How to Fight for Liberty, Part Four – Radicalism
By Duncan Whitmore
In the previous instalments of this continuing series on how to fight for liberty, we have been emphasising the fact that our political strategy needs to focus on motivating people away from sustaining social structures which rely on physical enforcement (such as the state) and towards those which are generated instead by voluntary co-operation.
Based upon what we learnt in Part Three, the essence of this task is captured in a quotation attributed to G K Chesterton:
We do not need good laws to restrain bad men. We need good men to restrain bad laws.
In Part One, we drew a distinction between libertarian theory on the one hand and libertarian political action on the other. We determined that the province of libertarian theory is to define and justify liberty. For instance, a private property order defines a polity in which liberty is the overriding principle of justice; the non-aggression principle determines which acts do and do not infringe upon liberty; and “free market capitalism” defines the economic condition of liberty. However, neither repeating these definitions nor delineating the institutions that could form a free society – the latter of which we explored in Part Three – is enough to make them a reality. For this, the purpose of libertarian political action is to achieve this critical aspect of motivation.
Applying this distinction to Chesterton’s words, we might say that the purpose of libertarian theory is to determine good laws; the purpose of libertarian political action, on the other hand, is to encourage good men. By this, we do not mean the creation of some kind of idealised, libertarian “new man” as the equal opposite of the socialist “new man” envisaged by the kinds of statist philosophy we discussed in Part Two. Rather, it simply means that liberty, and the sustenance of just laws, is ultimately dependent upon the fervour of the people to preserve their freedom.
It’s worth pointing out that categorising our different endeavours in this manner helps to clarify and – at least partially – resolve a number of conflicts within the libertarian movement. One of these conflicts concerns whether libertarianism should be regarded as a “thin” or “thick” philosophy (and, if “thick”, the precise moral content that should comprise the “thickness”).
Without going into too many specifics, a “thin” libertarian believes that libertarianism concerns solely the just use of force, and is silent upon the wider question of morality. For instance, a “thin” libertarian qua libertarian is interested in whether you have the right to live, free of physical restraint, on a diet of fast food; he is not considering whether actually choosing such a diet would be a good thing to do. Another way of putting it is that libertarianism concerns the scope of your moral agency – your freedom to act upon choices – not the moral worth of the specific choices that you make.1 A “thick” libertarian, on the other hand, believes that there are other moral imperatives (or general moral systems) that form part of libertarianism in addition to the question of physical force – usually (but not exclusively) because such moral propositions are deemed necessary in order to sustain a free society. So, for example, a “thick” libertarian may advocate adherence to Christian morality, family values and traditional sexual ethics as institutions which help to maintain freedom, advocacy of which he would regard as being part of libertarianism.2 Alternatively, he may advocate for some for some form of openness, tolerance and non-discrimination.3
Our distinction between theory and political action helps to transcend at least some of the antagonism that may be generated by this debate. As libertarian theorists, we can agree that the scope of libertarianism concerns only the just use of force and, thus, it is a “thin” philosophy. But we can also, as political activists, recognise that there are likely to be other moral propositions (and general moral theories) – some universal, some particular to time and place – that are strategically better than others at motivating people towards sustaining a free society. Thus, libertarians can agree on the theoretical core of non-violence while disagreeing on the best way to bring this about as part of a political strategy. Distilling these tasks into two, separate categories allows, I submit, for a more coherent and genial manner of treating their respective problems than under a unified umbrella of “libertarianism”.4
This distinction becomes all the more pressing when we recall our indication in Part One that movements fighting for liberalisation are likely to appear in a variety of different guises across the world at different times and for different reasons. Thus, rather than consisting of a singular, unified movement fighting for the dissemination of libertarian theory, the fight for liberty is likely to be a de-homogenised and fragmented affair, in which we will have to deal with people and movements whose passion for freedom is likely to be imperfect both in ideology and in strategy. If this is true, then we need to be armed with a framework that will enable us to support and strengthen such movements where we think they are right, and to criticise and correct them where we think they are wrong. Such a framework will need enough rigidity to recognise universal aspects of our humanity that are necessary to sustain liberty, but enough flexibility so as to adapt to the specific circumstances of the time and place.
Conservatism and Radicalism
Our first task in building this framework – and one which will be attempted in this and the next few essays – is to resolve a number of dichotomies that weigh not only on the libertarian movement but also on the anti-leftist right in general.
The first of these is the extent to which the fight for freedom should be considered as a radical movement on the one hand or as a conservative movement on the other.
