Plumb Lines

June 11, 2009

Libertarianism’s Flawed Anthropology

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 5:34 pm

Michael van Landingham has praised libertarianism:

The libertarian ideal is fantastic, and I believe we should strive towards it. Yet in a pluralistic society composed of humans who are far from mental, financial, or racial peers, regulation is a necessity. Libertarianism may function in homogeneous societies where everyone has a similar background, education, and life experiences, but I cannot see a feasible method of implementation for a society as diverse as America.

Michael is right that libertarianism can’t work in America, but would libertarianism work better anywhere else? Homogeneous societies like, say, Sweden are able to guarantee “similar background, and life experiences” through expressly non-libertarian social welfare and educational guarantees. If they became libertarian, they would eventually lose the very characteristics that make them seem welcoming to libertarianism.

The larger reason that libertarianism can never work is that it is mistaken about the nature of human beings. We are not independent, rational actors but rather creatures living in various states of dependence on family, friends, and society at large. The insight expressed by Alasdair Macintyre in Dependent Rational Animals is the same that we see in Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel-winning psychology. Both point away from libertarianism’s anthropology.

As one would expect, the gap between libertarianism’s idea of the independent man and the reality of dependence bubbles up in all sorts of unpleasant ways. The existence of a human living in a state of dependence — like a fetus or a patient on a feeding tube–becomes a challenge to this ideology, which may be why, in many cases, it threatens their survival.

-Matthew Schmitz



  1. Well said!

    Comment by Suzanne W — June 12, 2009 @ 12:09 am

  2. I think the homogeneity = libertarianism argument works for precisely the same reason the Swedish welfare state works: similar backgrounds engender high degrees of trust, cooperation, and social cohesion. This has helped create a fantastically efficient welfare system, but there’s no reason these traits wouldn’t also contribute to a thriving laissez-faire state.

    Incidentally, I’m fairly confident that quite a few libertarians share your assumptions about the importance society, family, and culture.

    Comment by Will — June 17, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  3. As a Libertarian I believe the system can work in Canada or America. I’m a Canadian and I know what it is like to live in a true “welfare state” where the government taxes everything and makes the majority of decisions for the people. As a Libertarian and most neo-Libertarians if I can call them that don’t believe in the abolishment of the state completely – we just want more independent freedom from the states policies and taxations. Of course there would always be taxes and always be a government – we want to lessen taxes and leave more decisions up to the individual as to how they want to spend their money and live their lives.

    In Canada right now we pay huge levels of income tax and huge levels of sales tax and we pay tax on every other government service including huge taxes on alcohol, gas and tobacco. We still have high poverty rates, third world living conditions when you actually travel to some of the remote regions and an infrastructure in most parts that fairs no better than a war torn country.

    In Canada big government is ruining the freedom of the individual by placing huge financial stress and government policies on his/her shoulders. Libertarianism would work to relieve some of this stress by eliminating double tax and lowering the income tax levels and getting rid of redundant and unnecessary government departments and programs. It would give the people more choice individually how they want to run their lives. We would still have government and (lesser) taxes but government would not be interfering with the individual as much as it is now.

    Comment by Rob — August 4, 2009 @ 9:57 am

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