A Critique of the State of Libertarianism

Keith Preston

Some thoughts I originally posted in an online discussion concerning the various libertarian by-ways”

There’s a big rivalry right now between the paleolibertarians, left-libertarians and “mainstream” LP/Cato/Reason type libertarians.

The paleos and the leftists view the latter tendencies as establishment brown-nosers, and the mainstreamers view the radicals as utopians, sectarians, or tin foil hatters. The mainstreamers and the paleos views the leftists as communists, and mainstreamers and the leftists view the paleos as fascists.

The way the dynamics of opposition movements always play out is that they tend to split off into reformist and revolutionary camps, and socially conservative and libertine/bohemian/countercultural camps. The historic socialist movement was the same way.

I can’t say that I am personally enamoured of any of the major libertarian factions.

The main problem with conventional “right-libertarians” is their view of 19th century capitalism (or even pre-modern feudalism, in the case of the Hoppeans) as essentially libertarian in nature, until it was allegedly ruined by socialists, unions, and Keynesian economists in the 20th century. This is a completely a-historical perspective, in my view. Statist movements in the 20th century were actually a reaction against the oppression associated with pre-modern societies, and the excesses of classical capitalism. There’s a reason why “the social question” or “the labor question” was the dominant issue in the late 19th and early 20th century. Because it was a real and serious issue. Some of the improvements in social conditions since that time can be attributed to technological expansion and economic growth, but to deny that the labor and social democratic parties, unions, legal and political reforms, and economic legislation played no role at all is completely ahistorical.

The kind of nostalgia for the Gilded Age that you find among many right-libertarians barely exists outside the United States where it resonates with certain American cultural traditions like tax protests and Jeffersonian suspicion of government. There’s a small but loud constituency for this view of economics in the US, but it’s not anything that will ever be politically marketable to most Americans. During a time of growing poverty and the widest division between social classes in a century, a movement that says there shouldn’t be minimum wages, unemployment insurance, social security, job safety requirements, overtime pay, food stamps, etc, etc, etc, is a political non-starter. Even Ron Paul had to tone all that down during his campaigns, and focus instead on foreign policy, the banksters, and civil liberties. Polls show that even the deep red states generally support an increase in the minimum wage. From a mainstream, reformist perspective, Ralph Nader has the right ideas, e.g. a left/right libertarian/populist campaign against capitalist excesses as well as government excesses. http://truth-out.org/…/25510-truths-and-falsehoods…

Where I disagree with Ralph is that I don’t think the political system is functional enough to carry out even the modest reforms that he suggests. Hence, we need Kirk Sale’s and the late Thomas Naylor’s idea of pan-secession: http://attackthesystem.com/…/kirkpatrick-sale-is…/

As for the left-libertarians, they’re generally a better group when it comes to economics in the sense that they recognize that big capital and big government are generally friends, not antagonists, and that the principal function of state intervention in the economy is to distribute income upward, and not to help poor people. One can disagree with some of the specifics of their approach to economics and still recognize this. http://www.libertarian.co.uk/?q=node/476

Where left-libertarianism goes wrong is where the entire body of the Left goes wrong, i.e. subordinating class politics (along anti-statism and anti-imperialism generally) to cultural politics, or even non-political cultural or lifestyle issues. For instance, in Carson’s “end of libertarians” piece, he’s basically advocating for the same stance the Left has taken for 40 years of placing social issues over and above everything else, which is a big part of why we now have gay marriage, sensitivity training, and speech codes even as we have endless war and class divisions are at an all time high. Somewhere along the line leftists started deciding that the real enemy is not the state, capitalism or the imperialists, but white people, men, heterosexuals, Christians, southerners, midwesterners, smokers, gun owners, meat eaters, rednecks, the white working class, social conservatives, pro-lifers, etc, etc, etc. Along the way, a lot of liberals and leftists also started deciding we don’t really need the traditional liberal rights of speech, religion, association, free inquiry, academic freedom, due process, etc. let alone red meat rights like the 2nd Amendment. Instead, these are just nuisances and inconveniences that get in the way of the jihad against an ever expanding list of taboo forms of discrimination.

Hence, what we now have is a plutocratic, imperialist, police state with affirmative action, public crusades of the silliest kind against alleged insensitivity, lawsuits against religious bakeries over gay wedding cakes, professional sanctions against an eminent scientist for holding un-PC opinions, and transgender celebrities.

In what way is what is being described in this article contributing to the downfall of the state, the overthrow of the ruling class, or ending imperialist war? http://www.bloomberg.com/…/bow-ties-and-slam-poetry…

(Btw, in case anyone is wondering, I’m not nearly as pessimistic as many of the above comments would seem to indicate: http://attackthesystem.com/…/the-coming-golden-age-of…/)

In my perfect world, we would have a stateless economy comprised of individual and family enterprises, small businesses, medium sized private companies, partnerships, cooperatives, LETS, barter networks, non-statist social services run by cultural organizations, industrial syndicates managed by workers councils, Georgist land trusts, kibbutzes, communes, collectives, clubs, eco-villages, intentional communities, guilds, regional and local currencies, credit unions, mutual aid societies and mutual banks, gift economies, stakeholder democracy, consumer federations, robots doing the shit work, etc. I think that’s what anarchists and libertarians should be pushing for in the long haul. In the short term, something like Nader’s ideas or the libertarian-populism of “The American Conservative” is the best way to go.

