There seems to be this idea among libertarians that their philosophy is plainly right, if you only listen to the arguments, and that it’s the only consistent political philosophy out there. And this somewhat self-righteous stance is fuelled by the fact that many non-libertarians do a poor job arguing against it. But to me, it is not hard to argue against it. The main thing is to focus on the fundamental idea behind libertarianism, namely the “non-aggression principle” (thus, adherence to this principle is how I define libertarianism in this post).
The non-aggression principle simply states that any initiation of physical harm against people or their property is immoral. Obviously you cannot punch or rape anyone, but you cannot tax them either, or tell them how they should use their bodies or their property, for instance by stopping them from taking drugs or hiring someone at wages of their choosing . This means, by extension, that the state is immoral, be it democratic or not. (By this, it is implied that I am in reality talking about the kind of libertarianism that is often called “anarcho-capitalism”.)
So how does one refute this in the most effective way? Well, the acceptance of the non-aggression principle hinges on the proof for it. As far as I know this is usually done in two ways. One is simply to rely on intuition. We all have the intuition that robbing, killing and raping is wrong – the argument goes – so if we just apply this intuition consistently we arrive at the libertarian position. In other words, if we all believe that it’s always wrong to rob, kill or rape, it must also always be wrong for the representatives of a state to do these things.
The problem with this argument is that it’s simply wrong. Most people do not have the intuition that it’s always wrong to rob, kill or rape. Many think that there are extraordinary circumstances where it would not be immoral to kill one person to save many others, or (which is probably somewhat less extraordinary) where it is not immoral to steal to help other people. In principle one may also think that it could be moral to rape as well, but I admit that it would be hard to find realistic examples of this.
Of course, the libertarian could retort that even if there are some who do not have the libertarian intuition, at least most people have them, which is good enough. But that would simply make morality a majority-rule situation, which I’m sure most libertarians would reject, just like they reject that a law could be moral just because it is supported by a majority.
The second way of arguing for the non-aggression principle is more cunning. It does not simply invoke moral intuitions, but attempts to prove “rationally” that the principle is correct. An argument of this kind might be hard to refute for a philosophical layperson, since it involves some advanced logic and metaethics. Since I cannot delve into these matters here I will simply state why I reject libertarianism on such grounds. In short, I am a proponent of metaethical non-cognitivism, which means that I don’t think any moral position can be proven to be right or wrong (i.e., to be “true” or “false”) – not even the utilitarian doctrine which I myself support.
In conclusion, there are three ways in which a libertarian could convert me to her position. (1) She could make me realize that I actually share its intuitive grounds. This is rather unlikely to happen, since moral intuitions are probably hard to change. (2) She could prove by logical reasoning that libertarianism is the correct position. This is also unlikely to happen, at least in my case, since I have studied a great deal of metaethics; so my non-cognitivist position would be hard to shake. But also keep in mind that it would not be enough simply to prove that cognitivism is correct (which is hard enough); it would also be necessary to prove that libertarianism is the “objectively” right position, and not one of its competitors. Lastly, (3) she could prove that even though I do not share the non-aggression principle, utilitarianism itself points to the fact that acting on the basis of it would maximize pleasure. This would be the most promising way for a libertarian to convert me; but I don’t think I have ever seen a libertarian make that argument (although there are libertarians who, albeit unsuccessfully, build their argument on preference utilitarianism).