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Ep. 104 Tough Questions for Libertarians

Following up on his two previous episodes firing off provocative questions for both progressives and conservatives, Bob now looks inside his own camp and raises issues for self-reflection. The tough questions for libertarians cover topics ranging from God to abortion to drag queens to tax incidence.

Mentioned in the Episode and Other Links of Interest:

The audio production for this episode was provided by Podsworth Media.

About the author, Robert

Christian and economist, Research Assistant Professor with the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech, Senior Fellow with the Mises Institute, and co-host with Tom Woods of the podcast "Contra Krugman."


  1. joshua holmes on 02/28/2020 at 6:28 PM

    Dear Murphy, please publish a transcript of this so we can get to work answering you.

  2. Ryan on 02/28/2020 at 7:01 PM

    Will you do a “Tough Questions” series focused on religion? Tough Questions for Atheists/Christians/Swedenborgians would be pretty neat.

  3. Dave H on 02/28/2020 at 11:49 PM

    I’ll bite on the question of “Doesn’t God own everything?”

    Firstly, in a libertarian framework, God doesn’t and can’t own people, whether he created us or not. You created your children, in a sense, and yet you don’t and can’t own them. People cannot be owned, even by God. So if God orders people to commit aggression against other people, or if he does so himself, he is still behaving as a tyrant.

    Secondly, even if God could theoretically claim ownership over all other stuff, and thereby rightfully take it away from us and let us die a natural death, it seems to me that God has chosen to abandon his property (at least on Earth) by refusing to interact with it in any detectable way for such a long period that we can safely say he has relinquished ownership over it. He has not objected to the fact that we pick stuff up and claim it as our own. There is no hard and set rule in libertarian philosophy as to when something becomes abandoned property and up for grabs, but I think it’s safe to say that God’s interaction with the planet Earth falls way beyond that gray area.

    • George Dolansky on 03/12/2020 at 12:38 AM

      For what it’s worth, I think there’s a qualitative difference between begetting children and creation out of nothing just like there is a qualitative difference between begetting children and making a table out of wood, screws etc. I think the ability to literally being something out of nothing would generate a stronger claim of ownership… So much so that God would be justified in claiming ownership over us, though I don’t think that he does.

      Your second point would only apply to Christians who have bought into some sort of deism. I think you would find that most Christians throughout history and most of those of the present day, if you looked globally, would assert that God is constantly involved in the preservation of the universe, our own planet included.

  4. Jahfre on 02/29/2020 at 12:46 AM

    Substituting poor, superficially similar analogies for abortion doesn’t imply that opinions about those analogies apply to the actual topic of abortion. Individuals have to make the choice in the abortion circumstance. No analogous policy is necessary or relevant. It is a personal, individual, subjective choice that only one person can make in any one instance.

    Separate the libertarian from the “ism” or you fall in to group-think policy making.

  5. Samuel on 02/29/2020 at 5:11 PM

    Am I about to get triggered?

  6. Not Bob on 02/29/2020 at 11:42 PM

    Many great questions.

    I’ve always found Hoppe’s argumentation ethics completely unconvincing of anything. Even in your discussion with Kinsella, Kinsella himself didn’t seem to fully grasp how it went. I think it’s smoke that people like to blow up their own asses and it’s completely useless.

    Block’s evictionist argument is also bananas. Imagine you found a stowaway on your ship – that you yourself put there! It’s not like the baby snuck into your womb to get some place. YOU decided to put the baby there, or maybe you were careless and put the baby there. In very rare cases (rape), somebody else put the stowaway there. In zero cases did the baby put himself into your womb. Is the argument that because a third party broke into your house and deposited an innocent person, you now get to kill that person? I’m not even pro-life, but that position seems absurd.

    I tried to talk about this with Block and he wouldn’t even engage – his mind is made up that he’s right, and he’s not interested in hearing what others have to say.

