Why Secular Humanism and Libertarianism Are Incompatible

Dan Davis

For a short time, I called myself a “libertarian secular humanist.” I wasn’t completely comfortable with this designat ion: my innate pessimism about humanity made me doubt my qualifications as a humanist, and I found libertarianism’s near-religious belief in the virtues of unregulated commerce vaguely disquieting.

Then I reread Paul Kurtz’s “Affirmations of Humanism” a few times. I realized that I substantially agreed with all of Kurtz’s principles and that my low opinion of humanity shouldn’t stop me from at least acting as though I had hope for the species. Essentially, my reservations weren’t significant enough to place me outside the secular-humanist umbrella. However, after spending entirely too much time thinking about the topic, I was forced to conclude that libertarian principles were incompatible with my own, as well as with those of secular humanism.

Libertarianism has many seductive aspects, particularly to diehard individualists like me. Its proponents believe in the separation of church and state, freedom of (and from) religion, the rights of people to determine their own destinies, universal equality under the law, freedom of speech, and the right to live as one sees fit as long as no others are harmed. Most secular humanists would have no problem with these positions.

The irreconcilable differences between libertarians and secular humanists arise in their viewpoints about government’s role in public life. Some libertarian proposals for government limitations are simply unworkable, but that alone should not render the two life-stances incompatible. The breach is between their underlying value systems.

The libertarian belief in the benevolence of the free market borders on mysticism. It starts with the market’s “invisible hand,” a metaphor introduced by Adam Smith in his treatise The Wealth of Nations (1776) and stretched far beyond the author’s original meaning by today’s enthusiasts. Smith’s “hand” refers to the cumulative effect of competitive interactions among buyers and sellers throughout society that ultimately culminate in lower prices, better products, and general prosperity. Or so the theory goes.

Even in Smith’s time, when nearly all business was conducted by small shops, farms, and service providers, the reach of the hand was limited. Women (one-half of the population) were generally excluded from economic activities; the poor, working or otherwise, were rarely able to improve their status; Native Americans stood outside the system entirely; and the Southern plantations (the period’s one significant exception to the small-business model) were powered by slaves. Most Americans had little or no access to the invisible hand (possibly excepting the middle finger).

Today, the hand is even less in evidence. It has been rendered obsolete by national and multinational corporations acting in concert with, sometimes in control of, governments. Even libertarians acknowledge that the system is broken, but they tend to maintain that the primary problem lies in government meddling. Without government intervention, they explain, corporate malfeasance would be constrained by the ability of individuals to sue for damages. Plaintiffs would be made whole and their successes would incentivize other businesses to behave responsibly.

To anyone who has ever been involved in business litigation, the idea of individuals (or small businesses) successfully suing large corporations on a recurring basis is ludicrous. Pursuing a lawsuit is absurdly expensive and time-consuming; suing a large corporation can quickly become financially devastating. Even an attorney willing to work on contingency would be vastly overmatched by corporate legal staffs’ sheer numbers, resources, and capacity to prolong a case indefinitely. Occasionally an activist in the mold of Erin Brockovich prevails, but even in a libertarian paradise it is hard to imagine that such outcomes would be much more frequent than they are now.

Libertarians also argue that government does not accomplish or produce anything. They point out that our own government maintains an unjustifiable military presence abroad, engages in preemptive and unnecessary warfare, gives away vast sums to foreign governments while demanding zero accountability, and provides unwarranted subsidies at home to corporations, other business entities, and particularly to individuals professing to be poor. All of these expenditures are funded by money extorted from our most productive citizens in the form of mandatory taxes.

Economic libertarianism holds that the following “truths” are self-evident:

1. A free market is the best means of achieving overall peace and prosperity.

2. Governments are inherently inefficient, unproductive, and confiscatory. They are also inimical to peace, prosperity, individual freedom, and the free market.

3. The only legitimate function of government is to protect its constituents against those who would forcibly abrogate their rights, and such protection is to be provided by a standing (volunteer) army and internal police forces.

These “truths” incorporate at least two assumptions: that any authoritative entity not constrained by competition and a focus on profits must devolve into inefficiency, wastefulness, and abuse of its powers; and that any system of mandatory taxation is tantamount to legalized extortion. Although the current behavior of our government provides compelling supporting examples, the premise that all government is inherently harmful is hard to take seriously.

If competition and the profit motive are the primary means of achieving organizational efficiency, then the operations of large businesses must demonstrate this principle. Yet many, if not most, large corporations are more than a match for government agencies when it comes to the embedding of inept managers and employees, internal empire building, interdepartmental secrecy and paranoia, pointless internal squabbles, and unethical (if not downright stupid) practices inside and out. And corporate faith in the virtue of competition extends only as far as everyone else’s competitors; most businesses would prefer to crush or buy out their own.

