Broken Hearts

by Henry Farrell on June 9, 2020

Bleeding Heart Libertarians is no longer publishing new material. The final post is here. It’s an end worth noting, because it seems to me (I have no very specific knowledge, and have deliberately not asked any of the principals involved) to say something bigger about what is happening to libertarianism.

The Bleeding Heart Libertarians collective seemed to me to be the product of a number of oppositions. As the final post says, the founders were opposed both to the fusion of libertarianism with conservativism, and the Rawlsian consensus that characterized liberal political theory. They all wanted to do something that was different than both, using libertarian ideas as the basis for an account of politics that captured some notion of human wellbeing, but not the concern for minimizing (some forms of) inequality that animated Rawls.

However, these shared oppositions perhaps disguised the extent to which the founders’ views were also opposed to each other. There were clear tensions from the start between what might be called a GMU libertarianism, which sought to distinguish itself from conservatism, but was willing to strike bargains with it, and was focused on justifications of the market, and a libertarianism that was more interested in grappling with the politics of justice using libertarian tools than in completely dismantling it.

There were other reasons why these oppositions were less salient than they might otherwise have been. Some had to do with the institutional structures of libertarianism, which still focused on two networks – one loosely centered on the Cato Institute and market-based libertarianism, and one on the Mises institute, which had some tendrils into paleo-libertarian racism. Others had to do with the time when it was founded – 2011 – when Obama was coming to the end of his first term.

The conditions have changed dramatically, most obviously thanks to the rise of Trump, who has been a divisive figure among libertarians. I would guess that there are not many intellectual libertarians who genuinely like Trump, but there are many are prepared to tolerate him, and some, like Peter Thiel, who actively support him. Equally, however, those libertarians who were deeply concerned with questions of justice have been thoroughly appalled by him – and by the willingness of some of their former comrades to tolerate him.

The second important change has been the rise of Niskanen as an alternative to Cato. Niskanen is not a leftwing institution (although it certainly has some left-libertarians associated with it). However, its origins have a lot to do with the unhappiness of some libertarians with the accommodations that Cato was willing to reach with the conservative movement, and with the dominant role of the Koch network. I haven’t read any good historical account of the outcome of the 2011-2012 split, nor have I heard any real oral history, but I’ve got to imagine that it was not entirely unconnected to the creation of Niskanen.

The result is that differences that used to be less visible are sharply salient now. The recent political crises have left some libertarians willing to double down on markets and the long term benefits of continued economic inequality, and others who want to recenter libertarianism on democracy, and to understand the structural forces behind some kinds of inequality, in particular racial inequality. That splits the Bleeding Heart Libertarian project right down the middle. The statement in the closing post that “the project of establishing the intellectual space for bleeding-heart libertarian ideas has also more or less succeeded, giving way to the various different intellectual projects people are going to pursue in that space” has a strong whiff of “creative differences are leading the band members to pursue their own projects.”

Of course, there are likely to be other things going on too. When I first thought about writing this post yesterday, I decided to go through the last couple of months of posts, and was a little startled to see that it was now close to a Jason Brennan solo album, with the occasional session musician popping up here and there. The recent Brennan riffs have mostly been variants on the standard epidemiologists are stupider than economists line (just wait until the real expert, my friend Phil Magness, turns up), with B side tracks including a wallop at me and Crooked Timber that I hadn’t seen, and “Anti-Competition as the Incel Mentality”. Brennan has always applied what might euphemistically be described as forceful rhetoric against people whom he disagrees with – it can’t be a good sign that he started using it against his fellow BHL bloggers.

However, I’d guess that this is more an irritant and a symptom. The fundamental problem is that US libertarian intellectuals are increasingly divided among themselves, regardless of any one individual’s intellectual style. Loosely speaking, some are opting for a renewed commitment to democracy (where they are building arguments that are in some ways far more radical, and in other ways less radical than standard liberals). This is pushing them towards a different set of political commitments too, that range from some flavor of NeverTrump Republicanism through to interest in candidates such as Elizabeth Warren. Others are doubling down on the commitment to markets (and, tacitly, or explicitly, the Schumpeterian benefits of continued inequality), and a more opportunistic approach to politics where they are willing to strike tactical policy alliances either with Republicans (Trumpian or not) or Democrats as seems best at any particular moment. This divide has surely been sharpened by the events of the last few weeks, and is likely to get sharper still over the next several months.

Updated: This essay by Niskanen’s Brink Lindsey illustrates the split.



Doug 06.09.20 at 2:33 pm

From the fifth paragraph: “and by the unwillingness of some of their former comrades to tolerate him”

Should this be either “unwillingness of some of their former comrades to confront him” or “willingness of some of their former comrades to tolerate him”?


Henry 06.09.20 at 2:41 pm

Thanks – fixed.


Daragh McDowell 06.09.20 at 3:22 pm

Not sure if it affects your overall argument, but worth noting that Peter Thiel has reportedly dropped off the Trump train, largely due to the incompetent response to the coronavirus pandemic.


