Myth and Truth About Libertarianism

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This essay
is based on a paper presented at the April 1979 national meeting of
the Philadelphia Society in Chicago. The theme of the meeting was
“Conservatism and Libertarianism.”



  1. Libertarians
    believe that each individual is an isolated, hermetically
    sealed atom, acting in a vacuum without influencing each other.
  2. Libertarians
    are libertines: they are hedonists who hanker after “alternative
  3. Libertarians
    do not believe in moral principles; they limit themselves
    to cost-benefit analysis on the assumption that man is always
  4. Libertarianism
    is atheistic and materialist, and neglects the spiritual side
    of life.
  5. Libertarians
    are utopians who believe that all people are good, and that
    therefore state control is not necessary.
  6. Libertarians
    believe that every person knows his own interests best.



is the fastest growing political creed in America today. Before
judging and evaluating libertarianism, it is vitally important
to find out precisely what that doctrine is, and, more particularly,
what it is not. It is especially important to clear up a number
of misconceptions about libertarianism that are held by most people,
and particularly by conservatives. In this essay I shall enumerate
and critically analyze the most common myths that are held about
libertarianism. When these are cleared away, people will then
be able to discuss libertarianism free of egregious myths and
misconceptions, and to deal with it as it should be on its very
own merits or demerits.

Libertarians believe that each individual is an isolated,
hermetically sealed atom, acting in a vacuum without influencing
each other.

This is a
common charge, but a highly puzzling one. In a lifetime of reading
libertarian and classical liberal literature, I have not come
across a single theorist or writer who holds anything like this

The only possible
exception is the fanatical Max Stirner, a mid-19th-century German
individualist who, however, has had minimal influence upon libertarianism
in his time and since. Moreover, Stirner’s explicit “Might Makes
Right” philosophy and his repudiation of all moral principles including
individual rights as “spooks in the head,” scarcely qualifies him
as a libertarian in any sense. Apart from Stirner, however, there
is no body of opinion even remotely resembling this common indictment.

are methodological and political individualists, to be sure. They
believe that only individuals think, value, act, and choose. They
believe that each individual has the right to own his own body,
free of coercive interference. But no individualist denies that
people are influencing each other all the time in their goals,
values, pursuits and occupations.

As F.A. Hayek
pointed out in his notable article, “The Non-Sequitur of the ‘Dependence
Effect,'” John Kenneth Galbraith’s assault upon free-market economics
in his best-selling The
Affluent Society
rested on this proposition: economics
assumes that every individual arrives at his scale of values totally
on his own, without being subject to influence by anyone else.
On the contrary, as Hayek replied, everyone knows that most people
do not originate their own values, but are influenced to adopt
them by other people.[1]

No individualist
or libertarian denies that people influence each other all the
time, and surely there is nothing wrong with this inevitable process.
What libertarians are opposed to is not voluntary persuasion,
but the coercive imposition of values by the use of force and
police power. Libertarians are in no way opposed to the voluntary
cooperation and collaboration between individuals: only to the
compulsory pseudo-“cooperation” imposed by the state.

Libertarians are libertines: they are hedonists who
hanker after “alternative lifestyles.”

This myth
has recently been propounded by Irving Kristol, who identifies
the libertarian ethic with the “hedonistic” and asserts that libertarians
“worship the Sears Roebuck catalogue and all the ‘alternative
life styles’ that capitalist affluence permits the individual
to choose from.”[2]

The fact
is that libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete
moral or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory,
that is, the important subset of moral theory that deals with
the proper role of violence in social life.

Political theory
deals with what is proper or improper for government to do, and
government is distinguished from every other group in society as
being the institution of organized violence. Libertarianism holds
that the only proper role of violence is to defend person
and property against violence, that any use of violence
that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust,
and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states
that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should be free
to do as he sees fit, except invade the person or property of another.
What a person does with his or her life is vital and important,
but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism.

