The Problem With the Libertarian View on Human Rights, in a Nutshell

A few days ago, we were treated, once again, to a typical sexist rant by the awful Rush Limbaugh. This time, it seems that he’s provoked some kind of boycott. Some advertisers and listeners are turning their backs to the radio host, voting with their feet and their wallets. In a sense, this is a typical libertarian response:

[V]iolating Rush’s First Amendment rights would require state action. Rush has not been jailed for his views, nor has anyone even whispered a suggestion to that effect. There have been no calls for his radio transmitter to be jammed. No one is even demanding he be fined, which might be possible under the FCC‘s arcane and arbitrary decency laws. Instead, what his critics are doing is exercising one of their own fundamental American rights, their right as consumers to frequent the businesses they choose. (source)

I agree that this right of consumers and advertisers to shop where they want and pay for what they want is an important one, although probably not as important as libertarians have it. I have no beef with that. What worries me more and what brings out libertarians’ flawed understanding of human rights is the peculiar opinion on free speech that is evident from the quote above. It’s an opinion that libertarians apply to all human rights, namely that violations of human rights only and always  result from government actions. Actions by fellow citizens – such as boycotts of radio talk show hosts – can never, according to libertarianism, result in rights violations.

The problem with libertarians is that they take cases such as the one we’re discussing now – and which indeed do not involve violations of free speech – and then extrapolate this in order to argue that there are never any similar cases in which citizens’ actions do result in violations of free speech. In the case under review, Limbaugh’s freedom of speech is evidently secure: the government hasn’t intervened, fortunately, and the action of listeners and advertisers don’t make it harder or impossible for Limbaugh to express himself. No one’s freedom of speech presupposes other people’s duty to listen or a duty to support speech through advertising money. Limbaugh’s freedom of speech would be secure even if the boycott were large enough for him to lose his radio pulpit. People don’t need to be a talk show host in order to have freedom of speech.

However, in other cases, it is possible that non-governmental actions – actions by fellow citizens in other words – result in violations of one’s freedom of speech. Some examples: the heckler’s veto, the silencing of critics of Islam by way of threats of violence, the chilling effect of political correctness etc. The same is true for all other human rights: it’s not the government that engages in FGM, that flies planes into the WTC buildings, that attacks gay couples on the street etc.

The central libertarian teaching about human rights as expressed in the quote above (“violating Rush’s First Amendment rights would require state action”) is therefore an error of fact. The error is probably unavoidable given libertarianism’s focus on the evils of government. This is all the more regrettable given the fact that libertarianism is, in theory, a philosophical school that should be very friendly to human rights. (Robert Nozick, perhaps the most famous libertarian philosopher, starts his magnum opus with the words: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them without violating their rights”).

My argument here may be lacking in nuance and may not do justice to one or other subtype of the admittedly very large and diverse family of libertarianisms. If so, please feel free to correct me in comments.

More on the related topic of dimensions of human rights is here. More on libertarianism.

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4 thoughts on “The Problem With the Libertarian View on Human Rights, in a Nutshell

  1. The nuance that is missing is this: that the libertarian approach – of private citizens voting with their feet and taking their checkbooks with them – works very well in affluent countries. What if the the obnoxious person/persons are very rich and powerful in comparison with the people who they are trampling on? Who will bell those fat cats, if not for the collective political will of the common people? And what is the state, if not that precisely?

    1. Ok, but that sounds like a nuance not within libertarianism but beyond it. I can’t speak for libertarians but your suggestion doesn’t seem acceptable in any libertarian worldview.

      My worry is that I missed some nuance WITHIN libertarianism.

  2. OK. I was commenting on the applicability (or not) of libertarianism as an appropriate model for less developed nations. I realize that is not your point.

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