Libertarianism

Some theses

1) Libertarianism (like the liberalism of which it is a subset) is, as such, best understood as a political doctrine, not a comprehensive account of the good life and a desirable social order. Indeed, libertarianism is perhaps even more necessarily a political doctrine than is the kind of liberalism defended by John Rawls in Political Liberalism. The idea of a comprehensive libertarianism is more or less incoherent, since we need to be able to do something with our freedom, and every action we take forgoes other actions, forecloses some future possibilities. Randian Objectivism, by contrast, is a comprehensive doctrine, telling its adherents what music to prefer, what substances to inhale, what to value and what to disvalue in living a good life.

2) Two (understandable and appropriate) tendencies push us away from treating libertarianism as a strictly political doctrine.
a) One is that, as Matt says below, we libertarians come to libertarianism for a reason. There is a moral sensibility about liberty, power, subordination, human flourishing, etc. at the core of the attraction the political doctrine holds for a particular person. There is an initial hunch about something being unjust that gets built around.
b) We recognize that the political doctrine can only gain traction in the world if its adherents attract new adherents or build coalitions with other people. That means that our more-or-less informed hunches about which other people could be so attracted or would be open to such coalitions play a role. And informed hunches about that kind of thing will vary based on external social and political conditions: what the state is doing and is likely to do, what movements in civil society exist or are likely to exist, who is feeling distrustful of state action and who is feeling confident in it.

3) 2a and 2b need not be at all related. A person could be attracted to libertarianism because of an utter horror about laws regulating sexuality, and still look around the world of the mid-to-late 1970s and say “these conservative Christians who are terrified of state regulation of their private schools and universities are probably my best bet for a coalition in support of freedom, so I should emphasize their issues.” A person could have a core hunch that’s about the capitalist hero and the entrepreneurial spirit, and say “the hippies of 1967 or the Occupiers of 2011 have an anti-authoritarian ethos that’s an especially promising basis for attracting them or building coalitions with them.”

4) But, predictably and understandably, that’s not how most people think most of the time. Instead they imagine other people following their own trajectories. And their initial sense of friends and enemies carries over. So if their initial core intuition was about sexual freedom, it’s going to be hard for them to see the conservative Christians as their best allies.

5) Murray Rothbard was, as far as I can tell (and I never met him), entirely committed to thinking in terms of 2b. He was famously promiscuous in searching for allies, and changed his mind many times, from right to left and back again, about who the best allies would be. Since he was also an especially doctrinaire thinker (not necessarily a disparagement, by the way), whatever he happened to believe at any given time about strategy, tactics, and allies became, as far as he was concerned, the correct thing to believe, and could be the basis for breaking with people who didn’t agree. That means that, even though he was in one sense a strictly political-not-comprehensive libertarian, he was willing to treat social and cultural and symbolic issues as being of tremendous importance, and to treat those who disagreed with him on those issues at that moment as anathema.

6) Paleolibertarianism was thus in a real sense thick doctrine. The presence of hippies, non-Christians, drug users, porn readers, gays and lesbians, and people who are unsympathetic to romantic nostalgia about the Confederacy within the libertarian movement was an embarrassment to those who were trying to build an anti-statist coalition with southern whites Christians who felt persecuted by the world.

7) “Thick” attitudes of whichever type (one’s own authentic attitudes, or strategic guesses about other people’s) can, maybe often do, feed back in to the political core of the doctrine and affect how people perceive core political questions. To my mind, the cultural attitude of the paleolibertarians has meant that they systematically fail to see the entanglement of white racism with public and private tyranny in the United States. They over-appreciate the anti-central-state rhetoric that has accompanied the cause of the Confederacy and Jim Crow for more than a century and a half, and under-appreciate the magnitude of the violations of freedom that slavery and Jim Crow involved. In turn, my own view that the 1964 Civil Rights Act– including the bans on discrimination by non-state actors– was absolutely necessary to break the power of the Jim Crow state (since the white racist power-holders had deliberately built up institutions that played fast and loose with the public-private distinction and were perfectly capable of relocating state power on the nominally non-state side of the line in order to protect racial supremacy) no doubt strikes the paleos as a compromise of libertarian principle influenced by cultural attitudes.

Eight) [if I use the numeral I get an emoticon]  (4) and (7) mean that the overlapping-consensus political-liberal view isn’t wholly stable by itself.  The political doctrine isn’t so detachable from the thick views that support it as to allow simple joint agreement.  We come to our sophisticated political views with some unshakeable priors about who are good guys and who aren’t.  People who ostensibly share a thin view, but who each hold it in what the other thinks is a morally distorted and misshapen way, can’t be expected to just ignore those differences.

  • bill woolsey

    I think your argument is sound.   However, I don’t think that Rothbard ever downplayed the evils of slavery, the Black Codes, or Jim Crow.    One key to understanding Rothbard is that while government has never done anything right, the U.S. federal government is the enemy upon which he and other contemporary American libertarians should focus.  