It should
not be surprising, therefore, that there are libertarians who
are indeed hedonists and devotees of alternative lifestyles, and
that there are also libertarians who are firm adherents of “bourgeois”
conventional or religious morality. There are libertarian libertines
and there are libertarians who cleave firmly to the disciplines
of natural or religious law. There are other libertarians who
have no moral theory at all apart from the imperative of non-violation
of rights. That is because libertarianism per se has
no general or personal moral theory.

does not offer a way of life; it offers liberty, so that each
person is free to adopt and act upon his own values and moral
principles. Libertarians agree with Lord Acton that “liberty is
the highest political end” – not necessarily the highest
end on everyone’s personal scale of values.

There is
no question about the fact, however, that the subset of libertarians
who are free-market economists tends to be delighted when the
free market leads to a wider range of choices for consumers, and
thereby raises their standard of living. Unquestionably, the idea
that prosperity is better than grinding poverty is a moral proposition,
and it ventures into the realm of general moral theory, but it
is still not a proposition for which I should wish to apologize.

Libertarians do not believe in moral principles; they
limit themselves to cost-benefit analysis on the assumption that
man is always rational.

This myth
is of course related to the preceding charge of hedonism, and
some of it can be answered in the same way. There are indeed libertarians,
particularly Chicago-school economists, who refuse to believe
that liberty and individual rights are moral principles, and instead
attempt to arrive at public policy by weighing alleged social
costs and benefits.

In the first
place, most libertarians are “subjectivists” in economics, that
is, they believe that the utilities and costs of different individuals
cannot be added or measured. Hence, the very concept of social
costs and benefits is illegitimate. But, more importantly, most
libertarians rest their case on moral principles, on a belief
in the natural rights of every individual to his person or property.
They therefore believe in the absolute immorality of aggressive
violence, of invasion of those rights to person or property, regardless
of which person or group commits such violence.

Far from being
immoral, libertarians simply apply a universal human ethic to government
in the same way as almost everyone would apply such an ethic to
every other person or institution in society. In particular, as
I have noted earlier, libertarianism as a political philosophy dealing
with the proper role of violence takes the universal ethic that
most of us hold toward violence and applies it fearlessly to government.

make no exceptions to the golden rule and provide no moral loophole,
no double standard, for government. That is, libertarians believe
that murder is murder and does not become sanctified by reasons
of state if committed by the government. We believe that theft is
theft and does not become legitimated because organized robbers
call their theft “taxation.” We believe that enslavement is enslavement
even if the institution committing that act calls it “conscription.”
In short, the key to libertarian theory is that it makes no exceptions
in its universal ethic for government.

Hence, far
from being indifferent or hostile to moral principles, libertarians
fulfill them by being the only group willing to extend those principles
across the board to government itself.[3]

It is true
that libertarians would allow each individual to choose his values
and to act upon them, and would in short accord every person the
right to be either moral or immoral as he saw fit. Libertarianism
is strongly opposed to enforcing any moral creed on any person
or group by the use of violence – except, of course, the
moral prohibition against aggressive violence itself. But we must
realize that no action can be considered virtuous unless
it is undertaken freely, by a person’s voluntary consent.

As Frank
Meyer pointed out:

Men cannot
be forced to be free, nor can they even be forced to be virtuous.
To a certain extent, it is true, they can be forced to act as
though they were virtuous. But virtue is the fruit of well-used
freedom. And no act to the degree that it is coerced can partake
of virtue – or of vice.[4]

If a person
is forced by violence or the threat thereof to perform a certain
action, then it can no longer be a moral choice on his part. The
morality of an action can stem only from its being freely adopted;
an action can scarcely be called moral if someone is compelled
to perform it at gunpoint.

moral actions or outlawing immoral actions, therefore, cannot
be said to foster the spread of morality or virtue. On the contrary,
coercion atrophies morality for it takes away from the individual
the freedom to be either moral or immoral, and therefore forcibly
deprives people of the chance to be moral. Paradoxically, then,
a compulsory morality robs us of the very opportunity to be moral.

