Does libertarianism mean we have to pay for everything?

I don’t know the answer to the question, but Noahpinion seems to:

Since the dawn of time, libertarians have equated property rights with freedom. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense: if the government can come and confiscate your stuff, or tell you what to do with it, you don’t feel very free at all. But libertarians tend to take this basic concept to its maximal extent; the more things are brought within the cash nexus, the more free we become. No limits, no exceptions. A direct implication is that the more government functions we can privatize, the more free we will be.

But is that right? What would it really feel like to live in a society where almost every single thing is privately owned and priced? 

Walking around urban Japan, I feel like I am seeing a society that is several steps closer to that ideal than the United States. You may have heard that Japan is a government-directed society, and in many ways it is. But in terms of the constituents of daily life being privately owned and marginally priced, it is a libertarian’s dream world.

For example, there are relatively few free city parks. Many green spaces are private and gated off (admission is usually around $5). On the streets, there are very few trashcans; people respond to this in the way libertarians would want, by exercising personal responsibility and carrying their trash home with them in little baggies. There are also very few public benches. In cafes, each customer must order something promptly or be kicked out; outside your house or office, there is basically nowhere to sit down that will not cost you a little bit of money. Public buildings generally have no drinking fountains; you must buy or bring your own water. Free wireless? Good luck finding that!

Does all this private property make me feel free? Absolutely not! Quite the opposite – the lack of a “commons” makes me feel constrained. It forces me to expend a constant stream of mental effort, calculating whether it’s worth it to spend $4 to sit and rest for 10 minutes, whether it’s worth $2 to get a drink.

I just spent 12 days in Italy, and it reminded me a bit of this description of Japan.  (And about every 15 minutes my wife said something reminded her of China.)

1.  Lots of pay toilets.

2.  No free museums.

3.  Admission to some parks.

4.  More toll roads than America.

5.  You pay for rolls at restaurants.  Ditto for water.

6.  Use of beach chairs at resorts cost money.

7.  Many churches charge admission.

Now some of these apply to the US as well–most of our museums charge admission.  But many don’t, and some are voluntary.

Both Italy and Japan are much more statist than the US, by almost any ranking.  This made me wonder whether “charging for stuff that should be free” was actually an attribute of libertarianism.  Perhaps it’s a reflection of income–both Japan and Italy are poorer than the US.  I recall that the US had pay toilets when I was a kid (when were about as rich as Japan and Italy are now.) 

Perhaps resorts in Hawaii don’t charge for use of beach chairs because we are so rich, and pay so much for hotel use, that it isn’t worth the bother of trying to prevent non-hotel residents from using the chairs. 

Consider the shopping mall, a quintessentially American invention, and also a quite libertarian model of the “town square.”  Unlike in an Italian shopping street, when you are thirsty you don’t have to buy a 2 euro bottle of water, you can just use the drinking fountain.  In a mall restaurant they’ll bring you water and rolls without asking.  If you are tired the shopping mall will provide a bench to sit on for free.  You don’t have to pay to use the toilets in shopping malls.  You can park for free.  It seems like “the market” tells developers of big real estate projects that Americans don’t want to be constantly fishing out money for every little thing.  Disney uses the same procedure–you pay to get in, and then everything is free.  I’ve seen new planned towns in Texas that come with bike lanes, benches, parks, etc.

I’m not saying Noah is completely wrong.  I favor toll roads and congestion pricing, at least in a few limited cases.  I am sure that a libertarian society would charge for at least a few things that are currently free.  But I think it’s wrong to jump to the conclusion that you know exactly what a libertarian society would look like.  Libertarianism is about letting the market discover optimal financing arrangements.



57 Responses to “Does libertarianism mean we have to pay for everything?”

  1. Gravatar of Paul Zrimsek Paul Zrimsek
    15. September 2011 at 06:01

    I’m not sure what it’s supposed to mean to drive “willy-nilly” to the Grand Canyon, but if it means “without paying” then there’s a ranger out there who’d like to have a word with you.

  2. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    15. September 2011 at 08:37

    Yes, if all public space is privatized, then access must be monitored, controlled and monetized,

    So, no more deciding willy-nilly to drive over to the Grand Canyon for a jaunt to the bottom. There might be condos all along the rim, and you have to pay $100– for a guide to to take you to the bottom, where you spend the night in a tent for another $100. You could nowhere without permission.

    I love many libertarian ideals. But ultimately I think libertarianism fails on such matters as pollution, preservation of wild lands, national defense, and perhaps some minimum community standards.

    If your neighbor decides to open up a brothel with flashing lights and plate-glass windows–or even worse, a 24-hour 7/11–is that wonderful? Polygamy?

    Gambling-drug den-brothels where men snort coke and bet to see who wins the nude dancing prize on stage?

    Your demented neighbor wants to store nerve gas in old rusting tin cans? Mount an RPG launcher on his roof?

    Should we privatize and sell the White House for use as a Saudi brothel?

    Pave over veteran’s cemetaries and build condos? The VA land in West L.A. would be worth billions of dollars.

    Another oddity: in Thailand, push-cart vendors appropriate public sidewalk and street space daily to sell wares and food. Jitneys are common. So there is less regulation, and more privatization through this daily usurping of public space than you would get by making that space private.

    An interesting topic. But I find most libertarians melt when you tell them you want to open up a brothel next to their house, start a polygamous church, and eliminate the home mortgage tax deduction. Then we have a Foreign Legion and no U,S. troops. And no military pensions.

    You almost always get, “I am libertarian with reasonable limitations.”– meaning, “I am a GOP’er who wants to smoke pot.”