Matt L 06.09.20 at 3:29 pm

I can’t wait for the day libertarianism goes the way of mercantilism. As in, the plutocratic money goes elsewhere to prop up transparently ridiculous ideological smoke screens. The link in the update is a perfect example. There is paragraph after paragraph with not a single value argument against the devastating opening anti libertarian line. Many of the arguments are even unwittingly anti libertarian, in that they point out government failures caused by the rot purposefully seeded in government capabilities by libertarians and their pro-apartheid, Christianist allies, and then pretend the failures are arguments for libertarian ideas (a tried and true, if embarrassingly obvious, libertarian debate tactic).


AWOL 06.09.20 at 3:47 pm

Tried to give them a shot a few years back, but their rabid pro-gun stance and “just some bad apples, we have the right to military-type weaponry” apologia made me think they were engaged in the magical thinking of American Exceptionalism.


Hidari 06.09.20 at 4:19 pm


That article doesn’t at all make it clear why Thiel ‘disapproves’ of what Trump did over Covid-19. It might be that Thiel thinks that Trump didn’t lock down enough. Or, (and given Thiel’s libertarianism, to be honest, this seems more likely) it may well be that he feels Trump did too much to fight the virus and he should have simply ‘let nature take its course’.

Which makes a big difference.


Frank Wilhoit 06.09.20 at 4:42 pm

Today freedom is merely a euphemism for unaccountability.


Chetan Murthy 06.09.20 at 5:11 pm

From Brink Lindsey’s essay:

Only the government has the power and resources to internalize the externalities of contagion …. In the first place, the fact that certain kinds of government action are necessary under the extraordinary conditions of a public health emergency – a fact freely acknowledged by many libertarians and partisans of small government – does not mean that expansive government across the board is a good idea in normal times.

[checks notes’ I find that the massive public health crisis of lead poisoning of our youth all across America, resulting in a culture-changing crime wave and knock-on changes in everything, including our politics, all happened during “normal times”. These extremely wise and thorough intellectuals are incapable of seeing that just because they don’t think something is a grave danger, a massive externality threatening our country, doesn’t mean others don’t see it.

Matt L. has it right: there’s no there there, just propaganda for FYIGM.


Barry 06.09.20 at 5:21 pm

In the end, perhaps the shorter thesis is that libertarianism is largely a right-wing project (I do not care about alleged historical intellectual roots).


roger gathmann 06.09.20 at 5:45 pm

I really have never understood what libertarians mean by liberty. To me, that is an existential property, but for them, it appears to be an odd feature of the contractual myth. It seems to me that a belief system that limits the existential freedom of most people can’t be called libertarian. There should be another word.
It is a very anglosphere phenomenon. Like certain forms of analytic philosophy. And maybe that is the key to it.


William Meyer 06.09.20 at 5:50 pm

Yes, the pandemic and global warming have pretty much demonstrated what a hollow tin can libertarian “thought” is. As someone pointed out, the only real political philosophy in the world is conservatism, which believes: “There must an in-group which the laws protect but do not bind, and an out-group which the laws bind but do not protect.” Libertarians are the smart kids who were tasked to come up with specious arguments to cloak the central dogma of conservatism, and who have ended up hypnotizing themselves with their own not-very coherent thoughts.

I was going to give five or six examples of completely motivated reasoning by libertarians, but the whole topic is so silly that it frankly bores me.


bianca steele 06.09.20 at 5:58 pm

This is what the bhl project always seemed to be as far as I could see: “You say libertarians are heartless. I’m a libertarian and I don’t want to think I’m heartless. I can name my blog ‘bleeding heart libertarians’ and present myself as a nice guy and then liberals will be forced to admit that libertarianism is not heartless.”

Change the last clause to “young libertarians will be forced to have the morals I prefer” (as I gather is Brink Lindsey’s preferred project) and it doesn’t change anything.

All that effort could have been put into arguing against libertarianism instead, if that’s what they had wanted to do. The effort could have been put into addressing people who’d picked up libertarian ideas but weren’t libertarians and didn’t want to be, if that’s what the had wanted to do. What they wanted to do was be libertarians, and they revealed libertarians to be clowns because that’s what libertarians are.


Chip Daniels 06.09.20 at 6:32 pm

@Bianca Steele

What libertarians can’t grasp is the essentially communal and collective nature of moral codes; The Bleeding Heart of Jesus AKA “Compassion” means an obligation which one is not at liberty to refuse.

The trans movement and BLM movements throw this into high relief, that it isn’t enough for people to be “free” to do things; The most profound human impulse is to be welcomed and accepted by the collective body, where no one is at liberty to treat you as a lesser being.


bianca steele 06.09.20 at 8:34 pm

Chip Daniels @ 13

I feel no obligation to understand where libertarians are coming from even to the extent of being able to diagnose them accurately with respect to my own beliefs, let alone yours. (Not a dig at you, only the most number of words I think appropriate here to describe the fact that I think we disagree slightly on possibly important matters you outline in your first paragraph, and I don’t see my dislike of libertarians as forcing me to agree with anyone whosoever who claims to know why.) I’m a citizen whose participation in political life requires only that I recognize that they’re my enemy and they’re not rational in any recognized sense, hence it’s not worth debating them.

