What Libertarianism Is…
…and What it Must Do
By Duncan Whitmore
Anyone who has taken the time to study in depth the wealth of scholarly literature of Austro-libertarianism cannot help but be enthralled by the intellectual treasures provided by our school of thought. Not only have we uncovered a body of knowledge which – especially in comparison to mainstream social science – is rigorous, scientific, coherent and interdisciplinary, but, as the true successors of classical liberalism, we have an inspiring vision of the future that can sweep away war, conflict, strife and poverty while propelling the human race to unheard of heights of peace and prosperity. Indeed, for many of us Austro-libertarianism has been the most joyous and rewarding discovery of our lives, providing a sheltered harbour in a world which would otherwise leave us adrift in a sea of chaos.
Unfortunately, we are forced to admit that the intellectual accomplishments of Austro-libertarians are disproportionate to our achievements in effecting real world change which, by comparison, are almost miniscule. Although most forms of direct socialism have been discredited by the disaster that was the Soviet Union, we are today living in a world of unprecedented state power which the majority of the population, buoyed by a sense of control instilled by their occasional visits to the ballot box, views as entirely legitimate. It is bad enough that the modern nation state has accreted to itself power and functions that ancient kings and emperors could only dream of; but we are confronted also by a pervasive attitude that any difficulty, problem, error, injustice or whatever that life may choose to throw at us – including our own personal foibles and failings – is always the state’s responsibility to solve. The problems of paper money, the welfare state, boom and bust, public “education”, crippling regulation, disastrous overseas wars and all of the other ills bred by the state are not going to be vanquished when the majority of the public regards this institution as the magic carpet that will whisk us all away to the land of milk and honey.
This is not to say that there has been a complete absence of successful liberalising policies in the recent past for which we can claim at least some indirect credit. Even though these policies have usually emanated from free market fellow travellers who are willing to dilute our philosophy with a heavy dose of statism (such as the Adam Smith Institute), our very existence has probably served to make their ideas more palatable. The effect of any radical outfit or philosophy is to push our less “extreme” brethren towards the centre where they can garner the appearance of moderation and acceptability. Without us to shield them on the flank they would be perceived as the isolated and marginalised extremists, whose crackpot ideas should be ignored.
Nevertheless, our lack of direct influence has to be admitted, as does the extent to which the world today languishes far from our vision. The question before us, then, is clear: why is there this glaring discrepancy between what we know and what we can do, and how can it be resolved?
For the avoidance of any undue sense of anticipation, this essay is not going to be able to provide all of the answers. Rather, our priority is to frame the questions that we should be asking in the first place. In order to do this we need to start by understanding correctly what libertarianism actually is and the world in which it is trying to make a difference.
What Libertarianism Is
Libertarianism, as most of us know, is an extremely basic philosophy which has one, cardinal principle – the right to self-ownership and to private property, which is summarised as the non-aggression principle. Libertarianism concerns itself, therefore, solely with the just use of violence between one individual and another – a view which, among libertarians, has become known as “thin” libertarianism. We will not attempt justify this principle at length here. Some brief words are, however, necessary in order to explain the role of “thin” libertarianism from both a theoretical and practical perspective.
Concerning theory first of all, libertarianism serves as an important foundation for wider theories of interpersonal ethics (i.e. how we should behave towards others) by preserving the moral agency of the individual – in other words, his freedom to choose and to act to the extent that we can scrutinise his behaviour in order to judge it according to moral standards. If, on the other hand, a theory of justice or morality ignores the libertarian non-aggression ethic by advocating for the violent enforcement of its edicts, then such violence would rob us of our ability to choose and to act to the extent that we cannot be said to have “behaved” either morally or immorally at all. For instance, if a theory states that I should be forced to pay taxes towards helping those who are sick then the act of payment by me has no moral content – the imposition of force means that the outcome was predestined regardless of what I wanted, and so I can claim neither commendation nor condemnation for that outcome. Thus, the only fully moral agents left standing in society would be the enforcers of the moral theory – i.e. the rulers – and so such a theory would in no way concern how we everyday citizens should choose to behave towards each other. Instead, it becomes a theory of how the rulers should choose to act unilaterally vis-à-vis everybody else, treating the latter as mere tools for the fulfilment of whatever ends the theory trumpets. Thus, such theories pave the way for the rule of kings rather than for the rule of law. Given that permissible violence is so prevalent in mainstream political theory, and that the world languishes in such a state of widespread “legitimised” violence, it makes sense for there to be a philosophy which injects a wedge of intellectual clarity by concentrating solely on this issue without “muddying” the waters with other concerns. Such concentration does not, however, preclude libertarians from otherwise cherishing and adhering to a personal code of positive morality which they think makes for a better and more fulfilling life (and, indeed, it would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise).
Second, when it comes to the practical matter of spreading liberty in the real world, if our guiding light is the non-aggression principle then it follows that the world we aim for is one in which both the legitimacy and the practice of violence is reduced to a minimum. In other words, this will be a world where the majority of people recognise the immorality of the infliction of violence, and/or (at the very least) where choices to proceed with such infliction have been all but vanquished. Thus, “thin” libertarianism defines a state of liberty, i.e. the condition of the world that libertarians wish to achieve. But in determining precisely how this state might be brought about, an adherence to “thin” libertarianism does not preclude libertarians from investigating whether there are other ethical postulates, norms, practices, attitudes, characteristics etc. the promotion of which may be either useful or necessary in the achievement of this goal. (Indeed, as we shall see, it is the relative failure of libertarians to identify what these other elements that has served as a limiting factor in their success). Such elements are, however, properly considered as part of a strategy for achieving the goal rather than the definition of the goal itself. As liberty is synonymous with self-determination – allowing people to live their lives according to how they see fit – such a strategy may contain relatively few uncontested, universal elements, and is likely to be highly sensitive to the specific conditions presented by the particular time, place, and society we are trying to influence. It therefore makes sense to maintain a measure of clarity between defining our goal on the one hand and our methods of achieving it on the other.
