Posted by: N.S. Palmer | July 23, 2016

The Trouble with Libertarianism


“Libertarianism can and does work.”

That’s the conclusion of a guest post on the “Ex-Army” blog site. For reasons unknown, the site (hosted by Google-owned Blogspot) has been deleted.

I agree that libertarianism can and does work. It works (at least somewhat and for a while) with groups of people who have:

  • Above-average intelligence,1
  • Adequate impulse control,
  • A common language,
  • A good education, and
  • Shared history, values, and traditions.
  • Shared ethnicity helps but is not essential.

Those things provide the respect for personal autonomy, tolerance of disagreement, and commitment to the common good (!) that make libertarianism possible.

Libertarians usually have those qualities at least to some degree. So do all their friends and associates.

As a result, like fish who are unable to see the water in which they swim, libertarians take those qualities for granted. They assume that libertarianism will work with any group of people, no matter how diverse and bitterly divided the group might be, or how lacking its people might be in the essential qualities that would make a libertarian society possible. Political philosopher Edmund Burke zeroed in on the main problem:

”Men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”2


Even among libertarians, libertarianism is a utopian idea because libertarians themselves vary in the qualities that make libertarianism possible.

When I worked on Capitol Hill (for the honest and decent Ron Paul, among other people), I worked with some libertarians who were committed idealists. I worked with others who were simply careerists or who used libertarianism primarily as a means to power, wealth, and personal aggrandizement. They would have been just as happy spouting socialist arguments or selling used cars, but they apparently thought that libertarianism would pay better.

By the nature of human groups, power sooner or later tends to come into the hands of those who want it and seek to acquire it. The idealists, who don’t care about power, end up taking orders from the people who do care about it.

Ironically, libertarians commit the same mistake as liberals and Marxists: They assume that human beings and human society are perfectible. That error stems from a deeper one: Libertarians base their beliefs on abstract ideology instead of looking at real people and real societies.

They start with a definition: “Man is a rational animal.” Then they might throw in a little Randian mumbo-jumbo about how “A is A” implies free-market economics.

From that, they deduce how they think things ought to work. They assume that how things ought to work is how they in fact do work. They see no need to check their conclusions against reality because their premises seemed sound and their reasoning seemed logical. As a result, it escapes them that there has never been a libertarian society that lasted for any significant length of time.3

Which brings to mind a joke about economists: If you show an economist that an idea works in practice, he objects: “Yes, but does it work in theory?”

The biggest problem with libertarianism is not that it’s mistaken, historically oblivious, or based on wildly inaccurate notions of human nature and human society. The biggest problem is that it leads intelligent, educated, well-meaning people on a political wild goose chase. It causes them to waste their time and effort pursuing an unattainable utopian ideal instead of working for attainable goods that would benefit real people. The French philosopher Voltaire diagnosed the problem:

”The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

The more complete quote from Edmund Burke alludes to the good that libertarianism spurns in favor of unattainable perfection:

“Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”4

Works Cited

Burke, E. (2014), The Complete Works of Edmund Burke. Hastings: Delphi Classics. Kindle edition.


  1. As measured by any of the standard IQ tests, some of which are designed to eliminate cultural bias. Various human groups have different mean IQs, but an IQ of 100 is a reasonable minimum for a viable libertarian society. 
  2. Burke, E. (2014), loc. 69542. 
  3. Dr. Rinth de Shadley gave an excellent analysis of libertarianism. Sadly, she is a liberal, but she is still a nice person and is quite brilliant. 
  4. Ibid, loc. 69542. 


  1. The fatal error of Libertarianism is it has bought into the myth of equality. Math will tell you equality is a state not found in nature. Nature is a hierarchy. A society of equals is a society of fools. Equal treatment under the law is not the same as equality of people. Rights are not entitlements bestowed by birth, they are privileges bought with blood and guarded by hard men willing to defend it. Rights come with responsibilities. Without responsibility, rights are a fiction maintained by lies and only believed by the willfully blind.

    • I agree that equal treatment under the law is what we want, and that often leads to unequal results. Civilized societies must sometimes be defended by the ruthless use of force, even if strong societies will rarely use force because everyone knows they can and will do it if needed.

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