Libertarians and Science

we must be wary of allowing any political ideology to blind us to objective reality. Our individual rights must be balanced against the rights of others

Quite what this means nobody knows. Does the Guardian’s David Grimes define a right as something we are entitled to? In which case he intends that some people must be exploited to provide the means of sustenance to another group who form the political ends. Or does he define a right as a moral sanction upon an action or state of being in which case rights are self-limiting by definition (you are free to swing your hand as you wish, until it meets another man’s nose). On that definition he is writing a repetitive sentence that no libertarian would disagree with. Or perhaps rights to David Grimes, are merely a filthy mechanism by which to grab things? Is he saying that the grabbing of things by one person is necessarily limited by the sordid desire of others to grasp things also? In which case he should not have written the sentence at all as he as succeeded in saying nothing about what those limits are or how to determine them.

I suspect the real purpose of the Grimes’ Guardian article – an article which lines up a series of straw men to portray libertarians as anti-science – is to promote the values of the paper. The paper puts it’s values into articles and publishes them, but it cannot force anyone to read them. Perhaps the paper measures which articles get read most and proceeds to experiment with different kinds to find what is popular. Perhaps it has found that articles insulting the intellectual honesty of the growing libertarian movement do rather well and has therefore decided – scientifically – to further its values by writing insulting articles about libertarians?

Did you spot the flaw in this grimy reasoning? Even if well read articles promote your values, it does not follow that articles which are well read promote your values, however much your traffic statistics explode. To promote your values your articles should contain them and they should be true and accurate. People who operate in this way have missed the point of all those analytics, and has end up using advanced data-mining techniques merely to find the best strategy to troll the British public.

As for feeding the troll with an actual response, I admit I have made that error. If only because it is already written, here it is:

Climate change

often, these fiercely individualist and regulation-adverse philosophies clash with science, with hugely detrimental consequences.

Climate change illustrates this well, because despite overwhelming evidence of anthropogenic influence, there is a tendency for those with pronounced free-market views to reject the reality of global warming. The reason underpinning this is transparent – if one accepts human-mediated climate change, then supporting mitigating action should follow. But the demon of regulation is a bridge too far for many libertarians. Given that climate change affects everyone whether they consent to it or not, then unregulated use of natural resources infringes the property rights of others and is ideologically equivalent to trespass, so the tenuous property rights house of cards comes crashing down.

When faced with this ideological dilemma, free-market advocates often resolve the cognitive dissonance by simply rejecting the reality of climate change,

UN scientists have been caught splicing instrumental data into the end of their climate projections. The splicing meant that a predicted decline in temperature was hidden from readers of the IPCC’s report. The bit of a line that would have angled downwards was replaced with a line that angled upwards. This was utter fraud.

Instead of replacing the modelled prediction, the instrumental data should be used to validate the models by displaying both lines. If the models of past climate, when applied to current observations, do not match the instrumental record then the model is falsified. If A predicts B and C is what happens then A is wrong. The hacked emails that explained that this action was to “hide the decline”, do not use that word to describe current trends, but to describe a feature of their predicted climate variations that does not match current trends. Hiding the decline avoided the need to admit that the experiment has succeeded in proving the model wrong.

Did libertarians discover this fraud because they were suffering from motivational biases? Perhaps they did, but the scientific commentary they made available shows a deep respect for science, and a desire for science to be above such biases. Their suspicions that the science is flawed stands up as entirely plausible, and the IPCC’s failure to address this concern is deeply worrying.

© Woodley Wonder Works

© Woodley Wonder Works

Medical regulation

I do not dispute that fraud in medical studies occasionally happens, and I do not believe it is not supported by anyone’s ideology. The difference between the fraud by the IPPC and fraud by Big Pharma is a difference of degree in which Big Pharma stand accused of a lesser but still serious sin. However, such fraud is at least understandable given the massive costs imposed by regulators. Politically, most libertarians would seek to allow multiple market based approaches to validating the safety and efficacy of medicines, believing this will allow the risk-averse to leverage from the experiences of the more reckless and encourage innovation in the methods of validation. Such innovation would represent better science and would drive down the cost of safety assurance, meaning that more safety could be afforded without preventing drugs from coming to market.

See also: the Dallas Buyers Club, a surprisingly libertarian movie coming direct from Democrat voting Hollywood which shows in a very human way what can happen when medicine is over-regulated.

Side swipe at Rand

All of these problems stem from a clash between ideology and evidence. The ruthlessly individualist philosophy fetishised by the modern disciplines of Ayn Rand conveniently ignores the fact that humans do not exist in a vacuum, and that individual actions often have consequences for all. The mantra that profit is a panacea for everything and that personal rights trump collective good is frequently misguided and potentially disastrous.