It is furthermore
particularly grotesque to place the guardianship of morality in
the hands of the state apparatus – that is, none other than
the organization of policemen, guards, and soldiers. Placing the
state in charge of moral principles is equivalent to putting the
proverbial fox in charge of the chicken coop.

else we may say about them, the wielders of organized violence
in society have never been distinguished by their high moral tone
or by the precision with which they uphold moral principle.

Libertarianism is atheistic and materialist, and neglects
the spiritual side of life.

There is
no necessary connection between being for or against libertarianism
and one’s position on religion. It is true that many if not most
libertarians at the present time are atheists, but this correlates
with the fact that most intellectuals, of most political persuasions,
are atheists as well.

There are
many libertarians who are theists, Jewish or Christian. Among
the classical liberal forebears of modern libertarianism in a
more religious age there were a myriad of Christians: from John
Lilburne, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and John Locke in the
seventeenth century, down to Cobden and Bright, Frédéric
Bastiat and the French laissez-faire liberals, and the great Lord

believe that liberty is a natural right embedded in a natural
law of what is proper for mankind, in accordance with man’s nature.
Where this set of natural laws comes from, whether it
is purely natural or originated by a creator, is an important
ontological question but is irrelevant to social or political

As Father
Thomas Davitt declares: “If the word ‘natural’ means anything
at all, it refers to the nature of a man, and when used with ‘law,’
‘natural’ must refer to an ordering that is manifested in the
inclinations of a man’s nature and to nothing else. Hence, taken
in itself, there is nothing religious or theological in the ‘Natural
Law’ of Aquinas.”[5]

Or, as D’Entrèves
writes of the seventeenth century Dutch Protestant jurist Hugo Grotius:

definition of natural law has nothing revolutionary. When he
maintains that natural law is that body of rule which Man is
able to discover by the use of his reason, he does nothing but
restate the Scholastic notion of a rational foundation of ethics.
Indeed, his aim is rather to restore that notion which had been
shaken by the extreme Augustinianism of certain Protestant currents
of thought. When he declares that these rules are valid in themselves,
independently of the fact that God willed them, he repeats an
assertion which had already been made by some of the schoolmen…[6]

has been accused of ignoring man’s spiritual nature. But one can
easily arrive at libertarianism from a religious or Christian
position: emphasizing the importance of the individual, of his
freedom of will, of natural rights and private property. Yet one
can also arrive at all these self-same positions by a secular,
natural-law approach, through a belief that man can arrive at
a rational apprehension of the natural law.

furthermore, it is not at all clear that religion is a firmer
footing than secular natural law for libertarian conclusions.
As Karl Wittfogel reminded us in his Oriental
, the union of throne and altar has been used
for centuries to fasten a reign of despotism on society.[7]

the union of church and state has been in many instances a mutually
reinforcing coalition for tyranny. The state used the church to
sanctify and preach obedience to its supposedly divinely sanctioned
rule; the church used the state to gain income and privilege.

The Anabaptists
collectivized and tyrannized Münster in the name of the Christian

And, closer
to our century, Christian socialism and the social gospel have
played a major role in the drive toward statism, and the apologetic
role of the Orthodox Church in Soviet Russia has been all too
clear. Some Catholic bishops in Latin America have even proclaimed
that the only route to the kingdom of heaven is through Marxism,
and if I wished to be nasty, I could point out that the Reverend
Jim Jones, in addition to being a Leninist, also proclaimed himself
the reincarnation of Jesus.

now that socialism has manifestly failed, politically and economically,
socialists have fallen back on the “moral” and the “spiritual”
as the final argument for their cause. Socialist Robert Heilbroner,
in arguing that socialism will have to be coercive and will have
to impose a “collective morality” upon the public, opines that:
“Bourgeois culture is focused on the material achievement
of the individual. Socialist culture must focus on his or her
moral or spiritual achievement.”

