Important Distinctions Between Libertarians – Or, Some Things Milton Friedman and I Disagree On

A few months ago, while discussing Milton Friedman’s 1953 article, “The Methodology of Positive Economics” with a Marxist colleague of mine, he called Friedman “an evil little man”. Neither me nor the Marxist are particularly tall in stature ourselves but I understood the sentiment (perhaps he meant a morally little man). Given my austro-libertarian persuasions and my desire not to stand out within my department, I happily replied, “I agree!” Now, I’m not sure if the word evil is warranted, but I certainly think that Friedman and I have such great disagreements that calls into question if we could consider ourselves ideologically aligned.

One Friedman quote which has always stuck with me as very telling of the differences between Friedman and the austro-libertarians has been the following from a 1999 interview with Peter Robinson on Uncommon Knowledge in which Friedman claims,


Milton Friedman

As a matter of fact, there are two really different versions of libertarianism. The more extreme version of libertarianism has one central principle: It is immoral to initiate force on anyone else. … And, all you need to know to know that something of the state is immoral, is whether or not it involves the initiation of force. That’s one brand. Now there’re another brand, that I would be favorable to, which you would call consequentialist libertarianism.

One can’t help but notice the irony that the title of the interview is “TAKE IT TO THE LIMITS: Milton Friedman on Libertarianism” when Friedman explicitly says that he is not favorable to the “extreme version” of libertarianism.

With this quote, Friedman asks some important questions about the distinctions between libertarians. Why do we desire liberty? Because of its consequences or because of the inherent immorality of coercive action? Are non-consequentialists always extremists and are all consequentialists non-extremists at least when discussing those of the libertarian persuasion? Below, I want to flesh out three distinctions between which libertarians might separate and historically have separated themselves. As you will see from my citations, none of this is new analysis, but instead, I consider this a short summary of these distinctions for those less familiar with internal libertarian debates.


Utilitarianism vs. Natural Rights

As Friedman said above, he distinguishes himself from other libertarians by virtue of the fact that he is a consequentialist. Consequentialism, simply put, is the view that what makes certain acts moral or immoral is the consequences that those actions produce. For example, murder is wrong because the murder victim loses their life, they might feel physical pain, and their friends and family would miss them. There is nothing in the act of murder itself which makes it immoral. A particular brand of consequentialism (and its most popular version) is that of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism has a concern for the aggregation of good consequences. As a father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, explains, utilitarianism wants “the greatest amount of good for the greatest number”. Friedman is, himself, a utilitarian. Therefore, for him, if there were instances in which property rights violations could create a greater amount of good, then they would be morally permissible. A comparative economic analysis between that of the Chicago school of economics and the Austrian school of economics would show why Friedman, a Chicago school economist, would agree that there are instances in which property rights violations would lead to better utilitarian outcomes (e.g. transfer payments, inflation, public goods), whereas the Austrians do not believe that such instances exist at all.

Contrast this with the view of the natural law libertarians such as the Rothbardians. In his 1973 book, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, Murray Rothbard writes, “[I]f it is legitimate to apply value judgments to the consequences of X, why is it not equally legitimate to apply such judgments to X itself? May there not be something about an act itself which, in its very nature, can be considered good or evil?” This is the natural rights perspective of libertarianism. That is to say that property rights violations, the uninvited physical invasion of property which is not one’s own, are evil, wrong, immoral, unlawful, criminal, or whatever adjective you might insert (I should here mention that there is great disagreement about what adjective we should put here, but I will leave this to the side, for now). Already, now, we see a disagreement about what is important in the pursuit of liberty. For the utilitarians, it is the consequences of liberty which make it desirable and for the natural rights proponents it is liberty itself, the absence of uninvited physical invasion of property, which is desirable.


