Libertarian History/Philosophy

Tackling Straw Men is Easier Than Critiquing Libertarianism

And so far more common


Maybe I'm being unreasonable, but I think it behooves a critic to understand what he's criticizing. I realize that tackling straw men is much easier than dealing with challenging arguments, but that's no excuse for the shoddy work we find in John Edward Terrell's New York Times post, "Evolution and the American Myth of the Individual."

In his confused attempt to criticize libertarians (and Tea Party folks, whom I'll ignore here), Terrell gets one thing right when he says, "The thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication" (emphasis added).

Indeed it is. Unfortunately for Terrell's case, it's his treacherous fabrication.

Terrell targets the Enlightenment and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which is doubly funny. Libertarians don't claim Rousseau as a forebear; he was an advocate of imposing the "general will" — ascertained through democratic procedures — on dissidents as a means of forcing them to be "free." Does that sound libertarian to Terrell?

As for the Enlightenment, last I checked Adam Smith was a principal of the Scottish wing of that intellectual movement. And he never would have claimed that "it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements." (I'm not aware of French Enlightenment economists who thought that either.) Has Terrell never heard of Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1859 — 17 years before The Wealth of Nations and revised throughout his life? Or is he in that group of scribblers who thinkThe Wealth of Nations was all that Smith had to say about the human enterprise? (Of course,The Wealth of Nations also does not embrace the view that Terrell ascribes to libertarians.) For Terrell's edification, I'll point out that The Theory of Moral Sentiments is an extended discussion of "fellow-feeling," that is, our natural sympathy for others.

Smith would laugh at any portrayal of the isolated, allegedly self-sufficient individual as the summit of human development. No less than the great Greek philosophers, Adam Smith understood how inherently social the individual person is. The self itself is a product of social life. People, he said, seek praise from their fellows and, importantly, aspire to be worthy of praise.

"What so great happiness as to be beloved, and to know that we deserve to be beloved? What so great misery as to be hated, and to know that we deserve to be hated?" Smith asks. The reason, he makes clear, is not merely that a good reputation produces material benefits. As hewrites on page one,

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

By coincidence, just before reading Terrell's post, I had listened to Russ Roberts's EconTalk interview with Vernon Smith, the Nobel laureate who is steeped in the economics tradition of Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek. The topic of discussion was The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which is entirely appropriate considering that Roberts and Vernon Smith are two of the small group of professional economists who are intimately familiar with the book. (Another is Dan Klein, with whom Roberts held a multipart book-club discussion. Check out Roberts's new book about The Theory of Moral SentimentsHow Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness.)

At one point in the interview, Vernon Smith notes enthusiastically,

[Adam Smith] says, imagine a person, a member of the species being brought up entirely isolated.… He says that person can no more understand what it means for his mind to be deformed than for his face to be deformed. And Smith says — I'm paraphrasing — bring him into society and you give him the mirror he needed before. In other words, the looking glass in which we are able to see ourselves as others see us.

Thus society is indispensable for the proper development of the person.

Vernon Smith has also written (in "The Two Faces of Adam Smith," 1998) that Adam Smith's two published works both describe

one behavioral axiom, "the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another," where the objects of trade I will interpret to include not only goods, but also gifts, assistance, and favors out of sympathy.… [W]hether it is goods or favors that are exchanged, they bestow gains from trade that humans seek relentlessly in all social transactions. Thus, Adam Smith's single axiom, broadly interpreted … is sufficient to characterize a major portion of the human social and cultural enterprise. It explains why human nature appears to be simultaneously self-regarding and other-regarding.

Does it sound as though either of the Smiths would be inclined to deny, as Terrell puts it, that "evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others"?

Has Terrell not heard of Adam or Vernon Smith? Or F.A. Hayek or James Buchanan (two Nobel laureates, so their names have been in the papers)? Or Russ Roberts? Or Dan Klein? And while we're at it, let's drop the name Herbert Spencer. As Spencer wrote in Social Statics(1851):

The increasing assertion of personal rights is an increasing demand that the external conditions needful to a complete unfolding of the individuality shall be respected….

Yet must this higher individuation be joined with the greatest mutual dependence. Paradoxical though the assertion looks, the progress is at once toward complete separateness and complete union. But the separateness is of a kind consistent with the most complex combinations for fulfilling social wants; and the union is of a kind that does not hinder entire development of each personality. Civilization is evolving a state of things and a kind of character in which two apparently conflicting requirements are reconciled.

He anticipated "at once perfect individuation and perfect mutual dependence."

If Terrell has never encountered these thinkers, how much research could he have done before he opined about libertarianism? Why should we take Terrell seriously?

I wish I could understand intellectuals who seem to form a priori notions about their opponents, do no empirical research to see if these notions hold up, and then go public with criticisms that should embarrass them badly. If I may say something in the spirit of The Theory of Moral SentimentsI am embarrassed that a fellow member of the human race has written something so ridiculous.

What people like Terrell don't realize — or perhaps realize too well — is that the fundamental point in dispute is not whether the individual is a social animal or a creature best suited for an atomistic existence. No libertarian I know of subscribes to the latter notion. The point in dispute is whether proper social life should be founded on peaceful consensual cooperation or on compulsion. (See my "What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.")