Having identified our theory and formulated our goal, the next step is to learn something about the world that motivates it either towards or away from the initiation of violence. As we know from “Austrian” economics, it is the human condition that we each must use our faculty of reason to devote means towards achieving ends. We each assess what is the best way to achieve what we want in order to make our lives better before devoting the means available accordingly.
When acting alone, such means consist merely of other things or objects. For instance, if I am hungry, then I may arrange means such as bread, ham and tomatoes into a sandwich in order to achieve the end of satiating my hunger. However, the category of means is not restricted to inanimate objects; other humans, by virtue of their power to labour, can also be useful to us in producing what we want and so they too possess the ability to serve as means in achieving our ends.
Our use of other humans as means towards our ends can occur in one of two possible ways:
- By peaceful co-operation – persuading them to furnish voluntarily that which we want, usually by assistance or exchange;
- By violent enforcement – physically compelling them to produce what we want, or taking from them their prior possessions for ourselves.
Here, then, is the key to understanding why violence – and, in particular, systematised violence in comprehensive forms of organisation such as the state – has been prevalent throughout human history. For not only can other humans serve as comrades whose many hands, together, can make light work; they can also be the goose that laid the golden egg. In less “enlightened” times this goose was once, as in Aesop’s fable, simply plundered and killed. More recently, we have discovered that it’s more profitable to capture the goose and subject it to forced laying (slavery) or, today, thieve from it as many eggs as possible with the least amount of hissing (taxation). However, material enrichment may not be the only the goal that is sought. “Ends” is a very broad category covering material and non-material gains, and so people could just as easily use people as means – peacefully or forcefully – to promote an ideology or vision. Thus, the forced regulation of lifestyles or private exchanges according to some preferred standard would also be a violent way of using other people, even though there is no physical transfer of wealth. Of course, the last resort of such regulation is the extermination of “heretics” – those who categorically refuse to conform to the ideology regardless of however many obstacles are put in the way of any alternative.
Regardless of the vastness of their volumes and the erudition of their proponents, all political and economic philosophies basically boil down to one of the two camps we just outlined, even if they do not explicitly acknowledge or recognise this fact. For the purpose of all such philosophies is to advance a just theory of how to deal with scarce commodities, i.e. of human labour and its products. Classical liberalism, libertarianism, and capitalism fall into the “peaceful co-operation” category; fascism, socialism, Marxism and communism sit under “violent enforcement”. Our modern day variant of social democracy probably falls somewhere in the middle, but advancing steadily farther towards the violent end of the spectrum.1
Different labels have been applied to this distinction by different writers. Franz Oppenheimer described it as the “economic means” versus the “political means”. Neil Lock, a regular contributor to this blog, has used the terms “Convivials” and “Politicals”. Our choice here of “peaceful co-operation” and “violent enforcement” is no more or less apt than any of these others. It is, however, extremely important to understand that the substance of this distinction, regardless of what how we refer to it, is not as straightforward as that of “individualism” as opposed to “collectivism”. The crudity of framing the dichotomy in this manner can easily lead to a misunderstanding of what libertarians mean by their insistence on primacy for the individual, and, conversely, of what other philosophies mean when they emphasise the collective.
On the one hand, it is true that Austro-libertarians believe that the correct way to understand man is to study him as an individual, a process known as “methodological individualism”. For only individual humans possess the power to reason, to choose and to act. Any collective organisation that “acts” does so in a metaphorical sense only, as such acts are only an extension of the acts of the individual members of the organisation. Thus, political rights must also exist at the individual level only for it is only beings possessing the capacity to reason who can enjoy rights. On the other hand, however, none of this means that every individual must, forever and a day, regard himself as an isolated island in a sea of loneliness, linked together with other people purely by market transaction, nor does it mean that collective organisations (families, communities, companies, tribes, nations etc.) cannot have value for him. The difference that libertarians acknowledge in this regard is between associations – the voluntary membership of which enables each individual to better serve his own life and his own ends – on the one hand, and enforced collectives – where he is a slave working under compulsion for the pleasure of somebody else – on the other. Libertarians are all in favour of associations because associations fall into our peaceful category and, indeed, may be said to be ultimate expression of peaceful co-operation; it is only collectives, falling into the realm of violence, that are abhorrent. (The present writer has elaborated on this in detail here.)
The logical result of a movement to the violent extreme is not, as one might expect, a “war of all against all” (which is more correctly described as a state of violence that must, eventually, conclude with the victory of some over others). The logical end is, in fact, a state of “perfect autocracy” – the complete subjugation of the entire world to the will of a single person. Although large, violent organisations such as the state must maintain, internally, an environment of peaceful co-operation vis-à-vis the organisation’s members, the power to inflict violence is ultimately a zero sum game, and so increasing violence, like a knock out tournament, must gradually eliminate more and more competitors until only one is left standing. The creeping consolidation and centralisation of states into larger entities such as the EU, where everyone is subject to the enforcement of uniform rules and regulations, is an example of a tendency towards this end. The final result of increasing peace, however, would be a state of perfect liberty, with all human interactions governed voluntarily.2
Needless to say, neither of these pure conditions has appeared in real life and, rather than alternating between two, rigidly defined states, humans have instead endured periods where the violent tendency has been more dominant and the co-operative recessive, and, conversely, enjoyed other periods where the co-operative spirit reigns while violence has been reduced. Periods of war, conquest and most violent revolutions clearly exist towards the violent end, whereas periods of peace and the Industrial/Agricultural Revolutions are examples of when social co-operation was more widespread.
All of this, plus the phenomena that are likely to become more prevalent the farther you go towards each extreme, can be illustrated as follows (no prizes for guessing why violence appears on the left):
One effect of viewing periods of human history as varying mixtures of peaceful co-operation and violent enforcement is to bury forever any suggestion that a minimal state is somehow “necessary” to sustain the condition of liberty – in other words, the bizarre and contradictory view that we need the systematised initiation of violence in order to somehow prevent the initiation of violence. Peddlers of such a theory advance as evidence for this assertion the fact that the state, in one form or another, has always existed throughout the periods of humanity’s greatest progress – progress which, as libertarians will agree, can only be ascribed to a condition of liberty. Thus, post hoc ergo propter hoc, these theorists conclude that the state “must” be the sustaining influence of this critical element of liberty. As a “pure” libertarian society, on the other hand, has never been witnessed it must be the case, so this line of thinking goes, that such a society would fall apart without the strong arm of the state to prevent everyone from disintegrating into anarchistic chaos. From this concocted conclusion it is surmised that libertarians must be unrealistic, utopian dreamers.
