Mises Wire

For a New Libertarian

[This talk was delivered at the 2017 Mises University.]

Greetings to everyone at the Corax 2017 conference, and greetings also to the audience here at our annual Mises University. As you can see both events are happening simultaneously, so I couldn’t be with you in person this evening. But I very much appreciate being invited by Sofia and Martin to speak, and I would indeed have joined you in Malta any other week. And I admire Sofia and Martin for having the courage to leave Sweden and start this new venture in Malta, which by their account is not only warmer but also far more reasonable!

What I'd like to talk about today is libertarians, more than libertarianism itself. And I’ll ask you to consider whether libertarians have lost their way.

The title “For a New Libertarian” is I hope an obvious play on the title of Murray Rothbard’s famous book For a New Liberty. It’s an underrated book, less well-known perhaps than The Ethics of Liberty. Lots of authors have the ego to call their books “a manifesto,” but few books actually live up to such an bold subtitle. This book does.

I love Murray’s line: “libertarianism, then, is a philosophy seeking a policy.” I wonder if he’d change that line today, if he could see what the “public policy” branch of libertarianism has become. Or maybe he should have written “libertarianism is a philosophy seeking better libertarians.”

I also chose the title to make the important point that we don’t need a “new libertarianism” or anything so grand. Thanks to the great thinkers who came before us, and still among us, we don’t have to do the hard work — which is good news, because not many of us are smart enough to come up with new theory! We can all very happily serve as second-hand dealers in ideas.

Sometimes libertarians do fall into a trap of needing something new, what we might call a modernity trap. It has become trendy to imagine that technology creates a new paradigm, a new “third way” that will make government obsolete without the need for an intellectual shift. The digital age is so flat, so democratic, and so decentralized that it will prove impossible for inherently hierarchical states to control us. The free flow of information will make inevitable the free flow of goods and services, while unmasking tyrannies which can no longer keep the truth from their citizens.

While I certainly hope this is true, I’m not so sure. It seems to me that states are shifting from national to supra-national, that globalism in effect means more centralized control by an emerging cartel of allied states like the EU (and their NGO accomplices) — not to mention the calls for a convergence of central banks under a global organization like the IMF. We should be suspicious of the determinist notion that there is an inevitable arc to human history.

And while we all benefit from the marvels of technological progress, and we especially welcome technology that makes it harder for the state to govern us — for example bitcoin or Uber or encryption — we should remember that advances in technology also make it easier for governments to spy on, control, and even kill the people under their control.

So I suspect that while humans continue to exist, their stubborn tendency to form governments will remain a problem. The choice between organizing human affairs by economic means or political means was not undone by the printing press, or the industrial revolution, or electricity, or any number of enormous technological advancements. So we can’t assume liberation via the digital revolution.

Technology aside, Rothbard’s conception of liberty has held up quite well over nearly half a century. Humans are sovereign over their mind and body, meaning you own yourself. From this flows the necessary corollary of property rights, meaning individuals have a valid claim to the byproducts of their minds and bodies--axiomatically we know that humans have to act to survive. And from self-ownership and property rights we arrive at a theory of when force is permissible, namely in self-defense. And these ideas of self-ownership, property rights, and non-aggression ought to apply to everyone, even when a group bands together and call themselves “government.” Since governments by definition use force (or threaten force) in many ways that are not definable as self-defense, they are invalid under the Rothbardian paradigm.

It’s a beautiful, simple, and logical theory. And of course at least a degree of all three elements — individual liberty, property rights, and some conception of law protecting both — are necessary and present for real human progress. I know, I know, slaves built the pyramids, although Egyptologists tell us otherwise, and Soviet scientists weren’t free and they still built nuclear bombs — probably to avoid a trip to Siberia. But the larger point we know is true: liberty and human progress are inextricably linked.

So we have this fantastic, airtight Rothbardian theory of liberty. But it’s not enough. And Murray was adamant about this. He was the first to stress the importance of people and activism, not just ideas and education. But what kind of people, and what kind of activism? That was the question in Murray’s time, and it’s still the question today.

I. Recognize that Liberty Comports with Human Nature.

If there is one overriding point we should remember it is that liberty is natural and organic and comports with human action. It doesn’t require a “new man.” Yet libertarians have a bad tendency to fall into utopianism, into portraying liberty as something new age and evolved. In this sense they can sound a lot like progressives: liberty will work when human finally shed their stubborn old ideas about family and tribe, become purely rational freethinkers (always the opposite), reject the mythology of religion and faith, and give up their outdated ethnic or nationalist or cultural alliances for the new hyper-individualist creed. We need people to drop their old-fashioned sexual hangups and bourgeois values, except for materialism. Because above all the archetypical libertarian is presented as an almost soulless economic actor, someone who will drop everything and move to Singapore tomorrow to make $20,000 more in the gig economy.