  3. Gravatar of Noah Noah
    15. September 2011 at 08:51

    Hey, thanks for the link! Just wanted to point out that it’s “Noahpinion”. Makes a better cheesy pun that way. ;)

    I don’t claim to know what “libertarianism” believes, but I’ve spent enough time reading “libertarian-leaning” people write about “markets in everything” and “bringing more things within the cash nexus” that I kind of got the idea that libertarians like…well, marginal pricing for stuff.

    Also, I find it difficult to imagine that government-provided free trashcans and benches would constitute a “market-discovered optional financing arrangement”.

    But who knows, maybe they would!

  4. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    15. September 2011 at 08:54

    As if water in a public drinking fountain is free. It may FEEL more free than bought water, but someone has to get it. Drinking water doesn’t just fall out of the sky.

    Everytime I think that “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”, properly interpreted, makes a hopelessly obvious point, someone manages to exemplify why it’s an important proposition.

    The central difference is that I pay for the public drinking fountain whether I use it or not, whereas I only pay for the bought water that I buy (from Scottish Water, which as it happens is a publicly-owned utility).

  5. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    15. September 2011 at 08:55

    Still, if you want people to pay for something regardless of whether or not they use it, the state is very useful. Regardless of whether or not I’m using the court system, I should be paying for it; if nothing else, I benefit from its existence even when I don’t use it.

  6. Gravatar of John Thacker John Thacker
    15. September 2011 at 09:01

    I think he’s confusing several things:

    1) Scarcity as the issue as opposed to explicit pricing. Places that charge for parking have high demand versus supply, which means cities everywhere, especially Tokyo. If they didn’t charge for things, then you’d have issues like driving around for hours looking for a spot. If you don’t pay for it one way, you pay for it another. Places where land for parking is ample don’t charge, whether in private parking or not. It’s lack of scarcity that feels free, not the method of payment.

    2) Redistribution as the issue as opposed to explicit pricing. If governments supply things “for free,” they still have to be paid for. Using a more inefficient method of allocation generally hurts the poor more, because they have to husband their resources and need to optimize more. The poor are only better off if the way that governments fund the projects are through redistributive methods. But that’s an orthogonal issue– things can have explicit payments but governments still use transfer payments from rich to poor. Then the poor may be better off.

    Generally it’s the European countries and Japan that both charge for things and have greater redistribution from rich to poor. It’s the USA that has government goods free or subsidized at the point of use but with less redistribution from rich to poor (but lots from middle class to middle class.)

    Regardless of which one is the “more libertarian,” don’t many people think that the former countries are more equal between rich and poor?

  7. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    15. September 2011 at 09:23

    Benjamin, I have a very different vision of libertarianism than you do. I think the free market would provide zoning, as developers would put covenants into property deeds restricting their use.

    Noah, Thanks, I corrected the spelling. I think there is some ambiguity as to what libertarianism means, and I am certainly much more pragmatic than the average libertarian, so perhaps I shouldn’t be speaking for the movement. But I’d say that property should be optimally managed by whoever owns it. If privately owned, like planned communities produced by a developer, I’d expect them to provide optimal amenities. If government owned, I’d want them to behave as if privately owned. Thus if shopping malls provide benches and trash cans, then I’d want whoever owns main street to do the same. Perhaps that makes me less than a pure libertarian, if so, so be it.

    W. Peden, It’s a given that nothing is ultimately free, but there is a real question as to whether it should be paid for at the time of use, or through taxes, condo fees, higher prices for retail products, etc.

    John, I agree with those observations, although I’d add that the greater equality in Japan is partly due to the homogeniety of their culture. If Japan was 10% African American, Native American, and Hispanic, it’s not clear those groups would earn as much as native born Japanese–at least it’s an open question.

  8. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    15. September 2011 at 09:56


    The Japanese and Italian examples highlight for me the absurdity of the extremist libertarian vision. When I see public parks, beaches, or preserves, I don’t see disastrous government ownership. I see clean property that’s well-maintained and conveniently available for everyone to use, without user fees in most cases.

    I don’t think we always have to put private property and concerns about free riders and economic efficiency first, especially in a wealthy country like this. There’s something to be said for a practical, if imperfect sharing of public space. There’s nothing wrong with the government owning land solely to keep it available to the public for public use.

    If it’s statist to want us to behave as if we’re all in this together to a degree, via government, so be it. Government will never be perfect or even necessarily efficient by most measures in most areas, but we need it and will increasingly as the value of human labor diminishes.

    For the sake of clarity, I want to point out that I understand you’re not an extremist libertarian and I actually agree with most of your views. I want a more libertarian country in many ways, but there is a place for common property in a civilized society.

  9. Gravatar of Hyena Hyena
    15. September 2011 at 10:03

    The outcome depends heavily on how fractured the private property is. Shopping malls and other “libertarian commons” in the US are generally able to internalize the benefits of their commons; you get a free drink from the water fountain, sure, but it’s a mighty long walk to the next mall over. Japan may have highly fractured real estate, preventing people from internalizing the benefits of a private commons.

    I think the issue here is that once you start talking about privately provisioned commons and zoning, you stop talking about “private” at all and are actually talking about government. At which point the question is why you’re a libertarian: is it because you believe in libertarian freedom (both morally and whether it exists at all) or because you think the governments would be sufficiently limited geographically?

  10. Gravatar of o. nate o. nate
    15. September 2011 at 10:40

    Scott’s answer presupposes that we all live in developer-owned managed communities. So as long as we stay within our little managed community we could have common facilities paid for out of a common purse. But doesn’t this create as many problems as it solves? What if I want to travel outside my little gated community? What rights do I have outside of it to use common facilities? So you’d have to have some kind of treaty rights between different communities. Pretty soon you’re getting to a system even more complex and bureaucratic than our current government-run model, except with thousands of tiny fiefdoms instance of a few more centralized ones.

