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The Spherical Cow Theory of Libertarianism

Updated on June 4, 2019
Garry Reed profile image

Garry Reed combined a professional technical writing career and a passion for all things libertarian to become The Libertarian Opinionizer.

Commentary From Your Libertarian Opinionizer

The Spherical what? Cow theory? Applied to libertarianism?

Libertarians have frequently, repeatedly in fact, heard the spherical cow theory of libertarianism expounded upon by non-libertarians but very likely never knew there was an actual scientific hypothesis behind it.

The “spherical cow theory” is a joke in the world of physics that, as one explanation puts it, "has become a metaphor for highly simplified scientific models of complex real life phenomena” by factoring out all of the inconveniently difficult considerations in the real world to come up with a simple solution.

Book Break: Your Libertarian Opinionizer’s Pick

Libertarianism (Key Concepts in Political Theory)
Libertarianism (Key Concepts in Political Theory)
Libertarianism just isn’t so complicated, complex, or difficult to understand that it has to be dumbed down into a simplistic “spherical cow in a vacuum” theory to make it work. People don’t live in a vacuum and libertarianism doesn’t exist there either. Eric Mack, longtime libertarian and Professor of Philosophy at Tulane University lets the air out of the bloated bovine and explains the philosophical principles of libertarianism in a clear and straightforward way. No spherical cow pies here. Spherical cows are for people who don’t want to think. Libertarianism is for thinkers.

Bloated Bovine Buffoonery

The Spherical cow joke goes like this:

Milk at a dairy farm was low so the owners asked the local university to come up with a way to increase production. A whole team of theoretical physicists spent weeks cramming data into their supercomputer and came up with a fantastic solution.

“I have the answer to your problem,” the Chief Brainiac announced to the dairymen, “but it works only in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum."

The spherical cow theory, in other words, may be great for transforming complex problems into easy solutions but it has not proven to be very useful for any practical application.

Thus the "Spherical Cow Theory" has become a metaphor for comically simplified scientific models of actual complex real life phenomena.

The Libertarian Spherical Cow

Quora is a Q&A website where people post questions on different subjects and anyone, knowledgeable mavens and wiseass wags, can post their responses.

One question posed on Quora was “Why-is-libertarian-philosophy-unpopular?”

After much pro-ing and con-ing back and forth one responder told the “spherical cow” story in a bit more detail than above and then proceeded to describe libertarianism.

Note that it isn’t completely clear whether this respondent is making fun of libertarianism below or making fun of libertarian fun-makers. It also isn’t clear whether he is attempting a serious definition of libertarianism or if this is meant to be the spherical cow version of libertarianism.

At any rate here’s the post, his own words faithfully transcribed:

“Libertarianism assumes a mob of totally rational, totally informed, self interested, ethically utilitarian individuals presented with uniform difficulty in their lives, with identical philosophy and no unintended consequences. That just isn’t the world.”

While virtually every libertarian ever born can agree with the last sentence—“That just isn’t the world”—virtually no libertarian can find anything else with which to agree. It’s a tossup whether the writer was utterly ignorant of actual libertarian philosophy or purposely burlesquing it just to get a reaction.

In any case what he has created here is not a spherical cow but a spherical libertarian porcupine in a vacuum. He has filled his vacuum with many little individual porcupine quills that stick out like this:

  • A mob
  • Totally rational individuals
  • Totally informed individuals
  • Self-interested individuals
  • Ethically utilitarian individuals
  • Uniform difficulty
  • Identical philosophy
  • No unintended consequences.

So let’s get out our quill pens and puncture the spherical sphincter of this creature so we can drain out and consider each word and phrase of this person’s portly porcupine.

1. A Mob

He assumes libertarians are a “mob.” There are several meanings of “mob.” The Cambridge Dictionary, for example, includes:

  • a large, angry crowd, especially one that could easily become violent
  • a group of people who are friends or who are similar in some way
  • an organization of criminals

Libertarians are individuals who may or may not voluntarily congregate in large or small crowds, may or may not be angry, will not become violent because they embrace the non-aggression principle (NAP) against initiated violence, may or may not be friendly, who are both similar and dissimilar in many ways and do not organize as criminals because NAP again.

2. Totally Rational Individuals

No matter how Ayn Rand would imagine or want libertarians to be—even as she rejects libertarianism—no normal, healthy, mentally self-aware human being is “totally rational.” Libertarians have emotions and moods and feelings and sentiments and empathies and hatreds and loves just like everyone else. To be without extra-rational qualities would make every libertarian a psychopath, and psychopaths—again because NAP—do not make for good libertarians.