Well it turns out that’s not how humans really are. They’re fragile and fallible and hierarchical and irrational and suspicious and herd-like at least as much as they are a bunch of heroic Hank Reardens. In fact Rothbard talks about just this in his section on libertarian strategy at the end of For a New Liberty. He reminds us that it’s progressive utopians who think man has no nature and is “infinitely malleable.” They think man can be perfected, made into the ideal servant of the New Order.

But libertarians believe in free will, he points out. People mold themselves. And therefore it’s folly to expect some drastic change to fit our preferred structure. We hope people will act morally, we believe liberty provides the right incentives for moral improvement. But we don’t rely on this to make liberty work. In fact only libertarianism accepts humans as they are, right here right now. It is in this sense that Rothbard sees liberty as “eminently realistic,” the “only theory that is really consistent with the nature of man and the world.”

So let’s understand — and sell — liberty as a deeply pragmatic approach to organizing society, one that solves problems and conflicts by muddling through with the best available private, voluntary solutions. Let’s reject the grand visions and utopias for what will always be a messy and imperfect world. Better, not perfect, ought to be our motto.

II. Embrace Rather than Reject the Institutions of Civil Society

My second point relates to civil society itself. Because while libertarians enthusiastically embrace markets, they have for decades made the disastrous mistake of appearing hostile to family, to religion, to tradition, to culture, and to civic or social institutions — in other words, hostile to civil society itself.

Which is quite bizarre if we think about it. Civil society provides the very mechanisms we need to organize society without the state. And in keeping with Rothbard’s point about liberty and human nature, civil society organizes itself organically, without force. Human beings want to be part of something larger than themselves. Why do libertarians fail to grasp this?

It scarcely needs to be said that family has always been the first line of defense against the state, and the most important source of primary loyalty — or divided loyalty, from the perspective of politicians. Our connection with ancestors, and our concern for progeny, form a story in which the state is not the main character. Family creates our earliest and hence most formative environment — and at least as an ideal, family provides both material and emotional support. Happy families actually exist.

But government wants us atomized, lonely, broke, vulnerable, dependent, and disconnected. So of course it attempts to break down families by taking kids away from them as early as possible, indoctrinating them in state schools, using welfare as a wedge, using the tax code as a wedge, discouraging marriage and large families, in fact discouraging any kind of intimacy not subject to public scrutiny, encouraging divorce, etc. etc.

This may all sound like right-wing talking points, but it doesn’t make it untrue.

We want strong families, we want elite families, we want wealthy families which are not afraid of government. We want large extended families people can turn to in time of trouble. And one practical side note: assuming roughly 10% of the US population is reasonably liberty-minded, we’re talking about 32M people. Imagine if each of them had 3 kids, we’d create an army of 100M people!

Religion forms another important line of defense against the state. In fact the whole history of man cannot be understood without understanding the role of religion. Even today healthy percentages of people in the West believe in God, regardless of their actual religious observance. And believing in a deity by itself challenges the state’s omniscience and status. Again, religion stands as a potential rival for the individual’s allegiance — And it has a pesky tendency to resurface no matter how much authoritarian governments try to suppress it.

Beyond family and faith, there are an infinite number of non-state institutions that offer communities for almost any conceivable interests. All of them, from business to social to civic organizations serve the civilizing function of organizing people without state power.

Let me also make an important point: it is reasonable to believe that a more libertarian society would be less libertine and more culturally conservative — for the simple reason that as the state shrinks in importance and power, the long-suppressed institutions of civil society grow in importance and power. And in a more libertarian society, it’s harder to impose the costs of one’s lifestyle choices on others. If you rely on the family or church or charity to help you, they may well impose some conditions on that help.

I assure you I’m neither interested in nor judgmental toward your personal beliefs or lifestyle preferences — and neither was Murray Rothbard. And of course libertarianism per se has nothing to say about how one lives. But it remains true that civil society should be celebrated by libertarians at every turn. To believe otherwise is to ignore what humans actually want and actually do, which is create communities. There is a word for people who believe in nothing: not government, family, God, society, morality, or civilization. And that word is nihilist, not libertarian.

III. Political Universalism is Not the Goal

My final point is about the stubborn tendency of libertarians to advocate some of sort of universal political arrangement. To the extent there is political end for libertarians, it is allowing individuals to live as they see fit. The political goal is self-determination, by seeking to reduce the size, scope, and power of the state. But the idea of universal libertarian principles became mixed up with the idea of universal libertarian politics. Live and let live was replaced with the notion of universal libertarian doctrine, often coupled with a cultural element.

And because of this, libertarians often fall into the trap of sounding like conservatives and progressives who imagine themselves qualified to dictate political arrangements everywhere on earth. But what’s libertarian about telling other countries what to do? Shouldn’t our political goal should be radical self-determination, not universal values?