  11. Gravatar of E E
    15. September 2011 at 10:40

    A libertarian says that stygmatizing cash exchanges reduces peoples freedom. A statist hears it and thinks libertarians think cash exchanges are freedom in and of themselves. That same statist goes to a relatively statist country finds it provides public goods differently from his home and thinks it must be because they’re too libertarian.

  12. Gravatar of david s david s
    15. September 2011 at 10:42

    U.S. Building Codes require drinking fountains and accessibile bathrooms in “public” buildings, and although the install cost of these things is relatively high, the operating costs are marginal. A much greater cost for indoor shopping malls is air conditioning of common areas. However, the quality of these “public” spaces is much more influenced by market forces than codes. If a developer builds a crummy strip mall he or she will earn a lot less rent than the developer who builds a garish, covered shopping mall in a city center.

    In this economy I’m not sure if the cheap places are doing better than the glitzy places, but we’ve created a set of expectations in this country where certain amenities, like A/C, drinking fountains, escalators, and trash cans are covered by taxes or private rents.

  13. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    15. September 2011 at 10:43


    It may be private-sector zoning would avoid some issues, such as your neighbor putting up a brothel, or Nazi shrine.

    But you did not address any of the other issues—and I did not even get to the bar with the sign, “No (racial slur here) allowed,” or the employer who decides one day to tell an employee to put out or get out.

  14. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    15. September 2011 at 11:06

    Why is everything a religion? Libertarian-ism? Social-ism?

    Why can’t we just say that:

    A) There are certain types of costs that push for smaller groups in decision-making (cost of social coordination, information sharing costs, heterogeneity in preferences such that the group mean is further from the individual optimal).

    B) There are certain types of costs that push for larger groups in decision-making (arrangement for payment, externalities, economies of scale, risk in usage)

    For different types of activities, and different distributions of preferences, optimal decision-making and purchase-level-aggregation can be different.

    Why do libertarians take a good thing, and push it so far that it becomes ridiculous? Why can’t they just say: “at the margin, we could use a little less federal ownership, and a bit more state/local/individual ownership?” Instead, they comport themselves like radicals.

    The fact is, even most of the republican party finds the tenets of Ayn Rand repugnant.

    I offer this challenge to libertarians – if you TRULY believe, renounce your US citizenship and go move here:

  15. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    15. September 2011 at 11:14

    Benjamin – I think that various libertarian authors have at one time or another dealt with all of your examples except for the novel, “Should we privatize and sell the White House for use as a Saudi brothel?”

    I’m still trying to figure out if there is a problem with this one.

  16. Gravatar of James in london James in london
    15. September 2011 at 11:38

    You and your relative wealth. The massively homogenous nature of the US creates huge economies of scale and higher productivity that result in relatively cheaper stuff for the masses, and relatively higher “wealth”. However, it really isn’t superior economic organization, merely scale. The one really admirable aim of the EU was to create a “single european market”.

    Much of your supposed commons-type benefits of the US also comes from the cheap and available real estate versus the crowded country that is Italy.

    The US is also immensely dull and culturally poor. You must have spotted that there was greater cultural variety between Padua and Vicenza than between Boston and San Francisco.

    That is not to say that there is far more petty state controls in Italy that frustrate economic activity and entrepreneurship – although the US is catching up fast.

  17. Gravatar of James in london James in london
    15. September 2011 at 11:47

    Are you also really saying that you found Italy expensive?

    Welcome to two things:
    1. US is relatively poorer than it used to be.
    2. The inflation the US has exported to the rest of the world via QE1 and QE2 and you are now getting yourselves judging by the headline (ie real, actually experienced) CPI.

  18. Gravatar of John John
    15. September 2011 at 12:03

    It’s nice to see Scott showing some true libertarian colors. Despite my differences with him I agree on the vast majority of social and economic issues. If he’d just stay away from talking about monetary policy and business cycles….

  19. Gravatar of dg dg
    15. September 2011 at 13:13

    I wonder if you are confusing libertarian with anarchist. As a libertarian, I believe in a maximum of individual rights, but my rights end where yours begin. I cannot dump pollution in the stream that runs through my property b/c it pollutes not just my water, but that of everyone downstream of me. While you and I may disagree over specific regulations, I do admit that some level of environmental regulation is needed.

    One of the roles of government is to administer laws protecting my rights. The police enforce those laws and the courts administer justice. I acknowledge the necessity of each. While I may argue with you whether our wars in Asia, and our numerous military bases around the world are important to national defense, I readily accept that our military is a necessity.

    I would object to a brothel opening next door since I live in a residential zoned area. I could have purchased a house in an unzoned or mixed-use zoned area, but I was willing to pay the premium b/c I value the benefits of the zoning. The zoning also imposes a cost by limiting what I can do with my property, but I feel the benefit outweighs the cost.

    If you wish to start a polygamous church, I have no objections. I can’t see why anyone would want more than one spouse, but I also fail to see how it encroaches on another’s rights as long as the arrangement is consensual. I have no objections to you opening a brothel or a gay bar either.

    If all that makes me a GOP’er (I have no interest in smoking pot), then your view of the GOP is far different than mine. As I see it, libertarians are more in line with the positions espoused by conservatives regarding limited government, fiscal restraint and individual responsibility, but more in line with liberals’ positions on personal freedom and individual rights.

  20. Gravatar of Wonks Anonymous Wonks Anonymous
    15. September 2011 at 13:14

    StatsGuy, libertarians have a different view of what constitutes “ridiculous”. They view the diminishing marginal returns from reduced statism to go a very long way off.

    Also, I happen to have a liking for decentralism, but not all libertarians do. For some local government is just as bad as federal government and often worse. I just happen to have an exit-based paradigm rather than a rights/coercion based one (I don’t call myself a libertarian).

