Libertarianism Comes of Age


THE LIBERTARIAN ALTERNATIVE. Edited by Tibor R. Machan, Chicago: Nelson-Hall Co., 1974, 553 pp., $12.50.

[S]urely as the monstrous systems of collectivism which now dominate men's minds and actions grind to their inexorable halt in poverty, misery, and undisguisable slavery, man must awaken from his present trance of infatuations and ask for new and correct answers to the problems of his existence and freedom. And when he does, he will find at hand the answers he needs already largely hammered out, thanks to those stubborn armorers of thought…who worked at their forges through the night. (p. 54)

With this arresting metaphor, John O. Nelson characterizes Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, and other progenitors of twentieth century libertarianism. The metaphor is equally applicable to Nelson himself and the other contributors to Tibor R. Machan's new anthology, The Libertarian Alternative.

The book symbolizes a new stage of maturity in libertarian thought. The necessary first stage was dominated by a few seminal thinkers who exerted a powerful influence over their followers but who generally maintained a vertical, master-pupil relationship (symbolized by the phrase, "students of Objectivism"). A period of ferment followed, in which erstwhile "students" established innumerable, short-lived discussion groups and publications. Occasional flashes of brilliance and originality illuminated this period, but mainly what one witnessed was immature, derivative, and (especially as it related to Rand) incredibly lacking in tact. The appearance of The Libertarian Alternative marks the stage at which a second intellectual generation has emerged in sufficient numbers to engage in dialogue and carry on the clarification, systematization, and application of libertarianism.

This book is an indispensable guide to current developments in libertarian thought. It is expensive, but handsomely produced and remarkably free of typographical errors. Most importantly, the essays are of uniformly high quality. The list of contributors is long and impressive. There are scholars with wide influence in the academic community (John Hospers, Milton Friedman, John Nelson, Yale Brozen, Bruce Goldberg) and theorists held in high esteem by libertarians (Mises, Hazlitt, Rothbard, Branden, Harper, Kirzner, Sennholz). There are several writers who have recently begun to make significant contributions (D.T. Armentano, Machan, Eric Mack, and Alan Reynolds), as well as a number of younger intellectuals who are beginning to emerge from the ranks. Most of the material was drawn from libertarian periodicals: six articles each from REASON and the Freeman, three each from Persuasion and Left and Right, nine others from libertarian or conservative publications or scholarly publications. There are also six new papers. Machan has wisely included several papers which, though frequently cited, have hitherto been hard to obtain: e.g., R.A. Childs' "Big Business and the Rise of American Statism", and Rothbard's "Left and Right" and "The Anatomy of the State". There is an important new paper by Eric Mack, "Individualism, Rights, and the Open Society." A most pleasant surprise, for me, was Bruce Goldberg's searching critique of "Skinner's Behaviorist Utopia." The articles range from analytical studies of central concepts such as freedom, free will, justice, rights, property and the state to papers which apply these concepts to contemporary social issues such as the draft, antitrust, welfare laws, price controls, minimum wage laws, foreign aid, involuntary mental hospitalization, conservation, transportation, and government regulation of the drug industry.

Machan has tried to give libertarianism the appearance of a united front. This approach has obvious advantages in a book directed toward the general public, but to an insider it leaves the impression of wallpaper used to conceal spreading cracks, such as the archy-anarchy issue and the Chicago school-Austrian school controversy. If libertarianism is to be a viable theoretical movement, these issues must be resolved in a satisfactory way; if not here, then elsewhere. Nevertheless, Machan's anthology conveys much of the richness of contemporary libertarian dialogue. In view of the fact that the book presents a reviewer with an embarrassment of riches and that it would be futile to try to canvass all of the contributions (I have no doubt that they will stimulate much future discussion), I shall confine my discussion to two main philosophical themes which run through many of the essays: the problem of free will and the problem of the moral basis of libertarianism.


