Libertarianism’s Cold, Cold Heart

For some time, I’ve been going back and forth with the libertarians, trying to suss out the extent of their commitment to freedom. As readers of this blog know, I don’t think it extends very far. While libertarianism may begin as a critique of state coercion in the name of personal liberty, it invariably ends up as an apologia for the absence of freedom in large parts of most people’s lives.

But over the last few months, I’ve gotten some interesting push-back from one of the more thoughtful subsets of that crew—the Bleeding Heart Libertarians— who insist that their commitment to freedom is real, even in places like the workplace.

In a new piece just posted over at Crooked Timber, I join forces with Chris Bertram and Alex Gourevitch to examine more carefully the claims of these Bleeding Hearts.  And what do we find?  Take it away, Tony Bennett.



And if that’s not clear enough for you, here are some excerpts from the Crooked Timber post:

Given this awareness that freedom can be diminished by private action, one might think libertarians would reject a state of affairs in which large portions of the population endure daily subjection to the commands of others. Especially when those issuing orders give their subjects detailed instructions on how to live their lives and are in a position to threaten them with severe negative consequences should they disobey. But one would be wrong.

Whether or not libertarians are consistent in their understanding of workplace coercion, there is little doubt that they are confused about or indifferent to its presence and reality. Indeed, the ease with which [Bleeding Heart Matt] Zwolinski, like Murray Rothbard before him, subsumes “the power” employers “have over their workers” under the category of “the freedom of employers”—a move with a long lineage in the history of both wage and bonded labor—suggests how far we have to go before the Bleeding Hearts establish that theirs is not simply the same old black heart of libertarianism we all know.

Outside a unionized workplace or the public sector, what most workers are agreeing to when they sign an employment contract is the alienation of many of their basic rights (speech, privacy, association, and so on) in exchange for pay and benefits. They may think they’re only agreeing to do a specific job, but what they are actually agreeing to do is to obey the commands and orders of their boss. It’s close to a version of Hobbesian contract theory—“The end of obedience is protection”—in which the worker gets money, benefits, and perhaps security in exchange for a radical alienation of her will.

The larger problem lies in the simplistic notion that the ability to freely enter or exit the workplace disposes of the problem of freedom inside the workplace. On the front end, most libertarians believe that contracts are freedom-preserving….But this is a mistake. If someone contracted to be the slave to another person for a year, with no possibility of exit, surely that initial moment of consent does not preserve the slave’s freedom for the remaining 364 days of the year. Even libertarians—at least the sane ones—believe that there are some things you cannot consent to, like slavery, and still retain your freedom….In those cases, the contract is freedom canceling, not freedom preserving. And it’s not the desperate conditions—which give rise to the contract—that make it freedom canceling; it’s the contract itself.

On the back end, the limitations of exit as an instrument of freedom can be illustrated by a simple analogy. Suppose Canada were a dictatorship, but the United States welcomed anyone who wished to leave, paid for her ticket and promised her a job. Would that mean that anyone who stayed behind was free? Or think about the implicit contract at the heart of ethnic cleansing: exit and live; stay and die. Now it’s undoubtedly true that exit is better than no exit—ethnic cleansing being better than genocide—in that it limits the reach of coercion. But it’s not true that exit lessens coercion and increases freedom among those who stay. Surely we don’t want to claim that those Jews who refused to flee the pogroms of tsarist Russia were somehow free.

Another way to protect workers’ freedom is to give them more voice on the job. If entry and exit are emblems of freedom because they express the voluntary will of the individual, why limit those expressions to two moments: when she steps inside the workplace and when she leaves? Would the worker not have more freedom if she had more opportunities to express and act upon her will inside the workplace? Not just more occasions but also more ways to express her will? To say something beyond “I’m staying” or “I’m going”?…It’s true that these expressions of worker freedom require limitations on the employer’s freedom to fire workers. But that, it seems to us, is at the heart of any notion of equal freedom in society: your right to swing your arms always ends just where my nose begins.

Make sure to read the whole post here.


  1. JohnB July 1, 2012 at 10:39 pm | #

    Yes, Corey, you’ve captured the contradiction. I’ve always thought of modern American ‘libertarians’ as frustrated, individualist dictators yearning for their own fiefdoms to rule over. The liberty they lecture everyone about has one catch: ‘You’ve got to do what I tell you if I hire you to help me make my widgets.’ YouTube is full of arrogant college (mostly) boys parading as libertarians, or as they like to call themselves now, anarco-capitalists, branding anyone who disagrees with their hyperindividualist authoritarianism as being a sheep-like follower of BigBrother, or the worst of the worst: a ‘statist.’ The irony is, their grand plan perpetuates the very anti-democratic, leader/follower paradigm at the heart of society’s problem.

  2. Cade DeBois (@lifepostepic) July 1, 2012 at 10:47 pm | #

    This is some really excellent stuff. I would love to see you guys turn this into a book.

