Criticism of Jeffrey Sach’s article “Libertarian Illusions”

Jeffrey Sachs wrote an article in the Huffington Post two weeks ago titled “Libertarian Illusions”. I’m not going to go line by line but rather criticize a few of his points that portray libertarianism incorrectly, so if you want to read the entire article you can find it here.

Like many extreme ideologies, libertarianism gives a single answer to a complicated world. It seems to cut through the fog and get to the heart of solutions; illusions, alas, but powerful ones nonetheless.

This is probably one of the largest misunderstandings of libertarianism and yet a common point made against it. Libertarianism is a guideline for morality, not some sort of solution for every problem. In fact, rather than creating a specific solution, it limits the possible solutions to those deemed moral  by the non-aggression principle, in which individuals may do as they wish as long as they are not aggressing against another individual’s liberty.

This is not a “single answer to a complicated world.” Contrary to Sach’s opinion, statism gives a single answer to a complicated world: violence. If we want something done, we shall impose it on you. If we have a problem, we shall use aggressive force as our solution. Meanwhile, libertarianism says “Perhaps there is another solution without violence. Perhaps liberty can be respected and a solution still be found.”

Sachs continues:

Yet the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values. Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable — all are to take a back seat.

This is correct yet feeds the stereotype that libertarians won’t  pursue other values.  Libertarians simply believe that all those values can be sought after even as liberty is maintained.

Later he states:

By taking an extreme view — that liberty alone is to be defended among all of society’s values — libertarians reach extreme conclusions. Suppose a rich man has a surfeit of food and a poor man living next door is starving to death. The libertarian says that the government has no moral right or political claim to tax the rich person in order to save the poor person. Perhaps the rich person should be generous and give charity to the neighbor, the libertarian might say (or might not), but there is nothing that the government should do. The moral value of saving the poor person’s life simply does not register when compared with the liberty of the rich person.

Here, Sachs creates a false dichotomy. Is the only solution that the rich man must give the poor man for the poor man to survive? And what is Sach’s definition of government? Is it a group of individuals with a monopoly on aggressive force? If so, why can’t these individuals simply help the poor man out themselves? Why is violence the only answer? Statism creates a giant mental block. Those who choose to use violence cannot stop using it or even begin to think that there could be another possibility. We must steal from the rich man to save the starving man’s life! After stating libertarianism has a single answer for every problem, Sachs goes on to demonstrate that he himself only has a single answer to his own problem: force. The irony.

To finish off, here’s a response from Dr. Bob Murphy with a crystal clear example:

Yep. Just like if Sachs or any of his readers took their kids to the playground, it would never in a million years occur to them to say, “Johnny, today we’re going to feed some homeless people, so go take the lunch from that chunky kid over there, even if he doesn’t want to share.” No, that would be stealing, and no parent would ever tell his kid it’s OK to steal, even though by so doing it might allow us to achieve other worthy goals.


Posted on January 29, 2012, in Ethics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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