This question is concerned not with whether we are trying to motivate people towards a bright new future of peace and prosperity, nor with whether we are trying to turn the clock back to a perceived “golden age” of freedom. I expect that all libertarians in the West have a mixture of these two motivations, given that our predicament consists primarily of past freedoms once enjoyed now draining away. Thus, our efforts are to arrest this decline in order to give way to a future freer from state interference.
Rather, what we are trying to decide is whether our primary task is to throw away the existing order before replacing it with a new one, or whether we should be attempting to salvage an order that has been stolen from us by statists and leftists. Particularly in the Anglo-sphere, our present level of despotism has been established not by any single event in the way that the Russian Revolution established the Soviet Union. Rather, it has grown within a continuous order similar to how a cancerous tumour grows within a human body. As with the onset of cancer, statism has metastasised only in a gradual way, infecting and swallowing previously healthy tissue, with the ill effects becoming detectable only after a long period of time. Which parts of our society and our institutions of governance comprise the tumour that must be cut out, and which parts are the vital organs that need to be restored? Can they even be restored at all, or is the extent of the damage now too great? To use another metaphor, has the hull of our ship become so corroded by barnacles and rust that it needs to be scrapped, or do we just need to scrape off the dirt and grime before applying a fresh coat of paint?
The problem might be summarised as the need to balance “reform” on the one hand with “reclaim” on the other – each of which, interestingly, is the name of one of two new, anti-establishment political parties on the UK right. Some readers may be tempted to dismiss the distinction as being too subtle and in need of no great clarification if we are all aiming for the same, ultimate end. This, however, is likely to be a mistake, because a failure to appreciate both the benefits and the vicissitudes of each path will probably lead to failure.
In the remainder of this essay, we will explore issues raised by radicalism; an examination of conservatism, together with some further thoughts concerning the juxtaposition of the two, will appear in Part Five.
For much of the post-war era, it is fair to say that libertarianism in the US was a radical movement. Certainly Murray N Rothbard seemed to think so, characterising its nineteenth century ancestor of liberalism as “the party of hope, of radicalism, of liberty, of the Industrial Revolution, of progress, of humanity” in contrast to “conservatism, the party of reaction, the party that longed to restore the hierarchy, statism, theocracy, serfdom, and class exploitation of the Old Order.”5 He even drew inspiration from the Marxists – who, according to him, had been “thinking about strategy for radical social change longer than any other group” – so as to weed out from the libertarian movement gradualists, pragmatists and opportunists whom he believed would merely serve to dilute the “libertarian goal” rather than help attain it.6
A fitting example of the inspiration for this radical fervour came as early as 1946 in a lecture given by Leonard Read entitled I’d Push the Button. Read imagined that, if there was a button in front of him that would release all wage and price controls immediately so as to restore the genuine free market in an instant, he would push it, without question. While Read’s specific preoccupation was limited to price and rent controls, the symbolism of a giant, red button bringing about instant, radical change was likely to make a lasting impression during an era in which the very real spectre of the nuclear button was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Decades after Read’s lecture, Rothbard advocated extending the notion of button pushing beyond wage and price controls, demanding “the instantaneous abolition of all invasions of liberty”.7
It’s true, of course, that all injustices should be removed by the quickest means possible and, as I have argued myself, gradualism, both morally and empirically, has not been a successful approach in fostering freer societies. In fact, twentieth century examples of where free markets flourished, such as in Hong Kong under John James Cowperthwaite, and in New Zealand under Roger Douglas, succeeded precisely because they were radical and uncompromising in sweeping away socialistic rot.
However, this notion of “pushing the button”, if taken too literally, fails to acknowledge the unique character of libertarian radicalism and, moreover, shows the dangers of trying to translate libertarian theory verbatim into a political strategy. For in contrast to leftists and Marxists, the post-War remnants of the “Old Right” – the immediate ancestors of the modern libertarian movement – were not (as their designation of “old” indicates) trying to establish a new order. Rather, they were pining for the loss of old principles that were still within living memory, amongst which, namely, were small government, laissez-faire, and foreign non-interventionism. Thus, their intention was restore that which had been taken away by the onslaught of two World Wars, the Great Depression, the New Deal, Keynesian economic (mis)management and, of course, the permanent warfare industry gearing up to deal with the “Soviet threat”, all of which had become accepted and entrenched in under half a lifetime. In this context, the notion of Leonard Read “pushing a button” would have made much sense. For, in 1946, it is likely that traditional civic, social, cultural and religious institutions and values were still sufficiently intact so as to be able to absorb the consequences of the imminent bursting of the statist, collectivist balloon that had inflated over the previous generation.