However, the reason why a “pure” libertarian society (i.e. a society characterised entirely by social co-operation) has never existed is because there have always been people for whom the impetus towards proceeding down the violent route of meeting their needs has proved too seductive. It is not the case that a “pure” libertarian society is physically unsustainable. It remains within the power of every single one of us to choose abstinence from any violence whatsoever should we each become convinced of its moral abhorrence and/or lack of efficacy. In this environment the incidence of violent acts such as murder and theft would persist merely as occasional incursions perpetrated by a handful of anti-social aberrations, all of whom could be taken care of by private security measures. While devastating for the particular victims, the impact of such individuals upon social co-operation as a whole would register as little more than a nuisance that must be dealt with from time to time. However, the state – an organisation funded by compulsory taxation – necessarily encroaches upon, rather than sustains, social co-operation. It creates a class of people who are able to fund themselves and their lives through violence, thus creating an easily expandable vehicle of legitimacy for systematised (as opposed to occasional) violence to be inflicted. Indeed, the state can only exist in a environment in which some people believe it is worth their while to engage in the long term exploitation of others. The more people attempt to use this vehicle of exploitation and subjugation then the more violence increases and social co-operation wanes; on the other hand, if fewer people co-opt the state to meet their needs then violence will wither and social co-operation will blossom. Thus, violence and co-operation are conceptually distinct and mutually exclusive options; the former must be minimised if the latter is to flourish. Far from being some “necessary” bulwark against the collapse of society, the “minimal” state in a free society is a residual, violent entity that has been cut down to a tolerable vestige within a sea of social co-operation. (The present author has dealt with the charges that libertarianism is utopian here).
What Libertarianism Needs to Do
If human history has oscillated between the condition of predominant violence and the condition of predominant social co-operation then it follows that libertarians need to find some way of steering society away from the former and towards the latter. In order to accomplish this, we will first identify (and then propose solutions for) two problems that have been prominent in the relative failure of the libertarian movement to date. These we will call these the “Ideas Problem” and the “Power Problem”.
The “Ideas Problem”
The “Ideas Problem” refers to the fact that, for much of its life, the libertarian movement has focussed on disseminating and repeating its own economic and political theory. Our hope has been to spread enough knowledge and education about the virtues of the free market and the ethics of non-aggression that we will one day reach a “critical mass” of followers who will embrace some kind of “love for liberty” before voting the statists out of office.
As brilliant as our ideas are, however, the mistake of this approach has been to confuse knowledge with strategy. Identifying and providing a theoretical justification for a desired outcome is not necessarily the same as finding ways in which to persuade people to work towards that outcome. This is not to suggest for a minute that the work of Austro-libertarian scholars and the efforts of, say, the Ludwig von Mises Institute to make available as much of this work to the public as possible is a waste of time – far from it. The more our philosophy is able to progress at the theoretical level and the more people who take an interest in it the better. But, in much the same way as a spoken language doesn’t become widespread by studying the rules of grammar, the ability for this method to create a mass movement is likely to be limited.
One particular problem for libertarianism, outside of the cadre of individuals for whom the study of Austro-libertarianism is either a profession or serious pastime, is that it is very difficult to imbibe a large movement with a sense of “belonging” when our fulcrum of agreement (non-aggression) is both a) abstract and b) narrow. “Small tent” groups and movements are more likely to have some kind of concrete, positive interest, or range of interests, which affects directly the lives of their members and which serves to create a community of like-minded individuals. In other words, members of these groups may be more inclined to sit down and have a cup of tea with one another. At least hypothetically, however, a “passion” for liberty could be motivated by a desire to pursue all different kinds of lifestyles and behaviour without the state on one’s back – lifestyles which, in spite of their peaceful, non-violent nature, could be at odds with each other when it comes to forming a bond of common identity. Libertarianism is, therefore, forced into being a “big tent” movement attracting many people from all walks of life. Such a movement can be successful if its aims are either abstract or narrow, but being lumbered with both of these is very difficult. Brexit, for instance, is a widespread movement focussed on a single, narrow aim (leaving the European Union) yet its outcome is easy to visualise in a concrete form – a return to our own parliament making the laws which bind us. The aims of socialism are easy to describe in abstract terms – “central planning”, “nationalisation”, etc. – without going into the specifics of which plan shall be implemented and precisely what will be produced by whom. But it has the ability to appeal to the plights (real or imagined) of the “working class” across all industries, as well as being able to point to the concrete lifestyles of “the rich” as the standard that the socialist nirvana can promise. These qualities serve to make Brexit and socialism viable and successful political movements. This is not to suggest that such movements are devoid of incompatible and competing personalities, priorities, time horizons, commitments, etc. among their followers. But if these things are a problem for other movements, then for libertarians – who can’t even say who will build the roads (or if roads will even be built at all) – they are likely to be even more pressing.
None of this means that a passion for human liberty is categorically impossible, nor are we suggesting that the latticework of social co-operation in the marketplace cannot be appreciated as a good and beautiful thing in its own right. Libertarians have been marginally more successful in provoking these sentiments in the United States, a nation founded upon the principle of liberation from tyranny with founding documents permeated by natural rights, and which still (at least) pays lip service to the notion of the “American Dream”. Moreover, the modern day “Austrian” School is, effectively, an American school, while the US Libertarian Party (albeit a heavily diluted one in terms of principle) has now been the third largest political party for several decades. Thus, libertarian ideas have had a much better chance of penetrating mainstream academia and media than in countries where all of these ingredients are missing.
