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A response to “Libertarianism and pollution: the limits of absolutist moralism”

PhilosophyPosted by Jan Lester Wed, March 18, 2015 12:57:55
A response[1] to “Libertarianism and pollution: the limits of absolutist moralism”[2]

J C Lester

We are first told that

"Some of the currently most popular forms of libertarian thought are defined by a commitment to the “non-aggression principle” – a principle which holds that it is always wrong to initiate physical force against other human beings."

Although “popular”, this is a poor expression of libertarianism. “Aggression” is problematic as being what libertarians are against. For one thing, it is rarely explained exactly how non-aggression is supposed to relate to a theory of interpersonal liberty. For another, “non-aggression”, in plain English, is no more up to the task than “non-coercion” (another libertarian favourite, although less popular of late)—not without charitable interpretation, at least. As glossed in the above quotation, “aggression” clearly does not work for two main reasons. 1) Theft and fraud don’t need to involve anyone having to “initiate physical force against other human beings”: you don’t need to initiate physical force against me in order to steal my money or cheat me out of it. 2) Consequently, it will sometimes be necessary to “initiate physical force” against thieves and fraudsters: to arrest them and bring them to trial, for instance.

That said, we can try to make a little more sense of the “non-aggression principle” (NAP); partly because many libertarians use it, and partly in order to move towards something clearer. Therefore, we might, as above suggested, provide a charitable interpretation of “aggression”, e.g., ‘the proactive interference with the bodies and external property of other people (where that property is itself not acquired by proactive interference)’. And if we do that, then it begins to make sense that the absence of such “aggression” is what interpersonal liberty is (although this sets aside various precise philosophical problems with this account). For such “aggression” against us would be other people initiating constraints on us. And we can then make sense of interpersonal liberty as the absence of such initiated constraints. (However, it ought at least to be mentioned that what liberty is—as a theory and as social phenomena—is a factual matter that is completely separate from the moral issue of whether breaching such liberty is “always wrong”. Conflating the two issues, as the article does, is a major source of confusion.)

Having rectified that account of the “non-aggression principle” sufficiently for our current purposes, we can now proceed to the second major error in the article:

"The problem is that libertarianism seems to imply that environmental pollution, insofar as it constitutes or involves aggression against other human beings, is morally impermissible. Not just a bad thing, mind you, but absolutely morally impermissible in the same way that theft, assault, and murder are."

The error here is easily explained. The “non-aggression principle”—as interpreted here, at least—is best seen as being what observing liberty fully or absolutely would require. That is, full liberty is the absence of any “aggression” (i.e, proactive interference with people and their—non-proactively interfering—property). Now, it is true that pollution will be “aggressive”. But that is only half of the story. Because to prohibit the activities that are causing the pollution will also be “aggressive”. Consider a simple example. If I have a fire for warmth and cooking, then you might suffer some minor pollution as a result. But if you can force me not to have a fire, then you have deprived me of warmth and cooking. Both the allowance and the prohibition of pollution will be “aggressions” (although ‘proactive impositions’ seems to be a clearer expression). Whichever one is preferred, or however they are balanced, there will be some “aggression”. Therefore, it is impossible to implement the non-aggression principle in the event of such clashes. So what is the libertarian solution? It is surely libertarian to maximise liberty. That means adopting a minimum-aggression principle (or MAP). And that probably involves compromise and possibly compensation. How are minimum aggressions to be determined? They can often best be measured, traded, and compensated for by assigning market—or, at least, reasonable—monetary values to the gains and losses involved. In any event, the general solution to the problem is to see the NAP as referring to observing liberty when matters are one-sided. But the MAP applies when there are clashes.

Note that this proffered solution is not, as the article suggests, restricted to “discrete interactions between identifiable individuals”. It applies just as much to “a world increasingly characterised by the complexly interrelated activities of large numbers of dispersed individuals”. But to engage in, say, class actions (as the legal term has it) over “contemporary environmental problems such as automobile pollution, acid rain, and global climate change” is not in any anti-libertarian sense to be “less individualistic in identifying perpetrators and victims”. However, there is an important equivocation here. In one sense, rules that are intended to protect the general public (rather than any individuals in particular) are thereby, ipso facto, not “individualistic”. But they can remain individualistic in the libertarian sense that is opposed to collectivism (whereby individuals cease to have claims to liberty because of the greater good of the majority). Such individualism-in-principle is not abandoned just because there are lot of indeterminate people involved. Neither is the MAP in principle “less absolutist”. This is because liberty remains the thing that must absolutely be maximised. Consequently, it is clearly possible to “keep the individualism and absolutism where it makes sense” because, as interpreted here, it makes sense everywhere.

