Site icon Free Life

Liberty and the Social Order – Part One

 Liberty and the Social Order – Part One

By Duncan Whitmore


The twilight of the Cold War – which had largely seen the question of freedom framed as a purely economic debate between “capitalism” versus “socialism” – led to a resurgence of the importance of cultural matters in libertarian thinking. A noted effort from around this time was the paleolibertarian movement, the aim of which was to restore the governance of individual freedom to traditional culture, customs and institutions as an antidote to the un-tethered, culturally relativistic, “libertine” influence of the counterculture in the preceding decades.[1] Right-leaning libertarians today continue to press for the avoidance of hollow, abstract, cosmopolitan, universalist messages in favour of focussing instead on the importance of time, place, culture, custom, tradition, family and community.[2]

In other words, there is greater awareness today that – in spite of their foundational importance – the mere legal application of libertarian principles (e.g. “non-aggression”) to the governance of social relations is not the last word to be said on the composition of a free society. Additionally, the sociological and psychological requirements of sustaining such a society must be given greater attention.

While I agree entirely with these efforts, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that grasping the nature of the (often) unwritten values, morals, traditions and cultural elements of a free society – much less how these things can be recruited as part of a political strategy – is likely to be straightforward. As such, this is the first of a series of five articles which will seek to address this complex subject matter in detail.

To introduce this series, we will devote this first instalment to some clarifications that will dispel a number of confusions and illusions I have seen dog these kinds of issue in discussions elsewhere – confusions which could lead libertarians down a wrong path. This effort will also serve as an indicator of some of the intricacies that we will hope to unravel during this series.

The Horse and the Cart

To begin, it is worth restating emphatically that the conception of liberty in terms of self-ownership and private property rights does not entail an isolated, atomistic existence of lone individuals linked together only by market transaction. There may well be self-styled libertarians (and their critics) who believe that it does, but that is their misguided view, not a necessary implication of libertarianism as such.

Liberty simply means that other people have no legal right to cause a physical interference with your person or property. In more colloquial terms, this says little more than:

As the most undeniably basic rules of human social interaction, these are quite obviously the basis of a society rather than its antithesis.

Further, these rules are concrete, limited and specific; they refer solely to legal rights over property. They do not entail, for instance, eternal absolution from the travails imposed upon us by material reality, e.g. from hunger, from illness, or from death. Nor – more pertinently for our purposes here – do they relieve us of the need to observe the social boundaries, morals and values that are required to sustain a legal regime of private property.

In fact, libertarianism has very little to do with the glorification of the individual self – or, at least, we do not argue that the path to any individual’s fulfilment is for that person to behave as a bounder defying all social and conventional values, norms and hierarchies that happen to displease him. As we shall in Part Four, such hyper-individualism is more likely to cause the destruction of a free society than its flourishing, for all it does is pit the needs of one “self” against everybody else’s “self” – the only outcome of which can be the subjugation of some “selfs” to other “selfs”.[3]

Instead, libertarianism takes our nature as individuals not as an end but as a premise: that we experience conflict over physical resources as individuals, and that such conflicts must be resolved between individuals. Libertarianism says that the first user-occupier (or his voluntary successor in title) of a resource is its rightful owner. It is in this sense, and only in this sense, that the libertarian means by “individual freedom” – that what you presently have in your possession cannot simply be snatched away by someone else to be devoted to their purposes, however nobly those purposes may be defined. Every other political philosophy, on the other hand, argues that a later claimant may take priority, robbing you of a piece of property that you have demonstrated is valuable to you. It is this sense, and, again, only in this sense that the libertarian means by “oppression”. The only reason why libertarianism is classified “individualistic” is because these contrasting philosophies normally rationalise their predations in “collectivist” terms  – i.e. as being for the “greater good” or for “society”, etc. This, however, is a mere ruse for the gain of some individuals at the expense of others. All property rights are distributed to the satisfaction of individuals – the only question is which individuals.

Beyond all of this, “liberty” needs to be very carefully distinguished from abstract conceptions of wider “freedom”. Liberty means neither “libertinism” nor some kind of “liberation” from all and every conceivable worldly limitation placed upon an individual’s will. Instead, free individuals must be prepared to embrace the factors which grease the wheels of peaceful, social co-operation, namely: a common language, culture, customs, values and traditions cemented and regulated by decentralised or civic institutions, with co-existence between major differences in these factors possible only at a distance.[4]

However, grasping the true nature and significance of these matters presents a number of difficulties in need of untangling. In fact, determining which values and behaviours are compatible with sustaining a free society (an endeavour critical for a successful political strategy) can, in many ways, be more difficult than the theoretical determination of which actions are and are not a breach of the non-aggression principle.