    Simple reality is, all ideologies are about power. The only differences are their relationship with power and how honest they are about that relationship. Myself, as an egalitarian progressive, I’m highly skeptical and wary of concentrated power in any form, and I think, in order to uphold and protect the dignity of *all individuals*, concentrations of power–such as the power of the employer–must be vigilantly kept in check. Unfortunately in this day and age, one cannot afford the luxury of calling themselves an egalitarian and naively think humans aren’t going to exploit one another if given the chance. So we must progressively seek solutions to that problem of power, so we can advance toward a more egalitarian and equal society. That’s my ideology’s relationship with power–admittedly adversarial, but I would argue necessarily and reasonably so, and for the benefit of everyone, as equally as possible. At least I can be honest about it.

    What strikes me the most whenever I contend with libertarians is how they take this idea of personal liberty and make it so abstract from the reality of living persons. My ideology seeks liberty for all individuals through upholding their dignity–and that is defined not by my ideas of what an individual is, but by my experience of the diversity of other persons who happen to be co-existing with me on this planet. But with libertarians, that experiential dynamic seems to be missing. Rather, they center their ideology around a concept they have of the individual–an ideal, and thus an abstraction. It’s a type of idealism that informs their concept of the individual, and thus of personal liberty, in contrast to my egalitarian realism where my concept of the individual is informed by experiences of actual individuals. This distinction tells us a lot about libertarian ideology’s relationship with power.

    Philosophically speaking, the ultimate power would be the power to define reality itself. But since I’m an egalitarian, and a realist, my ideological priorities move me away form that. I’m not interested in defining reality as my ideology obliges me to acquiesce any desire to define reality–and any power that comes with that–to the experiences and individual dignity of others. But if I were a libertarian, this would be very different. Instead of acquiescing, I’d be enshrining that desire to define reality in my abstract idealism of what personal liberty is. So my ideology of personal liberty wouldn’t actually be about everyone’s personal liberty–just about mine: my power, my right, my freedom to define reality through my idea of what personal liberty is. Moreover, since any idealism has an inherently antagonistic relationship with reality, I would be defending my power and right to define personal liberty AGAINST the experiences of others. I could not maintain an idealism of personal liberty while also acquiescing to the realism of others’ experiences. If I did, I would lose my power to define my reality through my own ideas. And that’s why as a libertarian, I could talk idealistically about extending my ideals of personal liberty to others, but in reality, it ain’t gonna happen. As the axiom to end all philosophical axiom dictates: that which contradicts its nature ceases to exist.

    For full disclosure, I was once a libertarian myself and it took me about a decade to wrestle myself truly free of it. While in high school and college, I found it a very appealing and ego-satisfying ideology–I swear libertarianism is essentially crack cocaine for young, naive philosophy students like I was. But what helped me move past that was the humble admission of my own powerlessness, which largely stemmed from a series of very bad employment experiences where I felt abuse or exploited, and the growing realization that I was far from the only person that such abuse happens to. In other words, I grew up, faced reality and accepted I needed to work toward the betterment of society for everyone rather than thinking society owed me and needed to bow to my ideals and, ultimately, my desire for power.

  3. Paul H. Rosenberg July 1, 2012 at 10:57 pm | #

    It’s NEVER fair to use facts or logic when arguing against libertarians. It just makes them look so 13-year old.

    Did it again, you mean older person!

  4. BillW July 2, 2012 at 1:33 am | #

    FYI, a private haven for all those who’ve had it upto here from the Big Brother State.

  5. Frank Moraes July 2, 2012 at 2:17 am | #

    I have so much to say on this subject, but libertarians and their faith that an objective view of the world will lead all to their cause aggravate me to distraction. So I will only say this:

    Tony Bennett? Really?! I’ll admit to a prejudice: I’m more of a Sinatra man myself. But how could you not embed Hank Williams?! The man suffered so that we could enjoy his music. And you embed Bennett?! Despicable; just despicable!

  6. wisedup July 2, 2012 at 2:23 am | #

    A very interesting and illuminating exchange.
    One point that never appears to have been addressed by the BHL side is – is the boss guilty of breaking his/her “contract” when “abusing” the position given to him by the company?
    Coercing sexual favors appears to be akin to stealing company property since, according to logic of the Libertarians – if the worker agrees to the coercion then the company should receive the benefits, not the boss. Or to really nail it, if the value of favor is lower than the direct value of the same time spent on the job then the boss is guilty of “interfering with production”.
    Let’s take a more neutral issue – toilet breaks. The boss’s job is to “maximize economic return” for the company. Is tightly limiting the breaks the best way of achieving this?
    If the worker is “productive” (must be otherwise the boss should be fired for wasting company money) then any rules that interfere with “production” must be seen as sabotage. Preventing any breaks at all must logically be seen as insane and sabotage – fire the boss. Overly tight restrictions would logically lead to worker error and thus degrade “production” – fire the boss.

    This returns to Corey’s original thesis that violent coercion underlies conservatism – and by extension Libertarianism. We (on the right) cannot be bothered to actually work and much prefer to use threats (and corruption) to secure our prosperity.