I should add that while I have my disagreements with orthodox libertarians and an-caps, I consider them to be valuable allies against the state as most of them are in practice just good Lockean liberals or Spoonerite-individualists. Also, I am not a universalist, so I don’t think there’s one universally applicable economic or social system. What I would like to see the Pan-Secessionist Meta-Party doing is building local secessionist and municipalists movements whose adherents pursue whatever specific objectives they wish. It might be one of the types of anarchism or libertarianism, or some kind of socialism, or some relatively mainstream outlook, or some kind of religious or ethnic philosophy, or some non-categorizable perspective (like the Zeitgeist movement or the Venus Project).


  1. A bit “inside baseball” – but there is some practical stuff here that interests me.

    No – nobody I know regards 19th century Britain or the United States as libertarian. But we do look at the facts – for example the British government (local as well as central) was well under 10% of the economy around 1870 (just about the low point).

    And those people who think that economies of scale (i.e. an individual or company employing thousands of people) on “state intervention” are just wrong, flat wrong (they do not know what they are talking about).

    As for the United States – slavery can not be ignored and slavery (NOT capitalism) did depend on statism.

    As Salmon P. Chase was fond of pointing out – slavery is actually a series of common law offenses (false imprisonment, assault and so on) “legalised” by state statutes and corrupt court judgement.

    People in “Bleeding Kansas” (where the killing between the free and slave sides started long before Lincoln was elected President of the United States) knew the two social and legal systems could not live side by side – and that both sides wanted to expand into the West.

    This does not mean that Lincoln’s tactics in the Civil War were any good (the North won because it was much bigger and more powerful – not because of his supposedly great leadership) – or that his Henry Clay Whig economic ideas were any good either.

    Leaving slavery aside – could America have been a freer society in the 19th century? Of course it could – anything can be improved.

    However, government (the Civil War aside) was quite small – to claim that it shaped the economy (as some people do) is nonsense.

    By the way I am not even sure what the term “feudal society” is supposed to mean. After all one can have feudalism without serfdom (it had basically died out in both Britain and France by the 1400s) and one can have serfdom without feudalism (for example the Emperor Diocletian bound peasants to the soil – made them serfs).

    Feudalism is a legal and political system (whether it is a good or bad one is a debate for another time) it is NOT an economic system – the idea that it is an economic system is an error.

    As for the “cultural libertarian left”.

    Yes – I do not really see why they feel the need to ape the Frankfurt School Marxists. After all the modern “Critical Theory” (if we are not allowed to say “P.C.” any more) do not really believe their own rubbish. They would not ally with the Islamists (which they have – in many Western countries) if they were actually sincere about all this “rights of women” and “Gay rights” and on and on.

    It is just “victim group” tactics – to get people to blame all their problems (real or fantasy problems) on “capitalist society” – “the rich” – “the corporations”. And to make people support a wonderful new society where the state (sorry – not the state “the people”) will control everything.

    I find it hard to take the “cultural” stuff seriously – as the people who push it clearly do not believe in it themselves (see above), so back to the economic stuff.

    People who really think that, for example, J. Wedgewood was some illegitimate creation of the state in the 18th century, or that Jon Huntsman (senior) or “boo-hiss” “the Koch brothers” are now – are just wrong, and there is an end to it.

    If the “libertarian left” are peaceful in their wrongness – i.e. just shout “their land and other property should not be theirs” then they should be treated peacefully (i.e. ignored), if they are violent in their wrongness, try and actually take the land and other property by force, then they should be shot.

    There really is nothing else to say to people who think that “inequality is the creation of the state” and so on. There was nothing else to say to Rousseau and his followers in the 1700s – and the fundamental position remains the same.

    This does not mean that credit money expansion does not cause artificial inequality – of course it does – but as the “libertarian left” tend to be in favour (not against) “cheap money” credit money expansion (against funding loans solely from REAL SAVINGS) there is no common ground even on this point.

    Still with government now about half the entire economy with out of control Welfare States destroying every major Western country, and the financial system being a demented credit bubble, this society will soon pass away anyway.

    So, in a way, the “libertarian left” will get their wish – a blank sheet to start again.

    Pity about the future starvation and cannibalism though.

  2. Where Libertarianism is going wrong IMHO, is that we have many discussing the finer theoretical, economic, academic and philosophical aspects of Libertarianism and few people actually politically active prepared to engage with the electorate, knock on doors and sell Libertarianism to the voting public. Until that happens I fear Libertarianism will not establish itself as a credible alternative to the status quo.

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