Review of Miller’s critique of libertarian theory

In this post, we will review Richard Miller’s defense of social democracy and his critique of libertarian theory in his erudite essay titled “Learning from Libertarianism: Thanks from an Unrepentant Social Democrat,” which was published in the Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism. (Professor Miller is a professor of ethics at Cornell.) Unlike most of the authors in this collection of essays, however, Prof Miller is not a big fan of libertarian political theory. Instead, he believes in “social democracy”–a euphemism for the use of public coercion to redistribute income and promote economic equality. Alas, his critique of libertarian theory is weak and his defense of “social democracy” logically incoherent.

Let’s start with his logically incoherent defense of social democracy. According to Professor Miller, social democracy is superior to libertarian politics because social democracies are committed to “an impartial concern for fellow-citizens’ well-being” (his words, not ours). But this argument is logically untenable. Specifically, why should so-called social democrats or progressives be only concerned for the well being of their “fellow citizens”? Why don’t social democracies have a moral obligation to feed, house, and clothe all persons? (Also, what about the well-being of nonhuman animals?) After all, if we have a fundamental moral duty to show concern for others (Miller’s unstated but unavoidable premise), why does morality limit the expression of this concern to just our fellow-citizens, an example of brute luck or accident of birth if there ever was one!

What about Prof Miller’s critique of libertarian values? He says: “A committed libertarian must condemn as wrong forcibly taking a life-preserver ornamenting another’s flagpole to save someone from drowning and must support the enforcement of contracts to enter into slavery and clauses in home sales forbidding subsequent sales to African-Americans.” This facile critique of libertarianism, however, is silly and easy to rebut. Let’s start with the life-preserver hypothetical. (Let’s put aside the issue of whether an “ornamental” life-preserver would actually work. That is an empirical question outside the realm of ethics and moral philosophy, except for Humean consequentialists.) In this case, a true or “committed” libertarian would not be opposed to taking a life-preserver to save someone from drowning. A libertarian would only require that compensation be paid to the owner of the flagpole for the use of his ornamental life-preserver.

But what about slave contracts and restrictive covenants? After all, libertarians are champions of the principle of liberty of contract, so broadly speaking, libertarians would say that people should be free to enter into whatever agreements they want to, so long as these are voluntary and based on mutual consent. As a result, a slave contract is easy for a libertarian to condemn, since no person would freely consent to slavery. Restrictive covenants are likewise easy for most (but perhaps not all) libertarians to criticize, since such covenants interfere with free markets and the property rights of existing homeowners, artificially limiting to whom they can sell their homes to.

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One Response to Review of Miller’s critique of libertarian theory

  1. Pingback: Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism | prior probability

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