Why I am not a libertarian

The libertarian philosophy has a strong appeal, especially to intelligent young people, and has had a powerful impact on American life through such public figures as Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Alan Greenspan.

There is a lot to be said in favor of philosophy whose supreme value is the right of individual human beings to make choices and live as they wish, provided they do not infringe on the freedom of others.  If you have to have one supreme principle that outweighs all the others, that is not a bad one.

I was much interested in libertarian philosophy during the Reagan era, and I still think that deregulation and cuts in marginal tax rates were a good idea up to a point.

I don’t agree with Libertarians that governmental activity is by definition an infringement on freedom, and private business activity never is.  And I don’t agree that governmental activity is by definition unproductive, and that private business activity never is.  These things are sometimes true, but not always true.

When I covered business for the Democrat and Chronicle in the 1980s and 1990s, I never found anybody afraid to criticize the government, but I did find many people fearful of criticizing business, particularly major employers in Rochester. When I talked to employees of big companies such as Eastman Kodak Co., it was like what I imagined interviewing people in an Iron Curtain country would be like. Nor were people merely fearful of criticizing their own employers. In an era of downsizing, they did not want to say anything on the record that would brand them as malcontents.

Libertarians don’t all think alike, but a typical libertarian answer would be that there is no problem.  People are free to say what they think; employers are free to hire whom they choose. So long as there is no government coercion, nobody’s freedom is infringed.

The United States has a problem with deteriorating water and sewer mains, dams and levees, bridges and other infrastructure.  Paying taxes to the government to maintain and upgrade these systems would, in my opinion, do more to improve the nation’s productivity than investing in the stock market and just bidding up the price of existing stocks.

A typical libertarian answer would be taxation is coercion, for whatever purpose the money is spent, and that as many government activities as possible should be privatized and opened up to competition so I would have a choice.

One of the big libertarian dilemmas was the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Most libertarians were willing to agree that segregation laws were wrong, but they could not accept “forced integration.” If a white department store owner didn’t want to serve black customers or hire black employees, that supposedly was his right; if all the department stores in town were owned by white and wanted to bar blacks, that supposedly was his right.  So long as black people were not being coerced by government, their rights supposedly were not being infringed.

The libertarian solution to racial discrimination is the free market.  A business that is willing to serve any customer will have a competitive advantage over one that restricts itself to just one race, the argument goes; a business that is willing to hire any qualified applicant will have a competitive advantage over one that restricts itself to just one race. Economics supposedly will end racial discrimination without the need for laws.

I lived in the border state of Maryland during the civil rights era, and I knew several business owners, including the owner of the diner where I had lunch every day, who told me that they personally had nothing against serving black people, but they were afraid of the reaction of their white customers. Civil rights legislation gave them an excuse to do what they said they wanted to do.

Blake McKelvey, in his four volume history of Rochester, said Rochester’s largest employers did not drop restrictions on hiring black people until the labor shortage created by World War Two. Some of them did not hire Italian-Americans; that is said to be the reason so many Italian-American families in Rochester have Angl0-Saxon names.

It really boils down to a question of values. Which is more important, the right of the individual to be free of government coercion, or the right of the individual to be treated impartially regardless of race or ethnicity? My answer is, it all depends, but I don’t think the first right always outweighs the second.

Click on this for the web site of the Libertarian Party. Its motto is “the party of principle.”
Click on this for the web site of the Cato Institute, the leading libertarian think tank.
Click on this for the web site of Reason, the leading libertarian magazine. Its motto is “free minds and free markets.”
Click on this for a libertarian argument against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Click on this for Unqualified Offerings, a web log by a libertarian physics professor. I read it almost every day.

Later (6/3/10)

The Unqualified Offerings web log is written by a couple of people, not just one.

Click on this for an interesting view of Ron Paul, the small-l libertarian Republican congressman who is the father of senatorial candidate Rand Paul.

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13 Responses to “Why I am not a libertarian”

  1. smallivy Says:

    Good points, but I think it can still be answered within the Libertarian Philosophy if the link between freedom and responsibility is maintained. The premise is that in order to have freedom, the individual must take responsibility for that freedom.

    The simplest responsibility is for our direct actions. One should not speed if it puts others at risk. One should provide for one’s retirement to not be a burden on others in retirement.