Nevertheless, even if libertarianism did not suffer from this particular problem we would still face an important difference between identifying a goal and promoting it – much like there is a division of labour between developing a product on the one hand and advertising it on the other. This latter aspect is where we have lacked proficiency. As Gerard Casey has said:
In attempting to promote the libertarian viewpoint […] one is faced with a variety of problems […] [W]hile the theoretical problems (and their solution) are intrinsically the more important, it is vital that the practical/rhetorical problems be overcome if the theoretical points are to get a fair hearing. As humans beings, we perceive and understand in accordance with our needs, our desires and our interests. No matter how marvellous a theory may be, it is useless if its intended audience is unreceptive. The point of rhetoric, then, is to open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf so that they may see and hear.3
Recent attempts4 to address what Casey calls the “practical/rhetorical problems” have begun to emphasise (or rejuventate) the importance of culture, community, family, tradition and religion, as well as relative cultural conservatism, in pursuing the libertarian goal. In a notable speech given to the 2017 Mises University, Jeff Deist decried political universalism and called, instead, for a celebration of traditional, civic institutions, concluding his argument by posing a basic question: “What would you fight for?” “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?” The answer is unlikely to be for abstractions such as “non-aggression”. Rather, people will fight for themselves, their families, and (in Deist’s words) for “blood and soil and God and nation.” Thus, Deist’s call is for libertarians to embrace positive values rather than simply negative rights.5
This perspective serves to re-frame the libertarian goal in a manner which, arguably, has still not been properly understood by even those who accept it: that we are not seeking to build a consciously acknowledged “libertarian world”. While the physical product of a world of minimal violence will be the maximisation of liberty, from people’s own perspective they will not define the lifestyles they lead and the communities in which they live in such terms. Rather, they will define them according to their own values which liberty allows to flourish. In other words, people will not be wandering down the street thinking what a beautiful day it is in “Libertyland” and greeting fellow “libertarians” a good morning before remarking to each other how great it is that they live a life free from aggression ever since “the state” has been rolled back . Instead, they will be walking down a street in a specific community with a specific culture and specific values; they will greet their friends and neighbours with conversation on what they are actually doing with their lives, how their families are, the interests they share, the local football results, or whatever else they think is important. Such an illustration may sound trite, but it makes us realise that the goal of liberty is to allow people to live their own lives as they see fit, and so, for those people, the focus will be on the substance of those lives themselves. Liberty itself, on the other hand, will be little more than the unacknowledged means to their fulfilment. In other words, liberty is the playing field, but people will come for the game.
However, as welcome as Deist’s rejuvenation of traditional values and institutions is, it would be unwise to conclude from his speech that the elements he mentions are a sufficient means for achieving a world of liberty (and Deist himself draws no such conclusion). While it is true that there will need to be institutions and hierarchies that replace the dominance of the state once the power of the latter is diminished, people do not embrace a way of life merely for the sake of it. Rather, social orders, groups, communities, etc. are created as a response to the existing structure of incentives and conditions available as much as they are their cause and sustenance. In other words, we have a bit of a chicken and egg problem: a move towards liberty and away from statism needs to be made before these institutions can take hold. An institution such as the family, for instance, came about because it proved to be the optimal means of raising and educating children, as well as providing care in times of sickness, infirmity, unemployment and old age in an era when this care could not be provided by an institution such as the state. When, however, the welfare state usurped these functions, we have seen how quickly the family has waned: marriages have declined, divorce rates increased, children are born out of wedlock, and so on.
The same is true also of culture and morality. These things do not flourish and wane by themselves; they are moulded by the response of a society to the underlying economic conditions that it faces. In our case, more than two generations of inflationism and welfare statism has been the cause of cultural decline and moral corruption long before the cultural left began its explicit assault on Western civilisation. Or, to take a more specific example, it is probably not too outrageous to suggest that all of the talk of “taking back control” and any celebration of “Britishness” would quickly be forgotten if Britain’s departure from the EU necessitated the end of the NHS. Therefore, while it is true that a return to familial and local values and ties will serve as important, decentralising bulwarks against the state, tackling statism will not be as simple as trumpeting how great these institutions are. Rather, the economic incentives provided by the state that serve to destroy non-state institutions need to be removed before the latter can become viable alternatives to the state once more. Thus, the creation and sustenance of a free society will still need to be underpinned by a proper conception of justice and an understanding of the economic truths that are furnished by the “Austrian” school.
All of this points to the need for a more dynamic understanding of the elements that go into effecting major societal change – change which, in our case, we have identified as a move towards either violence on the one hand or social co-operation on the other.
It is submitted here that there are three key aspects which need to be understood successfully:
- Ideas – the scientific or technical knowledge required to reach certain ends, as well as our theories of morality and justice (secular or religious);
- Aspirations – the values we hold, the desires we each have, and the ends we seek in improving our lives; or, rather, the eagerness to seek improvement;
- Conditions – the state of the external world in which we find ourselves, i.e. the means available to us, as well as the prevailing social hierarchy and the consequent characteristics and temperaments of the population.
None of these three is mutually exclusive as each can influence the other two – for instance, aspirations can come from ideas, while the conditions we face will prompt ideas to deal with them. Yet each is conceptually distinct and all three of them must align in order to cause a shift towards either one end of the peace/violence spectrum or the other; each in isolation, or two together, are unable to create any meaningful societal change.
Ideas and aspirations without the corresponding conditions will simply remain pipe dreams. This is not difficult to understand. We may, for example, have the technical knowledge of what is required to send an astronaut beyond the confines of the solar system, and we may really want to do so; but if we lack the means to be able to put this into effect then the whole project (excuse the pun) will fail to get off the ground. Similarly, socialist ideologues may wax lyrical about the justice of socialised production, strong welfare states and the evils of profit, and people may really aspire to the standard of living promised by the socialist utopia. But if there is no wealth to tax and redistribute in the first place, or if there are minimal capital goods in existence which can be socialised, then nothing can happen. There has to be a condition of production before one is able to put into effect ideas that advocate redistribution and common ownership.