However, by the time the libertarian movement began to emerge as a distinctive entity in the 1960s and the 1970s – notably with the foundation of the Libertarian Party in 1971 – the counterculture was at its height.8 In addition, therefore, to burgeoning economic problems leading into the recessionary milieu that plagued the period, the infant movement also had to take positions on issues such as feminism (and abortion), sexual ethics, immigration, the use of narcotics, and hierarchical authority.
Applying the principle of non-aggression, libertarianism opposes the criminalisation of any voluntary acts between consenting adults, and so we can expect libertarians qua libertarians to take a permissiveness stance on most social matters. There are, however, two problems with how this stance played out during this era.
The first is that theoretical conclusions themselves seem to have been influenced by the preoccupations of the day. Thus, we find that much libertarian writing from the period is, amongst other things, pro-abortion, pro-immigration, and, of course, libertarians have struggled to shake off the caricature that they care for nothing other than being able to smoke a joint without being harassed by the police. While the libertarian movement to this day remains fervently opposed to the “War on Drugs”, issues such as immigration are now more divisive in libertarian theory given that priorities have changed from what they were fifty years ago.
The second is how the traditional, anti-state fervour of libertarians towards economic issues translated into a similar fervour with regards to this more “modern” stance on social issues without necessarily understanding the different effects of the two from a strategic point of view. Extensive samples of thoughts from the time suitable for a lay audience can be found in the volumes of The Libertarian Forum, the periodical edited (and largely written) by Rothbard between 1969 and 1984. Even though there was a clear awareness of the dangers of the “New Left” from the publication’s earliest days9, a June 1971 article concerning political strategy presents a telling example of this “easy” coupling of economic issues with the social. Here, Rothbard offered up the recent repeal of abortion laws and the rollback of rent controls in New York City as equally “prominent victories for destatizing”.10 Another significant contribution was the first publication of chapters of what would later become Walter Block’s famous Defending the Undefendable. While Block was careful to explain the limits of his analysis, the portrayal of (amongst others) prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers and drug addicts as “heroes” was likely to have moral, social and cultural ramifications that were far more controversial than a mere call for lowering taxes.
At the time, much of this probably made sense – or, rather, it is easy to see how it happened. The broad, overarching theme pitting liberty against tyranny was not with social issues per se but with capitalism vs. socialism/communism, and so we can see, for instance, how the pro-immigration stance was most likely motivated by the economic benefits of the free movement of labour and the wider need to avoid ruinous trade barriers and tariffs that had exacerbated the Great Depression. In addition, the spectre of the iron curtain imprisoning Eastern Europeans in the confines of the Soviet satellite dictatorships was a perpetual symbol of communist tyranny to which free movement was clearly the antithesis. It was only later, when cultural issues begun to ascend in relative importance compared to the economic, that the theoretical basis for a pro-immigration stance began to be questioned more seriously.11 Similarly, Block’s defence of unsavoury characters is based primarily upon their economic contribution as peaceful providers of voluntarily accepted services.
Moreover, libertarians would have found kindred spirits in the countercultural left when it came to the other big issues of the day, namely civil rights, US imperialism, the Vietnam War, the draft and nuclear disarmament. In fact, alignment on these matters was attractive enough for Rothbard to attempt an alliance with the “New Left” in the mid-1960s, even spawning a short lived journal Left and Right.12
However, from a strategic point of view, the resulting corrosion of faith in traditional institutions meant that the fight for freedom was left without a cultural, moral and institutional basis. Writing at the turn of the century, Hans-Hermann Hoppe pulled no punches in condemning the products of the concatenation of interests that appeared during this era:
[P]romoted by the major “advances” in the growth of the welfare state from the early to mid-1960s onward in the United States and similarly in Western Europe […] a new mass-phenomenon emerged. A new “Lumpenproletariat” of intellectuals and intellectualized youths – the products of an ever expanding system of socialist (public) education – “alienated” from mainstream “bourgeois” morals and culture […] arose. Multiculturalism and cultural relativism (live and let live) and egalitarian antiauthoritarianism (respect no authority) were elevated from temporary and transitory phases in mental development (adolescence) to permanent attitudes among grown-up intellectuals and their students.
