Are Markets “Necessarily Immoral?” A Response to Salon’s Sean McElwee


As the political atmosphere changes, so does our political terminology.  Recently, with the rise of the “wacko bird” coalition within the GOP (and even outside the GOP), a new label has been applied to the more “conservative” (if that word has any meaning) members of Congress: they are the so-called “Libertarian Populists.”  I don’t really care about what labels are used, but I do care about definitions.  By libertarian populism, it is important that we are referring, for better or for worse, to something more politically strategic than a philosophical libertarianism.  The heart of Libertarian Populism, was perhaps summed up best by Washington Examiner’s Timothy Carney when he noted:

Conservatives need to turn to the working class as the swing population that can deliver elections.

Offer populist policies that mesh with free-market principles, and don’t be afraid to admit that the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected.

“Mesh with free-market principles.”  “Game is rigged in favor of the wealthy.”  This is, I think, the heart of libertarian populism.  The “Court’s Economist” Paul Krugman made the phrase popular (no pun intended) when he wrote this post and it was rightly considered worthy of a response by Reason’s Nick Gillespie in The Daily Beast.

This must be distinguished from philosophical libertarianism, which happens to be (one of) the foundations of the “free-market principles” with which LibPop (as coined by Jesse Walker here) wants to “mesh.”  Libertarianism is the philosophy which is now being used to support the strategy of a conservative (read “GOP” comeback).

Please realize there is no approval or condemnation of this strategy here on this post.  It is only necessary to explain for the following response.

With that said, I want to consider a recent article published at Salon and written by Sean McElwee.  In this July 31 post, McElwee considered whether Milton Friedman, whose birthday fell on that day, would be “proud” of the libertarian populists.  But this question quickly became a side issue as the author spent the majority of his time complaining of the alleged flaws in the libertarian system.  Now, it is important to realize here, that McElwee failed to distinguish between the political strategy of “libertarian populism” and libertarianism as I did above.  Because of this, his review was a bit muddled and unclear.  If one does not separate the two labels, the danger is that it is probable that the implications of one will be blamed on the other.  I will explain what I mean, because McElwee has done exactly this.


One of McElwee’s first claims is that “Libertarian Populists love markets. One of their favorite proposals is privatization: If there is a problem, they look to markets to solve it.”  While I would claim that this is true for some, it is not true for all.  If you consider that Libertarian Populism is a strategy by the Conservatives in the GOP, then we must say that there are many would would like the label “libertarian populist” but who wouldn’t go to the complete extreme of privatizing everything, that is “look[ing] to markets to solve” all the problems.  Perhaps I am being too picky here.  But then he uses this claim to launch on an incredibly astounding assertion:

The problem is that markets, being amoral, are necessarily immoral.

If you thought that was a daring leap of logic, I agree with you.  Because markets are amoral, this means that they are immoral?  Unless amoral and immoral have the same definition, McElwee has asserted an impossibility.  So why would he claim this?  It is precisely because he cannot fathom the markets (or rather, the people within the market) as submitting to the rules of libertarianism; namely, one cannot coerce against another person, which includes that person’s life and property.  He asks: “But what happens when one man’s pleasure harms another?”  We answer: Define “harm.”  The problem here is that those with a “leftist mindset” (I use this to refer to those without the assumption of the individual right to life, liberty, and property) tend to expand the meaning of “harm” too far.  If we use the word “harm” as a physical aggression (against person or property), then the libertarians have long been clear that such a “pleasure” cannot be fulfilled on the market.  It is ipso facto illegal, a crime.  Contrary to McElwee’s suggestion, there is no “problem” here except for the fact that it implies, well, that the State has been up to no good since its inception and by its very existence.  Perhaps then there is a “problem” if we are looking through the lens of McElwee and those who desire the State’s action in society. Perspectives perspectives.

McElwee continues, quoting E.F. Schumacher on “the core libertarian dilemma:

‘the market is the institutionalization of individualism and non-responsibility.'”

But this argument immediately falls headfirst.  In actuality, it is the very fact that the free market is a natural  institution of individualism that verifies the very presence of responsibility!  There is no one else responsible to bail you out for your mistakes or for your wrong doings.  Of course, there are many, many people in society that are voluntarily willing to come to the aid of those in need, but the primary difference between a free society and a socialized, fascistic, democratic (or whatever other collectivist system) society is the existence of individual responsibility!  Shouldn’t we be the ones pointing out that the State is the institutionalization of non-responsibility?  I mean, what about those on the “public” payroll?  How have they ever been responsible for their own productiveness in society unless they have at one time or another held a “real” job (of course ignoring all those private businesses that would have long ago fell apart without the State propping them up)?

McElwee then writes:

But as a society, we want people to be free from slavish impulses and appetites and we want them to be responsible. We raise our children to love their country, to protect their environment, to aid their community.