  • This is really excellent. 

    I would say, one of the odd things developing now is that there is a very odd core of “paleos” and “post-paleos” (both libertarian and conservative, that look less to the cultural grievances of the South, and more to the cultural aspirations of traditionalist Catholicism. 

    Look at the traddie Catholics. On the libertarians side there is Thomas Woods, and Jeffrey Tucker and, (I think Lew Rockwell). On the paleo-conservative side Buchanan was always one. Almost the entire editorial staff of Chronicles, myself, and several others. On the edges there is a helluva lot of talk about liturgy, music, art, and literature. Many of us do see the state as a potential enemy of our cultural and religious aspirations. 

    But I would say that these cultural aspirations are even more loosely connected with politics than they ever were during that 90s phase. 

    • Anonymous

      Excellent post, yourself.  Now, how does the racialist thinking of Brimelow, Francis, et al. mix with your Catholic outlook?  Can one be both if the racialism is based on “science” and/or culture?  Can one, further, be all three–Catholic, racialist and libertarian–  without hypocrisy?

      • I’ve read and been influenced by Francis, mostly on his extension of James Burnham’s political realism and modernism. Francis did not claim to be a Christian- although there are some rumors that he consented to the Last Rites of the Catholic Church on his deathbed. In this he would be imitating Burnham once again. 

        I’m not particularly motivated by convictions about racial differences – although I’m sometimes disgusted by what some racialists say. 

        I would say that one could hold to be Catholic and a racialist if you confine racialism to this: the idea that people pass on their genetic heritage to one another, and one (moderately useful?) way of grouping people is through races.  This probably amounts to just common sense and doesn’t qualify as racialism as its current exponents mean it. 

        My own view is that racialism is a kind of deracination in itself. We have “black” identity in America because slavery uprooted Africans from their ethnic and religious identities. Their racial identity is an ad-hoc substitute. Nasty legal regimes and outright racism did a lot to re-enforce this identity. 

        So it seems to me strange – even perverse- to form a “white-identity” group in response. 

        You could not be a Catholic and a racialist if you take it to mean that somehow people of other races deserve less dignity. Many Catholic saints opposed the introduction of slavery and fought for abolition. Some people may, as groups, be more or less good at certain things based on their genetic endowments. But- what of it? 

        I think one could be a Catholic and a libertarian – although many distributists would like this not to be true. 

        I am influenced by all sorts of things –  “paleo-conservatism”, libertarianism, Catholic social thought.  Like the contributors here I’m tired of pre-fab ideology. I’m interested in insight.

        • Anonymous

          Thoughtful and candid. I appreciate it. The issue of identity and exogenous oppression is a big one– especially when sorting out the effects of coercion over generations. It seems that the nature of ‘black’ and ‘white’ ‘identity’ are both reactions and symptoms, indeed. Removing  the political barriers– slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow, Segregation, forced integration, affirmative action, wage laws, corporatist unions, public schools, etc.,  surely must alleviate some of the stress that leads to the worst forms of collectivism.

          If it is discovered that genetic determinism exists, and that it suggests collectivism by race, will it really have an effect on the moral dictat of judging character individually?

          • I don’t think it would have an effect necessarily- although surely if it became an ideology of racial differences rather than a fact of them- it would lead to some bad treatment. 

            Also, I happen to think that my religious commitments force me to recognize the dignity of people whatever their cognitive, athletic, aesthetic differences. I’m not sure though that we have a secular ethic that would force others to do the same. In a way, all the reactions and symptoms are another word for “history” – which is something libertarians and a lot of conservatives just hate to admit happened. 

            That’s why I’m sympathetic to WW’s cause to just figure out what is useful to do with the state, and what isn’t so useful apart from dogma. 

            My fear for the liberaltarian project is that the nature of its alliances will lead it to try and break up and inhibit my religious aspirations as a form of private oppression the way the state was used to break up official racial discrimination. 

            I actually think it is THIS fear, which has caused some Paleo-minded people to try to argue for the Constitutional right to discriminate, or to  (dementedly) defend the pre-Civil Rights, or pre-Civil War South. 

  • Anonymous

    There seems to be an undercurrent of heresy-hunting for neo-Confederates.

    My own view: “I’d like to thank the Slave Power for giving a bad name to resistance to the centralizing tendency of the federal state.”

    • Mark Brady

      What makes it worse is that the Slave Power was itself a centralizing state that embarked upon the draft, debt, and hyperinflation!

  • An addendum on the Catholic issue.
    Hayek was quite sympathetic to Catholic tradition.  According to a talk Jacob gave at CIS (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ORKWkb_1hQ), Hayek originally thought of naming the Mont Pelerin Society, the Tocqueville-Acton Society, because he thought the Catholic beliefs of those would form a connection  with those in Germany who resisted Hitler. 