In private life, where I write poems or diary entries that no one else will see, I may allow myself the indulgence, but in the normal course of things I have no reason to do it.


Chetan Murthy 06.09.20 at 8:44 pm


You’re 100% right in what you write. But it’s even worse. There are so many areas of human activity, that are essentially communal: where externalities are of massive importance:

(1) economic activity. The idea that somehow bad actors don’t have effects past their immediate counterparties, poisoning the whole community … that’s crazy.
(2) breathing, drinking, eating the products of the soil, staying healthy, medicine efficacy (antibiotic resistance).

and on and on and on. I think maybe libertarianism made sense in America (or maybe Australia) when an ethnically-cleansed continent was available for “manly, rugged men” to move out and disconnect themselves completely from human society. [ok, ok, it was never like that, as Adam Smith made clear in his writings on the global market in Hudson Bay furs, but still, it’s a nice fantasy for them] But today, when the entire world is interdependent and my discards in San Francisco end up in the Indian Ocean strangling the last sperm whale, it’s just idiotic.


Mike Huben 06.09.20 at 9:25 pm

My “Critiques of Libertarianism” wiki has an index for Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

There was very little to respect among a group of philosophers sadly attempting to square the circle of libertarianism with equality or social justice. Nor were they above deleting all (except three) of my dozens of responses to their posts. The only regular one I liked was Kevin Vallier. The others were thin-skinned and did not tolerate rebuttals well.

Here’s my favorite quotation about them:

[…] Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHL) — a group of free-market apologists who have built a brand out of applying lipstick to the libertarian pig.

Jonah Walters, “Bleeding Heart Bullshit”


Jake Gibson 06.09.20 at 9:43 pm

For most conservatives, including most libertarians, freedom equals their preferences and privilege.
Rather than saying, “I’ve got mine, screw you”. They are saying, “Get your own damn liberty.”


Jason Brennan 06.09.20 at 10:59 pm

Good news, everybody:

Jess Flanagan, Chris Freiman, and I will be henceforth be blogging at

There will be blood.


Jerry Vinokurov 06.10.20 at 1:43 am

As someone pointed out, the only real political philosophy in the world is conservatism, which believes: “There must an in-group which the laws protect but do not bind, and an out-group which the laws bind but do not protect.”

That someone has even commented on this very thread!


Wonks Anonymous 06.10.20 at 1:52 am

There’s no “About” page for 200 Proof Liberals. How is it supposed to differ from BHL?


bianca steele 06.10.20 at 2:17 am

I kind of agree with Brennan’s take on Levy’s post, though I tend to attribute Levy’s having done so to professional norms rather than deliberate deception.


Irfan Khawaja 06.10.20 at 2:43 am

I think Henry’s post does a good job explaining the various fractures within the BHL project, but doesn’t really explain why the blog came to an end when it did. The existence of those ideological fractures is, after all, compatible with the continuing existence of the blog. The bloggers might have had an ongoing dialogue on BHL about the disagreements themselves.

The explanation for BHL’s ending is, I think, more personal, or person-oriented than is suggested by appeal to ideological fracture or disagreement. I think it became clear after awhile that Jason Brennan had hijacked the blog for his own rhetorical purposes. And his discursive behavior on the blog became increasingly unhinged and childish. Who but Brennan claims the right to write a blog post, entertain criticism, then delete the criticism, but change the post to respond to it after the fact? Who goes around bragging about how many fist fights they’ve fought or won? Who makes random accusations for weeks on end–and then, on encountering push-back from the accused–deletes the post in question without a word, as though nothing had happened? Etc. Just a small sample. Eventually, Brennan had begun to turn BHL into his personal freak show. It was embarrassing.

Once he started up his pandemic polemics, it became clear to the other BHL bloggers that Brennan had become a liability to them. Like a lot of things, the pandemic had divided libertarians. Brennan was in the anti-lockdown camp, but plenty of other libertarians were in the pro-lockdown camp. It wasn’t enough for Brennan to criticize those with whom he disagreed; it never was. No, Jason had to haul out the most rhetorically extravagant insults he could find and bludgeon his opponents over the head with them, day in and day out. It was Madjunct controversy continued, with epidemiologists standing in for the Madjuncts. Success would only be achieved if the people on the other side were made to look like cowering, morally reprobate, freedom hating, and above all methodologically bankrupt idiots. Only by making the last of those claims could Jason show his quantitative skills off to anyone apt to be impressed by them.

The whole thing started generating a few cringes, then more than few, then a few too many. Since (I suppose) the principals couldn’t or didn’t want the fuss involved in kicking him off the blog, they decided to end the blog itself. And the rest is history. For once, Great Man History actually has explanatory value.

