7 reasons why Slate doesn’t know crap about libertarians


I’m sure more than a few of you have seen Slate.com’s article entitled “The Liberty Scam” by Stephen Metcalf. It is a long (and I mean long) “expose” of libertarianism and how it was apparently “abandoned” by its ideological “father” Robert Nozick. Oh, good lord.

I hear a lot of nasty, untrue things about libertarianism.  I try to correct those assumptions and falsehoods, as that’s a part of my mission and the mission of this site. But I really resisted responding to Metcalf’s… ideas. Every time I came across Metcalf’s article, the life just drains out of me. I lose the energy to write, to think… to live. My soul is crushed to see that such pure dribble can be published by such a widely read site like Slate.

Take heart, though, because I am not going to leave the post unanswered! Before I do, though, I want to give some of my fellows room to riposte. Here are some claims that Metcalf makes and some good posts showing how they are utterly, factually, incorrect.

1. Metcalf’s claim that Nozick abandoned Libertarianism.
2. Lord Keynes’ comment about ‘the Road to Serfdom’
3. Von Hayek and Von Mises were corporate sellouts.
4. Libertarianism is little more than naked self-interest
5. Why Metcalf’s article is so dangerous. (see last paragraph)

I don’t want to step on the toes of my betters, so I will leave those arguments where they stand. I do want to add two things to this conversation, thought, challenging  that libertarianism didn’t exist before the 1970s, and that Robert Nozick was the “father of libertarianism.”

Metcalf’s 1970s claim…

In the second paragraph of his essay, Metcalf makes the following statement:

With libertarianism everywhere, it’s hard to remember that as recently as the 1970s, it was nowhere to be found.

I suppose in one sense, he’s right. The American freedom movement didn’t really get rolling until the 1970s. However, if you’re talking about an “ism,” you’re talking about a set of ideas. Those ideas exist even when they don’t have a name to it. And you know what? The ideas of limited government, essential liberty, and property rights were around LONG before 1970s. It just had a different name.

It was called liberalism.


The basis of American government came from a concentrated group of writers, then known as the liberals, now known as the classical liberals We’re talking John Locke, J.S. Mill, David Hume, among others. All of these guys lived and wrote in the 17th and 18th centuries. To my calculations, that is before 1970. In addition to these radical thinkers, people were writing about classical liberal at the founding of the United States.  Mises and Hayek both wrote in the 40s and 50s. Classical liberalism — libertarianism — has been a pervasive and popular way of thinking for far longer than the past forty years. It’s a shame Metcalf fell asleep in that part of school. Or maybe we should just blame the failing education system.

Not My Daddy…

I’ve written before about how I’ve always considered myself to be a libertarian. However, not everyone is so fortunate. They come to liberty much later in life, most of the time inspired by some manner of book, but that book is rarely, if ever, Robert Nozick’s work. Let’s do a test. Which of these two have you heard of:


Fun fact: I own both of these books and have read neither of them.

The point is this: while Metcalf may order dense philosophy books on Amazon and read them in the summer sun, most others don’t. Anarchy, State, and Utopia is one of the more influential philosophical and academic libertarian works. It’s actually said to be the second most influential philosophical text in America, after John Rawls A Theory of Justice.

Atlas Shrugged has a bit of an upper handl. It is said to be the second most influential book in the United States. It’s competitor? The freaking Bible.

Do you see where I’m going here? Ayn Rand’s magnum opus brought more people to libertarianism — in the 70s in particular — than Robert Nozick could ever have dreamed of. That is not to say that all libertarians are Objectivists — most of them wise up to the philosophy before they hit 30. Most of them stay with libertarianism because it makes sense. They come for Rand, stay for, I dunno, logic.

The take-away: Metcalf’s lucky number might be seven, but it certainly wasn’t working for him this time. These are seven huge, gaping errors in his “work” that are simply, factually incorrect. Buddy might want to spend more time doing his homework next time. I highly recommend Google.

V.A. Luttrell

  • Anonymous

    I have read both Anarchy, The State & Utopia AND Atlas Shrugged. I found the former to be interesting, albeit naive, while the latter was entertaining but hardly well-written. I find it hard to care for a book when the way it delivers its message is an 80-page monologue, ugh. It had the subtlety of a brick to the head.

    Of course, most people who buy Bibles never really read it, so I wouldn’t give too much credit to numbers by mere sales. Atlas Shrugged seems to be a book that many people keep on their bookshelves to seem impressive, in my experience.

    • Well, the influence isn’t really raw numbers of sales — it’s from a survey by a book of the month club co-sponsored by the Library of Congress. 

      Either way, I think my point stands. If you get a group of libertarians in one room together, ask them  how they came to libertarianism, Nozick probably won’t come up. Ayn Rand almost certainly will. 


      this post makes a similar critique, a few paragraphs in.

