Libertarian Paternalism: A Response to P. Pilkington

Phillip Pilkington is a research assistant at Kingston University in London and recently penned an article on “Libertarian Paternalism”. It provoked me. This is my response.



In your article, you said:

Look, the libertarian paradigm is ridiculous… 

And then went on to state that libertarians believe:

…people exist as atoms in a world where each atom has no effects on other atoms except through completely free contractual arrangements.

To put it plainly, you’re wrong.

Whatever else you may have right in your article, you are simply wrong about what it means to be a libertarian and what libertarians believe. I agree with you that conflating “libertarian” with “paternalism” is also wrong, but you portray libertarianism as a crackpot belief system disconnected from reality.

Contrary to what you suppose, I am not mentally insulated from the world around me. You misrepresent the libertarian impulse.

Libertarianism is first and foremost an ethic; it is a belief system about how to have moral interactions with one another. The first principle of libertarianism is a moral rule, not an economic rule: Non-Aggression. To be a libertarian means to believe that coercion itself is immoral. Now, if you prefer to keep morality out of the discussion, fine, but then you are no longer talking about libertarianism, you are talking about something else — perhaps utilitarianism.

To support your assertion, you posit a “massive speculative attack on (a country’s) currency” and state that currency controls would be the appropriate response. But your illustration is flawed. Fiat currencies are innately coercive. A massive speculative attack on a fiat currency is just a battle between two criminal classes. Both are engaging in immoral acts – theft through fraud.

The libertarian response to aggression is proportionate defense.  If libertarians are disconnected from reality, then this is where the disconnect occurs: at the point of responding to overwhelming force. The people who control the reins of power in the state can and do crush individuals with impunity. The people who control the levers of fiat currency likewise crush individuals with impunity. As a libertarian, I have to stand and shout “crushing people who have done you no harm is immoral!” and for that alone I am considered a crackpot. Fine. I am a crackpot for believing that treating one another morally is preferable to treating one another as tools to be used and disposed of without a second thought.

You seem to be a good guy with a questioning mind and I appreciate that. Furthermore, you might be right and I might be wrong. If so, you’re going to have to support your assertions. Until then, you’re just making noise.


Jack Heald

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