The principled opposition of the libertarians to the Vietnam War coincided with the somewhat diffuse opposition to the war by the New Left. In addition, the anarchist upshot of the libertarian doctrine appealed to the countercultural left. For did not the illegitimacy of the state and the nonaggression axiom […] imply that everyone was at liberty to choose his very own nonaggressive lifestyle? Did this not imply that vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, drug use, promiscuity, pornography, prostitution, homosexuality, polygamy, pedophilia or any other conceivable perversity or abnormality, insofar as they were victimless crimes, were no offenses at all but perfectly normal and legitimate activities and lifestyles? Not surprisingly, then, from the outset the libertarian movement attracted an unusually high number of abnormal and perverse followers. Subsequently, the countercultural ambiance and multicultural-relativistic “tolerance” of the libertarian movement attracted an even greater number of misfits, personal or professional failures, or plain losers […] They fantasized of a society where everyone would be free to choose and cultivate whatever nonaggressive lifestyle, career, or character he wanted, and where, as a result of free-market economics, everyone could do so on an elevated level of general prosperity. Ironically, the movement that had set out to dismantle the state and restore private property and market economics was largely appropriated, and its appearance shaped, by the mental and emotional products of the welfare state: the new class of permanent adolescents.13
The institutional erosion caused by these countercultural attitudes (and the economic policies that spawned them) has not only hindered the rolling back of statism, but, even worse, has allowed the state to sweep in and fill the resulting vacuum with its own institutions and values. Indeed, as the reaction to onset of COVID-19 has shown, we are now saddled with a population a large proportion of which can only ever take its cues from the government.
The ironic result of this is that freedom – once meaning liberation from the state – has now become the ward of the state itself. Like the proverbial fox guarding the chicken coup, freedom is now supposed to be “protected” by the very entity that presents the greatest threat, an “accomplishment” which can be seen in three, significant societal shifts: ideological, intellectual and cultural.
The ideological shift has been to the almost universal acceptance of democracy, the egalitarian nature of which is reflected by the counterculture (or vice versa). Freedom used to mean being spared the rod of the oppressor; now it’s getting an occasional, equal say in selecting the next oppressor from a narrow range of wannabe oppressors pre-screened by the endorsement of existing oppressors. Worse than that, however, democracy sanctifies its practitioners with an emboldening sense of righteousness and legitimacy. Democratic governments grant themselves the moral supremacy of supposedly guaranteeing their citizens rights and freedoms that are, so it is claimed, denied by regimes less inclined to seek their authority from the ballot box. Liberal democracy has helped to justify American exceptionalism and – since President Wilson literally tried to make the world “safe for democracy” – the launching of secular crusades with a fervour similar to that of the belief that God is on your side.
The intellectual shift has come in the form of neo-liberalistic, “free market” intellectuals and think tanks who, under the mantra of empiricism, regard freedom not as a fundamental principle but as a tool that can be experimented with by the technocracy, switched on and off in order to accomplish collectively defined goals. Thus, one can be “free” so long as your “freedom” is contributing to some goal desired by the government (“more growth” etc.), but only up to the amount that the theorist thinks a “little bit” of taxation to create a “fair” welfare system won’t harm, too much, your incentive to produce.14 Freedom is no longer living your life as you see fit; rather it is taking your place as a cog in the nation’s economic machinery. Further, while government is supposed to be small in an institutional sense so as not to interfere in “the market”, its jurisdictional reach needs to be as wide as possible. This is so it can “guarantee” freedom for everyone by preventing regions and localities from raising taxes, closing their borders and indulging in idiosyncratic, non-harmonised regulation. Hence, we can see that neo-liberalism and “beltway libertarianism” is perfectly at home with political centralisation in the form of outfits such as the European Union.
Finally, the resolution of moral and cultural problems has been subsumed by the superficially attractive notion of “human rights”. This is a concept that differs fundamentally from the older tradition of natural rights, even though the designation “human” attempts to cash in on the same aura of immovability. Older charters of rights, such as the US Bill of Rights (1791), were little more than lists of acts which the state was barred from doing, often in response to previous injustices that were meted out by rulers.15 How a person should regulate his desires and behaviour within the resulting ambit of freedom was a matter determined by the array of manners, morals, customs and conventions generated by families, communities, civic groups and congregations. However, post-war charters of human rights – such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) – are not of this ilk. For one thing, traditional, naturalistic sounding rights (such as the “right to life”) are mixed with what are really economic goods (healthcare, education) that must be provided by someone else. But, as Frank van Dun explains, this is merely the protruding tip of an underlying, philosophical shift: that “a human being’s fundamental or natural right is not the physical integrity of his own being and works, but the satisfaction of his desires”.16 This has had the effect of wresting the institutional regulation of those desires and behaviour away from families and communities, and into to the courtroom – or, to put it another way, the erosion of families and communities has pushed these problems into the ambit of “human rights”.17 Thus, conflicts are resolved with the force of law by reference not to objective criteria such as property, but to intangible, subjective factors (“desires, needs, wants, interests”). Continues van Dun:
In order to [stop this] from creating universal war, one should “socialise” and transform [human rights] into mere reflections of governmental duty. The state should administer human rights in accordance with the organisation and resources of the country. This requires a continuous weighing of interests and desires as well as a vast apparatus of politicians, bureaucrats, experts, and agents to gather data, concoct and interpret the statistics essential to policy-making, and implement the policies selected. All of this is inevitable because the things which the human rights are “rights to” are inevitably scarce.
