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Court of last resort

By Tom Toles



I've been meaning to write a word about libertarianism, and this recent intersection of Kevin Drum, Will Wilkinson and Jonathan Chait seems as good a place as any to start. Plus Bob Wright advised me on Bloggingheads to start linking to other bloggers, and I think I'm off to an impressive start here today.

I have never quite gotten the libertarian thing. I get the spooky guy in the cabin in the woods libertarian. But for the rest of them it has always seemed to me that libertarian is just a nicer way to spell selfish. I know, I know, their reply is that it's another way to spell FREEDOM, and MARKET ECONOMICS, WHICH HAS BEEN SHOWN THROUGHOUT HISTORY TO BE THE GREATEST CREATOR AND SPREADER OF WEALTH EVER SEEN. That's a fairly formidable reply, as far as it goes, which I admit is pretty far. Just not quite far enough.

As to the possible shared interests of liberals and libertarians that the above-mentioned bloggers have been discussing, Wilkenson writes:

I predict Democrats will become somewhat more receptive to arguments that certain less centralized, more market-oriented policies do a better job of achieving liberal goals than do the more heavily centralized, technocratic policies favored by current Democratic opinion elites.

All well and good. That kind of pragmatism is part and parcel of how I think of my own liberalism, such as it is. What I don't get is someone who self-defines as a libertarian. This self-labeling goes beyond a leaning toward market-oriented policies to someone who claims on the one hand to be an empiricist, but on the other to have a preconceived idea as to what the correct policy answer will be. And if you look back at American history and its largest, most wrenching problems, I just don't see how libertarianism is the place you would land. --Tom Toles



By Tom Toles  | April 13, 2010; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  GOP, Obama White House, Supreme Court  
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Political Agendas

Liberals, Conservatives, Libertarians

People, Corporations, Themselves
Workers, Wealthy, Themselves
Environment, Profit, Themselves
Diplomacy, Militarism, Themselves
Democracy, Imperialism, Themselves
Freedom, Security, Themselves
Accountability, Secrecy, Themselves
Nurture, Authoritarian, Themselves
Cooperation, Dominance, Themselves
Secularism, Religiosity, Themselves
Questioning, Dogmatic, Themselves

Posted by: tiamat2 | April 20, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Tom - I din't know you were a liberal. Andy

Posted by: andy317usmc | April 16, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Dear libertarians:

I have heard of a country that is entirely free. A place where guns are widely available; where taxes are nil, where voluntary associations are the only providers of social or "governmental" services. Nobody interferes with your business, and if they do, you can just shoot them with your assault weapons. Basically, this wonderful place is the libertarian dream.

So why haven't you moved to Somalia yet?

Posted by: mr07 | April 15, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

The Libertarian philosophy is that the government is to protect us from foreign dangers and then butt out. Allow us as a people to grow and prosper without the heavy hand of government trying to be our guide or mentor. Taxation is control, federal regulation is control. More control means less personal understanding of responsibility.

Posted by: bobbo2 | April 15, 2010 5:04 AM | Report abuse

"Libertarians are white guys* whose parents handed them everything on a silver platter....Name me one black or female libertarian." ~solsticebelle (below)

Solsticebelle, as a matter of fact, I am a libertarian but haven't been handed anything on a silver platter. I worked myself through school and college and am taking on two jobs now. I am a libertarian because I, by my own effort and industry, gave myself these opportunities and don't ask for anything in return except for others not to stand in my way. Rather than having things handed to us, libertarians drive and contend that we don't need to have stuff handed to us because we want to either succeed or fail on our own. As individuals we came into this world and for better or worse, I will leave it as such.

In terms of minority or female libertarians, I am a close friend with a black man who is an avid supporter of libertarianism. And I know and have met numerous others, both minority and female.

Posted by: Mengler510 | April 13, 2010 8:57 PM | Report abuse

If you look back at American history and especially our legal system, you will notice that it is unique in that most of the policy rationale extends from the libertarian notions of individual choice. Without it, we would be indistinguishable from most European countries in terms of legal traditions. Libertarianism is not just economic, but legal as well; and the intersection of law and economics that empowers individuals to be both free in their legal rights and free in their economic choices drives America forward. That is the real lesson I've learned from our history. The government steps in from time to time to protect individual rights (e.g. ending slavery) or promoting the economy (e.g. New Deal); but in the end, our entire system is driven by the individual. The engine of technological advancement, political equality, and economic progress is and always shall be those individuals who stand alone, driven by their ambition, whatver that may be.

Posted by: Mengler510 | April 13, 2010 8:51 PM | Report abuse

" Many Republicans have stated that if Obama nominates a main-stream candidate they will approve."

