How to Quickly Prove a Libertarian Wrong

Libertarianism: Provably ridiculous

Have an annoying Libertarian uncle who tells you that government is the source of all evil? Ever feel frustrated at a dinner party when a highly articulate free market ideologue lectures everyone on the virtues of free market capitalism?  As part of the battle to counter the myth that Randian, deregulated capitalism is the be all and end all of human existence, we thought it would be useful to have some quick-fire arguments in your back pocket to battle the 5 most common myths propagated by  Libertarians:

1. Free market capitalism is the greatest engine of economic growth in human history.

This myth is perhaps the most prevalent in Libertarian circles, and is easily disproved when you look at the history of economic development in the West and the level of government intervention in the economy. The stunning growth of the American economy in the 19th century had little to do with unregulated capitalism. As Cambridge economist Professor Ha Joon Chang notes, America was the most protectionist country in the world from 1830 up until World War Two. In fact, as Chang outlines in his book ‘Bad Samaritans’ every industrialized economy on the planet grew astronomically by strictly regulating markets, government investment and the protectionism of key industries through nascent stages of development. As former head of the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz points out, the countries that adopted free market reforms under IMF  ‘structural adjustment’ policies all failed miserably and poverty actually increased.

2. Private companies are inherently more efficient than government because there is a profit motive.

This is true only if you define profit as the only measurement of success. Take health care for example. The health care industry in the US is extremely good at creating profits, but extremely bad at delivering health care. In 2009, WellPoint Inc., UnitedHealth Group, Cigna Corp., Aetna Inc. and Humana Inc. covered 2.7 million fewer people than they did in 2008, but made 56% more in profits ($12.2 billion). Conversely, Britain has one of the most cost effective health care systems in the world according to a study (pdf) published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. From the Guardian:

The “surprising” findings show the NHS saving more lives for each pound spent as a proportion of national wealth than any other country apart from Ireland over 25 years. Among the 17 countries considered, the United States healthcare system was among the least efficient and effective.

The National Health Service (NHS) is not designed to create profit, it is designed to provide health care and it does it far better than a for profit model.

3. The rich need tax cuts to be encouraged to spend and create economic growth during times of recession.

The facts on this one are squarely against Libertarianism. While many rich people do indeed create economic growth, in times of recession they cannot be counted on to rescue the economy as Libertarians have forcefully argued. As David Cay Johnston reported in Reuters, during the peak of the recession in America, businesses held on to their money rather than spending it:

IRS data suggests that, globally, U.S. nonfinancial companies hold at least three times more cash and other liquid assets than the Federal Reserve reports, idle money that could be creating jobs, funding dividends or even paying a stiff federal penalty tax for hoarding corporate cash.

The Fed’s latest Flow of Funds report showed that U.S. nonfinancial companies held $1.7 trillion in liquid assets at the end of March. But newly released IRS figures show that in 2009 these companies held $4.8 trillion in liquid assets, which equals $5.1 trillion in today’s dollars, triple the Fed figure.

As the chart below shows, the recession was the major cause behind the rush to stash their cash, and the massive tax cuts passed by Bush and continued by Obama did nothing to reverse the trend.

4. The US has the highest standard of living in the world and everyone wants to be American.

Again, provably false. America is a great place to live for a lot of people, but the people who benefit from highest standard of living in the world are in Norway – a highly socialistic country. America has one of the greatest levels of wealth inequality in the West and has over 46 million people living in poverty – not exactly the best argument for American style capitalism.

5. America is a capitalist economy

While it is true that much of the population lives in a relatively free market economy in America, the overall structure of the economy is anything but free, and the higher up the wealth ladder you get, the more the government intervenes. As Noam Chomsky writes:

The whole economy’s been socialized since — well actually forever, but certainly since the Second World War. This mythology that the economy is based on entrepreneurial initiative and consumer choice, well ok, to an extent it is. For example at the marketing end, you can choose one electronic device and not another. But the core of the economy relies very heavily on the state sector, and transparently so. So for example to take the last economic boom which was based on information technology — where did that come from? Computers and the Internet. Computers and the Internet were almost entirely within the state system for about 30 years — research, development, procurement, other devices — before they were finally handed over to private enterprise for profit-making. It wasn’t an instantaneous switch, but that’s roughly the picture. And that’s the picture pretty much for the core of the economy.

The state sector is innovative and dynamic. It’s true across the board from electronics to pharmaceuticals to the new biology-based industries. The idea is that the public is supposed to pay the costs and take the risks, and ultimately if there is any profit, you hand it over to private tyrannies, corporations. If you had to encapsulate the economy in one sentence, that would be the main theme. When you look at the details of course it’s a more complex picture, but that’s the major theme.

The truth is that the middle class and poor live under the dictates of the market (if your small business fails, there’s no bailout), but the rich have a gigantic government structure designed to protect their wealth from competition.


Got any other rapid responses to Libertarian myths? Comments below and we’ll post them later today.


  • Greg Hills

    I think the person who wrote this is confusing anarchy with libertarian. If you measure success as, are patients satisfied with the care, Briton’s health services fail.

  • Allan Elliott

    It’s not Libertarians that are denying gay marriage and the use of marijuana. Libertarians are simply non-interventionists. It’s that simple.

    Go have your socialist utopia….if you can afford it.

  • KCMOfan
  • Trepur

    In 1853 Admiral Perry of the American navy set fire to the Edo Harbour due to Japan’s overly protectionist economy and their refusal to enter in trade negotiations.

    I have a tough time believing that America was the most protectionist nation on the planet when they were attacking countries for protectionist policies.

