Libertarianism 9: The Meaning of Liberty

This is my latest post in my libertarianism series.  Previous posts can be found here: Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4, Post 5, Post 6, Post 7, Post 8,


It has been some time since I posted to my blog.  At the end of last Spring I got wrapped up in my research travels and reading, enough so that I put my libertarianism series on the backburner.  This semester I’ve committed myself to writing more regularly.  After several months away I feel some need to reconnect to the trajectory of the ideas I’ve been exploring (Note: in the next paragraph, I’ll link to all previous posts in the series for review).

So a quick review of where we’ve been: early in this series I introduced readers to the nonaggression principle (NAP), the moral principle that is that philosophical starting point for libertarianism.  I proceeded to distinguish two major types of libertarianism: (1) minarchism (a libertarian philosophy that asserts that only a minimalist state can be morally justified) and (2) anarchism (a libertarian philosophy that asserts that no state can be justified). After surveying the work of two thinkers influential in minarchist circles–John Locke and Robert Nozick–I introduced the work of anarcholibertarian Murray Rothbard. In my last blog post I argued that Rothbard’s anarcholibertarianism is a philosophically principled system, but one that points to conclusions so absurd–for example, the conclusion that parents should have no legal obligation to feed their children–that it suggests his theory to be fundamentally flawed.  I concluded my last post by pointing to two possible objections to Rothbard’s argument.  The first is that Rothbard overvalues liberty at the expense of other values that just societies have an obligation to protect–the welfare of children, for example.

While I believe the first criticism offers one possible starting point for responding to Rothbard, in my view it is the second objection that is the more pressing one. As I noted at the conclusion of my last post several months ago,

“The problem with Rothbard is not that he values liberty too much. The problem is that he does not value liberty enough.  How can that be so?  That’s the focus of my next post.”

At first glance this criticism will seem odd.  How is it possible for one to argue that Rothbard, “Mr. Libertarian,” does not value liberty enough? What is liberty, after all? Rothbard argues that I embody a personal commitment to liberty when I refrain from acting aggressively against you. A society founded upon liberty is one in which individuals are free from aggression. But according to Rothbard, states are, by definition, aggressive.  Thus, a commitment to liberty entails that we not simply limit the role that states play.  It entails, rather, that we  eliminate states entirely, replacing them with institutions built on voluntary, consensual exchange.

Instead of focusing on the (im)practicality of Rothbard’s utopian anarchist society, I want to challenge his definition of liberty, which I believe to be fundamentally misguided. Indeed, I believe that Rothbard’s narrow conception of liberty and oversimple caricature of welfare state liberalism points to conclusions that in practice undermine liberty. To get at my critique I invite you to consider a thought experiment. (note:  I’m adapting this from an online example I came across several years ago on the companion website to Michael Sandel’s book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?):


Richard Parker is a passenger on a small transoceanic vessel that is making its way across the open sea.  One night Richard is lying asleep in his bunk when he is awakened by the sound of an alarm and shouts of sailors from the ship deck crying out, “Abandon ship! Abandon ship!”  The boat is taking on water quickly. Richard arrives on deck just in time to watch the last lifeboat dropped into the water, making its way far from the sinking boat on which he is stranded.  Richard and a few other unfortunate souls are left to fend for themselves. The boat sinks. Richard and his compatriots find themselves adrift and alone, treading water and awaiting rescue.


They wait for days. Pangs of hunger and thirst are interrupted only by stabs of terror as the shipwreck victims observe schools of sharks hovering in the waters beneath them. Richard’s compatriots begin to lose hope, and eventually they disappear beneath the waters. Richard finds himself alone.

Alas! The mast of a ship appears in the distance!  Too weak to cry out, Richard’s terror gives way to relief. As the ship draws near him, Richard observe a skull and crossbones painted across the mainsail. Close enough, a voice calls to Richard from above.

Pirate: Argggh! I am the Dread Pirate Roberts! What brings you into these waters?

Richard: My ship sank!  I haven’t had food or water for days, and my companions have all died. How fortunate am I that you are here!  Won’t you send someone from your crew down to rescue me?  I am too weak to lift myself onto your ship.

Pirate: (pauses) Hmmmm, yes, fortunate indeed you are that I, the Dread Pirate Roberts, am here to rescue you. Let me consult for the moment with my crew.

(The Dread Pirate Roberts retreats to his cabin with a few sailors. After several minutes he returns to the deck and calls out to Richard)

Pirate: We’ve discussed your request, and we have agreed to rescue you.

Richard: Hurrah! I am saved!

