Misunderstandings Concerning Libertarianism

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Revised October 3, 2005

Some of these misunderstandings are deliberately encouraged by (some) libertarians--John Hospers' often reprinted article is an example--because they make libertarianism more attractive to people who agree with (a version of) the contributive theory of distributive justice:

that the reward one receives should correspond to the quantity of effort or the quality of work one is able and willing to contribute.
Although Hospers never explicitly states #1 or #2, his frequent use of examples linking laziness and poverty suggest them to unwary readers.

Misunderstanding #1

Lazy, incompetent people never have a right to own much property.

If this were the libertarian view, then wealthy people would never have the right to give their fortunes to their lazy offspring.

Libertarians think that people have a right to possessions, including money, they have received by voluntary transfer from others (provided that the others had a right to those possessions). People also have a right to possessions they themselves have created out of resources to which they had a prior right or out of resources to which nobody has a prior moral claim (previously unused resources in a wilderness that is nobody's property).

But under the libertarian scheme, lazy, incompetent people can receive possessions from legitimately wealthy people by voluntary transfer, e.g., gift or inheritance. Libertarians are typically opposed to inheritance taxes. If the libertarian position on inheritance is adopted by society, wealthy people would have plenty to give to their lazy or incompetent offspring if they so chose. Once the transfer has been made, these heirs have a right to the wealth.

What often happens is that the offspring are moderately lazy and only moderately competent, but they receive wealth because of their personal connections with already wealthy people while highly industrious and extremely competent persons without such connections receive a very modest wage if they are able to find paid employment.

Misunderstanding #2

Intelligent people who are willing to work hard have a right to a decent income from labor.

Intelligence and willingness to work hard is not sufficient under a libertarian system. Suppose Barb is intelligent and willing to work hard but owns no resources other than her intelligence and industriousness. If Barb is to receive a decent income, she must receive it from economic agents (persons or organizations) that already own something. The most obvious way is to be hired by economic agents. But no principle in the libertarian system requires that there must be people ready to hire a person like Barb. Workers may be willing and able but nobody may step forward to hire them.

See the further discussion of this issue below in the note about free markets.

Misunderstanding #3

Libertarians are opposed to taxation and government spending.

Libertarians are not opposed to government spending for purposes regarded by them as legitimate, e.g., for police and a criminal justice system aimed at protecting the rights recognized by libertarians, i.e., the non-interference rights to life, liberty, and property. They are not opposed to government spending for military defense against real external threats. So they are not opposed to taxation addressed to such purposes.

Some libertarians are suspicious (often rightly so) of arguments that would increase the power of the government and the elites that have more effective means of communicating with the government than everybody else. But if they are convinced that there is a great external or internal human threat to life, liberty, or property, they can consistently favor a large and active military or criminal justice system.

Some persons adopt libertarian arguments to oppose election reforms of two kinds: (1) campaign reform that would limit donations of the wealthy to politicians running for office and (2) government funding of election campaigns for all qualified candidates. Such proposals aim to help the less wealthy elements of society to have influence proportional to their numbers on the electoral process and therefore on lawmakers. People who oppose such changes seem to think that the government is the employee of those with rights, especially property rights. In effect, this position makes the government the servant of the wealthier members of society (who seem to have more rights in particular property).

Note concerning Free Markets.

Some libertarians claim that the free market will never let an intelligent hardworking person down. This claim is not part of the basic rights doctrine of the libertarian, but it is often cited in response to the concern raised in the above discussion of #2.

Libertarians often assume that the "free market" will provide a job for the intelligent industrious individual, but most markets no longer meet the criteria for a free market. Often there is little demand for the labor of persons without specialized education and experience. So it is not enough to be intelligent and hardworking; one must have additional qualifications.

The theory of the free (perfectly competitive) market stipulates that there are no monopolies and that people with wealth always act as self-interested economic agents intelligently seeking to maximize their wealth. But often there are monopolies (or near monopolies, technically called oligopolies). Moreover, many owners of wealth and labor assets do not consistently act with the self-interested motivation required by the model of the free market. Nor do economic agents act with the perfect knowledge of other parts of the economy strictly required by the theory of the perfectly competitive market.

Many libertarians advocate a freer capitalist marketplace and oppose monopolies, but even if their advocacy were successful such a marketplace would not ensure that people with wealth will act as the theory of the free market requires if the market is to ensure that every intelligent person willing to work hard is able to make a comfortable living for herself and her family.