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Home | Mises Library | Libertarian Political Realism

Libertarian Political Realism

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Tags Free MarketsPolitical Theory

02/03/2012David S. D'Amato

Philosopher Alexander Moseley offers a straightforward definition of political realism as "tak[ing] as its assumption that power is (or ought to be) the primary end of political action, whether in the domestic or international arena." Realism thus provides a prism through which to observe and to appraise political phenomena, dispensing with the illusions that have built up around the modern state. A consistently realistic view of the state does not impute to it godlike, extramundane characteristics or motivations, or detach it from all of the analyses that mark common discussions of incentives and "human nature." Political realism — as both an experiential or historical matter and a methodological one — must be at the center of a thoroughgoing libertarian project, informing our criticisms and proposed solutions. In a time when attitudes toward political power are marked by awe and adoration rather than a deliberate suspicion, a new, rehabilitated realism can furnish the fresh approach to social questions that people around the world are crying out for.

The paradigm of political realism has been informed by and closely intertwined with "'classical elite theory,' a school of thought whose enduring contribution to sociology has been to assert, very simply, that minorities always wield control in large societies and associations."1 The theories of elitism and realism, in and of themselves, do not necessarily entail a value judgment about whether elites should sit at society's controls; instead, they make a simpler, more fundamental judgment about the conditions that have, as a matter of fact, obtained in political arrangements of all kinds, ranging from feudal systems, to absolute monarchies, to democracies. As a response to Marxism, elitism dismissed out of hand the idea that the state could ever be motivated by egalitarian attitudes, as an instrument of proletarian interests. Already, then, the tradition of classical elitism shares with libertarianism an emphasis on the most basal and distinctive quality of politics, refusing to abide arbitrary distinctions that end up being more rhetorical than substantive.

Anatomizing political institutions and evaluating their results with elite theory as a touchstone equips libertarians with a capacity not to lose the forest for the trees. The theory asks, What is the central and essential purpose of the state in social life? And the sundry brands of total statism during the 20th century seem to lend support to the elitist thesis about the fundamental nature of political society: regardless of purported ideologies, only a small few can brandish the coercive levers of the government machine at any given time.

Further, concrete interests and incentives will eclipse orotund ideological diction wherever the two come into conflict. Where libertarians and the classical elitists may part ways, though, is in their respective analyses regarding the inevitability of elite rule, with the elitists insistent on the ultimate permanence of the political class. Among the primary expositors of this argument — of the notion of Rule by a Few as an insuperable law of nature — was the German sociologist Robert Michels, whose 1911 work Political Parties gave us the "iron law of oligarchy." The claim of the iron law, put generally, is that a small, mobilized and established group will always be capable of and prepared to manipulate processes and rules to their advantage. The great majority of the populace, after all, consumed with the quotidian burdens of workaday life, will hardly notice that elite interests are systematically overtaking ostensibly "public" institutions.

In discussing what he calls (quoting Charlotte Twight) "participatory fascism," Robert Higgs has delineated the kind of oligarchic rule that prevails in the United States (Higgs adds that it might variously be called "disaggregated neocorporatism or quasi-corporatism"). Characterized by "abundant 'iron triangles'" composed of "well-organized private interest groups" and the government agencies and committees that are tasked with regulating them, US political economy finds the basic contentions of elitism confirmed. Focusing on the ways that this oligarchic system has developed during and with the help of crises, Higgs has echoed the assertions of, among others, Pareto and Michels that only a small group can act quickly, decisively and in concert to achieve their ends. Murray Rothbard similarly assailed America's "neo-fascist 'corporate state'" as the antithesis of a free market, the result of momentous state interventions in the economy.

Given their premises about power and its enticements for human beings, libertarians may find the classical realists' devotion to the state something of a paradox, contradicted by their very assumption. Realism as we find it in the work of, for instance, Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes regarded the state as separate and distinct from society itself, as a kind of "necessary evil" erected to prevent the summum malum — political disorder.2 For the realists, a powerful, central state, like those of the present day, was imperative in preventing the worst expressions of human nature from precipitating the war of all against all. So while they in many ways avoided romanticizing the state, looked upon as power incarnate, they nevertheless failed to see the inconsistency in their idea.

Libertarians have a more complete understanding of realism's claims and their practical implications. If human nature really is what Hobbes suspected, then statism is indeed the most dangerous of proposed solutions to the kind of all-encompassing savagery that worried him. Libertarian scholars, particular those of the Austrian School, have sedulously demonstrated that it is the state that has been the source of most violence, disorder, and chaos in the world — a fact that is quite consistent with the realists' understanding of power relations. Certainly a tiny circle of rulers, naturally driven by cupidity, cannot be trusted with the kind of power associated with the Hobbesian vision of the state. The mistake of realism, then, at least in part, is the one that elitism so methodically addresses, that of treating the state as a kind of external, objective apparatus capable of administering impartial justice to society at large. Because while libertarianisms share realism's construction of the state as a thing apart from society more generally, libertarians don't pretend that the state is therefore insulated from or above the inducements that drive all relationships. Having set up the state or "artificial man" as a panacea, outside of the illations about humanity they had previously put forward, the realists had their solution to the problem of chaos. But what a thin solution it is in light of libertarian insights. Where Hobbes and Machiavelli made the far-reaching idea of realism a defense and justification for the state, libertarians must seek to rescue its lessons for a free society.

"The emergence of an omnipotent managerial class," Mises wrote in Human Action, "is not a phenomenon of the unhampered market economy." Rothbard's work too is brimful with examples of the ways that elites within political economy coordinated to garrote genuine free-market dealings in order to create and protect monopolies. And like the classical elitists, Rothbard observed that, for the elites, "theory came later; theory came … to sell to the deluded masses the necessity and benevolence of the new system." In the final analysis, it has mattered little to elites what the system of political parasitism and spoliation is called, at least as long as their mastery over productive society is left intact.

Taken together, the most valuable elements of both realism and elitism can do much to advance the libertarian case against the state and in favor of a society defined by voluntary exchange and individual rights. These historical traditions can provide reference points and shading to an already resonant contemporary libertarian political theory. "All that the analyst or historian need do," argued Rothbard, "is to assume, as an hypothesis, that people in government or lobbying for government policies may be at least as self-interested and profit-motivated as people in business or everyday life, and then to investigate the significant and revealing patterns that he will see before his eyes." We would do well as advocates for a free and stateless society (forgive the redundancy) to heed Rothbard's advice.

  • 1. Alasdair J. Marshall, Vilfredo Pareto's Sociology: A Framework for Political Psychology (2007).
  • 2. Annette Freyberg-Inan, What Moves Man: The Realist Theory of International Relations and Its Judgment of Human Nature (2004).
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