Then we are asked this question:

"How can libertarians still maintain that it is wrong to impose a small tax on the wealthy, even if the social benefits would be enormous, while allowing that drivers are entitled to send small amounts of toxins into other people’s lungs since, after all, the social benefits of driving are enormous?"

The question is confused in two main ways. First, no libertarian need concede that it is even practical “to impose a small tax on the wealthy” such that “the social benefits would be enormous”. This mere logical possibility flies in the face of the deleterious unintended consequences of tax-transfers. In an imaginary world, the state might be a welfare boon. In reality, it is a welfare bane. There is no sound reason to suppose that “utilitarianism” must in practice “countenance violations of individual rights”. Second, it is, at best, a muddle to describe the libertarian case for allowing the “toxins” caused by driving as being because “the social benefits are enormous”. It is, again, necessary to look at both sides before applying the MAP. 1) Allowing driving despite its toxins: this will proactively impose (“aggress”) to a minuscule degree on people (probably too small to make compensation claims economic); and this has to include a deduction to the extent that any particular individuals also engage in driving, or benefit from the consequences of driving (such as the delivery of goods to their area, etc.), or chose to move into an area where driving is allowed, etc. 2) Banning driving because of its toxins: this would proactively impose huge costs, in one way or another, on almost everyone. Hence, 1 is the liberty-maximising option.

If the foregoing analysis is roughly correct, then the answer is not “waiting to be discovered by future libertarian philosophers”.[3] And it is more mere fantasy and confusion to suppose that any solution must ultimately mean “pushing libertarians back … toward the more moderate classical liberalism of Adam Smith, David Hume, and Friedrich Hayek”.

Clarificatory conclusion

Because of the way that the problem was originally framed, it is easy to misinterpret the above response. In particular, it might look as though it amounts to a moral advocacy of a sort of consequentialist libertarianism to replace deontological libertarianism. It does not. And such an interpretation would be to miss the crucial main point in a typical way. For the response is not really about libertarian morals. It is about what interpersonal liberty is (in abstract theory) and what applying it objectively entails (in normal practice). Most self-identified libertarians unwittingly have a moral muddle without a central factual theory of liberty. They cannot yet see that they first need to sort out what liberty is, and therefore entails if instantiated, and only after that can moral questions about it be coherently raised and tackled. An analogical error would be utilitarians who could not even give an account of utility.


[1] The article in question repeats a criticism of libertarianism that was one of those raised ( and briefly answered ( on The revised replies to those criticisms are now available in a book chapter (Lester 2014, Ch. 5). But as the new article is somewhat different, and the audience different, a reconsideration of these important issues seems merited.

[2] IEA Blog, 20 February 2015:

[3] It ought to be noted that any attempt to refute this overall theoretical approach that is based on criticisms in Gordon and Modugno 2003 or Frederick 2013, ought at least to be aware of the replies to those criticisms: chapters 9 and 10 in Lester 2014.


Gordon, David and Modugno, Roberta A. 2003. “Review of J.C. Lester's Escape from Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare, and Anarchy Reconciled.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 17, 4: 101–109.

Frederick, Danny. 2013. “A Critique of Lester’s Account of Liberty.” Libertarian Papers 5, 1: 45-66. Online here:

Lester, J. C. 2011. Arguments for Liberty: a Libertarian Miscellany. Buckingham: The University of Buckingham Press.

—— [2000] 2012. Escape from Leviathan: Libertarianism Without Justificationism. Buckingham: The University of Buckingham Press.

—— 2014. Explaining Libertarianism: Some Philosophical Arguments. Buckingham: The University of Buckingham Press.

Zwolinski, Matt. 2015. “Libertarianism and pollution: the limits of absolutist moralism”, Institute of Economic Affairs, Blog, 20 February. Online here:

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utility monsters, etc.