Aspirations, on the other hand, will never be able to exploit the available conditions in the absence of any ideas about what can be achieved. We may aspire to something better and we may have the means to fulfil that aspiration; but if there is no one who comes along to tell us how we can use the means available to achieve our aspirations then we will simply languish in the same, unchanging state (or, conversely, if we value preservation of an existing way of life but know not how to achieve this then we will succumb to the deterioration of unwanted change). It is for this reason that revolutions have always been led by intellectuals and not (as is commonly supposed) by the ordinary people, and why prominent revolutionaries have come from the aristocracy or middle classes. For instance, the US founding fathers were mostly landowners, merchants or professionals; Robespierre and Castro were lawyers; Lenin and Trotsky were intellectuals born into wealthy families, while Marx and Engels before them were of similar stock. Only the relatively privileged backgrounds that these men experienced could endow them with the education and literacy necessary to create and disseminate, through newspapers, journals and pamphlets, the ideas that would spur the masses to action.
Finally, ideas and conditions will never be able to effect any societal change if people simply lack the impetus to bring about that change. In some cases, people may be content to accept their lot in life, even if it is relatively impoverished, or they may believe that the existing culture and values are worth preserving. In others, change may be desired, but ideas and conditions simply overtake the pace of eagerness for that change. It is only when that eagerness becomes unfulfilled, and when ideas can point out an alternative way of exploiting the available conditions that the sands begin to shift. In fact, the major causes of societal upheaval have seldom boiled down to something as simple as “poverty” or “disadvantage”. Rather, the key has always been frustrated aspirations. Take, for example, the gilets jaunes in Paris, the protesting in Hong Kong over a proposed extradition law, or the rioting in Spain as a result of Madrid’s heavy handed response to Catalan separatism. All of these uprisings have occurred not in some of the world’s most impoverished and oppressive regimes, but in countries that enjoy a relatively high degree of freedom and prosperity. The recent rioting in Chile, a stable and economically developed democracy, was initiated by something seemingly as trivial as a minor increase in Santiago’s subway fare – but it was a spark that lit the bonfire of “an unlevel playing field characterized by an abusive elite, an unresponsive government and an unkept promise of meritocracy and equal opportunity.”
Understanding this formula provides us with a very rough outline of how major changes towards either peaceful co-operation or violent enforcement have occurred throughout history. For instance, all of these three factors came together in Great Britain on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. In the realm of ideas, enlightenment philosophy and the emphasis on reason and scientific discovery created the impetus to pursue not only industrial invention and machinery but also to sweep away the remnants of feudalism and mercantilism in favour of liberalism and laissez faire; conditions were aided by a ready supply of metal ores, coal reserves, seaports and navigable waterways, while the post-1688 constitutional monarchy assisted in creating a balance of power that helped in protecting property rights and the rule of law; at the same time, increasing food efficiency following the Second Agricultural Revolution served to release a surplus of labour that was eager to seek new opportunities in factories and urban centres.
Unfortunately, the formula came together again towards the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth – this time, in favour of a shift towards violence. The so-called “scientific socialism” of Karl Marx provided the ideological foundation for late nineteenth century socialist movements and social democratic political parties. In Britain, the insidious Fabian Society (which differed from Marxism by rejecting the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in favour of a gradualist approach) was founded in 1884, eventually spawning the Labour Party fewer than two decades later. Marxism and its offshoots fuelled the antagonism between the new, middle class industrialists and businessmen on the one hand, and the working class on the other – an antagonism which became the bread and butter of socialist politics. But now, for the first time in history, there existed vast swathes of heavy, privately owned industry which could be appropriated and socialised, as well as enough “surplus” wealth that made redistribution a viable pursuit (although, ironically, Russia possessed a mostly agrarian economy at the time of its revolution). The pioneering social insurance laws of Otto von Bismarck (who had also unified Germany into a large and powerful European state, and had designed these laws as a means of cementing worker loyalty to that state) were mostly employer funded – i.e. they leeched from the profits of large scale enterprise. Moreover, it was the growth of statism and the consequent hampering of domestic business in an imperialist and colonial milieu (which would, in turn, lead to a frustration of international trade) that helped to drive the great powers towards the devastation of nationalism and war in the twentieth century.6
In sum, if libertarians are to provoke similar societal shifts in favour of peaceful co-operation then we need to learn how to mould our ideas into a way that speaks to people’s aspirations while understanding how those aspirations resonate within the chambers fashioned by the prevailing conditions.
The “Power Problem”
The “Power Problem” is really a specific instance of the “Ideas Problem” – i.e. a confusion of knowledge with strategy – but it is significant enough to warrant its own discussion.
As we noted earlier, libertarian theory is against all forms of the initiation of violence and, thus, opposes any institution whose power rests upon the ability to inflict such violence. The “Power Problem”, therefore, concerns how we must confront the accumulation and concentration of power in entities such as the state, and what can be done to reduce the size and scope of that power.
The response of mainstream political theory to this problem has been to attempt to legitimise power rather than to confront it. In practice, this has meant that, one by one, competing sources of power have been systematically discredited, reducing their ability to conjure allegiance from an increasingly sceptical public. Monarchies have been rejected because they concentrate power in a single individual who, having normally attained his position solely through the accident of his birth, enjoys an “unfair” privilege from which the rest of society is shut off; other autocracies such as dictatorships have been pummelled for much the same reasons. Religion has been tossed aside because, so the argument goes, it is based on faith alone, or (as atheists would argue) frivolous superstition and illusion. Only democracy, drawing its power entirely from the ballot box and which, at least in principle, grants everyone a hand in wielding the axe of power, has survived this cull, with the reputations of all alternative theories of governance now languishing at an all time low.
For the cause of liberty, this has been a complete disaster. Far from providing any effective control on power, the veneer of legitimacy provided by democracy has merely served to rubber stamp its untrammelled growth. While libertarians – especially after Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s polemic7 – are fully aware of this failure of the democratic experiment, there is still another lesson that, arguably, needs to be learned.