Pirate: But before doing so, we have a request of our own. We are interested in an exchange of sorts.  Pirates have needs too, and it so happens that we need a new cabin boy. We make this offer to you: we will agree to rescue you from your fate on the open ocean.  In exchange you must agree to become our new cabin boy forever.  As our cabin boy you will be entitled to a portion of all future plunder.  You will eat at our common table.  You will get to enjoy life at sea with me, the Dread Pirate Roberts. But your contract with us, the exchange you must agree to, is that you will be our cabin boy in perpetuity.  What say you?

Richard: Did you say I must become your cabin boy forever?

Pirate: Yes.  That’s what “in perpetuity” means.  Now, what say you? Shall we pluck you from these dark waters?

Richard: That’s a might steep price to pay. I just need you to lower someone down to lift me onto your boat.  I’m happy to serve you until we get to the next port.  How about we agree to that?

Pirate: (Laughing) No, that’s not our offer. You see anyone else out here in a position to rescue you? It’s the law of supply and demand, my friend.  The demand for rescue is high, and the supply of rescuers is low. The decision is yours, of course. Our offer stands. Take it or leave it. We will rescue you. In return you must become our ship’s cabin boy, forever.



Consider for the moment Richard Parker’s plight from the anarcholibertarian perspective. According to Rothbard, I show that I value liberty when I refrain from acting aggressively. Rothbard would undoubtedly object were the Dread Pirate Roberts to coerce Richard to become the ship’s cabin boy.  To threaten Richard with lethal violence would be an act of aggression, an injustice that undermines his liberty.  Notice, however, that in the scenario above the Dread Pirate is not coercing Richard. He is simply considering the “market conditions,” so to speak, making Richard an offer and inviting him to choose whether or not to enter into an exchange of benefits–his rescue for a lifetime of servitude. There is no coercion here. This is a simple market exchange that either party can take or leave.

But here is the problem: while it may well be the case that the Dread Pirate Roberts is simply seeking a price that the market can bear, it seems nonsensical to say that when Richard Parker agrees to this exchange that he is acting freely. Richard’s choices are either (1) to be rescued and become the ship’s cabin boy or (2) to face imminent death on the open ocean. His choice is constrained by his desperation. For Richard the offer of the Dread Pirate Roberts is truly an offer that he cannot refuse. The fact that the threat of death is coming from his vulnerable circumstance rather than from a pirate wielding a blunderbuss doesn’t make the peril any less imminent. For Richard Parker, the liberty that anarcholibertarianism promises him is empty, form without substance.

This thought experiment illustrates what I mean when I say that libertarians like Rothbard do not value liberty enough. To stand against aggression is a good thing, but by itself this commitment does not sufficiently protect what philosopher John Rawls calls “the equal worth of liberty.” The inequalities of the current market make Richard’s choice less than free. The liberty that Rothbard protects is the liberty of those who already have power, the Dread Pirate Roberts and his lusty pirates. It is not the liberty of the Richard Parkers of the world, men and women whose opportunities are constrained by circumstances beyond their control. To truly value liberty entails not simply that the Dread Pirate avoid acting aggressively against Richard.  It also entails that the Dread Pirate attend to the conditions that put Richard Parker in a circumstance where he must choose between his life and a lifetime of servitude. 

This argument suggests an alternative way to understand the relationship between liberty and the state.  Rothbard sees states as little more than illegitimate agents of coercion, regulating free exchanges of market actors, redistributing wealth, and imposing burdens that undermine individual liberty. This caricature of state action overlooks the manner in which states can function to enhance liberty by attending to those inequalities that create substantial obstacles for society’s most vulnerable members. As Christian ethicist John Bennett observe in his 1958 book Christians and the State, 

“Instead of looking upon the state only as an enemy of freedom, it is more accurate to see the state as in many situations the best protection of freedom, especially the freedom of the economically weak…. The state is an instrument of freedom for those who are the victims of circumstance, of the impersonal economic forces that may throw them out of work, of the power of employers unless their right to collective bargaining is protected, of all kinds of injury incidental to employment unless the law of the state provides some means of redress. The abstract individualism of the market combined with the abstract individualism of the law turned out in practice to favor the rights and the welfare of the strong and it was the state alone that could chance that tendency.” (119-120)


Undoubtedly, Rothbard and those contemporary libertarians drawn to his version of libertarian thought will find such a definition of liberty too capacious.  David Gordon, Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, challenges such an expansive definition of liberty. Libertarian freedom, says Gordon, has always meant “freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the orders of a superior to whom he was attached.” Gordon faults those who redefine freedom as a freedom from “the despotism of physical want.” In his view such a definition is “merely another name for power or wealth.” In reply, one might say to Gordon, “Yes, that is true. True liberty does require that people have the power and/or wealth to make reasonable choices about their lives. Why would acknowledging as much be a bad thing?”