Anarchism vs. Minarchism

There is another debate within libertarianism about the proper role of the state. On one hand, we have the minarchist who believes that the proper role of the state is limited to defense of property rights and the adjudication on interpersonal disputes. At the end of the same interview quoted above, Friedman outlines what he believes to be the three “basic fundamental functions” of the state: “Preserve the peace (defend the country), provide a mechanism whereby individuals can adjudicate their disputes (justice department), protect individuals form being coerced by other individuals (the police function)”. Thus, for minarchists, who include many important prominent libertarians such as Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Ludwig von Mises, the state is a legitimate institution that should be limited to these particular functions (or something approximating what Friedman has here described).

On the other hand, there are the anarchists who suggest that the state is unnecessary or immoral, or illegal in and of itself. The argument for the anarchist position can take on a number of forms. As I have written before, there are many reason to be an anarchist, even if you are not a libertarian. But let me sketch out two popular arguments for the anarchist-libertarian, or anarcho-capitalist, position. First, we have a utilitarian argument: If the state is inefficient at providing healthcare, food, housing, energy, etc. then what makes us believe that the state would be better at providing law and law enforcement? Walter Block notes that Rothbard used this argument to persuade him of the anarchist position recounting, “In judo, when someone comes at you, you sort of toss him over the shoulder, use his momentum. Well Murray used judo on me. I was into the [Henry] Hazlitt stuff about why markets work for carrots and shoes and he said, ‘Well, why couldn’t it work for police and courts?'”.

A second argument is that the state necessarily involves property rights violations. The state must first take money from citizens in order to fund their courts, police services, and military and thus violate property rights in order to protect them. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe writes, “A tax-funded protection agency is a contradiction in terms”. Not all minarchists, however, accept that a state must be funded by taxes. Rand, for example, says that “[i]n a fully free society, taxation–or, to be exact, payment for governmental services– would be voluntary.” Rand argues that funds for the government could come from lotteries or could be funded by private donations by citizens who would want the protection of person and property. Of course, the anarchist response is to ask why it should be necessary that the institution which citizens use to protect their rights must be a monopolist, but I digress.

This debate is still ongoing within the libertarian movement. From my own experience with the libertarian movement in Ontario, most lay-libertarians are minarchists. However, I have also found that the libertarian movement in Ontario is largely grounded in Objectivist or Randian philosophy as can be seen by the (in my opinion) historic 1980 split between the Ontario Libertarian Party (of which I am a member) and the Freedom Party of Ontario, in which Freedom Party members left to pursue a purely Objectivist (the philosophy of Ayn Rand) platform that accepted the state as a necessary institution arguing that, “the Freedom Party believes that the purpose of government is to protect our freedom of choice, not to restrict it”. That is not to say that the Ontario Libertarian Party now takes on an anarchist position, but only that the party does not hold itself to be a purely Objectivist party. So, while I personally believe that minarchism is untenable, I do believe that there is much work to be done and that more literature in defense of anarchism is necessary if we are to persuade the lay-libertarian (and even some still-standing academic libertarians) of its merits.


Radicalism vs. Conservatism

In 1977 Murray Rothbard claimed, “What divides the [libertarian] movement now, the true division, is not anarchist vs. minarchist, but radical vs. conservative.” What is the difference between the two? Let me put forward three different interpretations. The first, is that of Rothbard in the same article:

Perhaps the word that best defines our distinction is “radical.” Radical in the sense of being in total, root-and-branch opposition to the existing political system and to the State itself. Radical in the sense of having integrated intellectual opposition to the State with a gut hatred of its pervasive and organized system of crime and injustice. Radical in the sense of a deep commitment to the spirit of liberty and antistatism that integrates reason and emotion, heart and soul.