Now that is nice. In general. But who will they call "main stream?"

I can not imagine they will like anyone who is nominated.

But we will see. Perhaps you are right.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | April 13, 2010 6:11 PM | Report abuse


"We learned it from watching modern conservatives!"

Ha, I would agree. At very least those two side are pretty much the same it that regard. Thank goodness there are more than two sides. If only more people realized that.

Anyways, on taxes being theft. What defines theft and how do taxes differ from them.

Representation is a moot point for justification of the morality of laws untill we start passing legislation by 100% consensus instead of simple majorities. I know Democracy is built on the concept of majority rules but Appeal to Numbers is still a logical fallacy. Representation as justification simply means acknowledging that 51 people can take away the rights of the other 49.

Alot of things have been done under the guise of laws. Japanese-Americans were held against thier will during WWII. A lot of good representation did them.

At what point do we limit the government's power over us? If they can take our money in the form of taxes. If they can take our homes in the form of development. If they can imprison us in the name of security (getting labeled Terrorist denys you rights such has Habeas Corpus). Then what can't they take or do? All legally with representation of course.

Certainly no easy answers. I should hope we all agree that Government should have limits. I hope we can all go back to having a national discussion on what those limits should be.

Posted by: BradG | April 13, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Liberty does mean that the individual is responsible and not the government. One down side is that individuals may be very stingy. It is their option. And one used to reliance on government to make sure things are done, will find it difficult to like. But it is less intrusive and has th potential to be fair. But without civic minded, educated people - it will fail.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | April 13, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Ok, point taken on the taxes - income taxes are so ingrained in my head I hadn't even considered other types of taxes like consumption taxes. I don't think the whole Fair Tax idea is being taken seriously enough by mainstream politicians.

But I disagree about taxes being stealing. Unless you're taxed without representation (like all those suckers in DC!), you have a say in how your taxes are spent. That is why we had that revolution after all.

"Why must modern liberals force their sense of morality on others?"

We learned it from watching modern conservatives!

Posted by: Gurduloo | April 13, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse


You may want to actually read my post before jumping to conclusions. You present a false dilemma that downplays the serious moral discussion of whether taxes are morally right or not? Is it OK to steal from one to give to another or to pay for some third party project?

There are many ways to pay for government. Of course a libertarian style government would not need much in the way of taxes to begin with. Certain consumption taxes make the most sense. For example the tax on gasoline is intended to pay for interstate roads. So, those who use the roads the most (consume the most gasoline) pay the most. Taxing income makes very little sense from a moral standpoint but taxing related consumption is a good way to make taxes more like a fee for service.


I take offense at your straw man that all libertarians are athiests. That is certainly not true. I subscribe to libertarian and minarchist mostly because of my faith. Being a liberal christian is rooted in the belief that people have the right to make thier own faith choices. I simply take that stance on social and economic issuea as well. I think social justice should be carried out at the personal and private level. To do so on the public level would be wrong in that you would be forcing some people to pay for actions they are morally against.

Once you give the government the power to do the things you agree with you also gove it the power to do things you don't agree with.

Everyones definition of justice is different. Why must modern liberals force thier sense of morality on others?

Posted by: BradG | April 13, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

To solsticebelle:

I will name one female libertarian:
Sharon Harris is PRESIDENT of
Advocates for Self Government, a Libertarian organization.
There are lots more.

To Tom Toles:
I expect your knee-jerk ultra-left-wing cartoons, but today's is not only offensive, it is not true. Many Republicans have stated that if Obama nominates a main-stream candidate they will approve.

Posted by: RAB2 | April 13, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

I can't understand why no one understands that libertarians are atheists. Glenn Beck comes the closest to understanding. If you belong to a religion that preaches social justice, run for the hills.

Libertarians preach the good of the one. The individual rights of each of us are important in achieving the best life for ourselves. If all people did the same, then there wouldn't be any need for social justice, as each person would be achieving the best life they could for themselves. Therefore, we do not even consider the afterlife. There is no afterlife, and there is no God in the libertarian world.

Remember that this philosophy was developed and disseminated by Ayn Rand. All libertarians want to become John Galt, an atheist. Or Ayn Rand, the non-fiction John Galt and an atheist. When Ron Paul says he is a libertarian, he is actually declaring that he rejects God, his teachings and all other religions as well.

{Side note: Not all atheists are libertarians, but a substantial number do profess the Ayn Rand philosophy. But all libertarians are atheist.}

Posted by: peter49 | April 13, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse


Are you seriously proposing that all taxes should be voluntary? Is that what passes for policy in libertarian circles?

