Hyperbole has its rhetorical or pedagogical advantages, but it must not overcome reality. I am not casting the first stone at Financial Times columnist Edward Luce, but I do want to criticize a recent column of his (“Beware Elon Musk’s Warped Libertarianism,” May 24, 2023).

On what basis does Mr. Luce claim that Elon Musk is a libertarian? I have never seen anything written by Mr. Musk that would show his support for this political philosophy. Andrea Mays, who teaches economics at California State University in Long Beach, has “no idea how thoroughly he has considered [libertarian principles],” and she has “never come across any of his writings on the subject” (personal correspondence). Surely, she adds, he could hire someone to write op-eds for him if he wished to explain his personal philosophy.

I haven’t completely given up on Musk but, as John Maynard Keynes wrote, “in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age.”

Consider the following quotes from Luce’s column, followed by my comments:

Billionaire libertarians … have the money to do whatever they want.

This is hyperbole, of course. Nobody has the money to do whatever he wants. The first lesson of economics is that resources are scarce compared to human desires, which are quasi-infinite. This limitation also applies to Mr. Musk—although obviously not as much as to you and me, but envy is not the greatest virtue.

American libertarians should rarely be taken at face value.

There is some truth in that, as for any group of partisans, but the “rarely” is exaggerated. Among defenders of minority ideas, who feel like Martians in their society, you are bound to find eccentric figures. I confess that, in another life, I myself co-translated a book from one of them (I am not speaking of my translation work on James Buchanan’s The Limits of Liberty). But libertarian thought remains necessary to understand our world, even from its American theorists!

It is as rare to find an impoverished libertarian as it is to find a wealthy socialist.

This is a statement is simply baseless and must contradict the experience of most people who know, personally or in writing, more than one libertarian and one socialist. Luce mentions George Soros, who is a mild socialist. Incidentally, I agree when the Financial Times columnist condemns “Soros demonization,” like when Musk tweeted that this fellow billionaire “hates humanity.” Rich socialists are very numerous, even if you consider only the first percentile of total income, which starts below $500,000 in the US. Luce could have mentioned many woke habitués of the World Forum in Davos. Bernie Sanders is less rich, but probably qualifies. Hugo Chavez (of “21st-century socialism” fame) and his family did better, like Friedrich Engels. One can also find candidates for the rich-socialist label among the rulers or high-level apparatchiks of past communist countries or socialist banana republics of our days. In our countries, socialists are fortunately constrained on what they can suck from the state, but Mr. Luce must have heard of what in France is called la gauche caviar (“the caviar left”).

Young idealistic libertarians are often poor. Many of Andrea’s students must be. I certainly wish that all libertarians were wealthy. Wealth is not a sin by itself. To simplify a bit, it depends on whether a rich person has made his money through voluntary transactions and interactions, or whether he has stolen it.

[The American libertarians’] libertarianism rarely stretches beyond their personal freedoms, especially the liberty not to be taxed. Other people’s freedom is their own lookout.

There are certainly some libertarians who have not reflected on all the implications of their beliefs. But again, I don’t think Mr. Luce’s sample is representative. Libertarians, who may be conceived as the radical wing of classical liberalism, have this rather rare virtue of defending a formal liberty that, by construction, can only belong equally to all individuals—contrary to the sort of “freedom” requiring that some be harmed by the state in order to favor others. One reason why libertarians are often seen as eccentrics is, indeed, that they defend the freedom of prostitutes or drug consumers, the right of self-defense for ordinary people (ordinary people, ma chère!), as well as the freedom of great entrepreneurs and famous journalists. The only constraint is the respect of everybody’s equal liberty: as John Stuart Mill wrote (in his 1859 On Liberty), “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

The continuity between classical liberalism and libertarianism is an interesting topic. Anarchist economist Anthony de Jasay describes himself as a liberal. I give other examples in my EconLog post “The Continuum Between Liberalism and Anarchism.” Needless to say that this current of thought covers a wide spectrum of ideas and analytical approaches, which contrasts with the poverty of American “liberalism,” an adulterated liberalism that the Financial Times seems close to. But let’s continue with the quotes from Mr. Luce:

[Musk’s] philosophical confusion … applies to many in his cohort, such as Peter Thiel, Ken Griffin and Charles Koch.

Perhaps Peter Thiel and Ken Griffin are in Musk’s cohort, I don’t know. Some years ago, Mr. Thiel made noises that sounded libertarian: see my Regulation review of his 2014 book From Zero to One (pp. 54-56 in the linked file). He has now stopped. Only Charles Koch seems to me to be clearly a classical liberal. I would argue that the philosophical confusion is, anyway, at least as much on the side of the Financial Times columnist.

Some of Musk’s fellow billionaires support Donald Trump, who is the most un-libertarian figure in US politics. … Not much of this seems to bother the libertarians.

Like myself, nearly all libertarians, I think, would agree that Trump is a very authoritarian, i.e., un-libertarian, figure. Some eccentric libertarians have other opinions; a few hope, or hoped, that Trump would lead to a crash of the statist system and open the field for anarchic nirvana. Yet, there are a number of other candidates for “the most un-libertarian figure in US politics” in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

As for the second sentence in the quote above, there must not be many libertarians who are not bothered. So I don’t know whom Mr. Luce refer to as “the libertarians.” Does he see the world in terms of woke identity groups?

Musk’s Tesla, for example, received $465mn of taxpayers’ stimulus money in 2009.

I heard about that, and I would agree that it is worse than socialists purchasing iPhones or sending their children to private schools. We must concede this criticism, but it adds to Luce’s burden of showing that Musk is a libertarian.

Musk’s love of free speech vanishes when it comes to China.

I also find that troubling, as I think virtually all classical liberals and libertarians do.

One thing that seems clear anyway is that Mr. Luce has not demonstrated that he understands what libertarianism or classical liberalism is.