One of the most fundamental of these difficulties is that – as I said in a recent essay concerning the importance of ideas – the precise nature of a free society’s cultural superstructure is ultimately the product of liberty, not vice versa. If the ideas and values a society embraces are not conducive to liberty then we cannot expect otherwise from a society’s culture. Indeed, cultural leftism has achieved its “march through the institutions” largely because it came on the back of very wrong-headed ideas – for instance, welfare statism, paper money and social democracy – that have served to destroy the economic basis for traditional institutions such as the family and community.

Moreover, an oft-overlooked argument in favour of liberty is its epistemological function. In the economic sphere, for instance, we simply have no way of determining the most efficient allocation of resources unless people have the freedom to voluntarily trade those resources. In science and philosophy, rebels and pioneers may well be ridiculed and ostracised by the mainstream; but they will never face the hangman’s noose for attempting to overturn conventional (or officially endorsed) wisdom. As such, they are otherwise left free to pursue the discovery of what may prove to be a major breakthrough for humanity. Indeed it is this unique combination of social restriction and legal freedom that furnishes a free society with both a) the conformity it needs to maintain order, and b) the means to rebel against that conformity so it can develop.

This point about discovery is true of culture also. Yes, we can make some general assumptions and observations derived from the nature of ourselves as human beings and of social co-operation – indeed, we will outline some of these in this series. But when it comes to specifics we don’t know for sure precisely which traditions, values and morals are either necessary, desirable or sustainable unless and until freely interacting individuals have discovered them and demonstrated them to be so.

In short, the whole point of liberty is that people must be allowed to find their own way.

Thus, when devising a libertarian strategy, we must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. Any cultural messages, if they are to be useful, must always be in the service of promoting fundamental ideas. We cannot simply embrace what we believe to be the “correct” cultural antidote to the current leftist authoritarian state while hoping that such an effort will be sufficient.[5] 

It is important to emphasise these points to save libertarians from succumbing to two possible dangers.


The first danger is from conservatives who – especially today – serve as cultural allies in the fight against the present leftist state. The problem with conservativism, however, is that – unanchored to more fundamental principles – it can indeed lead to putting the cart before the horse.

Conservatives may well be adept at championing the culture, traditions and institutions that a free society has produced – in other words, they celebrate the trappings of a free society. But they tend to be far less capable at embracing the fundamentals of liberty which gave way that society.

This omission can lead to one, fatal mistake: the attempt to co-opt the state into promoting and preserving our culture and traditions instead of recognising the state as the ultimate problem. As such, conservatives end up transforming the state into the supposed guardian of culture and tradition without realising that it is the exercise of state power that destroys those elements in the first place.

Indeed, a key risk with the current culture war is that it will descend into another battle for who controls the state – with everyone turning to the state to enforce their desired outcome. For instance, one side wants the state to mandate the use of whichever pronouns or bathrooms a person wishes to use, while the other side wants the state to ban it. One side wants the state to recognise gay marriage while the other wants the state to prevent it; and so on.

The danger for libertarians today is that it is all too easy for us to agree that conservatives are making broadly “correct” cultural moves while failing to acknowledge the fallout from state enforcement of their bidding.

In fact, any perceived need to turn to the state to preserve the cultural superstructure of a free society is a practical admission of failure. Such an endeavour can serve only as a response to a fundamental weakening of social bonds – to people’s desire to seek wider “liberation” from the social constraints congruent with maintaining a free society.

But if social bonds are disintegrating then this probably means that people’s care for the rights of others is diminishing in tandem. As we shall see in more detail in Part Three, all of these elements are part of the same arena of moral psychology – to ignore them is part and parcel of a general trend of de-civilisation.

This, in turn, will mean that all of the voluntary and civic institutions (families, communities, religion, etc.) that influence people’s lives begin to wane. With the social regulation previously furnished by such institutions no longer able to guide behaviour and resolve conflicts, increasing volumes of legal regulation (i.e. by the state) step into the void. Such destruction of allegiance to anything other than the state, coupled with the total politicisation of all walks of life, has always been a key objective of those seeking to establish tyranny – with different factions attempting to direct the state to simply impose what they want upon everyone else. Inadvertently or otherwise, conservatives can bring about that tyranny just as easily as leftists.

