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The Ideal Libertarian*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 April 2010

Arthur Ripstein
University of Toronto


In 1959, an article in the Harvard Business Review asked “Can Capitalism Win the Intellectuals?” Thirty years later, affirmative answers are prominent. Economic stagnation and downright collapse in the planned economies of Eastern Europe, coupled with the seeming inability of the deficit-ridden welfare states of the West to maintain social services provide at least part of the explanation. But philosophers have been eager to show that this is more than an historical trend.

Critical Notices/Études critiques
Copyright © Canadian Philosophical Association 1990

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1 Hoover, Calvin B., “Can Capitalism Win the Intellectuals?Harvard Business Review (September-October 1959): 4754Google Scholar.

2 See Newman, Stephen, Liberalism at Wit's End (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984).Google Scholar

3 The most forceful statements of this now prevalent view (and the source of the two examples) are Taylor, Charles, “What's Wrong With Negative Liberty?” in The Idea of Freedom, edited by Ryan, Allan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979)Google Scholar; and Cohen, G. A., “Freedom, Justice and Capitalism,” New Left Review, 126 (1981).Google Scholar

4 Nagel, Thomas, “Libertarianism without Foundations,” in Reading Nozick, edited by Paul, Jeffrey (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allenheld, 1981), p. 193.Google Scholar

5 Narveson, Jan, “Critical Notice of Anarchy, State and Utopia,” Dialogue, 16 (1977): 315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6 The epitaph of Droctulft, once among the attackers of Ravenna, later a defender. See Borges, Jorge Luis, “The Story of the Warrior and the Captive,” in A Personal Anthology (London: Jonathan Cape, 1961), p. 170.Google Scholar

7 Posner, Richard, “The Ethical and Political Basis of the Efficiency Norm in Common Law Adjudication,” in The Economics of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).Google Scholar

8 Gauthier, David, Morals By Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 231.Google Scholar

9 There is one striking gap in the argument. In order to justify libertarianism on paretian grounds, Narveson would have to show that there is a pareto path from current outcomes to libertarian outcomes. Nobody may be made any worse off by a transition to putatively superior arrangements. Otherwise those who are would have grounds for complaint. Yet no attempt is made to show any such thing. Perhaps “The Gospel According to St. Pareto” asks whether “Among persons not guilty of any wrong, is everyone coming out better, or at least as well?” (p. 184), in order to exclude gains from non-libertarian institutions. If so, the pareto argument provides no independent argument for libertarianism.

10 Coase, R., “The Problem of Social Cost,” Journal of Law and Economics, 3 (1960)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Markets also display what is known as Kaldor-Hicks efficiency: the gains made by winners in competition are greater than the losses suffered by losers. Though this criterion is influential in economic analyses of law, its readiness to allow displacement of costs renders it unsuitable for Narveson's libertarian project.

11 If a monopolist could bargain separately with each customer, and ensure that none would re-sell to other potential customers, an efficient outcome would result. There would be no line-ups to buys tickets for Rolling Stones concerts if ticket prices were individually negotiated and the supply could always be increased.

12 Empirical studies suggest that any but the smallest groups have great difficulty coordinating to solve common problems without a state to forcibly impose a solution that some parties reject. See the cases discussed and cited in Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

13 For more controversial examples, see Roemer, John, Free to Lose (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).Google Scholar

14 ABC News, Nightline, July 17, 1989.

15 Pullman's Pullman is described in detail in Walzer, Michael, Spheres of Justice (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1983).Google Scholar

16 Narveson, “Critical Notice,” p. 326.

17 I do not mean to insinuate that Narveson's views have been shaped by funds from any of these organizations. Even in this sense, Narveson's libertarianism is without foundations.