“It’s a Private Company!” – Misconceptions

Nassim Taleb

The libertarian view, based on the nonaggression principle, is that it is morally wrong for the state to force a private company (or any kind of voluntary organization) to act (or refrain from acting), so long as that private company was not itself guilty of using force or engaging in fraud.

When people publicly criticize an organization for doing something they dislike, sooner or later a libertarian will respond with “It’s a private company, they can do whatever they want!” There are many problems with this response, which apply in different circumstances.

It’s Unconvincing

The person initially making the criticism and calling for state action (assuming he actually is calling for state action) may or may not be a libertarian. If he is, he’s already fully aware of this line of thinking. Of all the possible replies he could have to your reminder, “Oh thanks, I forgot about that. I take back what I said” is pretty unlikely. If he’s not a libertarian, telling him a conclusion of your own principles isn’t going to convince him. Depending on his worldview, there are far better responses available.

If he is advocating for state action, he must believe the action of the private company poses a serious problem that needs remedied. If you don’t agree that this problem is all that serious, or a problem at all, there’s a discussion to be had there. Or maybe you agree that this is a serious issue, but state action is not the right remedy. There’s another discussion to be had there.

Regardless, the “It’s a private company!” response won’t be changing anyone’s mind.

Sometimes, It’s Incorrect

In some instances (especially regarding deplatforming by big tech companies), that statement isn’t entirely true. Many companies are truly private. Others are officially private, but have special favors and contracts from the state that they lobby for. This is where it gets tricky. If a company is using state power to get special favors, is it justified to use state power against them? That likely depends on to what extent the company is aligned with the state. The great Old Right libertarian, Frank Chodorov, argued that those who benefit from special government favors should be considered part of the state.

But even if state action is justified, is it worthwhile? Would state action be the most effective means of correcting the apparently immoral action by the company? And if the company is aligned with the state in the first place, can we really count on the state to act to our benefit?

These questions are part of an important discussion, one that should be had instead of mindlessly responding with “It’s a private company!”

Who Said Anything About the State?

Many times, the person with the initial criticism of a private action isn’t calling for state action in response. He’s criticizing the action of a private entity, as all of us do repeatedly throughout our lives.

Have you ever complained that someone is repeatedly late? Just remember, he’s a private individual, and he can do whatever he wants.

Have you ever criticized bad writing on a show you watch? Just remember, the writers are private individuals, working for a private company, and can do whatever they want.

Have you ever complained about someone for being lazy, self-centered, or rude? Just remember, none of those characteristics violate the nonaggression principle, so you can’t criticize them.

Imagine if every criticism you had was accompanied by this reminder. Acknowledging a problem does not imply state action. And not every bad action is aggression.

It’s a Contradiction

If you respond with “It’s a private company!” to a criticism of a private company by an individual not calling for state action, you’re in a contradiction. What are you yourself doing in such a scenario? You are criticising a private individual for an action (criticizing) that does not violate the nonaggression principle.

I could then respond to your statement with, “He’s a private individual! He can complain about whatever he wants!” By criticizing such criticism, you are engaging in the very act that you criticize! You may not be criticizing a private company, but the intended message of the statement is meant to convey that you cannot criticize nonviolent action by a private individual or group.

Regardless of the circumstances of the initial criticism, responding with “It’s a private company!” is a Bad Argument. Abandon it for a sophisticated response, or you will be doing more harm than good.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via nkreider@nkreider.com.