PhilosophyPosted by Jan Lester Mon, June 23, 2014 14:18:05

utility monsters, etc. Mental-state utility aside (see *utilitarianism), if utility ought to be maximised in some form then we need to reply to three classic *criticisms of this as a desirable criterion (and also as compatible with *liberty). 1) This will engender the social and even genetic evolution of utility monsters: people with huge appetites that have come about because the biggest appetites will win in any *resource-distribution contest based on mere utility. 2) We ought to engineer people’s wants by dishonest *propaganda, coerced *eugenics, etc., to make sure that their wants can most fully be met. 3) We should prefer a more-*populated world with low average utility as long as total utility is plausibly higher than that of a less-populated world of much happier people.

We can immediately agree (if only for the sake of argument with 3, which is not so clear) that all of these outcomes would be undesirable, and unlibertarian if imposed, but argue that they are not entailed by utilitarianism as such. 1) We can rule out pandaring to utility monsters on the basis that the long-run effects would be disastrous for utility. It would be like always giving in to the tantrums of a small child, only on a society-wide scale. So gross appetites alone are not a sufficient reason to *proactively impose on others. 2) People do not want to be deluded or forcibly engineered to achieve someone else’s conception of their ‘utility’. People value having their own *spontaneous wants satisfied, including as these wants also spontaneously evolve. Therefore any proactively imposed wants do not count as utility-improving by this conception of utility. 3) This is a mere logical possibility. In practice it would involve forcing people to reproduce and then maintain their offspring, by some method, beyond what they would freely choose to have done. The ensuing loss of utility to the parents and wanted children plus the kind of *totalitarianism that would need to be involved, and the *tax-funding of that totalitarianism, do not seem to make it a practical problem for utilitarianism.

However, even if there were a systematic clash between liberty and utility at some theoretical extreme, that need not indicate an inconsistency between libertarianism and utilitarianism for most practical purposes. And thus the *classical *liberal compatibility thesis is preserved in practice. See *consequentialism.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

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PhilosophyPosted by Jan Lester Mon, June 23, 2014 14:12:40

utilitarianism This is the idea that the ultimate criterion of *morals is utility, and so whatever actions appear to maximize overall utility (in the long term and as far as we can tell) are at least *legitimate and probably mandatory. Several points need to be made in a *libertarian context. What follows relates only to *persons and not to non-person *animals.

1) Conception of utility. If ‘utility’ is understood as a mental state, as it was originally and often still is, then it is hard to defend it as desirable in principle because most people want at least some real states of affairs. They do not want the *happy or pleasurable delusion of having the things they want, nor some zombie-like state of wellbeing. The more recent preference utilitarianism, by contrast, means having more of your preferences or wants satisfied, even if you can never know it (such as a lost friend’s wellbeing or what happens to your paintings after your own *death). Only one’s unimposed wants (not those induced by *fraud or force) will count, because we do not value *proactively-imposed wants however happy, etc., they might make us. Thus (unimposed-)want-satisfaction is a criterion of *welfare, although not an exclusively *self-interested one, that people would choose for themselves if they could. *Economics should be interpreted as referring to this sense of utility.

2) Conceptual connection with liberty. There are conceptual connections between preference utilitarianism and libertarianism: individual persons have more *liberty and utility to the extent that they are not proactively imposed on; and liberty and utility are necessarily desired. These connections are not ad hoc: they involve interpretations of liberty and utility that independently withstand *critical scrutiny. These connections do not make the overlap between utility and liberty tautological: we can coherently imagine the *state’s being able to increase overall utility by infringing liberty.

3) Contingent connection with liberty. There is no logical incompatibility between preference utilitarianism and *laissez faire; contra, for instance, Bernard Williams (1929-2003) (see *unintended consequences). And, contingently, it appears from economics, primarily, that the *free market and liberty are just what does maximize want-satisfaction. There seem to be no systematic clashes between them, at least (see relevant topic entries if this is doubted). Thus ‘rule utilitarianism’ can be interpreted as requiring the rule of observing libertarian *rights (rather than calculating the consequences for each act as ‘act utilitarianism’ entails; but see *consequentialism).