The intriguing
point is that this position of Heilbroner’s was hailed by the
conservative religious writer for National Review, Dale
Vree. He writes:

is … saying what many contributors to NR have said
over the last quarter-century: you can’t have both freedom and
virtue. Take note, traditionalists. Despite his dissonant terminology,
Heilbroner is interested in the same thing you’re interested
in: virtue.[9]

Vree is also
fascinated with the Heilbroner view that a socialist culture must
“foster the primacy of the collectivity” rather than the “primacy
of the individual.” He quotes Heilbroner’s contrasting “moral
or spiritual” achievement under socialism as against bourgeois
“material” achievement, and adds correctly: “There is a traditional
ring to that statement.”

Vree goes
on to applaud Heilbroner’s attack on capitalism because it has
“no sense of ‘the good'” and permits “consenting adults” to do
anything they please. In contrast to this picture of freedom and
permitted diversity, Vree writes that “Heilbroner says alluringly,
because a socialist society must have a sense of ‘the good,’ not
everything will be permitted.” To Vree, it is impossible “to have
economic collectivism along with cultural individualism,” and
so he is inclined to lean toward a new “socialist-traditionalist
fusionism” – toward collectivism across the board.

We may note
here that socialism becomes especially despotic when it replaces
“economic” or “material” incentives by allegedly “moral” or “spiritual”
ones, when it affects to promoting an indefinable “quality of
life” rather than economic prosperity.

When payment
is adjusted to productivity there is considerably more freedom
as well as higher standards of living. For when reliance is placed
solely on altruistic devotion to the socialist motherland, the
devotion has to be regularly reinforced by the knout. An increasing
stress on individual material incentive means ineluctably a greater
stress on private property and keeping what one earns, and brings
with it considerably more personal freedom, as witness Yugoslavia
in the last three decades in contrast to Soviet Russia.

The most
horrifying despotism on the face of the earth in recent years
was undoubtedly Pol Pot’s Cambodia, in which “materialism” was
so far obliterated that money was abolished by the regime. With
money and private property abolished, each individual was totally
dependent on handouts of rationed subsistence from the state,
and life was a sheer hell. We should be careful before we sneer
at “merely material” goals or incentives.

The charge
of “materialism” directed against the free market ignores the
fact that every human action whatsoever involves the
transformation of material objects by the use of human energy
and in accordance with ideas and purposes held by the actors.
It is impermissible to separate the “mental” or “spiritual” from
the “material.”

All great
works of art, great emanations of the human spirit, have had to
employ material objects: whether they be canvasses, brushes and
paint, paper and musical instruments, or building blocks and raw
materials for churches. There is no real rift between the “spiritual”
and the “material” and hence any despotism over and crippling
of the material will cripple the spiritual as well.

Libertarians are utopians who believe that all people
are good, and that therefore state control is not necessary.

tend to add that since human nature is either partially or wholly
evil, strong state regulation is therefore necessary for society.

This is a
very common belief about libertarians, yet it is difficult to
know the source of this misconception. Rousseau, the locus
classicus of the idea that man is good but is corrupted by
his institutions, was scarcely a libertarian. Apart from the romantic
writings of a few anarcho-communists, whom I would not consider
libertarians in any case, I know of no libertarian or classical
liberal writers who have held this view.

On the contrary,
most libertarian writers hold that man is a mixture of good and
evil and therefore that it is important for social institutions
to encourage the good and discourage the bad. The state is the
only social institution which is able to extract its income and
wealth by coercion; all others must obtain revenue either by selling
a product or service to customers or by receiving voluntary gifts.
And the state is the only institution which can use the revenue
from this organized theft to presume to control and regulate people’s
lives and property. Hence, the institution of the state establishes
a socially legitimatized and sanctified channel for bad people
to do bad things, to commit regularized theft and to wield dictatorial

Statism therefore
encourages the bad, or at least the criminal elements of human
nature. As Frank H. Knight trenchantly put it: “The probability
of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the
possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability
that an extremely tenderhearted person would get the job of whipping
master in a slave plantation.”[10]

A free society,
by not establishing such a legitimated channel for theft and tyranny,
discourages the criminal tendencies of human nature and encourages
the peaceful and the voluntary. Liberty and the free market discourage
aggression and compulsion, and encourage the harmony and mutual
benefit of voluntary interpersonal exchanges, economic, social,
and cultural.