And, oh, speak of the Devil. Look who just posted.


Joe Specht 06.10.20 at 3:29 am

I confess to having no familiarity with the BHL project, so my commentary has nothing to do with it. (I got here from a Tyler Cowan link.)

In all of these comments, I don’t see one coherent critique of libertarianism and, rather, see nothing but misunderstanding of libertarianism. True libertarianism is not every person for himself or herself. It is not an argument against people ever working together for a common goal. It is, instead, allowing people to decide for themselves which societal projects they will support rather than requiring their participation (and, yes, especially their money) via the state’s monopoly on force.


Hidari 06.10.20 at 7:23 am

It’s worthwhile pointing out that any discussion of libertarianism, of any sort whatsoever, either ‘pro’ or ‘con’, is simply pointless.

Libertarianism sometimes gets compared to communism. But these comparisons are ridiculous. Even putting aside the fact that the degree of erudition and the complexity of thought in, for example, Marx’s Capital dwarfs any work in the libertarian canon, there is also the objective fact that there were, in fact, Communist states (and still are for that matter). You might not have liked Soviet Russian, or Mao’s China, but at least they existed. You could critique a real ‘live’ existing Communist state, and communists could think of rebuttals or not, or whatever.

The situation vis a vis libertarianism is rather different. There has never, ever been a libertarian ‘state’ (indeed, one could argue that that is a contradiction in terms). No libertarian party has ever won any ‘general election’ (i.e. an election to decide who leads a country): ever. No libertarian has ever led a country. Nor will this ever happen. The time when (for example) the American Presidency is won by the Libertarian Party candidate will be ‘never’.

Nor are libertarian ideas influential. The American Republican Party (when one looks at what it actually does not what it says it does) is not a libertarian party, and, again, nor has it ever looked remotely like a libertarian party. Huge swathes of libertarian thought (e.g. the suspicion of the police, the army and the ‘intelligence agencies’) simply have no influence on the modern Republican Party (or British Conservative Party) and where there is overlap (e.g. tax cutting, hostility to unions) the intellectual sources of these generally come from non-libertarian sources and/or predated libertarianism as a philosophy.

So we are talking about a philosophy here which has no concrete influence on anyone, has never had any concrete influence on anyone, and will never have any concrete evidence on anyone. Ergo, any second spent discussing libertarianism as if it is or might become a political philosophy of consequence is a wasted second.


asdf 06.10.20 at 8:21 am

What are the tendrils into paleo-libertarian racism of the Mises institue? I wasnt aware of that and just thought of them as the more radical/rothbardian side of libertarianism.


Chris Bertram 06.10.20 at 1:11 pm

I largely agree with Henry’s take, but I think there was more pro-Rawlsian sentiment at BHL than he credits. First Kevin Vallier looks like a pretty orthodox Rawlsian in many ways; second, at least in the early days, a lot of the inspiration seemed to be from Michael Tomasi’s utterly misguided (in my view) project of giving a free-market spin to Rawlsianism.


steven t johnson 06.10.20 at 2:03 pm

About Brennan’s “wallop,” I have to say, that no one is perfect, not even perfectly wrong, as in stopped clocks.

“Loathe as I am to admit it, Brennan is correct that picking a quote from one person isn’t really enough. And the larger point he makes, that public choice analysis of the competence of government to resolve supposed market failures applies in all cases, by definition. And the definition, the internal incongruences, or whatever, are not up for debate.

That’s not really relevant to the Hanson case [the occasion for Brennan’s resentment of Farrell renegado,] which to my eyes is BS designed to confuse the issues, done for Trumpery. But of course, there are no issues of corruption in the academy and any who make such evil-minded claims are sinners against scholarship, not peers like Brennan or Hanson. It is entirely unclear how a valid case against government monopoly of education isn’t also a valid case against government monopoly of health. And certainly government monopoly of investment is the cardinal sin in the eyes of everyone else here.

But being uncouth, I will say that so far as I can judge, the confusion about what the public is is an inescapable part of all acceptable economics. The ‘public’ is who always benefits from any technological innovation, all forms of free trade, deregulation, privatization, national defense…why, the same ‘public’ is the definition of national interest! Brennan is interesting to read because he is so Emersonian (‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’) It makes him very good at spotting inconsistencies, if not to make a positive case.

Mike Huben may have been deleted but he wasn’t banned, so far as I know, which I suppose makes him the admirable one.

I’ve forgotten who observed Niskanen was an artisanal boutique selling velvet gloves for the market’s iron hand, that is, the fashionable continuation of BHL.


David 06.10.20 at 2:50 pm

These are interesting arguments, but I at least am old enough to remember when the Libertarian consensus–such as it might have been–was breaking down in the 1970s as to between what I think of as Randian Minarchism and Rothbardian Anarcho-Capitalism.

