What Happened to So-Called “Callous Libertarians?”

| by The Volokh Conspiracy

By Ilya Somin

At the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, political philosopher Jason Brennan asks:

If you only read academic philosophy discussing orthodox right libertarianism, you might expect that libertarians are callous and indifferent to poverty. Academic philosophers tend to think that self-described libertarians have the following view:

Cartoon Libertarianism: Protect self-ownership and abide by Nozick’s entitlement theory, though the sky falls! (And many starve.)

If libertarians really believed that, then it would seem hard to explain why so many of them are preoccupied with showing how markets, under the right conditions, end poverty.....

All of the libertarians I’ve met believe that in a libertarian minimal state or anarchist society, markets and other institutions of civil society would make nearly everyone better off, the poor would not be left behind, and that there would be significant progress. I’m not here interested in discussing whether they’re right about these empirical claims. I’m just curious what role these beliefs play in their political philosophies, given that they explicitly disavow social justice.

So, suppose markets work the way libertarians think they do, and thus make everyone, including the poor, much better off. What import does this have for libertarians? Some options:

1. It’s just a fun fact of no moral significance.
2. It’s part of the justification for market society, but not a matter of justice. (If so, then what role does this play?)
3. It’s a matter of justice that the institutions of the basic structure of society should provide for all, including the poor, and the best way to do that is through libertarian institutions.

One possible answer is that libertarians actually believe Brennan’s Option 1, but argue that free markets reduce poverty in order to win the political support of nonlibertarians who care about the issue. A few libertarians really do defend free markets on consequentialist grounds only for coalition-building purposes. But my experience is similar to Brennan’s: the vast majority of them believe that such arguments really are an important part of the case for free markets. They emphasize this point even when talking to other libertarians behind closed doors, where there presumably would be no need to dissemble about their true motives.

For most libertarians, the answer to Brennan’s question probably falls somewhere under his Option 2. Within political philosophy, many scholars are either pure utilitarian consequentialists (thinkers who believe that we are justified in doing whatever it takes to maximize happiness) or pure deontologists (people who argue that we must respect certain rights absolutely, regardless of consequences). At least until recently, the small band of libertarian philosophers mostly fell into the second category. Outside philosophy departments, however, few people endorse either of these positions. That’s true of most libertarians as well.

A few libertarians really do endorse absolute property rights regardless of their effects. But that is not the only possible libertarian view, and certainly not the most common one. As Brennan notes in his post, even Ayn Rand may not have consistently taken that view.

Other libertarians, including many libertarian economists, are primarily utilitarian. For them, consequentialist arguments are not just an important part of the case for liberty, but the only part. They don’t value liberty for its own sake, but because it has beneficial effects. If they thought that free markets lead to mass poverty or even just to a lower level of happiness than could be achieved by an interventionist state, they would have to give up their libertarianism.

More common are libertarians who endorse some combination of utilitarian and rights-based values, often without rigorously distinguishing between the two. Such libertarians are usually willing to give up some degree of utility in order to protect liberty or property rights. But that doesn’t mean they would support absolute protection for such rights in cases where a modest violation could forestall a massive disaster such as starvation or a civilization-destroying asteroid strike. As libertarian economist Bryan Caplan puts in his comment on Brennan’s post, “Most libertarians ultimately realize that respecting libertarian rights is only a prima facie obligation. In plain English, it’s wrong to violate libertarian rights unless you have a good reason. If liberty actually benefits the poor, that takes one seemingly good reason to violate libertarian rights off the table.”

In refusing to embrace either absolute utilitarianism or absolute deontological rights, most libertarians are no different from the vast majority of nonlibertarians, especially political liberals. The distinctive element of libertarianism is the belief that enforcing very strict limits on government power is usually the best way to both increase happiness and protect people’s rights.

Ultimately, it’s not hard to figure out why libertarians emphasize the benefits of free markets for the poor, once you recognize that many libertarians are either utilitarians or endorse some combination of utilitarian and rights-based values.