Power & Market

The Problem with Microlibertarianism

When I was still in graduate school and still in my early twenties, I was riding on the airport shuttle to an event at the Mises Institute when I encountered an interesting phenomenon. It was the phenomenon of the “libertarian” who is free-market in the small stuff, but embraces war and statism in the big things. 

I still remember that shuttle ride well. I had become involved in a discussion with a man who was probably twenty years my senior. He was on the way to the same Institute conference, and was expressing the usual free-market sentiments about low taxes and the problems with government regulation. 

When the topic turned to foreign policy, however, freedom and the evils of the state were quickly forgotten. This man ended up singing the praises of Washington’s interventions in Central America and in its illegal arms sales to Iran. That is, he sided with the neoconservatives who had perpetrated the Iran-Contra affair. This self-described libertarian was lamenting that the Reagan administration had been caught illegally spending federal money while meddling in wars in both the Middle East and in the Americas. 

When I suggested that illegally fomenting foreign wars was not exactly compatible with a “limited” state or even constitutional government, he then reverted to a well-worn tactic often used by older men who lack a real argument: he said I was too young to understand.

Now that I am at least as old as that man was then, I’ve been around long enough to have encountered many people like him. It is easy to find libertarians who will act on principle on the small, easy topics, but will then abandon all principle on the big stuff. 

What is the small stuff? It’s things like smoking marijuana, rent control, prostitution, and ride-sharing. At libertarian conferences and in online discussions, it’s pretty straightforward and easy to oppose government regulation of taxi services, or to denounce rent control, or be against locking up women—most of whom are poor—for accepting money in exchange for sex. These issues, however, are generally rather peripheral to state power. To remove state action from these areas does little to endanger the state or its core powers. To favor restraints on state power in these topics, we might say, is to be a “microlibertarian.”

The big stuff is another matter. It’s those more controversial topics like war and peace, geopolitics, and—as we have learned in the past several years—”pandemics.” These topics are much more central and dear to states and their agents. As Charles Tilly noted long ago, “war made the state and the state made war.” Or, as Randolph Bourne put it, “war is the health of the state.” Murray Rothbard has explained how the issue of war is at the very heart of any efforts to defend freedom and human rights. 

Moreover, we have recently seen how regimes employed many of the same propaganda and fear-based tactics employed in wartime in the name of “fighting the pandemic.” Many of the same policies employed during wartime were employed during the covid panic: embracing “emergency powers,” demanding total obedience to “experts,” and accepting near total state control over entire sectors of the economy. In both wartime and pandemic-time we are told that state power cannot be limited, because otherwise the “enemy”—whether an imagined foreign bogeyman or a disease—will win. There are far fewer libertarians willing to embrace true laissez-faire and freedom in these cases. But such immovable stalwarts do exist. We might call this smaller group of libertarians “macrolibertarians.” They stick to defending freedom even when it comes to the big, controversial stuff. 

Your average microlibertarian will quickly surrender his liberties and defer to state power in an effort to combat the “threat.” The supposed defenders of freedom in “peacetime” or “non-pandemic time” will happily explain to you why free-markets work “in theory” sometimes, but that the really important stuff like “national interest” and “public health” require government control. 

In the case of pandemics, for instance, some microlibertarians even embraced vaccine mandates. Walter Block, for instance, has called for the death penalty for those who refuse a vaccine mandate, writing:  ”Would I compel the 60 percent to get the vaccination on libertarian grounds? You’re darn tootin’ I would. Not so much to save them. That would be paternalism. But, rather, in order to save the lives of the 40 percent who are vulnerable. If any member of this 60 percent refused this vaccination, I would execute him as threatening mass murder of 40 percent of the population.”

Things are even worse for microlibertarians when it comes to foreign policy. This was often found in the refrain “I agree with Ron Paul except on foreign policy” during Paul’s presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012. The sentiment expressed a common position: “I think the state is bad on some things, but I’m not really interested in confronting the major issues at the core of state power.” 

Historically, of course, we have seen a precipitous decline in the popularity of libertarian ideology whenever the regime has managed to whip the public into a war frenzy. Perhaps the most salient and recent example of this is what happened after 9/11. During the 1990s, anti-government sentiment grew throughout the decade as many Americans in the post-Cold War world recognized that the American state was a far greater threat to them than any group of foreigners. That, of course, largely evaporated after 9/11 as countless self-described advocates for “small government” embraced warrantless spying, torture, and endless war. 

We see a similar phenomenon today with both the Ukraine War and the State of Israel’s war against Gazans. The microlibertarians over at the CATO Institute, for instance, fired Ted Galen Carpenter because he wasn’t sufficiently enthusiastic about perpetual war between NATO and Russia. 

When it comes to the war in Gaza, leading microlibertarian Block has encouraged the “heroic Prime Minister Netanyahu” to be more aggressive in his efforts to “pulverize” women and children in Gaza. Are there any limits on the Israeli state in this view? Not so long as the “threat” needs to be stamped out by strong state action. 

In these cases we see the microlibertarian position in action: limits on state power work for the small stuff, but not for the big stuff. Consequently, the powers and prerogatives most central to state power—and which offer the greatest threats to the lives and freedoms of ordinary people—get a free pass. 

This isn’t to say that the “small stuff” is unimportant. Of course it is good and important to condemn rent control and the drug war and the countless ways that states impoverish and control us. I have written on many such topics myself and have published many articles on these topics on mises.org. Rothbard certainly did not ignore these topics. On the other hand, to oppose rent control while also favoring the mass murder of 100,000 civilians is not simply a matter of having some minor “blind spot.” It is an enormous contradiction. 

To take this position is to refuse to hit the state where it hurts. It reflects a fundamental complacency when it comes to murderous and despotic state power so long as that power is used during alleged “emergencies.” This is an extremely common position, of course, and many well-meaning people embrace it. Those who do, however, are effectively neutralized when it comes to opposing the issues most dear to states and their agents.

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