Terrell asserts a dubious distinction between thinking of society as natural and thinking society as a matter merely of convention. I says it's dubious, and of doubtful significance, because the conventionalist (David Hume, perhaps?) still believes that given their nature, only a social existence generated by certain conventions is appropriate for human beings.

But if for argument's sake we accept Terrell's distinction and his preference for naturalism, we still must ask: if society is natural, why must we be compelled to be social? Why is aggressive force — the initiation of violence, which robs persons of their dignity and self-determination — acceptable when free and spontaneous cooperation — voluntary exchange and mutual aid — ought to work reasonably well?  Do the Terrells of the world believe that society would fail without violence?  That, I submit, is bizarre.

It is precisely because human beings are social by nature that physical force should be banned except to repel aggressors and to effect restitution for torts.

I welcome the day that someone writes a serious criticism of liberalism/libertarianism that reflects a real understanding of what is being criticized. Terrell and like-minded folks would expect that of their critics. How about applying the Golden Rule, guys? Go home and do your homework. Then come back and give us your best shot. I promise I'll be waiting.

This article originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.


NEXT: Noah Berlatsky on the Feminist Debate About Sex Work in Video Games

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. My Uncle Nathan got a stunning cream Cadillac CTS-V Sedan by working part-time at home online… Check This Out

      1. That is slander. According to the obit:
        “‘Uncle’ Nathan Pulaski passed on Friday, Dec 6th, after a short illness. He is survived by his devoted niece, Jane Pulaski-Alvarez and his nephew Arnold Pulaski. Uncle Nathan served in his country for 15 years in the coast guard followed by a career as a technician for Michigan Bell. After struggling with a period of unemployment, Uncle Nathan fell victim to an Internet scam advertised in the comments section of his favorite libertarian news and opinion blog. The scam drained his bank accounts but awarded him his most prized possession, a stunning cream Cadillac CTS-V Sedan, so beloved that he was found in its drivers seat clinging to the steering wheel last Friday”

  2. “I welcome the day that someone writes a serious criticism of liberalism/libertarianism that reflects a real understanding of what is being criticized.”

    They can’t, which is why they have to create straw men and caricatures to attack.

    1. He’s not trying to write a serious critique. He’s writing an essay that will make the chin-stroking “intellectuals” reading his rag nod their heads in serious agreement.

      1. exactly. That is their primary motivator.

  3. You are full of shit Richman. There is no straw man, Terrell is right on the mon….I mean mark. We all know the only reason anyone would ever want personal liberty is so that they can keep orphan slaves working in salt mines while they laugh maniacally and paddle around in their swimming pool full of money like Scrooge McDuck.

    1. I hope that you do not do the paddling yourself.

      1. You have to paddle yourself. The orphans might pocket one of those coins; next thing you know he’s sneaking out of your estate, eating something other than gruel, getting some kind of education, etc.


        1. You can’t just do all the paddling yourself. I have my child slaves paddle the other child slaves.

      2. Paddling the school canoe… You better believe that’s a paddling.

        1. That sounds like a euphamism for masturbation.


          1. Masturbation? That’s a paddling.

          2. So “coxswain” should be spelled “cock’s wain”?

            1. But it’s still pronounced “cock’s in”.

    2. Immediately thought of this.

  4. I think the proggies believe that most people ARE greedy and selfish by nature and so to help the lessor you NEED the government to come in and redistribute everything “fairly”. Never mind the moral implication nor the consequences of theft.

    1. It’s just projection. The most selfish, greedy and self-aggrandizing people are the people in government who actively seek to obtain more power for the state and by extension and themselves and their cronies.

      It’s also an example of misanthropy. If people are that bad when left alone that it must follow that we require a strong, centralized authority to keep them in line and dammit, the people who read and write The New York Times are the enlightened and benign despots we need!

    2. If proggies truly believe this, then they must also believe that as individuals pass under the threshold of a government building, their entire character changes to that of a benevolent saint.

      Progressives are the most religious people on earth.

  5. Rousseau didn’t just support pressure by democracy. He also argued that the general will would be developed through correct education and thinking. Ergo if you didn’t support the general will you didn’t think correctly and could be ignored.

  6. Critics of libertarianism often confuse “society” with “government.” When doing this, they are inadvertently making our argument for us.

    1. Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

      We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education.

      We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all.

      We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality.

      And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

  7. So people that recognize that voluntary cooperation and exchange produces emergent order are anti-social psychopaths, while people that believe compulsion and violence (directed by them, of course) are essential to create order and prevent chaos are noble selfless heros.

    Uh, ok, sure.

    1. You don’t understand, we are government and government represents us. We are moral people who strive for equality, and government is just the collective structure we use to make society function for everyone. Now excuse me while I get my outrage on about a black man who was strangled to death for selling loose cigarettes.