Take, for instance, the war on drugs. If we say – for argument’s sake – that increased drug taking among the population goes hand in hand with a loss of the shared values necessary to make a society function, then that indicates already that social bonds are waning in their ability to regulate people’s behaviour. Introducing legal regulation by the state to regulate people’s drug taking habits will mean increased concentration of power in the hands of the state. Increased state power leads to a further loss of social co-operation as people attempt to co-opt that power to enforce what they want.

So any conservative empowering of the state to “correct” this societal disintegration amounts to tragic irony: by directly strengthening the very beneficiary of de-civilisation we would do nothing more than speed it up.

In short, if people are not prepared to voluntarily adhere to the complementary values and behaviours that are part and parcel of a free society – and if social, rather than legal, penalties of reprimand, disassociation, and ostracism are not sufficient to maintain that adherence – then liberty itself is likely to be doomed.


The second danger is that cultural issues – which intersect with questions of race, national identity and patriotism – are an emotive and sensitive area, officially acceptable views on which are becoming increasingly extreme.

Unfortunately, once officialdom shifts to embracing an extremity it has a tendency to provoke a reaction to the other extreme – i.e. the pendulum swings all the way from one end to the other instead of resting in the middle.[6] The result is that truth, and any possibility of reconciliation, are lost as people become increasingly hardened at each polarity.

Moreover, this is today exacerbated by the fact that – with “acceptable” opinions becoming more nakedly absurd – leftists are no longer defending their views rationally. Instead they just write off everyone who disagrees as “racists”, “hateful”, “deplorables” before the latter are duly “cancelled” by compliant media and corporations.

Now it is, of course, ridiculous to suggest that the millions of ordinary people who even so much as question the elitist-leftist assault on the present social and cultural order are merely attempting to rationalise their own personal bigotry. Such bigots do, of course, exist, but they are firmly in the minority. In fact, expressing views which, just a decade ago, amounted to mere common sense is often enough to be denigrated as “far right”.

Nevertheless, I’m not entirely convinced that important nuances on social and cultural matters are always realised, much less articulated – and such realisation becomes increasingly unlikely the more we end up siloed into echo chambers.

One of these nuances is the difference between multiculturalism on the one hand, and cultural development on the other. Multiculturalism is the close co-existence of numerous cultures, each of which is built upon different and possibly conflicting fundamental values. Cultural development, on the other hand, is the growing richness and vibrancy of a single culture built upon the same fundamental values.

As we shall see in Part Two, multiculturalism is, indeed, an unworkable experiment that will breed only antagonism, resentment and the destruction of peaceful social co-operation. But from this kernel of truth it doesn’t follow that the importation of any and all “foreign” influences upon a domestic culture is necessarily a malign and destructive influence that fails to benefit that culture – as if the definition of one’s culture is something that has been set in stone at a point in time decided by the observer. Instead, intercultural exchange is and always has been a key and beneficial element of sustainable, cultural development.

This leads onto a related, problematic issue that has come to the forefront of twenty-first century, Western politics: immigration, and the extent to which persons from different ethnic, national and cultural backgrounds are able to cohabit in close proximity.

Addressing the legality of immigration, I have written in a previous essay that a policy of “open borders” cannot be reconciled with libertarian principles. Instead – under the assumption that the state exists – I have advocated for an immigration system that mimics as closely as possible that of a society based upon full, private property rights. Such a regime demands the regulation of immigration as much as possible according to the preferences of native property owners – similar to how permissions to enter your home are, too, determined by your preferences as the owner of the property. This theory included an explanation of how such rights are more likely to lead to cultural integration when it comes to the movement of people. True enough, expecting states to do anything that prioritises the rights of private property owners is likely to be pie in the sky, but government policies which approximate it with a reasonable degree of satisfaction are not beyond the bounds of possibility.[7]

It’s worth pointing out that this position is actually stricter than most “moderate” approaches to immigration in that it would grant neither asylum seekers nor refugees an automatic right to enter another a country. Natives may well wish to offer safe harbour to foreigners fleeing war or persecution (and they may well bear a moral responsibility to do so), in which case there may be some state managed procedure that reconciles this desire as closely as possible with libertarian principles. But those natives also have the right to refuse, regardless of however selfish and uncaring this choice may appear to be in any one instance.