Unlike a person’s natural rights, which recognise his standing as a producer or guardian of scarce resources, his human rights are claims to whatever might serve to satisfy his “dignity,” i.e., his covetousness. In the final analysis, they all translate into a right to the labour and productive services of the great multitude of nameless others who find themselves under the same government. Each person’s human right is a “right” to tax and regulate others — a right that, to deprive it of its lethal character, must be taken from him and administered by a powerful central authority.18
Today, therefore, an appeal to ones rights no longer designates the state as the enemy to be restrained. Rather, the state is now granted a positive role in ensuring the “protection” of the enlisted “rights” together with broadly defined powers to “balance” them against the supposed rights of others, and ultimately – in the language of the ECHR – to collectively defined priorities:
[…] in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
In sum, the language of rights, freedom and the protection of the individual serves as a camouflage for the state regulation of competing desires and priorities – in another word, socialism. During his examination of the UN’s Universal Declaration, van Dun makes the sardonic observation that “[a]pparently, the ‘right to the United Nations’ is a human right as well”.19 I would go further by saying that the only right under these charters is to exist at the sufferance of their authors: social democratic governments. If the beneficiaries of this “right” are the “permanent adolescents” identified by Hoppe who have shunned adherence to all other forms of behavioural regulation, then is it any wonder that we are saddled with a nanny state?
Libertarian Radicalism: A Reassessment
As we can see, therefore, the kind of cultural radicalism condemned by Hoppe has led to the swift dismantling of neither the state nor, in Rothbard’s words, of the “Old Order” that supposedly upheld it. Instead there has been an almighty explosion in its growth. Clearly, therefore, a better understanding of the radical nature of libertarianism is required if a political strategy for freedom is to be successful.
Undeniably, the methodology, consistency and conclusions of libertarianism are fundamentally different from those taken for granted today. An uncompromising rejection of the state, of empiricism and positivism in the social sciences, and the unwavering application of the non-aggression principle to each and every conflict would, if taken seriously, lead to a completely different society from the one to which we are accustomed. In this sense, libertarianism seems radical from the point at which we are at today.
However – as we indicated by reference to the “Old Right” – much of the libertarian creed consists of nothing that is strikingly new. Indeed, one of the errors of Rothbard’s contrast between conservatism and classical liberalism is the (barely concealed) implication that freedom effectively came into existence only sometime during eighteenth century, as if every prior institution in history was geared towards despotism and control.20 Actually, the non-aggression principle itself, the heart of libertarian ethics, is a very old rule that has cropped up in one form or another in most religions and cultures throughout history. It permeates, for instance, the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt not murder”; “Thou shalt not steal”; “Thou shalt not covet”), and is roughly translatable into the so-called “Golden Rule” – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Moreover, as I pointed out recently when discussing the extent of decentralised law making, libertarian political philosophers haven’t so much invented new principles as much as simply clarified and refined that which was revealed to them by a long process of evolution – something which F A Hayek regarded as the product of rational reflection rather than rational construction.21
In fact, it is helpful for us to remember that liberty is the default status of human beings, one that is chronologically prior to some kind of force or control, at least to a systematised extent such as the modern nation state. A host must exist in a free state before a parasite can latch onto him, and the parasite – also a free entity – will only do so if the host has, of his own accord, fattened himself up into a worthwhile supply of sustenance. Moreover, as we mentioned in Part Three, the minority of parasites can continue to draw blood only if they secure the willing sanction of a majority of the hosts. Thus, it is likely that social problems were grappled with through relatively peaceful and voluntary institutions for millennia before the appearance of systematised institutions of physical enforcement, and that remnants of these remain, even if it today it they are buried under a mountain of statism. A pertinent example is the Common Law, the product of centuries of adjudicative resolution of disputes which still – in spite of being subdued by reams of legislation – contains time honoured doctrines, principles and mechanisms which are more or less in accord with a libertarian understanding of rights.22
Given all of this, it is clear that libertarians can never endorse the kinds of destructionism and rejectionism that tend to be the bent of Marxists, communists and social engineers – those utterly convinced that their grand visions and ideologies can be imposed on everyone else if only the pesky people would cease clinging to their old-fashioned customs, conventions, allegiances and superstitious religions. In the minds of these zealots, everything must be swept away so that we can begin anew, for in contrast to condition of freedom, these creeds truly are a new imposition upon humanity. Such destructive aspirations lead, at worst, to horrors such as the Cultural Revolution, and a contemporary form of it is possibly being seen in the collapse of economies under COVID-19 lockdowns so as to “build back better” during a so-called fourth industrial revolution.