Who is we?  Does McElwee raise his kids like that?  Fine.  But it is outstanding that he includes me in that “we” if I raise my kids to love, say, God first, and then family, and then their community.  I first want to note that I cannot find a logical basis for his claim that “we” all want to raise our children in the same way.  And secondly, why does raising our children to first take care of themselves and their family, preclude the possibility of “aiding their community?”  It seems that McElwee is confused by assuming that if one is not a socialist, he necessarily hates society.  Let us dispose of this myth immediately.

McElwee asks:

How long can a liberal democratic society (which relies upon cooperation, mutual interdependence and shared sacrifice) exist alongside a purely capitalistic system (which relies purely upon self-interest)? How long can markets “crowd out” all instances of social virtue before we descend entirely into chaos?

Well firstly, it should be obvious that there is nothing but words without meaning in these questions.  This makes it difficult to analyze and it should be considered patently misleading.  But let’s take it on its face.  Let’s assume that McElwee is pulling no punches in asking these questions.  If that is the case, then his question is, how long can a society filled a people with one mindset coexist with a people of another mindset?  And if that is the question, this leads to another question: is there anything in these two mindsets, when acted upon, that will lead to an impossibility to mutual coexistence?  If no, then there should be no problem and McElwee’s concerns are misplaced.  If yes, then we ought to ask “what, is the thing which excludes the existence of the other?”

I hold that the “thing” which excludes the other is the suspiciously hidden presence of coercion in the former society.  What McElwee does not want to admit is that a liberal democratic society as envisioned by the statists and those the long for the presence of more government, relies on a special grant of privilege to utilize physical force in the name of “shared sacrifice.”  If I am wrong, let the author correct me.  His argument against the self-interest of capitalism fails to note that it is praxeologically true, that is, descriptive of human nature that people act according to their own preferences.  It is the very way that the mind works, tautologically.

A “purely capitalist” system cannot exist along side a system that taints the “pure” part.  This is illogical and contradictory.  How long can a clean canvas sit in a puddle of paint?

As for the “descend into chaos” line, I think that the chaos that is taking off worldwide in our age of the biggest governments that the world has ever seen shows how ridiculous this presumption really is.

He then complains that “libertarians have to reject the most important forms of community because these organizations — familial, local, national, religious — are not voluntary organizations, but are considered coercive.”  This is confusing and even absurd.  This is easily overcome that realizing that, wherever there is an organization that is coercive, it is acting criminally.  But wherever an organization is not acting in a coercive fashion, there is no reason for libertarians to “reject” it.  Why can there not be (and there already is!) a voluntary sense of community?  I, for instance, used to go up to an annual community get together (we lived in a small town) to see people I haven’t seen in a year.  And –you won’t believe this folks –nobody made me go.


Now, as you’ll notice, there are two lines above separating this article into three parts.  The section in between the two lines looked at a variety of remarks made by McElwee.  All of them were complaints against libertarianism, but, as stated in the beginning, it is wrong to use the philosophical foundations of libertarianism on groups attempting to use a strategy in American politics.  It is wrong precisely because the libertarian populists are less focused on developing a theory than they are on simply creating a new coalition.  As I also stated above, I come not to approve or condemn the development, but rather to point out that McElwee’s time, if he wants to spend it fighting the libertarian populists, could better be used in responding directly to their frustrations.  To point at the new coalition and blame them for the philosophy of libertarianism is wrongheaded.  And I think he makes my point well towards the end.

It’s important to recognize that some libertarian populists engage in a core hypocrisy: capitalism for the poor, socialism for the rich. […] They want to cut food stamps but not necessarily farm subsidies.


While Friedman was at least consistent enough to despise all government programs, the Tea Party wants to protect a few: the ones they benefit from. They excitedly adopt his “starve the beast” approach to government spending, but also gobble up government resources.


The Tea Party is selfishness embodied: “Government should help me, but not you!”

The extent to which “libertarian populists” adopt these perspectives probably varies.  But it is simply not true that a “libertarian” would struggle with the alleged “hypocrisy” because everything is filtered through the principle that no other person, public or private, can physically interfere with the life, liberty, or property of another individual.  If a “libertarian populist,” or one that has political motivation to adopt this label, is hypocritical or inconsistent, I would hope that he would “see the light.”  But McElwee should first recognize the distinction here, lest libertarianism itself be blamed, as happened in McElwee’s piece.  Are “libertarian populists” agreeable?  Only inasmuch as they adopt the libertarian theory.

As for the Tea Party being selfishness embodied, let it be known that the selfishness is not the core of the problem.  Whether by selfishness or altruism, to drink out of the public trough is criminal and, whether by selfishness or altruism, to work within the boundaries of voluntary market participation is not a crime.

This is the libertarian way.


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