Michael Lind on The Question Libertarians Just Can’t Answer

Recently, Michael Lind wrote a short essay for Salon entitled “The Question Libertarians Just Can’t Answer.” The question: “Why are there no libertarian countries?” After all, if libertarianism is so great, then who doesn’t some country adopt it?

I found this essay to be a bit odd.  The answers that libertarians would give are pretty obvious yet they are completely ignored by Lind. One answer is simply that most people do not understand the benefits from economic liberty (or other kinds of liberty). They believe many things which are simply economically false, such as the notion that the best way of raising wages of workers generally is through price controls like the minimum wage. Economics is a hard subject and according to the libertarian most people just don’t understand it. It is true that there are disagreements among economists, but the typical economists believes in much more economic liberty than the ordinary person.

Another answer is that people often do not want libertarianism because they believe they are better off with restrictions on liberty – but they make this judgment without considering the benefits to other people from liberty. For example, people support immigration restrictions on the ground that the immigrants would take their jobs away, but they ignore the benefits to the immigrants. Or people support restrictions on drugs based on the fear of their children taking drugs, without considering the various harms that drug prohibition creates.

In the end, I believe there are difficult questions for libertarianism, especially the more radical versions of the theory. One that is related to the question that Lind asks is, if libertarianism has never been tried, then how can one be confident it would work well? But that is not the question that Lind asks, and his question is just not that important for assessing the desirability of the theory.

Mike Rappaport

Professor Rappaport is Darling Foundation Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism. Professor Rappaport is the author of numerous law review articles in journals such as the Yale Law Journal, the Virginia Law Review, the Georgetown Law Review, and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. His book, Originalism and the Good Constitution, which is co-authored with John McGinnis, was published by the Harvard University Press in 2013.  Professor Rappaport is a graduate of the Yale Law School, where he received a JD and a DCL (Law and Political Theory).

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  1. djf says

    “For example, people support immigration restrictions on the ground that the immigrants would take their jobs away, but they ignore the benefits to the immigrants.”

    Are you suggesting that citizens of a given country, in deliberating on immigration policy, should give their own interests (whether viewed individually or collectively) no more weight than the interests of the immigrants?

    Also, if by “ignore” you mean “are unaware of,” I think you are severely underestimating the intelligence of Americans who oppose unrestricted immigration. These Americans are well aware that immigration benefits immigrants (who othewise presumably would not come) – they just think that point of having a democratic country is to promote the common good of the country’s citizens. Reducing the wealth and quality of life of the large majority of those citizens is reasonably viewed as inconsistent with the common good.

    If the citizens of a country, in setting national policy, are not entitled to give priority to their own collective self-interest, the concepts of nationhood and citizenship seem fairly meaningless.

    • Brett Bellmore says

      Precisely. I favor immigration restriction, not because I don’t understand the benefit to immigrants, but because I consider it irrelevant: The aim of a government’s policies must be to benefit that government’s citizens, not everybody around the world. Avoiding actual HARM to non-citizens should operate as a side constraint, but benefiting non-citizens can not be a proper goal of government.

      Libertarianism is not remotely the same thing as utilitarianism. Conspicuously it is not. It is about constraints on action, not goals. Utilitarians often forget this.

      • John Ashman says

        “The aim of a government’s policies must be to benefit that government’s citizens”

        That is not what the Constitution states. Are you thinking of Russia’s government, perhaps?

  2. Pensans says

    The correct answer is that immigrants to nascent libertarian countries vote themselves welfare benefits.

    • Pete says

      Like the USA, for example? We were founded as essentially a libertarian state, especially compared to other nations of the world.

  3. Gilbert De Bruycker says

    False theories are being advocated with more zeal than ever, and it is imperative that the sound principles of economics should be set forth again and again. (…) Mr. Cox rightly lays stress on the importance of economic liberty which is obtainable only under our existing system. (…) We do not fear the triumph of Socialism (…) It speaks well for the good sense of our people that this contemptible propaganda—essentially German in spirit—has had so little success.(…) Mr. Cox is inclined, perhaps, to state the Free Trade case too absolutely. The war showed that some modifications in regard to a few special industries were required in the interests of national defence. British agriculture cannot be considered solely from the economic standpoint. But Mr. Cox’s general line of reasoning is sound.


  4. John Ashman says

    The better answer to this question, I believe, is that the United States was the first libertarian country and experienced uncontrolled growth because of it, for about 100 years. And when we realized that everyone wanted to live in such a great place, we immediately threw out libertarianism, because it was attracting too many people.

  5. Asterisk says

    The answer to his question is obvious: the reason there are no libertarian “countries” is because the types of organization that Lind is willing to recognize as “countries” are, definitionally, top-down political states that claim sovereignty over individuals and over the voluntary relations of individuals.

    In reality, a vast number of social contexts, existing at many scales and levels of complexity, *are* effectively libertarian. Most of civil society is organized in ways that provide both “voice” and “exit”; people are generally free to associate with others at their own prerogative, without being threatened with punishment if they attempt to alter or leave their social arrangements.

    But the defining principle of the modern political state – which Lind equates with “country” – is the assertion of coercive power. If we go by his terminology, then the reason there are no libertarian countries is that the phrase is a contradiction in terms.

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