  8. Money is an essential part of our life,without money we are nothing.When ilost my job i was very depressed then my sister tell me about online jobs.she tell me that she
    earns 11k a month,so i tell her that i am interested in it and after that day i am earning 88$ per hour.You can also earn,

    This is what i do….. http://WWW.WORK4HOUR.COM

    1. This bot is a very slow learner. Apparently after several years of no clicks it is now attempting to pepper its spam with libertarian appealing pitches.

      Boooo. I vote for Pedo-bot.

  9. Should be 1759 for pub. date of Moral Sentiments.

  10. Oh sure, and all this coming from someone named “Rich Man.” Check your privilege.

  11. OT: DOUBLE DOWN ON DERP!!!!…..kie-313328

    OR, how I learned to stop worrying and love fascism!!

    1. It is just so much more Zerlina Maxwell, which is itself uncreative, unoriginal, dismissal of reality in favor of narrative value.

      Rape is a vicious crime, to trivialize it the way they do, really limits the potential for some kind of solution.

    2. Jackie requested Erdely not contact her rapists.

      My story is true, I swear. Just take my word for it.

    3. Are you the same Monte Cristo who used to post in the LJ Libertarianism community back in the day?

      1. No, I am Monte CRISCO. Southern, y’know? Attention to detail, private…

        1. Yeah, I’m really not interested in the details of your privates, no matter how greasy and slippery they are

  12. 1759, not 1859. Just trollin’.

  13. Brilliant critique. Wasn’t familiar with Spencer and looking for the 1851 tome now.

  14. I’ve often felt the same about critics of the theory of natural selection. They also can’t be bothered to understand what they’re arguing against.

  15. “The point in dispute is whether proper social life should be founded on peaceful consensual cooperation or on compulsion.” —-

    I love it! This is the basis of Mormon mythology (maybe all Judeo-Christians). Compulsion is the way/definition of Satanism as defined by LDS doctrine. Satan was cast from heaven because of his desire to compel men into righteousness.

    Unfortunately, “. . .obey the laws of the land,” is also one of their primary articles of faith which runs quite contrary to what God apparently had in mind before everything was created.

  16. Leftists can’t really argue their own proposals, so all they can do if imagine an exaggerated version of their perceived enemies and argue against that.
    I’ts been this way for a long ass time

  17. the other side of the coin is that a lot of libertarians are just as reactionary. You can’t suggest that complete anarchy is a bad idea, or that maybe some factual claims made by people we don’t agree with are true.

    As a libertarian you’ll never get a harder, shriller, more violent fight for your proposals than from other libertarians who are pissed that you aren’t doing it right and perfectly philosophically purist.

    1. I think that the fixation on philosophical purity often has to do with the realization that creating real change is hard work that generally must be invested over a long time. Who wants to roll the stone all the way up the hill, only to have it roll back down again? When libertarians point out and oppose the impure, this can be because they don’t want to invest so much in something that obviously contains the seed of its own, inevitable destruction. It takes a while before one can recognize nuggets of true liberty in the usually ugly hodgepodge of political “compromise,” or assess that a particular deal will yield durable net liberty, despite the inclusion of some objectionable provisions. I would rather that libertarians err on the side of purity, however, because if you lower your standards too much, it becomes very easy to accept “compromises” that are, in reality, capitulations: decreasing net liberty when all is said and done. Unfortunately, such deals are frequently put on the table. Libertarians are completely correct to reject them, but then are then criticized for being obstinate purists, unwilling to play the political game of compromise.

    2. As a libertarian you’ll never get a harder, shriller, more violent fight for your proposals than from other libertarians who are pissed that you aren’t doing it right and perfectly philosophically purist.

      I’m happy I make you so butthurt. As a libertarian, you must first read and comprehend the terminology and concepts central to the philosophy before you can shout from the tops of mountains that you are the quintessential libertarian. That applies especially to you.

      You call it purism, I call it being logically consistent. The Non-Aggression Principle is the Non-Aggression Principle, it’s not the Non-Aggression except if you wear a costume Principle. It’s also not the Non-Aggression except for ‘common good’ Principle.

      I’m glad you find such disagreement so debasing to your outlook. But clearly you’re the one who’s pissed. As you should be, you’ve been wasting your time and everyone else’s whose read your posts full of your ill-defined and poorly reasoned worldview. Take your social contract and passive consent over to the library and read a fucking book, start with the basics.

  18. I think “critiques” such as Terrell’s are part of a larger project of spreading disinformation about libertarianism, in order to co-opt and control the meaning of the word. Terrell doesn’t do his homework, in large part because he doesn’t want readers to do their homework. If people actually understood libertarianism, they might like it, and they might listen less to the Terrells of the world. So it is in the interests of the latter to foist unpleasant or fatally-flawed strawmen on the world as illustrations of “libertarianism,” so that their own flock doesn’t stray. The point seems not to look squarely at libertarianism and point out its shortcomings, but rather to keep people from looking in the libertarian direction at all. Not that there is any specific conspiracy against libertarians; the same approach would be used against ANY potentially effective challenger to the powers-that-be. The strawman critique is thus a backhanded compliment, implicitly acknowledging that libertarianism, properly understood, is capable of subverting the ruling order that Terrell serves and supports.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.