Libertarians agree that all forms of power (defined as the ability to initiate violence) are illegitimate regardless of their source. But we can also see that, in practical terms, seeking the elimination of centres of power for one reason or another has been a grave error. Dissolving each monarchy or ridiculing each pope has not served to reduce power in the way that peeling layers off an onion will gradually eliminate the onion. Instead, it appears as though nature has abhorred the resulting vacuum, with power from other centres simply swelling to take the place of any power that has been vanquished. What matters, therefore, is not whether power exists as such but, rather, whether it is checked by one or more competing or balancing sources of power, regardless of what that other source is. Eliminating those competing sources, far from being a victory for liberty, has allowed the modern, taxing, inflating, warmongering, democratic state to grow without measure. Indeed, this fits precisely into our theory of the interplay between ideas, aspirations and conditions as the cause of societal change. For once you legitimise the state with a democratic veneer and you remove all physical obstacles to its proliferation, then, in one, fell swoop, you’ve lent it both a massive ideological boost and created the perfect conditions in which it can flourish.
From this, we can see that a number of strategies aimed at tackling the state are unlikely to be successful in the long run. One of these is attempting to “persuade” the mass of voters and the existing state apparatchiks to roll back their encroachments on freedom by enacting so-called “free market” legislation. While the politicians who pass such measures may genuinely believe in the virtues of liberty, and while their endeavours may provide some temporary relief from statist engorgement, the problem is that it leaves the formal apparatus of the state fully intact, ready to be co-opted by future politicians who profess a different ideology. In short, if politicians can “give” you your freedom then they can easily take it away again – and we are more likely to be saddled with politicians eager to do the latter than those who would bless us with the former. Moreover, in practice, the result of throwing the message of any genuine pro-freedom movement into the existing political arena has simply been its hijacking by popular, closet statists such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom superimposed free market rhetoric onto continuous, underlying state growth.8 Opting for liberty cannot simply be another option on the ballot paper like voting for more money to build schools and hospitals. Rather, the very existence of the system is the threat that liberty faces, regardless of its specific policy and legislative choices at any one moment in time. Liberty can only be achieved in the long run if people withdraw their allegiance to the state from the bottom-up – it cannot be done top-down by politicians fond of the free market who, for the moment, happen to have the boot on their foot. Allowing people to govern themselves rather than the imposition of values is the key – a fact recognised as far back as the proto-libertarian Leveller movement during the English Civil War:
[W]e aim not at power in ourselves, our Principles and Desires being in now measure of self-concernment: no do we rely for obtaining the same upon strength, or a forcible obstruction; but solely upon that inbred and persuasive power that is all good and just things, to make their own way in the hearts of men, and so to procure their own Establishments.9
In this vein, another strategy that is unlikely to work – and this may sound counterintuitive – is the championing of certain movements, states or particular politicians based on their apparent adherence to platitudes of freedom such as constitutions, lip service to the rule of law, and so on. As one critic of Hayek’s political theory framed the matter:
The central problem that confronts modern libertarian political theory is not the development of formal criteria respecting the rules government may enact and the political structure that ensures that these criteria will be met. It is, rather, the problem of how to place limits on the number and kinds of intrusions in which government may engage and how to ensure it will confine itself to these limits.10
In order to solve this problem, we need to look beyond the substance of a particular state’s professed values by concentrating instead on its overall form – in other words, whether the general, institutional set up is likely to grant the state the wherewithal to threaten liberty in the long run regardless of whatever rules and values the state may currently choose to adopt.
In order to illustrate this, suppose that there is a state, which we shall call Ruritania, in which there are two political parties – the Freedom Party and the Socialist Party. Let us suppose also that Ruritania is plagued by a “North-South divide” so that the Freedom Party is overwhelmingly more popular in the North of the country whereas the Socialist Party prospers in the South. The Freedom Party is committed to free markets, minimal state interference and low taxation, and wishes to enshrine in the Ruritarian constitution certain rights and freedoms which the state may not breach. In spite of its deep unpopularity in the South of Ruritania, the party, convinced that justice is on its side, wishes to keep Ruritania unified so that it can guarantee liberty and prosperity for all Ruritanians, and would grant very little power and autonomy to local government. The Socialist Party, however, wants the South of the country to secede from its North, taking power for itself before imposing on the newly independent South an entirely socialised economy, high taxation and a generous, cradle to grave welfare state. Moreover, the Socialist Party openly and brazenly wants to abolish any constitutional limits to its power. The question for libertarians is which, if either, of the two parties should they support?
The (perhaps surprising) answer is that libertarians should be more inclined to support the secessionist aims of the Socialist Party rather than the unitary aims of the Freedom Party. For in spite of its horrifically anti-libertarian policies, at least we can rest assured that, should it be successful, the Socialist Party will be restricted in the application of its policies to the South of Ruritania rather than to the whole country.11
If the Socialist Party is able to socialise the assets of the South only, its welfare/warfare state will be much weaker overall than if it was able to leech off a much larger territory. Moreover, the socialist South would find itself competing with the liberal North, and is guaranteed to soon fall behind the standards of living that the North is able to generate. Such a situation is likely to increase migratory pressure and drain the South of productive, wealth creating citizens upon which it relies for its tax revenue. Also, this outcome would be a devastating blow for socialism’s reputation for the reason that, much like East and West Germany during the Cold War, it would be the closest you could get to a controlled experiment – two economically, ethnically, and culturally homogeneous states beginning at the same starting block from which one prospers and the other drives itself to ruin.
The risk of leaving Ruritania united, however, is that the Socialist Party may one day oust the Freedom Party as the country’s rulers before proceeding to impose its socialist policies on the entire nation (or, indeed, the Freedom Party itself may transform into a socialist party and do the same thing – labels usually come to mean very little in politics). Being able to draw resources from a much wider pool, the welfare state of this united Ruritania will be more profligate and wasteful. Moreover, as it has now attained a size that may rival or even exceed that of its neighbours, united Ruritania may become more belligerent, with its large territory similarly better able to provide more resources in funding foreign military ventures. And war, as we all know, is the greatest catalyst for the loss of liberty.
