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Columbia Economist Slays Straw Man

Here’s a letter to the Huffington Post:

Attacking libertarianism, Jeffrey Sachs writes that “Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes.  Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable – all are to take a back seat” (“Libertarian Illusions,” Jan. 16).

As non-sequiturs go, this one’s a doozy.  Mr. Sachs here performs the equivalent of, say, accusing someone who advocates sobriety of thereby being indifferent to other values such parental responsibility, financial prudence, and neighborliness.  But just as being sober in no way precludes – and likely promotes – other values such as parental responsibility, being a libertarian in no way precludes any of the values and causes that Mr. Sachs lists.  Indeed, libertarians argue that these other values and causes are best promoted by individual liberty, and that too many people who insist that achieving these other values requires the suppression of liberty are cynically seeking convenient cover for their own self-aggrandizement.

Of course, libertarians might be mistaken about liberty’s merits.  But that Mr. Sachs presumes that libertarians hold cheap such values as compassion, civic responsibility, and honesty proves that what Lord Acton wrote about Robert Kemp Philp’s description of history applies perfectly to Mr. Sachs’s description of libertarianism: “It were well if he knew his subject as well as he knows his own mind about it.”*

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

* Lord Acton, “Review of Philp’s History of Progress in Great Britain” (1858), reprinted in Lord Acton, Essays in the Study and Writing of History, J. Rufus Fears, ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1986), pp. 31-33; the quotation in the letter appears on page 31.

(HT Clark Packard)

Here’s Steve Horwitz’s response to Sachs’s poorly informed essay.


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