Criticism of libertarianism includes ethical, economic, environmental and pragmatic concerns. With right-libertarianism, critics have argued that laissez-faire capitalism does not necessarily produce the best or most efficient outcome,[1] and that libertarianism's philosophy of individualism and policies of deregulation fail to prevent the abuse of natural resources.[2] Criticism of left-libertarianism is instead mainly related to anarchism and includes allegations of utopianism,[3] tacit authoritarianism[4][5] and vandalism towards feats of civilization.[6] Left and right-libertarians also engage in criticism of each other.

Ethical criticism

Aggression and coercion

The validity of right-libertarian notions of liberty and economic freedom have been questioned by critics such as Robert Lee Hale, who posits that laissez-faire capitalism is a system of aggressive coercion and restriction by property owners against others:[7]

Adam Smith's "obvious and simple system of natural liberty" is not a system of liberty at all, but a complicated network of restraints, imposed in part by individuals, but very largely by the government itself at the behest of others on the freedom of the "some". ... What in fact distinguishes this counterfeit system of "laissez-faire" (the market) from paternalism, is not the absence of restraint, but the absence of any conscious purpose of the part of the officials who administer the restraint, and of any responsibility or unanimity on the part of the numerous owners at whose discretion the restraint is administered.

Other critics, including John Rawls in Justice as Fairness, argue that implied social contracts justify government actions that violate the rights of some individuals as they are beneficial for society overall. This concept is related to philosophical collectivism as opposed to individualism.[8] In response, libertarian philosophers such as Michael Huemer have raised criticisms of the social contract theory.[9]

Authenticity of libertarian goals

Critics such as Corey Robin describe right-libertarianism as fundamentally a reactionary conservative ideology united with more traditional conservative thought and goals by a desire to enforce hierarchical power and social relations:[10]

Conservatism, then, is not a commitment to limited government and liberty—or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and ever-changing modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force—the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. Such a view might seem miles away from the libertarian defense of the free market, with its celebration of the atomistic and autonomous individual. But it is not. When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.

Will Moyer, a former libertarian, thought that Anarchism was the full realization of libertarianism. Political libertarianism was a distorted version of the philosophy, appealing solely to people who admired libertarianism's feelings but lacked the principle to follow it to its logical (and moral) consequences.[11]


In his essay "From Liberty to Welfare", philosopher James P. Sterba argues that a morally consistent application of right-libertarian premises, including that of negative liberty, requires that a libertarian must endorse "the equality in the distribution of goods and resources required by a socialist state". Sterba presents the example of a typical conflict situation between the rich and poor "in order to see why libertarians are mistaken about what their ideal requires". He argues that such a situation is correctly seen as a conflict of negative liberties, saying that the right of the rich not to be interfered with in the satisfaction of their luxury needs is morally trumped by the right of the poor "not to be interfered with in taking from the surplus possessions of the rich what is necessary to satisfy their basic needs".

According to Sterba, the liberty of the poor should be morally prioritized in light of the fundamental ethical principle "ought implies can" from which it follows that it would be unreasonable to ask the poor to relinquish their liberty not be interfered with, noting that "in the extreme case it would involve asking or requiring the poor to sit back and starve to death" and that "by contrast it would not be unreasonable to ask and require the rich to sacrifice their liberty to meet some of their needs so that the poor can have the liberty to meet their basic needs". Having argued that "ought implies can" establishes the reasonability of asking the rich to sacrifice their luxuries for the basic needs of the poor, Sterba invokes a second fundamental principle, "The Conflict Resolution Principle", to argue that it is reasonable to make it an ethical requirement. He concludes by arguing that the application of these principles to the international context makes a compelling case for socialist distribution on a world scale.[12]

Jeffrey Friedman argues that natural-rights libertarianism's justification for the primacy of property is incoherent:[13]

[W]e can press on from [the observation that libertarianism is egalitarian] to ask why, if ... the liberty of a human being to own another should be trumped by equal human rights, the liberty to own large amounts of property [at the expense of others] should not also be trumped by equal human rights. This alone would seem definitively to lay to rest the philosophical case for libertarianism. ... The very idea of ownership contains the relativistic seeds of arbitrary authority: the arbitrary authority of the individual's "right to do wrong."

Philosopher Jonathan Wolff criticizes deontological libertarianism as incoherent, writing that it is incapable of explaining why harm suffered by the losers in economic competition does not violate the principle of self-ownership and that its advocates must "dishonestly smuggle" consequentialist arguments into their reasoning to justify the institution of the free market.[14]

Robert Lee Hale has argued that the concept of coercion in right-libertarian theory is applied inconsistently, insofar as it is applied to government actions, but it is not applied to the coercive acts of property owners to preserve their own private property rights.[15]

Standards of well-being

This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (December 2017)

Jeffrey Friedman has criticized right-libertarians for often relying on the unproven assumption that economic growth and affluence inevitably result in happiness and increased quality of life.[16]

Theory of liberty

This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (July 2019)

J. C. Lester has argued that right-libertarianism has no explicit theory of liberty.[17] He supplies a theory of liberty, briefly summarized as the absence of imposed cost. Frederick[18] criticizes Lester for smuggling in concepts not specified in the theory. Lester[19] responded. Both Lester and Frederick are proponents of critical rationalism, the epistemological approach of Karl Popper. Lester has criticized libertarians for neglecting epistemology.

