On Fluffy Animals, Armed Bandits, and the Inner Logic of Libertarianism

What is libertarianism? In his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick famously defines libertarianism as a social philosophy committed to a simple maxim: “from each as he chooses to each as he is chosen.” The maxim well captures the moral ethos of libertarianism. What is mine is mine. What is yours is yours. I have the right to labor and to risk, to reap the rewards of my labor or suffer the consequences of my foolish wagers. Individual liberty–my right to my body, my property, my future–is the primary value that just societies strive to protect. By extension, those policies, practices, and programs that infringe on my right to my property are unjust. Thus, libertarians are some of the most zealous advocates for individual autonomy, and some of the most vocal critics of “socialism,” “collectivism,” and the welfare state, which in their view regularly infringe on individual liberty.

There is a lot to unpack here, but for this post I want to explain the essential logic of libertarianism by way of a thought experiment, one that I frequently employ in my social ethics course. Over the years, I’ve lost track of precisely where this illustration originated. I vaguely recall coming across it on the companion website to Michael Sandel’s Harvard Justice course. I can no longer find reference to this illustration there, so I’ll claim partial credit for it until someone can point me to where it originated.

Libertarianism: An Introduction

So now, the thought experiment. Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Imagine that you work 40 hours per week, a full-time job for which you earn $1000 per week. Every Friday you receive your $1000 paycheck in cash from your employer in an assortment of $100, $50, $10, and $5 bills. As you are leaving work on Friday with your cash in hand you are approached by a menacing group of masked armed men who are all wearing black “Society for the Care of Cute and Furry Homeless Creatures” polo shirts. The men approach you with guns drawn and tell you that you must give them $75.  You consider declining this request, but you feel threatened, so you begin counting out the money for them. While you are handing the armed men your $75 the group leader apologizes to you for the inconvenience. He informs you that you are not alone, that they have approached a lot of people in this same fashion and that virtually every person is giving them money. They also tell you that the money they are collecting will be put to good use. These funds will go toward the construction and maintenance of a permanent adoption center for cute and furry homeless creatures. With your money in hand, the armed men in black polo shirts enter their car and drive away.

Scenario 2:  Imagine that you work 40 hours per week, a full-time job for which you earn $4000 per month. At the end of every month your monthly paycheck is deposited electronically in your bank checking account. Prior to the money entering your account, however, federal and state government offices withhold the following from the $4000 you have earned:

  • Social Security/Medicare Tax: $248
  • Income Tax: $75

Every other person you know of has their paycheck deposited electronically, and every other person you know similarly has some of their money withheld by federal, state, and local offices. You would prefer to spend this money in your own way, but you fear the consequences of resisting, knowing that if you fail to have this money withheld you are likely to be taken from your home by strangers and imprisoned. You say nothing.

Consider both scenarios closely. Now consider this question: in scenario one, should the armed gunmen be arrested? Why or why not?

When I introduce the first scenario in my ethics class, the vast majority of my students conclude that the armed gunmen have acted unjustly. How about you?  Given the circumstance, would you not feel that the gunmen have harmed you?  Isn’t this money yours? Yes, the gunmen have promised you that your money will be put to good use, but what of this? The social benefits borne from this theft do not justify the theft. Yes, you may have a deep affection for cute and furry homeless creatures. You may even be willing to contribute charitably to shelter them. What you resent is that these armed gunmen are coercing you to give your property for their good cause. In so doing, the gunmen are violating your rights. They are treating you unjustly.

Now consider the second scenario. Here we have another example of a forced transaction. However, this transaction is commonplace. I receive my monthly paycheck and know that the state will confiscate a portion of what I have earned before it ever makes it into my bank account. It happens every month; I see evidence of this transaction every time I glance at my pay stub. I have many things I might otherwise do with this money. I might prefer to spend it on my hobbies or my children. I might prefer to contribute to my favorite charity or to invest in my future retirement. I might prefer to gamble this money away at a casino, an unwise choice to be sure, but a choice that I could have made. In scenario two I can make none of these choices. I never see this money. I know that I could protest, and I might even be able to find a way to circumvent this withholding, but I don’t. I know that others are also forced to pay their taxes, and I know that the consequences of not paying are severe, so I pay. I say nothing.

A curious thing happens when I introduce these scenarios to my students. While most students argue that the forced transaction in scenario one is unjust, these same students believe that the forced transaction in scenario two is perfectly acceptable. But isn’t scenario two just another example of armed robbery? Shouldn’t our moral objections here be just as strong as the objections we raise to the armed gunmen in scenario one? In reply, my students often argue that scenario two is not armed robbery. This forced transaction is facilitated not by armed gunmen but by the state, after all. The state has legitimacy in a way that armed gunmen do not. But why should we believe that this is so? From the libertarian perspective, scenario two is no different than scenario one. Both scenarios offer up examples of unjustifiable coercion in which individuals are compelled to give up something that belongs to them without their consent. The fact that those taxes we pay go to fund really good things–public schools, public parks, children’s healthcare, a state system of highways, a social safety net, and the like–does not justify this forced transaction, anymore than the good of the shelter for cute and furry homeless creatures justifies the coercion in scenario one. The state is just another armed robber. Moreover, libertarians might even argue that scenario two is worse than scenario one to the extent that some of us are so willing to mask this robbery behind a veil of legitimacy. The fact that so many of my students are so willing to give the state a pass illustrates just how far gone most of us are, morally speaking.


So that’s my first crack at introducing libertarianism.  I’m interested in studying libertarianism for a variety of reasons.  I have a number of friends who identify as libertarian, and our ongoing conversations have piqued my interest in digging further.  Beyond these personal relationships, my sense is that libertarian rhetoric–appeals to limited government, objections to the perceived encroachment of a paternalistic nanny state, etc.–has become more commonplace in contemporary political debate in our country even among those who do not explicitly identify as libertarian.  In engaging libertarianism I hope to have something relevant to say about broader public debates about social justice and the role of the state. Having said all of this, I should be clear that I do not identify as a libertarian, and I remain unpersuaded, more or less, by the appeals of my libertarian friends and colleagues. I engage libertarianism as a critical voice, though one that fears that the criticisms of colleagues with whom I am close too often rely on caricatures of what libertarians actually believe. In studying libertarianism more closely I hope to lay to rest these caricatures, to offer up a fair picture of what libertarians actually believe in order to offer a more substantive critique of problems intrinsic to this perspective.


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