Since a system
of liberty would encourage the voluntary and discourage the criminal,
and would remove the only legitimated channel for crime and aggression,
we could expect that a free society would indeed suffer less from
violent crime and aggression than we do now, though there is no
warrant for assuming that they would disappear completely. That
is not utopianism, but a common-sense implication of the change
in what is considered socially legitimate, and in the reward-and-penalty
structure in society.

We can approach
our thesis from another angle. If all men were good and none had
criminal tendencies, then there would indeed be no need for a
state, as conservatives concede. But if on the other hand all
men were evil, then the case for the state is just as shaky, since
why should anyone assume that those men who form the government
and obtain all the guns and the power to coerce others, should
be magically exempt from the badness of all the other persons
outside the government?

Tom Paine,
a classical libertarian often considered to be navely optimistic
about human nature, rebutted the conservative evil-human-nature
argument for a strong state as follows: “If all human nature be
corrupt, it is needless to strengthen the corruption by establishing
a succession of kings, who be they ever so base, are still to
be obeyed…” Paine added that “NO man since the fall hath ever
been equal to the trust of being given power over all.”[11]

And as the
libertarian F.A. Harper once wrote:

Still using
the same principle that political rulership should be employed
to the extent of the evil in man, we would then have a society
in which complete political rulership of all the affairs of
everybody would be called for…. One man would rule all. But
who would serve as the dictator? However he were to be selected
and affixed to the political throne, he would surely be a totally
evil person, since all men are evil. And this society would
then be ruled by a totally evil dictator possessed of total
political power. And how, in the name of logic, could anything
short of total evil be its consequence? How could it be better
than having no political rulership at all in that society?[12]

since, as we have seen, men are actually a mixture of good and
evil, a regime of liberty serves to encourage the good and discourage
the bad, at least in the sense that the voluntary and mutually
beneficial are good and the criminal is bad. In no theory of human
nature, then, whether it be goodness, badness, or a mixture of
the two, can statism be justified.

In the course
of denying the notion that he is a conservative, the classical
liberal F.A. Hayek pointed out: “The main merit of individualism
[which Adam Smith and his contemporaries advocated] is that it
is a system under which bad men can do least harm. It is a social
system which does not depend for its functioning on our finding
good men for running it, or on all men becoming better than they
now are, but which makes use of men in all their given variety
and complexity…”[13]

It is important
to note what differentiates libertarians from utopians in the pejorative
sense. Libertarianism does not set out to remold human nature. One
of socialism’s major goals is to create, which in practice means
by totalitarian methods, a New Socialist Man, an individual whose
major goal will be to work diligently and altruistically for the

is a political philosophy which says: Given any existent human nature,
liberty is the only moral and the most effective political system.

libertarianism – as well as any other social system –
will work better the more individuals are peaceful and the less
they are criminal or aggressive. And libertarians, along with
most other people, would like to attain a world where more individuals
are “good” and fewer are criminals. But this is not the doctrine
of libertarianism per se, which says that whatever
the mix of man’s nature may be at any given time, liberty is best.

Libertarians believe that every person knows his own
interests best.

Just as the
preceding charge holds that libertarians believe all men to be
perfectly good, so this myth charges them with believing that
everyone is perfectly wise. Yet, it is then maintained, this is
not true of many people, and therefore the state must intervene.

But the libertarian
no more assumes perfect wisdom than he postulates perfect goodness.
There is a certain common sense in holding that most men are better
apprised of their own needs and goals then is anyone else. But
there is no assumption that everyone always knows his own interest
best. Libertarianism rather asserts that everyone should have
the right to pursue his own interest as he deems best.
What is being asserted is the right to act with one’s own person
and property, and not the necessary wisdom of such action.

