What’s wrong with the concept “libertarian”?

The rejection of the label “libertarian” by Rand and subsequent Objectivists is often met with incredulity. “Of course you’re libertarians, whether you admit it or not,” we’re told; “a libertarian is someone who believes that the government should do nothing but protect people against aggression, if there should even be a government at all, and Objectivism holds that the government’s only proper function is protecting rights, which amounts to the same thing as protecting against aggression, so by definition all Objectivists are libertarians (even though, of course, not all libertarians are Objectivists).”

To see what’s wrong with this line of reasoning, suppose that someone tells you that he is a “sexual liberationist” and asks if you are too. When you ask what that term means, he responds that a sexual liberationist is someone opposed to the criminalization of sex. “The term applies,” he goes on to say, “to anyone who thinks that all sex, or at least consensual sex, should be legal.” “At least consensual sex?” you ask, and a dialogue ensues.

“Yes, there are some sexual liberationists who believe that all sex should be legal, including molesting children, sex with people who are unconscious, and sex with unwilling people at gun point. Those are the radical sexual liberationists. Moderate sexual liberationists don’t go so far. They’re opposed to laws against premarital sex or sodomy, but they don’t oppose laws against rape. Despite this difference, both types are by definition sexual liberationists, because they both think that sex should be legal at least when it’s consensual.

“I think it’s high time that sexual liberationists look past these factional differences and work together to fight the prudish laws that are still on the books in many places. I’ve heard you object to sodomy laws and the like, so whatever you think about rape and pedophilia, you’re clearly a sexual liberationist. Would you like to join my sexual liberationist organization and fight with us for a future where we can all bed whomever we like without fear of prosecution?

“But there’s a huge difference,” you reply, “between a future in which I’m free to sleep with any consenting adult and one in which I’m ‘free’ to rape people and they’re ‘free’ to rape me!”

“I grant that there is a difference, and, though I lean towards the more radical form of sexual liberationism myself, I dither on the issue; sometimes I find myself thinking more along moderate lines. In any case, I’m firmly convinced that we need to move in the direction of sexual liberation and repeal as much mandatory prudery as possible.”

“But legalizing consensual sex between adults and legalizing rape aren’t movements ‘in the same direction’ at all. The former is a movement towards sexual freedom in that it gives the individual greater control over his own sex life; the latter is a movement away from sexual freedom in that it would empower others to have sex with him against his will.”

“That’s one of the arguments that moderate sexual liberationists often marshal against radicals, and I concede that it has some force. But there are also powerful arguments on the extremist side; for example, some argue that rape would be less common in a society in which it wasn’t against the law. There are few things I find more invigorating than a spirited argument with a fellow sexual liberationist such as yourself.”

“Please stop calling me that.”


“Because I think this idea that rape should (or even maybe should) be legalized is monstrous. It makes it clear that what you advocate isn’t anything that I can recognize as genuine sexual freedom, so I don’t want any part of your coalition.”

“I understand that you’re a proponent of the rape laws, and I respect that this is a significant difference between us, and that you feel strongly about it, but why would this make you deny the obvious truth that you’re a sexual liberationist. After all, by definition, anyone who opposes laws against sex at least when it’s consensual is a sexual liberationist, and you oppose laws against consensual sex, so you’re a sexual liberationist like me, whatever other points we may disagree on.”

There is no need and no excuse for the term “sexual liberationist,” as it is used by this interlocutor. The term is what Rand called a “package-deal” ‚ÄĒ a pseudo-concept that groups together items that are essentially opposite. It evades or trivializes the distinction between consensual and non-consensual relationships, without which the concept of “freedom” (sexual or otherwise) loses all meaning. The fact that one can produce a definition for “sexual liberationist” from which it can be deduced that the term applies to certain individuals does nothing to redeem the term. It does not show that the term represents a reasonable way of classifying positions (much less that any particular person or position is reasonably described by it).

The same points apply to the concept “libertarianism” which groups together anarchism with the view (held by Objectivists among others) that the sole proper function of the government is to protect individual rights. In so doing, the term distorts the latter view, re-conceiving it as a sort of neutered anarchism (often called “minarchism”).