Posted by: Gurduloo | April 13, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse


You seem to be setting up a false dilemma. Libertarianism doesn't mean a rejection of government but rather a government that does not interfere with personal liberties. Even the most extreme libertarians are minarchists not anarchists.

As a response to to Toles original post. I wouldn't consider selfishness as the main motivation. I consider myself a libertarian and would firmly place myself in the minarchist camp as well.

For the record last year I gave nearly 20% of my gross income to charity. Now, this was mainly because I was unemployed for half the year but kept up my givings as if I was still working. My gross amount was greater than that of Vice President Biden and as a percentage of income was greater than President Obama. Both of whom say we should be giving more to help others. I can't say I'm a libertarian because of greed.

The issue comes down to a sense that the means are more important than the ends. I don't think forcing charity at gunpoint is moral in any way. If you disagree with my portrayal of taxes... just try and not pay them. The IRS will show up to your door with guns eventually.

This comes from my belief that the initiation of coercive force is morally wrong and that the government is the biggest perpetrator is the use of force to coerce people into certain behaviors.

It's not an issue of myself be greedy or selfish but rather that I don't think we should be forcing people to be alturistic.

Posted by: BradG | April 13, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Solsticebelle: The race card, really?

Please read up on Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard. Race does not play in the Libertarian thinking.

Also, I visited the site and there are many non-whites and non-males featured.

Posted by: brent6 | April 13, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

To me, libertarianism would be served by a government that did not interfere with my personal rights or behavior, so long as they did not interfere with that of others.

My rights end at another person's nose.

Posted by: CharismaticPriest | April 13, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse


What should we call the form of government where everybody is free to do whatever they want as long as they don't hurt somebody else?

Because that's the government I want.

It sounds great, except the point that keeps tripping me up is the definition of the word, "hurt." Some people (you extremists know who you are) are "hurt" when they see other people who don't believe as they do. So they want to make laws (or use other forms of coercion) to force the others to believe "correctly." Need examples? Inquisition; Holocaust; 9/11; Texas textbooks; Obamacare.

Is neglect "hurt"? Will this new form of government allow us to neglect others in need, because such neglect is "hurting" the needy?

In the end, I really believe that the form of government is a red herring. The real issue is how to create people whose moral and critical reasoning are sufficiently developed that the government doesn't need to exist. Such people will do what's needed regardless of the form of government.

But until such people exist, I think we need a strong government to do a few things:

1. Impose freedom (see my first paragraph)

2. Protect people from hurt.

3. Help the needy.

4. Teach moral and critical thinking.

5. Get out of the way wherever possible.


Posted by: egc52556 | April 13, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

When I was living in Arizona, one of your Representatives was an avowed Libertarian. Libertarian to him meant that his sons could smoke Hash without penalty and that all government restrictions intruded on his liberty to be himself. Re apparently rejected responsibility, which is the other side of the coin. The expression of a freedom without responsibility is not liberty but licentiousness!

Posted by: RubberDucky2 | April 13, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

With only 46% of the citizens paying taxes for a bloated government to keep giving the other 54% of the citizens more and more entitlements where does it end?

Posted by: taxcutsin12 | April 13, 2010 5:29 AM | Report abuse

Anyone who watches their local fire department respond to a call; anyone who has a son or daughter in the uniformed services; anyone who attends a public school or college; anyone on Social Security disability or retirement; anyone who has Medicare, cannot be a tea partier or what currently passes for a libertarian. Anyone who demands tougher punishment for use of drugs; anyone who thinks the church or government should decide who a person can marry; anyone who thinks women should not make their own reproductive decisions cannot be what currently passes for a libertarian.

Yes, we are going to need to increase taxes and cut spending, and get government out of our personal relationships and our personal choices. Rehab and education are cheaper and more effective than jail. Where can tax cuts make a difference? Let's start with defense. Why do we still have thousands of military personnel in Europe and Asia? Germany and Korea and Japan can defend themselves. The are rich and can afford their own defensive forces.

And I agree with Ron Paul -- we marched in to Iraq and Afghanistan, and we should march right out again. Karzai threatens us that he might join the Taliban? Please, President Karzai, be our guest! And we won't let the doorknob hit us on the butt on our exit.

Posted by: dickanders38 | April 12, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

Libertarians are white guys* whose parents handed them everything on a silver platter. Now they think nobody else should get any help for anything, especially not government help...even though libertarians use roads, public utilities, etc. the same way the rest of us do.

Name me one black or female libertarian.

Posted by: solsticebelle | April 12, 2010 7:01 PM | Report abuse

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