It is also
true, however, that the free market – in contrast to government
– has built-in mechanisms to enable people to turn freely
to experts who can give sound advice on how to pursue one’s interests
best. As we have seen earlier, free individuals are not hermetically
sealed from one another. For on the free market, any individual,
if in doubt about what his own true interests may be, is free
to hire or consult experts to give him advice based on their possibly
superior knowledge. The individual may hire such experts and,
on the free market, can continuously test their soundness and

on the market, therefore, tend to patronize those experts
whose advice will prove most successful. Good doctors, lawyers,
or architects will reap rewards on the free market, while poor
ones will tend to fare badly. But when government intervenes,
the government expert acquires his revenue by compulsory levy
upon the taxpayers. There is no market test of his success in
advising people of their own true interests. He only need have
ability in acquiring the political support of the state’s machinery
of coercion.

Thus, the
privately hired expert will tend to flourish in proportion to
his ability, whereas the government expert will flourish in proportion
to his success in currying political favor. Moreover, the government
expert will be no more virtuous than the private one; his only
superiority will be in gaining the favor of those who wield political
force. But a crucial difference between the two is that the privately
hired expert has every pecuniary incentive to care about his clients
or patients, and to do his best by them. But the government expert
has no such incentive; he obtains his revenue in any case. Hence,
the individual consumer will tend to fare better on the free market.


hope that this essay has contributed to clearing away the rubble
of myth and misconception about libertarianism. Conservatives and
everyone else should politely be put on notice that libertarians
do not believe that everyone is good, nor that everyone
is an all-wise expert on his own interest, nor that every individual
is an isolated and hermetically sealed atom. Libertarians are not
necessarily libertines or hedonists, nor are they necessarily atheists;
and libertarians emphatically do believe in moral principles.

Let each
of us now proceed to an examination of libertarianism as it really
is, unencumbered by myth or legend. Let us look at liberty plain,
without fear or favor. I am confident that, were this to be done,
libertarianism would enjoy an impressive rise in the number of
its followers.


John Kenneth Galbraith, The
Affluent Society
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958); F.A.
Hayek, “The Non-Sequitur of the ‘Dependence Effect,'” Southern
Economic Journal (April, 1961), pp. 346–48.

Irving Kristol, “No Cheers for the Profit Motive,” Wall Street
Journal (Feb. 21, 1979).

For a call for applying universal ethical standards to government,
see Pitirim A. Sorokin and Walter A. Lunden, Power
and Morality: Who Shall Guard the Guardians?
Porter Sargent, 1959), pp. 16–30.

Frank S. Meyer, In
Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo
(Chicago: Henry
Regnery, 1962), p. 66.

Thomas E. Davitt, S.J., “St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law,”
in Arthur L. Harding, ed., Origins
of the Natural Law Tradition
(Dallas, Tex.: Southern
Methodist University Press, 1954), p. 39.

A.P. d’Entrèves, Natural
(London: Hutchinson University Library, 1951). pp.

Karl Wittfogel, Oriental
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), esp.
pp. 87–100.

On this and other totalitarian Christian sects, see Norman Cohn,
of the Millennium
(Fairlawn, N.J.: Essential Books, 1957).

Dale Vree, “Against Socialist Fusionism,” National Review
(December 8, 1978), p. 1547. Heilbroner’s article was in Dissent,
Summer 1978. For more on the Vree article, see Murray N. Rothbard,
“Statism, Left, Right, and Center,” Libertarian Review
(January 1979), pp. 14–15.

Journal of Politica1 Economy (December 1938), p.
869. Quoted in Friedrich A. Hayek, The

to Serfdom
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1944), p. 152.

“The Forester’s Letters, III” (orig. in Pennsylvania Journal,
Apr. 24, 1776), in The

of Thomas Paine
(ed. M. D. Conway, New York: G. E
Putnam’s Sons, 1906), I, 149–150.

F.A. Harper, “Try This On Your Friends,” Faith and Freedom
(January, 1955). p. 19.

F.A. Hayek, Individualism
and Economic Order
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1948), reemphasized in the course of his “Why I am Not a Conservative,”
Constitution of
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 529.

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer
of the Mises Institute. He
was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.

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