So, what makes a radical libertarian radical, for Rothbard, at least in part, is a hatred of the state; a hatred of the system of injustice it produces. This is echoed but not mirrored by the second version of radicalism that I will present, that of Walter Block in his truly radical 2004 project, “Radical Libertarianism: Applying Libertarian Principles to Dealing with the Unjust Government“:


Walter Block

There are two possible views of the state with which libertarians have associated themselves. One I shall call the moderate libertarian perspective, the other the radical. In the former case, the government means well. It may be inefficient (it is inefficient), and perhaps bumbling, in that it does not benefit from the market test of survival, but, at least in some meaningful sense, it is us. That is, it is composed of friends, neighbors, people with whom we went to school, fellow members of the PTA, the Kiwanis Club, etc. It may be prone to err, particularly when it oversteps its proper bounds, but these are sins almost of benevolence, certainly not of viciousness. This moderate view includes both libertarian anarchists and minarchists.

In the radical world-view, the government is nothing like a doddering old uncle who is well intended but somewhat accident-prone. In sharp contrast, the state is a predatory gang. In earlier days, it attacked peaceful villages, engaged in theft, murder and rapine, and then stole back to its highland hangout. With increasing sophistication, it gave up its hit and run tactics. The next time it attacked the peaceful settlement, it stayed there, taking on the role of the mayor and the town council. The iron fist was still there, but it now became wrapped in the velvet glove of democracy. And along the way this band of thieves bought out the academic and religious classes, paying them to weave apologetics about its wise and benevolent rule.

For Block then, it appears that the radical world-view is one in which they view the state and members of democracy as evil-doers who are much more than bumblers and useful idiots. They are criminals, amoral men, and predators.


David D. Friedman

In either Rothbard or Block’s version of radicalism, it may appear that any anarchist would fit this description. But this is not the case. As both of the above two cited articles point out, the lone exception is that of David D. Friedman, Milton Friedman’s son. David Friedman’s most famous work is his book, The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism (if it is not already apparent, Rothbard and Block do not agree with David Friedman’s definition of radicalism) in which he advocates for an anarcho-capitalist legal regime in which law would be created privately, completely void of a state. Rothbard shows how David Friedman does not meet either his nor Block’s criteria for being a radical, arguing the following:

[I]t is evident that David does not hate the State at all; that he has merely arrived at the conviction that anarchism and competing private police forces are a better social and economic system than any other alternative. Or, more fully, that anarchism would be better than laissez-faire, which in turn is better than the current system. Amidst the entire spectrum of political alternatives, David Friedman has decided that anarcho-capitalism is superior. But superior to an existing political structure which is pretty good too. In short, there is no sign that David Friedman in any sense hates the existing American State or the State per se, hates it deep in his belly as a predatory gang of robbers, enslavers, and murderers. No, there is simply the cool conviction that anarchism would be the best of all possible worlds, but that our current set-up is pretty far up with it in desirability. For there is no sense in Friedman that the State — any State — is a predatory gang of criminals.

As you can see, under these two definitions of radicalism, even being an anarchist does not make one a radical libertarian.

Finally, I offer the analysis of the radical from Roderick Long who claims:


Roderick T. Long

The term radical is used with at least three related but distinct senses. In one sense (call it the gradal sense), it is opposed to moderate; here radical means extreme or thoroughgoing as opposed to wishy-washy.

In another sense (call it the ideological sense), it is opposed to conservative, politically or culturally. Obviously these senses are distinct, since an extreme reactionary conservative would count as radical in the gradal sense but not in the ideological.

Thirdly — call this the dialectical sense — radical can signify an orientation that considers phenomena not in isolation but in their interconnections with other elements in a systemic totality. While this sense is distinct from both the other senses, it has an obvious connection with the gradal sense, and to some degree with the ideological sense as well. A dialectical radical, given her focus on context and interdependence, will naturally tend to be skeptical of the utility of merely local fixes of social problems, insisting that successful reform must depend on changing the system as a whole; hence the dialectical radical will tend to be a gradal radical too, in the sense of calling for more, and more thoroughgoing, change.

For Long, then, one might be a radical if they take their beliefs to their logical conclusions. For the libertarian, one is a gradal radical if they believe that there are no times we can justify property rights violations. Certainly, as I have mentioned above, Friedman does not fit this descriptor since he advocates for transfer payments, inflation, and state-funded public goods.