The position of united Ruritania is not terribly unlike that of the United States today. Officially, the US is founded upon the principles of constitutional restriction of the government, the guarantee of natural rights (such as those outlined in the first ten amendments), and the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all of its citizenry. Yet its overwhelming size and unrivalled power means that it has been able to increase both its internal socialisation and external belligerence almost unchecked. However, if the secession of the southern states prior to the Civil War – regardless of their reasons for doing so – had been permanent, is it likely that we would have witnessed the endless catalogue of disastrous wars and foreign interventionism for which the US has subsequently been responsible? With the inclusion of the power houses Texas and Florida, these states together account for up to a third of US GDP – possibly more if the then non-state territories in the west had later decided to join the Confederacy rather than the US (or declared their own independence). Without this economic clout, would it have been possible for us to have had the devastating forays into Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and all of the countless, less-headline grabbing interferences? Would the entire Cold War even have occurred, or even the two World Wars when we consider the critical input of the US into each of those? Surely if we were planted back in 1861 today we would regard the chance of avoiding these later calamities as far more important than forcing the Southern states into a giant union in order to abolish slavery – an already (by Western standards) discredited and outdated institution which probably would have ended peacefully at some point later anyway?
For the avoidance of doubt, this does mean to say that the residual, internal predations of smaller states should be endorsed. Slavery, for instance, is an abomination wherever it is practised, as is involuntary socialisation and taxation. But if the only choice available is between confining evil within restricted borders, where it will be relatively weaker, and unleashing it on a much larger territory (or even the entire world) then surely we would not hesitate to choose the former? Indeed, the choices available in the real world are usually between conditions of greater and lesser evil, not between evil and a purified nirvana.
In this vein, we can probably go as far as to say that, although any society requires at least some conception of justice in order to flourish, the de jure system adopted by a particular state – monarchy, democracy, dictatorship, republic, or whatever – as well as its explicitly enshrined values are likely to be a secondary consideration. Far more important is the de facto ability of those who hold the keys to power to initiate violence and the private fervour of the citizens to protect their freedom. Liberty probably has a much better chance of succeeding in, say, a small, relatively weak dictatorship that makes no official guarantees to its citizens whatsoever than it does in a large, imposing democracy supposedly restrained by constitutions and charters.12 Indeed, in some ways, such constitutions and bills of rights can end up being foe rather than friend. For as soon as you start writing down what people’s rights are before proceeding to revere the resulting document as the holy grail, not only do you give the impression that rights are somehow the “gift” of the authors, but any subsequent dispute concerning the matter shifts to legal-technical (and often malleable) interpretations of the document within the confines of courtrooms. This comes at the expense of engaging in more abstract and principled discussions in the political arena about what rights should be. Such, once again, has been the fate of the US and its constitution.
In short, it is not enough for libertarians to try and “liberate” everyone by grabbing the boot off the foot of the statists; rather, we need to ensure that the boot can never be on any foot at all. Or, at least, we must try to replace it with a velvet slipper. However, the types of complication we have highlighted in this regard raise the question of whether it is worthwhile putting all of our energy into an explicit, “pro-liberty” political movement at all. Instead, it may be better to support existing movements (such as secessionists in various parts of the world) who may have other, immediate priorities and motivations that are focussed on their particular locale, but whose success would have the likelihood of increasing liberty in the long run – particularly if we were to succeed in imbibing them with libertarian ideas.
Conclusion – The Way Forward
As we said at the beginning, the purpose of this essay has not been to outline the substance of a complete political strategy; rather, it has been to highlight the kinds of questions to which we should be turning our attention in order to formulate such a strategy. The answers are likely to be more difficult to determine, and, moreover, will often be dependent upon the specific time and place.
In the first place, the ideas that we promote need to focus on the balancing of power rather than simply calling for a “roll back” of the state. By this, we do not mean the “balance of power” theory in international relations where states may pursue, actively, the equalisation of their power through alliances and competing military build up as a foreign policy option. Rather, we mean that the state faces competing obstacles to the aggrandisement of its power that limits successfully both its internal and external predations. This is likely to be achievable in one of only two ways (or preferably both).
The first possibility is dividing the allegiance of the people between the state and some other force or authority rather than having that allegiance concentrated on the perceived legitimacy of the ballot box. Historically, this division has been provided most effectively by either religion (especially pre-Reformation Christianity, which – having been steeped in natural law theology while achieving a symbiotic relationship between faith and reason – was substantively conducive to liberty13); or an institution such as Britain’s post-1688 constitutional monarchy where the power of the monarch balanced the power of Parliament.14 In other words, we need some entity or moral authority which serves to temper the power that people are prepared to accept from the official state apparatus. (The present writer has explored these aspects in detail here). The second possibility is to break up existing states into smaller entities (both absolutely and relative to each other), or to find some way of devolving administrative and tax raising authority away from political hubs such as Westminster to more local jurisdictions where such power will necessarily be weaker vis-à-vis the population. In the UK, the counties, whose role in local government stretches back for centuries, would be an obvious choice for such a project.
In order to achieve either or both of these outcomes, we need to show how people’s aspirations for what they want to do with their lives are being failed by the condition of the modern, democratic, all-encompassing state. It is here where we have to be alert to the opportunity that may be just around the corner – an opportunity we have outlined in a previous essay:
One day, the looming bankruptcy of the western welfare-warfare state will have to be addressed. There will come a point when it will simply not be possible for the state to continue to tax, borrow, inflate and waste without either a) addressing the question of rationing the existing promises, b) defaulting on its mountain of debt, c) hyperinflating the currency, or d) some combination of all three. All of these issues will come to dominate the political narrative.
When the state cannot pay people’s pensions; when it cannot afford all of the current raft of unemployment benefits; when it cannot care for the sick, dying and elderly; when it cannot pay for even basic medical care; on that day the modern, paper-money fuelled, corporatist-welfarist-warfaring state, taken for granted since the end of World War II, will essentially be in its death throes. Even if this is ultimately conducive to liberty the process itself could be very painful as the existing elite attempts to prevent the delicate house of cards supporting all of its wealth and power from collapsing – and they will try every trick in the book to do so, from increased authoritarianism, capital controls, hyperinflation leading to financial collapse, and, of course, real war.