    There is a greater responsibility required, however, if a government entity is not desired, and that is to take responsibility to help others who experience misfortunes when the misfortunes are not their fault. For example, helping a neighbor clean up after a flood or tornado and making providing reasonable aid to help them get back on their feet.

    I would submit that any Libertarian should be personably charatable since he/she is submitting that the government should not be providing services like welfare. The difference is that the Libertarian would look more to help the individual help themselves, and not put up with any fraud or lack of willingness to take responsibility, while the government worker would just do whatever is easiest for them, which usually means a straight handout.

    On the racism in restaurants, a Libertarian would take personal responsibility to correct the wrong. Because racism is not right or just, all Libertarians should not frequent a restaurant they know to be racist.

    Liberal correction for racism has actually started to damage the people it was supposed to protect. Despite the fact that it would be very difficult to find a college admissions officer that would discriminate against minorities anymore, affirmative action programs remain. This serves to cheapen the acheivements of minorities because it places an implied asterix next to their acheivement of obtaining admission.

    This form of racism was fully on display during the last election when white Liberals were openly commenting that they were looking forward to voting for Obama because he was black and they were finally able to clear their conscience. It was as if he were becoming President because they were allowing him to do so. How insulting is that?

    Hope you come check out my blog: http://responsiblefreedom.wordpress.com


  2. philebersole Says:

    Dear Smallivy:

    I’m white. I voted for Barack Obama in the last election not in order to do a favor to black people, but because it seemed to me at the time that he was the clearly superior candidate. I have been disappointed in the result. His policies have been largely a continuation of the failed George W. Bush administration. Unfortunately, I don’t see anybody in the current field of Republican candidates who presents a credible alternative. Maybe I will vote Libertarian. The Libertarian Party at least respects Constitutional rights and questions the waging of endless wars.

    I believe it is the role of government to provide public services on an impartial basis, and not to make legal distinctions based on race or ethnicity. I think the best way to provide access to higher education is for state university systems to provide quality education at an affordable tuition to everybody capable of doing college work – a situation that existed when I was college age. I’m 73.

    I went into the subject of affirmative action at somewhat greater length in the following posts






    One of the reasons that many black high school graduates do poorly on college admissions tests is the poor quality of public education in the poor areas of our large cities. Lowering college admission standards does not solve this problem. It is as if somebody had to enter a foot race wearing a ball and chain. The solution is to remove the ball and chain, not to give the person wearing it a different starting point than the others.

    I do not have a good answer for how to improve public education, but some of my thoughts on the subject can be found at the following link.



  3. Department of Touche § Unqualified Offerings Says:

    […] Via, who adds, “I read it almost every day.” […]


  4. poetry Says:

    In 1964, would a black business owner have had the right to refuse service to a Klansman?


  5. philebersole Says:

    I believe the 1964 Civil Rights law had a size threshold; I don’t recall the details.

    The law applied, and applies, equally to whites and blacks, so the black owner of a business of a certain size, serving the general public, would be obligated to serve a well-behaved white patron, even if that patron was known to be a Klansman. A black business owner would of course be entitled to expel any patron, black or white, who engaged in disruptive behavior, such as shouting racial epithets.

    This is an interesting thought experiment, but not in my opinion an argument against the public accommodations provision of the Civil Rights law.

    I would be surprised if there was even one Klansman who was ever disappointed because he was refused service in a black-owned soul food restaurant. But tens of millions of black American citizens were blocked from full participation in American society because of racial discrimination.

    If black people were in the majority, they would be wrong to make white people ride in the back of the bus, and maybe it would be necessary to protect the civil rights of white people by appropriate legislation. We can cross that bridge when and if we come to it.


  6. walt Says:

    Good article. I came over from the UO website which I also read everyday.

    I agree with most of the libertarian philosophy but I can see exceptions to this such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Rand Paul said a few weeks ago that allowing business owners that serve the public to discriminate on the basis of race was “the hard part of freedom.” My response to that is that upholding liberty is not the only function of gov’t. The US Constitution not only was ordained and established “to secure the blessings of liberty” but also to “establish justice” and “promote the general welfare.” That telling business owners that they can’t discriminate on the basis of race is the “hard part of establishing justice.”

