Introduction to Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s “Getting Libertarianism Right” (2018), by Sean Gabb
Getting Libertarianism Right
The Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama, 2018
Introduction by Sean Gabb
(first posted here)
The writings collected in this book are mostly addresses given in Bodrum to the Property and Freedom Society, of which Professor Hoppe is both Founder and President. I was fortunate to hear them read out to the gathering, and I am deeply honoured to have been asked to provide an Introduction to the published versions.
I will divide my Introduction into three sections. First, I will give a brief overview of Hoppe’s early life and intellectual development. Second, I will write at greater length about the academic work that has placed him at the head of the international libertarian movement. Third, I will discuss the main theme or themes that emerge from the present collection.
Hoppe: Child of the West German Settlement
Hans-Hermann Hoppe was born on the 2nd September 1949 in Peine, a town in the British Sector of occupied Germany. After attending various local schools, he first went to the University of Saarland in Saarbrücken and from here moved to the Goethe University in Frankfurt, where he studied under the notable neo-Marxist Jürgen Habermas, who also served as the principal advisor for Hoppe’s doctoral dissertation in Philosophy on David Hume and Immanuel Kant. In those days, Hoppe was himself a Marxist, and had no serious differences with his master. He said later: “What I … liked about Marxism is that it made the attempt to provide a rigorous, deductively derived system.”1 To any external observer, he was following a path followed by many thousands of his generation. It should, in the normal course of things, have ended in a tenured post in which his duty, under cover of spreading disaffection, was to preach conformity to the new order of things in West Germany.
However, what he soon disliked about Marxism was its failure as an intellectual system. His disenchantment was a gradual process, and he went through a period in which he was influenced by Karl Popper, and was even a social democrat in politics. His final break with leftism came while writing his habilitation thesis on the foundations of sociology and economics. He began with the notion that, while certain truths about the world can be known a priori, the laws of Economics and Sociology are at least largely known by induction. He then rejected this, moving to the view that Economics, in contrast to Sociology, is an entirely deductive science. This, then, led him to the discovery of Ludwig von Mises. Here was a system that made the same ambitious claims as Marxism. Austrianism was a set of interlocking and largely deductive theories of Economics, Politics, Law, and much else. Unlike Marxism, it held together intellectually. It also generated true knowledge about the world. The last step remaining on this new and unpredicted path was to discover Murray Rothbard. Hoppe ended the 1970s as a radical free market libertarian. No longer welcome at any West German university, in 1985 he left for the United States.
Hoppe: Heir of Rothbard
Until 1986, he taught in New York under Rothbard’s supervision, “working and living side-by-side with him, in constant and immediate personal contact.” They then moved together to teach at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Here, they stood at the centre of what became “the Las Vegas Circle” — a grouping of libertarian economists and philosophers as brilliant and productive as any in the entire history of the libertarian movement. Other members of the Circle included Yuri Maltsev, Doug French, and Lee Iglody. Hoppe remained in Las Vegas as a Professor until 2008. But he admits that nothing was ever the same after Rothbard’s untimely death in 1995. He saw Rothbard as his “principal teacher, mentor and master,” and as his “dearest fatherly friend.”
Though he produced much other work during his time with Rothbard and after, his most important contribution, both to libertarianism and to Philosophy in general, is probably his work on what he calls Argumentation Ethics. Every secular ideology appears to rest on shaky foundations. Free market libertarianism is no exception. Why should people be left alone? Why should they be free? We can argue that freedom allows people to make themselves happier than they would otherwise be. We can argue that it lets them become richer. The response is to ask why people should be happy or rich. These may be self-evident goods, but are not always so regarded. A further objection is to start picking holes in the definition and measurement of happiness. Or we can claim that every human being is born with certain natural and inalienable rights, and that these include the rights to life, liberty, and property. The objection here is to ask how, without God as their grantor, these claimed rights are other than an exercise in verbal flatulence.
Hayek and von Mises, the two men who did most during the middle of the twentieth century to keep classical liberalism alive as an ideology, were various kinds of utilitarian. Rothbard, who took Austrian Economics and fused it with native American radicalism to create the modern libertarian movement, shared a belief with Ayn Rand in natural rights. For many years, until more practical disputes emerged after the end of the Cold War, almost every libertarian gathering involved a rehearsal of the differences between the two schools of foundation.