Economic criticism

Further information: Laissez-faire

Right-libertarians are accused of ignoring market failures, although not all proponents are market zealots[unbalanced opinion?].[20] Critics of laissez-faire capitalism, the economic system favored by right-libertarians, argue that market failures justify government intervention in the economy, that nonintervention leads to monopolies and stifled innovation, or that unregulated markets are economically unstable. They argue that markets do not always produce the best or most efficient outcome, that redistribution of wealth can improve economic health and that humans involved in markets do not always act rationally.[21][22]

Other economic criticisms concern the transition to a right-libertarian society. Jonathan Chait argues that privatizing Social Security would cause a fiscal crisis in the short-term and damage individuals' economic stability in the long-term.[23]

Environmental criticism

Further information: Natural environment

Reconciliation of individual rights and the advances of a free market economy with environmental degradation is a problem that few right-libertarians have addressed.[24] Political scientist and author Charles Murray has written that stewardship is what private property owners do best.[24] Environmentalists on the left who support regulations designed to reduce carbon emissions, such as cap and trade, argue that many right-libertarians currently have no method of dealing with problems like environmental degradation and natural resource depletion because of their rejection of regulation and collective control.[16] They see natural resources as too difficult to privatize as well as legal responsibility for pollution or degrading biodiversity as too difficult to trace.[8] As a result, some see the rise of right-libertarianism as popular political philosophy as partially responsible for climate change.[2]

Right-libertarians are also criticised for ignoring observation and historical fact and instead focusing on an abstract ideal.[25] Imperfection is not accounted for and they are axiomatically opposed to government initiatives to counter the effects of climate change.

Pragmatic criticism

Allegation of utopianism

Further information: Criticism of anarchism

Anarchism is evaluated as unfeasible or utopian by its critics, often in general and formal debate. European history professor Carl Landauer argued that social anarchism is unrealistic and that government is a "lesser evil" than a society without "repressive force". He also argued that "ill intentions will cease if repressive force disappears" is an "absurdity".[26]

Government decentralization

Further information: Decentralization

In his essay On Authority, Friedrich Engels claimed that radical decentralization promoted by anarchists would destroy modern industrial civilization, citing an example of railways:[27]

Here too the co-operation of an infinite number of individuals is absolutely necessary, and this co-operation must be practised during precisely fixed hours so that no accidents may happen. Here, too, the first condition of the job is a dominant will that settles all subordinate questions, whether this will is represented by a single delegate or a committee charged with the execution of the resolutions of the majority of persona interested. In either case there is a very pronounced authority. Moreover, what would happen to the first train dispatched if the authority of the railway employees over the Hon. passengers were abolished?

John Donahue also argues that if political power were radically shifted to local authorities, parochial local interests would predominate at the expense of the whole and that this would exacerbate current problems with collective action.[28]

In the end, it is argued that authority in any form is a natural occurrence which should not be abolished.[29]

Lack of contemporary examples

In 2013, Michael Lind observed that of the 195 countries in the world, none have fully actualized a society as advocated by right-libertarians:[30]

If libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn't at least one country have tried it? Wouldn't there be at least one country, out of nearly two hundred, with minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system?

Furthermore, Lind has criticized right-libertarianism as being incompatible with democracy and apologetic towards autocracy.[31] In response, right-libertarian Warren Redlich argues that the United States "was extremely libertarian from the founding until 1860, and still very libertarian until roughly 1930".[32]

Tacit authoritarianism

The anarchist tendency known as platformism has been criticized by Situationists,[33] insurrectionaries, synthesis anarchists[34][35] and others of preserving tacitly statist, authoritarian or bureaucratic tendencies.


Declan McCullagh, writing for Wired, argued that libertarianism "attracts the most strident criticism from those who understand it the least. Expending little or no effort on research, critics barely familiar with libertarian ideas concoct an unappetizing stew of ideas - anarchism, egoism, and plain selfishness and greed - and mistakenly dub it libertarianism." McCullagh further argues:[36]

Libertarianism is not about anarchy, utopia, or selfishness. Instead, libertarians simply are skeptical of 'nanny government,' and recognize the many ways state power has been abused in the past. They believe that government programs like health assistance, Social Security, foreign aid, and corporate welfare do more harm than good. They argue that everyone must be equal before the law, and everyone has human rights to personal security, to property, and to free speech that the government must protect, not violate.

