some problem, that problem will not be remedied by any man made institution, not even their preferred brand of statism.
- At Sun Feb 01, 06:30:00 PM EST, TAYLOR said...
I was thinking, maybe "Call your opponent an ideologue and ignore your own steadfast attachment to your beliefs," as one of the ways to argue with a libertarian.
I find this tactic used all the time... anytime I bring up a solution or suggestion that is not pragmatic enough in the other person's mind, I get accused of being an ideologue who thinks only in terms of black and white, not what's actually realistic. I am the only one who is committed to their ideas for the ideas sake, apparently my opponent is always attracted to ideas that work/are the truth, not ideas that make him feel good.
- At Sun Feb 01, 06:57:00 PM EST, James said...
Oh, yes. The "pragmatism" sham. Every time I encounter this word ina policy discussion, it's used as a way of injecting a moral claim under false pretenses.
That is, some statist wants to claim that his policy preferences are better (read: morally superior) to those of a libertarian. But he doesn't want to get stuck engaging in moral reasoning to defend such a claim. So he cloaks his assertion in goofy language, e.g. "All philosophical theorizing aside, my proposal is at least practical."
I honestly wonder if statists think their positions are somehow strengthened by the fact that they are not concerned with whether or not their positions are based on good reasons.
- At Wed Feb 04, 11:55:00 PM EST, Ralph said...
Not to imply that all libertarians are atheist or anti-christian--- self evidently this is not so, if for no other reason than that people are diverse--- but of the libertarian authors I have read, whether nonfiction or fictional, those that do mention religion do so by noting its absence from their proposed New World.... its absence, or its complete sociopolitical impotence.
- At Thu Feb 05, 12:12:00 AM EST, said...
Rothbard was probably the most prolofic libertarian and while an agnostic, he was explicitly anti-anti-religion. Lew Rockwell probably does more to promote libertarianism than anyone else nowadays and he's a practicing Catholic. Ron Paul is the best know libertarian holder of public office and is a practicing Christian.
- At Thu Feb 05, 10:30:00 AM EST, TAYLOR said...
Rothbard was once close to Ayn Rand and her Collective but was later expelled, primarily for "stealing" some of their ideas in one of his papers, but also partially because his wife was religious and they thought it was unacceptable that he be married to a religious woman and not try to convert her to atheism.
- At Sat Feb 07, 05:38:00 PM EST, said...
RHJunior: check out Ron Paul, who believes in closing the border and is a very religious man.
Personally I'm all for strong churches. When I studied anthropology, one of my professors said "There are two ways to keep order in society, by ideology and by force...and ideology is much cheaper." Churches provide the ideology. If they do it well, there is no need to back up their edicts by force.
I would love to live in a world where drugs are not against the law, but very few people take drugs anyway...because they go to church and get a sense of morality there. That's exactly what this country was like only a hundred years ago.
I would go so far as to say that, by taking over traditional religious functions such as caring for the poor, the government has weakened the church.
- At Sun May 02, 05:41:00 PM EDT, autofyrsto said...
Here's one I've come across a couple times lately:
If a libertarian idea seems to make some sense, go ahead and adopt it, but be careful not to credit libertarians. To be on the safe side, try buring the idea in a vacuous anti-libertarian screed replete with unsubstantiated assertions and misrepresentations.
Newsweek: The Libertarians' Lament
The Smirking Chimp: Confessions Of A Wall St. Nihilist: Forget About Goldman Sachs, Our Entire Economy Is Built On Fraud
- At Tue Mar 29, 09:21:00 AM EDT, grahambrechin said...
Settle The Argument -
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