    Regarding the atheist question, I’ve never heard an atheist make the claim that the biblical god is a tyrant. I suppose some would say that. But to me it’s ethically vacuous to ask the question, just like asking “is it good that life exists on earth”. Moral good is (in my opinion) in the eye of the beholder, so asking the question doesn’t make sense. It only sounds more objective than “do you think it is good”, but is not.

    “Hold your nose and vote for the lesser evil” is an interesting case. I think it’s due to the zero-sum nature of politics that this is a viable strategy. Of course in the greater game of changing the world for the better, it would be a good strategy to minimize playing zero-sum games and instead invest resources into positive-sum games. So if a person were to vote for Johnson and then spend his time building a business or founding a free city or whatever, I’d say that’s fine. If the person spends his entire time campaigning for Johnson and neglects positive-sum games as a result, I’d argue that this is suboptimal.

    The tariff/income tax one really got me, I kind of did think that. I of course expect pay structures to change and what not if income taxes were dramatically raised, but I hadn’t thought of the feedback loop that forms, like we typically do when talking about tariffs.

    The term “aggression” – sure, but it’s used in a very technical way by NAP libertarians, and a layperson will of course misunderstand if unaware of that. Just like laypeople talk about “profiting” and “investing” in ways that the technical economic terms don’t describe.

    But I think that, of course, morality is not equal to the NAP. Libertarianism is, in that sense, only part of ethics. Surely it is slightly immoral for the 7 year old to steal a pack of gum. But there are plenty things I’d consider immoral that are not violations of the NAP as understood by most libertarians, e.g. throwing stowaways out of airplanes or adultery or being mean without being threatening. Morality is (for me) a superset of the NAP.

    Especially in the adultery scenario, I think the NAP fails because it is typically only thought of as concerning explicit “business type” contracts. It is imaginable that marriage contract forbids adultery, and then it would be a NAP violation to commit it. Typically, humans don’t explicitly write down in contract 100% of things they assume to be commitments. There are lots of implicit little contracts built into a culture. E.g. in Japan, people leave their wallets on restaurant tables to mark them as taken. Does this constitute abandonment of property, and are you allowed to mix your labor with their wallet to make it your own? In Japan, clearly no. Here, probably a better case.

    You could argue that, in some cultures, it is implicit in marriage that you don’t cheat on your spouse. More liberal cultures might not imply that. So in a very Catholic culture, people would consider adultery immoral even if not explicitly written out in contract, whereas a free-thinking commune of hippies might think nothing of it. It would likely only be a problem when these cultures mix. It might be helpful to make explicit the differences when cultures come into contact.

    Certain libertarians like to focus on the NAP as the sole source of morality, an act of myopia that I’d compare to the tendency of some progressives to equal morality to consent.

    The children’s consent brings up another interesting principle, similar to abortion. Clearly it’s not a human at conception, and clearly it’s a human (embryo) the day before birth. But between those two points, it suffers from the “heap of sand” paradox ( Clearly a very young child can’t consent to much, and clearly eventually we have to allow an age at which a person is able to consent, or the concept doesn’t make much sense. (Some argue that the brain isn’t fully developed until the late 20s, does that mean people can’t fully consent to e.g. student loans until then?)

    So where do you draw the line? You can make arguments, but it’s going to be somewhat arbitrary by definition (or it wouldn’t be this type of difficult-to-address issue). Embryo can feel pain? Ok, but why is pain the criteria? Embryo not viable? Neither are certain disabled or elderly people, do we kill those? But if you save every zygote, why not every fly and spider? Those are more complex life forms.

    It also seems to me that the libertarian movement “suffers” a bit from being somewhat focused on only a slice of the world’s problem. As a movement/group you can either be focused on a smaller slice of life (e.g. economics), or everything. Typically, technocrats are focused and populists have an opinion about everything. This leads people to reject the slice-strategy because economics doesn’t have much to say about the age of consent, as in your example. And especially in the zero-sum game of politics, if one group must rule, it is discomforting if that group doesn’t care about an issue that you care about. We can’t piecemeal together our government like we can hire the phone company for phone service and the gas company for gas, so specialisation becomes a weakness in this zero-sum game for complete dominance (politics). One of the many reasons libertarianism will never win at politics. It’s like playing Risk with the goal not to attack any countries. Good for you, but you’ll never win at Risk by the standards of most players.