Of course, government agencies almost invariably incorporate some inefficiencies, but so do most large organizations of any sort. In fact, the internal political and administrative workings of government bodies and large businesses are not very different from one another. Both types of entity are constrained by revenue and cost limitations, and in the absence of adequate controls, either can fall victim to fiscal shenanigans. Inefficiency and corruption are far more likely to proceed from poor management, excessive complexity, and inadequate internal controls than from the entity’s nature and purpose. Both corporate and government workers are motivated by a desire to keep their jobs, receive their paychecks, and perhaps advance to a higher level. They may compete among themselves to achieve these goals, but the nature of their employers has little to do with the process.

The biggest libertarian grievance against government is the latter’s power of taxation. Libertarians regard taxation as legalized robbery, an activity that the government should be protecting them against rather than imposing upon them. However, if governments are to fulfill even the night-watchman role that most libertarians believe to be their only justifiable function, they must somehow pay for viable militaries, law-enforcement structures, and criminal-justice systems.

Some libertarians believe that one or more of these systems can be funded by voluntary payments from the nation’s citizens,
who will be happy (or at least willing) to make such payments in exchange for their security. This belief warrants further scrutiny.

Today’s military is a far cry from the BYOM (Bring Your Own Musket) model of Adam Smith’s time. Although libertarians point out that elimination of a significant military presence abroad would greatly reduce expenditures, the costs of supporting a respectable military at home would remain enormous. To be capable of defending the nation from potential external threats, the armed forces would still require up-to-date aircraft, warships, missiles, satellites, (arguably) nuclear weapons, and a large variety of other ordinance, not to mention highly trained personnel to maintain and operate these devices. How would we fund such a massive undertaking?

Presumably the citizenry would be placed on a voluntary tithing system, where everyone would donate a “suggested” percentage of his or her income to the military. Of course, in lean economic cycles, this tithe would be apt to drop significantly. Even in good times, it’s likely that contributors would periodically fall short of their suggested percentages (when the family car broke down, or Junior needed orthodontia); very few would ever exceed their recommended rates. Certain segments of the population, such as pacifists and most of the poor, could be expected to opt out entirely.

Because maintaining a robust military requires a reliable source of revenue in good times and bad, depending on voluntary donations does not seem particularly feasible. Simply collecting, controlling, and allocating the contributions would create an enormous administrative burden with multiple opportunities for corruption and fraud. A system of mandatory taxation is the only reasonable solution.

Many libertarians accept the necessity of funding the military through taxation but believe taxes should be confined to that purpose. They believe law enforcement, for example, should be privatized and voluntarily purchased by the public.

Current law enforcement is provided at many levels. Federal policing agencies include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Border Patrol, the U.S. Marshals Service, segments of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and various others. State and local police include highway patrols, state troopers, park rangers, county sheriffs, city police, campus police, and various specialized agencies. Then there are the court systems: U.S. district and appellate courts; the Supreme Court; the Court of Claims; the superior, appellate, and supreme court systems of each of the fifty states; a multitude of administrative law venues; and so on. Finally we have federal, state, and local penal facilities.

Even assuming that some of these agencies could be reduced, eliminated, or consolidated (such as by eliminating the idiotic War on Drugs and dissolving most of the tax-collecting agencies), it would be virtually impossible to create a workable method for funding the remainder on a voluntary basis. Wealthy individuals and corporations might jump at the chance to own and operate their very own law-enforcement systems, but the resultant benefits to the rest of us would be questionable at best.

Of course, many private security agencies and a few private penal facilities already exist today. They are, like all private businesses, heavily oriented toward making a profit. This orientation raises several questions.

For example: Could a private police force be expected to enforce the law without favoring its largest contributors? What sort of treatment might be expected for people too poor to donate to the agency? How much influence might wealthy supporters exert over the appointment of officers and management? How easy would it be for the wealthy to use police forces for their own private purposes? Recall the use of private—and public—police as strikebreakers and corporate enforcers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The use of private penal systems has already raised ethical questions. Because the bottom line is paramount, what quality of food, lodging, and medical care do inmates receive? Are adequate ratios of officers to inmates maintained? What levels of education and training are required for correctional officers? Are prisoners forced to labor at activities that benefit prison owners rather than the public at large? What is the likelihood that resources will be expended on rehabilitation, especially since recidivism would be better for business?

Libertarians point out that the effectiveness of the penal system would be controlled by regular reviews and evaluations by its purchasers, the general public. But what criteria would the public apply? Based on opinion polls and current policies, many citizens would be satisfied so long as crime rates remained low, even if that criterion were met solely by imposing harsher sentences and imprisoning increasing numbers of people. Those of us concerned with social justice, rehabilitation, and compassion (as expressed in “The Affirmations of Humanism”) might take a very different position.