    I hope seasteads bring more competition and more customer oriented service to the governance industry, but I don’t believe there yet exists one to move to (and from what I’ve heard they plan on initially seeking residents who can’t legally immigrate to the U.S but are taking a second-best option). If their claims about the product improving over time as experimentation leads to better ideas and supporting technology improves, I may well move.

  21. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    15. September 2011 at 13:21

    ‘When I see public parks, beaches, or preserves, I don’t see disastrous government ownership. I see clean property that’s well-maintained …’

    You don’t get out much? You don’t see used condoms and hypo needles littering the grounds? Homeless camps? Drunks intimidating little children using the swing sets?

  22. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    15. September 2011 at 13:43

    “I hope seasteads bring more competition and more customer oriented service to the governance industry,”

    Wonks, Jesus JUST VOTE PERRY.

    I’m makign a real argument here… this is the next step int eh left right end gsame being played.

    The next Republican President will GUT the public sector (starting with Federal) to ensure that they cannot organize $$$ for political donations by force.

    Without that, the GOP will gain even stronger advantage through the next round of play…

    But immediately after the public unions eat it, and I mean like with 1 year – the public sector will start to deliver HUGE productivity gains.

    Two years from now, the entire notion of public employment can be improved in mind boggling ways.

    Why would you wait for Sea Steading – even if it is cool.

  23. Gravatar of Jon Biggar Jon Biggar
    15. September 2011 at 14:19

    The basis of the libertarian property rights is that my opinions on what I would like society to be like does not give me the right to force others to agree with me or fund my ideas.

    Noahpinion might like free-to-use parks, drinking fountains, trashcans and toilets paid for by taxes, but that doesn’t mean that he should be able to round up a majority of voters to inflict his preferences by force on those who don’t. Noahpinion is still quite free to oragnize a voluntary collective that provides these “free” services to those who opt in, but anyone who does not want to use the services should not have to pay for them.

    Now I’m not so libertarian as to believe this applies to things that are clearly a matter of public safety–public fire departments make sense because a fire on my property can easily spread throughout the neighborhood, and we need required vaccination against communicable diseases to ensure the “herd immunity” threshold is reached. But the availability of benches in public areas isn’t a public safety issue.

  24. Gravatar of Tomasz Wegrzanowski Tomasz Wegrzanowski
    15. September 2011 at 15:21

    > 2. No free museums.

    UK has mostly free museums. I tend to like free stuff, but if someone asked me what I think should be free, museums would never get on the list.

    As a general rule – basic wifi should be free, roads should be free, bridges should be free, parks should be free, toilets should be free, benches to sit on should be free, trash cans should be free, parking should be free in most places. Transaction costs alone make charging for these a fairly bad idea. Fire departments, healthcare, and various emergency services should be free because markets have proven track record of being horrible at that.

    But museums? Why? It makes no sense whatsoever.

  25. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    15. September 2011 at 16:39


    I appreciate your well-written post.

    I concur with you on pollution.

    I wonder if your zoning answer is a bit of a cop-out. You are saying government zoning. Jeez, once a government can zone, you are not talking about libertarianism. They can zone for minute use variations, and do in Los Angeles. Houston has no zoning, or so I read.

    Oddly enough, usually private-sector land-use agreements are far more restrictive–for example, if you live in a condo or area with association rules, you can hardly even choose the color to paint your house. Let alone put up a sculpture in the front yard, or a huge peace symbol, or horrid Nazi symbol.

    This is what I was driving at with the Grand Canyon scenario—privately owned, you would have far less freedoms in the Grand Canyon than now. The owner would have an incentive to monetize your every move and even bowel movement.

    Don’t get me wrong–in general, I prefer market solutions to everything. Even pollution should be taxed rather than regulated.

    For a while I touted the libertarian label myself–it is a way to avoid arguments, rather than say you believe in free markets.

    But when push comes to shove, I think libertarianism fails to really provide a framework for a society.

    More than one wife? You are perhaps a victim of what Sumner calls the “here and now.” For much of history polygamy was the norm. In my wife’s Thailand, sisters often married one man (this may have been to concentrate land wealth).

    However, I dare not propose such an arrangement to my wife today. I prefer to keep my manhood.

    Good luck out there.

  26. Gravatar of Peter Peter
    15. September 2011 at 18:14

    Noah laments the lack of a commons, but I don’t see what that has to do with libertarianism. In the first flush of libertarianism out on the savanah everything was a commons. The only really valuable asset for a very long time in our history was land. I guess a lot of small holdings would have been obtained through claim staking, but a heck of a lot of land ownership and control was obtained by force. In England the commons was only a commons in the sense that the crown had not granted a tenure.

  27. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    15. September 2011 at 19:11

    Mike, You said;

    “The Japanese and Italian examples highlight for me the absurdity of the extremist libertarian vision.”

    You aren’t responding to my argument at all. I’m claiming those countries don’t represent the libertarian vision. If you don’t agree, tell me why.

    Hyena, I think people are making this way too complicated. There are two issues; what should the government own and how should the government manage what it owns. The anti-libertarian position seems to assume libertarians believe that if the government owns something they should try hard to manage it really poorly.

    o nate, No, it doesn’t assume that at all, read my reply to Hyena.

    E, Finally someone understands what I wrote!!

    David, I agree.

    Benjamin, I’ve addressed those in other posts. I’m a pragmatic libertarian, not a dogmatic libertarian.

    Statsguys, Many libertarians like me (or Friedman and Hayek) are pragmatists, it’s the kooks that get all the attention.

    James, Interesting comments but they have no bearing on my post. You obviously completely misunderstood my argument–it had nothing to do with criticizing Italy.

    Tomasz, Free health care is a horrible idea–check out Singapore.

