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The Libertarian Option

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07/29/2011Jeff Riggenbach

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Eight Ways to Run the Country"]

I only very recently became aware of the existence of a book called 8 Ways to Run the Country: A New and Revealing Look at Left and Right by Brian Patrick Mitchell. I think I keep up fairly well with what's coming out that relates to the libertarian tradition. So at first I thought perhaps this was a new book that had somehow slipped past my net. But once I looked into it, I found that it wasn't new at all.

8 Ways to Run the Country was published four years ago, back in 2007, before I had begun doing the Libertarian Tradition podcast for the Mises Institute and keeping my eagle eye peeled for new books relating to that topic. Between you and me, however, I don't think that's the reason I failed to notice this book when it first came out. It's published by Praeger, a firm that publishes many fine and interesting books in the humanities and social sciences but which tends to rely on rumor to get the word out that it has a new title on the market.

Tom Woods must know somebody who knows somebody, because he seems to have heard the rumor. He reviewed the book on LewRockwell.com back in 2007 when it first became available. He spoke highly of it on the whole, though he expressed a few reservations, which I'll come back to momentarily. More recently, Anthony Gregory has jumped on the bandwagon with even greater enthusiasm, claiming, again on LewRockwell.com, that Mitchell's little book is "illuminating," and altogether "the best explanation of the political spectrum," a volume that "makes sense of all the major mysteries."

I beg to differ. But before I go into exactly why, I should say something about what I do like about this book. Otherwise, I fear that my positive comments and even the fact that my overall response is mixed, not negative, will be utterly forgotten in the mad rush of negativity that'll be coming your way in the following paragraphs.

Brian Patrick Mitchell is the Washington Bureau Chief of Investor's Business Daily. He writes crisply and succinctly and very readably. More important, he devotes a substantial amount of space to us — the libertarian movement. Two of his 11 chapters, 25 of his 142 pages, are about us. Nearly a fifth of his total text is about us. It has been said with much wisdom that everyone's favorite subject is himself — unless, of course, it's herself. Any libertarian who loves reading about the libertarian movement and where its ideas fit into the American political spectrum will want to read this book.

The problem for me is that I can't find myself in Mitchell's pages. And by that I don't mean that he doesn't cite me or quote me. He doesn't, but that's irrelevant to my point. My point is that I'm not there in his book in spirit. And neither is any other libertarian who thinks as I do. By Mitchell's standards, such libertarians as we simply don't exist. Let me explain.

According to Mitchell, there are two kinds of libertarians. There are the individualists, and there are the paleolibertarians. The individualists are typified by the libertarians who staff the Cato Institute and Reason magazine. These individualists, Mitchell writes, "are really rather pro-government," because, as they see it, "government, after all, provides the necessary framework for the individual's pursuit of happiness."

Few of these individualists believe in God or the traditional moral values associated with such faith. They are, in fact, "deeply resentful of people trying to 'impose their morality' on others." They exhibit "reluctance to make moral judgments" themselves, and give "everyone else" in American political life reason to suspect that they "are just libertines who don't believe in right or wrong but push libertarianism because it would let them … do as they please." Nor are they much impressed with the role churches have historically played in bringing order to community life. They believe that "free individuals create their own order as they pursue their own interests," and "their ideal society is not a group bound together by mutual obligation or [freely accepted] authority, but a free association of autonomous individuals protected by an accepted legal framework."

These individualists typically support the Libertarian Party, whose 2000 platform, Mitchell informs us, "is a pedophile's dream." (After all, it affirms a right Murray Rothbard long argued that we should respect — every child's right to run away from his or her parents; also, as Mitchell notes in a tone of shocked horror, it "would bar the government from restricting private adoption services, which would effectively legalize the buying and selling of children for sexual service.") Moreover, Mitchell writes, "most individualists have confined their complaints [about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars] to the sacrifice of civil liberties at home and warnings about the costs and risks of military intervention. Many have publicly backed the use of force abroad."

The paleolibertarians, by contrast, have opposed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — opposed them forthrightly and absolutely. Mitchell uses the late Harry Browne to typify the paleolibertarian view of national defense. "Browne," he writes, was "all for defending the country but [thought] the country would not much need defending if it were not so imperialistic." Browne believed, according to Mitchell, that "war is 'just one more government program,' inefficiently run like the US Postal Service. Government doesn't work, even when fighting wars." He quotes Browne again: "If [a government] wins a war, it's only because it's fighting another government."

Paleolibertarians, according to Mitchell, are typified not only by Browne, but also by the people who staff the Ludwig von Mises Institute and those who write for LewRockwell.com. And what that means he has already made abundantly clear. For he has written about another of the intellectuals he has chosen to focus on (Justin Raimondo of AntiWar.com) that "his organizational attachments are to the Right. He is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and a former adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute." Got that? If A is B and B is C, then A is C. The Ludwig von Mises Institute is on "the Right." A paleolibertarian, Mitchell maintains, is "a right-leaning libertarian."