More generally, it is incumbent upon us to determine why it is that liberty – and all of the economic, scientific, philosophical and cultural riches that went with it – flourished in the West but scarcely anywhere else (and why it has subsequently declined). While I would not like to say categorically that liberty can be neither achieved nor sustained in any other tradition, two thousand years of history is difficult to argue with. What we have had is, as one might say, the “evidence”. It is unlikely, therefore, that we have the option of merely jettisoning whatever remnants of Western society there are in the hope of establishing some new kind of order that is devoid of the kinds of institution that fertilised freedom in the West. Indeed, if Marxists and social engineers have always sought to overturn existing orders then there must be something about those orders that is as antithetical to the socialist bent as libertarianism is.
Thus, the correct perspective from which to understand the radical nature of libertarianism when applied to our own society is actually to view the latter as the radical entity: that the philosophy of liberty is a set of basic and very old principles from which society has made a radical departure. The false values of statism, socialism, communism and egalitarianism are like a furious hurricane which, while howling, makes the fair weather of liberty seem like a radical and remote prospect. Really, however, it is the calm equilibrium to which we must return.
Cultural Diversity and Libertarian Strategy
None of this means to say that a libertarian world, if achieved, is likely to require pious adherence to a very narrow range of traditional strictures that were found only in yesteryear, nor should we necessarily assume that a libertarian strategy can consist simply of repeating such norms. There is, of course, likely to be a core of values that are necessary to sustain liberty in any society. Lying and cheating, for example, are always likely to provoke resentment and hostility wherever and whenever they are practised, destroying with them any impetus towards social co-operation. Thus, all strategies for promoting liberty anywhere are unlikely to be successful if they bleat on about how “non-aggressive” lying and cheating should be perfectly lawful. Moreover, as Hoppe explains, the protection of moral, social and cultural cohesion will require “a sharp increase in discrimination” in order to limit or otherwise exclude those whose behaviour would serve to frustrate that cohesion.
Beyond these basic and formal observations, however, there is no need to envisage a world of bland uniformity or rigid immovability to a precise set of norms and values. To quote from Hoppe again:
[T]he predicted rise in discrimination in a purely libertarian world does not imply that the form or extent of discrimination will be the same or similar everywhere. A libertarian world could and likely would be one with a great variety of locally separated communities engaging in distinctly different and far-reaching discrimination.23
This variety, however, owes itself at a fundamental level neither to choice nor mere happenstance. As I have argued before, all codes of morality, manners, customs, conventions, cultural traditions and the institutions that support them ultimately have their basis in the challenges posed by the economic condition of the people. In the same way that increasing economic prosperity allows for a greater number of different kinds of goods and services to be produced so as to satisfy a wider degree of preferences, so too can it allow for a greater number of diverse interests and lifestyles to flourish – a “gorgeous mosaic”, in Rothbard’s words.24 In fact, this should hardly come as a great surprise: given that ethics concerns resolving conflicts over scarce goods, greater abundance will result in fewer conflicts; in turn, a wider variety of choices and lifestyles can co-exist peacefully.
To avoid misunderstanding, this is not an overture to the acceptance of moral relativism; rather, it means that changes in the volume and diversity of available goods determines a) how “high level” moral duties and aspirations are translated into practical action; and b) the urgency of answering particular moral questions correctly.
For example, a moral proposition such as a) could be to live a “healthy” life. But what constitutes “healthy” is likely to differ depending upon the circumstances and available resources. In an impoverished society, securing food and basic hygiene is likely to be the priority. In a richer society in which people spend an undue amount of time indoors in front of computer screens, it could be getting an hour of fresh air and sunshine each day.
An example of b) could concern the use of water. If a particular society suffers from a relative shortage of fresh water then it would be extremely important for that society to ponder and answer correctly the question of what are the best uses for water. Pleasurable uses such as Jacuzzis or elaborate water fountains while others are dying of thirst may, in such a society, be considered the height of vulgarity and depravity given the short supply. If, however, this supply constraint was to be relaxed and water became more abundant then the urgency of directing water to “better” or more “virtuous” uses would be less keenly felt, and so the moral question of water use will be pondered, if at all, with reduced fervour. The once vulgar and tasteless hot tubs and water features may now become standard features of houses.