From a libertarian perspective, this stance is actually quite unremarkable; it is no different from pointing out that an individual cannot forcibly offload the burden of his problems onto the person and property of other people. A stranger has no right to steal your food because he is hungry, nor may he invade, injure or destroy your property because he is striving to belay an emergency for which you bear no personal responsibility. Extrapolating this position to the imperfect world of state management of immigration, the rights of natives to the integrity of their border must trump any need that foreigners may have to cross that border.

However, there are two notes of caution we should bear in mind when approaching not only the legality of immigration, but also its social and cultural ramifications.

First, immigration is not a settled issue between even the most distinguished of libertarian scholars.[8] Thus, while we should not doubt its sociological gravity, we should treat differences of opinion on the matter as honest disagreements. Moreover, even if these theoretical differences were to eventually be resolved in favour of what I hold to be the correct view, we would still be confronted by what philosopher Gerard Casey calls the “practical/rhetorical problem” of determining precisely how immigration could be integrated into a persuasive, political message:

As human 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.[9]

To clear this hurdle, our rhetoric requires sensitivity to the fact that “needs, desires and interests” with regards to immigration are likely to differ between time and place. In other words, it cannot be assumed that “high” levels of immigration are necessarily bad or that “low” levels are necessarily good. Rather, what matters is the particular way in which a state is invading the rights of its people when it comes to immigration.

For instance, in Ruritania, the people may yearn to preserve a cherished, established culture which their government is destroying by throwing open the borders to countless foreigners. People in Muldania, however, may be highly aspirational with a thirst for talent, skills and expertise regardless of origin, whereas the Muldanian government has shut off all avenues to immigration in order to preserve an old, outdated way of life of which the people have grown weary.

Clearly, any pro-liberty messages referencing immigration crafted for the people of Ruritania are unlikely to have the same effect if they are repeated verbatim for the people of Muldania, and vice versa. Further, any disagreements we may have during the effort to formulate these messages should be seen as part of our development rather than as excuses for sectarian splintering.[10]

Second, when examining the intersection between a) immigration b) race/racism, and c) cultural cohesion, it is important to realise that these are both conceptually and often empirically different issues. In other words, to express an opinion on any one of these matters is not necessarily the equivalent of expressing one’s views on either of the other two.

Consider, for instance, the following set of scenarios:

First, suppose that Ruritania and Muldania are ethnically and culturally uniform, with all of the inhabitants of both states speaking the same language, celebrating the same rites, practising the same religion, and so on. In other words, a casual observer would be unable to distinguish a Ruritanian from a Muldanian. Even if this was the case, Ruritania would still have the right to close its borders to Muldanians, and vice versa. Indeed, we can easily envisage reasons why they may want to do so, e.g. to prevent overcrowding. But whatever those reasons, the need to maintain ethnic and/or cultural cohesion could clearly not be one of them.

Second, suppose that Ruritania and Muldania are ethnically homogenous – all descended from common ancestors – but each state differs sharply in its cultural practices which have grown up over time. In this instance, cultural cohesion would be a factor when considering the desirability of immigration. But it would scarcely be possible to discuss these matters in terms of race or ethnicity.

Third, suppose that Ruritania, through happenstance of history, has two or more peoples of ethnic and/or cultural identity residing within its borders. Here, questions of race and cultural cohesion may well be an ongoing sore point between the differing groups of citizens. But as these issues would pertain wholly to native citizens, they would clearly have nothing whatsoever to do with immigration.

To confuse these matters is to follow in the footsteps of the leftist who thinks that, for instance, only a commitment to open borders is sufficient to demonstrate one’s anti-racist credentials, whereas any desire to restrict immigration could be down only to innate xenophobia. Acquiescing to this kind of approach results in a failure to analyse and resolve problems as they appear in each empirical case, together with the slovenly assumption that diagnoses and remedies applicable to one case necessarily have a bearing on other cases.

For instance, the UK may have been all but ethnically homogenous prior to around 1960, but there are quite a few countries around the world which have harboured ethnic minority populations for several centuries, if not longer. The United States, for instance, roughly correlates with the third type of scenario we outlined above, being home to a minority black population whose presence on the continent predates the American Revolution. As such, much of the ink spilled over the racial elements of the culture war concern only the complex history of American race relations. While British leftists are desperate to import America’s problems to these shores, one’s views on these matters say nothing whatsoever about similar relations in the UK, and certainly has nothing to do with policing the UK’s borders.