    And that last question, that’s why I love you, Bob.

    Overall, I love this genre of episodes. Great work!

  7. Tyler on 03/01/2020 at 7:31 PM

    On an intellectual level, I agreed with your implied argument about the Libertarian who goes around lamenting how gullible and ignorant everyone is about the nature of the state. In fact, I’ve found myself saying the same things about Libertarians who talk like that. “Of course the average person is naive about the state. The average person devotes their time to other pursuits; to a master mechanic, I’m very naive about auto repair.”

    But in my pessimistic moods, I do sometimes think and feel like that lamenting libertarian. And I think it’s worth saying this in defense of myself when I’m in that moods:
    the average person’s ineptitude at basketball is not only not injurious to Michael Jordan, it’s almost entirely the reason for all his fame and fortune. I don’t feel frustrated with the average person, merely because they don’t share my interest or agree with me. I mostly feel frustrated, because from my point of view, their ignorance of this matter is furthering the material suffering of myself and the people I care about to an unfathomable degree. I feel frustrated whenever I have to listen to people telling me why I should be grateful to be forced to dig through my garbage like a raccoon and organize it according to ever-changing criteria, to give up huge swaths of my disposable income for a retirement fund whose returns would be considered criminal if it were offered by any private investment firm, etc. etc. insert every crime of the state.

    • Geoff on 03/30/2020 at 9:12 PM

      Tyler, I agree with your comment. It goes back to a Rothbard quote where he says: “It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.”

      It is especially irritating when I see people on Facebook who are offering their opinions on many topics (for example, the minimum wage) when they are completely clueless and really should know that they are clueless. I am much more forgiving to those who really just don’t get it, but they know they are ignorant (politically and economically speaking) and don’t push an agenda.

  8. Marko on 03/02/2020 at 7:39 AM

    Very good episode Bob and I liked mostly the end when you used the metaphor with John Steinbeck. But, there are things where you launched a challenge, and here are my responses for 3 of them:

    1.) Evictionism: All your attacks to pro-choice are valid, but I am afraid you conflated pro-choice with evictionism. Walter Block proposed the evictionism exactly to solve the objections of the type you raised. He said that the woman has a right to evict, but not to kill. Which means that if there are reasonable technical solutions, documented history of similar examples etc… that would reasonably ‘guarantee’ the survival of the evicted fetus, that this procedure should be legal. In all your analogues, you moved the needle too much on the kill, rather than evict side of the spectrum. In the trip to Mars, when you voiced the evictor saying he does not wish to necessarily send the non desired passenger to grave, but simply out, you, again forgot to specify the circumstances. If there was a really safe escape capsule in that ship that was used quite often and with very high rate of success, so that even a non astronaut, or better, practically anybody without any space voyage skills, could be safely sent back to Earth, then and only then it would have been used. The 12 years old kid would not be put on the boat in the middle of the ocean, because everybody knows kids so small and unexperienced even with enough food and water would almost certainly die. But, if there existed a very safe, waves and adverse weather resistant boat with automatic pilot, that was tested 10000 times before, then yes. Your examples did not mention at all the probability of survival of the evicted person, that is the real distinguishing factor.

    2.) Libertarian atheists: even if god existed and if it created everything, man included, so it is the primary homesteader, it would not give him the right to be a monster. The creation, the man, is not a simple object, it is a right bearing been. As parents can not torture its children, simply becuase they ‘made’ them, even god can not torture its children, simply because he made them. God may invite a rebel man to get out of his property, but that opens another problem with Christian doctrine, there is no other property other than god’s, so where would one go. It seems to me that you imply accepting any behavior of god, simply because it is the initial homesteader.

