Liberty versus libertarianism

Politics, Philosophy and Economics 12 (1):48-67 (2013)
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This paper aims to persuade its reader that libertarianism, at least in several of its varieties, is a species of the genus Michael Oakeshott referred to as ‘rationalism in politics’. I hope to demonstrate, employing the work of Oakeshott, as well as Aristotle and Onora O’Neill, how many libertarian theorists, who generally have a sincere and admirable commitment to personal liberty, have been led astray by the rationalist promise that we might be able to approach deductive certainty concerning the 'correctness' of some political programme. Of course libertarians, in common with the adherents of almost any other political ‘stance’, are not a monolithic body, but exhibit a variety of more or less rationalist arguments for their views. For example, a thinker like Hayek, who is often placed in the libertarian camp, came to adopt much of Oakeshott’s critique of rationalism in his later work. And, of course, Oakeshott himself expressed an affinity for libertarian ideas in his essay, ‘The Political Economy of Freedom’ (1991 [1962]). But a general predilection to enhance individual freedom as far as is deemed practicable is quite a different matter from taking a stance in which liberty, and liberty conceived in a rather narrow fashion, is the only value deemed admissible into ‘reasonable’ political discourse. (We will see in a subsequent section that Oakeshott recognized this urge to sanctify one value above all others as a logical requirement of striving for deductive political truths.) I believe that a critique of such libertarian rationalism is particularly relevant given the present situation in the United States vis-à-vis civil rights and the ongoing ‘war on terror’, in that many non- libertarian supporters of peace and strong civil rights find themselves allied with libertarians on these issues—if libertarians have gotten these issues ‘correct’, then how might they have gone wrong elsewhere? Furthermore, the critique may aid libertarians themselves, because, if the title of this paper is accurate, such a single-minded exaltation of one value above all others is an enemy of true liberty, so that libertarians might want to rethink adopting such a position. As Philip Pettit demonstrates (1997), freedom as non-domination is more robust and inclusive of all that we value about freedom than is the libertarian concept of freedom as non-interference; by allowing, say, immense economic power to be concentrated in a single corporation, as intervention to break the company up would violate the principle of non-interference, libertarian ideas may greatly diminish the liberty of the people subject to that corporate power.



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Gene Callahan
State University of New York (SUNY)

Citations of this work

Rothbard’s and Hoppe’s justifications of libertarianism.Marian Eabrasu - 2013 - Politics, Philosophy and Economics 12 (3):288-307.

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References found in this work

Anarchy, State, and Utopia.Robert Nozick - 1974 - New York: Basic Books.
After Virtue.A. MacIntyre - 1981 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 46 (1):169-171.

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