What we learn from this, however, is that such diversity is the product of freedom, not its prerequisite. Indeed, both Rothbard and Hoppe speak of societies which are already free, with the “gorgeous mosaic” growing organically according to the preferences of individual people, built upon decentralised, non-state institutions. The error of the post-war libertarian movement was to misinterpret nominally peaceful cultural changes as being a genuine form of liberation. It was, instead, a faux liberation from all of the forms of community cohesion that help to grease the wheels of social co-operation, delivering people into the regulatory arms of the state.
Therefore, the difficulty, from a strategic point of view, is trying to separate preferences which can be sustained within the ambit of freedom from those which would actively cause antagonism and undermine it. At any one time – however “legal” one thinks they should be from a theoretical perspective – there is likely to be a limited amount of cultural diversity that a society’s institutions can sustain if liberty is to be preserved.
Take, again, the example of water use in a society in which water is scarce. In such a society, it is likely that water would play a significant role in the moral, cultural and institutional life of the community so that the use of such a terribly scarce commodity is regulated in a manner which preserves peaceful relations. Indeed, it might even be the case that what, to us, are menial tasks such as washing and bathing become ritualised affairs in order to emphasise the preciousness of the commodity being used, similar to how the ethics of sex and child bearing are ritualised by the marriage ceremony.
In such an environment, a libertarian would be theoretically correct to say that the owner of a portion of water should be able to do whatever he wants with it. But from a strategic point of view, it would be a disaster for that libertarian, hoping to spread the message of freedom, to advocate for the ownership of Jacuzzis, hot tubs or swimming pools, etc. items which, as we indicated earlier, may be considered the height of vulgarity. Listening to that message would be that class of “permanent adolescents” who, sensing a sudden liberation from what is – to them – a stifling and outdated culture of water regulation, would begin building their luxury water features while other people, presumably, are dying of thirst. Far from encouraging freedom, such countercultural actions are likely to provoke resentment and antagonism, destroying the institutional basis that hitherto kept the peace – ultimately creating a moral and institutional vacuum into which state regulation will step in.
On the other hand, in a society in which water was plentiful, these effects would clearly not result. But plenteousness of water, like any commodity, is a product of freedom and increased capital accumulation, and so only then can a greater diversity of water use be sustained and, with it, older cultural and moral institutions regulating the use of water be gradually dissolved without destroying the social order.
A further consideration is that libertarian activists need to understand carefully whether moral and cultural changes – even if nominally peaceful – represent the genuine progress of a free people or whether they are the product of prior state interferences. If the former, it is likely that one can, indeed, “push the button” and banish the spectre of the state in an instant while leaving the underlying civic institutional support intact. If the latter, however, then the result is likely to be a regulatory vacuum into which the state and political regulation will expand, to the detriment of liberty. In such an instance, a viable strategy is likely to have to address far more fundamental issues than simply rolling back a few laws.
This completes an isolated examination of radicalism vis-à-vis libertarianism. In Part Five, we will explore conservatism, while offering some further thoughts as to the role of both radicalism and conservatism should have for a libertarian political strategy.
* * * * *
1The most prolific of this kind of libertarian is likely to be Walter Block. See, for instance Ken Williamson and Walter E Block, Is Libertarianism Thick or Thin? Thin!, The Italian Law Journal, Vol. 3, Issue 1 (July 2017), 1-17; Walter E Block, Libertarianism is Unique and Belongs Neither to the Right nor the Left: A Critique of the Views of Long, Holcombe and Baden on the Left, Hoppe, Feser, and Paul on the Right, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 22 (2010), 127-70. For the most part, I would also categorise the scholarship of Murray N Rothbard in this way. See, for instance, Murray N Rothbard, Myth and Truth about Libertarianism, Paper presented to national meeting of the Philadelphia Society, Chicago (April 1979). Later in life, however, he became a champion of the culturally conservative paleo-libertarian movement. See Idem, Why Paleo?, Rothbard-Rockwell Report, Volume 1, No. 2 (May 1990), 1-5.
2Hans-Hermann Hoppe is probably the best representative of this kind of “right-libertarian”. See, for instance, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, On Conservatism and Libertarianism, Ch. 10 in Idem, Democracy – The God that Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy and Natural Order, Transaction Publishers (2007), 187-219.
3This is the province of so-called “left-libertarians” such as the “Bleeding Heart Libertarian” movement which attempts to combine libertarianism with the achievement of so-called social justice.
4A similar distinction is suggested by Williamson and Block:
A (thin) libertarian theorist is one maintains [sic] that property rights and the NAP exhaust the basic premises of this philosophy. He need not favor the implementation of libertarianism. In contrast, a libertarian activist is someone who wants to promote liberty. The present authors fall into both camps.