It’s bad enough to hear neoconservatives on TV talking about what’s best for Syria or Iraq or North Korea or Russia from their comfortable western perches. But it’s even worse hearing this from libertarians at Reason. This is both a political and tactical mistake.

The universalist doctrine goes something like this: democratic voting is the sacred political right in a post-monarchical world. It results in social democracies with robust safety nets, regulated capitalism, legal protections for women and minorities, and widely agreed-upon norms regarding social issues. Western conceptions of civil rights now apply everywhere, and with technology we can bridge the old boundaries of nation states.

The flavors are slightly different: left-liberals emphasize a supra-national administrative state (“one world government”), while conservatives focus on globally managed trade schemes and “exporting democracy.” But both sides spent the 20th century insisting their preferred political arrangements are applicable everywhere, and inevitable everywhere.

This narrative does libertarians no favors. Universalism provides the philosophical underpinnings for globalism, but globalism is not liberty: instead it threatens to create whole new levels of government. And universalism is not natural law; in fact it is often directly at odds with human nature and (true) human diversity.

What’s more, it turns out that very few things are actually universally agreed upon. Not governance, not rights, not the role of religion, not immigration, not capitalism, not neoliberalism. We have a hard enough time winning respect for individual liberty and property rights in the West, where we have a strong common law tradition.

Yet libertarians are busy promoting universalism and centralization even as the world moves in the other direction. Trump and Brexit rocked the globalist narrative. Nationalism is on the rise throughout Europe, forcing the EU to defend itself, secession and breakaway movements exist in Scotland, in Catalonia, in Belgium, in Andalusia, even in California. Federalism and states’ rights are suddenly popular with progressives in the US. The world desperately wants to turn its back on Washington and Brussels and the UN and the IMF and all of the globalist institutions. Average people smell a rat.

We should seize on this.

Mecca is not Paris, an Irishman is not an Aboriginal, a Buddhist is not a Rastafarian, a soccer mom is not a Russian. Is it our goal to convince them all to become thorough Rothbardians? Should libertarians care about gay marriage in Saudi Arabia, or insist on the same border arrangements for Brownsville, Texas and Monaco? Should we agitate for Texas-style open carry laws in France, to prevent the next Bataclan?

Or would our time be better spent making the case for political decentralization, secession, and subsidiarity? In other words, should we let Malta be Maltese?

Ludwig von Mises rejected universalism, and saw self-determination as the highest political end. Murray Rothbard made the case for organic nations breaking away from political nations in one of the last things he wrote — an article titled Nations by Consent.

In other words, self-determination is the ultimate political goal. It is the path to liberty, however imperfect. A world of seven billion self-governing individuals is the ideal, but short of that we should prefer the Liechtensteins to the Germanys and the Luxembourgs to the Englands. We should prefer states’ rights to federalization in the US, and cheer for the breakup of EU. We should support breakaway movements in places like Catalonia and Scotland and California. We should favor local control over faraway legislatures and administrative bodies, and thus reject multilateral trade deals. We should, in sum, prefer small to large when it comes to government.

Political decentralization, secession, subsidiarity, and nullification are all mechanisms that move us closer to our political goal of self-determination. Insisting on universal political arrangements is a huge tactical mistake for libertarians. It is precisely because we don’t know what’s best for 7.5 billion people in the world that we are libertarians.

What Would You Fight For?

In closing, I’ll mention an email exchange I had recently with the blogger Bionic Mosquito. If you’re not reading Bionic Mosquito, you should be!

I asked him the same hypothetical question I have for you: what would you fight for? The answer to this question tells us a lot about what libertarians ought to care about.

By this I mean what would you physically fight for, where doing so could mean serious injury or death. Or arrest and imprisonment, or the loss of your home, your money, and your possessions.

I’m sure all of us would fight for our physical persons if we were attacked, or for our families if they were attacked. We might fight for close friends too. And perhaps even our neighbors. In fact we might like to think we would physically defend a total stranger in some circumstances, for example an old woman being attacked and robbed.

And we probably would fight for our towns and communities if they were physically invaded by an outside force, even though we don’t personally know all of the people in our towns and communities.

We might fight for property too, maybe not as fiercely. We certainly would protect our homes, but that’s because of the people inside. How about cars? Would you physically tangle with an armed robber who was driving away in your car? Or would you let him go, and not risk death or injury, just to save your car? How about your wallet? How about someone stealing 40% of your income, as many governments do? Would you take up arms to prevent this?

We probably wouldn’t fight for bitcoin, or net neutrality, or a capital gains tax hike, by the way.

How about an abstraction, like fighting for “your country” or freedom or your religion? This is where things get more tenuous. Many people have and will fight for such abstractions. But if you ask soldiers they’ll tell you that in the heat of battle they’re really fighting for their mates, to protect the men in their units--and to fulfill a personal sense of duty.

In other words, blood and soil and God and nation still matter to people. Libertarians ignore this at the risk of irrelevance.

Thank you very much.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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