    Parenthetically,  I must say, I find that bizarre.  Some of the Widerstand were certainly very Catholic, like Claus von Stauffenberg, but apparently he irritated a fellow conspirator by telling he was surprised Protestants were conspiring because the didn’t think they were open to the resistance to tyrants argument for supporting violent resistance to a ruler.  And admirable though Stauffenberg was, he can’t really be called a liberal (or libertarian) in any definition. There have certainly been many German liberal thinkers of Protestant background.  Kant, Humboldt, Weber and so on.  Maybe Hayek just meant to assure German Catholics that liberalism is not an anti-Catholic way of thinking, but perhaps he also reveals an underlying disposition to favour Catholic tradition, at least in its cultural and intellectual residue.   

    I think there was probably something else in Hayek’s mind.  Though as far as I know he was not a practising Catholic, and in his views on law rejected a Natural Law label, what he says about law is clearly closer to Thomist Natural Law than Legal Positivism, which he took as the main enemy, along with Utilitarianism which he took to be closely entwined with Positivism, and is is closer to Natural Law tradition than any obvious alternative.  This is one of the reasons why Hayek has so much appeal to those libertarians who find his policy recommendations too moderate.  Natural Law libertarians, who clearly tend to be Catholic and tend to be happy with Paul, including libertarian-conservative fusionists like Paul Gottfried (an extreme pale-con) and Edward Feser, can see much to be happy with in that view of law.  In general it explains why National Review, and other not very libertarian currents on the right find it easy to adopt Hayek.  Of course this is not just about being Catholic, and Natural Law arguments are not always used for conservative purposes, but there is clearly a lot of overlap between conservatives, traditionalist Catholics, and Natural Law advocates which influences the libertarian movement in its conservative fusionist aspects, including the Paulites and the Paleo-Cons/ Neo-Confederates.

    On the other side of that, some moderate classical liberals of a secular cosmopolitan disposition (like myself) who favour Hayek’s thoughts on policy feel less happy with his rigid adherence to the superiority of ‘law’ as opposed to ‘legislation’, which is roughly equivalent to the distinction between Natural Law, though with a evolutionary twist, and statute law.  I would also say I am not so happy with the idea of Law as being evolutionary in the Hume-Smith sense of the development of civil government, law, moral empathy, and liberty, since Law as opposed to Legislation seems to assume some kind of unwritten unchanging pure Law somewhere, lessening the force of Hayek’s thoughts about open evolution and emergent orders which is surely closer to the Smith-Hume view of progress.  

  • I”m guilty of this too, but I believe we are often saying libertarian when we mean classical liberal. Nevertheless:

    http://zatavu.blogspot.com/2011/01/my-libertarianism.html

    http://zatavu.blogspot.com/2011/12/my-thick-libertarianism.html

    And many, many others, if you want to search through my blog.

  • Anonymous

    You had me until 7). The Rothbard bit was exactly right.

    There are lots of *good* reasons to oppose the civil war. Sympathy for the confederacy is the problem, obv. But I find these get mixed up too easily. Thomas DiLorenzo does kinda seem like a crypto-racist IMO, but David Beito does not.

    Fixating on whether or not the civil rights act should have been passed makes for a lot of confusion and minimizes the real work of everyone who was a part of the civil rights movement which was successful because it was mostly bottom up not reformist. 

    And paleos have legit complaints. They *do* seem to be consistently anti-war in a way others are not. And there does seem to be a tendency among ‘beltway libertarians’ to moderate their views to appeal to the establishment. Ironically, while arguably having less in common w/the left culturally, antiwar and even lewrockwell publish ppl on the left on the regular. Meantime reasonable ppl are (were?) playing at something called liberaltarianism which sounds gross and failed miserably as progressives didn’t need or want a coalition after Obama was elected – despite the fact that he governs as if he were an acolyte of G. W. Bush.  (but please don’t think I ‘support’ the right-libertarians)

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  • As I suggest in this blog entry (and clarify for Jacob in the comments below it), I think left-liberal-leaning libertarians may forget that tradition (and thus the right) is perhaps our greatest source of “thickness”: http://www.toddseavey.com/2012/01/people-of-iowa-from-ron-paul-voters-to.html

  • Damien S.

    Yet more data on the USA’s low income mobility: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/us/harder-for-americans-to-rise-from-lower-rungs.html
    US and UK lead in the high chance for a man raised in  the lowest quintile to stay there.  Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark are at the other end.  France, Sweden, and Germany in between.  Americans are at 42-ish percent (bar chart.)  Danes at 25%, with 15% chance of making it to the top quintile, and about 20% for ending up in the middle three.  Far from being a classless society, the US leads in upper and lower class ‘stickiness’, in large part because it sucks so much to be poor in America.   (Poor health, poor education, poor physical mobility…)

    I’d think that evidence-based advocates of both markets and helping the poor would think hard about the implications of such data.

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