4) Significance of connection with liberty. Neither preference-utility nor liberty are ultimate values (goals we would uphold as ends in themselves no matter what the consequences): both are only moral frameworks, or can even be mere egoistic modus vivendi (possibly arising from a *social contract), within which diverse values and ends may be pursued. That utility and liberty do not clash is not a *‘justification’ of either by the other. Correctly understood, they can both float as unrefuted practical moral conjectures. But it allays criticisms of each that, if either were to be maximised, it would damage the other too much. And liberty and utility are the two biggest, supposed, rivals in Western moral theory; so they make an overwhelming alliance. Ultimately, one is a libertarian or utilitarian first and foremost to the extent that one would favor liberty or utility in the event of a clash. Not many people would favor liberty regardless of the consequences for utility, or vice versa. But as they do not clash in systematic practice one need not choose.

See *utility monsters, etc.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

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harm principle

PhilosophyPosted by Jan Lester Mon, June 23, 2014 14:05:00

harm principle It is often suggested, sometimes even by *libertarians, that actions that harm other people should not be allowed. But taken literally, this cannot be correct. For we often *objectively harm others, or *risk harming them, with their permission: such as by providing them with ‘junk food’, cigarettes, or participatory *sports. Harming, or risking harming, others on a voluntary basis is part of *liberty. A better criterion of what should not be allowed is what *proactively imposes on other people (or normal adults, at least; with the mentally impaired, etc., being treated like *children of similar intellect), even if it does the imposed-on people some objective good.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

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PhilosophyPosted by Jan Lester Mon, June 23, 2014 14:02:15

happiness In the popular psychological sense of ‘happiness’, although the *free market gives people ever more material goods of all kinds, critics often observe that, 1) this does not seem to make them any happier, and 2) there is no significant gain in happiness above an average Western income. 1 is used to *criticize *materialism and 2 to criticize inequality. There is one major source of happiness that it is a *politically-correct taboo to discuss, 3) homogeneity of *race, ethnicity, and *culture.

1) People might well tend to become quickly accustomed to their circumstances however good or bad, and they then feel more or less as they did before. But it is hard to accept that people are really no happier at all with the market-enabled advances that cure early death and terrible diseases, and give us more leisure time and more things to enjoy during that leisure (though people often fail to count their blessings, and that is usually folly). Even if this were mistaken, happiness is not the only thing that people seek. We want some things as ends in themselves even if they do not make us happier; though these can sometimes fit in the broader sense of ‘happiness’ that includes personal flourishing. And if we are thwarted in these ends by *political intervention then we will, in any case, be made less happy. (See *commodities; *welfare.)

2) This argument has recently been used as a defense of *taxation to create a more *equal society. But such wealth as we enjoy now is only possible because certain types of inequality exist. *Market pricing (of products and *labor) is necessary for *economic calculation. And inequalities are an inevitable consequence of allowing it. The more that any market inequality is curbed, the poorer all would become; which, prima facie, reduces happiness too. And some people are only happy (though sometimes in the more general sense) with more wealth than most are content with, as is indicated by the greater effort they generally put into acquiring it. This is not to suggest that there might at least be some trade-off between the *free market and equality that maximizes happiness: as the various entries on equality explain, all movements toward forced equality are more than likely to reduce overall happiness.

3) Researchers into happiness often reveal a high positive correlation between racial and cultural homogeneity and happiness. But according to a leading ‘happiness economist’ Richard Layard (1934- ), at a public meeting on happiness, many researchers dare not publish their findings for fear of damage to their careers and even persons if they are consequently branded as guilty of *racism. (See *multiculturalism; *racial integration and segregation; *racialism and racism.)

John Locke (1632-1704) is famously supposed to have written of *natural *rights to protect one’s ‘life, liberty, and property’ (but that is all property: “… his property—that is, his life, liberty, and estate …”; or “life, health, liberty, or possessions”). Can it be without significance that the Declaration of Independence (mainly drafted by Thomas Jefferson [1743-1826]) prefers “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”? This suggests that a legitimate *state can expropriate our *private property (“estate” or “possessions”) while promising to facilitate our protection and happiness. The reality of politics is that we thereby have less of all three.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

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PhilosophyPosted by Jan Lester Mon, June 23, 2014 13:54:39

consequentialism (teleological ethics) The theory that we should judge *moral desirability by the good consequences (however these are conceived), which we should usually maximize (though it is not logically entailed that more is always better), rather than the types of behavior involved (which is deontologism: observing specific *duties). In practice, we are almost bound to choose by reference to both.