I am not a “Big-L” Libertarian, but my lifelong conservatism is informed by Randian Minarchism. /Contra/ the Rothbard wing, I do not see the State as inherently evil and thus to be avoided at all costs, but rather as a necessary but dangerous aspect of human society: as George Washington put it, the State is like fire…a useful servant but a dangerous master.

More recently, Newt Gingrich observed that American conservatives do not want a weak state; what they want is a strong, but limited state–one that is competent in its delineated areas of responsibility, but that must be vigorously kept from exceeding its appointed authority, like an aggressive plant that needs regular pruning.

You know…like that thing we used to have, a government of limited, enumerated powers.

My view of Libertarianism as a political philosophy is that it suffers from the same defect as Marxism–it only sees individuals and the State: there is no room in it for mediating institutions or collaborative effort. I have been reliably informed (…) by self-described Libertarians that my willingness to subordinate my personal defense to the State makes me unfit to call myself a libertarian. Perhaps so, but I doubt that even the most /enrage/ of Libertarians can go without sleep, so someone must be standing guard while they do.

And it does seem odd that there is no room for a division of labor in the Libertarian ecology regarding self-defense. At least in fictional libertarian societies there are private defense forces and police forces: whether those societies have any long-term stability is of course another question.

So I’m inclined to think that Libertarianism as a political force is largely spent: its most interesting and useful arguments have been internalized by one or both of the major political parties, and some have borne fruit, however malformed the true believers might find it.

I am, after all, also old enough to remember when the political consensus across both parties was that the State should be the provider not merely of last resort, but for many things, of first resort. As the old joke used to have it, if the Democrats proposed to abolish the Constitution, the Republicans would respond with a five-year phaseout plan.

I expect history–assuming we still have the capacity for it–will include Libertarianism among a broad array of political movements that never “succeeded” in the broader sense of establishing a governing coalition, but certainly succeeded in moving the needles in the larger body politic.


Mike Huben 06.10.20 at 4:02 pm

Joe Specht @23:

In all of these comments, I don’t see one coherent critique of libertarianism and, rather, see nothing but misunderstanding of libertarianism. True libertarianism…

Are you the self-appointed arbiter of “true libertarianism”?

For coherent critiques of libertarianism, visit my site. Close to 3000 links to books and web articles critical of libertarianism. Of course, the problem might be that your judgement of coherence is at fault.

And maybe the [urpose of the original poster was not to criticize libertarianism but to discuss the history of BHL.


Sebastian H 06.10.20 at 4:04 pm

A huge problem in the intellectual world is the attempt to elevate good and corrective critiques into over-arching systems. Each time this happens, you lose track of the benefits of the underlying system that was being critiqued. This happens for all sorts of good critiques ranging from libertarianism to Marxism to post-modernism.

A good libertarian critique points out that ways that functional liberty often gets ignored when government gets caught up too much in bureaucratic rules, gets too focused on narrow goals, or interferes with dissenting opinions/feelings/values. But that isn’t the kind of thing that you should elevate to an organizing principle, especially in the direction of “therefore government should do nothing”.

Similarly a good post-modern critique points out how (especially on the edges of knowledge) where and how we look at things is influenced by the culture we inhabit and the biases we learned growing up. But elevating that to an organizing principle along the lines of “all knowledge is constructed” or more pointedly “all YOUR knowledge is constructed” ends up causing everything to collapse.

I’m reluctant to characterize the good Marxist critique here because I can’t claim to understand it as well as the first two examples so please forgive me, but things I’ve personally learned from good Marxist critiques is how focus on profit and pricing can tend to obscure other valuable things which can’t easily be profited from or priced. Similarly many items of social capital can be profited from, but in ways which end up destroying the social capital. (See for example companies in the 80s pivoting to an ethos of not investing in the training of employees, which they profited from immensely until the employees realized what was going on and quit investing as much in the companies they worked for). But when you try to raise that valid critique into a system that denies the utility of profit and price at all, you end up with a mess.

Bringing it back to bleeding heart libertarians, the divide between those who took it as a critique program and those who took it as a organizing system program becomes clearer. The libertarian critique program is as strong as ever. I see it more and more in all sorts of leftist discourse that was very dismissive of it under the name “libertarian”. The idea that large government systems can become negative sum for the community as a whole while being captured by a narrow group that profits from it is incredibly popular on the left even if none dare call it “public choice”. The libertarian organizing system never made good sense, and it is going to have enormous problems extricating itself from the alliances it made with Trumpists.


MPAVictoria 06.10.20 at 4:53 pm

“It is, instead, allowing people to decide for themselves which societal projects they will support rather than requiring their participation (and, yes, especially their money) via the state’s monopoly on force.”