In the second sense, the ideological sense, it seems that libertarianism might be all together silent. Is not libertarianism compatible with traditional lifestyles, say, that of the traditional heterosexual patriarchal family? Certainly! But is it not also compatible with non-traditional lifestyles, say, that of the polyamorous family? Certainly! As long as neither family violates the property rights of anyone else, then it is compatible with libertarianism. As Walter block writes in a 2007 critique of Hoppe’s Democracy: the God that Failed:

Hoppe makes much of the fact that libertarianism and cultural conservatism are fully compatible. And, indeed, he is entirely correct in this matter. However, libertarianism is compatible with any cultural behavior, provided only that the culture is not incompatible with the libertarian axiom on non-aggression. For example, libertarianism is also compatible with hippie leftism; indeed, the freedom philosophy is every bit as compatible with the counter-culture lifestyle as it is with conservatism. For example, there is nothing in libertarian law which forbids promiscuity, or drug taking, rock music, raves, nudism, macrobiotic diets, Ben and Jerry ice cream, the wearing of earth shoes, beads, etc. And that is all that is required for “compatibility.”

So where does Friedman stand as an ideological radical? For now, I am unsure that it matters insofar as as his libertarianism is concerned. But perhaps there is more to the story. The “Thick vs. Thin Libertarianism” debate is an ongoing one. The thick libertarians argue that libertarianism is part of a greater political, ethical, or legal code and the thin libertarians argue that libertarianism is nothing more than applications of homesteading and the non-aggression principle. You can see a debate on the issue here between Walter Block and Roderick Long themselves.

Finally, there is the dialectical sense of the word ‘radical’. In this sense, it appears that me, Rothbard, and Friedman are all on the same page. Friedman did not rest with positive economics and say, “the free market produces more” and leave it at that. No! Friedman was interested in how liberty played a role in every social aspect of man. Consider Friedman’s 1999 docu-series, “Free to Choose” in which he argues:

The fundamental principle of a free society is voluntary cooperation: the economic market. Buying and selling is one example but it’s only one example. Voluntary cooperation is far broader than that. Take an example that, at first sight, seems about as far away as you can get: the language we speak, the words we use, the complex structure of our grammar. No government bureau that. It arose out of the voluntary interactions of people seeking to communicate with one another. Or consider some of the great scientific achievements of our time; the discoveries of an Einstein or a Newton, the inventions of a Thomas Alva Edison or Alexander Graham Bell, or even consider the great charitable activities of a Florence Nightingale or an Andrew Carnegie. These weren’t done under the orders of a government office. They were done by individuals deeply interested in what they were doing, pursuing their own interests, and cooperating with one another. This kind of voluntary cooperation is built so deeply into the structure of our society that we tend to take it for granted. Yet the whole of our Western society is the unintended consequence of that kind of a voluntary cooperation: of people cooperating with on another to pursue their own interests, yet, in the process, building a great society.

In this sense, then, Friedman does appear to be a radical. He looks around the world and sees the many ways in which liberty has produced some of the greatest achievements of mankind. So, perhaps him and I are not so different after all (although I think the rest of my article here would say otherwise).



I’ve outlined three distinctions about the kind of libertarian you can be. My hope here is to outline the differences that libertarians have in opinion and maybe even outline the intellectual mosaic that makes up our movement. My career is young and I have only just begun to enter into internal libertarian debates. Where will I lie in ten years? I think that I will be more or less the same: A radical natural-rights anarchist. But, perhaps not. As the libertarian movement continues to grow and progress, we may find that the truth is much closer to that of Milton Friedman than to that of 2020 Andrew Allison.

3 thoughts on “Important Distinctions Between Libertarians – Or, Some Things Milton Friedman and I Disagree On

  1. I doubt my father would describe himself as a utilitarian, and I certainly would not describe myself as one. One of the entries under “utilitarian” in my Machinery of Freedom is “why I am not a.”