  7. BillW July 2, 2012 at 6:26 am | #

    Incidentally, there is anecdotal evidence that outside the (male) college age demographic support for Libertarianism has declined since the last recession kicked in as more people end up feeling used and discarded in the workplace. My own impression–borne out by a recent study–is that even among the college student demographic many have switched to the Dawkins inspired militant atheist movement over the last few years, although Ron Paul still draws a big crowd at most large campuses (ironic since these are land-grant state universities).

    • GiT July 2, 2012 at 7:02 pm | #

      He drew a large crowd out here at the UC as well. Sort of depressing. But as the student body gets richer, so goes the politics, I guess.

  8. Brahmski July 2, 2012 at 8:18 am | #

    Good stuff. There’s so much confused libertarianism out there these days. I hear it every day from students at the working-class state school where I teach. Thanks for these astute comebacks.

  9. jonnybutter July 2, 2012 at 8:20 pm | #

    But how could you not embed Hank Williams?!

    It wouldn’t be funny if it was Hank Williams. A very young, almost grotesquely melodramatic Tony Bennett, however….

  10. doloyeung July 4, 2012 at 5:52 am | #

    “It’s true that these expressions of worker freedom require limitations on the employer’s freedom to fire workers. But that, it seems to us, is at the heart of any notion of equal freedom in society”


  11. Adam July 5, 2012 at 11:43 am | #

    “If someone contracted to be the slave to another person for a year, with no possibility of exit, surely that initial moment of consent does not preserve the slave’s freedom for the remaining 364 days of the year. ”

    As long as the contract is of a limited, fixed term, there is no contradiction. In fact, such contracts exist in the real world — look at sailors, for example. They are not “free” to leave their contracts at will; they are bound to stay until the ship reaches a port.

    Are you seriously arguing that we should impair their ability to enter into contracts, simply because you don’t like the terms they would agree to?

    This is a typical failing of so-called “progressive” psychology — you are projecting your own preferences and desires onto other people. Because YOU would not accept a particular deal, you think that NOBODY should be able to.

    Libertarian economists call this “status-ful regulation”:

  12. jonnybutter July 6, 2012 at 12:35 pm | #

    As long as the [slave] contract is of a limited, fixed term, there is no contradiction. In fact, such contracts exist in the real world — look at sailors, for example.

    Sailors are slaves?! I kid, of course they are.

    • Adam July 7, 2012 at 3:05 am | #

      Awesome. So in liberal-topia, sailors and fishermen don’t exist, because we decided that they were slaves, and all international trade is done with unicorns. Or the sailors can just get off the boat. In the middle of the ocean.

      Next you’ll be telling us that astronauts are actually slaves.

      • jonnybutter July 8, 2012 at 10:40 am | #

        It was you who equated a sailor-type-contract with a slavery contract, Adam! So defend that or not. Saying ‘of course they are’ was a joke.

        I now understand that one mustn’t make jokes around libertarians. I thought for a moment that this wasn’t the case. Calling one’s own group ‘bleeding heart libertarians’ at least shows an ability to poke gentle fun. But now I have learned that this self-naming was really a serious attempt at holding out a hand of possible-alliance! How silly and unliteral of me.

        But Adam is half right on one thing: people on the left do tend to have a psychological aversion to thinking of human beings as reducible to atomized creatures of markets – what Kant called ‘mere means’.

        • Adam July 8, 2012 at 11:29 am | #

          A sure sign your opponent is in full retreat — when they start claiming that their baseless attacks were “jokes”.

          Thank you for illustrating the paucity of your criticism.

          Getting back to the original conversation, Mr Robin was suggesting that libertarians are hypocrites for not being concerned with what he describes as “private action which restricts liberty” — and I am pointing out that it is silly to describe an individual’s choice to enter into a limited contract which temporarily inhibits his liberty as any sort of oppression.

          Humans makes decisions to delay gratification all the time, in pursuit of larger goals; this is not oppression, this is an extension of their liberty and self-ownership.

          I used sailors as an example, because we’re all familiar with their situation. Contrary to your “joke”, sailors are not slaves, any more than astronauts are — but neither group can unilaterally rescind their contracts at any time they choose. They have made commitments, and are obligated to fulfill them. Welcome to the wonderful world of responsible adulthood!

          Do you really want to suggest that we should restrict the liberty of individuals to choose to become sailors and astronauts, based on this incomplete and faulty analysis of their choices?

          I wonder if you would apply the same analysis to an employer — suppose the “slave holder”, as you would call them, decided that he didn’t want their services anymore. Should he then be permitted to unilaterally withdraw from the contract, with no penalty? Can a ship captain simply kick all of the sailors off the boat, in the middle of the ocean?

          • jonnybutter July 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm | #

            I made a joke because I was at a loss for what else to do. You said that people contract themselves to be slaves all the time, like for instance sailors. I said I didn’t know that sailors were slaves. You then objected to my calling sailors slaves! What? (Did ‘Liberals’ outlaw sailors?!) And since sailors and astronauts can’t walk off the job, signing yourself into temporary slavery in any context is freedom. ???

            This stuff about bonded labor was covered in the original post.

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