Yet he also wants us to believe that paleolibs are "anarchists of a sort." For "the paleolib is confident of man's ability to live without government. He believes that virtually everything that governments have tried to manage — from lighthouses to law enforcement — can be better managed by private persons or groups." For the paleolib, as Mitchell understands him, "at its best, government is a necessary evil; at its worst, it is the greatest evil the world has ever known." He quotes Harry Browne as saying that government is merely

an agency of coercion. Of course, there are other agencies of coercion — such as the mafia. So to be more precise, government is the agency of coercion that has flags in front of its offices. Or, to put it another way, government is society's dominant producer of coercion. The mafia and independent bandits are merely fringe competitors — seeking to take advantage of the niches and nooks neglected by the government.

So there you have it, the contemporary libertarian movement — individualists who support so-called limited government and are irreligious hedonists and libertines, and paleolibs who want to abolish the government and replace it with a vast network of churches that would try to impose traditional Christian morality on everyone through the power of persuasion and the use of social and cultural sanctions like boycotts and shunning.

Is this cockeyed or what? This is what I would expect from a clever journalist who knew nothing about the subject (contemporary libertarianism) but was not unfriendly toward it. It's the sort of conclusion somebody who was doing a very quick introductory study of the subject might come up with.

But I certainly can't find myself in this mishmash. I don't regard government, even at its best, as a necessary evil; I regard it as an unnecessary evil. Like Mitchell's paleolibs, I want to abolish it entirely. But my moral views are more like those of Ayn Rand than like those of any traditionalist Christian I've ever encountered. I'm as secular as they come; I care nothing about churches and tend to stay away from them. I think individuals who want to structure their lives around traditional values and traditional ways should definitely do that. I wish them well and hope they have long and pleasant lives. Myself, I've always preferred a more Bohemian lifestyle; I pick and choose among the traditions I find around me, honoring those I like, ignoring those I don't like, and working to create new traditions of my own to replace the ones I jettison.

Like the individualists, I think one of the appealing qualities of a free society is its openness to individual choice and experimentation in personal lifestyle. But I'm sure as hell no advocate of the childish fantasy of "limited government." Nor am I alone in all this. I personally know many other contemporary libertarians who would have difficulty recognizing themselves in the distorted funhouse mirror Brian Patrick Mitchell has held up to what Murray Rothbard always called "this movement of ours."

In fairness to Mitchell, I must acknowledge that portraying and anatomizing the contemporary libertarian movement was not his chief objective in writing this book. He was up to something much more ambitious than that. And back in 2007, Tom Woods seems to have thought that Mitchell did a pretty good job of achieving his more ambitious goal. "What to my mind makes [Mitchell's] book valuable," Tom wrote back then, "is … its usefulness as a political and philosophical primer for those who would like to understand the ideological landscape in America." In that sense, Mitchell's book is rather like The Nine Nations of North America, if you remember that extremely astute 30-year-old tome, except that, in my judgment, at least, Joel Garreau makes his case in The Nine Nations of North America, whereas Brian Patrick Mitchell does not make his in 8 Ways to Run the Country.

To Mitchell, you see, there are eight ideological stances at play in contemporary American politics. There are three kinds of "leftists": the communitarians, the progressives, and the radicals (who are better known to the rest of us as anarcho-communists). There are three kinds of conservatives: the paleocons, the theocons (that is, the Religious Right), and the neocons. And there are, as we have seen, two types of libertarians.

All these permutations are necessary because each group has a different combination of attitudes toward the issue of what Albert Jay Nock called "social power" versus "state power." Some of them like state power and dislike social power. Others dislike state power and like social power. Still others dislike both social power and state power. Yet others like both state power and social power. In the case of the libertarians, the indies don't like social power, while the paleolibs do. Simplistic? Yes. Misleading? Yes. A Procrustean bed into which many actual libertarians simply can't be made to fit? Definitely.

To return to my own case, my name is publicly associated with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, so probably I'm a paleolib in Mitchell's eyes, though he does acknowledge that "all libertarians accept the basic libertarian program of private property and individual rights, and so there is considerable crossover among indies and paleolibs supporting the same organizations and writing for the same magazines." The part of this sentence in which Mitchell asserts that "all libertarians accept … individual rights," is not technically correct, of course. Ever since Max Stirner in the mid-19th century, so-called "consequentialist" libertarians have argued that an individual should act as though he respects the rights of others (even though no such thing as "rights" actually exists) because conducting his affairs in this way will, in the long run, benefit him. This is merely another indication of how little Mitchell really understands about libertarianism, how quick and superficial his study of it was.

On the other hand, when Mitchell says there's a lot of crossover institutionally among indies and paleolibs, he's right. Frankly, I wish he had devoted more of his discussion to the many ways in which these supposedly different types of libertarians do in fact work together to advance common goals. Instead, he devotes most of his energy in his two chapters on this movement of ours to perpetuating the supposed feud between the Mises Institute libertarians and the "beltway libertarians" of the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation.

This kind of thing is a waste of time and energy, I think. It seems to me every libertarian should just do his or her own thing and hope their fellow libertarians will surprise them by actually accomplishing something by pursuing their different strategies. We should be critical of each other, to be sure — we should subject our fellow libertarians to the closest scrutiny and we should bar no holds in our criticism, particularly if we believe that what our fellow libertarian is doing might mislead the public, selling it something that isn't libertarianism but is being presented under that name. But endless dwelling on our differences will get us nowhere. And portraying those differences in a way that doesn't even account for the available evidence? Ditto.


Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.