    I am curious how you deal with the arguments against the strong natural rights position you appear to be supporting. One, due to the late Bill Bradford, is to imagine that you fall off the balcony of your tenth floor apartment. Fortunately, you catch hold of the flagpole of the balcony immediately below yours, and are making your way hand over hand to the safety of the balcony when the owner comes out on the balcony and orders you to let go of his flag pole. Do you?

    An answer I sometimes get to versions of this is that you use the flagpole to save your life and then owe the owner damages for the cost to him of letting you use his flagpole. But that amounts to a forced sale, a private version of eminent domain. Once you agree that forced sales are morally legitimate, you have no principled argument against someone who defends taxation as a forced sale in the other direction, taking money from you but compensating you with government services which, he claims, are worth much more than the money. You are back to the consequentialist argument.

    Or consider the hypothetical I offer in _Machinery_:

    Suppose you happen to know that everyone in the world is going to die tomorrow by some natural catastrophe, say the earth colliding with a large asteroid, unless you prevent it. Further suppose that the only way to prevent it involves stealing a piece of equipment worth a hundred dollars from someone who, in your opinion, rightfully owns it. Your choice is simple: violate libertarian principles by stealing something or let everyone die.
    What do you do? You cannot justify stealing as a way of minimizing total coercion. Being killed by an asteroid is not coercion, since it is not done by a person. After the asteroid strikes there will be no more coercion ever again, since there will be no one left to either coerce or be coerced.


    A madman is about to open fire on a crowd; if he does so numerous innocent people will die. The only way to prevent him is to shoot him with a rifle that is within reach of several members of the crowd. The rifle is on the private property of its legitimate owner. He is a well known misanthrope who has publicly stated on numerous occasions that he is opposed to letting anyone use his rifle without his permission, even if it would save hundreds of lives.

    These two are from Chapter 41, where you can find my responses to the most obvious counterarguments.


    • Hello Dr. Friedman,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post!

      I apologize for the mistake! I’m curious what sort of consequentialism Dr. Milton Friedman would consider himself an advocate of. I hope that I had not portrayed you as a utilitarian in this post as I had no such intention and am wholly aware that you are not one.

      While I certainly do take a certain position on natural rights, it was not here my intention to defend such a view, but rather, describe the differences between the two schools of thought. Both the flagpole example that you have mentioned and your example of the madman shooter have certainly raised some problems for the idea of a deontological libertarian ethic. That is, at least in part, a reason to adopt the position, as I believe many natural rights advocates do, that libertarianism is merely a “political philosophy”. As Block writes here (, “Libertarianism is limited to political philosophy; it does not include ethics” (3) and argues that, “[t]he libertarian qua libertarian, then, does not say, “Don’t murder.” He only says, “If you murder, you should be punished.”” (6). He then responds by saying that the flagpole apartment owner is “totally within his rights to defend his property” (14). It’s for this reason that I write, “I should here mention that there is great disagreement about what adjective we should put here, but I will leave this to the side, for now”. As a young libertarian, I don’t really know the proper answer. It seems on one hand it seems almost absurd to say that a respect for property is wholly unrelated to ethics since that opens up the possibility for there to be an ethic of criminal behaviour which is still consistent with libertarianism (e.g. It is morally right to live a life of plunder and parasitism although it would also be just to be punished for living such a life). But, there may be independent, non-libertarian reasons to think that a respect for the property of others is a part of an ethical life (which might also give us reasons to believe that we should climb the flagpole and take the rifle).

      I also think the mention of the natural catastrophe situation is interesting as Block mentions that violations of property rights may be acceptable if there are great enough consequentialist concerns. Here, ( for example, Block argues that if we were invaded by Martians, “utilitarianism serves as a sort of fudging device” which we can use to advocate for a property rights violation. This appears, to me, to be a sort of threshold deontology in which, if we judge it to be so, consequential considerations can override deontological principles.


  2. Pingback: Compassion for Victims | Andrew D. Allison

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