Without endorsing the notion that a libertarian theorist could consistently be against implementing libertarianism, we can agree that libertarian theory and libertarian political action are separate endeavours. See Williamson and Block, 4, fn 6.
Of course, not all disputes can be resolved by this distinction. As I explained in Part One, those whose disagreement extends to the core of libertarian theory itself should not be considered as libertarians at all.
5Murray N Rothbard, Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty, Ch. 2 in Idem., Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, and Other Essays, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2000), 21-53 at 24. He also attributes the ultimate failure of nineteenth century liberalism to its shift to “quasi-conservatism”, leaving a void in the political cosmos that would be filled by socialism: Ibid, 27.
6Murray N Rothbard, The Case for a Radical Idealism.
7Rothbard, The Case for a Radical Idealism [emphasis added].
8And – importantly – was itself a logical consequence of the prior erosion of economic reality that statist economic policies cause. For a more detailed explanation in this regard, see here. Moreover, these policies opposed by libertarians were either championed and/or eventually acquiesced to by mainstream conservatives, and so it is conservatism that bears the greater responsibility for the resulting ascent of cultural leftism.
9See, for instance, The New Left, RIP, The Libertarian Forum, Volume II, No. 6 (March 15 1970), 1-3.
10Murray N Rothbard, How to Destatize, The Libertarian Forum, Vol. III, No. 5 (June 1971), 1-2. However, the same article notes also the strategic futility of both the passivism of excessive conservatism (“educationism”), and the nihilism of radical destructionism.
11In fact, Rothbard himself acknowledged the need for rethinking on this matter in the last year of his life: Murray N Rothbard, Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State, Journal of Libertarian Studies 11:1 (Fall 1994), 1-10 at 6-7.
12He would later come to regret the attempt: Murray N Rothbard, Toward a Strategy for Libertarian Social Change, Unpublished (April 1977), 159-161.
13Hoppe, On Conservatism and Libertarianism, 205-6 [footnotes omitted]. Writing much earlier in 1977, Rothbard had similar regrets over this period and his personal contribution to it. See Rothbard, Toward a Strategy for Libertarian Social Change, 159-161. Explaining his later turn towards the “paleo-libertarian” movement following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, he would write:
Apart from the specialized area of free-market economics, libertarian institutions have been steadily crumbling and falling into total irrelevance in American culture.
See Rothbard, Why Paleo?, 1.
14According to its then Executive Director, this is essentially the attitude of the Adam Smith Institute.
15For instance, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting searches and seizures without probable cause, was motivated by the colonial practice of issuing general warrants.
16Frank van Dun, Human Dignity: Reason or Desire? Natural Rights versus Human Rights, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 15, No. 4 (Fall 2001), 1-28 at 27.
17Which of these two phenomena caused the other is likely to be a chicken and egg problem.
20This is not an exaggerated interpretation; in Rothbard’s own words:
The Old Order was, and still remains, the great and mighty enemy of liberty; and it was particularly mighty in the past because there was then no inevitability about its overthrow. When we consider that basically the Old Order had existed since the dawn of history, in all civilizations, we can appreciate even more the glory and the magnitude of the triumph of the liberal revolution of and around the eighteenth century.
See Rothbard, Left and Right, 22.
21F A Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, University of Chicago Press (1981).
22Moreover, once the state begins to visibly fail, private, localised and decentralised institutions begin to re-emerge, even if, like the black market, they must do so covertly. Ironically, therefore, statism is at its most culturally destructive not when it is has driven people down to the lowest level of impoverishment but at a point when they are still fairly well off and have no need to seek alternative channels of support.
23Hoppe, On Conservatism and Libertarianism, 212, fn. 25 [emphasis in the original]. Hoppe is easily misinterpreted when it comes to the issue of discrimination and countering left-libertarian notions of “openness” and “tolerance”. A careful reading shows his point to be more formal than substantive: that property rights exist precisely because an owner wishes to devote the property to a particular purpose to the exclusion of competing purposes. Thus, such a right is meaningless unless it goes hand in hand with being able to expel (i.e. discriminate against) those who would frustrate that purpose. This notion can be expanded to sustaining the ethos and character of a community as a whole:
Notwithstanding the variety of discriminatory policies pursued by different proprietary communities […] for the sake of self-preservation each of these communities will have to recognize and enforce some strict and rather inflexible limitations with respect to its internal tolerance; that is, no proprietary community can be as “tolerant” and “non-discriminatory as left-libertarians wish every place to be.
24Murray N Rothbard, The “New Fusionism”: A Movement for Our Time, Rothbard-Rockwell Report, Volume II, No. 1 (January 1991), 1-10 at 9.