3. Totally Informed Individuals

Nobody, including the bestest, brightest, smartest, wisest, brilliantest libertarian is ever “totally informed” of anything, either as individuals or as a “mob” of individuals taken collectively. Libertarians are people, not freakishly omniscient clones.

4. Self-Interested Individuals

Self-interest is not an exclusive brand name for libertarians. Everyone is self-interested to a greater or lesser extent, at different times and for a diversity of reasons, varying from the totally altruistic to the totally psychopathic, neither of which is likely to exist in reality. Or as our spherical cow writer put it, “That just isn’t the world.”

5. Ethically Utilitarian Individuals

Ethically and Utilitarian break out into two separate conceptual quills:

Ethics is the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles. Moral principles for libertarians include being a consciously sentient individual, possessing self-ownership and embracing NAP.

Synonyms for utilitarian include functional, sensible, pragmatic, commonsensical and rational while one definition is “designed to be useful or practical rather than attractive.” Funny thing here; libertarians find their “ethically utilitarian” approach to philosophy and politics to be functional, sensible, pragmatic, commonsensical, rational, moral and attractive.

“Ethically utilitarian” makes libertarianism both idealistic and realistic.

6. Uniform Difficulty

Typically the only time any “mob” of people has had “uniform difficulty” in their lives is when they’ve had some vicious form of political collectivism imposed on them.

Two forms of politically right collectivism were imposed on European populations, Nazism in Germany and the lands they conquered and Fascism in Italy and its victimized populations.

Left collectivism includes the Soviet Union’s form of state socialism that was brutally imposed on the Russian people in the form of Siberian gulags and everywhere else their armies went while Maoist communism enforced “uniform difficulty” on its Chinese and other Asian populations such as devastating manmade famines, grinding poverty and tortuous “re-education camps.”

The people of North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela experience “uniform difficulty” from excessive collectivism, not from benign libertarianism.

7. Identical Philosophy

Really? Libertarians have an “identical philosophy?”

Here’s just a little taste of that libertarian “identical philosophy:”

Big “L” Libertarians and little “l” libertarians and Libertarian Party members with at least 25 special interest caucuses (Audacious Caucus, Freedom Caucus, Paleolibertarian Caucus, Anarchist Caucus, Outright Libertarians, etc.) and another 14 “Inactive or Potentially Inactive Caucuses” (End the Fed Caucus, Radical Caucus (1979), Radical Caucus (SEK3), The Rent is Too Damn High Caucus, etc.)

(As an aside how many of today’s young libertarians know that SEK3 was the nickname for Samuel Edward Konkin III who published New Libertarian Manifesto and founded the libertarian social philosophy of agorism?)

Then there are left libertarians and right libertarians and the Libertarian Wing of the Republican Party and anarchist libertarians and AnCaps and minarchists and Objectivists and mutualists and voluntaryists and free market economists and classical liberals and individualists and post-statists and libertarian socialists, the latter being a whole different story. And many more.

Some libertarians identify as Hoppeians or Randians or Rothbardians or Misesians and some don’t believe in NAP or even self-ownership. Basically, anyone who wants to be left the hell alone for whatever reason claims to be a “libertarian” whether they have any sense of the underlying philosophy or not.

Beyond that it’s highly likely that far more libertarians than non-libertarians will oppose, attack, nitpick, disagree, argue, quarrel, rage about and name-call over nearly every word from the beginning to the end of this article. Does that really sound like “identical philosophy” to anyone?

8. No Unintended Consequences.

There’s a short obvious answer to this one: everyone who has ever hit his or her thumb while pounding a nail into a board knows all about unintended consequences. Everyone has them. The very worst ones, of course, come from the psychopathic political classes who impose their ill-thought-out short term “solutions” on entire populations and end up smashing everyone’s thumbs but their own. They’re the ones who deserve intended consequences, like permanent early retirements.

Don’t be Cowed by Victim-Think

So was the guy just stupid or was he joking when he gave his definition of Libertarian Spherical Porcupine Theory in a Vacuum that began with the words “Libertarianism assumes a mob of…?”

One might find a clue about his mindset when one notices the liberal virtue signaling phrase “social injustice” in his wrap-up rap:

“Now ask yourself, if one person has a pretty comfortable and wealthy life, and another is the victim of great social injustice, who do you expect the Libertarian is?”

This is the groupthink identity politics worldview that sees everyone as belonging to a victimized group or a victimizer group and then narrow-mindedly assumes that only the libertarian could be the “comfortable and wealthy” one while “the victim of great social injustice” must automatically be the poor cowed down victimized non-libertarian.

Reality check: Being the victims of great social injustice is one thing that drives so many intelligent people to libertarianism while those with the comfortable and wealthy lives are—if indeed they are libertarians—smart enough to want to stay that way and help, encourage and advocate for everyone else to join them.