Sounds wonderful! Quick question – I am a Type 1 Diabetic. If i don’t have steady access to insulin I will die in 24-48 hours. Right now I am lucky enough to live in a country that caps the price of insulin. If I lived in the US however there are no price caps and people routinely die because they can’t get the insulin they need to live. Why should our lives depend on someone else’s charity or good will? Why should we have to beg for something most people get for free? Why are you willing to let me die so that your unproven and cruel political beliefs can be implemented?


bianca steele 06.10.20 at 5:04 pm

From what I can see, Niskanen is a center-right institution that wants respectable, well-adjusted or well-integrated professionals, “managers,”* and rich people to be its main representatives, and also to have the technocrats on its side. If Rawls is the consensus of the thinkers thus the technocrats, then the reconstituted Republican Party (the one the textbooks said necessarily existed, by logic) must have Rawls on its side. If there is no principled argument to be made against libertarianism, they must also be libertarian. This is probably, all things considered, a consistent and sustainable ideology. It probably doesn’t absolutely have to have a mandatory way of handling the obvious and unavoidable injustices, same-sex marriage one year, a police state administered over black people the next, in order to thrive.

There are various rhetorical problems due to the fact that the political right calls them “leftists,” that the academic center prefers left-leaning and Democratic Party politics, and so on. These are problems for “the rest of us,” however, and they ignore these.

There is almost no chance a person could do actually good work having accepted those constraints.

By this they invariably mean corporate officers.


Cervantes 06.10.20 at 5:47 pm

Their inescapable problem is that libertarianism is like the concept of God: internally inconsistent, and inconsistent with observable reality. And it can only be accepted on the basis of faith. A libertarian “intellectual” is a kind of theologian, not a philosopher or social scientist.


dilbert dogbert 06.10.20 at 7:03 pm

I think I saw the “No True Libertarian” argument posted above.


Barry 06.10.20 at 10:28 pm

Daragh McDowell 06.09.20 at 3:22 pm

” Not sure if it affects your overall argument, but worth noting that Peter Thiel has reportedly dropped off the Trump train, largely due to the incompetent response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

IMHO, that just means that he’s decided that this guy is of no further use.


Barry 06.10.20 at 10:32 pm


“Nor are libertarian ideas influential. ”

They are quite useful. Right-wing politicians love to use it, they are given respect in the media, etc. That’s influential.

If you mean that they are shamelessly violated by people who claim to revere them, on that I will agree with you.


J-D 06.10.20 at 10:37 pm

I confess to having no familiarity with the BHL project, so my commentary has nothing to do with it. (I got here from a Tyler Cowan link.)

In all of these comments, I don’t see one coherent critique of libertarianism and, rather, see nothing but misunderstanding of libertarianism. True libertarianism is not every person for himself or herself. It is not an argument against people ever working together for a common goal. It is, instead, allowing people to decide for themselves which societal projects they will support rather than requiring their participation (and, yes, especially their money) via the state’s monopoly on force.

In writing that comment, you had a choice between these two options:
Option 1: Use the term ‘social projects’
Option 2: Use the term ‘societal projects’
You chose Option 2 over Option 1. That choice would fit with a hatred of the English language, but why would anybody hate the English language?


Andres 06.11.20 at 12:04 am

I should know better than to be baited by Joe Specht @23, but I’ll bite anyway. It seems to be you who doesn’t understand the basic critique of libertarianism. If you are against the state using some sort of coercive power in order to enforce cooperation, e.g. if you want to make all tax payments voluntary, then you are not proposing any solution to the free rider problem that is one of the basic bugaboos of microeconomics and you are saying that in effect, it should be every person for herself or himself. The basic theory of government in politics, as well as the basic theory of providing public goods in economics, is that many forms of collective action have to be non-voluntary or they will fall apart. The reason that we have legislatures and elections is to make sure that non-voluntary collective action is still held to account by individuals in their capacity as voters.


Wonks Anonymous 06.11.20 at 12:57 am

Bryan Caplan of GMU wrote about “real communism” vs “real libertarianism” here:
A related one asks why there is so little social democratic triumphalism:


Hidari 06.11.20 at 7:18 am

@39 Caplan (who is a very smart guy) catches the point, but then ignores it because he doesn’t like its emotional implications. He correctly says, in that article: ‘ real libertarianism has never happened. ‘

What he doesn’t seem to get is that, therefore, that’s the end of the discussion. Real libertarianism has never been tried, anywhere, ever. Nor are there any signs that it will be tried, anywhere, ever.

So who cares? Why are we even having this discussion?

@36 Yes, libertarian ideas are a useful rhetorical shield (or cover) for what right wing governments were going to do anyway, I’ll give you that.


bad Jim 06.11.20 at 7:20 am

Apologies, all. Late to the thread, haven’t read all the comments, still not sure what Bernard-Henri Lévy has said to occasion such a fuss.

(Goes back and reads everything). Libertarianism? Seriously? Is this a fit subject for a social democratic or democratic socialist site, where the first principle is that there isn’t a first principle but a process of matching means and ends? That results matter?

Sure, it’s all good clean fun to crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women, but who ever took these folks seriously?


Tm 06.11.20 at 8:46 am

@Hidari 24: Your first paragraph would have sufficed 😎

@J-D wouldn’t a better choice of word have been “collective” projects?