The term "libertarianism" is used in philosophical journals in a special sense: it refers to the metaphysical doctrine that man has a free will. The connection between this metaphysical doctrine and the social and political philosophy also designated as "libertarianism" is taken up in several of the essays in The Libertarian Alternative.

The free-will controversy may be summed up with the following list of propositions: (I) Some human actions are free. (II) Every event (including every human action) has a cause. (III) The cause of an event is a preceding event (or set of events) which it follows according to invariable laws of nature. (IV) An event cannot both be caused as defined in (III) and free.

These four propositions are plainly incompatible. The hard determinist uses (II), (III) and (IV) as premises to prove that (I) is false. Opponents of the hard determinist attack one or another of his premises. The Indeterminist attacks (II), arguing that free human actions are simply uncaused. The soft determinist tries to have his cake and eat it too by denying (IV): free actions are causally determined by preceding events. Nathaniel Branden, in "Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and the Law" (a revision of an Objectivist article that has been enormously influential) finds both these positions wanting (soft determinism on pp. 443f, indeterminism by implication on p. 440), and attacks (III) instead. Branden argues for the necessity of rejecting the nowadays generally accepted Galilean and Humean conception of causality in terms of the regular succession of motions or events, in favor of the Aristotelian doctrine that "causes were substances or things, while effects, on the other hand, were either their activities or were other substances" (p. 440, citing Windelband).

This approach allows the person, as agent, to be the cause of his own actions. Branden underscores the importance of the free-will issue for libertarianism (qua social theory): the fact that man's actions "are under the control of a faculty which is free" is "the reason why man is held responsible for his actions" (p. 430).

In addition to his discussion of causality, Branden offers illuminating insights into the volitional nature of consciousness (pp. 420-430). Surely he has described the leading competitor to the hard determinist conception of man proposed by the likes of B.F. Skinner. Most libertarians agree with Branden that free will is an issue of decisive importance for ethics and law, but they should realize that ultimately, the controversy over free will—and, especially, over proposition (III)—is an empirical issue. Given the present pace of development in the science of neurophysiology, in the development of artificial intelligence and the computer simulation of mental operations, it is very likely that it will be established within a hundred years whether or not the human brain is a deterministic system. However, Branden, along with many libertarians, believes that there is no need to wait that long. The issue can be settled right now by means of an a priori argument that "the doctrine of determinism contains a central and insuperable contradiction—an epistemological contradiction" (p. 435). Determinism "necessitates the conclusion that man can know nothing" (p. 437) and, thereby, commits "the fallacy of self-exclusion" (p. 438).

The crux of Branden's argument is that "if man believes what he has to believe, if he is not free to test his beliefs against reality and to validate or reject them—if the actions and content of his mind are determined by factors that may or may not have anything to do with reason, logic and reality—then he can never know if his conclusions are true or false" (p. 436). Very similar arguments are offered by R.A. Childs, Jr. (p. 214) and Tibor Machan (p. 247).

This argument contains a gaping lacuna. How does man's possession of free will enable him to know whether or not his beliefs are true or false or whether they are arrived at logically? In his initial, very careful, discussion of volitional consciousness, Branden makes the point that the locus of the free-will dispute is the act of focusing one's consciousness; and, he adds, "The act of focusing pertains to the operation of a man's consciousness, to its method of functioning—not to its content" (p. 425). Man is free to choose to seek awareness. But he does not, by the very fact that he is free, possess any knowledge. The contents of his consciousness are, presumably, determined by the facts of reality (including the laws of logic) via his sensory apparatus. The difficulty in the argument is concealed by the use of very ambiguous language: "If his capacity to judge is not free, there is no way for a man to discriminate between his beliefs and those of a raving lunatic" (p. 436, my italics). In response to those determinists who claim that the factor determining them is logic: "But by what means do they know this?" (ibid., my italics) "A mind that is not free to test and validate its conclusions…can have no way to tell the logical from the illogical, no way to ascertain that which compels and motivates it, no right to claim knowledge of any kind" (p. 437; his italics). There are two quite different ways of interpreting "way of knowing," "way of discriminating," etc. These can refer to a criterion for identifying things of a certain sort or to a specific mental act (e.g. focusing) necessarily involved in identifying such things. Branden cannot consistently maintain that free will supplies us with a "way of knowing" in the sense of criterion, since a consciousness derives no specific contents from the mere fact that it is free. But if "way of knowing" refers to a peculiar mental act, the determinist can respond that nothing in his theory rules out such mental acts: he merely claims that they are determined according to proposition (III) as well as (II). If Branden is arguing that the determinist cannot refute the skeptic who asserts "You may be utterly insane (though you have no apparent reason for thinking you are)," it is hard to see how the free will theorist can refute him either.