  28. Gravatar of John Thacker John Thacker
    15. September 2011 at 19:35

    The US has more “free” healthcare than most other countries, if we’re talking about payments at the time of service. The French system is universal, but people pay more towards actual services than most US health insurance plans.

    It’s another way to confuse the issue. “Is everyone covered” isn’t the same as “do you pay at the time of service, or up front and then get free treatment buffet style (with waiting lines.) That’s why the smarter liberals talk about “Universal” health care, not free health care.

    The USA health care system has an unusual combination of non-universal coverage with very low out-of-pocket payments. However, the latter is a relatively recent development– and, as Scott has noted with other things, perhaps that’s what people want.

    But health care is like roads– many countries with universal government-run health care have more point of service user fees than the USA, despite the US’s more privately provided system.

  29. Gravatar of John Thacker John Thacker
    15. September 2011 at 19:44


    have some various data points on this. The US is distinguished by non universal coverage, not by less cost sharing. The US actually has a lower than average percentage of *all* costs that are paid out of pocket, which is remarkable considering the people with the worst conditions who don’t have insurance at all. That means that among people who *do* have insurance, US out of pocket costs are really, really low.

  30. Gravatar of John Papola John Papola
    15. September 2011 at 20:10

    Libertarianism isn’t about “markets” at all. It’s about voluntary society cooperating in peace and with respect for each other’s person and property. That’s it. It’s a moral philosophy.

    Commercial transactions are often (maybe usually) a great way to solve social needs. But free people clearly discover other arrangements as well (see Elinor Ostrom).

    Nowhere are the merchants of so-called “market failure” and straw man-libertarian criticism more blind than in the enormous amount of positive externality and public goods creation that takes place within commerce and civil society.

    Meanwhile, most nerds already know that freedom often produces amazing free (as in beer) stuff. See “open source software”.

    Libertarianism need to do a much better job of social and ethical nature of the ideas.

  31. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    15. September 2011 at 21:52


    It’s not that I’m saying Japan and Italy are libertarian. It’s that if we had the kinds of relative shortages that might lead some to want to nickel and dime us for places to sit in public, the use of public toilets, etc., I might be more inclined to just have more common space and amenities provided by the government. Sure, we’d still be paying and it might be less efficient, but I’m just not sure I’d want the kind of world in which people who are short on cash one day have to put off going to the bathroom, sitting, getting a drink of water, etc. At least such things could be paid for progressively and without the inconvenience of point payment.

  32. Gravatar of woupiestek woupiestek
    16. September 2011 at 00:46

    I read that Ayn Rand’s Atlantis (from “Atlas Shrugged”) is a society where everything has to be paid for and that this is the libertarian utopia. So the answer is: yes, that is what true libertarians believe. Thank God we’re all pragmatists here.

  33. Gravatar of woupiestek woupiestek
    16. September 2011 at 01:14

    I’m not happy with my answer. If you has asked: `does Christianity mean we have to stone gay people?’, I would not have said: `yes, that is in the bible’, but: `no, of all the Christians I know, none believes we should stone anyone’. My disadvantage is that I don’t know (many) libertarians, so I cannot easily judge what they tend to think.

  34. Gravatar of James in London James in London
    16. September 2011 at 02:32

    You were complaining about Italy, dressed up as an argument about libertarianism. Did you get an upset stomcach? Was the weather poor? Did the folk out there only speak Italian?

    However, I do recognise part of your picture. It does always strike me just howe every inch seems “owned”. A symptom of a very old and very crowded country, as I said. And maybe also a lack of trust, but then the country is a patchwork of extremely strong local identities, with nothing like the “Stepford Wives”-like, and extremely dull, cultural homogeniety of most of the US.

  35. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    16. September 2011 at 04:04


    It seems odd to call Atlas Shrugged a libertarian Bible. Does that mean, for instance, that Von Mises was like a Christian before 30 AD?

  36. Gravatar of Steve Horwitz Steve Horwitz
    16. September 2011 at 04:04


    You might find this of interest, along parallel lines:

  37. Gravatar of MikeDC MikeDC
    16. September 2011 at 04:16

    There’s so much absurdity to Noah’s argument one hardly knows where to begin. People have already touched on the resource scarcity aspect, but I think the key misunderstanding is found here:

    Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense: if the government can come and confiscate your stuff, or tell you what to do with it, you don’t feel very free at all. But libertarians tend to take this basic concept to its maximal extent; the more things are brought within the cash nexus, the more free we become. No limits, no exceptions. A direct implication is that the more government functions we can privatize, the more free we will be.

    First, a libertarian would stop at the first sentence. That’s freedom of contract and property. But nothing about the freedom of property or contract requires you to monetize everything, and in fact such a requirement would diminish freedom.

    Second, although it does not follow that bringing everything into the “cash nexus” is optimal, the real problem we have here is that Noah really misunderstands the Economist’s argument here, which is for traditional contractual relationships and property rights in health care, not overzealous itemized billing.

    The big irony, of course, is that the most obvious caricatures of “monetized everything” seem to spring out of heavily regulated and government run industries, which divorce the consumer more than usual from choice and direct payment for services. Hospitals charging $20 per aspirin, for instance, isn’t a libertarian or market outcome, it’s a regulatory outcome.

    Put simply, pricing exists under every system. Libertarians argue for maximal contract and property rights, which will generally lead to efficient pricing. And nickel and diming everyone to death is generally not very efficient unless you’re severely restricted in your alternatives as a producer and your consumers are likely severely restricted in their alternatives to coming to you.

  38. Gravatar of MikeDC MikeDC
    16. September 2011 at 04:34

    Mike S,
    You must go to the bathroom quite a bit more than I do. Having been to Europe a fair amount, one gets used to it. And the Europeans don’t seem too bothered by it.