Before anyone accuses me of attacking a straw man, let me acknowledge that most anarchist philosophers deplore rape and think that it should be fought by all the moral means available, and those anarchists who think (mistakenly, in my view) that a sort of rule of law is possible in the absence of government certainly view rape as something that should be illegal. So my point isn’t that legalizing rape is an anarchist position. My point is, rather, that the standard argument that Objectivists, anarchists, and sundry others are all libertarians has the same structure as the argument that you, rape-law abolitionists, and others are all “sexual liberationists.” Both arguments beg the question by insisting on a certain definition when what is at issue is whether the definiendum is a valid concept.

If the “sexual liberationist” wants to persuade you to accept his terminology, he cannot take it for granted that legalizing rape is anything like repealing laws against consensual sex acts; rather, he must attempt to show that there is some basis for grouping together the advocacy of these very different things.

Likewise, if someone wants to persuade us to classify anarchists and Objectivists (along with Von Mises, Nozick, and others) as “libertarians,” he needs to have something substantive to say about how the view that government has a specific proper function is of a piece with the view that government as such is immoral and should be dispensed with.

I’m not denying that there are significant philosophical affinities and historical relationships among many of the thinkers and views called “libertarian.” But I don’t see that there is any essential similarity between Rand’s position (to which I subscribe) and anarchism, and I deny that there is any legitimate concept that classifies these views together as a kind of political theory. However, my point here isn’t to show that there is no such concept, but to show why the burden of proof belongs to those who say there is.

For my part, the only cognitive value I see in the term “libertarian” is as a name for a loose movement. Central to the movement it names is an intertwining of incompatible views that has been caused by a series of confusions and sociological factors. In this respect, it is like the concepts “conservative” and “liberal,” as they’re used in contemporary American political discourse.

######Addendum (3/13/3016):

This piece is specifically about the propriety of having a concept ‚Äúlibertarian‚ÄĚ that includes both anarchists and proponents of a rights-respecting government. How and whether proponents of rights-respecting government ought to interact with anarchists or with ‚Äúlibertarian‚ÄĚ organizations that include anarchists and non-anarchists is a separate, but related question. I did not intend to address that question here, but since a few people asked me about it, I’ll just indicate my view. I think it‚Äôs akin to the question of how proponents of rights-respecting government should interact with ‚Äúliberals‚ÄĚ and with ‚Äúconservatives.‚ÄĚ Both of those concepts (as they‚Äôre understood today) are package-deals. ‚ÄúLiberalism‚ÄĚ merges such positions as opposition to racism and defense of equality before the law with collectivism, and ‚Äúconservativism‚ÄĚ merges a respect for economic freedom with authoritarianism, religiosity, and tradition-worship. In both of these movements, I can think of people who are primarily motivated by the elements in the package that I think are correct. And, in all cases, I think the package has negative effects on their thinking, even about these positive elements. In some cases the effects are subtle, and I still think that the people are essentially on the right side of the issue. In other cases, I think the effects are more profound.

Thus whether a self-professed “liberal” or “conservative” or “libertarian” person or organization is an ally has to be determined separately with respect to each issue and each person (or organization). If a person or organization is not an ideological ally (either in general or on some issue), it means that one should not collaborate with them in advocacy. But this does not preclude there from being value to other forms of interaction. There can be great value in discussions, especially in public forums, between people whose ideas are fundamentally opposed. By bringing out the differences between the views, such exchanges can help both parties to clarify their own thinking, and they can help audience members to make up their minds between the alternative views. This point applies to anarchists no less (though also no more) than to Marxists or religionists. However, I think that one of the preconditions for such exchanges being productive is that one make clear that one regards the difference between the views as fundamental, rather than as minute disagreement among people whose views are essentially aligned. The term “libertarian,” as it is too often used, creates the latter impression with respect to the disagreement between anarchists and proponents of a right-protecting government. And for this reason, people who regard the difference as essential should not use the term in their own voice and without qualification.

It’s unfortunate that there isn’t a term that unambiguously identifies our political position, but this is a symptom of the state of contemporary political thought ‚ÄĒ including the tragic fact that the anti-statist movements of the 1960’s and `70’s were largely co-opted by religionists and anarchists. Given this fact, proponents of rights-protecting government need either to reclaim one of the old words (by insisting that statists are not truly liberals, or that theocrats are not truly conservatives or that anarchists are not truly libertarians), to coin a new term, or to make due for the time being with descriptive phrases like Rand’s “Radicals for capitalism.” (That phrase too is sometimes used by anarchists, but it’s so associated with Rand, who was so vocal in her opposition to anarchism, that I don’t think it’s a problem.)

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