We will […] need to work out how the new priorities and preoccupations will influence and change the relationships and tactical alliances between the state, the bureaucracies, the left, interest groups and the various factions of voter, and how we will respond to these to drive a pro-freedom agenda.
As every emperor throughout the West will be revealed to have no clothes, there is a real chance that the reliability, steadfastness and seeming omnipotence of the state will be shattered. Thus, all faith in and allegiances to the state in general will be broken and its purpose, nature, and scope will be open questions. Given that this will present a momentous opportunity for liberty, surely now is the time for us to turn our attention to deciding how we will answer those questions?
This is the great opportunity that we need to be poised to exploit. Rather than just trumpeting abstract ethics or economic theory, we need to also show people how the existing state apparatus, when it reaches its point of collapse, is, and always has been, making their own lives worse rather than better, and how their aspirations, whatever they may be, can be achieved far better by political arrangements that are more conducive to liberty in the long run. As we know, inklings in this regard have already emerged in the form of nationalist, populist and traditionalist movements but also in the resurrection of economic socialism. Thus, while our biggest opportunity is around the corner, there is every risk that it will result in another variety of organised violence rather than peaceful, social co-operation. This is likely to be the battle for which we must now prepare.
1In fact, different philosophies on either side of the divide may be distinguished more by approach, style, emphasis and technique rather than by anything truly fundamental. For instance, in response to the overuse of the term “fascist” to denote anyone who expresses even mild disagreement with leftist diktats, some on the right have been keen to point out how anti-capitalist philosophies such as Nazism and fascism are really varieties of leftism (along with socialism and communism). Such unity between modern day leftism with fascism becomes all the more convincing once we point out that they are both violent philosophies that seek to control scarce resources through force. Indeed, if someone is beating you on the head with a stick you are probably not too concerned with whether it is Adolf Hitler or Chairman Mao – it hurts all the same. See also L K Samuels, The Fascist History of Antifa, (2019) https://www.lewrockwell.com/2019/08/lk-samuels/the-fascist-history-of-antifa/
2This insight resonates with Mises’ critique of interventionism:
[N]o one ever succeeded in demonstrating that, disregarding syndicalism, a third social order is conceivable and possible other than that based on private property in the means or production or that built on public property. The middle system of property that is hampered, guided, and regulated by government is in itself contradictory and illogical. Any attempt to introduce it in earnest must lead to a crisis from which either socialism or capitalism alone can emerge.
See Ludwig von Mises, A Critique of Interventionism, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2011), 18.
3Gerard Casey, Reflections on Legal Polycentrism, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 22 (2010), 22-3.
4Notably by Jonathan Goodwin, who blogs under the pseudonym “Bionic Mosquito“.
5One scholar has argued that the classical liberals thought in this vein, suggesting that ignorance of the importance of family, culture, custom, tradition, religion, nation and so on is a relatively more recent phenomenon:
Both Hume and Smith opine that […] the public interest is secured when one fixes one’s attention on something limited and proximate, stretching to patriotism or love of country, rather than something vague and uncertain like love of humanity.
See Razeen Sally, Classical Liberalism and International Economic Order: Studies in Theory and Intellectual History, New York: Routledge (1998), quoted in Joseph T Salerno, The Nationalist Case for Free Trade, in the Words of Classical Economists, mises.org (2019). Sally also notes, observantly, that Smith’s most famous work is entitled “Wealth of Nations” not “Wealth of the World“. Ibid. 58.
6For an extended account, see Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, Liberty Fund/Ludwig von Mises Institute (2010).
7Hans-Herman Hoppe, Democracy – The God that Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy and Natural Order, Transaction Publishers (2007).
8The US Libertarian Party declined notably after Reagan’s election, failing to surpass its 1980 presidential election result for the next three decades.
9Richard Overton, A Manifestation, 394, quoted in Carl Watner, “Come What, Come Will!” Richard Overton, Libertarian Leveller, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. IV, No. 4 (Fall 1980), 426. It is interesting to note also that the influential Manchester School organised no formal political party for the reason that its call for the retrenchment of government expenditure “had no offices and sinecures to offer”, while Richard Cobden himself declined a place in Lord Palmerston’s government so that he could be more effective as a parliamentary critic outside of a “cushy” government office. See Gregory Bresiger, Laissez Faire and Little Englanderism: The Rise, Fall, Rise and Fall of the Manchester School, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, 13:1 (Summer 1997), 45-79.
10Ronald Hamowy, The Hayekian Model of Government in an Open Society, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. VI, No. 2 (Spring 1982), 143 [emphases in the original].
11This principle does not mean that libertarians should blindingly support every single, apparently liberating cause that comes along. Rather, each should be judged on a case by case basis with regards to the specific context. In particular, we should be wary of lending support to causes where there is likely to be an ulterior motive of a larger state, such as the various causes championed by the United States.
12And, in any case, any socialisation and redistribution in a relatively small entity is likely to be more in harmony with the values of the concomitantly smaller and more homogenous population and, thus, more acceptable and tolerable for them. Indeed, given that smaller states are more constrained than larger states by the consent of the citizenry, one effect of decentralisation is that the characterisation of a state as a de facto aggressive entity begins to blur. Once we get to the smallest level of socialised organisation, such as a voluntary commune, there is no affront to liberty whatsoever.
13For some short, but excellent discussions of the role of the Church in this regard, see Richard Storey, The Uniqueness of Western Law; and Idem. Libertarianism is Going Medieval; Chs 2 and 4 in Idem. The Uniqueness of Western Law: A Reactionary Manifesto, Arktos Media Ltd. (2019).
14Arguably, however, this was not a stable relationship and it may, in the long run, have been a stepping stone to the reduction of the monarch’s role to that of the mere figurehead that our present queen is today – much like how the gold standard, as good as it may have been when viewed in isolation, was really a stepping stone towards the elimination of the freedom of money.