Notably, my non-libertarian assessment of Rothbard parallels the insight of some libertarians who have begun questioning the narrow focus on negative liberty that typifies modern libertarianism. Jerry Taylor, formerly a staff member at the Cato Institute and current director of the Niskanen Center, argues for a more moderate libertarian posture that rejects purist ideology, embracing free markets within a community that ensures a robust safety net for the poor.  Contrary to claims that welfare-state policies undermine liberty, Taylor argues that such policies when organized efficiently and effectively are entirely compatible with libertarian principle.  “It should be fairly obvious,” says Taylor, “that one’s freedom is enhanced when one has the resources to act freely. We increase the amount of freedom in this country when we eliminate the greatest obstacle to living freely: poverty.” Taylor and his Niskanen Center collaborators offer a creative middle ground that points us beyond the tired free market/interventionist state dichotomy that has framed conversations between libertarians and their intellectual foes.





One comment

  1. Hi Vic! Glad to have you back and glad to read more provocative thoughts. I look forward to even more posts.

    Let me begin by telling you about another libertarian who sees middle ground, an academic economist whose writings I find fascinating. Mike Munger (Duke University) calls himself a “directional libertarian” rather than an “idealist libertarian.” He has come to realize that a true libertarian state is likely never going to happen, so he’s willing to support policies that “move toward” libertarian principles. For example, he’s a loud voice for a negative income tax (also called universal basic income) in lieu of (not alongside) all other welfare programs. This would allow those whom the government label “poor” to still engage in markets as they spend money as they wish. I find his compromising attitude persuasive, and I’ve been thinking more about it.

    Now, on to your post.

    Your thought experiment is interesting, but I don’t think it relates to our situation as much as you might. In the first place, the drowning man is, in fact, making the best decision for his circumstance; the fact that it’s a difficult situation doesn’t mean markets don’t apply. Your point is that he is not “free to choose,” and I add only that “free” is an arguable term. He can actually choose to drown; you would say he has no choice.

    Also, had the pirate said, “I will rescue you if you promise to murder my first mate” would bring up the question, “Is murder a crime on the open seas?” The answer to that would also apply to “Is indentured servitude a crime on the open seas?” If there is no legal body to appeal to, then the drowning man must make some moral decisions between him and his conscience (and/or God) about a) murder, or b) going back on “his word” by escaping after having been rescued. All of these are decisions based on market and/or moral consequence.

    Let’s move to direct application: Regarding your thought experiment, you wrote

    “The fact that the threat of death is coming from his vulnerable circumstance rather than from a pirate wielding a blunderbuss doesn’t make the peril any less imminent.”

    The pirate scenario is not required to arrive at the matter: In 2019, this would be the case if a person had a disease that would be cured by a $300,000 operation. The peril is imminent and brought on by a vulnerable circumstance (disease) rather than a direct aggressive act (gun pointed at head). Still, you can engage the state to coerce taxpayers to pay for the operation or coerce a physician to perform the operation. In both cases of coercion, the operation is performed by threat of violence to someone, and is thus directly negative to my liberty. The non-coercive option is to solicit some sort of charity from physicians or philanthropists.

    This is in direct contradiction to your Bennett quote:

    “The abstract individualism of the market combined with the abstract individualism of the law turned out in practice to favor the rights and the welfare of the strong and it was the state alone that could chance that tendency.”

    The state alone? Really? How about the church and/or philanthropists who are happy to donate to causes when persuaded of their value. I don’t want to cede the church’s responsibility to the coercive state.

    Also, and this is very important: when Bennett (and Rawls and, I believe, McCracken) say that markets favor “only the strong and wealthy,” I believe they ignore the work that markets have performed to lift people far above their original station. The ability to enter the tea trade during British colonial efforts gave Indian citizens a direct escape from their caste systems; billions of people around the world have exited dire poverty due to capitalistic markets. The effects of diachronic economic mobility (different from synchronic snapshots of a given moment) of people engaged in market economies show tremendous gains of positions all along the spectrum of wealth. Yes, the wealthy often gain, but so do most others as a consequence of markets.

    My final comment is to warn against the seductive language of Jerry Taylor, et al. Words like “robust” and “safety net” and even “power” are all words that I would call “vague abstractions” whose points of definition can be sharpened by many forces, including candidates for office (“free college and free healthcare for everyone in the name of robust opportunity”). As stark as the non-aggression principle seems to be, one mark of its beauty is the ease with which one can ascertain that one is being truly coerced.

    Keep writing, and I will keep reading!


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