This is not to dismiss the entire political philosophy as bunk, nor to imply all economic liberals exist in a state of abject denial, but we must be wary of allowing any political ideology to blind us to objective reality.

It’s interesting to compare the notes at the end of Grime’s article about Ayn Rand with the words of Paul Hsieh.  Most libertarians are not Randian, but every libertarian I know is motivated, in the extreme, to learn and validate and debate their ideas to the nth degree. They fetishize correctness and logic above even their love for markets, and it is often the case that their entire enthusiasm for politics is consumed by the effort to ensure their political ideas are accurate. Most are just too damn nerdy to get anything done.

However, mainstream Randian opinion is that libertarians aren’t scientific enough, that they lack a logical justification for their views that is traceable to metaphysical axioms. Libertarians such as Jan Lester in contrast take a mainstream Germanic view (Germanic philosophy is popular with e.g. Barack Obama) about the validity of induction and prefer nothing other than scientific falsification – experiments – in place of justification.  This could be taken to mean that Objectivism is in agreement with Grimes, but that would be wrong. Grimes’ view that Randians are apparently the least scientific type of person is simply upside down. In fact, Randians and libertarians are engaged in constant a pissing contest to be the most scientific of all. Grimes has perhaps not met a great many of either, for nothing else would explain the obvious error.

Gun control

On gun control, Grimes comes closest to making sense. Here is an issue where statistics are difficult to interpret and each side tends to focus on different features. Libertarians like to consider the big picture and look at total homicides, or total crime. The Guardian and the rest of the control-fetishists focus myopically on deaths by firearm. Never the two shall meet. The real argument is more fundamental and it is difficult to apply statistics to moral fundamentals, it is however possible to apply reason.

Even if it was a very difficult thing to use a gun correctly the right to self defence is derived from the right to live. If you have no right to keep yourself alive then this fundamentally undermines that right, and life, by implication, becomes cheap and disposable. Yet the right to life and to act to stay alive is a moral one and it can be derived logically from the same meta-physical and epistemological assumptions that every scientist makes (interestingly, this derivation was supplied by, you guessed it, Ayn Rand).

Rather than using statistics to portray the desire to defend yourself as somehow dangerous, and to justify the gut reaction that guns should be banned, statistics should be put to work to discover the best means to exercise this desire. Just as scalpels are a viable murder weapon, but are tolerated because they can be used to preserve life, guns should be tolerated for the same reason. Statistics, reason, scientific analysis can be helpful in identifying the best forms of armament and training schemes on the market; the best ways to educate children to protect themselves responsibly and to become independent adults; and to help understand and prevent atrocities. Using statistics, as if all valid knowledge were derivable from that single source, to try to persuade the audience of a predetermined view against all logic to the contrary, is not a scientific approach.


The respect for markets which Grimes is most disgusted by is actually – at it’s most basic – an argument in favour of more thought, more information and more thinking, rather than less thinking and less information. Free-marketeers believe less thinking and less dynamism is possible in a centralised model in which every decision is taken by a small elite. Whether they call themselves scientists or not, the knowledge required to make good decisions in every context is distributed among the people living in those contexts and it is too great to be accumulated in Westminster.


  1. Simon, plenty of topics in this great piece to fill ten tomes of discussion, but for now I single out the gun-control thing. You have it exactly right: The right to life implies the right of self-defense, which means the most effective methods and tools of self-defense that a person can acquire and master. Note: can means that it is not permitted to prevent him from getting them, if he can do so justly. (Otherwise, the Librul/Leftie Promoter will go, ‘Oh, of COURSE we agree that people should have the tools that they “can acquire and master.” No doubt about it! It’s just that under law persons can’t have guns, or knives, or pens, or legs, feet, arms, and hands. Oh, or teeth.’)

    The argument “more guns less crime” helps with people who are already half-convinced but fear the practical consequences (and of course, it isn’t always true. It depends on just who has the ‘more’ guns). And with people who just aren’t individualists in our meaning of the term — people whose idea is that one only has the “right to life” as long as one intends to use that life for the Betterment of All, that otherwise one is just wasting oxygen and space — because those are the Net Social Good folks.



  2. Great article. Rothbard rightly points out that most of the big issues we have with pollution and climate change are down to the government taking over vast ammounts of land for non profit. Therefore, nobody has any incentive to keep land free from pollution and look after the place. Not to mention the fact that existing laws make it extremely hard to pursue compensation claims against polluters.



  3. “if one accepts human-mediated climate change, then supporting mitigating action should follow”

    This is not in opposition to libertarian thought at all. The mitigating action is to reduce the size of the state so we can all get rich and not have to worry about the climate.



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