— Declan McCullagh

See also


  1. ^ "Complexity Economics Shows Us Why Laissez-Faire Economics Always Fails".
  2. ^ a b Matthew, Schneider-Mayerson (2015-10-14). Peak Oil: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture. Chicago. ISBN 978-0226285573. OCLC 922640625.
  3. ^ Landauer, Carl (1959). European Socialism: A History of Ideas and Movements. University of California Press. ASIN B0071I7P1G.
  4. ^ Debord, Guy; Knabb, Ken, trans. (1993). Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press. ISBN 978-0946061129.
  5. ^ "The problem of organisation and the notion of synthesis". 26 December 2005. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
  6. ^ Engels, Friedrich (1872). "On Authority". Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
  7. ^ Fried, Barbara (2009). The Progressive Assault on Laissez Faire: Robert Hale and the first law and economics movement. Harvard University Press. p. 50. ISBN 978-0674037304.
  8. ^ a b Partridge, Ernest (2004). "With Liberty and Justice for Some". Michael Zimmerman, Baird Callicott, Karen Warren, Irene Klaver and John Clark. Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology (4th Edition). ISBN 978-0131126954.
  9. ^ Huemer, Michael (2013). The Problem of Political Authority.
  10. ^ Robin, Corey (2011). The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Oxford University Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-0199793747.
  11. ^ Moyer, Will (14 June 2014). "Why I left libertarianism: An ethical critique of a limited ideology". Salon.
  12. ^ Sterba, James P. (October 1994). "From Liberty to Welfare." Ethics (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell). 105 (1). pp. 237–241.
  13. ^ Friedman, Jeffrey (1993). "What's Wrong with Libertarianism". Critical Review. 11 (3). p. 427.
  14. ^ Wolff, Jonathan. "Libertarianism, Utility, and Economic Competition" (PDF). Virginia Law Review. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 January 2013. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  15. ^ Bruenig, Matt (28 October 2013). "Libertarians Are Huge Fans of Economic Coercion" Archived 2013-11-01 at the Wayback Machine.
  16. ^ a b Friedman, Jeffrey (1993). "Politics or Scholarship?". Critical Review. 6 (2-3). pp. 429–445.
  17. ^ Lester, J. C. (22 October 2017). "New-Paradigm Libertarianism: a Very Brief Explanation". PhilPapers. Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  18. ^ Frederick, Danny. "A Critique of Lester's Account of Liberty". PhilPapers. Retrieved 19 May 2020.
  19. ^ Lester, J. C. "A Reply to Frederick 2013: 'A Critique of Lester’s Account of Liberty'". SSRN. Retrieved 19 May 2020
  20. ^ Brennan, Jason (2012). Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. OUP USA. p. 63. ISBN 978-0199933914. Retrieved 23 September 2017.
  21. ^ "They established, among other things, that losses loom larger than gains, that first impressions shape subsequent judgements, that vivid examples carry more weight in decision making than more abstract__but more accurate__ information" — 2002 Nobel Prize winner about economic decision making.
  22. ^ Erica Goode (5 November 2010). "A conversations with Daniel Kahneman; On Profit, Loss and the Mysteries of the Mind". The New York Times.
  23. ^ Chait, Jonathan (21 March 2005). "Blocking Move". The New Republic. Retrieved on 23 September 2017.
  24. ^ a b Bowers, C. A. (2005). "Understanding the Commons within the Context of Contemporary Ideologies". Revitalizing the Commons: Cultural and Educational Sites of Resistance and Affirmation. Lexington Books. p. 135. ISBN 978-2511001516. Retrieved 20 September 2017.
  25. ^ Haworth, Alan (1994). Anti-libertarianism: Markets, Philosophy, and Myth. Psychology Press. p. 14. ISBN 0415082544. Retrieved 23 September 2017.
  26. ^ Landauer, Carl (1959). European Socialism: A History of Ideas and Movements.
  27. ^ Engels, Friedrich (1872). On Authority. Marxists Internet Archive.
  28. ^ Donahue, John (1 May 1997). "The Devil in Devolution". American Prospect. 8 (32).
  29. ^ Goodwin, Barbara. (2014). Using Political Ideas. Sixth edition. ed. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey.
  30. ^ Lind, Michael (4 June 2013). "The Question Libertarians Just Can't Answer". Salon.
  31. ^ Lind, Michael (30 August 2011). "Why libertarians apologize for autocracy".
  32. ^ "Was America Ever Libertarian". Independent Political Report. 25 April 2017. Retrieved 6 October 2018.
  33. ^ Debord, Guy (1983). "Paragraph 91". Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Ken Knabb. London: Rebel Press. ISBN 978-0946061129.
  34. ^ "Reply by Several Russian Anarchists to the 'Platform'".
  35. ^ Garner, Jason. "La búsqueda de la unidad anarquista: la Federación Anarquista Ibérica antes de la II República". Archived 31 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine. "Tras la victoria de los plataformistas en el Congreso de París de 1929, una sección de los que consideraron que las ideas tradicionales del anarquismo estaban siendo atacadas se separó de la UACR para formar la Asociación de los Federalistas Anarquistas a comienzos de 192821. La principal figura de la AFA fue Sébastien Faure que, como respuesta a la Plataforma, expuso sus propuestas para un movimiento anarquista unificado en La síntesis anarquista, que apareció primero como un suplemento del informe de la AFA de febrero de 1928 titulado Le Trait d'Union Libertaire".
  36. ^ McCullagh, Declan. "In Defense of Libertarianism". Wired. ISSN 1059-1028. Retrieved 2023-06-30.

Further reading