What Hoppe tries with his Argumentation Ethics, is to transcend this debate. In doing this, he draws on his early work with Habermas, on the Kantian tradition of German Philosophy, and on the ethical writings of Rothbard. He begins with the observation that there are two ways of settling any dispute. One is force. The other is argument. Any one party to a dispute who chooses force has stepped outside the norms of civilization, which include the avoidance of aggressive force, and has no right to complain if he is used very harshly. Anyone who chooses argument, on the other hand, has accepted these norms. If he then argues for the rightness of force as a means of getting what he wants from others, he is engaging in logical contradiction. In short, whoever rejects the libertarian non-aggression principle is necessarily also rejecting the norms of rational discourse. Whoever claims to accept these norms must also accept the non-aggression principle.2
Speaking long after first publication, Hoppe denied that this was a retreat from natural rights:
I was attempting to make the first two chapters of Rothbard’s Ethics of Libertystronger than they were. That in turn would provide more weight to everything that followed. I had some dissatisfaction with [the] rigor with which the initial ethical assumptions of libertarian political theory had been arrived at. Intuitively, they seemed plausible. But I could see that a slightly different approach might be stronger. Murray never considered my revisions to be a threat. His only concern was: does this ultimately make the case? Ultimately, he agreed that it did.3
Indeed, Rothbard gave the theory his highest praise. He called it
a dazzling breakthrough for political philosophy in general and for libertarianism in particular. … [Hoppe] has managed to transcend the famous is/ought, fact/value dichotomy that has plagued philosophy since the days of the Scholastics, and that had brought modern libertarianism into a tiresome deadlock.4
If Rothbard was the obvious leading intellectual of the libertarian movement, Hoppe was his obvious and chosen successor. By the time of Rothbard’s death, he had made solid contributions not only to foundational ethics, but also to Economics, Politics and Law. He was an inspiring teacher and a public speaker in demand all over the world. There was no one in America or in the world at large better qualified to take up where Rothbard had left off. He now became the editor of The Journal of Libertarian Studies, and a co-editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.
Rothbard himself, though, was not universally accepted within the libertarian movement. One of his numerous talents had been for making enemies. He had many reasons for making, or just for attracting, enemies. He was an isolationist in an age when the American Right defined itself by opposition to Communism and the Soviet Union. He was sceptical of big business in a movement that was largely in love with American capitalism. He was an anarchist among economists who were feeling their way towards privatisation and deregulation. He saw every step of America’s ascent to world power as a betrayal of the American Way. He was variously in alliance with leftists and with ultra-conservatives. He was at open war with the utilitarian statists and soft money advocates of the Chicago School. He was soon out of sorts with the Cato Institute which he had done much to found. He was scathing in his contempt for political correctness and the very idea of a universal equality that went beyond an equality of negative rights.
Hoppe is a still more divisive figure. An avowed cultural conservative, he has no time for the more hedonistic or leftist strains of libertarianism. From the beginning, his libertarianism has placed more emphasis on property rights than on tolerance. In the Democracy: The God that Failed, he writes that, in his ideal community,
[t]here would be little or no “tolerance” and “openmindedness” so dear to left-libertarians. Instead, one would be on the right path toward restoring the freedom of association and exclusion implied in the institution of private property.5
In a covenant concluded among proprietor and community tenants for the purpose of protecting their private property, no such thing as a right to free (unlimited) speech exists, not even to unlimited speech on one’s own tenant-property. One may say innumerable things and promote almost any idea under the sun, but naturally no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very purpose of the covenant of preserving and protecting private property, such as democracy and communism. There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise, in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They — the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centered lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism — will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.6
These statements and others of their kind have been and remain wildly controversial within the libertarian movement. I think it no exaggeration to say that just about everyone in the Movement, since about 2000, has defined himself by what he thinks of Hoppe. Some regard him as the greatest living libertarian, others as The Devil. The only point of agreement is that he is a thinker who cannot be ignored.
The Present Collection
This being so, the present collection will be useful as a brief statement of where Hoppe stands on the most important issues within the Movement — and the most important issues of our age. I am sensible of the truth that, while many skip over Introductions, others judge a book by its Introduction. I am therefore more than usually sensible of the need for a brief and accurate summary and discussion of the contents that follow my Introduction.
In several places, Hoppe restates and emphasises his view that the basics of libertarianism are derived by a chain of deductive reasoning from undeniable premises. We live in a world of scarcity. Either resources are scarce, or the time in which to use them is scarce. We all have different ideas on how these resources are to be used. Therefore, if we wish to live in a world where conflict over resources is minimised, we must agree on rights of ownership and transfer.
