Conservatives and progressives alike spent the 20th century arguing for universal political principles. But the world is not so malleable; even in a hyper-connected digital age elites struggle to maintain support for globalism against a tide of nationalist, populist, and breakaway movements. Libertarians should embrace this reality and reject universalism for the morally and tactically superior vision of radical self-determination.
For decades we’ve been conditioned to believe the world is getting smaller, and thus that globalism in all its forms is inevitable. Instant communication, inexpensive access to digital information, global trade, and cheap fast travel will combine to demonstrate once and for all that nationality, geography, culture, language, ethnicity—and even history— matter far less than a shared humanity.
Given this inevitable reality, old modes of living will be tossed aside by a world hungry for modernity. Universal suffrage, an article of faith in a post-monarchical world, will yield 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 will spread far and wide, with technology bridging the old boundaries of nation states. Both progressives and conservatives share this vision, although the former emphasize a supra-national administrative state (“one world government”) while the latter focus on globally managed trade schemes under the auspices of international law.
Universalism provides the philosophical underpinnings for globalism. But it does not provide a roadmap for freedom. Libertarians, who want a non-political world organized around civil society and markets rather than the state, have a responsibility to call foul on this inescapably statist narrative. Globalism is not liberty; instead it threatens to create an entirely new level of government. And universalism is not natural law; in fact it is often directly at odds with human nature and (true) human diversity.
Yet many libertarians have taken up the universalism mantra. Calls for the global recognition of rights based on liberal individualism and the promotion of an ill-defined “libertarian cosmopolitanism” suggest the same kind of universalist hubris that imagines an inescapable arc to human history. A form of libertarian universalism is behind the creation of international organizations like the Atlas Network, just as it is behind the impulse to argue for western “tolerance” and constitutionalism before the nascent Iraqi National Assembly. It’s behind the charge that Ron Paul’s support for secession and states’ rights is illibertarian.
Certainly there are universal normative principles found in libertarianism, especially natural law libertarianism. All humans have a right to sovereignty over their physical bodies and minds, a right to own justly-acquired property, and to freely associate (or disassociate) with others. Self-ownership and property rights are central tenets of libertarianism.
But many parts of the world disagree with those tenets, whether we admit this or not. Universal social norms, cultural attitudes, or policy prescriptions are a very tough sell beyond the West. While libertarians can universally condemn slavery, or authoritarian collectivism, it’s quite another thing to suggest how other societies ought to organize themselves politically. Yet consistent universalism requires this. Gay rights in America means gay rights for Saudi Arabia, open borders for Germany means Monaco also must open its doors to refugees, and Texas-style open carry is the prescription France needs to prevent another Bataclan. If US military intervention is justified in Rwanda, it must be justified in Syria. How can a universalist libertarian argue otherwise?
The fundamental problem with universalism is that so few things really are widely agreed upon. Universalists exhibit a special kind of hubris, one that smacks of neo-colonialism: the insistence that others must believe as we do, if only we show them the obvious superiority of our thinking.
But humans not only often fail to believe as we want them to, they also fail to act as hoped. Actions, in fact, tend to be reliably singular. Thus universalism, whether political, economic, or cultural, poses a problem Ludwig von Mises identified decades ago— it is collectivist and unworkable within a praxeological framework:
The philosophy of universalism has from time immemorial blocked access to a satisfactory grasp of praxeological problems, and contemporary universalists are utterly incapable of finding an approach to them. Universalism, collectivism, and conceptual realism see only wholes and universals. They speculate about mankind, nations, states, classes, about virtue and vice, right and wrong, about entire classes of wants and of commodities.
Not only does universalism fail to fully account for individual human action, it also presupposes some form of overarching arbiter, whether deity or state:
The essential problem of all varieties of universalistic, collectivistic, and holistic social philosophy is: By what mark do I recognize the true law, the authentic apostle of God's word, and the legitimate authority. For many claim that Providence has sent them, and each of these prophets preaches another gospel. For the faithful believer there cannot be any doubt; he is fully confident that he has espoused the only true doctrine. But it is precisely the firmness of such beliefs that renders the antagonisms irreconcilable.
As Joe Salerno recently discussed, in rejecting universalism Mises instead saw self-determination as the highest political end. The smaller and more localized the political unit, the more apt the individual was to live under political terms acceptable to him. For Mises, this was not only a matter of civic comity but necessary to avoid outright civil war and bloodshed:
The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.
The right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done. This is impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations, which make it necessary that a region be governed as a single administrative unit and that the right of self-determination be restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants of areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.
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 (provided they are organic and not engineered by states and their spy agencies). We should admire the Swiss federalist system, where localism is a governing principle. 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.
Can a small local state be equally or more illiberal than a large distant one? Of course, although history often demonstrates otherwise. But the Misesian principle remains: the best chance for liberty occurs under rules made by the smallest and closest possible administrative unit to the individual. Each higher level of government attenuates the individual’s ability to effect (or affect) such rules.