    3.) Son that has an affair against the son, small thief of the candies in the gas station: technically, even the cheater son in libertarian society is a a criminal, for the crime of breaching the private marriage contract. It is an aggression to disrespect the contract. But, I think I understood the spirit of your worry, I just think you chose the wrong example. If you have chosen a son cat killer for fun, instead of the cheater, it would have been more accurate. Technically, killing the animals (even for fun) is outside the libertarian law, but still, it would be a highly non desirable behavior, that would require a much more serious talk with that son instead of the candy thief son.

  9. Marko on 03/04/2020 at 10:48 AM

    On ethics and law in general. Did you ever study or even read Stefan Molyneux’s book ‘UPB – universally preferrable behavior’? According to it, and I think it is correct, law should be based on ethics, and ethics is objective and the way to find out what behavior is ethical is through the UPB mechanism. He also divided all the behavior in ethical and easthetical, and he said some easthetical can be highly non desirable, but can not be legally enforced. According to these strict definitions, the cat killer for fun would be an example of non desirable easthetical behavior. Or the ‘dwarf thrower’ in one of the ‘Defending the Undefendable’ books. In fact, in this case I diverge from W. Block, because not everything that brings the revenue to the poor (in this case dwarf) is easthetically desirable. I would never agree the thrower is the hero, as Block calls him, simply because he gives the revenue to the poor. He is still a nasty person, that has some positive effects, but the revenue is not the only parameter to decide the positivity. That’s why Block is thin and I am thick, and this matter is subjective, but still I would ostrasize any dwarf thrower.

  10. Gnotis on 03/04/2020 at 3:12 PM

    I actually answer, or at least consider, some of these in my blog at gnotis (failure of flu vaccine has significantly slowed recent posting….). As for the typical Christian Bible god as most people conceive, if he existed and created the universe, he still can’t own sentient beings. I define immorality as forcing involuntarily interaction between sentient beings. As Dave H said, our children (who will, under normal circumstances, become fully sentient beings as adults) have rights

    In any case, I’d been wondering if my own libertarian (and atheist) philosophy could start with either involuntary vs voluntary interaction of sentient beings or with property rights, as I get to many of the same conclusions either way. But it looks like it’s voluntary vs involuntary interaction that is primary, which eliminates arguments beginning with property rights because those rights are derived. You don’t need to own land to debate, just sentient being a willing to voluntarily interact.

    And thanks for your show, Bob, I enjoy the varied topics as they’re all things I’m fascinated by.

  11. The NAPster on 03/06/2020 at 2:45 AM

    While the abortion debate often poses as the key question “When does life begin?”, that might not be the right question. For libertarian purposes, the key question could be “When does self-ownership begin?” Per Hoppe, we own our body because we have the most direct (peacefully acquired) control over it; no one else can cause a body to do something without first invading that body’s borders. This is not the case with the unborn baby. What happens to it is entirely a function of what the mother does to and with her body. If the mother starves herself, then the baby starves; if the mother jumps off a cliff, then so too does the baby; if the mother goes up some distance in an elevator, then so too does the baby. If this line of reasoning were correct, then couldn’t one argue that the baby is not a self-owner until it exits the womb, in which case anything that the mother does to the baby prior to then would not be a breach of the NAP? [Note, I’m not saying that this is my conclusion, only that I was thinking through how little discussion there is of how we come to own ourselves and what the implications are.]

  12. Tel on 03/07/2020 at 1:09 AM

    It’s a very bad idea to get confused and think that the purpose of the law is to ensure that good things always happen.

    Whether abortion is legal or illegal doesn’t matter, so long as there is a clearly defined set of terms and predictable legal outcomes.

    The important thing is whether parents love their children. If people get the idea that “Oh this is legal therefore it’s morally good” then they stop thinking for themselves.

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