Libertarianism and Psychology

by Fred Foldvary

Recently there have been a stream of negative critiques of libertarianism. All of them are misunderstandings.  It seems that these critics are just dressing up their antagonism with pseudo-scientific textiles.

The latest attack is in Psychology Today. Peter Corning, Ph.D., asks and answers “What’s the Matter with Libertarianism?” under the rubric “The Fair Society.”

He says, “The libertarian model of individual psychology is grounded in the utilitarian, neo-classical economics model of ‘Homo economicus,'” by which he means selfish economic man. Corning provides a couple of quotes by Nozick and Dawkins, but no general evidence that such is the viewpoint of most libertarians.  Is there a survey?  Is there  inductive logic leading to this conclusion? No, there is nothing. And this is supposed to be a scientific finding of a scholarly psychologist.

He cites the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, but is evidently unaware of Smith’s other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which Smith explained the other human motivation, sympathy for others.  Most libertarians that I know personally or from writings believe that it is quite good to be benevolent.

Perhaps Corning is confusing libertarianism with an extreme version of Randian Objectivism. He cites Ayn Rand as writing “Man’s first duty is to himself.”  But libertarian philosophy posits no such “first duty.”  The only libertarian moral duty is to avoid coercive harm to others.

Some libertarians are “anarcho-capitalists” who seem to envision an atomistic society of individuals contracting with protective agencies.  But libertarianism includes the communitarian vision of consensual communities with collective goods.

Corning claims that “libertarians generally have no model of society as an interdependent group with a common purpose and common interests.”  But no libertarian denies that society is interdependent. What is denied, and properly so, is that all the persons in a country have some common purpose and interests.  A multicultural society such as the USA consists of many interests, sometimes in conflict.  The interest of a thief clashes with that of peaceful victims.  If libertarianism is applied to society, the diverse interests can co-exist, the rule being that one may not force one’s interests on others.

Corning then notes that corporate interests sometimes perpetrate malfeasance. Yes, and if they commit fraud, that is theft, and libertarian policy would be to punish this.

He writes, “our first collective obligation is to ensure that all of our basic needs are met.” Now we see his political agenda.  Corning is a statist collectivist who favors the governmental welfare state. There is no abstract moral collective obligation. All obligations are individual. There can be a group with a mutual contract that then creates a collective obligation, but only from individual delegation.  As to basic needs, libertarian policy enables people to apply their labor and keep all the wages from that, which enables them to provide for their needs.  It is today’s statist restrictions and taxes that deprive workers of the ability to obtain their needs.  The few adults unable to work would get charity. The mass poverty of today is caused by government, not by the non-existent free market.

Evidently Corning believes that a libertarian world would be too selfish to care about the few who fall into misfortune.  But there is no evidence that greater freedom results in greater selfishness in the sense of not caring about others.  So here we have an article that seeks to apply psychology to an ideology, but with no evidence and with flaws in logic.  Psychology here is being applied as a cover for ideological views.  Has this been peer reviewed, or are the peers just as biased and lacking in scientific principle?

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8 thoughts on “Libertarianism and Psychology

  1. Psychology Today is pretty much the mental health equivalent of Men’s Fitness. It is not a peer-reviewed publication, and much of what I have read in it has been absolute dreck.

  2. I would laugh at Corning et al if I didn’t believe the effects of their anti-libertarian campaigns were keeping people from examining libertarianism, thereby lessening serious challenge to the status quo. Or statist quo, as the case may be.

    It’s funny how “experts,” Democrats and Republicans label libertarians as selfish Rand disciples, then proceed to, in an effort to preserve *their* (statist) self-interest, attack the “libertarian” straw men as selfish, anti-social isolationists.

  3. Anarcho-capitalist here. We’re not social atomists, either. We see an anarchist society as more compatible with living in community with others than a statist society. The state is anti-social, an institution of violence and domination, not benevolence and community.

    • I agree – I was very surprised that an otherwise intelligent article discussing flawed understandings of libertarian principles would commit the very sin it is complaining about.

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