Decentralization, secession, subsidiarity, localism, and nullification are the tools for greater self-determination, and thus greater liberty. These tools, not universalist platitudes, should be the stock in trade of libertarians trying to make the case for a freer world.
Libertarians aside, there are hopeful signs that both the political Left and Right see the decentralized writing on the wall.
Progressives saw their world profoundly shaken with the successful Brexit campaign and the election of Trump over uber-globalist Hillary Clinton. They reacted predictably: centralized power in DC suddenly was something to be feared and resisted at all costs. Silicon Valley scions began seriously talking about Calexit, mayors from New York to San Francisco called for sanctuary cities and flouting of federal edicts, and the Chairman of the Democratic Party declared 2017 the Summer of Resistance. These do not sound like people who believe in the sanctity of elections, or who accept the powers of the unitary executive when the wrong guy wins.
But as libertarians we should applaud this. We can call progressive hypocrites, and they are, but they are correct that voting confers no legitimacy on government. If it takes Trump to make the Left realize there is more opposition among the rubes to social democracy and identity politics than they imagined, so be it. For the first time since the Progressive Era, liberals are contemplating the diminution of federal power. This is a happy turn of events, and one we should encourage. Political decentralization, something the Left resisted mightily throughout the 20th century, offers them an opportunity to enjoy progressive policies here and now:
Libertarianism has nothing to say about private communities except this: force and fraud are not permitted. So thousands or even millions of people could come together in areas like San Francisco and voluntarily create single-payer health schemes, gun control zones, income and wealth redistribution, radically progressive taxation, enforced diversity, limits on carbon emissions, free schools, collective child-raising, etc. — the whole panoply of progressive programs.
Conservatives too are starting to recognize that any sense of national identity or unity has been lost. Angelo Codevilla, a Senior Fellow at the Claremont Institute, recently wrote a remarkable essay titled The Cold Civil War that is very much worth reading. Codevilla, a serious scholar not prone to hyperbole, sees Trumpist America as nothing short of “in the throes of revolution”:
American society has divided along unreconcilable visions of the good, held by countrymen who increasingly regard each other as enemies. Any attempt by either side to coerce the other into submission augurs only the fate that has befallen other peoples who let themselves slide into revolution. It follows that the path to peace must lie in each side’s contentment to have its own way—but only among those who consent to it. This implies limiting the U.S. government’s reach to what it can grasp without wrecking what remains of our national cohesion.
Codevilla continues to use familiar conservative language like “statecraft” and “federalism,” but the message of the article clearly shows him in the unfamiliar territory of proposing a radically decentralized America. He is a conservative who finally understands that conservatives simply cannot win under the current political arrangement. They’ve lost the culture wars, lost the budget wars, lost the mantle of limited government, and lost the Constitution. They exist only to slightly impede the progressive agenda, but even that slight opposition has earned them nothing but hatred and scorn. For a red-blooded, America-loving immigrant like Codevilla, this is unacceptable.
So like progressives he calls for some good old-fashioned Irish Democracy— widespread but passive resistance to central government edicts that impose progressive policies on red states that do not want such policies. Since administrative force can never overcome “waning consensus,” what if Texas shut down abortion clinics or North Dakota instituted prayer in schools? What would, or could, the federal government do if dozens of states simply shrugged and decided to reject certain federal regulations or court decisions in matters of “health, education, welfare, and police”?
The answer, as libertarians have long argued, is not much. Three or four million federal employees are in no position to carry out federal rules once any national consensus has fallen apart. In fact, what Codevilla proposes sounds an awful lot like a… loose confederation of states. This is a refreshing development from the Claremont Institute, which has a history of lionizing the Great Centralizer Abraham Lincoln.
Claremont may not be the Heritage Foundation or National Review, but it is squarely within the boundaries of Conservatism, Inc. So when a publication like the Claremont Review of Books features an article calling for radical decentralization to avoid a hot civil war, we should take notice.
Political subsidiarity offers conservatives and progressives a way to coexist, maybe the only way. Hyperbole aside, is a shooting war really unthinkable at this point in America?
Now is the time for libertarians to seize the day and make the case for decentralization. There’s never been a better time to sell it. It is time to rebrand libertarianism as a robust, pragmatic, and workable alternative to the phony universalism currently being peddled. Trump showed us the cracks in the globalist narrative. So rather than doubling down on that narrative, we should promote a libertarian vision that actually comports with human nature and reality.
The overarching libertarian political value is self-determination. Decentralization, secession, subsidiarity, and nullification are the mechanisms that move us closer to that value. Insisting on universal values, political or otherwise, is both a strategic and ethical mistake. The future is decentralized; why are so many libertarians arguing for the opposite?
Unless you’re a Saudi or a Frenchman, the status of gay marriage or gun rights or any number of things in those countries ultimately is none of your business. This may seem unsatisfactory to libertarians, but only if we imagine that universalism trumps self-determination.