    Seriously though Europe is a very progressive place (or at least they think of themselves as so), so you might want to ask yourself why they don’t have government provided common areas. I suspect the answer is because if the resource is truly that much more scarce its public provision will also become that much more costly.

    My impression actually the opposite of the original article: a “progressive” society has increased incentives to nickel and dime over a “libertarian” society, because the former is subject to many more non-market price distortions that need to be compensated for in order to turn a profit.

  39. Gravatar of John John
    16. September 2011 at 07:16

    Ben Cole,

    As a committed libertarian, I believe that the market place would do at least as good or a better job at preventing than the government in preventing the things you talk about. In the brothel example, assuming prostitution is legal, which I believe it should be, wouldn’t it make sense to set up brothels in high traffic areas rather than residential neighborhoods? Same goes for crack houses and the like. I’d argue that your more likely to see brothels and drug dens in residential neighborhoods with the current laws forcing people to keep these things secretive. It makes more sense for drug dealers today to store drugs in suburban, normal looking homes. And that’s exactly what they do.

    As for racial/sexual discrimination, the market punishes the discriminator’s bottom line. The worse the discrimination, the worse the monetary loss. For example, if an employer tells a talented female employee to put out or get out then he losses the difference in productivity/skill between her and her replacement. Same thing goes for racist restaurant owners, in an increasingly diverse nation, it doesn’t make any business sense not to allow certain races to patronize your store. I believe that if people want to discriminate in this manner, they should be able to , but they won’t be able to make as much money as if they didn’t and will probably go out of business due to that and people protesting.

    In conclusion, libertarianism is the simple belief that people can organize their own lives. If you don’t believe that’s the case because people are too corrupt and evil, then what reason would you have to believe that the government, which is also made up of human beings, would be any better.

  40. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    16. September 2011 at 07:49

    Let me make some more pragmatic comments on Italy and Japan.

    Space: Italy and Japan similarly lack space, compared to the US, so everything that uses space comes at higher cost and is often directly monetized – beaches, car parks and the like. In the US space is much cheaper, so space is often given “for free”.

    Dysfunctional government: in some countries, and here Italy is a fine example, the state is so dysfunctional that private enterprise often supplants it, for a fee. Italy has privately built freeways because the government wasn’t able to finance them. Same for France. (On top of this said freeways were extremely expensive to build due to cramped topography in Italy. The US usually had the choice to build freeways where it was easy.) Toilets, beaches in Italy and all over Europe – same thing, cleaner and better if you pay, public ones exist but they are less well maintained.

    Finally, there are cultural habits: in Singapore, which I would not call a libertarian state in spite of common internet wisdom about it, you also pay for toilets, parking, road usage (congestion pricing) and I’ve not seen a single public drinking fountain in my 10 years here. Some of this is due to policy (10 cents for a toilet does not cover cost but drives home the point of no free lunch). Some is due to land issues (road pricing, parking). Some to cultural habits (drinking fountains). Incidentally a lot of Italian cities have free drinking fountains, in Rome they sometimes practically date back to the Romans.

    None of this IMO has fundamentally anything to do with libertarianism.

    More generally it’s just not really possible to generalize from a few anecdotes on Italy and Japan, sorry Noah and Scott. Scott, while you almost said as much, you still attributed differences say in the way mall space is handled, to “the market” in the US. I think it’s really a lot more complex than that. There’s a lot of idiosyncrasies in cultures that are not due to some general political theory.

    And for the record I am a dogmatic libertarian (read: out of principle) but I also don’t want everything monetized, it annoys me. And to me Seasteads really are the ultimate bizarro frontier fantasy, completely decoupled from any kind of reality. Principle, driven too far, always ends up in absurd contradictions.

  41. Gravatar of woupiestek woupiestek
    16. September 2011 at 08:14

    @ W. Peden: the bible wasn’t finished before the third century and there were many Christians in that time. Atlas Shrugged alone is too small, but there is nothing odd about saying it will be part of the libertarian bible.

    What would von Mises have answered to Scott’s question?

  42. Gravatar of Old Whig Old Whig
    16. September 2011 at 12:06

    I first have an apology to make. As being a Swede we in our language have two words for the English “you”, which has a dual meaning pointing to a group as well as an individual. In Swedish we use the old forms comparable to old English, “thou” for individual and you for the group. This is difficult for me as a Swede when writing and talking in English, it can cause misunderstandings.

    To the question of libertarianism and the idea that property has to be a moral value I think the foremost modern libertarian thinker Randy Barnett clarifies it beautifully in his essay. We libertarians need not maker a distinction between consequentialism (utilitarianism) and the moral libertarianism of Ayn Rand, Rothbard et al:

    “The Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism”

    – Randy E. Barnett, Georgetown University Law Center


    “Libertarians no longer argue, as they once did in the 1970s, about whether libertarianism must be grounded on moral rights or on consequences; they no longer act as though they must choose between these two moral views.

    In this paper, I contend that libertarians need not choose between moral rights and consequences because theirs is a political, not a moral, philosophy, one that can be shown to be compatible with various moral theories, which is one source of its appeal.

    Moral theories based on either moral rights or on consequentialism purport to be comprehensive, insofar as they apply to all moral questions to the exclusion of all other moral theories. Although the acceptance of one of these moral theories entails the rejection of all others, libertarian moral rights philosophers on the one hand, and utilitarians on the other, can embrace libertarian political theory with equal fervor. I explain how can this be and why it is a strength rather than a weakness of libertarian political theory.

    Conservatives, neoconservatives, and those on the left who seek to impose by force their comprehensive conception of the good neglect the problem of power – an exacerbated instance of the twin fundamental social problems of knowledge and interest.

    For a comprehensive moralist of the right or left, using force to impose their morality on others might be their first choice among social arrangements. Having another’s comprehensive morality imposed upon them by force is their last choice. The libertarian minimalist approach of enforcing only the natural rights that define justice should be everyone’s second choice. A compromise, as it were, that makes civil society possible. And therein lies its imperative.”

