Today, we are interrupting our series of blog posts on the new Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism to offer a friendly critique of libertarian theory. Mass shootings like the one in Vegas point out a huge potential flaw with libertarianism. After all, a logically-consistent and intellectually-honest libertarian should be opposed to any and all legal restrictions on the purchase and sale of military-grade weapons, such as the Uzi sub-machine gun pictured below (our all-time favorite), since such restrictions would interfere with the liberty interests of gun dealers and gun owners. Most persons, however, favor some set of sensible restrictions on this particular form of liberty, such as background checks and waiting periods. The controversy, then, is where should these restrictions end and liberty begin? (See here, for example.) What types of restrictions, if any, are “sensible” in this context? (A separate question is whether any such restrictions would save any lives. See this.) Again, a true libertarian might say that no restrictions–or very few ones–should be imposed. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that the Second Amendment is of no help here because constitutional rights are not absolute–even the fundamental right to speech does not protect child pornographers.) What we libertarians need is a general theory of harm, one that would allow us to make principled exceptions to our liberty interests. Unfortunately, even with a general theory of harm, reasonable men and reasonable women might still disagree about its application. After all, whatever the potential harms of assault rifles might be, what about their potential benefits? Furthermore, such harms and benefits might be incommensurate (i.e. hard to compare on the same scale of measurement), and even if they weren’t incommensurable, how would we begin to predict the frequency of such future harms or weigh their magnitude? Given this theoretical stalemate, libertarian theory becomes circularly self-confirming or totally unhelpful. Either we allow everyone to do what they want (including the liberty to buy and own as many military-grade assault rifles as one wants), or we impose limits on this liberty in the name of protecting innocent life.
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