Libertarians are people who have learned to think outside the vacuum.

Or to misquote Bart Simpson, “Don't have a spherical cow, man.”

References and Links

Simplest Physical Cow Explanation It’s a physicist’s joke about taking a complex concept and simplifying it to the point where it theoretically “works” but has virtually no practical application to reality. This “works” for libertarianism as well as cows.

The Libertarian Cow Example Why is libertarian philosophy unpopular? Because people too lazy or dishonest to actually understand libertarianism invent a simplistic definition to pretend that it’s a “good idea in theory” but can’t possibly work in the real world.

Key Concepts of Modern Libertarianism It will come as a shock to some people but it really isn’t that hard to understand libertarianism and, once understood, begin thinking in positive rather than negative ways of how to apply the principles to the real world.

Video View: Your Libertarian Opinionizer’s Pick:

Spherical Cows are Real!


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    • Garry Reed profile imageAUTHOR

      Garry Reed 

      16 months ago from Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas

      Hi Gunther, thanks for your comments.

      I’ve been a libertarian since the 1970s. I’ve read endless comments by non-libertarians presuming to “explain” libertarianism to me that go so far off base it’s actually silly. This one was so explicitly detailed in its silliness I decided to return the favor with equal silliness. I had great fun taking his “explanation” apart nearly word by word, purposely to the same extreme as the original.

      I hope you and other readers found the humor in it, beginning by redefining “mob.” But if you feel the comment “needs a very different rebuttal” be my guest.

    • profile image

      Gunther Schadow 

      16 months ago

      I agree to a lot you say here. But you got the comment wrong to which you replied.

      It didn't say "Libertarians are a mob ..." it said "Libertarianism ASSUMES a mob ..." It describes the people in general.

      And I think it is a comment that needs a very different rebuttal.

      There are plenty of misunderstanding most non-libertarians have, for example, about the NAP. Either they think it means non-violence or it means you have a right that someone else protects you from the aggression of others (and then tell you you need to pay taxes to fund the police so you can have rights.)

      On the other hand, even libertarians can get it confused. Having the same morality and philosophy. Here is the problem. First "utilitarian ethics" is bollocks but yes, many big L- libertarians believe it to apply. Worse yet, it is true that libertarianism is pretty hard to defend when you have people infiltrating and subverting your community who believe that it is proper to convince and threaten weak minded members to pay "tax" so that they can use the proceeds to indoctrinate the young and weak minds even more and threaten the stubborn minds in surrendering their rights under the NAP. (This is a nab at open-borders LOLbertarians who call Hillary Clinton "a wonderful public servant").

    • Garry Reed profile imageAUTHOR

      Garry Reed 

      16 months ago from Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas

      Redheart007, Belmont Stakes has nothing even remotely to do with this article but thanks for the info anyway.

    • profile image


      16 months ago

      Belmont Stakes 2019 Horse Race is 108th event takes place at Belmont Park on Saturday, June 8th. Belmont Stakes is final leg in the American Triple Crown.

    • Garry Reed profile imageAUTHOR

      Garry Reed 

      16 months ago from Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas

      Hi Bob, not really sure how your comments apply to this particular article. But your comments about government's proper role has me wondering if you know how broad libertarian philosophy is, and that includes those who reject all traditional types of government. What you find to be nonsense is sense to others. But as one individual to another I welcome your opinions. Thanks!

    • profile image


      16 months ago

      I'm not sure about all your theories and nonsense. Liberty really means FREEDOM, and in a political structure that means "Get the F'ing government off my back and out of my pocket." It says the government may not control anything that does not hurt other people, and someone's butthurt is not hurt. The government should build roads, control our borders, hang murderers, and leave us decent people alone.

    • Garry Reed profile imageAUTHOR

      Garry Reed 

      16 months ago from Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas

      Hi James, I understand your hesitancy to believe in libertarianism in its entirety.

      I was a minarchist for years in the early days because I couldn’t figure out how a society without at least a watchdog government could possibly work, but that conflicted with the non-aggression principle. I finally realized that I didn’t have to know all the answers – NOBODY knows all the answers. That’s when I embraced NAP and a free society based on it. I’d rather take my chances in a free non-coercive society than live in one where one or a small mob of psychopathic politicians claim to know all the answers.

      The idea of absolutism turned me off from religion and the same thing turns me off from government. No one has a monopoly on wisdom, it’s diffused throughout society. The freer the society the more likely the best solutions will rise to the top.

      So I accept libertarianism, warts and all, because I’m convinced that no one else has offered a better idea.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      16 months ago from Chicago

      I appreciate your interesting effort here. When I take one of those on line political tests I come up Libertarian. Still, I do not agree with the philosophy in its entirety. Or, perhaps, any other.


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