Bruce Goldberg deploys a different, but related, argument against B.F. Skinner. He quite rightly takes Skinner to task for obscuring the distinction between causes of and influences on behavior, and presents some prima facie examples of the difference (e.g. causing a reflex kick by kicking a person's knee, as opposed to asking him to raise his foot). It is appropriate to speak of influences in cases in which the person remains in control of his behavior. Goldberg presents a straightforward case for proposition (IV). Let A be any action.

(1) "A is caused" entails "A is out of the agent's control"

(2) "A is out of the agent's control" entails "A is not free" so that

(3) "A is caused" entails "A is not free." If it were the case that

(4) "A is influenced" entails "A is caused," it would follow—from (1) and (4)—that

(5) "A is influenced" entails "A is out of the agent's control" to which there are obvious counterexamples. Goldberg points out that a general can respond deliberately and calmly to intelligence of an enemy-troop concentration, without going berserk and "running in the direction of the enemy camp, knife in hand, screaming that he is going to kill the mad beasts" (p. 103). Since, then, (5) is false, either (1) or (4) is false. [But not "either (3) or (4) is false," which is Goldberg's way of stating the matter (p. 103).] To say that A is influenced by something else is to say that the circumstances in which A occurs are relevant to the explanation of A. Hence,

(6) "A is rational" entails "A is influenced." But since Skinner assumes (4), he is also committed, by (1)-(3), to

(7) "A is rational" entails "A is not free." Goldberg concludes: "This, I submit, is absurd, for if behavior is unfree, then it is impossible that it be rational." Goldberg's point is clear when we reflect that (1), (4), and (6) imply that, insofar as an agent acts rationally, he is not in control of his actions, which is manifestly absurd. However, the absurdity of "unfree rational" behavior is evident only if by "unfree behavior" is meant reflex actions like knee jerks or totally berserk conduct. So what is really at issue is (1): Is behavior which is completely causally determined restricted to reflex acts and maniacal sprees? Or is the brain—including those regions of it involved in high level deliberation and reasoning—a deterministic system? It should be noted that (1) is dubious even for animals. The behavior of a cat painstakingly stalking a bird is not "out of control" like that of an animal that has just eaten locoweed.


Branden, Childs, Goldberg and Machan all seem to suppose that the case for social freedom in some way hinges on the case for free will. But not all of Machan's contributors explicitly assume this. Free will is conspicuously absent from three important essays: Thomas Szasz, "Involuntary Mental Hospitalization;" John Nelson, "The Two Opposed Theories of Freedom of Our Philosophical Inheritance;" and John Hospers, "What Libertarianism Is." Szasz argues against the involuntary commitment of mental patients on the grounds that "a person 'owns' his body and his personality. The physician can examine and treat a patient only with his consent; the latter is free to reject treatment…" (p. 446). Szasz maintains that all people are responsible for their acts. No one can be excused on the grounds that he is "mentally ill" (and that he, therefore, suffers from a "defect of the will"). Since his main argument presupposes the possibility of consent, Szasz is committed to the assumption that a responsible agent has a brain sufficiently unimpaired to permit intelligent consent. (Szasz, of course, attacks the myth that there are forms of "mental illness" not involving "a disorder of the physiological machinery of the body" (p. 446) ). But this is not, yet, to assume metaphysical free will. John Nelson begins his essay by explicitly sidestepping the free will issue (p. 38). He defends the (libertarian) "English theory" of Hobbes and Locke that freedom is "an absence of external hindrances, but also, a power to desire and to exercise that power" (p. 40), against the "Continental theory" of Rousseau and Kant that freedom is "obedience to the law which we prescribe to ourselves" (p. 41, quoting Rousseau). Nelson brilliantly exposes the confusions involved in the Continental theory, and tries to show how on the English theory (as interpreted by Locke) individual freedom can be reconciled with the rule of law. But his argument nowhere assumes (or even tacitly presupposes) the existence of free will.