An immediate problem is how far this distinction is coherent. For if we ought to do what maximizes some good end then that is itself a kind of duty that we must obey irrespective of any other, supposedly morally irrelevant, consequences. And all normal supposed duties have some prima facie good consequences involved. It is not arbitrary that theft and murder are generally thought wrong: they are believed to do overwhelmingly more harm than good. In any case, it is certainly compatible with consequentialism that there be general moral rules as these are needed to avoid uncertainty, *corruption and *moral hazard.

Consequentialism, as such, leaves open which consequences are good in themselves. Logically, virtually anything (and not just one thing) might be judged so, but prime contenders include varying conceptions of *utility. A less mental-state version of this (more conducive to both *libertarianism and *economics) would allow people to maximize the satisfaction of their wants irrespective of how this made them feel: why be forced to have more *happiness when you would rather achieve some other end? And some would restrict these consequences to *persons as relevantly superior to mere beasts (see *animal welfare).

A much-discussed problem is how much sense it makes to sum different people’s *welfare outcomes. Many deny that this can be ‘scientific’ or *objective so opt for strict *Paretianism. But with strict Pareto comparisons we could never even say that the abolition of the worst kinds of *slavery improved general welfare, because of the slave-owner’s supposedly completely incommensurable loss. So some rough and ready comparisons seem to make intuitive sense and are sometimes sufficient to show that certain rule-systems promote more welfare than others for the *populations that have to live by them. This argument does not entail, as is sometimes alleged, that 1) detailed comparisons must be possible, or 2) even if they were that they could overcome the problem of *economic calculation and so allow *state planning.

Libertarians tend to argue that there is a *right to *liberty, hence a duty to respect it, and that liberty has the most desirable consequences in terms of want-satisfaction (though some do opt strictly for one side or the other). Do they want to have their cake and eat it? No. The traditional conception of rights is that they arise and are defensible only in terms of their being the best general rules for promoting good consequences. What would be the point of a right that was generally damaging? And how could some good end be defended practically but by some general rule about behavior? Thus libertarianism can even be viewed as a form of rule-consequentialism (though this act-rule distinction is also of dubious coherence: if rules work best then the best act is to follow them; or if we see when it is best to break a general rule, then that can be put into a new rule). That libertarian rules maximize welfare cannot be demonstrated; it is a conjecture that invites *criticism.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

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PhilosophyPosted by Jan Lester Mon, June 23, 2014 13:48:31

welfare *Libertarianism is not a theory of welfare in the sense of quality of life. It is, however, compatible in practice with preference *utilitarianism, which definitely is a theory of welfare. However, this is an unusual theory of welfare in that what we prefer need not relate to how we feel when it is achieved or even to ourselves at all. But if people regard themselves as being better off to the extent that they get what they spontaneously want (i.e., without *proactive imposition), then this seems to be the conception of welfare that they would choose for themselves (or choose above ‘welfare’, for those essentialists who deny that this can be a conception of welfare). And *liberty and the *free market give us more of what we individually want. *Politics involves politicians attempting to give us more of what they think we ought to want, and they often even fail at that. See *consequentialism; *happiness.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

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positive liberty

LibertyPosted by Jan Lester Sat, June 21, 2014 12:30:53
positive liberty ‘Positive *liberty’ is supposed to be when you are able to do whatever you (ought to) want to do, rather than merely not being actively prevented from doing something (which is ‘negative liberty’). The main problem with ‘positive liberty’ is that it appears to be a tendentious attempt to belittle the *liberal or *libertarian conception of liberty. For ‘positive liberty’ looks much more like ability or, valuable/approved, opportunity (in many cases it is a *privilege at the *tax victims’ expense, who thereby become underprivileged). It is conceptually confusing to try to dress these up as the kind of ‘liberty’ that really matters, rather than to argue for their importance independently and admit that liberty might need to be constrained in order to promote them. It smacks of *politically-correct speak.

A Dictionary of Libertarianism

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