  43. Gravatar of Old Whig Old Whig
    16. September 2011 at 12:07

    Link to essay by Randy Barnett:

  44. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    16. September 2011 at 13:24


    My point was that libertarianism was around before Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged and the best libertarians I know find that book nauseating.

    As for your second question, I don’t know exactly, but I suspect that he wouldn’t be too keen. Rothbard didn’t like Ayn Rand (the feeling was mutual) and if you look at his utopia it’s arguably riduculously co-operative. Also, from at least Adam Smith onwards, there has been a healthy scepticism about businessmen in libertarianism, as opposed to Ayn Rand’s worshipfulness.

    Old Whig,

    That looks like a very interesting paper. My instinctive reaction to anyone who says they are “pragmatic” or “consequentialist” is to ask “What consequences?” and “Pragmatically what?”.

    I don’t like the synonymity suggested between consequentialism and utilitarianism, though. It is possible for someone to be a consequentialist but not a utilitarian; G. E. Moore, the founder of metaethics, was a consequentialist but had influential arguments against utilitarianism.

  45. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    16. September 2011 at 14:09


    I enjoyed your intelligent post.

    In a pure libertarian society, we would probably have plate-glass windowed brothels at airports. Maybe in secluded residential streets as well. I am not sure. I believe prostitution should be legal, btw. And recreational drug use, and also push-cart vendors on public sidewalks and streets.

    As for the neighbor who stores nerve gas in rusty tin cans, there is no libertarian answer. Obviously, society has the right to trounce onto the guy’s property, and seize his private materials.

    So, the principle is established: We can trounce onto someone’s private property and seize their private property, if there is a danger to society. Now, we only argue about degrees, not principles.

    I say a man growing pot is dangerous, and you do not. I prevail in a democratic society, and ergo we can trounce onto a guy’s private property and seize his pot plants.

    You see? Libertarian ideals are hazy, inapplicable.

    So, we say we are not “dogmatic” libertarians–which is like saying I believe in government regs and intrusion when I do, and not when I don’t.

    In general, I tend to favor less government, but in preservation of wild lands, national defense, pollution, preserving rights of minorities, infrastructure etc, I see a role for government.

    As for racial discrimination: Sadly, it might be profitable for a certain types of businesses to practice racial discrimination. Some clientele might feel more comfortable among their own.

  46. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    16. September 2011 at 14:17

    Benjamin Cole,

    Isn’t the issue with pot vs. nerve gas an issue of third party harm vs. first/second party harm? Someone storing nerve gas is presumably aiming to use it on non-consenting parties. Someone growing pot is presumably either using it themselves or selling it to a consenting second party. I don’t see there being anything notably hazy in the libertarian position on these issues.

    So it’s not actually a difference of degree. The “danger to society” principle is not shared, because the libertarian draws a distinction between (1) consented harms and (2) non-consensted harms. This is a fundamental philosophical difference between libertarians and non-liberatarians, concerning the criterion on which particular dangerous phenomena are to be restricted. A libertarian is pragmatic insofar as they deviate from this criterion of personal sovereignty for other goals.

  47. Gravatar of Tomasz Wegrzanowski Tomasz Wegrzanowski
    16. September 2011 at 15:51

    Scott, stop using Singapore and other microstates as your only data points. IIRC many people asked you about it before.

    Free healthcare like you see in Europe has vastly better results at vastly cheaper cost than non-free healthcare you see in US and various third world countries. That’s a fact all statistics confirm.

  48. Gravatar of Derrill Watson Derrill Watson
    17. September 2011 at 04:11

    Rolls and water in restaurants aren’t public goods and they aren’t provided by the government. Enough restaurants decided to call rolls and water “fixed costs” for each meal and add it to the price of all meals. You just don’t see it and it would be difficult to haggle and say, “Can I pay $1 less for my food if I don’t get a roll?” But enough restaurants do it that it has become standard, accepted practice here, so far that a restaurant that failed to do so would get some pretty bad reviews for it. But there’s nothing either particularly Libertarian or Statist in either equilibrium: it’s just social norms.

  49. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    17. September 2011 at 08:59


    You can imagine reasons for why some European countries have less common space and facilities in some ways, but do you actually have an evidence-based idea? Otherwise, this is pointless.

    I merely expressed some personal values. If we insist on a level of common property as we continue to develop, perhaps it will be less costly than trying to do so later. I’m only speculating on this.

    Either way, leave paying to use public toilets and benches to those oft-criticized countries over there.

  50. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    17. September 2011 at 09:10

    John Thacker, Good point about healthcare.

    John Papola, I see it as belief in a relatively limited role for government.

    Mike, You are still not following my argument. If the government owns the sidewalks, the question of whether they put benches there or not has nothing to do with libertarianism.

    Libertarians may be opposed to government owning certain assets, but surely we believe that if they do own them anyway, they ought to manage them optimally. Private malls put benches on sidewalks, why shouldn’t city governments (if they own the sidewalks?)

    Woupiestek, You said;

    “yes, that is what true libertarians believe.”

    There is no such thing as true libertarians, true socialists, true liberals, true conservatives, etc. I’m not sure Rand even considered herself a libertarian. Does anyone know?

    James, You said;

    “You were complaining about Italy, dressed up as an argument about libertarianism. Did you get an upset stomcach?”

    Fortunately for you, I’m one of the few blogger swho doesn’t ban commenters who have the emotional maturity of a middle school student.

    I actually love Italy, why else would I keep returning? And as I indicated, it may well make sense for countries like Italy and Japan to charge for various things, but not for the US to do so. The point was that this has little to do with libertarianism. Next time read what I actually say, you might produce a less embarrassing comment.