  • Shawn Keeth

    Wow you have no idea what you are talking about, bravo on the amazing lack of research. Al your comparisons are of Republicans not Libertarians. When Republicans say free market they do not mean free market, they mean corporatism. Libertarian free market has government protection, to protect Liberty, Property, and you. Nothing can violate those unlike what we have now. Same with the tax breaks for the rich, no Libertarian says this. The entire argument you made for government involvement in the economy is that we did good with government intervention. I prefer better than good. The amount of Government intervention then and now is night and day. No Libertarian would say this is a capitalist system we have, we don’t. Or the whole higher standard of living thing, again Republican. Drives me nut this kind of misinformation is out there.

  • Thomas Goyette

    Go figure a Jew named Ben Cohen would only attack libertarianism on its fiscal ideology. I bet this Jew is perfectly ok with their desire to legalize all drugs, gay marriage, and prostitution. The Jews have always been at the forefront of turning society into a giant brothel.

  • Promontorium

    1. You didn’t remotely address, you just vaguely claimed other people disagree. 2. You worded in a weasel way, and then made one citation about British health care. It’s obviously a topic that should have a lot of consideration across a wide range of examples. 3-5 aren’t even “Libertarian” issues.

    You’re a moron.

  • cesium62

    Argument #2 would make slightly more sense if phrased as: “The private sector is more efficient than government because it is subject to competition, and hence evolves to be more efficient.” This is subject to many of the same counter arguments, but at least sounds plausible at first glance.

  • Dimitrios Nicolopoulos

    I would make the definition of Libertarianism simple. Mind your own biz. If the individual is not harming anyone else the gov’t should not regulate it. Want to smoke pot? none of your biz, want to marry a dude?none of your biz, want to start a biz? none of your biz, etc. Empty the jails, the courts,etc and watch gov’t shrink.

  • Tee Bag

    “….Britain has one of the most cost effective health care systems in the world according to a study (pdf) published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. From the Guardian” Isn’t the Guardian a British Based Media??? A little biased me thinks. This writer is obviously coming from a very narrow angle of the libertarian debate. This was the equivalent of asking to explain the intricacies of Africa and the writer just talked about Capetown in South Africa. Kudos for being a dooshnozzle

  • Chad Jackson

    Have to agree with Mark Hilgenberg – your assertions have nothing to do with libertarianism. These five planks you set out appear to be taken more from the GOP and “conservative” movement.

    • Nanowired

      I disagree, every libertarian throws these around.
      Here is a quote from elsewhere on this matter.

      However, there’s a certain more aggressive, very American strain of libertarianism with which I do have a quarrel. This is the strain which, rather than analyzing specific policies and often deciding a more laissez-faire approach is best, starts with the tenet that government can do no right and private industry can do no wrong and uses this faith in place of more careful analysis. This faction is not averse to discussing politics, but tends to trot out the same few arguments about why less regulation has to be better. I wish I could blame this all on Ayn Rand, but a lot of it seems to come from people who have never heard of her. I suppose I could just add it to the bottom of the list of things I blame Reagan for.

      • Promontorium

        “I disagree, every libertarian throws these around.” – confirmed for idiot. “Every” libertarian argues America is the greatest nation? Where? “Every” Libertarian argues that America is capitalist? Have you ever met a libertarian? If this were the case, then they’d have nothing to complain about American corporatism.

        “I wish I could blame this all on Ayn Rand, but a lot of it seems to come from people who have never heard of her.”

        I agree, a lot of you people blame Ayn Rand without ever reading her. You have a few idiotic soundbytes you learned from an angry commie and that’s good enough for you.

        • Red the Fister

          When Americans, writing for an american audience, speak of “Libertarians” they are speaking of the American Libertarian, not the vastly-preferable-yet-still-deeply-flawed Classical Libertarian of european fame.
          Re-read the article and put “American” before every “Libertarian”.

          • Promontorium

            I am an American “libertarian”. I can defend all my positions morally, pragmatically, and logically. The first thing I would need to hammer in is that “libertarian” isn’t a philosophy, and can be as generic as “liberal”, so trying to pin down such exactness is contradictory. It is far more honest and effective to argue specific positions, not trying to lump people together, building a straw man and then arguing with it.

          • Red the Fister

            Have you heard of teh Libertarian Party Platform?

  • Mark Hilgenberg

    What does any of this have to do with libertarianism (AKA individual liberty?) BTW, why did you close the comments at HuffPo?

    “1. Free market capitalism is the greatest engine of economic growth in human history.”

    I hear conservatives say this but few actual libertarians.

    You are mixing “free markets” meaning markets absent of coercive power with capitalism meaning a top down hierarchical system usually with government created fictitious entities.

    As a Libertarian I could not imagine saying the above.

    “2. Private companies are inherently more efficient than government because there is a profit motive.”

    If you goal is efficiency over sustainability in some cases maybe. But most private companies are incorporated and the are privileged with government protections and perks/ Libertarians are not for corporatism.

    “3. The rich need tax cuts to be encouraged to spend and create economic growth during times of recession.”

    That is a conservative con line and nothing to do with individual liberty. Growth comes from families spending money.

    “4. The US has the highest standard of living in the world and everyone wants to be American.”

    Where do you come up with this stuff? LOL. Ya, we all want to live in a near police state controlled by crony capitalists with a bought and paid for army?

    “5. America is a capitalist economy”

    Totally false but your followup is correct. You need to read more anti-capitalist libertarians and stopping being conned into believing that Conservatives using the rhetoric of liberty have anything to do with libertarianism.

    • Ohioan

      Growth doesn’t come from money being spent but wealth being created, basic Austrian economics.

      • Mark Hilgenberg

        Hence why I am not an Austrian.

      • Nick Agriesti

        And how is wealth created but through the exchange if goods and services and the expansion of the industries and infrastructures supporting those services?

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