Hospers' very lucid introductory essay makes use of Spencer's important work on the derivation of rights: "Clearly the conception of 'natural rights' originates in recognition of the truth that if life is justifiable, there must be a justification for the performance of acts essential to its preservation; and, therefore, a justification of those liberties and claims which make such acts possible" (p. 7, quoting Spencer). Here, again, the free will issue is entirely irrelevant to the attempted defense of social freedom.

To sum up, I have not been trying to suggest that free will is an illusion or that we are, after all, only fleshy robots. Free will still seems to be a live option in the explanation of human behavior. But "easy" refutations of determinism have a fishy air. Moreover, the lines of dependence of concepts crucial to libertarianism such as rights, liberty and responsibility on the metaphysical concept of free will are far from obvious.


Libertarianism is the theory that the web of human relationships should be voluntary and that the initiation of force must not be countenanced. As a social philosophy it requires an underlying moral basis, a comprehensive theory of human values and interpersonal obligations. However, there is no general agreement among libertarians as to what this basis should be. The traditional point of view (represented by John Stuart Mill's On Liberty) is utilitarian. The more recent approach (taken by Ayn Rand and those influenced by her) is to try to found libertarianism on a radically different basis, viz. ethical individualism.

In "Is a Free Society Stable?" Milton Friedman presents utilitarian arguments for laissez-faire society (p. 409). Friedman's influence on libertarians has been beneficial, insofar as they have been encouraged to discover concrete free market or voluntary alternatives to existing government programs. However, the utilitarian defense has not been notably successful over the last century. As Friedman remarks, the utilitarian defense entails arguing "against undertaking any one of a large class of actions" involving governmental intervention (p. 410), whereas the interventionist has the much easier task of arguing for governmental action in just one specific case. Moreover, the utilitarian's commitment to individual rights can never be very firm because it rests on shifting social circumstances. (Mill, it should be recalled, regards a free society as inappropriate for "barbarians".) There is a further serious difficulty in the utilitarian defense. Utility (the greatest good for the greatest number) is determined by weighing certain values against other values. Even if Friedman can show that the price for obtaining a certain goal is quite high (when measured in one value), the opposition may still think that the goal is worth it (when measured in another value): e.g. that medical care to relieve the suffering indigent, even to a limited extent, justifies extensive economic dislocations.

Rothbard, in "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty", finds the difference between libertarianism and collectivism one of means rather than ends: "Socialism, like Liberalism and against Conservatism, accepted the industrial system and the liberal goals of freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards for the masses, and an end to theocracy and war; but it tried to achieve these ends by the use of incompatible, conservative means: statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc." (p. 530). Rothbard points out glaring discrepancies in socialism between its stated goals and actual means. Nevertheless, I believe that the differences between libertarianism and socialism run far deeper than he suggests. As Nelson points out in "The Two Opposed Theories of Freedom of Our Philosophical Inheritance" (p. 41), what the socialist means when he says he prizes "freedom" is quite different from what the libertarian means. Further, the socialist, unlike the libertarian, regards economic equality as an overriding necessity. Finally, socialists have a deep-seated antipathy toward private property which makes even anarcho-capitalism repugnant to them.


