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What Libertarianism is Not


[Disclaimer: The following post reflects my views on the subject, and they should not be confused for anybody else's. Related blog posts: Coordination Problem, "Mises and Hayek Cited..."; Gene Callahan, "Is It OK..."]

Libertarianism is not a violent political philosophy. Yes, libertarianism is anti-state (or, at least, calls for a radical reduction in the size of the state). But, anti-statism should not be construed as a call to violence. All libertarians should abhor the use of aggression as a means of achieving an end. Indeed, libertarianism is based on the principle of social cooperation, which by definition is peaceful. We are individuals who recognize the advantages of a peaceful society, relying on the contractual construct of private property as a means of dealing with the underlying scarcity that pervades our world. The initiation of violence, by its very nature, is antithetical to libertarianism.

Our political philosophy is likely to suffer from a bombardment of attacks and criticisms from those who are either ignorant or keen on taking advantage of any opportunity to defame libertarianism. One such, truly unfortunate, opportunity presents itself in the wake of the cruel and inhuman acts of terrorism which struck Norway on the weekend of 20 July 2011. A short while before the bombing in Oslo and the shooting on a small Norwegian island, Anders Behring Breivik posted a final status update on Facebook, pointing his ‘friends’ to his long revolutionary manifesto and a YouTube video.

Time magazine has dubbed the manifesto a “template for right-wing terror” (and while Time does not make a connection between the “right-wing” and libertarianism, there is no question that there are many who believe the two to be related). I prefer to call it an insane man’s fanatical and senseless ramblings. Breivik was a frustrated and bigoted man. He was not led by any specific political ideology, rather by his own twisted mindset. He read and quoted only that which fitted his views, misconstruing and misinterpreting much of it in the process. To call these acts of terrorism “right-wing” is to deny the fundamental psychological imbalance Breivik, and many like him, suffer from. The same goes for “left-wing” acts of terror. Blaming political doctrine is like blaming a gun for the crime committed by the individual. It is not only unfair to those who actually hold those implicated political views, but is also unfair to the victims of the crime.

In his “manifesto”, Breivik makes mention of two great intellectuals who influenced the libertarian movement: Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. He cites these two magnificent thinkers without understanding what he is referencing. Neither man was a bigot. Both men would have condemned Breivik’s violent actions. He also includes links to three articles published on the Mises Institute’s website, one of which, ironically, lambasts Nazism (usually considered a right-wing political ideology). None of what he cites encourages the initiation of violence as a means of making a political message.

Mises and Hayek were inspired in their studies in economic science and political philosophy by the society which man had constructed and organized over thousands of years of existence. Hayek called this phenomenon “spontaneous order”. Both men spent much of their lives explaining what forces made society, as we know it, possible. To a substantial degree, their political views were an outgrowth of their economic insight. They made a valuation regarding what end they favored society to move towards and concluded that large government was incompatible with social progress. They recognized that the state could lead to social retrogression.

Contrary to the charges made by many of their critics, who characterize libertarianism as amoral, both Mises and Hayek loved humanity. Their political visions found their roots in their admiration for what the individual human had accomplished. Indeed, Mises’ underscored the importance of allowing the individual to attain whatever end was valued the most by whatever means that individual controls. This concept of “economization” implies a certain primacy of the person. Indeed, it is the individual as a consumer who guides the entirety of the production process. Both men highly valued capitalism because it is the only method by which society can progress towards the direction preferred by the individuals who make it up.

Libertarians recognize that individuals, from very early on, developed methods by which to limit the degree of violence in their society. Property rights are one such tool. Property rights were meant as a way of delineating ownership over scarce resources to avoid the conflict which would naturally arise if one’s ownership of a particular economic good was not respected. To a progressive individual, interesting in furthering one’s wealth, conflict is necessarily counterproductive. Conflict is only a means of consuming one’s wealth. It is no surprise, then, that the most peaceful societies are those characterized by the predominance of markets.

The government, in contrast, is a violent institution. It, in fact, cannot exist as a peaceful organization, since it survives by forcing others to pay it tribute. This is true irrespective of the individuals who make up the state, and whether their intentions are peaceful or violent. Bureaucracy is not interested in prioritizing cooperation, largely because bureaucracy does not enjoy the signals which those constrained by the market do. The state does not profit and it does not lose, since its income is forcefully appropriated from its subjects. There is little incentive in finding ways of cooperating as a means of reducing costs, and as such its laws are all too often arbitrary and violently enforced. The state uses prohibition as its main tool, believing that outright prohibition is the only means of reducing conflict between it and its subjects. The truth, though, is that these types of laws only foster greater violence, because they disallow cooperation.

One should not confuse libertarianism with pacificism. Some may be pacifists, others are not. However, libertarianism is completely and unwaveringly opposed to the initiation of violence. This is true whether this violence comes from the state or it comes from an individual.

What Anders Breivik did was to initiate violence. He murdered innocent people as a means of manifesting his internal rage. It was not an attack on the state. It was an attack on society by a man mentally unequipped to be part of that society. Breivik’s actions led to the destruction of wealth and an unraveling of societal progress. He assaulted the very thing libertarianism cherishes: social cooperation.

That some will use this event to further their agenda, including politicians hoping to link Breivik’s violence with the growing minimal government movement is unfortunate, classless, and inappropriate. No less, it is dishonest. Breivik’s intentions are not to fight the state. His purpose is the product of his scrambled mind. The only thing Breivik has accomplished is mimicking the state in damaging society. Breivik is no libertarian. Anybody truly guided by libertarianism would have never committed such a vicious act of aggression.

Jonathan M. Finegold Catalán writes from San Diego and studies political science and economics.


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