Matt 06.11.20 at 9:11 am

I would guess that there are not many intellectual libertarians who genuinely like Trump, but there are many are prepared to tolerate him, and some, like Peter Thiel, who actively support him.

Among people who are at least modestly well know and have some influence, I’d say that Randy Barnett best fits this bill. He, at least, is a regularly defender of the Trump regime on twitter and other places, and seems more than willing to trade the role-back of the regulatory state and the appointment of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court for all the other bad things, if he in fact thinks they are bad.

Irfan at 22 – can you note any examples of the claims about Brennan deleting criticism and changing posts? No worries if you didn’t keep track, but I’d consider that to be, if not academic misconduct, at least a sign of seriously bad behavior in other ways – hardly the sign of one who stiles themselves as a “vulcan”.


Collin Street 06.11.20 at 11:26 am

Actually, Andres, the basic critique of libertarianism is “it’s the coercive power of the state what made your stuff yours, and they did it on their terms, not yours. If you want to reject the coercive power of the state entirely, anarchism is to your left; if you want a coercive power of the state focussed on individual opportunity, classical liberalism is… also to your left.”


Mike Huben 06.11.20 at 12:13 pm

Wonks Anonymous @ 39:

Caplan’s propaganda manages to not see the forest for the trees. The communist regimes he denounces were private ownership of the nation and resources by their dictators and communist parties. He wouldn’t have to go beyond Wikipedia to read “While the emergence of the Soviet Union as the world’s first nominally socialist state led to socialism’s widespread association with the Soviet economic model, some economists and intellectuals argued that in practice the model functioned as a form of state capitalism or a non-planned administrative or command economy.”


J-D 06.12.20 at 12:47 am

@J-D wouldn’t a better choice of word have been “collective” projects?

I don’t always know what the better choice of word is; I just know that it’s never ‘societal’.


Jerry Vinokurov 06.12.20 at 3:49 am

In retrospect (or, for some of us, in prospect), it was always going to end this way.

That’s because the number of people genuinely interested in libertarianism qua libertarianism (i.e. as a genuine philosophical project) is negligible; the rest are grifters whose main line of work is providing a patina of respectability for such revolting institutions as Cato and AEI. The ideas themselves were never all that important, other than the central idea, which was that it was very important for the rich to become even richer because then some of that would presumably trickle down to these same “thinkers” in their foundation sinecures. The whole thing was always just a front for reaction, and now that reaction has, at least for the time being, conclusively triumphed, there is no longer any need to keep up pretenses. The grifters can just go ahead and cash out and ignore anyone who doesn’t join them, and presumably the few people in this crowd who still value any form of genuine intellectual debate can find better things to do with their time.


Andres 06.12.20 at 4:09 am

Collin @44: You may be right, though I would argue that what you describe is a historical critique of libertarianism, not a basic theoretical critique. In general, I would point to basic microeconomic theory “situations”, in particular free rider problems, externalities, ultimatum and prisoner-dilemma type setups. All of these, when applied to the real world, make nonsense of libertarianism as an effective socioeconomic system. I have my own criticism of microeconomics, but when microeconomics is applied with a proper respect to reality a libertarian has to either:

(a) come up with a theory of microeconomics that is totally at odds with reality (the Chicago solution), or

(b) fall back on the argument that politicians are whores, so that the state can’t be trusted to properly regulate markets (public choice theory, in a nutshell) or even to collect taxes.

The ironic thing is that in order to prove (b), the right-wing propaganda machine including the Kochtopus in fact ends up supporting the election of politicians who are, strictly speaking up for sale.


reason 06.12.20 at 9:22 pm

I agree with Collin Street @44 basically. I think taxation is theft, but so is property and for exactly the same reason. But both may be practically useful, so I’m not sure the principled position is better than the dirty compromise, Friedman’s opinion to the contrary be damned.

But there is a more basic problem with Libertarianism – their use of the word “Liberty” in a bastard way. They don’t actually care about freedom do they. If they did they might notice that private property is an EXCLUSIVE right and so in granting freedom to an individual removes it from everybody else. If I can’t walk across your land, or use your lawnmower I am constrained – I have lost freedom.


Irfan Khawaja 06.13.20 at 6:47 pm

@Matt 43

It was really impossible to keep track, but he explicitly claimed the prerogative to do the following and did so for years:

Write a post, receive a criticism, then re-write the post to evade the criticism without having made any announcement to that effect, leaving the criticism orphaned, as though it referred to claims that had never been made in the original post.
Do the same as (1), but delete the criticism while he’s at it.
Just delete criticisms altogether because he didn’t want to see them.
Block people without telling them, then re-instate them out of the blue.
Show up on someone’s blog every now and then, make random insults, then leave–then block that very person when the person showed up at BHL to comment on one of his posts.

