“Libertarians expect people to be angels”

One of my biggest frustrations with libertarianism is that the Principle of Non-Aggression forbids me from striking the smug smarmy self-satisfied socialists of all parties who insist upon trotting out the titular assertion despite the fact that it falls apart under even the most casual investigation.  Here’s James Hanley on a Madisonian phrasing of the above:

He presents three counterarguments to the proposition that a libertarian society depends on people just being nice to each other for no good goddamn reason at all:

  1. Libertarians Recognize and Oppose Coercion
  2. Libertarians Don’t Believe in Zero Constraints on Human Behavior
  3. Libertarians See Government as the Most Dangerous Venue for Coercion

It’s a well-written and well-thought-out piece — you should read it; go on, I can wait — but to my mind it concedes too much ground.  Here’s a quotation from everyone’s favourite famous capitalist (anarcho- or otherwise) thinker, Adam Smith:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

Or, as Hanley puts it:

Competition limits the ability to be un-angelic toward each other because it is based on seeking out reciprocal, voluntary exchanges. If I cheat or harm others, I will find it harder to persuade others to enter into exchanges with me. […] The more competitive the market, the more fairness towards exchange-partners we will find. For example, Wal-Mart and Target have extraordinarily generous return policies, a recognition how important it is in their competitive market to avoid even the appearance of having cheated their exchange partners.

That’s really all you need.  Coercion, as long as it’s avoidable (as in a competitive market), runs against the long-term interests of the aggressors.  (For example, even if Murray Rothbard wrote a special exemption into the Principle of Nonagression that permitted me to smack statists for advancing insultingly dumb arguments, actually doing so would only serve to weaken my credibility and make it harder for me to find people to go drinking with.)

It’s not nearly that simple to avoid coercion, of course.  Muggers and other extortionists tend to frown upon letting you walk away; oppressive governments limit their citizens’ freedom to exit the country; large corporations lobby relentlessly for regulations that impede or prohibit new competitors.  Statists will tell you that the way to avoid coercion is to build an edifice big enough to stop everything else from coercing you, and that either this wonderful edifice will never try to coerce you itself or that it’s your duty (as part of the social contract you somehow don’t recall signing) to permit yourself to be coerced by it.  Libertarians, on the other hand, want to give you the option to walk away.


6 Responses to ““Libertarians expect people to be angels””

  1. 1 perlhaqr
    July 12, 2011 at 06:18


    “No, you idiot, I expect everyone to be devils, which is why I want to limit their power!

  2. July 13, 2011 at 09:22

    While not myself a pure libertarian, I have to agree with you on this point. Furthermore, I find it ironic when statists make this argument since, as you’ve subtly pointed out, Handing over the reins of society to the state requires just as much faith in the angelic nature of those running the state, if not a greater degree of faith. Reminds me of this exchange:

  3. 5 Griffin3
    July 13, 2011 at 16:00

    You haven’t done a beer post in ages. I have a couple bottles of Terrapin’s “Big Hoppy Monster” here to send you, if we could figure a way to post them to you … hint, hint … email me …

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