On Holbo’s Critique of Libertarianism

Dialectics and Context. Jason Brennan posted a particularly visceral reaction to John Holbo’s critique of libertarianism. Pooping on the welcome mat of the bleeding hearts as Brennan characterized it. Devoid of any context, I would agree with Brennan’s description. But Holbo’s essay has to be considered in the relevant context. And this relevant context was Gary Chartier’s essay propounding “market means, socialist ends.”

Holbo essentially produced a variant–albeit a bit more impolite, boorish one–of the same critique I made in my previous post. What was Holbo saying? “Market means, socialist ends” is falsifiable. Logically, this can be cast as the Statement that market means is not a sufficiency condition for socialist ends. Now it may very well be the case that market means is a necessary condition for socialist ends, but necessity and sufficiency are not the same thing(as a programmer–with programming being more or less an exercise in applied boolean logic–I can say that kind of mistake is what can keep you up late at night conducting unexpected debugging sessions).

The crux of my critique was not any way a condemnation of Chartier’s ends(after all, I share much of them) but rather an observation that the insufficiency of market means for any explicit ends should give pause before engaging in a case that comes pretty close to suggesting that the market would achieve what the Just State hypothetically is supposed to achieve. Particularly when the intended audience may consist of those who ostensibly hold a strong moral commitment to egalitarian ends(so much so that the State is deemed a necessity). I don’t think libertarianism can make that strong of a case. And I think it’s right to be skeptical of any argument that purports to do so.

Now Dr. Long commented on my last post along the lines that my logic fails if generally applied. His example was that my position would exclude advocating the free market on the basis of prosperity(a utilitarian end). Well, yes and no. By definition a Justice of Mutual Advantage regime implies an agent is better off with the regime than without the regime. However, the free market is not a sufficient condition for any particular instance of a prosperity regime.

For example, in our context, “prosperity,” or the prosperity regime, implies a type of rapid technological advance, creative destruction, high economic growth one. I would argue all day long that a free market is not a sufficient condition for that type of thing. The evolutionary dynamics of markets are almost entirely a function rent-seeking. By rent-seeking I simply mean the seeking of returns on resources above opportunity costs. If the rent-seeking regime is relentless, then you have a high degree of firm hierarchy. And I’m not specifically referring to political/protectionist economic rent-seeking. Rent-seeking in general explains hierarchy. And although I’m often fond of repeating the statement that rent-seeking is rational, my inner Hayek will inform me that it nonetheless takes place in the context of the evolved rules regime, whether heuristic/spontaneous or planned(Hayek is my dialectics).

So, as a demonstration, I will point to this older article by Charles Davis that documented his observations during his time in Nicaragua. In one sense, you could label the local regime he observes as a type(an approximate one) of JMA regime. But it would probably fail our North American standard of a prosperity regime.

Frankly, some may think that this degree of skepticism makes weak sauce for liberty. But I would counter that liberty is something that has to be presumed, not demonstrated. And what makes for weak propaganda in terms of a positive case for liberty nonetheless wields a razor scalpel in eviscerating any moral claim of State authority.

So, if we return to the matter of John Holbo, I will contend that the relative weakness of demonstrating liberty in no way validates State Authority. Unlike liberty, State moral authority has to be demonstrated, not presumed. If you can’t or refuse to demonstrate it, then you are operating according to a presumption of authority. And that type of presumption undercuts pretty much the entire western legal and philosophical tradition. Holbo can babble on about “high liberalism” and “positive liberties,” but it is just babble. High Liberalism and Rawls(etc) still operate according to the liberal methodology. And liberalism–the liberal paradigm–cannot survive a government that operates on arbitrary authority. A government that arbitrarily dispenses with the magna carta(due process) and views the moral ends of every citizen a potential threat(requiring Orwellian surveillance) makes of a mockery of the so-called liberal social contract. We all know that the social contract is a fiction, but it’s abstraction of conferring hypothetical legitimacy has run its course. The only thing it demonstrates now, in the abstract, is the degree of illegitimacy of the State. if I were Holbo, I would be worried about that–particularly with respect to the problem of reform and correction. But he is not. To me, that is a demonstration that the State is his ends. And that disqualifies him as a liberal. Instead, it establishes him as a political right-winger.


Liberty is presumed, not demonstrated. Authority, on the other hand, has to be demonstrated, not presumed. The Crooked Timber sport game of invalidating libertarian claims is irrelevant. I don’t have to demonstrate liberty to invalidate their claims of authority. I can invalidate them by their own criteria(e.g, the so-called social contract). The obvious anomalies of arbitrary government power–in full evidence in a National Security State–presents a grave dilemma for liberal political theory. Authentic liberals should be seriously concerned by this. But, by and large, most who ostensibly claim that mantle, are not.

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