If we accept the necessity of funding the military, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system through mandatory taxation, the libertarian argument against confiscation becomes moot. Since some degree of confiscation is necessary in any case, we are freed to examine the possibility of government providing other services that private enterprise could not be expected to offer on an equitable and consistent basis.

Skipping over less-controversial services (such as fire protection, public utilities, and motor-vehicle registration), we now address the social safety net: the assumption of a general “right” to food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. These issues go to the heart of the unbridgeable gap between libertarian and humanist values.

Every society has a certain number of people who are either unable or unwilling to support themselves, whether temporarily or permanently. This number includes the physically or mentally handicapped, innocent victims of economic adversity, the mentally ill, alcoholics, drug addicts, petty criminals, and the children of each subgroup. The diverse composition of the group (overall, a majority of victims and a minority of users) creates confusion and controversy among those who would address the problem.

Our current approaches to unemployment, poverty, and homelessness encompass a hodgepodge of federal, state, local, and private systems and activities. Millions fall through the cracks, while some take advantage by gaming the system. The quality and quantity of help available to those in legitimate need vary enormously according to where the needy happen to be. Clearly the entire system should be overhauled and simplified.

As usual, the libertarian solution is to simply remove government from the equation. The financial resources freed up by eliminating government social programs should enable individuals to fund such programs voluntarily; if voluntary funding proves inadequate for alleviating poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and mental illness (as it always has), the families of the unfortunate must be ready to take up the slack.

The inescapable underpinning of this libertarian position—indeed, of all libertarian positions—is that in the end, the fittest (and/or luckiest) will survive, and society will be the better for it. Concern for those who cannot help themselves, and compassion in general, should be left to those of us (such as secular humanists) who are afflicted with such weaknesses.

The same is true for access to medical care. Get government out, say the libertarians, and the absence of regulation will reduce medical costs to such an extent that quality care will be readily affordable.

This premise may have made sense in Adam Smith’s time, when medical equipment consisted largely of hand tools and leeches, and a patien
t’s likelihood of survival was not greatly enhanced by access to the available medical services. However, in today’s medical environment of costly surgical and diagnostic equipment—to say nothing of insurance companies determined to weed out any customers who are actually likely to need medical services—the probability of universally available medical care without government regulation is zero. Once again, the survival of the fittest (that is, the richest and luckiest) manifests itself as the libertarian philosophical underpinning.

Finally, consider the effects of removing government’s ability to influence business and financial communities in any way. Suddenly regulations pertaining to environmental protection, workplace safety, work hours, child labor, truth in advertising (already a joke), prevention of monopolies, and restriction of a host of unethical business practices would simply disappear. The influence of labor, which has dwindled steadily over the past decades, could not come close to providing an adequate countervailing force.

The libertarian answer to the possibility(!) of corporate abuse is that business would regulate itself, if only out of enlightened self-interest. Since negative public perception would result in decreased business, corporations would be motivated to act in the public interest.

Of course if this theory were true, it would be manifested even within today’s regulated environment. Yet most businesses, especially large ones, spend an inordinate percentage of their resources on devising ways to weaken or avoid the very controls that libertarians maintain would be voluntarily implemented in the absence of government regulation.

Corporations themselves are neither good nor evil. They are nothing more than intellectual constructs conceived, made legal, and sustained by human beings. Not unlike gods, they are assigned characteristics and requirements by their minions, who then subordinate themselves to the imaginary creatures they have created. Their prime directive is profitability. Only humans can change corporate behavior, but they rarely do so unless forced.


The populace can enjoy the benefits of free enterprise only within a reasonably regulated economy. Without such regulation, the environment will be despoiled, the economy will devolve toward feudalism, and the free enterprise system will slowly be strangled as giant conglomerates claw their way toward monopoly. It almost happened here a little over a century ago, and it took government to break the corporate grip.

Government is already losing its struggle to regulate the conglomerates. The rich and powerful continue to buy politicians and fund propaganda to convince the public that its own interests parallel those of its exploiters. Yet government regulation is the only viable bulwark against the specter of corporate oligarchy.

Values must determine the outcome. Secular-humanist values include compassion, cooperation, environmental protection, respect for other species, and social justice. Libertarians regard such principles as either secondary or inimical to their own values of immutable property rights and laissez-faire economics. The incompatibility is clear.

Dan Davis

Dan Davis is a writer and a semiretired sales and use tax-consultant with a tendency to overthink things.

The irreconcilable differences between libertarians and secular humanists arise in their viewpoints about government’s role in public life.

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