The alternative is to establish libertarianism on a moral basis of explicit ethical individualism. Eric Mack pursues this alternative in "Individualism, Rights, and the Open Society", which he describes as a discussion of "the connections between…ethical individualism, natural or human rights, and the need for an open and unregulated society" (p. 21). This essay is an extension of earlier work in which Mack has displayed a capacity for original and trenchant analysis. Mack begins the essay with a clear summary of "Egoism and Rights" (Personalist, 1973), an extremely important paper. Mack defends a theory which has an affinity with Rand's objectivist ethics and which escapes the stock objections against egoism. It attaches to the teleological principle (of ethical individualism) that an individual ought to promote his own well-being, a deontic rider: the principle (of noncoercion) that an individual ought never to use coercion against another (unless to do so is necessary for his well being). The point of the last parenthetical clause is that the rider will not apply if a coercive act is necessary in a particular occasion to the agent's overall self-interest. He ingeniously argues that actions violating the rights of others are objectionable for the same reason, ultimately, as self-sacrificial acts. He illustrates his position with some clear examples. Finally, he applies his ethical principle to a variety of concrete cases, obtaining results consistent with libertarianism: the right to something does not include the right to its material implementation; there is a right to property; fraud and threats to use force are both violations of rights; there is a right to self-defense.

Mack's work is a very important step in the development of a systematic theory of ethical individualism. However, as it stands, his account seems open to criticism on at least a couple of counts. One serious difficulty involves his analysis of the expression "necessary for A's well-being."

A's performance of [action] c at [time] t is necessary only if (i) c is the first constituent of a series of actions which is more in A's interest than any other series open to him or (ii) c is the first constituent of every one of a number of series of actions each of which is as much in A's interest as any other series of actions [p. 28].

Mack suggests that although at any time "a person has an almost infinite number of series of actions open to him" to commence, "only a small percentage of the actions open to a person…are necessary to that person's interest". This is misleading. Although it follows that the noncoercion rider will cover most actions open to one at any given time (since they are not "necessary" in the defined sense), it by no means follows that the noncoercion rider will be operative in most action situations. For in most situations, very few alternative, and generally only one, series of actions will lead to an optimal state, the greatest possible well being the agent can achieve. In real life, there is generally not an alternative series of actions just as good as the best series of actions open to one. If the agent does not pursue that series of actions, he is settling for something less than the optimal state. But on Mack's account the initial action of the series leading to the optimal state is "necessary" for the agent's well being, so that the noncoercion rider will be inoperative. Perhaps the source of the problem is Mack's attempt to define "necessary for one's overall well being" in terms of optimific consequences rather than in terms of a "tolerable" or "acceptable" level of existence.


Mack's applications of his principle to concrete cases are plausible except for cases of fraud and breach of contract. Mack argues that "people have rights against being lied to and to the keeping of promises that are made to them" as follows: "Promises produce expectations; and, given these expectations induced by the promiser, persons may reorder their plans, goals, and actions. The fact that the expected (promised) event does not occur renders the person who received the promise and reordered his plans less efficacious as a direct result of the promise that was made to him" (p. 33). An obvious difficulty with this argument is that it obscures the difference between promises and statements of intention. If I sincerely declare my intention to do something without in any way binding myself (saying "I promise…," signing a contract, etc.) I am doing nothing immoral if I later change my mind and do not do what I intended to do. This is true even if my statement produced certain expectations in others. There is more to promising than producing certain expectations in others. Promising in some way involves voluntarily binding oneself or "creating rights" of others against one's own actions. The obligations involved in contracts and depositions are of a conditional or assumed nature, and should not be treated in the same way as the unconditional obligation to abstain from coercion. They require a more sophisticated treatment than libertarians have given them in the past.  There is far more in this book, and in the articles I have touched on, than I have been able to cover here. I have tried to convey some of the depth and thematic continuity to be found here and to suggest some directions which the libertarian dialogue might take in the future. I am certain that the essays found in this book will have a profound influence on that dialogue.

Fred Miller teaches philosophy at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.