It must be taken for granted that we own ourselves. To claim the opposite leads to obvious inhumanity. It raises at least the potential for unlimited conflict over who owns whom. Where external resources are concerned, the ideal solution is that they belong to whoever first appropriates them from the State of Nature, and that they are then transferred by consent — that is, by sale or by gift or by inheritance. This is, of course, the ideal solution. In much of the world, landed property has been possessed for thousands of years, and has been repeatedly confiscated and reassigned. There is not a square inch of England or Western Europe the title to which derives from its original appropriator. The practical solution, then, is a rebuttable presumption in favour of existing titles — the rebuttal being good evidence of title derived from an earlier chain of possession. The exception is stateproperty. This should be restituted to the holders of its last reasonable title.
Either this is irrefutable, or denying it leads to greater conflict than leaving things as they are. Here, though, the self-evident nature of libertarianism ends. Certain further propositions derived from Economics continue the chain of self-evident truth. But other discussions of the approach to, or the shape of, a libertarian society involve questions of pragmatic engagement.
If the entire human race looked alike and thought more or less alike, libertarian activism would be a matter of unvaried and undiscriminating outreach. But the human race, as it exists, is endlessly diverse. There are differences of appearance, differences of ability, differences of belief and expectation. These differences are plain between individuals. They are plain between different groups of individuals. We are not some tabula rasa, on which the Spirit of the Age may write as it will. We are born different. We grow more different still in how we respond to whatever is meant by the Spirit of the Age.
In the long term, Hoppe and his critics are in full agreement. They look forward to a single humanity, united in respect for life, liberty, and property, all enriched from the cultural and material benefits that derive from a world of universal freedom. For the moment, this single humanity does not exist — nor is it likely to exist. Either we must take account of these facts of difference, or we will not. If we will not, then we shall become useless intellectuals — endlessly talking to each other, and to nobody else, about the relationship between the non-aggression principle and the doctrine of contractual frustration. Or we shall become dangerous intellectuals — advocating policies, in the name of the non-aggression principle, that do not reduce but increase the likelihood of conflict over resources. If we do choose to take account of these differences, then we find ourselves firmly on the unpopular side of nearly all the questions that define the age in which we live.
If there is room for debate over the causes, one fact is plain. This is that the freest and most prosperous societies ever to exist are those dominated by broadly heterosexual males descended from the hunter-gatherers who settled Western and Central Europe and Northern Asia. Indeed, if there is room for debate over causes, the most likely cause — something deniable usually by the products of a long and expensive university education — is something inherent to these peoples, rather than some set of contingent circumstances local to the past few thousand years.
This is not to say that these groups are “better” than others in any abstract sense. It is not to say that all members of these groups show equal aptitude to preserve their traditional or acquired social orders. Nor is it to say that all members of other groups are equally unable to acquire or preserve the relevant social orders. It is certainly not to invite us to think ill of those other groups. Hoppe has always been clear on this, and his Bodrum conferences are nothing if not diverse. It is simply a matter of facing general facts. There are bearded women. There are men with breasts. Not every Englishman keeps his appointments. Not every Nigerian ignores them. Even so, basing our conduct on exceptions rather than generalities is bound, sooner or later, to prove inconvenient.
One consequence of this approach is that Hoppe opposes anti-discrimination laws. If there were a law that only white Christian heterosexual males were allowed to practise as doctors, he would denounce this — just as he has, at the outset of his system, denounced any kind of chattel slavery. Such laws violate the negative corollary of the right to freedom of association. If we are to be free to associate as we choose, so we are to be free not to associate. Sometimes, our decisions will be grounded in the social realities just mentioned, sometimes not. In any event, they are our decisions, and they should not be prevented by law.
A second consequence is that there should be an end to “regime change” and “nation-building” in other parts of the world. In this present collection, Hoppe mentions his opposition to our Middle Eastern interventions in passing. But his opposition is profound and firm. The alleged reasons of these interventions are all proven or probable lies. Even otherwise, the project of exporting our ways to places where there is neither desire for them nor aptitude to receive them can only lead to more bloodshed than leaving people with their own ways.