Just to be clear: he didn’t just do these things. Nor was I the only person on the receiving end. Many, many people were. All bad enough. But what was worse is that he explicitly claimed that he had the moral or discursive right to do them. He saw nothing wrong with any of these practices. He said so, publicly and explicitly, right there on the blog. If you had the patience, you could find them–assuming he hasn’t deleted them. He wasn’t content to indulge in vice. He had to serve up rationalizations for it.

When challenged on this frankly bizarre conception of discourse, he had nothing of substance to say. Any attempt to challenge him invited an insult-fest at his initiation, often including condescending charges by him of mental illness on the critic’s part. Only an insane person would criticize Jason Brennan’s procedures, after all. If (after sufficient provocation by him) you responded in kind, he’d delete your comment. Of course, he might delete your comment at the outset, unless he just decided to ignore you. Then again, he might also ignore you, then delete you. Dealing with him was sort of an exercise in calculating permutations of the fucked-up. You never knew what his ingenuity might serve up next.

When I challenged the “upper admin” of BHL about this, starting in 2015 (during the adjunct justice debates), they made some sheepish, anodyne remarks about how “Jason would be Jason,” and though yes, his behavior was regrettable, they could do regrettably little to rein him in. That’s when they responded at all. (They differed in their degree of receptiveness to my criticisms.) It wasn’t until I got really, really adamant about it just a few weeks ago that they decided that it was time to shut Jason up by shutting BHL up altogether. I give them credit for that, but it sure took awhile.

The only case I ever bothered to document is a recent one that directly involved me. It eventually occurred to me that the only way to deal with Brennan is to have your own turf, and deal with him from your own turf, so that you could screenshot and/or cut and paste every goddamn thing he said, and reproduce it in case someone wanted documentation.

If you follow all the links, and read all the comments, they document just about anything you’d want to see. And if they don’t, ask, and I can serve up some more of this crap, which otherwise just takes up space on my hard drive.

But who has time for that, really? It was a fool’s errand to document it, and is probably a fool’s errand to read the documentation. And any one malfeasance is just one instance of dozens and dozens of instances over years and years. No one can document everything of this nature. Philosophical discourse was never meant to resemble litigation or criminal investigation.

But that’s what dealing with Jason Brennan amounts to. If you deal with him, you have to employ the methods you would use if dealing with a litigant in a highly adversarial civil case, or a corrupt cop or evasive criminal suspect in a criminal case. Unless you’re getting paid attorney’s fees to do just that, it’s a waste of time and energy that might be better employed elsewhere.

He knows that. That’s why he does what he does. By the time you’ve documented his malfeasances to the satisfaction of every skeptic, he’s written his next book. Everyone will read that book; no one will read your documentation of his malfeasances.

And even if they did read it, what difference would it make to anything? No one in his position is much affected by the moral judgments of people not in his position. So imagine that many people think badly of him. So what? Enough people with their hands on enough money think well enough of him to keep the Jason Brennan Gravy Train going indefinitely, regardless of its destination or the fucked-up stops it makes along the way. Or who it runs over.

Not meaning to be critical of your question. It’s a very fair question. But I think my answer is also a pretty fair answer.

As for the whole Vulcan thing, it’s all so transparently phony that it doesn’t bear much scrutiny or discussion. No one after Martha Nussbaum’s work should be fooled into regarding a Brennanite “Vulcan” as a paradigm of rational inquiry or discourse. But even if it was, no one should be fooled into thinking that Jason Brennan is a Brennanite Vulcan. The whole “Vulcan” act is enough to make a cat laugh. That it hasn’t made our profession laugh suggests that we inhabit a profession that could learn some lessons from animal species possessing more sense than we do.


HC Carey 06.13.20 at 7:37 pm

Libertarians really are kind of a plague. They’re like Wallace Shawn’s character in the Princess Bride. Doing someone else’s bidding and calling freedom; perpetually convinced of their own superiority.

The attempt to escape essentialism was noble, but utterly f’in doomed, because naturalizing inequality was and is the entire point


dbk 06.13.20 at 9:40 pm

I was never a fan of the libertarian view, so didn’t spend time trying to understand it philosophically. But it’s been clear for some time that libertarians and the dark-money institutions their money has been supporting for the past 40-50 years risked overplaying their hand (looking at you, Heritage Society, AEI, AfP, Federalist Society, GMU Law & Economics Program, etc. etc.).

This Administration has (perhaps unwittingly) laid bare the real goals of libertarian activism: to destroy the institutions of Big Government (i.e. the social welfare state), to deregulate everything (especially the environment and the FIRE sector), to privatize what was once considered a public good (cf. Betsy DeVos and education) in order to concentrate ever more wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals.

Inevitably there was going to be discord when libertarian activists realized that their project had been a little too successful – could they walk it back a bit (e.g. through a bit of “prison reform” a la the Koch brothers)? Or should they just keep forging ahead (which appears to be what the Administration is opting for)?

And now the coronavirus has revealed what some of us always believed, namely, that in large, heterogeneous societies the role of Big Government was crucial in times of crisis.

The damage this “project” has wrought is almost incalculable.

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