One, particular issue that can give way to distorting this clarity is the fact that – while Western societies are distinguished more by their progress in overcoming racism than by any lingering, racist attitudes – we are plagued by the misattribution of alleged socio-economic disadvantages experienced by certain minorities to racism. If the leftist state is spreading these kinds of falsehood for its own benefit then it is right and proper for libertarians (and others on the right) to confront them with correct explanations and, if appropriate, to counter them with our own activism.

But it would be a grievous error to translate any attempts to resolve state-induced socio-economic disadvantage experienced by native members of ethnic minorities into an endorsement of open borders. For instance, if one was to champion such native members to, say, open businesses or engage more readily in wider society so as to lift them out of the clutches of state-induced welfare dependence, it would clearly be absurd to misconstrue this as a desire to open the borders to all and sundry.

With these thoughts in mind, I wish to focus for the remainder of this series of articles on three matters:

• The nature and requirements of cultural cohesion in free societies;
• The extent to which these requirements either permit or restrict co-existence in close proximity with people from elsewhere in the world;
• The extent to which these requirements can be either expressed or defined in terms of race/ethnicity ahead of some other criterion.

We will explore each of these topics together throughout every instalment. Part Two will outline the correct view concerning these matters. Part Three will analyse the different layers of the social order and their particular sociological requirements. Following that, Part Four will subject two opposing views to a critique, which will help to deepen our understanding of the correct view. Finally, Part Five will examine in more detail some of the precise cultural characteristics of a free society, before taking what we have learnt in order to suggest how cultural matters may be utilised as part of a libertarian strategy.

*     *     *     *     *

To donate to Free Life, please click here.

*     *     *     *     *


[1] We described the effects of the countercultural era upon the libertarian movement in a recent essay.

[2] See, for instance, this 2017 speech by Jeff Deist.

[3] The conflict over trans rights is arguably a product of this kind of thinking. The notion that the mere declaration of an identity is sufficient to nullify both biological reality and conventional/societal meanings of sex and gender – and that such declarations should take legal priority – has led to the inevitable clash with other people’s conceptions of what these elements should mean from both legal and social perspectives.

[4] For those wondering whether this makes me a “thin” or “thick” libertarian, the answer is both. Liberty, and libertarianism, are thinly defined. But in order to both understand, and, hence, bring about the mechanics of a free society, we cannot help but be “thickists”. See my recent series on Fighting for Liberty for more details.

[5] Similarly, we can support “nationalism” to tackle globalism, and “populism” to crush elitism. By themselves, however, these things are not guarantors of liberty, and may even lead to a loss of liberty in different circumstances. For now, they are useful tools that can be exploited in order to attack what are the biggest incursions into liberty.

[6] In fact, hypersensitivity to anything that smacks of national and patriotic pride is itself an overreaction to the regimes that emerged in the 1930s.

[7] Given, as we mentioned, there is a clear overlap between social order, culture and immigration, a major theme of this series of articles will be the degree of immigration that is both just and possible in a free society. We will not, however, be repeating verbatim my prior work on immigration; those readers interested in the most detailed discussion of this matter are invited to study the earlier essay.

The only thing I would add to this prior work is to specify that the statement “libertarian theory has nothing to do with race” applies only to the logical limits of the principles of self-ownership and private property. It does not mean that the questions of race and racism are sociologically irrelevant to the sustenance of a free society.

[8] See, for instance, Walter Block, Hoppe, Kinsella and Rothbard II on Immigration: A Critique, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 22 (2011). Block himself is probably the most prolific of the “open borders” libertarians, with his extensive, scholarly output on the matter furnishing both original theory and rejoinders to most of the prominent theorists of the opposing view.

[9] Gerard Casey, Reflections on Legal Polycentrism, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 22 (2010), 22-34 at 23 [footnotes omitted.] See also this previous essay of mine.

[10] It’s worth recalling that libertarian thoughts on immigration evolved with the changing of circumstances. In the post-war milieu of “capitalism vs communism”, 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 were clearly at the forefront of people’s minds. In addition, the spectre of the “iron curtain” imprisoning Eastern Europeans in the confines of the Soviet satellite dictatorships served as a perpetual symbol of communist tyranny to which free movement was clearly the antithesis. However, once the Berlin Wall fell, cultural issues began to ascend in relative importance compared to the economic, providing the impetus to question the theoretical basis for a pro-immigration stance more seriously. In fact, Murray N Rothbard 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.

Exit mobile version