      Additionally, in his book “Radicals for Capitalism : A Freewheeling history of the modern libertarian movement” (reading now), Brian Dougherty pins down the five most influential libertarians in the movement: Mises, Hayek, Rand, Friedman, Rothbard. Nozick doesn’t appear on the list at all.

      Pairing him with Rand served to show a dichotomy — the person who brought the most people to the liberty movement (Rand) with the person who probably brought the least (starting at 0).

  • HowDroll

    You quoted “With libertarianism everywhere, it’s hard to remember that as recently as the 1970s, it was nowhere to be found” as proof that Metcalf didn’t believe libertarianism existed before the 1970s.

    However, in the *very* next sentence, he continues, “Once the creed of smart set rogues, H.L. Mencken among them,
    libertarianism all but disappeared after the Second World War. What
    happened? The single most comprehensive, centrally planned, coordinated
    governmental action in history—that’s what happened. In addition to
    defeating fascism, the Second World War acted as a magnificent sieve,
    through which almost no one, libertarians included, passed unchanged.”

    Metcalf isn’t saying that libertarianism didn’t exist, or even that Nozick was its father in the sense that he invented its core tenants.  His argument was that, in the post-WWII United States, “with Western Europe and America free, prosperous, happy, and heavily taxed, libertarianism had lost its roguish charm.”  He then talks about the circumstances that set up Nozick’s popularity and the rise of the libertarian movement in the 1970s, which I’m not going to bother paraphrasing because it’s really not relevant to my point.

    I think he makes a lot of good points.  There are also some problems with his article.  However, I don’t think the things you pointed out are among them.

    • It still doesn’t account for the fact that some of the people who were *actually* the most influential wrote in the 40s, 50s, and much before that.

      I did read the sentence you reference, but the it doesn’t make any sense when paired with the first. Nor does it make sense contextualized with the rest of his article. The claim just has no weight, even within his own piece.

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  • smac5

    Thanks Gina – that helps me understand the issues.  I don’t think Hume and the lot were really libertarians – libertarianism to me is a particular subset of that liberalism that, as metcalf says, starts with the “inviolable individual.”  That definition of the self is not sustainable, as virtually anything one human does is going to have an impact on another – if I paint my house a color and pattern so obnoxious that no one wants to buy any of the houses that can see it, aren’t I liable for that result?  Have I not invaded their space as much as they would invade mine if they passed an ordinance against it?  That’s where I fall away from libertarianism, which otherwise has a kind of clean purity that makes is very attractive. – Sally Mac
    By the way, is Disqus (for comments) something you pay for, or is it part of WordPress?  I’m just learning about these things.

    • It’s not so much inviolable in the pure sense as much as inviolable until you’re violating someone else’s rights.

      Things like obnoxious house colors are prevented by homeowner’s associations, generally, rather than local, state, or federal law. These are voluntary institutions (as opposed to the state, which is coercive) and thus are legit under libertarianism. The key tenant of libertarianism is that individuals should not be forced to do anything. HOAs are voluntary, as I said. I don’t think I would want to join one (cause I think you essentially give up part of your property rights when you do so) BUT many people feel like the benefits outweigh the costs. So yeah. It’s their choice.

      • smac5

        Thanks for the clarification.  Some libertarians carry on like inviolable has no limits, so this makes me feel better.  “Rights” always seems like a slippery concept, or perhaps we should say, negotiable.
        My libertarian parents, as they got older, finally moved into a gated community.  I warned them that there might be a lot of silly rules but they didn’t imagine it would be so bad.  They put up the “wrong” mailbox, and then had the hutzpa to plant some things that were native but not on the approved list.  But they had to admit, they did sign up for it.
        I don’t know what would happen in our older neighborhood in such a case, however.  I guess there are some ordinances about the appearance of one’s yard, barking dogs (my personal favorite – talk about invading my space!) and such.

        • yeah, gated communities freak me out, and it confuses me why any libertarian would want to live in one.

          To answer the question I didn’t before: disqus is a plugin for wordpress, but it’s free. http://disqus.com

          • smac5

            I don’t think my parents could imagine what it would be like, and there were a lot of reasons why such a place was good for them.
            And thanks for the info.

  • Will

    If I can chime in on smac5’s point about the inviolable individual. Libertarians do not claim that our actions have no affects on others, but they do claim that a certain sort of action–those that violate the rights of others (specifically, at least natural rights)–are morally wrong and ought to be prohibited. I don’t think many libertarians would argue that annoying people–for example, by painting your house an obnoxious color–violates anyone’s rights. If anything, it just pisses people off. Are you liable for the fact that no one wants to buy your house? Well, in a way yes, because you behaved in such a way that classified your house as undesirable to others, but in a way, no, because other people decided on their own not to like that color. You’re partly responsible, but not in any morally relevant way. Now, if you intentionally behave as to upset people, there may be something morally wrong with that, but still probably no rights violation

    • Kevmo

      You can’t honestly expect everyone to agree on what constitutes a “right.” That’s the primary failure of Objectivist and Libertarian ideology.

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