The third consequence is that he is opposed to open borders. This returns me to Hoppe’s point about the pragmatic application of libertarian theory. There are libertarians who memorise some pithy statement of the non-aggression principle, and immediately conclude that all borders are immoral. This approach ignores the present realities. Mass-immigration from outside the regions mentioned above has plainly negative effects. It increases crime and disorder. It greatly expands the roll of welfare claimants. It provides a growing constituency for politicians whose careers are one long attack on life, liberty, and property. Open borders in themselves at the moment — and especially open borders plus a welfare state and our endless wars of aggression that produce endless waves of refugees — are an attack on civilisation.
Nor is there any reason to believe that a truly libertarian society would allow what now passes for open borders. People have the right to trade with each other, not settle where and how they please. One of the central claims of libertarian theory is that all costs can and should be privatised. Well, any entrant to a libertarian community may impose costs that outweigh the benefits of his presence. If so, it is the undeniable right of the property-owners in such a community to deter new entrants they regard — for whatever reason — as undesirable. Those who choose not to will be open to tort actions for allowing a nuisance on their property. A libertarian world would be a patchwork of communities. These would provide for every conceivable taste. Most of them, however, would probably be rather exclusive in their entry policies. There would be room for communities that welcomed all-comers with open arms. Hoppe’s view, however, is that these would be a minority of communities, and that their failure would be an example to others.
Now, this is an argument about a world that does not exist, and may not exist for a very long time. We live in a world of nation-states, all with borders. What is to be done about immigration in such a world? Hoppe accepts the basic illegitimacy of the present order of things, but accepts that it is the present order. If civilisation is to survive in even its present defective condition, it is necessary to insist that states should act as trustees for those who fund them. This does not mean a total ban on immigration or hostility to individuals on the basis of their appearance. But it does mean strict control of borders and the deportation of undesirable entrants. It also means higher charges for the use of public property on those who have contributed nothing to its development. It means no access to such welfare as may — however unwisely — be available to the settled population. Anything less than that is best described not as “equality” or “anti-discrimination,” but as “forced integration.”
Most of Hoppe’s polemical attacks in recent years have been on the self-described left-libertarians. These combine an acceptance of leftist notions of equality and anti-discrimination with some belief in free markets. At the same time, he does not regard himself in any sense as a leader of what is called the Alt-Right. This is a broad coalition of national socialists, white nationalists, conservatives of various kinds, and disenchanted libertarians. It came to prominence in 2016 for its support of Donald Trump. It became notorious in 2017 for the riotous assembly it provoked at the Charlottesville Rally.
Hoppe accepts that the Alt-Right and libertarians share an opposition to the bloated, malevolent, warmongering elites who rule most Western countries. He has opened a dialogue with some of the more reasonable Alt-Right leaders. But he remains wary of the Alt-Right as a whole. He dislikes its frequent mysticism — its appeals to a “higher wisdom” than the cautious rationalism of the Enlightenment. He dislikes its obsession with race rather than a clear view of actual differences between individuals and groups of individuals. He particularly dislikes its concessions to socialism — socialism, so long as its “beneficiaries” are white people. If the Alt-Right evolves into a broad attack on undeniable evils, so much the better. If, as seems likely, it will become a coalition of totalitarian or semi-totalitarian cults, he wants nothing to do with it.
Hoppe mentions several times in this collection that he is growing older, and that he will continue working so long as his health allows. I hope he will continue for many years to come. But let us allow that all life is uncertain, and accept that he may be taken from us tomorrow. This would be a terrible loss. At the same time, I have not the slightest doubt that, on the basis of what he has achieved so far, the intellectual world has been made a better place by Hoppe’s presence within it. And I both hope and believe that the inspiration his work provides will one day contribute to the emergence of a better world for all humanity. If this short collection of his writings, and if my brief Introduction, can form part of this contribution, it will not have been published in vain.
- 1.“The Private Property Order: An Interview with Hans-Hermann Hoppe,” Austrian Economics Newsletter 18, no. 1 (2014). Available here: https://mises.org/library/private-property-order-interview-hans-hermann-hoppe — checked, November 2015.
- 2.ee, for example, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, “The Ultimate Justification of the Private Property Ethic,” Liberty, September 1988. Available here: http://www.hanshoppe.com/wp-content/uploads/publications/hoppe_ult_just_liberty.pdf — checked November 2015.
- 3.“The Private Property Order.”
- 4.Symposium, “Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics: Breakthrough or Buncombe?” Liberty, November 1988. Available at http://www.libertyunbound.com/sites/files/printarchive/Liberty_Magazine_November_1988.pdf – checked November 2015.
- 5.Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy: The God that Failed (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2001), p. 211.
- 6.Ibid., pp. 216–17.