    Throughout the 20th century, state and local gov’ts weren’t doing much to protect the rights or were enforcing injustice against black citizens that the federal gov’t had to step in. I do agree with the precepts of subsidiarity and states rights as being mainly beneficial to the flourishing of society by checking the power of a centralized federal gov’t. However in this case I think the federal gov’t had to check the power of state and local gov’ts to uphold the rights of blacks.


  7. GerhardWMagnus Says:

    Libertarians are just Republicans who smoke dope, whine endlessly about their taxes, and suck up to the rich as a matter of principle. The ones who hope to someday do a John Galt to punish the rest of us would find that they haven’t been doing enough of any importance to have their “creativity” missed by anyone.


  8. b-psycho Says:

    Since you mention the civil rights act in this context, figured I’d see what you thought of my view on it (I’m a black libertarian):



  9. philebersole Says:

    Dear b-psycho:

    Thanks for the link to your interesting web log. I mostly agree with you on current issues, but from a different perspective than yours.

    I think of government not as an option, but as a fact of life. Max Weber defined government as the entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a given area. Until human beings cease to engage in force and violence, the alternatives will be to have a government or to have the kind of lawless violence that exists in Somalia, Lebanon or the world of the Icelandic sagas.

    Probably the first governments were warlords or gangsters who decided they had to provide a minimum of justice in order to make their rule secure. Rulers have murdered their enemies and subsidized the privileges from time immemorial. Human rights and the rule of law exist precariously, and are perpetually in danger of being wiped off the blackboard.

    But if the U.S. government did even less than it does to feed the hungry and combat bigotry, would that impede corporate bailouts and CIA covert activities abroad? I don’t see that it would.

    The corporation is a more recent creation than government. Like government, the corporation is not an entity with purposes of its own; it is an organizational structure created for certain purposes. It would be theoretically possible to eliminate the corporation as it exists today by eliminating the legal principle of limited liability. But I am not willing to face the economic disruption and hardship that this would entail.

    I criticize government, but I am glad to have public water and sewer service, and Social Security and Medicare. I criticize large corporations such as Eastman Kodak Co., but I regret the decline of Kodak as a major employer here in Rochester. I don’t want to abolish either government or corporations, but to find ways to make them serve the common good.

    As to your comments about desegregation, I don’t think the problem was Lester Maddox as an isolated individual, standing in the doorway of his restaurant and wielding an axe handle. The problem was the white community working in concert to hold the black community down, aided and abetted by Woolworth’s, Greyhound, chambers of commerce and state and local governments. I didn’t see any alternative then, and don’t know, to use of federal law.

    I am sympathetic to the ideals of anarcho-syndicalists and guild socialists, who would like to see the world run by networks of self-governing councils. I don’t see a path to get to that world, and don’t see how it would be able to defend itself unless it had the equivalent of an army – which sets in motion the whole problem of checks and balances, democracy, etc.

    P.S. I recommend a book entitled
    White Flight about the civil rights struggle in Atlanta. Here is a link to my discussion of that book. http://wp.me/pMUbO-oG


  10. philebersole Says:

    Dear b-psycho:

    Suppose you have a bunch of white guys from Alabama who come to Rochester, N.Y., and open a barbecue restaurant. Suppose they only hire their relatives and friends, who are other white people from Alabama. I don’t have a problem with that.

    Then suppose, 15 years later, they own a chain of restaurants, and put out a “Help Wanted” ad for a barbecue cook, but silently pass the word to not accept any black applicants. This would be a horse of a different color (so to speak).

    This is not just a hypothetical possibility. I have a friend who was dismissed from her job as manager of a so-called Christian book store after she disregarded the orders of her boss to not hire any members of minority groups.


  11. philebersole Says:

    Here are comments on this post on another web log, which is a kind of anthology of blog posts from all over the Internet.



  12. philebersole Says:

    Here are some other comments on this post on yet another web log.



  13. philebersole Says:

    In regard to the discussion of the civil rights laws of the 1960s, I regard the racial discrimination of that era not as the action of isolated individual white people, but as the action of a cartel of white people who intended to keep black people from full participation in society.

    If Lester Maddox, standing in the doorway of his restaurant with an axe handle, were an isolated individual, I wouldn’t advocate going after him.

    I am much more concerned with the actions of corporations (which are chartered by government) and large organizations than I am by actions of individual proprietors.

    The links below give my view on the difference between individual rights and corporate rights.




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