    You said;

    “cultural homogeniety of most of the US.”

    Yep, no cultural differences between Laredo Texas, and the South Bronx, and Miami, and the west side of Manhattan and Chinatown, and North Dakota and Jackson Mississippi, and Las Vegas, and Silicon valley and Wyoming and West Virginia and Boston. Just one big culture! Rarely have a seen a commenter so proud of his uninformed bigotry.

    Thanks Steve, That’s a good essay.

    MikeDC, Those are good points.

    mbk, I agree with your comment, if you think it refutes my argument then you misunderstood my argument. I wasn’t trying to argue that the example of Italy tells us much about libertarianism, I was arguing just the opposite.

    Old Whig, Thanks for the essay.

    Tomasz, You said;

    “Free healthcare like you see in Europe has vastly better results at vastly cheaper cost than non-free healthcare you see in US”

    It is factually incorrect to say healthcare is free in Europe but not the US. In some European countries people pay more out of pocket than in the US.

    I support universal health care with mandatory HSAs, so the US system is of zero relevance to my argument.

    If it makes no sense to compare America’s 300,000,000 people to Singapore’s 5 million, then it also makes no sense to compare it to Denmark’s 5 million.

    Derrill, I completely agree–that was my point.

  51. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    17. September 2011 at 10:02

    W Peden-

    Your intelligent observation is lost in the real world.

    I am growing pot on my private land, yet the local police or the feds storm in and seize it. Why? It has been determined that pot poses a threat to society.

    Not to you? What is (as is claimed) it leads to entire generations of wastrels? So the pot poses a danger to you, in the form of lower living standards, danger driving on roads, no soldiers for national defense etc. Yes, it sounds silly, yet that is the way the right-wing thinks today.

    PS, I agree with you, and indeed, believe that all recreational drug use should be legalized, and perhaps even prescription drugs should be sold over the counter (with proper warnings).

    There is one interesting question: Suppose commercial scientists devise drugs so enchanting, so intoxicating, that “free will” is obliterated. The scientists learn to crack your genetic code, and the precise drug that will turn you into a drug addict (some contend that is the case with some drugs today–if you have a genetic weakness for alcohol, you can become an alcoholic). If drugs obliterate free will, then the field is wide open for restrictions.

    Anyway, my main point is that if we (and we must) allow government to trod onto private property and seize nerve gas, it is because we believe the gas poses a threat to society, and we have the right to (even preemptively) protect ourselves. From there, we can seize anything we determine to be a threat to society. You can try to use words like “clear and present danger” but words can be interpreted. If your son just OD’ed on heroin, then you think it does present a “clear and present” danger.

    From this example and many others, I have concluded that libertarianism is, at bottom, empty (though very appealing to me).

    Sheesh, I contend that push-cart vendors should be able to ply their trades on public streets and sidewalks–give me the libertarian answer to that or even the conservative or liberal answer.

    Anyway, the most important thin is that we al embrace NGDP!!!!!

  52. Gravatar of W. Peden W. Peden
    17. September 2011 at 10:42

    Benjamin Cole,

    I’m not a fan of contemporary right-wing opinion on drugs either.

    Oddly enough, I think the best argument for drug legalisation in contemporary societies (i.e. societies where taxpayer-funded healthcare is used to treat drug-addicts) is a fiscal justice one: we rightly tax smokers and drinkers so they pay the costs of their habits. By illegalising drugs like pot, addicts are able to enjoy their habit without paying their fair share of taxes viz. government healthcare.

    I agree there should be some exceptions. I’m not sure about the free will case (as you say, you can argue alcohol is like this, though one can always choose not to get drunk in the first place) but I do think that the addictiveness of drugs counts. If there is a drug (like heroin, say) where taxing it to the extent necessary to make up the costs of addiction would make it profitable to keep it on the black market, then I think that the Iranian system has some merits: crack down on the dealers, but treat addiction as a medical problem.

    As for the emptiness of libertarianism: again, I think you’re missing the first/second party vs. third party harm aspect. Libetarianism is not the doctrine that state intervention should be restricted to protection against dangers to society (as you say, that’s very very vague) but that state intervention should be limited to third party harms. In the case of the son, for instance, if he chose to take heroin then the harm is not a third party harm; it’s regrettable, but it’s his choice.

    I don’t take libertarianism as a sole principle, but I think it’s one of the principles that guides me when I think about politics.

  53. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    17. September 2011 at 14:41


    Interesting topic. Your comments are thoughtful and I enjoy them, even if I disagree sometimes.

  54. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    18. September 2011 at 08:07


    No, I follow the argument and understand that what was described in Japan and Italy wasn’t the result of libertarianism. And of course, here in the US we have free public use of many private facilities, as in malls.

    My point is if we starting running out of these privately-owned freely available facilities, I’m not necessarily opposed to government action to keep public toilets free of user fees, make benches available for sitting, have no-fee public parks, etc..

  55. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    18. September 2011 at 09:15

    Mike, You said;

    “My point is if we starting running out of these privately-owned freely available facilities, I’m not necessarily opposed to government action to keep public toilets free of user fees, make benches available for sitting, have no-fee public parks, etc..”

    And my point is that doing so in no way violates libertarian principles. Libertarianism is silent on the question of how the government should manage government-owed assets.

  56. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    18. September 2011 at 10:42

    Maybe I did miss your point then Scott. I’m saying that even if the assets are privately owned, in some cases there can be imminent domain used to buy private space in some cases, and in others maybe laws are simply passed that certain businesses must have public toilet facilities, water fountains, available and seating if in a space of a certain size, etc. available free of charge.

  57. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    19. September 2011 at 10:29

    Mike, Yes, such laws may exist, but I don’t see what good they do.

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